Memoirs of the Life, Time, and Writings
of the Reverend and Learned
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THE little town of Duns is pleasantly situated on the skirts of the Lammermuirs. The neighbourhood is rich in Covenanting memories, and on the summit of Duns Law, which rises to the north of the town, are still to be seen the vestiges of a camp, occupied by General Leslie and the Covenanters in 1639, under the threatened invasion by King Charles. Tradition has it that John Duns Scotus, the mediaeval doctor subtilis, was a native of the parish. Nor has it been without distinguished sons in modern times. It is the birthplace of an Oxford professor, famous enough in his day; of the biographer of Melville and of Knox; and of at least one noteworthy and beloved minister of the Presbyterian Church.
Here on the 17th March 1676—three years before the country rang with the death of Archbishop Sharp—Thomas Boston was born, in a tenement in Newtown Street which is still shown. Fraser of Brea was then a man of thirty-seven. Thomas Halyburton was a child of two. And four years were to elapse before the birth of Ebenezer Erskine—three men who, like Boston, served and suffered much, and like him have enriched our literature with imperishable memoirs.
The Boston stock, which came originally from Ayr, was staunchly Presbyterian, and sometime about 1680 John Boston, Thomas's father, had been cast into the Duns prison for nonconformity. Here Boston kept his father company for one night at least. And in the after days, when he himself had strong forebodings of imprisonment, on his refusal to sign the Abjuration Oath, these childish memories of the jail revived with peculiar vividness.
About his schooldays we have little information. He learned to read in a dame's school, kept in the upper storey of his father's house. He attended the Duns grammar school, and made rapid progress from the age of eight till he was thirteen. He was a quiet and somewhat timorous boy, unduly eager, as the timorous often are, to finish any task once started; of no great physical strength, and more fond of reading than of sport. From the first he seems to have had a retentive memory—a priceless possession for one whose books were to be few till late in life. And how he used and trained his memory will be most apparent to those who are best acquainted with the amazing wealth of scriptural quotation in his works. No system of commonplacing, however perfect, could furnish the apt and beautiful citations that abound everywhere in his books.
It was at the age of eleven that Boston was spiritually awakened, under the ministry of one whose family name was yet to rank among the most honoured in Scotch religious history. The Rev. Henry Erskine, father of Ebenezer and Ralph Erskine, had been ejected from his charge at Cornhill just across the border, by the Act of Uniformity of 1662, and from that time onward he had resided mostly at Dryburgh, his native town. But in 1687, when Boston was a lad, King James granted the Presbyterians liberty to worship in their own way in private houses and chapels, and almost immediately the Presbyterians of Whitsome, a parish a few miles to the south-east of Duns, gave Sir. Erskine a call to come and minister to them. John Boston was not the man to listen to the curate in the parish church of Duns when a sufferer and a saint like Henry Erskine was preaching four miles from his door. And we can see him yet, as he steps out on Sabbath mornings with his sons, and not a few of the more earnest townsfolk in their company, for the hamlet of Rivelaw in Whitsome, where Mr. Erskine preached. It was at these meetings, and under that preaching, that Thomas Boston was awakened. And twelve years afterwards, when penning his noble soliloquy on Man-Fishing, he has not forgotten the skill that cast the line so cunningly in Whitsome. "Little wast thou thinking, O my soul," he writes, "on Christ, heaven, or thyself, when thou went to the Newton of Whitsome to hear a preaching, when Christ first dealt with thee; there thou got an unexpected cast."
John Boston had doubtless by this time resolved that his youngest son should be a minister, and the son himself, before his schooldays were well over, had secretly set his heart on the same calling. But there were difficulties in the way. The Bostons were not rich, and a three-years' college course involved no little outlay. So hopeless indeed at one time did the prospects seem, that young Boston seriously thought of turning to a trade; but his father—to his honour be it told—would not hear of it. At length, after two anxious years, spent partly in the office of the Duns notary, and partly in the study in the malt-loft, the way opened, and Boston entered Edinburgh University in 1691. Of his life there we know but little. He studied unweariedly, and seldom went into company. He passed through the regular curriculum. He learned shorthand, and had lessons in music. Ever fearful of exhausting his father's slender purse, he practised an economy that is notable even in a Scotch student. For when he graduated in 1694 his college expenses—fees, maintenance, and all—had only mounted up to some £11. We cannot wonder that he often swooned, nor that he suffered much from melancholy.
In the summer of 1694 Boston received the bursary of the Presbytery of Duns, and after an autumn spent in the private study of divinity, he entered on his theological course in Edinburgh at the beginning of 1695. One short session there was all that he enjoyed. It was allowable, and at that time not uncommon, for a student who had taken one session of theology with credit, and who desired to support himself by teaching, to complete his studies under the superintendence of the Presbytery within whose bounds he lived. For economical reasons, Boston determined on this course. And after a month's unhappy experience in the beautiful parish of Glencairn, he found himself settled, early in 1696, as tutor to the stepson of Lieut.-Col. Bruce of Kennet, at the salary of a hundred merks per annum.
The estate of Kennet, within a mile of Clackmannan, has been for more than five hundred years in the possession of the Bruces of Kennet, a branch of the Bruces of Clackmannan, who are of royal lineage. The last Bruce of Clackmannan died about the beginning of the present century, but Bruce of Rennet still remains, hidden under the name of Lord Balfour of Burleigh. With this family Boston lived about a twelvemonth, and no part of the Memoir is richer in spiritual interest than the narrative of the trials and triumphs of that memorable year. Boston learned much at Rennet that no class lectures could have taught him. And the house of Kennet had many a lesson from Boston that had never been mentioned in the bond. Sometimes the youth of twenty was indiscreet. And sometimes the military household fretted and chafed at this embodied conscience. But it is clear that by the time he left, Boston had inspired all with a deep respect for him. And in the ancient house of a distinguished soldier, it is not every student of divinity, of humble birth and naturally timid, who could do that. Above all else there was ample leisure and there were quiet spots at Kennet for intercourse with God. And to the end Boston looked back upon the year there as a thriving time for his soul. He left Kennet in February 1697, and on the 15th June of the same year was licensed by the united Presbytery of Duns and Chirnside.
Reading the story of his inward life, we do not wonder that his preaching soon began to attract attention. There was a force and freshness in it that arrested the common people. There were gleams of vision in it such as are only granted to those who daily are near God. There was a grip in it that no preacher wins who is a stranger to his own heart. And there was in it a scriptural fulness that nothing but passionate devotion to the Bible gives. Everywhere Boston preached, the word came with power. And if at first he dealt too largely in denunciation, and here and there was roundly abused as a railer, he was soon to find, as many a noble preacher besides Boston has found, that the thunders of Sinai are not so mighty against abounding sin as is the sweeter message of the cross. How lofty his conceptions of the preacher's art and office were, is evident in the Soliloquy of Man-Fishing—that scribble, as he calls it—which he wrote in 1699.
One would have thought that such a preacher would have been settled soon. And if the people's voice had been determinative, Boston would not have been long without a charge. As a matter of fact, he was a probationer over two years. These were the times when heritors were still all-powerful, and Boston had no liberty of conscience to bring pressure to bear upon the heritors. He would not court them. He would not bow to them from the pulpit. He would not spend the Sabbath evening with them. And he knew well that his preaching strain could never be acceptable to such of them as had sat and slept under the curates' homilies. At Foulden, at Dollar, at Clackmannan, among other places, his hopes were dashed when things seemed ripening to a call. And how he bore himself under these disappointments, and turned his deepening experience to noble uses, is familiar to every reader of these Memoirs. At length, in 1699, the people and heritor of one small parish were found to be agreed. And on Thursday 21st September, Boston was ordained to the ministry in the parish of Simprin.
The parish of Simprin has long ceased to exist. In the autumn of 1761 it was united to the adjacent parish of Swinton, and from that date onwards the united flocks have worshipped God in the old and beautiful parish church at the east end of Swinton village, where sleep not a few of those gallant Swinton knights, whose line runs back unbroken to the times of the Heptarchy. About a mile and a half southwards from Swinton village, and so about eight miles south-east of Duns, nestling in a clump of elm and ash trees, and surrounded by a graveyard not a few of whose stones carry us back to Boston's time, are the ruins of the little church of Simprin where Boston preached. It would be difficult to picture a sweeter situation for any house of God. To the north the eye catches the slopes of the Lammermuirs. Southward the country rolls away, by Flodden field, into the heights of Cheviot. A few miles off rise the towers and battlements of Twizel Castle; while all around is the rich country of the Merse, with here a farm and there a manor-house, "bosomed high mid tufted trees." Of the church itself little is standing to-day but the east gable. The roof is gone. The walls are crumbling away. Nettles and thorns, with here and there the seedling of a plane tree, ramble and root among the corner - stones. And the whole structure is on a scale so diminutive, that five short paces carry one from wall to wall, and twenty from end to end. When we remember that on his first round of visitation Boston discovered but eighty-eight examinable persons; and when we find that in 1751 the total population of the parish was 143, we cease to wonder at the modest proportions of the ruined sanctuary.
Readers of the Memoirs will recall that for the first three years of his ministry in Simprin, Boston tenanted an old house at the west end of the farm-town. It was not till 1702 that a new manse was built; and this new manse, so hallowed in the after years by prayer, may probably be identified with a very humble dwelling, still to be seen a few yards westwards from the church, and still inhabited. When the manse was finished, Boston tells us, he formed a large garden and built the dyke. And between this cottage and the churchyard still stretches a piece of garden ground, bounded by a wall, and pierced by an old gateway that would afford immediate access to the church.
The first few years of any ministry are always years of large significance. And it is not difficult to see that the pastorate in Simprin was the formative period in Boston's life. It was in the quiet of that secluded charge, and in the exercise of his calling among his handful,—as he often terms his flock,—that he first found how different are the stern realities of ministering from all anticipative dreams, and first formed those habits of public work and private study from which he never deviated till the end. Before the first year had run, his little parish was thoroughly organised. There was a forenoon and an afternoon sermon every Sabbath, with a lecture on the chapter at the former diet, and an address by way of preface to the whole. There was a Sabbath evening meeting for the study of the catechism. Every Tuesday evening in the manse there was a friendly gathering for praise and prayer. And every Thursday, in winter in the evenings, and in summer in the daytime, there was a week-day service. Diets of catechising were held at stated intervals throughout the parish. Every household was regularly visited. And these pastoral offices were fulfilled, not lightly, but with a faithfulness which is one of the quietest and noblest of all heroisms. All this, be it remembered, in a parish that could furnish but eighty - eight examinable persons, and where for some considerable time strange faces were of the rarest. No wonder Boston had long periods of deep dejection. A shallower man would have scamped his work. Boston deliberately gave his best to his handful. And what a noble best it was, Scotland was yet to know, when the substance of it, reset and rich with the prayer of after years, was given to the world in the Fourfold State.
Nor were those years less memorable for their influence upon Boston himself. In the interior life every man comes to his own through manifold experiment. And before Boston left Simprin for Ettrick his chief experiments had been made, and his methods of devotion and study fashioned for good. It was here he found how the tone of the week is lowered by plunging into worldly business on the Monday morning, and it was here he formed the lifelong habit of spending the first hours of every Monday in prayer. It was here that he first systematically prepared himself for family worship, and expounded the chapter that was read in the ordinary course at night. At Simprin, too, began those family fasts that played a part in his household economy until the end. And above all, perhaps, it was at Simprin Boston awoke to the sanctifying power of dogged work. It shames us yet to read of his passion for study, that no broken weeks and no scarcity of books could quench. He struggled through the psalms in Hebrew. He set himself to master French from a paper of rules lent by a neighbouring tutor. With little help from any summa or commentary, he faced some of the stiffest questions in theology, and answered them with a surprising depth and fulness. A life like that is bound to tell. No pulpit work won by such prayer and fasting and study can long be powerless. Nor was it powerless in the Merse. We trace in the pages of the Memoir a growing interest and widening response, until at last the little church was quite unable to accommodate the throngs who crowded, especially on Communion seasons, to hear the gospel preached by the young minister of Simprin.
Here, too, first fell on Boston's life the lights and shadows of the home. In 1697, when on the point of leaving Kennet, he first met Catherine Brown of Barhill, in Culross. The meeting was but momentary, and Catherine was some two years the elder; but we may fairly gather from the guarded expressions in the diary, that it was a genuine instance of love at first sight. "Whenever I saw her," says Boston, "a thought struck through my heart about her being my wife." And "both of us were in great distress." For the next year the two saw nothing of each other. But when in the spring of 1698 Boston returned to the Presbytery of Stirling, and took a lodging with Catherine's brother-in-law, the acquaintanceship of a day was soon renewed, and speedily ripened into a pledge of loving companionship for life. Perhaps neither thought that two years must elapse before they could be married. They had not laid their reckoning with stubborn heritors, nor with the miserable stipend at Simprin. And it is easy to see the sore perplexities of both in carrying the matter of their engagement rightly. At length, on the 17th July 1700, they were married at Culross, by Mr. Mair, and Boston brought his bride home to Simprin. It was the beginning of a wedded life that was to be chequered by the sorest griefs. Of the five children born at Simprin two were soon laid in the churchyard. In later years Mrs. Boston fell under a mysterious and racking disorder of the intellect. Yet Boston felt to the end that his marriage was of God. Two years before his death, writing his narrative, and looking backwards through the sunshine and the storm of the two-and-thirty years since they first met, Boston recorded of his wife one of the tenderest and noblest tributes wherewith a wife was ever honoured, and blessed God that he had been made acquainted with her. So enriched by love and sorrow, and so sanctified by fellowship with God and work, was Thomas Boston, when on the 1st of May 1707, in the thirty-second year of his age, he was translated from Simprin to the parish of Ettrick, where the remainder of his life was to be spent.
The parish of Ettrick, in Selkirkshire, is a large one. It stretches about ten miles every way, and embraces the upper courses of the Ettrick River, taking within its sweep the tributaries of Tima and Rankleburn on the south, and crossing the hills northward to the Loch of the Lowes in Yarrow. From Simprin to Ettrick church is only some forty - five miles, as Boston would have ridden it; but to pass from one parish to the other is like passing from the Lowlands into the midst of Highland scenery. Around the little church of Simprin lie the rich lands of Berwickshire. The towns of Coldstream, of Kelso, and of Duns are none of them far away. But the church and manse of Ettrick nestle at the foot of lofty hills, where they begin to draw together with increasing height and grandeur towards the valley-head. And Ettrick River, springing from the rushes between two of these highest Fells, and falling like a thread of silver into the valley, will have good eighteen miles to travel past Ettrick church before it reach the county town of Selkirk. Across the hills to the north lies the valley of the Yarrow—that chosen home of song and legend. And though Patrick can never match its famous sister in the spell it casts on the poet's imagination and the people's heart, it too is rich in legend, and has not been entirely unsung. It has inspired some of the finest of the older ballads. It teems with romantic memories of the Border feuds. One of its loneliest cleuchs has given the title to the ducal family of Buccleuch. Here Michael Scott, the wizard, had his last home. And here, within a stonecast of the church, the Ettrick Shepherd—that true interpreter of Border wizardry—was born thirty-eight years after Boston's death.
It is not easy to determine what the population of Ettrick was in Boston's time. To-day in the whole valley there are about a thousand people, and in the parish itself about four hundred, and we have really no valid ground for holding that the population was much larger two centuries ago. It is true that here and there, as on the south side of the river opposite the church, may be traced the ruins of considerable hamlets where now there is not one house; but the earliest statistics of the parish—-of the date 1755—give the population at 397, a number slightly less than that of the present day.
But if the population has been stationary, and if the green hills look down on farms and homesteads still bearing the names familiar to lovers of these Memoirs, the Ettrick of to-day is different in many ways from the Ettrick where Thomas Boston wrought. The upper valley must always be a lonely region, and now as then the snow will sometimes lie for weeks upon the hills. But the good roads that stretch away from the church door, and the line of telegraph that threads the valley, and the daily post that brings the news of the great world without, all make it hard for us to realise the isolation of Thomas Boston's Ettrick. So late as 1792 the writer of the Statistical Account supplies a somewhat doleful description of his parish. "This parish," he says, "possesses no advantages. The roads are almost impassable. The only road that looks like a turnpike is to Selkirk, but even it in many places is so deep as greatly to obstruct travelling. The snow also, at times is a great inconvenience; often for many months we can have no intercourse with mankind. Another great disadvantage is the want of bridges. For many hours the traveller is obstructed on his journey when the waters are swelled. In this parish there are twelve ploughs and twenty carts, but no carriages or waggons." Such, then, was Ettrick—a parish possessing no advantages. It was for Boston to discover what might be done through work and prayer in this disadvantageous spot.
For a long time it looked as if nothing could be done. Work and prayer seemed to be well-nigh powerless. Amid that sea of hills, as Ettrick has been called, Boston had taken arms against a sea of troubles, and nothing but the deep conviction that his call had been of God could have upheld him through his earlier ministry. The little flock at Simprin had been ignorant, but, at least, they had received with meekness the engrafted word. Ettrick was very liberal to its poor, and very hospitable to the passing stranger; but it was full of pride, and self-assurance, and conceit—the frequent offspring of an isolated life; and how that self-assurance and conceit hampered the work of ministering, and how it plagued the minister, is frankly told in these truly human Memoirs. And then it was a sorely broken parish. The smouldering discontent with the Revolution Settlement had been fanned into a flame by Cameronians from the west. Every hamlet in the upper valley had its separatist. The common talk was all of separation, and of the lawfulness of attending service in the parish church; till Boston, ever eager to get to personal dealing with his people, was like to be wrestled out of breath with them, and almost dreaded his pastoral visiting. Nor were things better on the Sabbath. A four years' vacancy had wrought its natural erects. Men had grown careless. They had lost the art of decent attention during service. They gossiped and chaffered so noisily in the churchyard in time of sermon, that one of the elders had to be told off to keep order there. Worse, too, than any inattention was the so lax morality. The vice of swearing was widespread. And one has but to turn the pages of the old Session Records to be ashamed at the prevalent uncleanness. No wonder Boston was made to go with a bowed-down back. No wonder that after eight years of it he said to his wife, "My heart is alienated from this place." At times he was filled with the longing to be gone. And it is characteristic of his large and loyal heart, that nothing so speedily subdued that longing as the thought of the sad plight of Ettrick if he went.
But in the long-run faith and prayer and study will tell. And as they had told in Simprin they were to tell in Ettrick too. It is not every minister who grows and deepens amid an unsympathetic people. It is not every father who abounds in thankfulness when called to meet the bitterest sorrows of the home. Boston did both. And the artless story of his study and his preaching and his daily wrestling with God, surrounded and shadowed as he was, is one of the noblest records that was ever penned. Slowly and surely his influence grew. Gird as they would, men felt the thrust and power of his preaching, and knew the Holy Ghost was in it. One of his action sermons had been published, and word began to steal into the valley that it was making a deep impression in Edinburgh. Strange faces became common in the church. Then came the inevitable calls. And Ettrick grew convinced at last—and the conviction had taken ten years to ripen—that in losing Boston they would lose an incomparable minister. It is touching to note the outbreakings of a rough affection, and to find a congregational fast appointed by the Session, when in 1716 Boston came under call to Closeburn. It is touching, too, and something more, when we remember what the past had been, to mark how Boston, in Presbytery and Synod and Assembly, battled against the call, and how at last he won. It was the turning-point in the parish life. Henceforth he was to minister with a new authority, and to be the instrument of far larger blessing.
How these ten years of difficulty enriched Boston it is not hard, reading the Memoirs, to see. Nor is it hard to see how they enriched the world. It is to them we owe the fourfold State. The substance of that work had been already preached at Simprin. In 1708 and 1709 it was recast and amplified, and given from the Ettrick pulpit. And when, some two years later, Boston was urged by his beloved physician, Dr. Trotter, to publish, it was these notes that seemed the likeliest venture. But Boston dared not move till he was certain of the call of God. And of all the signs that pointed to a call, none was more patent than his divided parish. These sermons had been greatly blessed to those who heard them. When printed, might they not reach the many who never darkened Ettrick kirk? Boston would almost have been content with that. It was a lowly prospect, but it determined him. He did not know what scattered multitudes were to be found and fed by the reading of the Fourfold State.
And if ever a book was steeped in prayer, it was that Fourfold State. From the Tuesday in January 1712 when Boston first put pen to paper for the final draft, it was daily spread before a throne of grace, and found its place in every family fast. At times it looked as if the book would never see the light. It was delayed by the Rebellion of the '15. It was almost strangled in the birth by the well-meant meddling of an Edinburgh Treasurer—one of the most amazing and ludicrous incidents in the whole history of literature. And it was not till November 1720 that Boston handled a bound copy of his work. Almost immediately it took a hold. New editions were called for, and testimonies of its usefulness came pouring in. It was discussed in Edinburgh drawing-rooms. The shepherd read it on the hills. It made its way into the Highland crofts, where stained and tattered copies of the earlier editions may still be found. For more than a hundred years its influence upon the religious life of Scotland was incalculable. And though the interests and the outlook are very changed to-day, and the book itself is very little read, there are great parts of Scotland in which one cannot move among the people, and catch the accent of their more serious talk, and listen to their prayers, without perceiving, howsoever dimly, that the influence of Boston's masterpiece is unexhausted yet. Nor need one wonder at the power of it. It is so orderly and clear, so rich in just and beautiful citation, so searching, and here and there so softening; it is so strong in its appeals, so full, for all its doctrine, of warmth and human life; it is so couched in language of the homeliest and truest ring, rising at times into unquestionable eloquence, that the secret of its acceptance is not far to seek. And yet to Boston himself that was not all the secret. "When I have considered the acceptance that book met with," he writes in 1730, "I could not but impute it to an over-ruling hand of kind Providence, that would needs have it so."
Boston was no ecclesiastic. He makes the quaint confession that he was defective in ecclesiastical prudence. One could scarcely conceive a greater contrast than that between the author of the Fourfold State—the leader of the people's thought, and the courtly Carstares—the leader of the people's church. Still, when the question in church courts was one of principle or doctrine, Boston was always ready to declare himself. And at three points especially he touched the larger church life of his day.
The first was in that now forgotten controversy that raged around the Abjuration Oath. Early in 1712 the British Parliament had passed an Act, imposing the Oath of Abjuration upon all the ministers of Scotland. The title of that oath explains itself. It was an oath abjuring the Pretender. It aimed at the safeguarding of the Queen, and made the Protestant succession to the crown secure.
So far, however offensive were the circumstances of its imposition, there might be little real objection to the oath, for certainly no men in Scotland were more eager to repudiate King James the Eighth, with all his spurious rights and titles, than were the Presbyterian ministers. Unhappily, the oath made mention of, and indeed was based upon, two Acts of the English Parliament, that had been passed before the Union, and in these Acts it was expressly stipulated that the reigning sovereign should belong to the communion of the Church of England. This was the rock of stumbling. It was impossible for Presbyterian ministers to pledge themselves to the upholding of Episcopacy. It was unjust, and wholly inconsistent with the Treaty and Articles of Union, to force upon them any such acknowledgement, on pain of extraordinary penalties if they refused. Once perhaps the Church of Scotland would have risked the inevitable charges of disloyalty, and scorned subscription. But the Assembly of 1712 had lost the faith and daring of an older day, and it was left to individual ministers to take the oath or not at their discretion.
It is hard for us, after the long interval of years, to realise how deeply this matter of the oath moved the whole Church. It brought her to the verge of a disruption. It broke old friendships, and became a term of ministerial communion. In numberless cases it impaired, and in not a few entirely dissolved, that so unique and sacred tie that binds the pastor and his flock together. Perhaps no subscription in the long history of the Church was ever the cause of such abounding bitterness. Some signed without a scruple. Many—and in their number not a few of the saintliest and wisest—complied under a sorrowful protest! But some three hundred refused to sign on any terms, and among these was Boston. It was no light thing to incur a fine greater than all the stipend he had ever handled. It was no easy thing to hold communion with his jurant friends when it set all Ettrick snarling. But Boston was convinced, and his convictions in the matter never changed. Seven years later the oath was reimposed. It was so altered then, and freed from all reference to the objectionable Acts, that the great body of non-jurors signed at last. Boston had still no liberty to sign, and he remained a "Non" until the end. It is a noble instance, at the very least, of how a naturally timid man, set in a lonely parish, and far from the quickening intercourse of kindred souls, may school himself into the heroism of high moral courage.
Boston's position in this matter of the oath was shared by many. He was not solitary in his sustained defiance of the Government. But shortly after the first imposition of the oath a case began deeply to agitate the Church, and this time, at one stage in the proceedings, Boston was to stand alone. It was the case of Professor Simson.
Readers of Wodrow's Letters—that very precious and sometimes very tedious correspondence—grow painfully familiar, before they close the last of the three bulky volumes, with the name of Simson. The conscientious minister of Eastwood was in the habit of writing daily letters from the Assembly to his wife, and he was present, though not always as a member, at every Assembly in which the Simson case came up. One would have thought that Mrs. Wodrow might have been furnished with livelier news from Edinburgh than these interminable wranglings. But my Lord Pollok of Eastwood was at home, too frail to come up to the Assembly now, but just as keenly interested in its wore as ever, and the daily letters directed to the manse were doubtless intended for the castle too. Whether or not, Wodrow so narrowly watched the Simson case, and followed it so closely through all its windings to the end, that we have no ampler commentary on the relative portions of this diary, than these so circumstantial letters.
John Simson was Professor of Divinity at Glasgow, and if he was not an inspiration to his students, for fifteen years at any-rate he was an irritation to his Church. He was a keen and subtle thinker, with his chief interest in metaphysics. But he was an unsettled and ill-balanced man, with little depth or dignity of character. And he conspicuously lacked the comprehensive mind that is so needful for a teacher of theology.
First he was charged with teaching Arminian doctrine, and after much debate and much delay was very gently reprimanded. Nine years later the cry got up that he was tainted with the heresies of Dr. Clarke, and that he was inculcating Arian tenets now—impugning the accepted doctrine of the Trinity, and denying the necessary existence of our Lord Jesus Christ. No charges could be graver, but to prove the charges was supremely difficult. The lectures complained of had been in Latin. The nicest terms may be equivocal. And the Professor not only was a master in the art of teaching heresy orthodoxly, but was so feverishly eager to concede, and to reiterate his adherence to the standards, that honest men, who had no learning to dispute his doctrine, began instinctively to doubt his character. Through four Assemblies, and countless meetings of committee and of Presbytery, the matter was debated. Side issues caused delay. The finest points were argued at unconscionable length, and with a mighty show of learning. And it was not till the Assembly of 1729 that the case was finally disposed of. The charges were found proven. Would, then, the culprit be excommunicated? or would he be deposed? or would he be merely suspended from the work of teaching? Professor Simson was perpetually suspended, still to enjoy the emoluments, without fulfilling the duties, of the chair.
And it was then that Boston, like Athanasius contra totemic orbem, stood alone. Boston was clear that if the charges had been proven, Simson should be deposed. He could not tolerate the unfaithful gentleness of the Assembly. When the report of the committee recommending the suspension was brought in, the house was crowded. The case was drawing to a close at last, and the great strain was nearly over. The Act was read; the Moderator asked if the Assembly acquiesced in it, and for a moment there was profound stillness. Then Boston rose. "Moderator," he said, "I dissent in my own name, and in the name of all that shall adhere to me;" then looking round the house, "with an air of majesty," as an eye-witness has it, "that I shall never forget," and finding none had risen, he added, "and for myself alone if nobody shall adhere." "Sir," said the Moderator, a very solemn, grave man, "will you tear out the bowels of your mother?" "If that were the tendency of this," said Boston, pointing to the paper in his hand, "rather would I take it, and tear it in a thousand pieces." At length, in the sole interest of the Church's peace, Boston agreed not to insist on the recording of his protest, and the Simson case was at an end. Boston had acted with a quiet and courageous dignity that made a deep impression on the house, and greatly raised his reputation in the Church. And it was all wonderful to him. In his whole management of the affair he traced a higher wisdom than his own. He was a richer man, in things more heavenly than reputation, when he turned his horse's head out of the crowded Edinburgh street and made towards the solitude of Ettrick.
The Abjuration question and the Simson case, however engrossing in their day, have long been forgotten. But there was one other controversy of the time, which may not have commanded the intense interest of the others, but which was destined to be far more powerful for good. The echoes of it have not yet died away. The influences of it are still not altogether indiscernible. It was the Marrow controversy. And among all the ministers so honourably concerned in that, none was more deeply engaged than Boston.
At the commencement of his ministry, Boston, like many another regenerate and able preacher, was still intellectually groping in no little darkness towards right uptakings of the grace of God. Trained in the covenant theology, he was soon face to face with the tremendous difficulties which that theology offers to the thinker. And it is characteristic of the man that he made no attempt to shirk these difficulties. He preached according to his knowledge, and out of his growing experience of Christ. But always, with abounding prayer, he was studying, comparing, writing, and longing for the breaking of a fuller light.
And if that saying of Duncan Matheson's—that we aye get what we gang in for—was ever true, it was true in Boston's case. Some time in 1700, sitting in an old soldier's cottage at Simprin, he spied above the window-head two little books. One proved to be a work by Saltmarsh, that Boston did not relish. The other was titled The Marrow of Modern Divinity. It was a new name to Boston. Neither at Kennet nor in the Merse had he ever heard a whisper of the book. It is not likely that any minister of his acquaintance had ever seen it, save Fraser of Brea, and he had never mentioned it. But it so suited Boston's case and met his difficulties, so cleared him in the matter of the covenants, and gave him boldness in his full offers of salvation, that it became, and to the end remained, the choicest volume on his not-overburdened shelf. "It speedily gave a tincture to my preaching," says Boston; but it did more than that. Little could he foresee what consequences for himself and for his church were still to flow from that bookish glance at the old soldier's window-head.
And what, then, was this book? It was a little treatise by an English gentleman, Edward Fisher, M.A., of Brazenose College, Oxford, and it first saw the light in 1646, the memorable year of the Westminster Confession. As its name indicates, it does not claim originality. It is a gathering together of the most marrowy passages of the acknowledged masters of divinity. But the selection is so skilful, and the progress of the argument so clear, and the whole is thrown into such an interesting form, that the book is far from being a mere catena. Students of the religious history of England are well aware of the countless sects and heresies that sprang up during the Civil War. They know, too, that among all the questions in debate, none were more eagerly pursued in press and pulpit than those which turn on the relationships of law and grace. It was in these that Fisher was most deeply interested. Like a clean English gentleman, he saw and scorned the unworthy licence that men were calling the liberty of Christ. On the other hand, he had himself, for twelve weary years, been fettered by a legal spirit, and ignorant of the secret of free grace. And when he found the light, and grasped, through conference and prayer and most exhaustive reading, the mutual bearings of the older law and of the newer liberty, nothing would serve but he must tell the news. So came the Marrow. It is no dry compend of theology. It is the earnest effort of a Christian and a scholar to solve some of the problems of his time. It is the endeavour of a "middle man" to take the "middle path," and the middle path—the only path to heaven, says Boston in his note—was Jesus Christ truly received by faith, and walked in answerably by holiness of heart and life.
To some who read these pages it may seem not a little strange that such a thesis should ever call for vindication. They must remember that they were never trained to think in terms of that noble system of covenant theology. Every theology has its point of strain. And in the covenant-system, so rich in intellectual satisfaction, one point of strain must always be the inter-relations of the covenants. Was the moral law the covenant of works? What, then, is the standing of the moral law in the covenant of grace? Was the covenant between God and Christ the very same as that between God and Adam? And does the believer accept the moral law out of the hand of God the Creator or God the Redeemer? Such questions seem very far away to us. They sound unpractical. They speak a language we hardly understand. But sooner or later they must be asked and answered by every student of the covenant theology. And they were never better answered than by Fisher. At times his expressions are not a little harsh; and there are paragraphs that lend themselves most admirably to misrepresentation. But how a Scotch Assembly could condemn the book, as it was yet to be condemned, and could deliberately find in it an antinomian bias, must surely remain a mystery for ever.
Boston had been a student of the Marrow for a score of years, before the book began to make a stir in Scotland. And all the stir, though Boston did not know it at the time, sprang from his find on the Simprin window-head. In 1717, when the first case against Simson had been closed, the Assembly was called upon to give its judgement on the famous Auchterarder Creed. This so-called creed was a proposition framed by the Presbytery of Auchterarder, and put to a student when applying for licence, and it ran in these terms: "It is not sound and orthodox to teach that we must forsake sin in order to our coming to Christ, and instating us in covenant with God." That certainly has got an ugly sound. We cannot wonder that it was widely misinterpreted. To those who could receive it, it was but the harsh expression of the thought—
"Just as I am, and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot,
O Lamb of God, I come."
but to many it seemed a direct incentive to a lawless life, and as such it was condemned by the Assembly.
Now it was just on points like these that Boston had been so aided by the Marrow. And it was of the Marrow that Boston's mind was full during the progress of that Auchterarder diet. He did not speak in the debate, but he did better. He spoke of the Marrow to his neighbour in the house. His neighbour—the minister of Crieff—searched through the Edinburgh bookshops until he got a copy. It passed from his hands into those of Mr. Webster. From Mr. Webster it was hurried on to James Hog, minister of Carnock. And early in 1718 Hog published a new edition of the book.
And then the stir began. Following so hard upon the first Simson case, and on the question of the Auchterarder Creed, the book became at once the source of violent debate. It was attacked in Synod sermons. It was defended in explanatory pamphlets. It was complained of to the next Assembly. A committee of the Commission sat in judgement on it. And the end of all the scrutiny was this, that by an Act of Assembly of 20th May 1720 the Marrow was condemned.
That year Boston was not a member. But we can well conceive how sorely he was wounded when he heard of the ban upon his precious Marrow. Had he owed little to the book, he might have had a day of fasting for the condemning Act, and let things be. But the Marrow had come to him with the countersign of God, and it was impossible for Boston to be silent. At Presbytery and in Synod he sought redress in vain. Nothing was left but to petition the Assembly. And it was that petition, drawn up by Boston, and perfected by the counsels and the prayers of eleven likeminded ministers, that was laid before the Assembly of 1721, and is known in history as the Representation. It is a lengthy document, rebutting the several charges of the Act, and here and there, in the homely vigour of its style, betraying the hand that drafted it. And it was handed in to the Committee of Bills by Mr. Kid of Queensferry, "a man of singular boldness," on Friday, 19th May 1721.
But if the Representers hoped that the Assembly would take action, their hopes were doomed to disappointment. John, Earl of Rothes, was the King's Commissioner; and the day before the Assembly met we have Wodrow writing to his wife that the Commissioner is not well. The following Tuesday "the Commissioner is really ill; he has a most violent cough, and is blue and ill-coloured.... Some think him a-dying, and that we will rise to-morrow." And this the Assembly actually did. On Wednesday the 17th it was dissolved, and the Representation was referred to the Commission.
And how the Commission dealt with the twelve Marrowmen, and how it wearied them and worried them, students of these Memoirs will discover. But students will pardon the Commission everything for the one service it rendered to theology. It set the Marrowmen twelve posing questions. It gathered up the points at issue into a dozen queries, and bade the petitioners answer them in writing. And the answers, submitted to the March Commission, form one of the noblest pieces of theology that ever enriched the English tongue. One would fain trace the hand of Boston in them, but it cannot be. They were begun by Ebenezer Erskine, and perfected by Gabriel Wilson, minister of Maxton. We do not wonder that the latter was Boston's dearest friend, nor that the former bears a venerated name, if this was the manner of their handiwork. Every votary of the queen of sciences would be a debtor to the Marrow controversy, if it had left us nothing but these so strong and luminous replies.
But neither the answers of the Marrowmen, nor the awakening interest of the common people, moved the Commission. Its overture was adverse. And on the 21st of May 1722 the General Assembly ratified the overture, and admonished and rebuked the Representers. "I received the rebuke," says Boston, "as an ornament, being for the cause of truth." A Protest, drawn by Boston and signed by all, was handed in. It was received, but was not read. And so the Marrow controversy ended. Four years later, spite of the prohibition of his Church, Boston put forth a new edition of the Marrow with very ample notes. And spite of the prohibition of the Church, or perhaps in part because of it, the book had a rapid and extensive sale.
It would be an interesting, though by no means an easy task, to trace the influences of the Marrow, and of the Marrow controversy, upon religious Scotland. Weighted with the authority of saintly names, and rich in the added interests of church debate, the book was read by multitudes, and proved to many "a light struck up in darkness." It was interpreted in some of Boston's most familiar writings. Men caught the echoes of it in the preaching of George Whitefield. It was a silent witness against the dry morality of countless pulpits. And if the nation was at all in readiness for the evangelical revival of the succeeding century, directly and indirectly the Marrow had played its part in that. But there was more than that. It was in the Marrow controversy, for the first time since the Revolution, that the country saw a little band of venerated ministers united to oppose the Church's will, for conscience' sake. And though that controversy issued without rupture, it made the strained relationship so evident, and brought the possibilities of separation so home to ministers and people, that none were wholly unprepared for the notable secessions. of the next forty years.
The Marrow-controversy over, — "that plunge into public affairs that filled both my head and my hands," — Boston was free to resume his parish work, and to ply his beloved and sorely broken studies. His health was frail, and his wife's case was yearly becoming more tragical. He had a presentiment that the end was not very far away. We might have thought that one so prematurely old, and so afflicted in his wife's affliction, had earned a little rest. But Boston could not rest. No period of his life is stored with labours like these last ten years. "The little that is done," says Goethe, "seems nothing, when we look forward and see how much we have yet to do."
His duties of catechising were resumed. His stated meetings with the young were continued till very near the end. He visited the sick in the remotest corners of the parish, not seldom fighting his way to them through storm and under grievous bodily distress. He wrote his treatise on the Covenant of Grace; prepared an Explanation of the first part of the Catechism; completed his admirable Memorial on Fasting; translated and annotated a great part of Genesis. And all the time his pulpit was his throne. His preaching was never more fragrant nor more full than in that last decade. It was then he delivered those notable discourses on the Mystery of Christ in the Form of a Servant. It is to that period we owe the sermons that were published posthumously as the Crook in the Lot. And nothing could give a better idea of the compass, and the intellectual power, and the comforting strength of Boston's later ministry, than these examples of his pulpit work. We cannot wonder that such work was owned. Preaching like that will win its way and draw its audience even among the hills of Ettrick. In 1710 Boston for the first time had dispensed the Sacrament in Ettrick, and some sixty persons had partaken. In 1731 he celebrated his last Communion, and the tokens distributed numbered 777.
But that decade was memorable for another study to which a pathetic interest attaches. As a student of divinity in Edinburgh, Boston had learned the rudiments of Hebrew, and as a young minister at Simprin he had begun his study of the Hebrew Bible. That study he plied, with all his wonted enthusiasm, till the last; and there can be little question that in the course of years he wrought himself into one of the profoundest Hebraists in Scotland.
But it is one thing to understand the Hebrew text and another thing to understand the Hebrew accents — those mystical scatterings of dots and dashes that variegate the Hebrew page. These accents are guides to the pronunciation, and form a kind of commentary on the true sense and recitation of the text, and scholars tell us that they were invented by the Jewish doctors in the earlier centuries of our era. They form no part of the original Hebrew text; they are not found in the Old Testaments of the Jewish synagogue, nor in the citations of the first Christian Fathers. All this we know now, but much of it was unknown to Boston. And an eager mind like his could never rest while every page of his beloved Hebrew was intricate with mysteries like these.
It was in 1713 that Boston began the study of the accents, and for three years he groped and stumbled in Cimmerian darkness. He read, and wrote, and prayed, and meditated, but the perplexities remained. Most men would have given over. Most ministers would have found it all telling adversely on their public work. Boston held on, and by abounding prayer sanctified both his accents and himself. After three years of wandering, the light began to break. The meaning of the accents became plainer; they settled down into something of function and of law; until at last they threw such a flood of light upon the sacred text, and gave him such an insight into debated passages, that Boston grew convinced the accents were divine, and the true key to the genuine sense of Scripture. It was a great discovery to Boston. It came to be his passion. It took possession of him, heart and soul. He had been called to preach the everlasting gospel, and he would preach it to the end. But next to that the greatest business of this life must be his work on the Accentuation.
And how that work progressed, and how he wrestled with its difficulties, and how the publication of it baffled him — all this is one of the touching passages in these Memoirs. It took him three years to write his book. It cost him the labour of another year to turn it into Latin. Lord Grange was interested. Sir Richard Ellys was ready to befriend. The Ettrick messenger brought letters in his wallet from famous scholars at continental universities. But the difficulties in the way of publication were insuperable, and Boston died with his hope unrealised. The book was published in 1738 at Amsterdam. It bears the title Tractatus Stigwologicus, and has a Latin dedication to Sir Richard Ellys, written by Boston's son. And surely it is the most curious and recondite work that ever issued from a Scottish manse. We do not find that it influenced Hebrew scholarship. The divine authority of the accents was a dream. Yet he who knows how the world has progressed through its errors, and he who has learned the matchless discipline of exact and unremitting toil, will be the last to deplore Boston's beloved study. It is not often that the writers of a people's books bear honoured names among the learned. It has never been a very common thing to find in the evangelical minister the ripened scholar. And Scotland has not been ignorant of popular theologians, who would have been far less popular if they had been truer students. It is something then to know, and it is worthy of remembrance, that the evangelical minister of Ettrick, whose works were treasured by the cottar and the herd, was welcomed as an equal by the finest Hebrew scholars in the world.
Boston was never a robust man, although he sets it down with thankfulness that he never spent a silent Sabbath through ill-health. Early in life he feared consumption, and all his life he seems to have been troubled with a painful binding in the breast. In 1724 he had a first attack of gravel. Two years later he noticed a palsied shaking of the head, which spread in time to his whole body. With the New Year of 1732 it became plain his work was nearly done. His sufferings had increased. His strength was very low. He could not think to leave off preaching while it was possible to preach at all; but he was forced to sit during the delivery of the short discourse. When April came, with its message of the returning life of spring, he was too feeble to make out the pulpit. But on the first two Sabbaths he preached from the manse window, choosing most characteristically—the ruling passion strong in death—the theme of self-examination. These were his last discourses to his people. In great weakness he lingered for a little, and on the 20th of May, a Saturday—the day he commonly rested from his studies—he died, at the age of fifty-six.
He was buried in the beautiful churchyard of Ettrick, that had so often echoed with his communion-message of eternal life. Until the beginning of this century the spot was marked by a small stone, on one half of which was graven his name, and on the other half his wife's. But in 1806 a monument was erected to his memory, and it still stands unharmed by the storm and sunshine of these ninety years. On every side, graven in stone, we read the names that have grown familiar in these Memoirs. Bryden and Biggar and Linton, Crosslie and Thirlstane, all are here. Here rest the children Boston baptised.
There sleeps a wandering sheep who gave his minister many a weary hour. And yonder is the grave of one who for conscience' sake could never enter Ettrick church. But all have come to the one quiet churchyard. The separations are forgotten here. In death and in the dust pastor and people are at last united, until the day break and the shadows flee away.
Mrs. Boston lived for a few years after her husband's death. Of the ten children born of the marriage four only survived their father. John, the eldest son, became factor to the Duke of Buccleuch at Langholm Lodge, and was the father of Admiral Boston. Jane became Mrs. Russell of Ashiestiel. Alison married Mr. Anderson of Altrive, a name familiar in the lifestory of the Ettrick Shepherd. She died 6th January 1765, and lies with her husband in Ettrick churchyard. Thomas, the youngest son, was a lad of 19, and still a student of divinity, at his father's death. But so great were his attainments, and so strong was the desire of Ettrick to have him in his father's pulpit, that he was licensed and presented to the parish that same year, and in April 1733 ordained. His after-life is written large on the page of our church history. He left the Establishment, and was one of the founders and the first Moderator of the Presbytery of Relief, a body that lived and flourished in sturdy independence for well - nigh a hundred years.
Such are the outlines of the life whose inner movements Boston has given in this book. He wrote these Memoirs chiefly for his children; but in the writing of them he was making every lover of good men his debtor, and was adding unwittingly another book to the choicest literature of autobiography. These pages abound in the deepest and most varied interests. They are full of glimpses of a bygone day. They throw fresh light upon the story of the Church of Scotland. They make us feel the heats and bitterness that everywhere followed the Union of the Kingdoms. They call us back, as no more formal history could do, into the stir of Jacobite alarms. But it is not the light the Memoirs cast upon contemporary history that gives them their imperishable charm. It is their revelation of a soul whose lifelong struggle and whose consuming passion was to be true to the highest and the best. Scotland has had far greater sons than Boston, but if ever a man made himself truly great through faith, and fellowship with God, and work, it was this evangelical minister of Ettrick. And here we have the story of his heart.
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