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The Scottish Nation

WELSH, DAVID, D.D., an eminent divine, was born 11th December 1793, at Braefoot, parish of Moffat, Dumfries-shire, where his father, like many of his progenitors, was an extensive sheep farmer. He was the youngest of twelve children, and early devoted to the ministry. He was educated at the High school and university of Edinburgh, and in May 1816 was licensed to preach the gospel by the presbytery of Lochmaben, within whose bounds the parish of Moffat is situated. On 22d March 1821, he was ordained minister of the church and parish of Crossmichael, in the stewartry of Kirkcudbright. Here he spent six useful and happy years. From Crossmichael he was removed to St. David’s church, Glasgow, where he continued four years, during all which time he was gradually acquiring an ascendancy over his brethren in the ministry, and rose daily in public estimation.

In the month of October 1831 he was appointed to the chair of church history in the university of Edinburgh. It was not without a severe struggle that he demitted the pastoral office, but in his case the effort of preaching was always most exhausting, and he seldom recovered from the labours of the Sabbath till the succeeding Wednesday. Even at Crossmichael he suffered severely from this cause; and, after his removal to Edinburgh he expressed the conviction that a continuance in his ministerial charge would certainly have shortened his days. Besides this, he was in every way admirably qualified for a theological chair, and such a situation afforded him opportunities of gratifying his ardent desire for knowledge, and indulging his literary tastes, which he could not otherwise have enjoyed. In the welfare of his students he took great interest, and he was singularly successful as their instructor. In 1844 he published a volume of his labours in this department entitled ‘The Elements of Church History,’ purposing afterwards to extend the work to five or six volumes. On the occasion of his leaving Glasgow, he received from the university the degree of doctor in divinity.

From the time of his becoming a professor he sat regularly in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, although from a want of fluency and a tendency to become nervous when speaking in public, he rarely took part in the discussion, even of those questions in which he was deeply interested. In the debate on patronage in 1833, his strong sense of duty led him, on one of the members characterizing the motion as an “extravagant proposal,” and an “extraordinary demand,” to stand up and exclaim, “Extravagant proposal! Extraordinary demand! Why! We are doing nothing more than making an approach to asking for what was enjoyed – and I state this without the fear of contradiction – by the whole Christian church for six hundred years, and what the Church of Scotland has always expressed its wish to enjoy, as often as it has given utterance to its feelings on the subject.” In the course of his speech he quoted, among other authorities, a passage from Gibbon, very clear and decisive as to the people, in the early ages of Christianity, enjoying the privilege of electing their own pastors, but concluding with the remark that, in the exercise of this privilege, they “sometimes silenced, by their tumultuous acclamations, the voice of reason and the laws of discipline.” On hearing this quotation the friends of patronage in the Assembly, seizing on it as a testimony against the fitness of the Christian people to choose their pastors, received it with cheers of triumph, but they were instantly put to silence by the retort of Dr. Welsh: “You are welcome to the sneer of this arch-infidel and truckling politician; I take the benefit of his fact.”

In the great ecclesiastical controversy which arose as to the independence of the church, he took a decided part. In the private consultations of the evangelical party his views were fully expressed, and the utmost confidence was placed in his integrity and judgment. So highly was his character estimated that at the meeting of the General Assembly of 1842, he was chosen moderator of the Assembly which adopted the Claim of Right. He was thus made to occupy the most conspicuous position in the Church of Scotland on the day of the disruption, and his sanction to the proceedings which led to that event, in the eyes of many went farther to redeem the act from the charge of precipitate rashness than that perhaps of any other individual in the church.

On the morning of the memorable 18th of May 1843, Edinburgh was all excitement in expectation of the great ecclesiastical event which was to take place that day, and which was to prove the zeal and the sincerity of those who had adopted for their fundamental principle the sacred truth, that “the Lord Jesus Christ is the only head and King of the church.” All business was suspended in the city, and the streets were filled with serious and anxious crowds collected from every part of Scotland; many came from England, and even some from foreign lands. The customary levee of the lord-high-commissioner at Holyrood was more numerously attended that day than on previous occasions. The friends of the government thronged there in large numbers to give an imposing aspect to their cause, while the ministers and elders of the church about to separate from it flocked to the levee to testify their abiding loyalty. When the commissioner had proceeded in state to St. Giles’ church, Dr. Welsh, in presence of a densely crowded and excited audience, preached his sermon on the text, “Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.” On the conclusion of the service, the commissioner, the most noble the marquis of Bute, and his train, attended by a brilliant military escort, proceeded to St. Andrew’s church, in George Street, and assumed the throne, which was surrounded by the chief officers of state in Scotland, and a distinguished circle of landed proprietors.

The crowning act is thus narrated: Dr. Welsh took the moderator’s chair. Nothing but the highest mental energy, aided by strength from above, could have sustained him – feeble in body through previous illness and anxiety, and exhausted by the labour he had already that day gone through. But he was firm and collected; very pale, but full of dignity, as one about to do a great deed, and of elevation, from the consciousness that he was doing it for Christ. His opening prayer being ended, the Assembly became still as death. In a voice not strong, but clear and distinct. And heard in every corner of the building, he said, “According to the usual form of procedure, this is the time for making up the roll; but, in consequence of certain proceedings respecting our rights and privileges, -- proceedings which have been sanctioned by her majesty’s government, and by the legislature of the country, and more especially that there has been an infringement on the liberties of our constitution, so that we could not now constitute this court without a violation of the terms of the union between church and state in this land, as now authoritatively declared – I must protest against our proceeding farther. The reasons that have led to this conclusion are fully set forth in the document which I hold in my hand, and which, with the permission of the house, I shall now proceed to read.” Having read the protest, which was signed by 120 ministers and 73 lay elders, Dr. Welsh laid it on the table, and bowing to the commissioner, left the chair. Followed by Dr. Chalmers, Dr. Gordon, and a host of others, he proceeded out of the church, and in long procession, headed by him, marched, through the crowds assembled, to Tanfield Hall, Canonmills. On arriving there, he again assumed the chair, and in a most spiritual and sublime prayer, opened the proceedings. His whole appearance at this time, we are told, was in the highest degree impressive. A celebrated historical painter, who was present on the occasion, remarked that his countenance wore an aspect of intelligence and moral elevation such as he had never witnessed nor conceived. Those present proceeded to form themselves into the “General Assembly of the Free Protesting Church of Scotland,” with the illustrious Thomas Chalmers, D.D., as its first moderator.

In 1839 Dr. Welsh had been appointed secretary to the Bible board for Scotland, with a salary of £500 per annum; an office to which, by an express arrangement, a dissenter was equally eligible with a churchman, and in which he had given unbounded satisfaction. He held it, however, at the pleasure of the crown, and having, on quitting the established church, deemed it incumbent on him to resign the chair of church history in the university, his appointment as secretary to the Bible board was, without reason assigned, cancelled, and the office conferred on another. Even at this oppressive act he did not complain, but the feeling of indignation among his friends and the public in Scotland at such an unjust proceeding was very great. His confidence, however, in the cause for which he thus individually suffered never for one instant abated, and so great was the influence which he possessed among the friends of the Free church, that in the course of two months he collected the large sum of £21,000, in subscriptions of £1,000 each, for building the New college at Edinburgh. In the Assembly of 1844, he was appointed principal librarian of the college, and in connection with it he instituted a theological library, which at the time of his death contained about thirteen thousand volumes, many of them very rare, and comprising all that is valuable in theological science. In the New College, as in the old university, he of course held the appointment of professor of church history.

In early life the bent of his mind had induced him to devote much of his time to metaphysical pursuits. He attended the class of Dr. Thomas Brown, professor of moral philosophy in the university of Edinburgh, allowed to be the first metaphysician of his age, and was admitted to close intimacy with him. He afterwards published ‘An Account of the Life and Writings of Dr. Thomas Brown.’ He was also editor of the North British Review.

Dr. Welsh died suddenly, in the prime of life, April 24, 1845. He left a widow and four children. In 1834 he published a volume of ‘Sermons on Practical Subjects,’ and in 1846 appeared a volume of Posthumous Sermons, with a memoir prefixed, by Alexander Dunlop, Esq., Advocate.

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