IN a little northern town
'gathered in a hollow' surrounded by heathery hills, James Legge passed a
free childhood. The youngest of four brothers, he was born at Huntly,
Aberdeenshire, on December 20, 1815. His father, a prosperous man of
business, held a foremost standing in the community. He exhibited, as a
small boy, no precocious bent towards study, much preferring birds to books.
But his bird-nesting was not destructive: he used to tell his father of
nests he had discovered, and the two—the father already over fifty years of
age—would start for the woods at five o'clock in the morning.
The first indications of his
signal capacity for mental application became apparent in 1829, when,
leaving the Parish School of Huntly, he entered the Grammar School of
Aberdeen. Here, one winter's evening, hurrying along the streets, in those
days badly lighted and policed, he was knocked down by a cart and so injured
that he was laid up for many weeks. Then it was that he gave evidence of his
extraordinary powers of study. Morning, noon and night, through the spring
and again in the autumn holidays, he toiled at Latin. He acquired such
readiness in the language that it became as easy for him to write in Latin
as in English. In fact, during 1831, when about fifteen years old, none of
his classmates, some of whom were men between twenty and thirty years of
age, could approach him in the composition of Latin. Every Friday the master
dictated a long passage of English to the class and allowed three hours for
its translation into Latin. In this exercise James Legge stood alone. As the
English words fell from the master's lips, he wrote down the Latin
translation, and at the final 'That's all,' handed it up and left the
school. No wonder that as November drew near, when the examination for
bursaries or scholarships at King's College, Aberdeen, was to be held, there
was a general anticipation that young Legge would carry off the first
Ten days before the
examination, however, he met with an accident at an open-air meeting held on
Broad Hill to protest against the action of the House of Lords in throwing
out the Reform Bill. A storm burst upon the assembly and he crept for
shelter under the crowded wooden platform. This suddenly broke in the middle
and the whole structure collapsed. Squeezed and pressed between falling
beams, he lost consciousness. On being lifted out, he came partly to himself
and ran blindly down the hill, across the beach, straight into the sea. The
cold waves splashing about him again brought him to consciousness, and he
had wit enough to seize the meshes of a salmon-weir and make his way back to
the beach. Here, again, power of thought left him, and he wandered
helplessly up and down, until found by some boys of the Grammar School, who
led him back to his lodgings.
The doctor told him he had
had a narrow escape of his life; his chance of the first bursary seemed
gone, and his classmates speculated afresh as to who should gain it
Nevertheless he presented himself with ninety-seven other candidates in the
College Hall. A few mornings later the hall was filled, not only with the
competitors, but with their friends also, eager to hear the result The Rev.
Dr Jack, the Principal, called out: 'First bursary, Jacobus Legge.' From his
seat James rose and stepped up to the dais where sat the Principal and all
the other professors. To his surprise—for he was ever the most
unself-conscious of mortals—they received him with alarmed exclamations.
'What has happened to your eyes?' cried the Principal, you look so strange
'— for the whites of his eyes were darkened by an effusion of blood caused
by the squeezing of his body between the planks of the platform.
The letter announcing his
success to his father may be given in full.
'My dear father,
'I have been successful in
getting the first bursary. William Macdonald got the third, no more of Mr
Hay's (pupils) got anything.
'I am, your affectionate son,
One remark made to him by a
visitor, a student of Divinity, remained in his memory. You have gained the
first bursary; look forward to gaining the Huttonian Prize at the end of
your course. No first bursar has as yet won that.'
His four sessions at College
were marked by plain living and energetic study. To his elder brother John,
in Huntly, he wrote regularly. John, indeed, was to him the very kindest of
brothers. Possessed of a fine elevated nature, he was a constant stimulus to
his younger brother, and watched over his progress with unwearying devotion.
In 1832 he writes:—'I have
begun to study Geometry and Trigonometry. I also read a great deal of
Chemistry. Chemistry, I think, I shall like very much this session, more so
than Mathematics. Somehow or other, I never felt it so difficult to fill up
a letter before. Here have I been studying for full ten minutes how to eke
out a few sentences and no happy thought—no thought at all, I may say—has
found its way into my brain. What shall I say? That I've been very gloomy
since I've been here, except two or three hours I was in Mr Grant's on
Wednesday afternoon. Well it is strange—just as strange as this letter
is—how I get into such good humour, no, not humour, into such good—I don't
know what—when I'm there. I feel then inclined— my bosom opens wider—to love
all mankind better than ever. My comfort, I feel, must depend altogether on
myself this winter, and really I must exert myself to provide that comfort.'
In a letter written the
following year he gives vent to the characteristic sentence, 'A life of
struggling had always in my reveries to be my destiny'. In 1834 his mind was
much occupied by problems in Natural Philosophy, Moral Philosophy, and
religion. He writes to John:—'On the evidence of consciousness we know that
we are free agents. From the character of God as omniscient we know that all
our ways are beforehand known to Him, and are therefore predetermined. How
do you reconcile these two?'
As the Scottish University
year consisted of one continuous term of over five months (November to
April), the six following months being vacation, he took the opportunity to
see something of England, and in 1834 visited his eldest brother George in
London and Bristol, and with him made excursions to the Mendips, to Chepstow,
to Tintern Abbey, exploring the scenery of the Wye.
Throughout his four College
years one purpose never left him—to gain, if possible, the Huttonian Prize.
At that time it was the highest reward of merit offered by the University of
Aberdeen, and was sought for not so much on account of its pecuniary value,
which was only £15, half in money and half in books, but because it
conferred special distinction on its recipient. Accordingly, towards the end
of his last session he gave in his name as a competitor— two of the other
students did the same. The examination lasted four days, and consisted of
papers bearing on Greek and Latin, Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, and
Moral Philosophy. It is curious in these days to read his account of the way
in which the examination was conducted. The three candidates were left until
midnight in the care of the porter and sacristan, who procured for them six
bottles of good old port 'for strengthening and stimulus during the
competition.' On the last evening, when the clock struck twelve, and the
porter removed the box containing their papers, he admitted three youths,
friends of the three candidates, who had been invited by them to come and
celebrate the close of the examination by helping them to finish off the
bottles of port. Three days afterwards, it was announced that the Huttonian
Prize had been awarded to James Legge, who had thus accomplished that on
which he had set his heart He had entered the University in 1831 as First
Bursar, he left it in 1836 as Huttonian Prizeman, being only nineteen years
The question of his future
career now pressed upon him. A solution had been proposed to him about six
weeks before by the Professor of Latin. He sent for the promising young
scholar whose Latin achievements were the admiration of the College, and
told him that he had thought of him as his possible successor in the Chair
of Latin. 'Therefore' he continued. 'enter the Established Church, get a
parish, continue the study of Latin, and in the event of my death no one
would be more likely than you to be appointed to my Chair.' This
proposition, kindly and well-meant as it was, was more significant than at
first sight appears. To James Legge it involved a momentous moral decision.
To his honour be it told that he saw with clear vision the vital point
affecting himself, and gave the answer of conscience.
His position was this. About
thirty years before, the town of Huntly had been the scene of a remarkable
religious movement A Mr Cowie, a man of fervid apostolic spirit, was
expelled from the Presbyterian church whose minister he was, because of his
zeal in regard to new developments of home mission work, including lay
preaching and Sunday-schools. Especially did he stimulate interest in
foreign missions. Filled with ardour, with burning love towards God and man,
he now founded an Independent Church in Huntly, and James Legge's father was
one of his most enthusiastic supporters. Thus it was that James had been
brought up an Independent, regularly attending the 'Missioner Kirk' as the
Independent Church was called, owing to the interest in missions which had
led to its foundation. Should he now, for the sake of becoming eligible for
the Latin Professorship, leave the Church in which he had been brought up
and join the Established Church?
His answer, which we give in
his own words, was this:—'I told the Professor that I thought it would be a
bad way of beginning life if I were, without any conviction on the subject,
to turn from the principles of my father merely because of the temporal
advantages which such a step would bring me.' Thus at the age of nineteen he
rejected for ever the temptation to renounce a conscientious principle at
the bidding of a motive of self-interest, of worldly advancement.
This high quality of
conscientiousness remained with James Legge all through his life.
After this decision, James
Legge fell back on teaching as a profession, and gained a mastership at a
school in Blackburn, where he worked until 1837, when, in compliance with
the demand arising ever more and more strongly within him to devote himself
either to the missionary cause, or the ministry at home, he entered Highbury
Theological College as a student of Divinity. The impulse to do so came by
inward constraining, and not at all by outward prompting.
An acquaintance of his,
learning that he had never been to the theatre to see a certain famous
dancer, urgently insisted that he should do so. Accordingly one evening he
set out and arrived at the theatre before the doors were open. He went into
a coffeehouse to pass the time, and while drinking the coffee the thought
struck him,' Why am I here? I intend to be a servant of God. Shall I go and
see Madame M-dance?' He paid for his cup of coffee and walked back to his
lodgings. It may have been that a recollection of his childhood had recurred
to him. A grey-haired stranger had asked the little boy his name. 'James,'
he replied. 'James' quoted the old man from the Epistle, putting his hand on
his head, 'James, a servant of God.'
In regard to the mental
qualities which seemed to point the direction of his future life, Dr Edkins,
of Shanghai, mentions two which were strikingly displayed. In the sermon
preached in Shanghai at the time of Dr Legge's death, referred to again in
this memoir, he said:—
'He had great advantages in
the constitution of his mind. Often as he and I paced the deck of our vessel
on his second voyage to China we occupied ourselves with repeating whole
books of the New Testament I remember his easily acquiring the Epistle to
the Hebrews. He was able to prompt me. I was unable to prompt him. His power
of committing the Bible to memory was remarkable. We reached the end of the
epistle of Paul quickly because of this unusual gift. Formerly prizes were
given to Sunday scholars in England for repeating large portions of
Scripture from memory. In this power Dr Legge shone. It was a great aid in
the study of Chinese words, which consist of many thousands. He could store
in his mind with ease the singular and complicated characters formed by the
Chinese pencil in enormous variety. These same characters frighten many
persons by their difficulty. To him they were attractive, because he could
so readily remember them. The intimate knowledge he possessed of the Bible
naturally made him inclined to the missionary career.'