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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter XX - Ecclesiastical Movements in the Country; and John's Religion


JOHN DUNCAN was constitutionally religious. He threw into religion the same ardour as into science, his enthusiasm in Theology being as marked as in Botany or Astronomy. Of the deep and genuine piety of the man, all that knew him with any intimacy speak in the highest terms. As Mr. Lamont of Mosshead, who was impressed with the high tone of his inner life more than with anything else in his character and studies, expressed it, "Many a man got a good character from others, but to none would I be so willing to say `amen' as to John's." On this point, from those that had any means of forming an opinion, there is but one voice, and that is all the stronger the more intimate the relations between them.

His special phase of religious feeling was that of the old Covenanting type, inherited from his mother, whose ancestors, he was always proud to tell, had borne the Covenanting name of Burley, and had fought against "the bluidy Claver'se." It was strengthened by the early deep, impressions gathered at Dunnottar, and was increased by his extensive reading of the terrible history of Scotch persecuting times. In all things John undertook or studied, as has been abundantly seen, he was intense, and on the the religious side, even more so than on any other; reaching deeper as the religious faculties do into the central forces of life. If occasion had required, John would have once more taken to the moors and mountains, like his ancestors at Aird's Moss and Drumclog, to put down ecclesiastical tyranny of every kind; and, if need had been, he would have cheerfully died at the stake for his opinions—there is no doubt of it.

His historical and inherited sympathies inspired him with an almost fierce hate of priestcraft in all forms, especially as Prelacy and Roman Catholicism—being, as one expressed it, "horrid at them." While arguing with a friend, on one occasion, on Popery and Erastianism, he insisted, in the spirit of the old Scot and the ancient Jew, that as it was impossible to convert the Catholics, they should be shot. "You surely would not take the gun to them, John?" replied his friend; "should you not try preaching and reasoning with them?" "Weel, weel," said John; "but if they winna hear, what then? There's naething for 't but shootin'!" In all these prelatic and papal antipathies, Duncan was merely a representative of the once universal feeling in Scotland, scorched deep into the national heart by its bloody religious history. He retained, however, more of the strength and gloom of the old Cameronian days than most, and was an example of survival, into modern broader religious times, of the old Covenanting, red-handed period.

In this respect, he was a great contrast to his friend Charles Black, whose womanly tenderness made him look upon the use of the sword in religion as not of Christ, though wielded in his name; and who could not hate Catholics or even atheists, because he loves all men, as he loves all God's creatures. Their arguments on such subjects were consequently frequent, and on John's side almost fierce, so dead-earnest was he in what he identified at once with patriotism and piety; and it was then only that they ever came near to inflicting pain on each other, if not to quarrelling, for these subjects have caused division between friends, families, and nations, when nothing else could have done it.

With such sympathies and such opposition to all State interference in religious affairs, it would not have been difficult to predict what side John would take in the long and fiery disputes that culminated in the Disruption of '43. He became a strenuous anti-patronage, anti-Erastian advocate, a keen sympathizer with the dissentients, and an ardent adherent of the party that formed the Free Church of Scotland.

The history of the remarkable struggle that issued in the ecclesiastical revolution of 1843, in which four hundred and seventy-four ministers of the Established Church separated from her communion in one day, need here be referred to only as far as John Duncan and his friends were concerned in it, for it has been often written from all points of view. It was a period of intense religious and social excitement ; as John, speaking of it forty years after, said, "Oh, it was a terrible time!" In the Vale of Alford, John lived near some of the scenes which are now historic in connection with it. At Netherton, he followed its movements with the deepest interest, visiting the places where forced intrusions occurred, and keeping himself conversant with its abundant and fleeting literature—his collection of pamphlets and books then issued on the subject being unusually large, especially for a poor man.

Along with his friend Charles Hunter, the shoemaker, a strong non-intrusionist like himself, he walked through deep snow all the way to Marnock in Strathbogie, in the severe winter of 1841, when the suspended seven of that famous presbytery inducted Mr. Edwards, on the 21st of January, at the point of the bayonet. He long preserved a copy of the supplement to the Aberdeen Banner, which contained an extended account of the case, and which he often used to read to others, to show the untenableness of the position of the intrusionists. He also went north to the famous induction at Culsalmond, where the minister was settled with the aid of policemen and other guardians Of the peace.

The controversies in the weaver's and shoemaker's shops at Netherton now became hotter than ever, and the contests between the opposing parties, especially between the weaver and the eloquent tailor, Sandy Cameron, the representatives of the contending factions, more vehement than before. John's advocacy of non-intrusion principles, even at Whitehouse, was so earnest and continuous that Charles Black, who belonged to the moderate party, had great difficulty in withstanding his persistency, from pure sympathy, in spite of his convictions. At first he tried to reply to John's arguments, but in vain.- Then he resorted to banter to win him to silence, by quoting some of the doggerel rhymes born of the excitements of the day, such as:

"Free Kirkers neither curse nor ban;
But cheat and lee wi' ony man,"

—a skittish allusion to the sanctity claimed by the dissenters. But banter on such important subjects was a grievance with John, and at last they had to agree, for the sake of peace and friendship, to let theology become a moot subject between them.

Aberdeenshire was one of the strongholds of the Establishment, and the Vale of Alford was as conservative as any part of the county. As John used to say, "they were terrible bun' up to the Establishment." The keenness of feeling between the adherents of the two parties in the district was so great that, for a long time, as he remarked, "they had eneuch ado to speak to each other;" and this was the case all over the country for many years. In the whole presbytery of Alford, not a single clergyman left the Church except one, the Rev. Harry Nicol, then a schoolmaster and now Free Church minister at Lumsden in Auchindore. In the parish of Tough, the popularity of the clergyman, the late Mr. Gillan of Alford, was such that very few seceded, and of these only one elder, Moses Copland, the farmer of Boghead. The opposition of the Aberdeenshire proprietors was so great that, in most places, they would not grant sites for the new Free churches, and even, in many cases, threatened eviction to seceding tenants. It was the same in the Vale, and the Free Church congregation of Tough and Keig long worshipped in the barns of Boghead and of Tillykeerie, where Charles Hunter's father lived, on the slopes south of Netherton. Meetings were held in various parts of the district by the friends of the Free Church, which were addressed by several of their most popular orators. Amongst others came Dr. Guthrie, who held a large gathering at the inn of Muggart Haugh, on the Leochel, which John attended, as he did all others far and near; for he would walk any distance to see and hear a popular speaker on the side he had espoused.

To organize the new seceders round Tough, there arrived, in the Disruption year, a worthy man, the Rev. William P. Smith, who has been rendered famous through his remarkable son, W. Robertson Smith, recently expelled from a professorship in the church his father then entered. The prospects of the Free Church in the Vale of Alford were long very dark. For a considerable time, Mr. Smith was obliged to preach to his people in the barns above Tough, till Sir Andrew Leith Hay allowed them a site at Brindy, above the church of Keig, where they erected a wooden house in which they worshipped for some time. At last, the late Lord Forbes granted them the present beautiful site between Whitehouse and the Bridge of Don, where the existing church and manse, tasteful, picturesque and comfortable, were erected amidst surrounding trees, with Cairn William and Benachie behind, and there Mr. Smith was ordained in 1845.

Religious activity amongst the small band of seceders was very great, and unwonted life and zeal were infused into all church work and worship, in both preachers and people. John Duncan was one of the most earnest labourers in the cause. Prayer meetings were held at many places before and after the Disruption. In these he took his part along with other laymen, in reading and expounding scripture—very creditably, as one of his hearers tells, backward though he was in public appearances. His first attempt at public prayer at Tillykeerie was not very successful, however earnest; his attitude, words, and utterance, in this unwonted exercise, being such as to render the suppression of risible emotion on the part of his auditors extremely difficult. But John was not alone amongst his brother laymen in bordering on the ludicrous in such trying circumstances. One of his friends, a farmer who took a very active part in Free Church affairs in Tough, remarked on one occasion, when a woman was publicly rebuked in the congregation, that "he never felt sorrier in his life for onybody than when the minister cam doon oot o' the poopit to circumcise her," meaning, good man, to admonish her!

John was one of the founders, in 1844, of what was. called a "Church Defence Association" in Tough, to help in the foundation of churches throughout the country, with Charles Hunter as secretary, and himself as one of the most active collectors of funds. His collecting book still exists, containing about sixty names, with contributions from four-pence to four shillings and sixpence a month, the highest weekly sum being four shillings. John put himself down for fourpence a week, his small but willing mite, offered "out of his poverty," but valued as such by the Master of the temple.

John's churchism was not mere combative fervour or theological dogmatism. It was based on conviction, and was truly religious. When I asked him why he seceded when Charles Black and others whose opinion he valued, remained in the church, he replied, "Because I thought it was richt, and because the best ministers gaed awa wi't." He was of opinion that many more would have followed, "had they no feared for the laird, frae whom they had their grund." Like all over-enthusiastic men, his fault was, at that time at least, that he would hardly allow that his opponents might have as deep convictions as himself, and think themselves in the right as much as he did. But when the heat of that controversy died out, the strength of which we can now scarcely realize, John became broader and more tolerant, as have even the bitterest of both parties. He thought that in the Old church "they were na sae wed l tellt it;" that is, what was held to be evangelical doctrine was less firmly and unhesitatingly preached there than in the Free; and so far he was no doubt right.

The Moderatism of Aberdeenshire at that time was cold and worldly, and was wanting in the earnestness and reality that should be the soul of all vital religion, which certainly then characterised the new body more than the old, and by which the Free Church has done itself and the Establishment great good. Though this good has not been by any means unmixed, the Disruption of '43 was a great event, for which both parties should be thankful, and of which Scotland has reason to be proud.

Duncan's attendance at church was marked by the greatest regularity, and as one that knew him well says, "that day was a bad one when he was not to be seen walking to church, clean and tidy, dressed in a suit of his own weaving. His errand at church," he declares, "was not to see and be seen, but to worship, and to hear the sermon, of which, with his excellent memory, he brought a large part home with him. His religion was real and no hypocrisy, and I can see him now," he continues, "holding his well-worn pocket Bible very near his eyes, as he sat reverently in his accustomed seat in church."

He remained in connection with the Free Church of Keig till he left Netherton for Auchleven again, in 1849. The Rev. Mr. Smith, his pastor during that time, in writing to the author, regrets that his now failing memory makes it impossible for him to recall any details of his intercourse with the man. "I retain, "he says, "a quite distinct impression of his personal appearance. He was slow of speech, somewhat reserved, and altogether a man not likely to disclose his inner self to any but the most intimate acquaintances, if even to such. I hope," he continues, "you will ascribe the barrenness of my reply to its true cause—sheer inability, and not at all to any reluctance to bear a part in paying tribute to a man of singular modesty and untiring perseverance in the search after truth." On ceasing connection with this congregation, he received a certificate, dated May 29th and signed by the minister, of being in full communion with the church. This says that " he had long resided in that neighbourhood and borne an excellent character."

John continued attached to the Free Church all his days. After he settled down at Droughsburn, in 1852, he used to attend the Free church at Cushnie. The Rev. George Williams, now of the Free church at Thornhill, near Stirling, who knew John from boyhood and appreciated him as a man, speaking of his later religious life, says, "He was a firm Free churchman to the last. Although the Free church was in another parish, and a mile farther from Droughsburn than the other, besides being very far from popular as a place of worship, yet he came to the little kirk on the moor, good day and bad. He sat before us in church, and seemed to be always remarkably reverent and attentive. His religion was of the retiring Scotch type, that, like the violet, keeps itself out of sight; he never wore it on his sleeve. But I never heard even the most intolerant express any doubt as to his piety."

Throughout life, John regularly engaged in religious exercises before retiring to rest, sometimes with others, but generally alone, acccording to the good old Scotch habit, which is calculated to cherish higher life.

His study of religion and theology was as thorough and intelligent as of the other subjects he prosecuted, so that he could give, above most men, "a reason for the faith that was in him." His religious books included "Matthew Henry's Bible," bound in full calf; "Matthew Henry on Prayer;" "Brown's Dictionary of the Bible;" "Stackhouse's History of the Bible," in two handsome volumes; "Cassell's Biblical Educator;" and "The Trees and Plants of Scripture,"—thus applying his science to the interpretation of the sacred book. For the history of his native land and church, and their gallant struggles for liberty and religion, he possessed "Scots Worthies," by John Howe, a fine large copy; "The Cloud of Witnesses," and the cognate work, "Foxe's Book of Martyrs," once found in every cottage in the land; the "History of Scotland," in two large volumes; and the "Ten Years' Conflict," which gives the story of the religious contest culminating in 1843.

As was his custom' in all things, he read and digested these books so thoroughly that their ideas and facts became all his own, and were fully grasped. He could thus speak of the actors in the dramas, their deeds and words, with the realism of everyday life and the known familiarity of dear friends. Melanchthon, for instance, whom he used to naive "Meelaseethian," was one of his heroes, standing higher in his estimation than even Knox. Luther he. thought greatly of He was once talking with Mr. Williams about the great German, when he wound up the conversation by the trenchant remark, "He's been a weel-pitten-thegither chield that, afore he cu'd hae gi'en and gotten sae mony knocks!"


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