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Northern Lights
Robert Haldane


ROBERT and JAMES HALDANE are justly revered by the Church of Christ for their eminent piety and the zeal they manifested in the work to which they were called by the Holy Spirit. They adopted a form of doctrine opposed to evangelical Arminianism, and notwithstanding the avowed Catholicity of their sentiments scarcely recognised the existence of Methodism, yet we may find much in their lives to admire and to imitate. They were descendants from an ancient family, which for several hundreds of years had held the barony of Gleneagles, a valley in the Ochil mountains opening on the luxuriant plain of Strathearn. Robert, the elder brother, was born in London in the year 1764, James in Dundee in 1768. The father of the boys died a fortnight before the birth of the latter, and their mother in order to be near her parents, who resided at Gourdie House about four miles from Dundee, decided to live in that town, and took an old baronial mansion which stood in a garden sloping down to the waters of the beautiful Tay. Her father was Provost of Dundee, and rendered important service to the Government in the time of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. One of her brothers had been in the employ of the East India Company, and died in China; another had fought bravely under the British flag in Flanders and Canada; a third, the youngest, had served with distinction as a naval officer for a number of years, had sailed with Lord Keppel, and on account of his bravery and skill was specially known as his captain, but was to rise higher still in his profession, and to be rewarded with a peerage for the victory of Camperdown.

Mrs. Haldane, being truly pious, strove to train her children for God. Often when they were in bed and she supposed they were asleep, they beard her as she bent over them, praying that God would visit them with His grace and guide them safely through this world to a better. Her influence never ceased to affect them, and was felt by them as a restraint from evil, even while they were living in a state of alienation from God. She was not spared to see them start on their evangelistic course, but died while they were still in their boyhood. Her medical attendant was a son of Willison, the author of “The Afflicted Man’s Companion” and other godly books. He had cast off his father’s faith and become an avowed sceptic; but as be witnessed the calm joy of Mrs. Haldane’s last days, was constrained to say that such a death-bed was enough to make one in love with death. She was buried in the family burial-place, a sequestered churchyard on a slope of the Sidlaws, and near to her grave may be seen that of her illustrious brother, the great Admiral Duncan.

In 1777 the two boys were sent to the High School of Edinburgh, and were boarded with the rector, Dr. Adams, celebrated as the writer of valuable scholastic and antiquarian works. Robert bad a desire to enter the ministry of the Church of Scotland, but was dissuaded from this step on the ground that it was unusual for one of his position and fortune to engage in clerical duties, and was easily induced to go into the navy, prompted in part to the choice of that profession by the honours which his uncle had already won on the ocean. He was placed under the care of Captain Jervis, afterwards Earl St. Vincent, on a splendid ship which had been captured from the French, perfect in construction and gilt from its upper deck to the water’s edge. England and France were then at war, and Mr. R. Haldane was in the action with the Pegdse. It took place at night, and when the contest was at its hottest he held a lantern in his hand while directing the elevation of a gun. An old sailor told him that he was making himself a mark for the enemy’s fire, but, in the true spirit of British heroism, he replied that he should disdain to think of his own safety while in the discharge of duty. His zeal and gallantry were observed by Captain Jervis, and when the Pegdse struck her colours, he was appointed to go with one of the lieutenants to take possession of her, and bring back her commander. In 1782 the ship was at Spithead preparing to go with a large fleet to the relief of Gibraltar, at that time besieged by the united forces of France and Spain; and Mr. R. Haldane witnessed an event which was justly regarded as a national calamity, the sinking of the “Royal George” when

. . . . “Kempenfelt went down
With twice four hundred men.”

He was looking through a telescope watching the heeling over of the ship, and saw the masts suddenly strike the water and deck and bulwark disappear. In a few moments he was at the scene of the catastrophe, and succeeded in picking up some of the crew. He sailed with the fleet to Gibraltar, but was not called to take part in any brilliant achievement; for a tempest, which did great damage to the enemy’s ships, served the beleaguered garrison more effectually than the terror of British guns. The heroic defenders of the Rock had nothing to fear from Spaniard or Frenchman, and the fleet returned to England.

After the peace of 1783 Mr. R. Haldane left the navy and spent some time at the University of Edinburgh, and then went on the Continent, visiting almost all it could boast of as wonderful, from the Alps to the dikes and flats of Holland; from the gay boulevards of Paris to the shrivelled pomps of Herculaneum. In 1786 he married the lady who was his faithful companion for fifty-seven years, and settled at Airthrey, his patrimonial estate. His house stood on a wooded shelf of the Ochils, and was in the midst of grounds replete with natural beauty, to which he directed a genius for landscape gardening that would have been the envy of Shenstone. The lack of water was supplied by an artificial lake, walks were made through the woods that overhung the rocks, and summer houses were erected in positions securing views of some of the finest scenes in Scotland. For ten years he lived the easy, pleasant life of a country gentleman, and then experienced the change which opened to him new interests and new duties. While in the navy he received some spiritual benefit from the ministrations of Dr. Bogue, of Gosport; but his conversion was principally a result of the excitement occasioned by the French Revolution. The crash which shook the nations of Europe disturbed the repose of his mind. His sympathies were with the French people in what, in its beginning, seemed to be a struggle for constitutional freedom. Political questions were eagerly discussed with his neighbours. Some of those with whom he engaged in friendly disputation were godly clergymen, who argued that it was in vain to anticipate any great improvement in society while the hearts of men were estranged from the truths of the Gospel. He was impressed by the doctrine of the total corruption of human nature, and yielded to gracious feeling as to the condition of his own soul. To use his own words : “ When politics began to be talked of, I was led to consider everything anew. I eagerly catched at them as a pleasing speculation. As a pleasing phantom they eluded my grasp; but missing the shadow I caught the substance, and while obliged to abandon these confessedly empty and unsatisfactory pursuits, I obtained in some measure the solid consolations of the Gospel; so that I may say, .... He was found of me who sought Him not.”

The consolations he had found he wished to impart to others. He saw that he had been spending his time in the country to little profit, and determined that henceforth he would devote his wealth and all his powers to the service of God. He would no longer busy himself with the woodland bowers, the leafy alleys, the trim flower-beds, and sparkling waters of an earthly paradise, but would live the life of a Christian, unsparing of himself and working only for the glory of God. Having received a periodical containing an account of the labours of William Carey and his associates in India, his heart was fired with generous and sacred ambition to follow in the same track of usefulness. His purpose was to sell Airthrey, and to go accompanied by his wife, and a little band of men likeminded with himself, to Benares. In that city, one of the proudest and most gorgeous of all the shrines of Indian idolatry, he hoped to found a Mission establishment, and to pour the light of the Gospel thence over wide tracts of Bengal. His plans were laid on a large scale of Christian benevolence, but they failed through his unwillingness to go without the consent of the India House, which he was unable to obtain. There cannot be a shadow of a doubt as to his sincerity and the unworldliness of his motives; but it is not easy to forget that William Carey had a passion for India which no difficulties could deter, and that he found his way there in a Danish ship, and began the Mission which has expanded to such goodly proportions under the Danish flag at Serampore.

But though Mr. R. Haldane did not go to India, he sold Airthrey and contracted his personal and family expenses, in order that he might have larger available means for promoting the cause of God. He thought it a curious coincidence that on the morning on which the surveyor went to survey and value the estate, his course of Scripture reading at family prayer brought him to the words, “I made me great works ; I builded me houses; I planted me vineyards: I made me gardens and orchards, and I planted trees in them of all kinds of fruits: I made me pools of water.” The money which he set free for religious purposes by the sale of Airthrey, was in part devoted to the erection of tabernacles in connection with a religious movement which had originated with his brother James and other evangelists. It was not his intention to found a sect, but simply to aid in the development of spiritual religion. Nothing was done in the spirit of antagonism to any existing Church, but the object was to meet deficiencies which the Churches were unable, or unwilling to supply.

The Established Church was death-stricken by Moderatism, its ministers no longer emulating the fiery zeal of Knox, the mighty prayers of John Welch, the seraph-like ardours of Samuel Rutherford, but many of them Socinian in principle and loose in conduct; its Confession of Faith and Catechism of no account but as petrified relics of the olden times; its Sacraments no more than a form, and in some cases presenting scenes scarcely exaggerated by Bums in his “Holy Fair and thousands of the people whom it claimed as belonging to it left to perish in their sins. The Secession Churches were excessively bigoted, and were more careful to define and maintain their own narrow ecclesiasticism than to rekindle the flame of Scotland’s almost extinct piety. Methodism was numerically too feeble, and not sufficiently in harmony with Scottish predilections, to move other Churches to aggressive Christian work, or to do that work itself on any but a very limited scale. There was therefore room for an organisation which should minister spiritual life to those who were unable to find it in their own Churches, and give an impulse to godliness through the land. The tabernacles did not continue for many years as centres of undenominational communion and labour, but became by degrees distinctively Baptist or Independent, or were sold to the Established Church and other communities; still they, in great measure, answered the end for which they were built. The Gospel was preached in them when it was preached but feebly or not at all in other sanctuaries. Souls were saved; bands of Christian workers were raised up, and old forms of religion were vitalised.

But Mr. R. Haldane saw that it was not only necessary to draw people together, but also to provide suitable teachers for them. Uneducated preachers, however earnest, would not have been acceptable in Scotland; so he established seminaries in which young men could receive such theological and other instruction as would prepare them for efficiently engaging in evangelical work. From these seminaries about three hundred labourers went into the field. Dr. Russell, for fifty years minister of a congregational church in Dundee, was one of them. He preached the truth of Christ with great power and fidelity, and Dr. Wardlaw being on a visit to the town, wrote home that Dr. Russell’s church was well lighted, but that the best light was in the pulpit.

Another of Mr. R. Haldane’s schemes was the education of African children. He thought that to bring a number of them to this country and teach them the arts of civilisation and the doctrines of the Gospel, would be a great benefit to Africa, as they would be likely to go back as missionaries of truth and progress to their kinsmen. The wisdom of this plan is open to doubt; for the scholars would almost inevitably fall into discontent or despair when they returned, from cities of stately aspect and lands cultured into beauty, to mean huts and savage wilds. The contrast between Britain and Africa is so wide, that the vain, inflated with notions of their own refinement, would be disgusted with the barbaric life of their previous companions; and the right-minded might see too much to be done to toil with hope and energy. Few could bear without injury changes so thorough as from Africa to England and then from England to Africa. But Mr. R. Haldane’s purpose was conceived in the true spirit of Christian philanthropy, and he wrote to Mr. Z. Macaulay, Governor of Sierra Leone, requesting that children should be sent over; and he leased and fitted up a house in the King’s Park, Edinburgh, in which to receive them. He was prepared to spend £7,000 in this work; but when the children came over, some worthy members of the Clapham Sect were afraid that in Scotland, and under the care of such indifferent Churchmen as the Haldanes, they would imbibe principles that would interfere with a strict Church-of-Englandism, and wished to have a large share in the management of the school. Mr. R. Haldane thought that if he bore all the burden of the expense, he should not be subjected to constant oversight and interference; consequently funds were raised by subscription, and the children were taught in England.

The first sermon Mr. R. Haldane preached was at Weem, near Taymouth. Being encouraged by a favourable beginning, he frequently called sinners to repentance. Having broken a blood-vessel by his vehemence, he was not able to speak in public to the same extent as his brother, yet was always willing when he had strength and opportunity to declare the truth of Christ. He had a dignified, yet simple and persuasive manner, and the silvery tones of his voice melting into hallowed pathos, powerfully affected his hearers. An American divine writes that he was present when Mr. R. Haldane conducted service on the Dean’s Brae in Glasgow. There was a great crowd, including thirty ministers. Among the latter was Dr. Balfour, then the most eloquent preacher in Glasgow; and tears of joy were seen to roll down his venerable face as he listened to the address of the earnest evangelist. Mr. B». Haldane, in travelling from Edinburgh to London, reached Stilton in Huntingdonshire, and resolved to spend the Sabbath there. He found that the Gospel was not preached in the parish church, and proposed to the landlord of the hotel where he was staying, the giving of a sermon in the hotel-yard in the evening. The landlord gladly assented to the proposal; the service was announced; a large congregation assembled, and there was deep attention while the stranger unfolded the doctrine of life through Christ. When he had concluded his discourse the people still remained, and expressed a desire to hear more of the great salvation which he had set before them, and he spent nearly another hour with them. A few years later, he was again spending the Sabbath at the same inn, and hearing that a Methodist chapel had been built, went there to worship. He was pleased with the sermon, and when he was going out of the chapel an old woman, after looking on him with great interest, exclaimed, “Here’s the beginning of it all.” He ascertained that some had been converted through the sermon he preached in the inn-yard, and that to secure a full proclamation of the truth, they had got Methodism introduced to the place.

In 1809 Mr. R. Haldane purchased the estate of Auchingray, on which he erected a comfortable and spacious house. Those who watched his course with unfriendly eyes said that he had lost the spirit of self-sacrifice which induced him to sell Airthrey; but Auchingray, though extensive, was of small cost, and his expenditure was still much below what it was in his beautiful dwelling on the Ochils. The land he acquired was a wild moor, situated between Edinburgh and Glasgow. Only one tree grew on two thousand four hundred acres of ground; but by draining, planting and other improvements, what he found little better than a desert became in a few years a picturesque scene of fruitful fields and luxuriant woods. He had a building near his house fitted up as a chapel, in which he held service on the Sabbath, and people went to hear him from an area of several miles in extent; many on foot, some on horseback or in carts, and with a gravity of aspect that suggested the thought of Covenanters on their way to a mountain or moorland meeting.

But it was not by his tongue only that Mr. R. Haldane endeavoured to serve his generation. In the retirement of his country-house, he prepared a work on the “Evidences and Authority of Divine Revelation,” more spiritual in tone than most of the books which had been written on the truth of Christianity. In acknowledging the receipt of the volumes, Rowland Hill thus wrote: “While some have vindicated Christianity as a mere nominal religion, you have not only pleaded for the Temple of Truth, but shown that God Himself is to be the inhabitant of His own Temple, and that men are to be unspeakably blessed in Him.”

While preparing his work for the press, Mr. R. Haldane meditated another sphere of usefulness. He resolved to go on a missionary tour to the Continent, and accordingly went through the greater part of Switzerland. In Geneva his labours were signally effective. This city, so. honourably associated with the history of the Protestant Reformation, in which Calvin, grand and stem as Mont Blanc which lifts its snowy crown in the distance, had ruled like a king, and where he had built up his granite-like system of theology, had become notorious for the Arianism and Socinianism of its professors and pastors. Men who held the position of religious teachers were more under the influence of Voltaire and Rousseau than of those who once made the romantic shores of the Helvetian lakes, and the wild crags of the Alps, ring with the everlasting Gospel. Mr. R. Haldane mourned over the sad degeneracy, but began his work in a quiet unostentatious manner. He got into conversation with students, invited them to his house, opened the Scriptures to them, and showed how they testified of a Divine Saviour; of atonement for man’s sin by His death, and salvation through faith in Him. Interest was excited in matters of religion, and though Professors from their chairs denounced the intruder, he went on with his Providential task, and, through the blessing of God, lit a flame in Switzerland that bums to the present day. Some of the most eminent evangelical pastors of the land were indebted to him for their first instruction in the deep things of God. As seals of his ministry we see such men as Malan, Monod and Merle D’Aubigne, who with vivid pen has portrayed the scenes of the Reformation, and Gaussen, who has so ably defended the doctrine of the plenary inspiration of Holy Scripture.

Mr. R. Haldane went from Geneva to Montauban in France. The latter city had been a great centre of Huguenot heroism and piety, and still contained a college for training pastors for the Reformed or Calvinistic Churches of the land, but the old spirit was dead, and Rationalism was in the pulpit and in the halls of theology. Mr. R. Haldane’s methods of action were much the same there as in Geneva; by private interviews with pastors and students, by the distribution of tracts and Bibles, he was successful in winning souls from chilling unbelief to the faith of Christ.

Soon after his return to Scotland, Mr. R. Haldane was involved in the Apocrypha controversy, an unfortunate incident in the history of the British and Foreign Bible Society. To conciliate Roman Catholics, the Apocryphal books had been bound up with copies of the Holy Scriptures. To this Mr. R. Haldane, in unison with Dr. Andrew Thomson and other good men, objected. They contended that the Word of God, and that only, should be issued by the Society. They firstly argued that absurd fables, fictitious narratives and turgid eulogies of priests and prophets, had no right to be found in conjunction with the majestic strains which had been dictated by the Holy Ghost. Mr. R. Haldane threw himself into the contest with unsparing energy and animation, and earned the praise of all who appreciate an unadulterated Bible. One of the last tasks in which he employed himself was the revision of his “Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans," which had been in print for some years. Though too Calvinistic in its interpretation of the Epistle to find its way readily into Methodist circles, it was highly esteemed in Scotland. Dr. Chalmers found in it “solid and congenial food and Mr. Hailey, a young minister who had been eminently successful at college, and who, had he lived, would have been one of the great lights of the Scottish pulpit, in writing of this “Exposition", said: “Amid much of clear and sound statement, of acute analysis, and of strong and energetic controversial writing, we meet not unfrequently with profound practical remarks, with glowing and ardent descriptions of Gospel blessings, with those gentle breathings of sweetness which show how fragrant to the mind of the writer is the message which is engaging his meditations.”

Up to his seventy-ninth year Mr. R. Haldane was able to prosecute his labours with but little abatement of power, and after a few months’ illness died in peace and hope, his last words being, “For ever with the Lord,—for ever! for ever!” In person he was tall, and somewhat majestic; his eyes dark and piercing; his lips bland rather than stern in expression; his mind, though lacking the quality of genius, was strong and lively, and his heart tender and generous. In an article in the “Witness” newspaper after his death, probably from the pen of Hugh Miller, it was said: “Mr. Haldane was one of those eminent men who leave the impress of their character on the age in which they live; and devoted, as his whole energies from an early period were, to the cause of the Redeemer, and with an efficacy rarely in any age equalled, his is a name which will be remembered among the worthies of the Church, when mere worldly fame is gone.”

The following fragments selected from Mr. Haldane’s works are worthy of consideration:—

“All religions but that of the Bible, share the glory of recovering men to happiness between God and the sinner. All false views of the Gospel do the same thing. The Bible alone makes the salvation of guilty men terminate in the glory of God as its chief end. Can there be a more convincing evidence that the Bible is from God ?”

“The freedom from the moral law which the believer enjoys is a freedom from an obligation to fulfil it in his own person for his justification. But this is quite consistent with the eternal obligation of the moral law as a rule of life to the Christian?”

“The law of the spirit of life signifies the Gospel or new Covenant, and the law of sin and death the moral law.”

“It is not the first end of the law to curse men, but only what it demands since the entrance of sin. Such is the right of the law. Christ was made under the law ; but it was a broken law; and consequently he was made under its curse.”

“How can there be love without a sense of reconciliation with God; and how can the fruits of joy and peace be brought forth till the conscience is discharged from guilt.”

“The creation, which, on account of the sin of man, has been subjected to vanity, shall be rescued from the present degraded condition under which it groans; and, according to the hope held out to it, is longing to participate with the sons of God in that freedom from vanity into which it shall at length be introduced, partaking with them in their future and glorious delivery from all evil.”

“The heavens and the earth will pass through the fire, but only that they may be purified, and come forth anew more excellent than before.”


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