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The Life of James Stewart
The Probationer, 1860 - 1865


The ‘rheological Course—A ‘Rale Man ‘—In the Pulpit—His Hearers—His Favourite Books.

‘I can’t feed people on stale bread. I have not dealt in missionary pastry only, but in the bread of life.’—Coillard.

‘Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. ‘—St. Paul to Timothy.

SCOTTISH Presbyterianism demands a longer education for the Christian ministry than any other Church, ancient or modern, has done. The Free Church of Scotland from the first duly appreciated sacred learning, and appointed an ampler curriculum of study than has been adopted by any other Presbyterian denomination. Its students had to spend at least four years at the University, and then other four at the Divinity Hall. The students did not complain of these eight long years, for when it was proposed to shorten the Divinity course to three years, they petitioned against the change.

If he pass the appointed examinations and trials, the Scottish student of Divinity, a few weeks after leaving the Hall, is ‘licensed to preach the gospel.’ He is then called a probationer, a licentiate, or a preacher.

But James Stewart was never a probationer in the ordinary sense, for he was never on probation as a candidate for a pastoral charge. He was licensed early in z86o, and the following five years were crowded with varied activities. During four of these five years he preached regularly in several congregations for periods ranging from one month to a year. From 1859 to 1861 and from 1864 to 1866 he took the full course of medical study. During two of these years he was also secretary in the Cardross case, in which the Church was brought into the Law Courts. He thus became acquainted with leading churchmen, and gained a knowledge of Civil and Church Law.

The record of his activities in his probationer days is not yet complete, for in 1860 and 1861 he originated the movement which secured the planting of Livingstonia, and between 1862 and 1864 he explored a large part of Central Africa.

His appearance in the pulpit at once drew attention and excited expectation. His style was what both his past and his future might lead us to expect—completely evangelical, very earnest, practical, and home-coming. ‘I do not always fail,’ he wrote, ‘though I esteem myself rather a dry stick in the pulpit.’

One writes: ‘I have a lively recollection of his supplying, for one month, the pulpit of Dr. Bryden of Dunscore (Dumfriesshire) during the spring of 1860. Mr. Stewart was a gentleman of great energy, being out in the morning by six o’clock, with his coat off and his shirt-sleeves turned up, and working like a Trojan, cutting out new walks round the Free Church. He had a fine presence, and was a good preacher with a style of his own, original and clear. To my mind, he then gave indications of future greatness.’

An old farmer in the parish used to tell this story, and then added, ‘Ah! but yon was a rale man.’

He was also an assistant at Stirling, Innellan, Elgin, and, for two months, in Free St. George’s, Edinburgh.

In 1864, during a year, he occupied the pulpit of Free St. John’s, Glasgow, as assistant to Dr. Roxburgh, the successor of Dr. Chalmers. He must have had a wonderful power of impression, for some very aged people remember to this day his individualities and his texts. A correspondent can distinctly recall three of his sermons (after forty-four years) on the texts, ‘Set your affection on things above,’ ‘Holiness to the Lord,’ and ‘Finally, brethren, be perfect.’ A minister who, as a boy in his ‘teens’ then worshipped in Free St. John’s, Glasgow, writes: ‘There was that in the personality of the man that compelled attention. While entirely loyal to the great evangelical truths, he brought to their handling what I can only characterise as a sort of breezy freshness that seemed to put new life into them. Admirable and stimulating as he was as a preacher, Mr. Stewart was even more stimulating as a teacher. The young folk in his Bible-class felt that they were in contact with a personality throbbing with power.’ Even then ‘prophecies went before’ on him.

In 1866 he had charge for six months of Union Free Church, Glasgow, which was then without a pastor. The Assessor for Glasgow writes: ‘I have a very vivid recollection of him and his unique style of preaching. I should say that he was more of a teacher than a preacher. His teaching created in his hearers a desire for more and more. Many of the congregation would fain have put back the hands of the clock when he talked to them of the things concerning the King.

‘He would have been unanimously called to the pastorate of the flock had he not told us that he must needs go and preach the gospel in Dark Africa.

‘When about to leave, we had a farewell meeting and gave him several gifts, among which was a gun. He said that he would take it with him to Africa, but that he would never use it in self-defence. Kindness to the African was the only weapon he had ever used or would use, and it had always secured his safety. [He is here describing his experiences when in the heart of Africa with Livingstone in 1862 to 1864. See chap. viii.] The natives had often carried his baggage over field and flood, without money and without price. What Africa needed was men who could preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, and practise Christ’s law of loving kindness.’

Another survivor of that congregation says that Mr. Stewart was a very thoughtful preacher, and needed close attention. Strength was his chief feature, and he was very reticent and self-possessed. He was a thorough business man, and ready to go through fire and water at the call of duty. Before his departure the Session put on record C their deep sense of the value of his ministrations and other services so willingly rendered. They will always look back with gratitude and pleasure on Mr. Stewart’s short connection with them, and they will follow him on his mission with their fervent prayers.’

There has come into my hands his copy of Vinet’s Pastoral Theology. The date on it (1860) proves that he studied it when he began preaching. Hundreds of its sentences are underlined, and scores of pencilled notes are on its margins. The book is thus a piece of unconscious autobiography. Some of the jottings show that he was at the same time closely studying Arthur’s Tongue of Fire, and Spencer’s Pastor’s Sketches. These three were, after the Bible, his guide-books. These notes reveal the man. We may give a few of them, as books nowadays have been made out of the marginal notes of great men. He is a lynx-eyed detecter of mistakes. It is astonishing how many he finds in so gifted a writer as Vinet. He decidedly objects to everything approaching the vague, the ambiguous, the irrelevant, and the slipshod—every phrase, as he puts it, that might be ‘the hiding-place of a fallacy.’ He heartily admires every lofty and practical utterance. Evidently the young probationer is in thorough earnest about his work, and very eager to learn.

Over against a warning not to over-value the beautiful, and the oratorical, he writes: ‘Think over this. On this rock, J. S., you may yet strike, if you have not already struck.’ Sentiment in religion, he describes as ‘imagination, not conscience, at work.’ Opposite a statement about economy of time, he writes: ‘J. S. mark this, and act on it.’ Curiously enough, anent Vinet’s saying, ‘I should not approve of agricultural and industrial pursuits’ (for a pastor), J. S. has written: ‘Yes, clerical farmers and gardeners have an ambiguous reputation.’ Again he writes: ‘We have Scyllas and Charybdises all the way through the straits of life, not as at Messina, at the entrance only.’ Of satire, he says, ‘It can do no good in the pulpit.’ When Vinet says ‘there is no artificial mode of acquiring unction, the oil flows naturally from the olive,’ he adds, ‘Mark, learn and inwardly digest these two sentences.’ Again he writes,’ Read and re-read Spencer’s Pastor's Sketches.’ About general appeals in preaching, he remarks, ‘It is not firing the gun often that kills, but firing it straight to the mark.’


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