THIS is an abridged version of a new biographical introduction to the recently republished work of Stewart, The Tree of Promise. (See “Book Notice” on page 281). It is a hardback of 372 pages and is available from the Free Presbyterian Bookroom, 133 Woodlands Road, Glasgow, G3 6LE; price £16.95, but available for a limited period at the introductory price of £13.50.
ALEXANDER STEWART was born in the Church of Scotland manse at Moulin, near Pitlochry, on 25 September 1794. He was the son of Dr Alexander Stewart, the minister of the parish. Three events were to mould his childhood. The first was his fathers conversion in June 1796, when the Church of England evangelical, Charles Simeon visited Moulin for two days and stayed in the manse. The minister showed Simeon to his bedroom. There Simeon held a short heart-to-heart conversation with Dr Stewart that was the means used by the Holy Spirit to bring new life to his soul.
The second event that helped to shape Alexander Stewarts childhood was the revival at Moulin that followed his fathers conversion. Dr Stewarts preaching became very different he began to teach and preach Jesus Christ. The first sign of blessing was a decrease in the number of communicants from fifty to nine. This was followed by an increase in soul concern as Dr Stewart preached a four-month series of sermons on regeneration. Seldom did a week pass without at least three parishioners being brought under conviction of sin. Dr Stewart reckoned that around seventy were converted, the greater part being under thirty-five years of age. Alexander Stewarts formative years were spent amidst scenes of revival in a community vibrant with spiritual life.
The third event to affect his childhood was the death of his mother when he was just four and a half years old. Three years later Dr Stewart married his second wife, Emelia Calder, the eldest daughter of Charles Calder of Ferintosh a man described by John Kennedy as a man among a thousand. His fathers second marriage brought the young Stewart into close connection with the Calder family and its links to the best in Highland evangelicalism.
Alexander Stewart received the first elements of his education at Moulin parish school. After his father was translated to Dingwall, he was sent in 1805 to Tain Grammar School. The years between 1805 and 1823 were years of preparation for the notable ministry he was to exercise in Cromarty. During these vital years he was influenced by a succession of evangelical ministers each of whom left a mark on his life, and one of whom was the eminent Angus Mackintosh of Tain in whose home he stayed during his time at Tain.
In 1808 Stewart entered Kings College, Aberdeen, and came under the influence of James Kidd, minister of Gilcomston Chapel of Ease, and Professor of Oriental languages at the neighbouring Marischal College. Kidd was almost a lone evangelical in an area dominated by moderatism.
After just two sessions at Aberdeen, Stewart left his studies to become a clerk in a relatives business in Perth, but he longed for release from what he considered to be drudgery. Through the influence of an older cousin he obtained a position in a London mercantile house. It was thought this would give him greater experience of business. What in providence it did, was to bring him under a gospel ministry, which for him ushered in the day of salvation.
Stewart became a hearer in a Congregational church in Walworth, the minister of which was George Clayton, a thoroughgoing evangelical. Stewart was nineteen when he arrived in London; George Clayton was twelve years his senior. The young Independents ministry was, at that time, having a marked effect on the community. For Alexander Stewart and many others it was life changing. Stewarts call to grace seems to have been linked to his call to the ministry. Having found a Saviour himself he longed to proclaim Him to others. He soon left his commercial duties and returned to his studies and his books.
Stewart now enrolled at Glasgow University. From 1815 he attended the literary classes and then from 1818 to 1821 the Universitys divinity hall. These were momentous years in Glasgow as they corresponded with most of Thomas Chalmers ministry in the city. The student and the preacher were quickly drawn to each other each discerned in the other the unmistakable marks of genius. It was well known by his contemporaries that Chalmers was so impressed by Stewarts pulpit powers that he tried to persuade him to become his successor at St Johns Glasgow when he was about to move to the Moral Philosophy Chair at St Andrews University.
The Presbytery of Lorn licensed Alexander Stewart in 1823. As the twenty-eight year old probationer already had the reputation of being an able preacher he was not left long without a call to a charge. On 31 October 1823 he was chosen to be the minister of the Chapel at Ease at Rothesay, on the Isle of Bute. His ordination took place on 10 February 1824. Within six weeks of his ordination an event occurred that was to have far reaching consequences: Robert Smith the minister of Cromarty died. The majority of the Cromarty parishioners set their heart on Alexander Stewart to be their minister even though most of them had never seen him or heard him preach. Donald Sage in his Memorabilia Domestica provides the reason; he was chosen because he was the son of Dr Alexander Stewart, whose praise was in all the Churches.
Cromarty was in the Presbytery of Chanonry, within the Synod of Ross. The 1820s were blessed days in Ross-shire. In the Presbytery of Chanonry were two outstanding ministers, John Kennedy of Killearnan (the father of Dr Kennedy of Dingwall) and Donald Sage of Resolis. In the other two Presbyteries that made up the Synod of Ross were a galaxy of able gospel preachers. Among these were Dr John MacDonald of Urquhart (the Apostle of the North) and Angus Mackintosh of Tain, in whose house Stewart had lived whilst he was at school in Tain. Seldom in the history of the church has such a group of gifted ministers been located in such a small area.
After hearing Stewart preach, the Cromarty congregation was united in the desire to have him as their minister. The settlement took place on 23 September 1824. Donald Sage presided at the induction and many of the leading ministers in the Synod of Ross were present. The ministry that commenced in 1824 would last for twenty three years.
Biographical materials for a detailed account of Stewart’s Cromarty ministry do not exist. Adding to this difficulty is the fact that Stewart was a private person who loved seclusion. All we possess of his Cromarty ministry are a few glimpses of events that interrupted the routine of his life as a Highland parish minister. Then, as now, such a ministers task was to provide pastoral care to his flock, preaching to them Sabbath by Sabbath, and assisting at Communion seasons particularly in neighbouring parishes. A further difficulty the biographer faces is the fact that Stewart, being a bachelor, had no wife or children whose recollections would preserve his memory.
On one occasion, Stewart and Alexander Beith assisted David Carment at his communion. Beith writes, “In the summer of 1838 I assisted our mutual and much loved friend, Mr Carment, at his communion in Roskeen. I came from Glenelg for that purpose a long journey one attraction being that I was to meet Mr Stewart. He had arranged that I should afterwards accompany him on a short visit to Cromarty. Mr Stewarts service was in English, on the Monday. It concluded with the baptism of an infant of Mr Carment. On this occasion his preaching excelled everything I had ever heard from him before, the power and the pathos of his discourses being equally remarkable. Had Dr Pusey, on the one hand, with his followers, and Mr Spurgeon on the other with his denominational followers, been his hearers, they might have been the better for it. Sure I am, they would have heard views of divine truth, bearing on their erroneous notions respectively, such as had never entered into their minds. His text was Mark 10, 13-16.”
From other glimpses that remain it is clear that Stewart took an intense interest in the theological controversies of his day. Letters remain where he interacts with his correspondents concerning the heretical teachings of John McLeod Campbell of Row. In the late 1820s Campbell had begun to teach a form of Universal Redemption and claims were made that some connected with his congregation had spoken in tongues.
Alexander Stewart played an active part in the struggle, known as the Ten Years Conflict, between the Church of Scotland and the law courts, which led in 1843 to the Disruption of the Church of Scotland. The issue at the centre of the conflict was the spiritual independence of the church and the right of a congregation to call a minister, rather than have one imposed upon them by a patron. The civil courts, in several cases that were brought before them, upheld the rights of patrons over those of the congregation.
Stewart perceived at an early stage what the result of the conflict would be. He was, says Hugh Miller, the first man in his parish we believe, in his presbytery also to take his stand modestly and unassumingly, as became his character, but with firmness which never once swerved or wavered. Nay, long ere the struggle began founded on data with which we pretend not to be acquainted, he declared his conviction to not a few of his parishioners, that of the establishment, as then constituted, he was to be the last minister of the parish.
Stewarts contribution to the Disruption struggle was at a local rather than a national level. Indeed, he never spoke at the General Assembly. His views, however, on the principles involved in the non-intrusion question and the spiritual independence of the Church were thoroughly formed and entirely based on Scripture. Minister and elders in all quarters of the Highlands eagerly sought his help in explaining these principles to their people. Multitudes flocked to hear him lecture on these subjects in Ross-shire, Inverness-shire, Nairn, Forres, Banff and Aberdeen. Stewart was a key figure in rallying Easter Ross and Inverness-shire behind the Free Church banner. However, he regarded others as more capable than himself in the debates of the General Assembly.
The 1842 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland adopted its famous Claim of Right, which detailed with precision the protection that the Church rightfully expected from Parliament. By March 1843 it was clear that no intervention was going to be made by the Government on behalf of the Church. The division came on 18 May 1843, when the evangelicals rose in the General Assembly and severed their connection with the Church of Scotland. Around four hundred and fifty ministers seceded and formed the Church of Scotland Free. In the Highlands the movement took the form not of an ecclesiastical division, as it was in the South, but of an exodus of almost the entire population out of their old and cherished connection with the state church. In the Highlands it was not a separation the church left the establishment.
On the Disruption day the evangelicals walked from the Assembly Hall in Edinburgh to a new building Tanfield Hall. Here is how one observer described the procession, “It included Welsh and Chalmers, Gordon and Buchanan, Keith and MFarlan, Alexander Stewart and John MacDonald, Cunningham and Candlish, everything of which a Scotchman thinks when he thinks of the Church of Scotland.” Thomas Chalmers was chosen as the first moderator of the new Church. The other minister called upon to preach to the first Free Church Assembly was the man, next to Chalmers, who was regarded as the finest preacher in the Church. Alexander Stewart of Cromarty took the text Exodus 20:2, “I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”
Within four years of the Disruption, Thomas Chalmers was dead. His sudden death during the sitting of the General Assembly in May 1847 made many changes necessary. Robert Candlish was appointed Professor in charge of the first and fourth year divinity students, and this meant there was a ministerial vacancy at his prestigious St. Georges congregation in Edinburgh. At a congregational meeting on 22 September 1847 the congregation unanimously resolved to call Stewart to be their pastor. An influential deputation of office bearers and members was appointed to proceed to Cromarty with the view of encouraging him to accept the call.
The prospect of so dramatic a change from the seclusion of Cromarty to the prominence of Candlishs pulpit, caused a violent agitation in Stewarts mind that soon completely overwhelmed him. He heard the call of the whole Church urging him to consent, while his own convictions told him of his utter inability constitutionally to encounter such a charge. The strain was too much for his delicate frame. It occasioned the illness that brought him to the grave. Though ready to obey the call he regarded it as his death warrant. James Buchanan, who went to Cromarty as a commissioner to plead on behalf of St. Georges, asked, “What is wrong with you, Mr Stewart, you seem to be carrying a millstone?” “A millstone did you say? Sir, Im carrying my gravestone.”
Alexander Stewart was never inducted to St. Georges, Edinburgh; he quietly fell asleep in Jesus on 5 November 1847 in his fifty-third year. An eyewitness to the funeral wrote, “The grief occasioned by Mr Stewarts removal is intense throughout the whole surrounding country. I never beheld such a concourse of people at a funeral. Many have travelled great distances to testify their respect to his memory. The ministers of all denominations came from the surrounding and even remote parishes. Cromarty is a Bochim. The shops were all shut, and business quite at a stand. The grave is just between the doors of the Free Church, reminding all entrants of him who spoke to them the word of God, and who, though dead, yet speaketh. His flock, though bewildered by the stroke, are meekly bearing their loss. As their dear pastor was ready to leave his beloved flock at his Churchs call, though he was persuaded it would be at the sacrifice of his life, so his people had made up their minds quietly and meekly to resign themselves to the endurance of the loss they would thereby sustain. Neither anticipated Gods intervention so soon. Next to Dr Chalmers, our Church has lost her brightest ornament.”