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Northern Lights
James Hamilton, D.D.


We go to Regent-square, London. We see a church somewhat cathedral-like, with its two towers and imposing front. It is the Sabbath, and we mingle with the stream of well-dressed people passing in. The preacher is in the pulpit, a man rather above than the middle height, not grand in feature not looking like a great orator with power to roll the thunder of a soul-commanding voice along. those walls, yet with such placid benevolence, such kindly feeling in the lines of his face, that one might almost think Paul’s portraiture of charity had been animated by a living soul, and clothed in clerical gown and bands. The amiable, godly man before us is James Hamilton. He reads a psalm from the Scottish version. What music he throws into those rugged lines; and there is a tender pathos, as if they carried him back to the home and the church of his early days. The dim blue hills, the fir-crowned ledges, the beechen shades, the violet-hued lochs, the laughing streams, the Sabbath sanctities, the full-toned worship, the martyr-memories of his own home-land, seem to be with him as, with silvery cadence, he brings out the old familiar words. He prays, and his prayer has in it a simple beauty like that of some of the prayers in the Church of England Liturgy, and it comes glowing from the depth of his heart. Very touching are the petitions he offers for the Churches of Scotland, and for countrymen in this great city, that they may not lose the influences of the old household piety and the old worship. He is about to give his sermon, but it is evident we must not expect the eloquent and sonorous strain that formerly filled this church. Some years since, Edward Irving was the occupant of that pulpit. There he stood, with heart high and heroic as ever throbbed in human bosom, with lofty stature that seemed to make his loftiness of expression the more natural, with voice varied and full and rich as the stops of an organ, and-with imagination sketching and filling up the plan of an ideal Commonwealth, in which the people are all righteous, kingly, joyous. He might have been there still, if he had been content with the legitimate influence of a Christian minister, but in trying to grasp more he lost all; and cast down from his high position, trampled upon and ordered here and there by men who seemed bent on making him as insignificant as themselves, the bright visions which had allured him to London all faded, the hope of “making a demonstration for a higher style of Christianity ” shrivelled into miserable disappointment, he died in Glasgow of a broken heart.

James Hamilton has none of the great qualities of the pulpit orator which distinguished Edward Irving, still we shall have a treat in the sermon. His manuscript is before him on the open Bible; he reads, and though there is not much power in his voice, it is pleasant, and intimates an earnest, genial, loving soul. At times he ventures to raise his head from the book and give a few extemporaneous sentences. We should like more of this, for he speaks out better, and is more animated, when for awhile he asserts his independence of the paper. But what beautiful thoughts are struck out! What imagery, now blazing like the gorgeous lights of the aurora borealis, now soft and sweet as the apple blossoms when April sighs through the orchard; and what allusions to history, to biography, to natural science; why, the man must have road nearly all the books that have ever been printed. But the best of all is, his sermon touches our hearts, and we pass out of the sanctuary refreshed, animated, encouraged to strive more diligently for the attainment of Christian excellence. We may never speak to the preacher, but we feel as if he has become our friend, and we naturally wish to know whence he came, what are the facts of his life, and what the influences that have made him what he is.

From London to Strathblane, from the towered temple in Regent-square to a simple country manse, from a wilderness of dingy streets, to a bright green landscape on which the streams make long streaks of silver, and from the distant verge of which the hills rise in their ancient strength, and glimmer in the sunset like a masonry of opal and jasper. We open the study door, the minister is at his desk writing his Sunday sermon, and we must tread softly lest we disturb him. Half reclining on the carpet is a dark-haired, thoughtful boy, bending over a book so big that he could scarcely carry it in both arms. What is it? An old copy of some famous romance? A narrative of voyages and travels, with time-yellowed engravings representing Pacific islands or Asian temples, or groups of Red Indian warriors? No, it is a book of Divinity by Manton or Hopkins, Reynolds or Horton; that is the kind of reading this boy delights in, and he will spend hours and hours over those musty pages, with their queer-shaped letters and quaint sentences. A good deal of it is hard reading, and does not suggest much meaning to him, but there are flowers in the desert, and his eye glistens over such words as these—“As the odours and sweet smells of Arabia are carried by the winds and air into the neighbouring provinces, so that before travellers come hither they have the scent of that aromatic country; so the joys of heaven are by the sweet breathings and gales of the Holy Ghost blown into the hearts of believers, and the sweet smells of the upper paradise are conveyed into the gardens of the churches." Gleams of beauty such as this allure the young reader from page to page, and he would gladly stay till his father has ended his writing and put out the study lamp.

What a difference there is in lads! Lord Bolingbroke ascribed much of his dislike of Christianity to the fact that when a boy his aunt made him read Manton’s sermons to her on Sabbath afternoons; but James Hamilton sees a rare charm in Manton, whose ruggedness is softened here and there by a touch of graceful imagery; just as the hard aspect of an ancient fortress is softened by ivy leaves and tufts of grass and patches of golden moss. But the boy is not an overwise manikin forced into unnatural maturity; he has a real boyhood. In all Scotland there is not a happier home than the manse of Strathblane. The father there in the study writing his Sunday sermon is a grand man to look at. His hair is black as a raven’s wing, his eyes are full of latent fire, and if he would only put down his pen and stand up, we should see that he is over six feet high. He was once minister of St. Andrew’s, Dundee, but though only there a few months, he so commended himself to the reverence and affection of the people, that when, years after, James visits the town he has a warm greeting, and he knows the greeting is for his father’s sake. Settled in Strathblane, he does not think that any loose rambling talk is good enough for a country congregation, but puts labour and prayer, and still more labour and prayer into his sermons. Hebrew and Greek and Latin are pored over that he may be able to give good food to the flock. He throws his whole heart into the Gospel theme, and when he preaches, his face becomes radiant, his eye moistens, and his manly lip quivers with emotion. And how diligent he is in promoting the social and intellectual progress of his parishioners! Savings’ banks, libraries, scientific lectures, attest his care for their comfort and improvement. Such is the father; a man with a brave, tender heart, worthy of a city pastorate, yet joyfully lavishing his powers on the people of a hamlet. The mother, too; what a beautiful life is hers! and when she dies we have this glimpse of her in the picture painted by her gifted son:—“The old manse, with her active figure gliding up the stair, or tripping along the grass paths of the garden thirty years ago; readings in the nursery, or talkings to the maidens at the spinning-wheel on evenings when my father was away from home; and old-world memories that gather round that scene so sweet and holy, that one feels now like an exile of Eden.” But James is not the only child, there are two other sons and three daughters, a lovely group as they sing the evening Psalm, or go tripping in the early summer mornings along the greener spots of the strath, or tend their own little strip of garden which their father has apportioned them in the grounds of the manse. Blessed, peaceful are the surroundings of James Hamilton’s boyhood.

After instruction by a family tutor, he was sent to the Glasgow University. He was not fourteen when he got on the red cloak, but though young, he was manly in determination and self-reliance. He had never made and never would make friends with idleness. Work was the order of his college life, and in various departments he was a successful competitor for college prizes. Nor did he forget the God of his father. The good impressions made on his heart in the manse and church at Strathblane, were deepened in Glasgow; there he gave himself to God in a perpetual covenant that was never forgotten by him to the latest day of his life. He found delightful companions in science and literature, but a still more delightful companion in religion; and he had need of religion, for a terrible sorrow was about to smite him down. In a fortnight he is to be once more in the dear haunts of his boyhood, the old familiar paths, the parlour with the mother’s face beaming at the head of the table, the study in which he has spent so many quiet hours among the venerable folios of the famous divines. He has just completed an essay which he hopes will take the offered prize, the pen is laid down, the manuscript is neatly folded up, the desk is locked, and as the spring day is so lovely he will indulge in a stroll. He leaves the streets which are luminous with the April sunshine, and strikes up the bank of the Clyde in search of plants, for botany has great charms for him. Beautiful visions of the home he is soon to visit flit through his mind as he looks on the silvery sheen of the river, or carefully scans the thickening vegetation. Memory and hope pour their joys into his soul; but could he see what is going on in Strathblane, what revulsion there would be in his feelings. His father is lying there dead, taken off by brief sickness. Great is the grief in the young man’s heart when he discovers his loss, but he bears it as one who is sustained by a Divine Hand; and even the vacation of that summer, though shadowed by painful thoughts, is filled with eager toils. To use the words of his biographer, “The summer was one continuous effort, and the only relaxation seems to have been a frequent change of occupation; from Latin to English history, and from mathematics to Luther’s Bible, he turned freely and frequently, but never from work to rest. If he is somewhat wearied by five hours of seventeenth-century theology, eleven hundred lines of Virgil in preparation for his degree must do duty as a period of rest; and when his eyes grow dry over the Greek of Thucydides and Euripides, he will bathe them in the large and luscious tomes of Gibbon’s ‘Decline and Fall.’"

James Hamilton’s college days having come to an end, and some small beginnings in preaching having been made, we see him at Abemyte, the assistant of a worn-out incumbent. How has he got there? A gentleman living at Dunsinane, but interested in the spiritual welfare of Abemyte, went to Edinburgh. The Sabbath came, and he attended St. George’s Church, expecting to hear Dr. Candlish, but instead of that “Master of Israel,” a stripling was in the pulpit, James Hamilton. The visitor from the country was probably somewhat disappointed at first, but the prayer filled his eyes with joyful tears, and when it was ended he said to himself, “This is the minister for Abemyte.” Enquiries, and then arrangements were made, and thus James Hamilton was brought to his first charge. He lives in the manse with the aged minister, and gets into such favour with him that he has the offer of all his sermons. “My dear, these are my sermons; I give them to you; I have no further use for them, make what use of them you please, they will be of use to you.” But the old man’s dry, formal discourses are not likely to be of much service to a young man with a heart fresh as an April morning, and full to overflowing of beautiful, poetic thoughts. And we can well imagine that the people, if they knew of the gift of manuscript homilies to the new helper, would say, “Please, Sir, do not give us any of those, we have had them till we are weary; give us some of your own.” The old minister is quite a character, and though no longer able to preach, can dispute. He has got a spoonful of porridge, but he holds it for half-an-hour midway between the plate and his mouth while he brings out an argument about reprobation. He is pouring out the tea, but he keeps his assistant waiting ten minutes for his while he discusses the cause of the tides.

James Hamilton goes thoroughly into his work; a new and more vigorous spirit is moving Abemyte, the church is filled, and the power of Divine grace rests on the congregation. Great pains are taken to make the week-night service interesting by illustrations of the botany of the Holy Land; and as the preacher goes on with his discourse, he shows his people now a cedam cone from Lebanon, and now a twig of sycamore, a palm leaf, or a pomegranate. This mode of teaching, however, is too strange to be universally approved.

On one occasion, seeing a fig-tree in a garden in the neighbourhood, he begged a branch. He took it home, and thence to church, and held it up in one part of his lecture, which had reference to the Biblical fig. A good woman, named Janet, who had been attending revival services held at that time in Dundee, was amazed at what she thought a waste of time, if not an impropriety, in the minister in flourishing a fig-branch in the pulpit. She could scarcely sit still, but did manage to hold her peace until the benediction was pronounced, when she exclaimed, “O, Maister Hamilton, hoo do you gie them fig-leaves when they are hungerin' for the Bread o’ Life?” But though he did not come up to Janet’s ideal of ministerial earnestness, he was in earnest, and no one rejoiced more than he did in the work at that time going on in Dundee. Robert Murray M‘Cheyne was away in the Holy Land, W. C. Bums was supplying for him at St. Peter’s, and influences like those of Pentecost were subduing the people. James Hamilton assisted in some of the week-night services, and rejoiced in the manifestations of power from on high which he witnessed. Bums, M‘Cheyne, Hamilton,— they are all away now. Bums, with his thunder and his passion for the salvation of souls; M‘Cheyne, with his hallowed fire and his sweet poetic strains; Hamilton, with the consecration of his encyclopaedic mind, and his thickly-strewn metaphors, and fine, generous, genial spirit; they are no longer with us: the first, sepulchred far away in China; the second, in Dundee; the third, in a cemetery near to mighty London. Dead ! No, not dead; they are still a living force in the world, and the more men appreciate active, benevolent piety, the wider and brighter will be their holy renown.

From Abemyte Hamilton went to Edinburgh, just a stepping-stone on his way to London, for he was only there five months as minister of Roxburgh Church. Edward Irving, who in his first years in London was borne as with purple sails on a sea of glory, had made lamentable shipwreck, and had scarce been able to construct a frail raft out of the materials of what was once a fair and stately barque. The magnificence of the man, save in his writings, had vanished in mere smoke, and the few who continued in the church which had been built for him, were burdened with a debt of £10,000. They had engaged ministers, but had been unable to get one to stay with them. Mr. Hamilton was recommended to them, he agreed to give them two Sabbaths, they were satisfied with him, and he with them, and in the Regent-square Church he found a sphere to fill to the end of his days. There was no deep quietude for him in his new pastorate, as when from pleasant Abernyte he looked over the Carse of Gowrie, and saw the calm splendour of the Tay, and the green hills of Fifeshire. No minstrelsy of larks sounding from the morning sky; no Arcadian vistas of elm and beech. He was in the great city, with its miles and miles of monotonous streets, its feverish life, and its endless claims on a minister’s time.

Soon after his settlement in Regent-square, he began a series of discourses on the Epistle to the Romans. Some of the discourses on the twelfth chapter were reported in religious newspapers, but the reports were so inaccurate as to confirm his resolution to publish six of them in a small volume. The book was entitled “Life in Earnest,” and was, and still is, both popular and useful. Many, not only in the British Islands but also in America, in Sweden, and various parts of the world, have felt the power of its winged words, and risen from selfish apathy to energetic service in the name of Christ. “Life in Earnest,” was followed by “The Mount of Olives,” well known as one of the most delightful persuasives to secret prayer ever printed. Pieiy and poetry are combined in it as fragrance and beauty are combined in spring-time violets; and it is scarcely possible to read it without being drawn into closer intimacy with God. In 1846 he gave a course of lectures on the Evidences of Christianity. Had they been delivered on the week-day no one could have objected to them, but many of his people thought them unsuitable for the pulpit on the Sabbath-day, and the Duchess of Gordon, who had always attended Regent-square when in London, having heard one of them, was so grieved by what seemed to her a misappropriation of the hours of worship that she never returned to the church. His motive was pure, and the lectures were not without some good results; but able as he was to array the great themes of salvation in the prismatic hues of genius, and to preach sermons beautiful and luminous as a bed of hyacinths in a golden sunset, he could have served the cause of Christ far more effectually than by giving quotations from the fathers, or spending time in criticisms on ancient manuscripts. Duties so accumulated upon him that he was not always prepared for the pulpit even on the Saturday night, and had to rise early on the Sabbath morning to finish his sermon. One Sabbath morning he rose at five, his young wife also rose to give him coffee, and as she saw him sitting with pale face and nervous hand at his desk, it seemed to her that such work would soon wear him into the grave, and she lay on the rug in front of the fire and wept. As years rolled on, public and private engagements became still more numerous, and so fully were the hours of the day, and of great part of the night, occupied, that he had to leave uncut the books he longed to read,—he could not even take them in the omnibus and train, as he had once taken books, for as he went from place to place he had to bury himself in composition, or in the revisal of proof sheets for the press. He was almost compelled to take part in various movements for the advancement of Presbyterianism in England, and his literary gifts were such that he could scarcely have been exempted from the toils of authorship and editorship ; but he was perhaps too easy in allowing his time to be frittered away by an un-pausing succession of visitors. All sorts of people called on him about all sorts of things, and some of them very small people about very small things. He was too kind, too amiable, to frighten them away with grim looks and sharp words, and many hours he needed for rest or study were spent on those who had no right to a moment of his time. Had he been able to command the leisure to which he was entitled, he would have enriched the Church with a still greater number of beautiful books, and the “ Life of Erasmus,” long a pet scheme, would have been an accomplished fact. As it was he did wonders with his pen, and his collected works, chiefly on Biblical themes, and several charming biographies, are honoured in many libraries as monuments of his industry and genius. While loyal to his own Presbyterianism, he delighted in fraternal intercourse with the ministers and members of other Churches, and showed his kindly feeling to Methodism, which he playfully called “ a Church on wheels”—by the sermons he preached on its Missionary and other anniversaries. The following, dated June 23rd, 1858, is full of interest for Methodist readers:—“Yesterday was Dr. Bunting’s funeral. It took place in the City Road Chapel, beside the graves of Wesley, Benson, Adam Clarke, Richard Watson, and all the renowned fathers of Wesleyan Methodism, among whom, there was none greater than Jabez Bunting,—none who combined so well the preacher, the Christian statesman, and the man of God. It was a long service.....But an address by Dr. Leifchild was very affecting. He is seventy-eight, and Dr. Bnnting was eighty; and now the friendship of half a century is dissolved for a little while, but only for a little. The most impressive part of the service was the singing of these two verses,—

"O that each in the day
Of His coming may say,

*I have fought my way through,
I have finished the work
Thou didst give me to do!
O that each from his Lord
May receive the glad word,

"Well and faithfully done I
Enter into
My joy,
And sit down on
My throne."

Though Dr. Hamilton was harassed by excessive labour, he was gladsome and thankful in spirit, and the year before his death wrote: "Life has been full of God’s goodness. A kinder mother, a father of loftier worth and nobler ways of thinking, no one ever had. The first years at college were desultory, but the whole were happy. Coming to Regent-square, if it was an empty church, it was a noble building, and one known by name to Scotchmen and others; and there were rare men in its session.” "A congregation has gathered round me, not such as frequent the popular preachers, but one which I prefer, comprising many interesting and right-hearted young men, many serious and attentive hearers, and not a few of the most delightful and congenial friends. To crown all, I have such a home as I scarcely thought could be realised in a world of sin and sorrow. Children of various dispositions, but only made more interesting by their distinct individuality, all loving and all promising; and a dear partner—God’s best earthly gift—whose only fault is that excessive affection which may lead to overmuch sorrow.”

He preached his last sermon in Regent-square on a Sabbath evening, in May, 1867. His subject was the Tree of Life, Rev. xxii. 2; an appropriate conclusion of a ministry which had been peculiarly rich in evangelical lessons drawn from sacred symbols. A few days after speaking to his people of the “twelve manner of fruits” and the medicinal leaves, he was prostrated by affliction which ended in death. The Thursday before he died, his family sang, at his request, the beautiful paraphrase of Samuel Rutherford’s dying words, and in a feeble yet distinct voice he united with them in the last verse—

“I stand upon His merit;
I know, no other stand;
Not e’en where glory dwelleth,
In Immanuel’s land.”

On the Saturday he said to his brother, the Rev. William Hamilton, “There is one line in that hymn which begins with "The hour of my departure’s come,’ which exactly describes my feelings at this time—

"I leave the world without a tear,
Save for the friends I love so dear."

His brother reminded him of a verse his father frequently repeated in the pulpit:—

"Jesus, the vision of Thy face
Hath overpowering charms;
I scarce would feel Death’s cold embrace,
If thou wert in mine arms.”

He replied that he had forgotten it, and added, “But there is no cold embrace, William; there is no cold embrace.” Nearly his final utterance was, “Come, Lord Jesus; come quickly.” The Master came and took His servant from an earthly to a heavenly home on Sabbath morning, November 24th, 1867. Mr. Hamilton’s funeral was attended by “devout men,” of all evangelical churches, and while there was “great lamentation” because of the common loss, there was thankfulness to God for the character which had been so beautiful, for the hand which had written so skilfully, and the lips which had spoken the truth of Christ so wisely and winsomely.

The hymn sung at Dr. Hamilton’s funeral was one which he had translated from the German, as he had heard it at a peasant’s funeral in the Black Forest. Part of it runs:—

“Ye village bells, ring, softly ring,
And in the blessed Sabbath bring,
Which, from the weary work-day tryst,
Awaits God’s folk through Jesus Christ.

And open wide, thou Gate of Peace,
And let this other journey cease;
Nor grudge a narrow couch dear neighbours,
For slumbers won by life-long labours.

Beneath these sods how close ye lie,
But many a mansion’s in yon sky ;
E’en now, beneath the sapphire throne,
Is his prepared through God’s dear Sou.

‘I Quickly come!’ that Saviour cries;
Yea, quickly come ! this churchyard sighs.
Come, Jesus, come ! We wait for Thee—
Thine now and ever let us be.”


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