Sixty-Two years ago a tall youth of
fifteen was following the plough in a field in Perthshire. His two horses
came to a standstill in mid-furrow, and he was not minded to urge them on.
Leaning on the stilts of the plough, he began to brood over his future.
What was it to be? The question flashed across his mind—’Might I not make
more of my life than by remaining here?’ He straightened himself and said,
‘God helping me, I will be a missionary.’
That was the making of the man and
the missionary. His whole life lay in that deed, as the giant oak lies in
the acorn. The divine call came to the Perthshire youth, as it came to
Elisha, at the plough. In the days of His flesh it was Christ’s way to
call His apostles when busy at their daily toil.
The aim of this chapter is to reveal
the influences which secured that ‘I will’: the following chapters will
chronicle the results which flowed from it.
On February 14, 1831, James
Stewart was born in Edinburgh, at 5 South Charlotte Street, adjoining 136
Like most great and good men, he was
‘I well recall his mother’s
presence,’ his cousin writes. ‘She was the finest specimen of a noble
woman I have ever seen, possessing in their highest development all the
features of the great Norse race from which she came. She belonged to the
Dudgeon sept of the Norsemen, and her family settled at Liberty Hall, near
Gladsrnuir in Haddingtonshire. She was a woman of much refinement, of
great ability, and saintly character. To her he owed his innate love and
appreciation of all that was beautiful and seemly.’ His mother died when
he was in his teens, and his father married a second time.
After passing through a preparatory
school, he was educated at the Edinburgh High School and at the Perth
His birthplace, quite near Edinburgh
Castle and Princes Street Gardens—one of the fairest spots on
earth—probably exerted a subtle influence over his tastes. As he
sauntered—we should rather say, hurried, for he seems never to have
sauntered anywhere—along Princes Street to school, he had around him
beauty in the lap of grandeur. His surroundings, we may believe, fostered
both his piety and his patriotism, and also helped to develop that keen
sense of natural beauty which distinguished him through life. The scenery
he gazes upon every day often rouses and lights up the spirit of a boy.
His father, a successful cab
proprietor in Edinburgh, became tenant, about 1842, of Pictstonhill, a
farm between Scone and Perth. He was one of six stalwart brothers who were
born at Dull in Perthshire. ‘He was ‘—this from James Stewart’s cousin—’ a
deeply religious man, and his prayers at family worship were never to be
forgotten for reverence and fervour. His attendance at divine worship was
unbroken, and when he was dying, he had to be taken to church to partake
of his last communion. To him James owed his physical manliness, his
strong will, his grave dignity and graciousness, and his attention to
attire. Father and son, too, had the same largeness of heart towards the
suffering, the oppressed, and the fallen.’ In the best sense, James
Stewart was well born. It is true that he who lives a noble life has no
need of ancestors; but it is also true that he who has noble ancestors is
the most likely to live a noble life. Though grace does not run in the
blood, blood and tradition tell.
James was in his thirteenth year at
the Disruption. ['The Disruption’ is the name usually given to that deed
by which, on May 18, 1843, four hundred and seventy ministers, along with
many elders, members, and adherents of the Church of Scotland, severed (or
disrupted) their connection with the State, and formed the Free
Church of Scotland, in order to preserve the rights and liberties which
they believed to be in harmony with the Word of God, the Standards of
their Church, and the Statutes of the realm. Lord Cockburn calls it ‘the
most remarkable upheaval in Scotland since the Reformation,’ and ‘the most
honourable fact for Scotland that its Whole history supplies.’]
‘Pictstonhill,’ as his father was
designated from the name of his farm, was an admirable representative of a
class of elders to whom the Free Church of Scotland largely owed its
spiritual power, and its achievements at home and abroad. Homes like his
were splendid nurseries of living faith, lofty ideals, and
As the parish minister of Scone did
not ‘come out’ in ‘43, Pictstonhill became the leader of the Free Church
party in his district. He was the heart and soul of the movement, and his
house was the gathering-place for the Free Church leaders. Without the
influence and liberality of his family the Free Church of Scone could not
have been built. Divine service was held in his barnyard in summer, and in
winter in the barn: both were thus consecrated to the higher husbandry.
The Lord’s Supper was celebrated and several children were baptized in the
barn. Andrew Bonar (then of Collace), Andrew Gray and John Milne of Perth,
fervent evangelists, often preached there, and many were deeply impressed.
As old people said long afterwards, the Pictstonhill meetings were ‘the
talk o’ the hale country-side.’ These Disruption experiences were fitted
to draw forth the generous chivalry of a thoughtful boy. James held the
candle in the barn when the preacher read the Bible. When he preached for
the first time in Scone, an old woman said ‘the last time I saw him, he
was juist a hafflin’ laddie, and a cannel-stick.’
When the first Free Church was built
at Scone, ‘Pictstonhill’ provided the sand, and also carted all the stones
gratis. At first they had to be brought from a distance, as the proprietor
would not allow the Free Church people to use a neighbouring quarry.
At last be consented, and the
piebald church—the stones being of different colours—was a memorial of the
fluctuating feelings of Disruption days. James gave his school holidays to
the work of carting the stones. He was thus from his boyhood a
light-bearer, a builder, and an extender of Christ’s Church.
In token of their gratitude to ‘Pictstonhill,’
the villagers in 1844 insisted on reaping his harvest-fields without hire.
As the Free Church congregation was
for some time without a pastor, Mr. Stewart got his brother Charles, the
Free Church minister of Kirkmichael, to come, not only to preach, but also
to visit the poor, the feeble, and the sick.
James used to carry a lame brother
on his back to church and Sabbath-school—a distance of about half a mile.
Even then he was, as all through life, a chivalrous helper of the weak.
He seems to have had an early
intellectual birth-time, for he was a great reader in his boyhood and had
a very tenacious memory. He often strolled among the hills on his father’s
farm and read for hours his favourite authors—Plutarch, Shakespeare,
Milton, and Browning.
Like most believing Scotsmen,
Stewart was not prone to reveal by speech his deepest religious
experiences. It seems that he yielded early and gladly to the holy
influences playing upon him, and that his Christian life resembled the
healthy plants he loved and understood, which quietly absorb from climate
and atmosphere the many mystic forces which they mould into things of use
and beauty. A Puritan Father on soul-winning says, ‘God never gives to one
man a whole soul.’ The home life and church life around him were well
fitted to win an ingenuous boy. The excellences of father and mother were
very manifestly and not unequally reproduced in the leal-hearted lad.
Twice was he their son—in soul as in body. They both lived in him, and
through him they are still serving Christ’s Church, and shall serve coming
generations. It is said that James was also deeply influenced by a devoted
invalid lady who had a Bible-class at her house.
So far as we can learn, young
Stewart seems to have escaped that ‘fever of adolescence’ which often
attends the first struggles between the excited boy and the emerging man.
Those who knew him then discovered no trace of that wayward assertion of
native force, which one of its victims likens to ‘the bursting of the
flower-pot by the oak sapling.’ Double-moated by grace in the best of
homes, he was early taught to tame his heart, and, so it seems, he was
kept from those things which poison the springs of life, and impoverish
one’s powers for service. His early life is all of a piece with the great
resolve he made as he leant on his plough. That explains all that he has
done, or thought, or become. He was born and brought up in the ‘moral
One day, when carrying a gun, as he
often did, he suddenly stopt, lifted up his head with an energetic
gesture, and said to his cousin, ‘Jim, I shall never be satisfied till I
am in Africa with a Bible in my pocket, and a rifle on my shoulder to
supply my wants.’ In the heart of Africa this youthful desire was often
fulfilled to the letter.
Only one statement about his boyish
experiences has been found among his papers. In it he says: ‘Though from
my earliest years I meant to go abroad, I cannot say that missionary work
attracted me at first. The boy’s ideal firmly fixed and constantly
recurring, was to lead an expedition in some unexplored region. That was
probably nothing more than the mere restlessness of race-instinct in a boy
half Norse on his mother’s side, if also half Celt on the other. As a lad
I had to work with horses on the farm. I have often been thankful for that
training. The nature of the work gave me plenty of time to think, and when
a certain change came, my mind also turned to missions. This interest
continued, though with varying force.’
Arthur Helps says: ‘The mill-streams
that turn the clappers of the world arise in solitary places.’ The
explorer of a great river usually begins at the sea and mounts to the
source. Easier and more fascinating is the task of the biographer and the
sympathetic reader, for they begin at the fountainhead and move downwards
along the growing current. We have located the source of a fruitful stream
in the sunlit uplands of a happy boyhood, and in the corner of a field.
[The exact spot is in the angle between the highway from Perth to Scone
and the road up to the Carse of Gowrie.] That field was as memorable a
spot to Stewart as was to Paul the hillock near Damascus, where he saw the
heavenly vision and heard the heavenly voice.
During his furloughs he revisited
that birthplace of his great resolve, and he sometimes told the story to
his intimate friends.