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Kay's Edinburgh Portraits
The Rev. John Erskine, D.D., of Old Grey Friars Church


Dr. Erskine, born on the 2nd of June, 1721, was the eldest son of John Erskine, Esq. of Carnock, Professor of Scots Law in the University of Edinburgh, and well known as the author of the Institutes of the Law of Scotland. The early education of young Erskine was conducted with a view to the legal profession, of which his father was so much an ornament; and although he had almost from infancy discovered a more than common seriousness of temper, and, as he advanced in years, manifested a strong predilection in favour of the pulpit, he repressed his aspirations so far as to submit to the usual course of discipline formerly prescribed in Scotland for those who intended to become advocates.

He entered the University of Edinburgh towards the end of the year 1734, where he acquired a thorough classical knowledge, and became acquainted with the principles of philosophy and law. Among other youths of great promise at that time at the college, was the late Principal Robertson, with whom young Erskine formed an intimate friendship, which, notwithstanding the shades of opinion in matters of church polity, and even in some doctrinal points, mutually entertained by them in after life, continued to be cherished, amid their public contests, with unabated sincerity. While in the ardent pursuit of his classical acquirements, however, Dr. Erskine by no means neglected the study of theology; on the contrary, his predilections in favour of the pulpit had increased, and so strong was his conviction of the duty of devoting his talents to the service of religion, that he resolved to acquaint his parents with his determination, and to endure their utmost opposition. The comparatively poor Presbyterian Church of Scotland had never been an object of aristocratical ambition; besides this pecuniary objection, the friends of young Erskiue conceived that the profession of the law, while it presented a wider field, was more adapted for the display of his talents, and were therefore entirely hostile to his views. Their opposition, however, could not shake his resolution—he persevered in his theological studies, and was, in 1742, licensed to preach by the Presbytery of Dunblane.

The future progress of the young divine, till his settlement in the metropolis, is easily told:—"In May, 1744, he was ordained minister of Kirkintilloch, in the Presbytery of Glasgow, where he remained till 1754, when he was presented to the parish of Culross, in the Presbytery of Dunfermline. In June, 1758, he was translated to the New Greyfriar's, one of the churches of Edinburgh. In November, 1766, the University of Glasgow conferred on him the honorary degree of doctor of divinity; and, in July, 1767, he was promoted to the collegiate charge of the Old Greyfriar's, where he had for his colleague his early friend Dr. Piobertson."

In these various movements towards that field of honour and usefulness, in which his talents ultimately placed him, Dr. Erskine carried along with him the universal respect of his parishioners. They had been delighted and improved by his public instructions— and were proud of having had a clergyman amongst them, at once combining the rare qualifications of rank, piety, and learning. He was most exemplary in his official character; ever ready to assist and counsel his parishioners, he "grudged no time, and declined no labour, spent in their service."

Dr. Erskine was not only zealous for the interests of religion at home, but equally so for its diffusion abroad; and in order to obtain the earliest and most authentic intelligence of the state of the Gospel in the Colonies of North America, where a remarkable concern for religion had manifested itself about the time he obtained his license, he commenced a correspondence with those chiefly interested in bringing about that interesting event. He also, some time after, opened a communication with many distinguished divines on the Continent of Europe—a correspondence which he unweariedly cultivated during the remainder of his life. This practice added much to his labour, not only by an increased and voluminous epistolary intercourse, but in "being called upon, by the friends of deceased divines, to correct and superintend the publication of posthumous works."

In his continental correspondence, the Doctor had seriously felt the want of a knowledge of the Dutch and German languages; and, at an advanced period of life, actually set about overcoming this difficulty, which he successfully accomplished in a remarkably short space ot time. A rich field, in the literature of Germany, being thus thrown open to him, the result of his industry was soon manifested by the publication of "Sketches and Hints of Church History and Theological Controversy, chiefly translated and abridged from modern foreign writers," the first volume of which appeared in 1790, and the second
in 1798.

As might have been expected from the Doctor's enthusiastic character, he took an active interest in the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge. So long as his strength continued, he was one of its most zealous members; and when the infirmities of age would no longer permit him to attend personally at their meetings, he was frequently consulted on matters of importance to the Society at his own house.

Dr. Erskine had never been in possession of much corporeal strength; and his weakly constitution began the sooner to feel the effects of approaching old age. Indeed, it is much to be wondered that his slender frame so long endured such au excess of mental, and even bodily labour, as distinguished his whole life. For several winters previous to his death he had not been able to preach regularly; and, for the last thirteen months, was compelled to leave it off altogether, his voice having become so weak as to be incapable of making himself heard. His mind, however, survived unimpaired amid the gradual decay of his bodily powers. His judgment was as clear, and his memory as good as in his younger years; and almost to the last minute of existence he maintained the pursuit of those labours which had constituted the business and the pleasure of his existence. On the 19th of January, the clay previous to his demise, he was occupied in his study till a late hour. About four o'clock on the morning of the 20th (1803) he was suddenly taken ill; and although the alarm was immediately given, he expired, seemingly without a struggle, before his family could be collected around him.

His body was interred in the Greyfriar's Churchyard. The funeral was attended by a vast train of mourners, and an immense concourse of spectators assembled to witness the last obsequies to the remains of their venerable and much respected pastor. At the request of his widow, the Reverend Dr. Davidson, who was an esteemed friend of the deceased, preached a funeral sermon in the Old Greyfriar's Church, on the following Sunday, to a numerous and affected audience.

Dr. Erskine was married to the Honourable Miss M'Kay, daughter of Lord Reay, by whom he had a family of fourteen children, but only four survived.—David Erskine, Esq. of Carnock, and three daughters, one of whom was the mother of James Stuart, Esq. of Dunearn.

Of Dr. Erskine's voluminous writings we cannot here even attempt a bare enumeration. They are, however, extensively known throughout the country. His first work, "On the Necessity of Revelation," written in his twenty-first year, and in which he had occasion to advocate some of the opinions maintained in Dr. Warburton's "Divine Legation of Moses," procured him the approbation and friendship of that distinguished prelate. His detached sermons, published while a country clergyman, were remarkable for a propriety and correctness of taste; while his Theological Dissertations, which appeared so early as 1765, were full of masterly disquisition on some of the most interesting points of divinity; and, in short, his whole works are distinguished for "precision of thought and originality of sentiment."

Dr. Erskine's opinions in matters of Church polity are at once known from the prominent position which he maintained for many years as leader of the popular party in the General Assembly, in opposition to his old schoolfellow, Dr. Robertson. In state politics he was equally bold and independent in his views. In 1769, on the breach with America, he published a discourse entitled "Shall I go to war with my American brethren?" which is said to have given great offence to some of those in high quarters at the time, and was considered as treasonable by many. It is even said the Doctor could get no bookseller to run the risk of publication, which seems to be corroborated by the fact that the sermon was actually published in London without any publisher's imprint being attached to it. The discourse, however, was reprinted at Edinburgh, in 1776, with, the author's name, and the addition of a preface and appendix, even more in opposition to the views of Government than the discourse itself. On the subject of the American war he was strongly opposed to the sentiments of Mr. Wesley, who was a warm defender of the somewhat questionable policy pursued by the ministers of that ruinous period. He was opposed also to the constitution afterwards given to Canada, conceiving that the Roman Catholic religion had been too much favoured; and, in 1778, he was equally opposed to the attempt then made to repeal certain enactments against the Catholics of Great Britain, on which subject he entered into a correspondence with Mr. Burke, which was published. "Without reference to their merits, the political sentiments of Dr. Erskine were at least entitled to respect, from the conscientiousness with which they were entertained, and the independence with which they were asserted.

As a man, Dr. Erskine was remarkable for the simplicity of his manner, and his conduct exhibited a genuine example of that humility and charitableness so prominent in the character of Christianity. He was ardent and benevolent in his disposition, and his affections were lasting and sincere. In proof of this, his continued friendship for his opponent, Dr. Robertson, is instanced as a noble example. The moderate, and perhaps somewhat liberal, views of the latter gentleman respecting the repeal of the penal statutes against the Catholics in Scotland, had so highly incensed the mob of Edinburgh in 1778, that a furious party had actually assembled in the College-yard for the purpose of demolishing the house of the Principal, which they would in all probability have done, in defiance of the military, had they not been quieted and dispersed by the interference and exhortation of Dr. Erskine. The funeral sermon preached by the reverend gentleman on the death of the historian, is another noble example of the triumph of mind over the frailties of humanity.

Of Dr. Erskine's pulpit oratory, perhaps a more correct idea cannot be given than is furnished in the description of the great novelist, Sir "Walter Scott." Something there was of an antiquated turn of argument and metaphor, but it only served to give zest and peculiarity to the style of elocution. The sermon was not read—a scrap of paper, containing the heads of the discourse, was occasionally referred to ; and the enunciation, which at first seemed imperfect and embarrassed, became, as the preacher warmed in his progress, animated and distinct; and, although the discourse could not be quoted as a correct specimen of pulpit eloquence, yet Mannering had seldom heard so much learning, metaphysical acuteness, and energy of argument, brought into the service of Christianity."

An "Account of the Life and Writings of Dr. Erskine," by the Rev. Sir Henry Moncrieff Wellwood, was published in 1818, 8vo, which presents much interesting and valuable information in regard to the ecclesiastical state of Scotland during the last century.

In a second full length sketch of Dr. Erskine, Kay has been equally felicitous as in the former. He is here depicted to the very life. The Doctor had rather an odd custom of carrying his left glove in a manner suspended by the tops of two of his fingers, which the artist has not omitted.

Dr. Erskine was frequently very absent. In the course of his wandering one day in the Links of Edinburgh, he stumbled against a cow. "With his usual politeness, he took off his hat, made a low bow and a thousand apologies, and then walked on. A friend, who witnessed what had happened, accosted him, and inquired why he had taken off his hat; he replied, that he had accidentally jostled a stranger, and was apologising for his rudeness. His amazement may be conceived, when he was informed that he had been offering his excuses to a cow! On another occasion, he met his wife in the Meadows; she stopped, he did so too; he bowed, hoped she was well, and bowed again, and went on his way. Upon his return home, Mrs. Erskine asked him where he had been; he answered in the Meadows, and that he had met a lady, but he could not for the world imagine who she was!

It may not be here out of place to remark that Dr. Erskine was by no means so morose or so studious as to be insensible to the lighter enjoyments of society. The following anecdote of him and his friend, Dr. Webster, shows that lie could both practise as well as entertain a good joke. The well-known convivial propensities of the latter, the universal respect in which he was held, and the great excellence of his conversational powers, frequently led to social sittings, not altogether in accordance with his clerical character. Like most other gudewives, Mrs. Webster did not silently succumb to his repeated infringements of domestic regularity; and, in answer to her close-questioning on these occasions, the minister used frequently to excuse himself by saying, that he had "just been down calling for Dr. Erskine, and the Doctor had insisted on him staying to supper." Dr. Erskine, at length coming to understand in what manner his good name was made the excuse of his friend's derelictions, resolved in a good humoured way to put a stop to the deception. " One night, therefore, when Dr. Webster was actually in his house, in an accidental way, he made an excuse to retire, and leaving Webster to sup with Mrs. Erskine, went up to the Castlehill to call for Mrs. Webster. Dropping in as if nothing unusual was in the wind, he consented to remain with Mrs. Webster to supper; and thus the two clergymen supped with each other's wives, and in each other's houses, neither of the said wives being aware of the fact, and Webster equally ignorant of the plot laid against his character for verity. Long before Webster's usual hour for retiring, Dr. Erskine took leave of Mrs. Webster, and returned to his own house, where he found his friend as yet only, as it were, pushing off from the shore of sobriety. When his time was come, Webster went home, and being interrogated as usual, ' Why,' answered he, now at least speaking the truth, 'I've just been down at Dr. Erskine's.' The reader may conceive the torrent of indignant reproof which, after having been restrained on a thousand occasions when it was deserved, burst forth upon the bead of the unfortunate and for once innocent Doctor. When it bad at length subsided, the Doctor discovered the hoax which bad been played off upon him; and the whole affair was explained satisfactorily to both parties the next day by Dr. Erskine's confession. But Mrs. Webster declared that, from that time forth, for the security of both parties from such deceptions, she conceived it would be as well, when Dr. Webster happened to be supping with Dr. Erskine, that he should bring home with him a written affidavit, under the hand of his host, testifying the fact."

Another anecdote, highly characteristic of his unbounded charity and extreme simplicity of manner, is told of the worthy and unostentatious old clergyman. For several Sabbaths Dr. Erskine bad returned from church minus his pocket-handkerchief, and could not account for the loss. The circumstance attracted the particular notice of Mrs. Erskine, who had for some time past observed an elderly-looking poor woman constantly occupy a seat on the stair leading to the pulpit. Suspicion could scarcely attach itself to so demure a looking Christian; but Mrs. Erskine resolved to unriddle the mysterious affair, by sewing a handkerchief to the pocket of Mr. Erskine's Sunday coat. Next Sabbath, the old gentleman thus "armed against the spell," was proceeding in his usual manner towards the pulpit, when, on passing the suspected, demure-looking carling, he felt a gentle "nibble" from behind. The Doctor's displeasure could not be roused however; be turned gently round, and "clapping detected guilt" on the head, merely remarked, "No the day, honest woman, no the day! "


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