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A Scots Boy's World Sixty Years Ago
Chapter XII. A City Congregation


IT was as far back as 1851 that the late Rev. George Philip, D.D., was, by resolution of General Assembly, translated from Stonehaven to be first minister of Union Church, Glasgow, which was then the furthest west congregation of any denomination on the South Side. There was not a single church in Pollokshields, which consisted only of St. Andrew's Road; not one in Kinning Park, which was unbuilt; none in Plantation, then a trim residential estate, nor any at all on the road to Paisley. The nearest was in Govan, where there were but three. It will thus be seen that Union served a wide potential area, and so it came to pass in after years that, when new churches were planted in the regions beyond, their initial life-blood was largely drawn from it. It was a vital centre of Christian training for successive bands of young men, who have gone into all the earth, and many of whom have risen to distinguished positions in banking, insurance, commercial, literary and municipal circles.

The church was seated for about 1200 persons, and was soon fully let, the committee having sometimes to sit till the small hours of morning in order to adjust rival claims. Thomas Miller, the church officer, was grave and consequential, as was befitting, wearing a marvellously twisted white neck-cloth and swallow-tailed coat on Sundays. Though never over-burdened with duties, he delighted to magnify their importance and used to remark sententiously that "it was better to wear out than to rust out." R. M. Walker, the precentor, was tall, handsome, clean-shaven, with a superlative voice. When on duty he appeared in gown and white tie, and sometimes, I think, in gloves. He had a rich Doric accent, and just before the intercessory prayer would frequently announce that "the prayers of the congregation are requisted for a young man gawing abrode." I believe it was never quite authoritatively settled between him and Thomas as to which was the more indispensable functionary.

The great landmarks in the congregational year were the spring and autumn communions held in April and October, for which elaborate arrangements had to be made in advance. The preceding Thursday was kept as a "Fast-day," when business in the city was suspended.

There were two well-attended services as on Sabbath, a third being held in the evening, at which young communicants were publicly admitted. On Saturday afternoon there was another diet of worship, and on Monday forenoon a thanksgiving service. For each of these a preacher was brought from a distance, the Saturday one usually taking the heavy duty of assisting also on the following day. At such seasons our house was full and sometimes we entertained angels.

On Sabbath public worship began at 11 a.m. and lasted continuously till 3.30 p.m. or later. After the "action" sermon three tables were served in succession, each with an address before and after, and finally, a concluding exhortation, always taken by the minister himself. We children insisted on being allowed to sit out the whole with a ten minutes' interval for sandwiches in the vestry. A small brother, having been forcibly taken home by a servant, simply opened the door the moment her back was turned and found his own way back.

For us the special interest began with the giving out of the 35th Paraphrase when communicants were invited to take their places, while the elders brought forward the Communion elements. In the course of this singing Thomas threw open the side door, and a stately procession entered bearing the bread and wine on napkined salver and in shining cup and deposited the same on the Communion Table just as we reached the words —

With love to man this cup is fraught,
Let all partake the sacred draught,
Through latest ages let it pour,
In memory of my dying hour.

The good men "wist not that their faces shone" or that their every posture was a sermon. How simple and eloquent was the entire service! the "Fencing of the Table," the reading of the "Warrant," the prayer of Thanksgiving, the breaking of the Bread, the ordered distribution, the kindly passing from hand to hand, the reverent partaking, the return to the platform of the elders with muffled step, the solemn silence which followed, broken, at length, by a silvery voice, beginning a tender admonition and ending with the words "Go then from His Table singing His praise "—

O, thou my soul bless God the Lord
And all that in me is

Gently striking his pitchfork the dignified precentor led us into Coleshill or New London and then continued sonorously, reciting two lines at a time —

Be stirred up His holy name,
To magnify and bless

and so on, as pew by pew the communicants dispersed, while others pressed in to take their places.

This was our opportunity to retire for hasty refreshment, but we did like to be back in time for the lines—

Such pity as a father hath
Unto his children dear

and would on no account miss—

Frail man ! his days are like the grass,
As flower in field he grows

where we thought the precentor excelled himself.

In the evening there was invariably a crowded Thanksgiving service for which we were occasionally allowed to choose the Psalms. This would ensure for the opening—

The Lord of Heaven confess
On high His glory raise

while the concluding praise would likely be

Now Israel may say

or the favourite Paraphrase—

To Him that loved the souls of men

My recollection is of "many lights in the upper chamber," of condensed human breaths trickling down the window-sills, of one eloquent exhortation from the words of Paul, "So run that ye may obtain," and of another from the letter to the Church at Sardis "They shall walk with Me in white for they are worthy." Of baptisms I remember as many as a dozen at one time — a rare sight nowadays — though in the Oude Kerk at Amsterdam I once witnessed, as many as forty, when the continuous wailing was as the bleating of lambs.

A notable event to us children, of a totally different kind, was the annual congregational soiree. This was held in the City Hall or Merchants' Hall, and was a function far removed from the modern conversazione or social. Several hundreds sat down together. Elaborate programmes were printed. Tickets were sold in neighbouring shops — "Price is. 3d. for adults and 9d. for juveniles." For this a good tuck-in was expected and provided in the shape of substantial tea, followed by two "services of fruit," the first consisting of oranges and the latter of raisins and almonds, with a top dressing of Almeria grapes. The tea was understood to be infused — if not, indeed, boiled — in subterranean cauldrons, and seemed endowed with a special faculty for scalding the tongue. It was at one of these services of fruit that I first saw a blood orange, and naturally concluded that a waiter had cut his finger while dividing it.

Soiree speaking was regarded as one of the fine arts and assumed many forms. Dr. Walter C. Smith, for instance, began his address by quoting an old couplet—

Ah, me ! what perils do environ
The man that meddles with cold iron

which he proceeded to parody as follows:—

Alas ! the ills that do embarrass
The man who has to speak at swarries,

and forthwith proceeded to add many words of wisdom and encouragement.

The Revs. William Arnot and Dr. John Forbes were introduced as the "great bells of St. Peter's and St. Paul's." On one occasion Dr. Robert Buchanan gave a luminous exposition of the "Cardross Case," though it is doubtful if we young people ever clearly understood the legal subtleties of " satisfying production." The wittiest address I can recall was one by that genial Irishman, the Rev. Jacob Alexander of Stockwell. It was full of good things, and overflowed with telling humour. The worthy treasurer would conclude his somewhat matter-of-fact financial statement with the consoling reflection that we were " now in the happy position of owing no man anything but love and good works." The precentor revelled in the opportunity of demonstrating the capabilities of his choir, which, though it had comparatively little scope on Sunday, was here permitted to show its paces in the "Heavens are telling" or the "Cloud-capt towers and gorgeous palaces."

Home Misson work always lay near the heart of minister and people, and Chalmers Church, long since removed from its original location, was the crowning outcome of these efforts. The earliest beginnings were made in a disreputable- looking hall reached by a rickety flight of outside stairs in Chapel Close, off Main Street, Gorbals. Centuries before a "leprois hospitall" had existed in this neighbourhood, to which was attached a chapel dedicated to St. Ninian, hence the name of this most unpromising "close." Within the walls of its dingy apartment a ragged school was taught daily by David Rattray, while on Sundays an evangelistic service was conducted in the same place by the Rev. Adam White, afterwards of India, and others. It was no uncommon occurrence to have a rat or two cross the floor during worship. How very different from the cosy and well-lighted mission halls of to-day! Yet noble men, and women too, worked there night and day, giving of their best, that a good foundation might be well and truly laid.

For many long years a heavy burden of debt remained on the church, to the removal of which Mr. Philip steadily set his face. At the very first big soiree in the City Hall he pled for 1,000, which was duly subscribed with astonishing liberality. Bit by bit the load was lessened, until all that remained was some 500. Once more the annual collection had come round, when it was hoped to obtain a further 60 or 70. Mr. Philip had exchanged pulpits with Mr. Arnot, of St. Peter's, in the forenoon, and when they met afterwards on the Broomielaw Bridge Mr. Arnot was able to inform his friend that no less than ^350 had already been put into the plate. It turned out that an eccentric old gentleman who had latterly been coming much about was responsible for 300. By the afternoon the total had been so considerably increased that two generous members laid their heads together and wiped out the balance. The writer can remember being taken to call upon the old man in the evening, partly to acknowledge his unexpected liberality and partly to make quite sure that there had been no mistake. We were ushered into a cold, gaunt room with all the crystal of the establishment laid out upon the centre table. A quaint figure with mediaeval neckcloth shortly appeared, and with the utmost simplicity explained that he usually attended an Established church, but did not feel he had been doing his full duty towards the support of evangelical ordinances in the city, and that his gift was freely offered with all sincerity and gratitude for benefits received.

Ever since its inception the Union congregation has been ministered to by a succession of able preachers, and the church has recently been remodelled on institutional lines, in order more effectually to meet the present needs of the district.


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