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The Life of Hugh Miller
Chapter IX


Motive for Entering the Arena of Strife—Donald Roy of Nigg—A Remarkable Secession.

In tracing the portion of the life of Hugh Miller at which we have now arrived, it is necessary to ask what dominant motive .compelled this man, so enamoured of the calm tranquility of a life of scientific investigation, to enter an arena where he must fight every moment, and against apparently overwhelming odds? Many have regretted that Hugh Miller became the editor of the Witness, and that he devoted to the interests of a party powers of mind which should have been employed in benefitting the whole race. With such an ancestry as he possessed, with such a training as he had received, and with the strong attachment which he had to the independence of the people in matters pertaining to religion, he could not have avoided taking a more or less conspicuous part in the drama, whose last act was played out at Edinburgh, in May, 1843. We have no wish to recall the bitterness, now fast hastening into oblivion, which was the necessary concomitant of the struggle so long waged between the Moderates and the Evangelicals, but, in order to account for the phenomenon of a man singularly averse to strife and contention deliberately placing himself in a position in which he must strive and contend daily, it is neccessary that we have a clear conception of this fact—viz., that Hugh Miller beleived, with his whole heart, that upon the result of the struggle between the two great parties in the Church of Scotland depended whether or not that venerated Establishment, which could boast of so many men eminent for their learning, piety, and fiery eloquence, and which had been consecrated by the blood of so many martyrs, retained her character as a Church of Christ. Should the Evangelicals triumph, then, in his estimation, the Church of Scotland would proceed upon her pathway through the future, a glory in the midst of the land; but, should the Moderates be successful, the Church would simply be a political institution and a disgrace, rather than a glory to the nation. His ancestry had been rigourous protesters in favour of the spiritual independence of the Church. One of the most celebrated of these was Donald Roy of Nigg. A wild fellow he had been in his youth, and, as .was the custom of the time, engaged on the evening of the Sabbath-day with the other young men of the parish in the athletic games of the country. He was the best club player in the district, and, as a matter of course, proud of his superiority. Every Sabbath night he indulged in his favourite pastime, and one evening, on his return home, after vanquishing one of the most famous of his competitors, he found the carcase of one of his best cows lying across his threshold, where she had dropped down a few minutes before. Next Sabbath he played as usual, and, on coming home, he found the dead body of a second cow lying exactly in the same place. "Can it be possible," he thought, "that the Whigs are in the right after all." His parish had been challenged by a neighbouring parish, and next Sunday the match was to come off. He joined the conflict and did wonders; but, as he was returning home, congratulating himself on his success, another cow, which he had purchased only a few days before, pressed through a fence, and, flinging herself down before him, expired at his feet with a deep horrible bellow. "This is God's judgments," he said; "the Whigamores are in the right. I have taken his day, and he takes my cattle. From that night Donald Roy was a changed man, and, in after years, was famous all over the country for his piety and his almost supernatural gifts.

In "Scenes und Legends of the North of Scotland" the following incident is related of this man. Donald Roy, after he had been for full sixty years a member of the church, was compelled by one of those high handed acts of ecclesiastical intrusion, which were unfortunately so common in Scotland about the middle of the last century, to quit it for ever; and all the people of the parish following him as their leader, they built for themselves a meeting-house, and joined the ranks of the Secession. Such, however, was their attachment to the National Church, that for nearly ten years after the outrage had been perpetrated, they continued to worship in its communion, encouraged by the occasional ministrations of the most distinguished divine of the North of Scotland in that age, Mr. Fraser, of Alness. The presbytery, however, refusing to tolerate the irregularity, the people were at length lost to the Established Church, and the dissenting congregation which they formed still exists as one of the most numerous and respectable in that part of the kingdom. We find it recorded by Dr. Hetherington in his admirable Church History, that "great opposition was made by the pious parishioners to the settlement of the obnoxious presentee, and equal reluctance manifested by the majority of the presbytery to perpetrate the outrage commanded by the superior courts. But the fate of Gillespie was before their eyes; and, under a strong feeling of sorrow and regret, four of the presbytery repaired to the church at Nigg to discharge the painful duty. The church was empty; not a single member of the congregation was to be seen. While in a state of perplexity what to do in such a strange condition, one man appeared, who had in charge to tell them, 'That the blood of the people of Nigg would be required of them if they should settle a man to the walls of the kirk.' Having delivered solemnly this appalling message, he departed, leaving the presbytery astonished and paralysed. And proceeding no further at the time, they reported the case to the General Assembly of the following year; by whom, however, the intrusion of the obnoxious presentee was ultimately compelled. The one man who on this occasion paralysed the presbytery and arrested the work of intrusion for the day was the venerable patriarch of Nigg, at this time considerably turned of eighty. He died in the month of January, 1774, in the 109th year of his age, and the 84th of his eldership, and his death and character were recorded in the newspapers of the time. "

The memory of such an ancestor must have exerted a mighty influence upon the mind of a man constituted as was that of Hugh Miller. If, in the duty of battle, the recollection of what his fathers have done before him, and the thoughts that the spirits of these heroic men may be looking down upon him from their unseen home, nerves the arm and fires the heart of a soldier—the recollection that a man is sprung from a stock which has been celebrated for moral courage, displayed in trying circumstances, must incite in him the desire to tread in the path which was trodden by that stock. Hugh Miller, looking back upon that forced settlement, picturing to himself the empty church and the perplexed presbytery, and recalling the apparition of that stalwart old man with his startling message, which, in the circumstances, must have sounded like one of those messages which the prophets of old delivered to the degenerate kings of Israel—Hugh Miller, we say, looking back to the solemn scene, could scarcely fail to be horror-struck at the forced settlements which, in so many parts of the kingdom, preceeded the memorable disruption. He never took a great interest in the voluntary controversy, because he thought that on both sides there was a large degree of exaggeration. He was at heart a thoroughly Establishment man. He looked upon the revenues of the Scottish Church as the patrimony of the Scottish people, and what he wanted was not the confiscation of that patrimony, but its restoration from the Moderates and the lairds. The Veto Act, which rendered the patrons power a mere shadow, he hailed as the commencement of that restoration, although he would have preferred a broad anti-patronage agitation to that Act, a mode of proceedure which would have been safer and more effective, because more constitutional, than the passing of the Veto Law. He rejoiced to see the old spirit revived in modern times, when it was thought enthusiasm could not be. rekindled with reference to church matters; and although the anomalies connected with the position assumed by the Non-Intrusion party in the church no doubt frequently presented themselves in a form by no means favourable to the pretensions of that party, this one consideration—viz., that although it might be legally right, it must always and in all circumstances be morally wrong, to force upon a professedly christian people a teacher in sacred things who was in every respect unacceptable, swallowed up these anomalies as the serpent of the prophet swallowed up the sham serpents of the Egyptian magicians. The Court of Session, and the more august tribunal of the House of Lords might declare that the supporters of the Moderate policy were legally right, and that their opponents were indubitably wrong in a legal point of view; but there was a moral as well as a legal standard by which the questions at issue could be tested, and, when that was appealed to, Mr. Miller could not resist the conclusion that the Non-Intrusionists were right. We do not in this place say whether, all things considered, Hugh Miller was correct in his conclusion. The time has not yet arrived when a fair verdict can be pronounced upon the struggle which culminated in 1843. History will one day trace its true character and assign it its due degree of importance amongst the religious and political movements of the nineteenth century. The histories already written respecting it are special pleadings, for the greater part—including the "Ten Years' Conflict,"—either for or against; it is enough for our present purpose to know and feel certain that, in relation to that movement, Hugh Miller occupied the position of an honest man, who was certain that it was his duty to write as he best could in favour of a cause which he deemed of vital importance, both to the civil and religious interests of the people of this country. We have seen the immediate cause of his appointment to the editorship of the Witness newspaper, and the spirit in which he entered upon his labours. He became the editor of that journal, not because the editorial task—at all times a laborious and thankless one—was congenial to his nature, but because he beleived it was his duty. When he saw the Church rent in twain by the conflict in which she had engaged—when he saw her now courted and now scorned by the politicians of the hour—and when he saw a large mass of the people indifferent to her fate, he seriously asked the question, "Can I do nothing for this bruised and bleeding Establishment?" The first thing he did do was, as we have seen, the writing of that celebrated letter to Lord Brougham; and now that Providence had put the doing of a still, greater thing for the Church within his reach, he could not refuse to proceed with the work.


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