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Memoirs of John Urquhart
Chapter 1


Introductory observation—John’s birth, and early education—John sent to the Grammar School of Perth— Mr. Duff’s account of him while there.

Biography is not dependent for its usefulness on the length of an individual’s life, or on the station which he occupies in society. Were this the case, the longest livers, or the most dignified personages would constitute the chief subjects of this species of writing. But so far is this from being the fact, that the great body of those who live to advanced years, and occupy the high places of the earth, pass out of it with little more than an antediluvian notice, —"They lived, begat sons and daughters, and died."

Such a record is all that the vast majority of these persons deserve. They live for time, and they live for themselves. In their characters none of the elements of an enlarged and immortal benevolence exist. To the present state of being, all their views and wishes are limited, and with the objects which minister to their own gratification, they are almost entirely engrossed. When they have finished their day, therefore, they have obtained, such as it is, their reward. As while they lived, the world was nothing to them, except as it conferred enjoyment; so when they die, they are nothing to the world, which in their death has sustained no loss. The blanks which such deaths occasion are quickly filled up. The candidates for the pleasures and honours of the earth are innumerable: and they are generally too busy in attending to themselves, to think much of their predecessors, or to derive either warning or improvement from their fate.

It is admitted that the lives of such persons will frequently supply a large portion of what is called incident, which is too generally regarded as the principal charm of biography. In proportion to the number of extraordinary events, unlooked-for occurrences, and strange combinations, is supposed to be the value of the memoirs or the life; while all the while the events illustrate no principle, develop no specific class of causes, and furnish little or no instruction to the reader. They appear as if they were stuck upon the subject, instead of growing out of his character, and might, for anything we can see, as well belong to a hundred other persons, as to the hero of the story.

The life of the most interesting person whom this world has produced, whose actions were entirely directed to the affairs of the world, and whose training had little bearing on the enjoyment and occupations of a better state, must be of less importance than the life of the least individual in the kingdom of heaven. In the former case, the results, as far as the person himself is concerned, terminate with time; in the latter, they embrace eternity. Here the germs of an immortal existence are planted; here the roots are struck, of that tree of life which is destined to fill the celestial paradise with its sweetest and most fragrant fruits; here the first elements of the heavenly sciences are learned; and here commence those dispositions and habits which shall grow to perfection in the courts of the Lord.

The writer of the following pages has no romantic tale to tell; but he regards it as one of some interest, or he would not tell it. It will be found to contain nothing of the poetry or fiction of religion, which are so eagerly sought by the sickly sentimentalists of the age. It records none of those splendid acts of religious heroism, the external glory of which the men of the world are sometimes disposed to admire, while they hate the principles which produce them. His aim is to present a faithful, though he is conscious it is only an imperfect, portrait, of one dear to himself by many recollections; whose mind was cast in one of nature’s finest moulds, and highly polished, not by art and man’s device only, but by the Spirit of the living God; whose character rose to maturity more rapidly than that of any individual he ever knew, and who lived as much in a short time, as most who have been honoured to adorn the doctrine of the Redeemer. Should the simple story of his short pilgrimage enforce on the minds of his youthful associates, the importance of cultivating his virtues and following his example; and lead others to examine the nature of that religion which was the object of such devotion to a mind of no ordinary vigour and acuteness, great will be the reward. In that case, it may at last appear that John Urquhart lived not in vain; and that the time spent in recording his history has not been unprofitably employed.

The subject of these memoirs was born in the town of Perth, on the seventh of June, 1808. As his parents are both alive, it would be indecorous to say much more than that, professing the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, they felt the importance of devoting their offspring to him, and, of bringing them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. To his mother in particular he was indebted for his earliest ideas and impressions; and of her tenderness and attention to him, he retained, as will afterwards appear from his letters, the liveliest and most grateful recollections.

From the extraordinary quickness and precocity which distinguished him, more than usual encouragement must have been presented to instil into his mind the elements of knowledge and religion; and I have reason to believe that advantage was duly taken of his docile and inquisitive disposition, to direct his attention to the most interesting of all subjects. It is not often that we can trace the impressions of childhood in the future habits and character of the man. They are made during a period in which the mind is inattentive to its own operations, and unconscious of the nature of the process which it is undergoing. The effects remain after the cause which produced them is forgotten. The writing upon the heart often becomes legible, only when the hand which traced it is mouldering in the dust; and the prayers which have been frequently breathed over the cradle of infancy, sometimes do not appear to have been heard, till after prayer has been exchanged for praise. These considerations, as well as the appropriate promises of the word of God, ought to induce Christian parents to commence their work of instruction with the first dawn of intelligence, and not to be dispirited because they do not soon reap a visible harvest of success. To this, as to other departments of service, the language of inspiration is applicable: "In the morning, sow thy seed, and in the evening, withhold not thy hand: for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good."

At five years of age he went to school, and, from having a remarkably sweet and melodious voice, soon became an object of interest as one of the finest readers among his juvenile associates. Shortly after, also, he was sent to a Sabbath evening-school, there to receive instruction of a more strictly religious nature than can be communicated in the seminaries of every day instruction. At this school he remained, I believe, with occasional interruptions, till a short time before he went to the University.

My young friend was indebted to Sabbath-school instruction, in a degree which cannot be fully ascertained or known in this world. There his mind was richly stored with divine truth, the full benefit of which did not appear at the time, but afterwards, in the rapidity with which he grew in knowledge after he felt the full power of the gospel. There those principles were implanted and strengthened, which tended to preserve him when he was exposed, an unguarded boy, to the imminent temptations of a University. There those moral feelings were first touched, which, in due time, arrived at that degree of sensitiveness, as to be incapable of bearing what was evil, and of relishing, in the most exquisite manner, all that was lovely, and pure, and excellent.

From the English school, he passed, in his ninth year, into the Grammar school, then conducted by a respectable scholar, Mr. Dick, under whose care, and that of his successor, Mr. Moncur, he remained four years. I have little to remark during this period of his life; but that he made distinguished progress in acquaintance with the classics is evident from the prizes which he obtained, and from the appearance, which he made when he first entered St. Andrew’s, of which notice will afterwards be taken.

I am not aware of all the prizes which he gained during the time of his attending the Grammar school; but, in 1820, he obtained the second prize at the fourth class; and in the following year, the last of his attendance, the second prize at the first class.

When it is remembered, that he was only thirteen years of age when he left school, it will not appear surprising, notwithstanding his future eminence, that I have nothing of sufficient importance to mention during this period of his life. He was remarkably lively and good tempered, when a boy; and enjoyed, I believe, the general good-will and affection of his school-fellows. As he acquired everything with great facility, study was in general no labour to him. But during the last part of his attendance on Mr. Moncur’s classes, he was very diligent; as he frequently rose at four or five o’clock in the morning, to prepare the lesson for the day. I forget how many books of Virgil he professed, besides other things, at the last examination; but I know the number was considerable. Though the ardour, or rather enthusiasm, of Mr. Moncur, in inspiring his pupils with the loftiest ambition of classical eminence, was extraordinary, and the effects of it, on the students, wonderful, John acquitted himself so well, that he carried off the second prize. The best account I can give of his progress, and of the esteem in which he was held by those who knew him, at this time, has been furnished me by his intimate friend, Mr. Alexander Duff, who was his associate, in study for several years, in Perth, and during all the time he spent at St. Andrew’s. It confirms my own statement, which was written previously to receiving it. He writes me as follows:--

"I first became acquainted with John Urquhart in the year 1820, at the Grammar school of Perth. Early in the year 1821, I entered into habits of the most intimate friendship with him, and scarcely a day passed without our being in each other’s company for several hours, till the vacation of the school in the end of July. We generally prepared our lessons together; and thus, I had full opportunity of marking the dawn of that intellectual superiority which he afterwards exhibited. With almost intuitive perception could he discern the truth of many a proposition, which, to an ordinary mind, is the result of painful and laborious investigation. And finely could he discriminate between the truth and falsehood of many a statement which was embellished with all the alluring drapery of a poet’s fancy. With singular acuteness could he estimate the real weight and value of an argument: and with an ease and readiness, far beyond ordinary, could he unravel the intricacies and discover the true meaning of a difficult and disputed passage in the classics. The ingenuity of some of his conjectures regarding the import of a sentence, and the derivation of certain words, was, I distinctly remember, highly applauded by his teacher. With a mind thus richly endowed by nature, he prosecuted his classical studies with the greatest fervour and perseverance; and though far inferior to the majority of his class-fellows in years, he uniformly appeared among the foremost in the race of distinction. During the summer of 1821, he was singularly active. For the most part, he rose every morning between three and four o’clock, and directly issued forth to enjoy its sweets. And should you, at any time, during the course of the morning, cast your eyes along that beautiful extensive green, the North Inch of Perth, you could not fail to observe, in the distance, this interesting youth moving along the surface like a shadow wholly unbound to it; sometimes in the attitude of deepest meditation, and sometimes perusing the strains of the Mantuan bard, which afforded him peculiar pleasure. Some of the fruits of these early perambulations, when most of his school-mates were enjoying the slumbers of repose, appeared in his having committed entirely to memory, four of the largest books of the AEneid. He was highly esteemed by all who attended the school. For, while his superior intellectual attainments commanded their admiration, that amiable simplicity and guileless innocence, which formed such predominating features in his character, necessarily commanded their love. You never heard him utter a harsh or unbecoming expression; you never saw him break forth into violent passion; you never had to reprove him for associating with bad companions, nor for engaging in improper amusements. In every innocent pastime for promoting the health, in every playful expedient for whetting the mental powers, none more active than he: but in all the little brawls and turmoils that usually agitate youthful associations, there was one whom you might safely reckon upon not having any share. And yet, with all his talents, and amiableness, and simplicity, I cannot venture positively to affirm, that there appeared, at that time, anything like a decided appearance of vital Christianity in the heart. One thing I can affirm, that, in our daily and long-continued conversations, religious topics did not form a considerable, or rather, any part of them. The love of what was good, and abhorrence of what was evil, had been so habitually inculcated from childhood, that the cherishing of these feelings might seem to have acquired the strength of a constitutional tendency; and the abandonment of them would have been like the violent breaking up of an established habit; still at this very time, the hand of God might have been silently, though efficaciously working. It is not for us to decide on those secret things that belong to the Lord. But, at whatever period the life of faith truly commenced, I believe it to be the fact, that his progress in it was so gradual and imperceptible as to elude observation."

Being still too young to be trusted alone at a University, and at a distance from his father’s house, it became a question, how to dispose of his time for at least a year longer. After consulting with other friends and myself, his father determined on sending him to the Perth Academy for one session. Here, under the instruction of Mr. Adam Anderson, [Late Professor of Natural Philosophy, in the University of St. Andrew’s.] a gentleman well known for his high scientific attainments, and Mr. Forbes, [Now Rev. Dr. Forbes, one of the ministers of the Free Church, Glasgow.] now the successor of the Rev. Dr. Gordon, in Hope Park Chapel, Edinburgh, he prosecuted those studies in the mathematics, in natural philosophy, chemistry, and other branches which have been long and successfully taught at that respectable seminary. He received, at the end of the session, the first prize in the second class; and another prize for the best constructed maps.

This last circumstance induces me to mention that there was great neatness in everything which was done by my young friend. He possessed the love of order and elegance in a very remarkable degree. It appeared in the arrangement of his little library, in the keeping of all his things, in attention to his person; and, in short, in all that was capable of evincing the possession of a mind perspicacious, well balanced, and sensitively alive to everything ridiculous or offensive.

Hitherto no serious impressions on his mind had become apparent. That he was not altogether without them, appears from references made to this period of his history at a future time. His constant association with religious people, the preaching of the gospel which he regularly attended, in connection with his peculiarly impressible mind, must have subjected him to occasional convictions, which, though not permanent, prepared him in a measure for the deep impressions which were afterwards made upon him. The death of Mr. Moncur, the master of the Grammar school, under exceedingly painful circumstances, appears also to have deeply affected him. But the time had not yet come, when the full view of his own character, and of the grace and power of the gospel, were to be experienced.

Few persons have been placed in the same circumstances with young Urquhart, without feeling certain religious emotions; though, alas, in a vast majority, those feelings are subsequently entirely erased, or only remain in a very faint and inefficient remembrance. Association with the world; the pursuits of business or pleasure; or, what the Scriptures admirably denominate, "The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life," cause many a fair "blossom to go up as dust," and destroy hopes of the most flattering nature. But when it pleases God to cause these early convictions to take root, and ripen, the future life of the individual is often remarkably blessed. His earliest and best years are devoted to the enjoyment and service of Christ; if cut off soon, it must be matter of rejoicing that his youth was given to God; if spared long, he has the delightful privilege of obtaining a full reward.


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