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James Legge, Missionary and Scholar
Chapter I. Early Life


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 bursary.

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,

'James Legge.'

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 of age.

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.'


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