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A Doctor of the Old School
by Ian MacLaren with Illustrations by Frederick C Gordon
Published in 1896


A Doctor of the Old School
  • Preface
  • A General Practitioner
  • Through the Flood
  • Fight with Death
  • The Doctor’s Last Journey
  • The Mourning of the Glen
  • Read also another books from the author:
    Days of Auld Lang Syne

    Rabbi Saunderson
    Besides the Bonnie Briar Bush
    Katie Carnegie

    MY acquaintance with John Watson, of Liverpool, began as, I suppose, did that of thousands of other Americans, with the appearance of “Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush.” Always fond of everything relating to Scotland, having been reared on Walter Scott, Hugh Miller and Thomas Edwards, and having read the biographies of Thomas Chalmers and Norman Macleod, I seized upon the writings of Barrie, Crockett and Ian Maclaren as they appeared, and read each at one sitting. I can live, over again the days, the places, the impressions, everything connected with my first reading on Sunday afternoons, of “The Window in Thrums,” “The Little Minister,” “The Sticket Minister,” and “Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush.”

    I never saw Ian Maclaren until he came to Yale University to deliver the Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching before the Divinity School. The method of his coming was interesting. Probably not a dozen people in America had ever heard of Dr. Watson before his stories took the world by storm. After Ian Maclaren was known in every household as a story writer people began to ask: “Who is this Ian Maclaren?” They then learned that he was the Rev. John Watson, pastor of the Sefton Avenue Presbyterian Church, Liverpool, and incidentally that he was a good deal of a preacher. Those who had English connections heard that he was an exceptionally gifted preacher.

    It has been customary in connection with the Lyman Beecher Lectures to secure eminent British clergymen, as well as American, and in this way such men as Doctors Dale, Fairbairn, Brown, Stalker, Horton, Forsyth, Henson and Horne have been brought to America. One of the members of the Divinity School Faculty happening to be in Europe—if I remember rightly it was Professor George B. Stevens—he took occasion to visit Dr. Watson’s church. He was so greatly/ impressed that he called upon him, and sounded him upon the possibility of his giving the Lyman Beecher Lectures. The outcome was that in 1896 he came to New Haven for a month and gave his eight lectures which were afterwards published under the title, “The Cure of Souls.”

    The lectures proved a great success. The only trouble was that everybody in New Haven—all the good souls who were no more interested in the technique of preaching than in the art of etching— turned out to see, if not to hear this famous story-writ er, “Ian Maclaren,” who had written “A Doctor of the Old School.” (Most of them did not even know to what church he belonged and had never heard of him as a preacher.) As a result Marquand Chapel could not hold even the early arrivals. The crowd would have filled it fifty times over. The lectures were scheduled for three o’clock. By 2:15 not a student could edge his way to the door. The lecture was hurriedly transferred to College Hall, and the entire course was given there, to an audience that crowded the floor and the galleries.

    As it happened these delightful lectures proved just as interesting to the general public as they proved valuable to the students of divinity. It should be remembered that these lectures on preaching are given every year—eight of them. They have been going on for a great many years and it is no easy matter to give a course of eight lectures on preaching without repeating a good many things that have been said by previous speakers. It has been only the outstanding eminence of the lecturers that has saved the course. Most of them have been men of such striking personality that even old things have become new in passing through the alembic of their experience. To judge from Dr. Watson’s lectures it might have been supposed that no one had ever before lectured on preaching. They were as fresh and new as though they were the first words ever spoken on this great theme.

    The audiences fell in love with the man at the start. He was the image of repose, and yet the warmth of his personality was manifested in the first sentence he uttered. His voice was resonant, and a very remarkable organ to interpret the thought and feeling of the speaker. The lectures were a unique blending of idealism and the humblest details of the preacher’s work, even to the arrangements of the heading of the sermon. It was apparent to everybody before he had spoken ten minutes that the lectures were to be largely autobiographical, although the personal pronoun never appeared in them. Now and then bits of pathos occurred that moistened the eyes—but there was never an approach to maukish sentiment—never any of that “practising the brine act,” to quote the college boys when referring to certain preachers who occasionally visited the college chapel. Best of all, there was the most delightful play of humour running through all the lectures. It was like sunlight playing upon the deep. It was never obtrusive and yet it was always present. It was in the man’s eyes and voice. It was enhanced by the immobility of the face. It was spontaneous as sudden bursts of light. On the large lecture platform many members of the University faculty were sitting. It so happened that five or six of the very oldest were sitting just at the lecturer’s left. They became especial targets of his wit, and once or twice his sly hits at them brought a roar from the audience. He himself never smiled.

    The lectures were exceedingly helpful to students. They were permeated with a fund of homely common sense. No part of a minister’s life or work was left untouched. The minister’s health, his personal religious life, his study, his pastoral work, his work with young people, his own relation to God, all received as much attention as the writing of sermons, the delivery of the message, the contents of the great message the preacher had to give. There was only one moment in the whole course when the placid waters were even temporarily ruffled. The English and Scotch clergy smoke much more than do the American clergy, especially the New England clergy. It is a very common experience to meet clergymen in England with pipes in their mouths. Dr. Watson was probably not aware of the prejudice which exists in New England against a minister smoking. So, very innocently, in the course of one of his lectures, when he was talking about the minister getting close to men, he happened to say something to the effect that often peculiarly intimate closeness came when the minister and some man of his congregation were smoking their pipes together, and that a good pipe was not a bad thing in establishing confidences. It brought down a storm upon his head. In the New Haven papers several letters appeared the next day roundly scoring a minister of the Gospel for “advising young ministers to smoke’’ (he hardly did that, but it went the round of the country in those terms). The lectures are on the whole among the most valuable ever delivered at Yale, and they are worthy the careful study of every clergyman. And as for interesting reading—well, few books surpass “The Cure of Souls.” I often reread it for its charm, its exquisite diction, its flights of fancy, and its real humour.

    The lectures were strewn with parenthetical remarks. Here are three or four which brought more than smiles and which are indicative of those running through the whole course:

    “A sermon ought to be a monograph and not an encyclopaedia, an agency for pushing one article, and not a general store where one can purchase anything from a button to a coffin.”

    Speaking of the personal element in preaching, and of the use of illustration, he remarked in parenthesis: ‘1 Travel must be used very skillfully and sparingly, because the Righi and the Bay of Naples are not unknown to a congregation. On the whole, it may also be better for the average man, for the sake of his people, not to go to the Holy Land, unless he has great self-control. His personal experiences will make even the Mount of Olives a terror, and his interpolated explanation, from .what I have heard, will desecrate the noblest passages in the Gospels. Some congregations who in the kindness of their hearts sent their ministers to the Holy Land would now cheerfully pay twice the cost to obliterate the journey from the memory of the good man, and to rescue, say the fifteenth of St. Luke, from illustrative anecdotes.”

    “A course of sermons on the metaphysics of faith, followed by another on the philosophy of prayer, will go far to make infidels of a congregation. One wants his drinking-water taken through a filter-bed, but greatly objects to gravel in his glass.

    “It is, however, possible to be exasperatingly healthy, and one can understand a much tried woman being driven away from a minister whose radiant, unlined face showed that he had never known pain, and who had married a rich wife, and taken refuge in a church whose ministers had a liver and preached rampant Calvinism. . . . Invalid ministers have a certain use and do gather sympathetic congregations—becoming a kind of infirmary chaplains. But their ecclesiastical and theological views must be taken with great caution.’’

    I heard all of the eight lectures and I also heard him preach in the college chapel and speak to the students at the Y. M. C. A. meetings in Dwight Hall. He was very effective in these talks to young men. But during his month’s residence I had occasion to meet him in some charming New Haven homes and here I got further insight into the man’s character and learned much of his early life. There were three or four homes in New Haven that seemed peculiarly attractive to him and he would often drop in for an evening, and was frequently the guest at dinners there. To sit before an open fire with him was a rare experience. In these homes to which I refer, there would often be a group of three or four men whose names were known among educated people in all Europe and America. The conversation was such as one would expect. Often Dr. Watson would sit silent for fifteen or twenty minutes listening to these men. Then, by some sudden turn, he would take up the talk and for several minutes we would hear some of the raciest comments on life. But when the story-telling was at its height then he shone above all others. Some one would ask him a question about Scottish country life and off he would go. Or some one would ask him if the characters in “The Bonnie Brier Bush” were based on actual men and women (they were, by the way) and he would give the most delightful pictures of

    Scottish country life as he knew it as a young minister. No one could surpass him as a storyteller and I have seen staid, aged scholars laugh until tears rolled down their cheeks. I met one of New Haven’s dignified scholars on the street one morning and asked him how he was, and he said: ‘ ‘ I have a stitch in my back; I went out to dinner with Ian Maclaren last night.” It was not only the stories—it was the way he told them. I was assistant to Dr. Munger at the time of Dr. Watson’s visit to New Haven and that is how I happened to see so much of him. I doubt if I shall ever hear such story-telling again. But once or twice I saw him in very melancholy mood. These moods came over him and nothing could move him out of them except solitude or preaching. He had much of the Celtic temperament, as is very apparent to those who know his writings. It appears in his novel, "Kate Carnegie,” almost more than in his short stories. The appearance of this novel, "Kate Carnegie,” was a source of both pleasure and disappointment to him. The critics handled it somewhat severely because it lacked that dramatic element necessary to a great work of fiction. But to choice souls it was a delight. The sketch of Rabbi Sanderson is one of the best pieces of writing Ian Maclaren ever did. The Rabbi lives—just as Dr. McClure lives. To me "Kate Carnegie” is a book of great charm, and I read it frequently. Dr. Watson’s delight in it came from the appreciation of it by many whom he greatly admired.

    I remember his telling one evening about the hundreds upon hundreds of letters he had received from people who had read “A Doctor of the Old School.’’ These letters had come from every country in the world—many of them from Australia, South Africa, Canada and America. Some came from places he had never supposed contained men who could read English. Many of the letters were from physicians and some of them were very beautiful. These letters were a great comfort to him and he read and reread them many times. But other experiences befell him from the publication of “The Bonnie Brier Bush.” The heresy hunters got after him. When this fact did not annoy him, it amused him, and it was very funny to hear him tell the story of it. What started the charge of heresy was the emphasis, in the stories of Scottish life, on the unlimited love of God, but more particularly the confusion of what some call “natural goodness” with religion. He would amusingly refer to the fact that he “did not know whether he was being blamed for making God love His children too much, or making man love his neighbour too much.” The heresy trial passed over. It is not the first time that charges of heresy have been brought against Scotchmen because of their novels. There are some of my readers who can probably remember back far enough to recall the storm of accusation that fell upon the head of George MacDonald when “Bobert Falconer” was published. Many Scptch and English pulpits were closed to him for years.

    With the popularity of Dr. Watson’s stories a curiosity to see some of his sermons began to be felt in Great Britain and America. As a result “The Mind of the Master” was published. Its reception greatly pleased him. It is a group of unusual sermons—for they were originally used as sermons, although appearing as essays in the book. Another volume, “The Potters' Wheel,” a series of papers for those in affliction, is very tender and very full of original thought, too. Dr. Watson had deep insight into the workings of the human soul, and being a man of great heart his ministry to the suffering was very effective, and this little volume is the fruit of many years' real “Cure of Souls.” It will be remembered that he was in this country on a lecture tour when he passed away. He enjoyed these lecture tours, but got rather tired of repeating lectures over and over and rather tired of travel.

    Let me close this sketch with a picture of one evening in New Haven. A dinner party of a few choice spirits had been arranged for Ian Maclaren, among those present being Professor George P. Fisher and Dr. T. T. Munger, of both of whom he was very fond. I was privileged to drop in after dinner and sit in an inconspicuous corner—a sort of learner—and listen. And how I listened and how I laughed! Ian Maclaren—for it was he rather than the Rev. John Watson who was to the front that evening—was in a boyish mood and for an hour he told Scotch stories. He never enjoyed himself anywhere else in America as much as during that first month when he was in residence at Yale University. The many students of Professor Fisher will be interested in this quotation from a letter which Ian Maclaren wrote upon his second visit to America in 1899:

    "On Saturday we left for New Haven, the seat of the University of Yale. Professor Fisher, our former host at Yale, was standing on the platform when we arrived, and gave us the kindest of receptions. He is a typical don, so scholarly, so witty, so gentle, and it is a privilege to live in his house, where one breathes humanity in the old Latin sense, and is brought into contact at every turn of the conversation with the wisdom both of the present and of the past. Beneath his roof one meets all kinds of scholars, and every one seems at his best, so that one has the benefit of a University in the form of social intercourse. Yale reminds one of an English university, because its buildings are scattered here and there, and some of them are now nearly two hundred years old, and because the scholars at Yale have the old-fashioned love of accurate and delicate culture, and are altogether cleansed from showiness and Philistinism. Upon Sunday morning we went to the University Chapel, where I preached before the president and professors, and where I preached, which is a different thing, to fifteen hundred students of the universities. One looked upon a mass of humanity in the bright and intelligent faces, and was inspired with the thought of the possibilities in those lads who would be the clergymen and lawyers and statesmen and great merchants of the United States. If they are interested the * boys’ have no hesitation in letting the preacher know, and have endless ways of conveying their weariness. For my subject I took ‘ Jesus’ Eulogy on John the Baptist/ and made a plea for selflessness as the condition of good work and high character. In the evening I spoke to about five hundred students in the beautiful hall of the University Christian Association. This time I took for my subject ‘Faith and Works/ and afterwards met a number of men who were exceedingly kind, and, as is characteristic of American university men, very gracious and courteous. During my stay with Dean Fisher I had the opportunity of conversation with several distinguished Biblical scholars whose names and whose books are known on both sides of the Atlantic, and to a general practitioner like myself this intercourse with experts was most instructive and stimulating."

    The above comes from the book:
    The One Great Society: A Book of Recollections
    By Frederick Lynch. D. D.


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