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Dr Lawson of Selkirk


GEORGE LAWSON, distinguished by massive powers of intellect, high character as a Christian, and long and faithful labours as a Minister and Theological Professor in the Secession Church, was born in the year 1749, at Boghouse, a small farm in Peeblesshire.

His father was remarkable for his great industry. To the care of a farm he added the trade of a carpenter, and was often busy with axe and saw by one o’clock in the morning. Both parents were animated by a grave, heroic, piety, that would have associated them with Knox and Wishart in the straggle against Roman dominancy, or have sent them in the track of Peden and Cameron, when the heather was the Covenanter’s bed, and the rock his sanctuary. They were members of the Secession Church in West Linton, a village at the foot of the Pentlands. Ralph Erskine was in Dunfermline, and West Linton was frequently favoured with his ministrations, until the Rev. James Mair was ordained to take charge of the little dock. Mr. Mair was a worthy man, diligent in all the duties of his office, but afflicted with an irascible temper. His man-servant told him that he was about to leave him. “Hout man,” said Mr. Mair, “what’s making you think of that?” “’Deed, Sir,” was the reply, “to tell you the even down truth, your temper is so bad that I cannot bear it any longer.” “Fie, man,” rejoined the minister; “I am sure you ken that is no sooner on than it’s off again.” “That’s true,” said the servant; “but then the evil is, that it’s nae sooner off than it’s on again.” But the good man unfeignedly deplored his infirmity before God. A young minister went to assist him at a Communion service. He was cordially welcomed to the manse; but he had not been there long before Mr. Mair’s explosions of ill-temper were such that he determined to return home the following morning. He retired to rest; but was awoke by a low and plaintive voice as of one with a deep anguish in his heart. It was the voice of the pastor, who was mourning before God on account of the stumbling-block he had cast in the way of his younger brother the previous evening, and praying that he might have grace to be more on his guard while his visitor was with him, and at all other times. The young man’s heart was melted by this touching proof of contrition; he gave up his intention of leaving, and joyfully took part in the sacramental solemnity.

The effect of a godly parentage was seen in George Lawson’s early consecration to God. From childhood he was imbued with the principles and the spirit of religion, and though shut out from the intellectual stir associated with towns and cities, he was not without healthy mental excitement. Theological questions were often discussed under his father’s roof, by men familiar with the great books of Owen, Manton, Baxter, and Boston; and if at times they got too deep for him, there were other times when his heartbeat quicker as he heard of the brave deeds, and unconquerable fidelity of men whose names are justly graven on the foundations of Scotland’s Church. The powers of his mind were precociously developed; and his parents, acting in accordance with his own predilections, decided to give him educational advantages which should facilitate his entrance on the work of the Gospel ministry.

A young man named Johnstone was engaged as his classical tutor. The relation between teacher and scholar was of the happiest character, and their friendship was tenderly cherished to the end of their days. Mr. Johnstone became Secession minister of Ecclefechan. He had in his congregation a youth with deep, keen eyes and massive brow, who has become famous as Thomas Carlyle; who, notwithstanding his apparent indifference to the truths which once impressed him, has been known to say: “I have seen many capped and equipped bishops and other episcopal dignitaries, but I have never seen one who more beautifully combined in himself the Christian and the Christian gentleman than did Mr. Johnstone.”

When fifteen years old, George Lawson entered the University of Edinburgh, of which Dr. Robertson, the gifted and laborious historian, was at that time Principal. He found there a band of young men who, like himself, were deeply studious, and intent on Christian nobleness of character. But the brightest name in the sacred ring of his college friendships was that of Michael Bruce, who wrote three beautiful paraphrases, appended with others, to the Scottish version of the Psalms, but better known as the author of that exquisite lyric, the “Hymn to the Cuckoo,” which John Logan, to whom Bruce’s manuscripts had been entrusted, after his death by his father, had the effrontery to publish as his own composition. But the suspicion of fraud on the part of Logan at length deepened to certainly, and the strain which celebrates “the beauteous stranger of the grove,” is now justly recognised as the melodious outflow of Bruce’s genius.

Michael Bruce was born in a poor cottage on a hill sloping towards the lovely waters of Lochleven, and while tending cattle on the Lomonds, improved his mind by reading, filled his imagination with the grand imagery and varying aspects of light and shadow presented by mountain, lake, and sky, and opened his heart to the voice of God as it spake to him in the solitude of his pastoral haunts. His father having received a small legacy sent him to the Edinburgh University. He completed the nsnal sessions and then entered a Divinity Hall. But the glowing hopes of his father, and his own expectation of a worthy career as a minister of the Gospel, were doomed to disappointment. Consumption arrested him in his studies, and the roseate splendours on the horizon of his life were clouded by an early death. His friend Lawson went to see him when the disease was in its later stage. His face was worn and ghastly, but his eyes were lustrous as if visions of rejoicing seraphim had floated before them. “I am happy to see you so cheerful,” said his brother student. “Why should not a man be cheerful on the verge of Heaven?” responded the dying youth. He died in the twenty-second year of his age. His Bible was on his pillow to the last, and as if to check the sorrows of his parents and friends, a special mark was put against those tender words of Jeremiah, “Weep ye not for the dead, neither bemoan him.”

In the summer of 1766, George Lawson entered the Divinity Hall at Kinross, tinder the Professorship of the Rev. John Swanton. Lawson only enjoyed the advantage of Mr. Swanton’s prelections for one session; for having gone to Perth to assist at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the professor had an attack of inflammation, and died before he could be removed to his own house. His last words were: “I would not now return to life for ten thousand worlds; for though my heart and my flesh fail me,' God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever.

On the death of Mr. Swanton, the Rev. John Brown, of Haddington, was appointed his successor in the Theological chair of the Secession Church. This man has given a great and venerated name to the religious history of Scotland. Born in poverty, he struggled through toil and hardship to eminence as a scholar. He became familiar with, almost all the languages spoken on the continent; Latin, Greek, and Hebrew yielded their treasures to his unflagging industry. Nor did Syriac, Arabic, Persic, Ethiopic, escape his linguistic avidity. With such rapidity did he acquire a language, that the superstitious said he had Satan for his instructor. He was the author of several works, but “The Self-Interpreting Bible” is the most splendid device in the heraldry of his fame; and one of his descendants, the genial writer of “Bab and his Friends,” felt a thrill of family pride when asked by a poor woman in the county of Kent if he were related to “Self-Interpreting Brown.” Previous to his ordination he taught a school at a place called Gairaey Bridge, and went thence every Sabbath day to enjoy the ministrations of the saintly Ralph Erskine, at Dunfermline. “I can never forget,” he said, “those days when I travelled over the hills of Cleish to hear that great man of God, whose sermons were brought home by the Spirit of God to my heart. At those times I thought I met with the God of Israel and saw Him face to face.”

Dr. Brown was for many years minister of the Secession Church, in Haddington, and was justly regarded as one of the pillars of his denomination. He preached Christ with power and fidelity while he lived, and his last words were, “My Christ.”

George Lawson fully appreciated the privilege of being in daily contact with a mind so full and vigorous, and a heart so thoroughly steeped in Christian sentiment. His profiting appeared to the Professor, who thought that the greatest service he had done to his generation was in helping forward to the ministry four young men of singular promise, of whom George Lawson was one.

But the time came when the student was no longer to sit at the feet of the Scottish Babbi, but to enter on the work for which he had been preparing with such exemplary diligence, his first experiences of ministerial life were very much like those of a Methodist preacher of the old time. His father provided him with a horse, the saddlebags were thrown over its back, and young Lawson went forth, as was the general custom of probationers of his Church, among the towns and villages needing a pulpit-supply. He had free entertainment for himself and beast at farm-houses, and received half-a-guinea for each Sabbath’s labour.

If for a time a wandering star, he gave a steady light. Though young he was grave and decorous in conduct, and his sermons were characterised by a masculine vigour of thought which commended them to the judgment and the conscience of hearers who were inclined to listen with somewhat critical ears to one whose position as a preacher was yet undetermined. His discourses were solid yet transparent masses of thought. He had no poverty to hide with large phrases and gaudy metaphors; and when eloquent, it was not by elaborated beauty, but force of thought and strength of language. Like Dr. Bunting, he wore the armour and wielded the weapons of a giant at the beginning of his course.

While employed in itineracy, he had to supply a vacancy occasioned by the decease of the minister in Selkirk. He gave such satisfaction, that he was unanimously chosen as the pastor of the Church, and held that charge to the day of his death. The lines could scarcely have fallen to him in more pleasant places. It is difficult to say whether the neighbourhood of Selkirk is most distinguished by the beauty of its scenery, or the charm of its historical and literary associations. Over landscapes gracefully moulded and appropriately garlanded, piety and genius have thrown their own peculiar lights. In quiet rambles when duty was less pressing, or in his visitation of the cottages and farmsteads of his people, the minister could look on the silvery band of the Tweed, or fill his eyes with the loveliness of Yarrow, and St. Mary’s Loch; waters which glow with the calm splendonr of Wordsworth’s poetic thought. The Ettrick flows past the town; and, walking along its bank, he would come to the kirk of Ettrick, where Thomas Boston, the writer of those once popular books, “The Fourfold State,” and “The Crook in the Lot,” preached for many years. At other times he could stride away to the Eildon Hills, or muse on ancient times amid the grand walls and cunningly-wrought windows of Melrose or Dry-burgh Abbey; the latter specially interesting to him as the early haunt of Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine. He found the pathos of history as he stepped over Flodden Field, where “the flowers of the forest were a’ wede away,” and in later life could see the gables and turrets of Abbotsford gleaming through foliage, the shadows of which cooled the brow of “the great Magician of the North.”

The second name that Lawson wrote in the baptismal register of his church was Mungo Park. He saw the child grow to manhood, and watched with joyful solicitude the manifestations of that spirit of adventure which impelled Park to lone and perilous wanderings in tracts of Africa previously untrodden by European feet. The minister hailed his return; and, eager for information and interested in openings for missionary enterprise, listened with delight to his narratives of travel and his accounts of Ethiopian customs. When Park went forth on his last and fatal expedition, he had the prayers and blessings of the good pastor. Nor did the family of the wanderer lack Mr. Lawson’s tender sympathy when, after long expectation of his return to the old farmstead on which he had been brought up, there could be no other conviction than that Perished in Africa must be written against his name in the family Bible.

Mr. Lawson was a great student; he intermeddled with all knowledge; but the Bible in the original languages, and in the noble English translation, was the treasury in which he most delighted. His thorough acquaintance with God’s Word, and his skill in applying it to peculiar circumstances, were at times beautifully exemplified. Going to preach at Harwich, he was overtaken by a storm of wind and rain. He had to take shelter in a cottage by the wayside, and improved the incident in a sermon on the words, “A man shall be an hiding-place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest.” Opening a new church at Lauder, he warned his hearers against formal and ceremonial worship by taking as the basis of his discourse, “Israel hath forgotten his Maker, and buildeth temples.” He heard of Napoleon’s banishment to St. Helena, when at Annan, and after a few hours’ preparation, gave an impressive sermon to two thousand people, founded on a passage in Jeremiah, “How is the hammer of the whole earth cut asunder and broken.”

He was emphatically a meditative man, and his abstraction of mind occasionally led to amusing incidents. He was out one rainy day, when a friend, whose door he was passing, put an umbrella into his hand. A person met him, and noticed that the umbrella was buttoned up in his great coat. His daughter’s bonnet was hung on the peg on which he usually hung his hat. Going out he took it down, and would have walked into the street with it on his head if he had not been prevented by one of the family. The kitchen chimney was on fire, and the servant, greatly alarmed, rushed to the study and shrieked out, “Sir, the house is on fire.” “Go and tell your mistress,” he said; “you know I have no charge of household matters.” He and his wife, returning from a sacrament in the country, were riding in the old fashion on one horse, but Mrs. Lawson wishing to call on a friend, requested him to wait for her return. The horse was not disposed to stand still, and walked off with its meditative master to Selkirk. The minister called to the servant, “Here, come and take your mistress off.” The servant explained the state of matters to him, and he had to ride back to meet his wife.

Though there was not a kindlier heart in Scotland, he could, when necessary, give severe reproofs. Soon after his settlement in Selkirk, one of the congregation, who was disposed to be meddlesome, told him that the people were very well pleased with his discourses, but did not like his texts. “I should not have wondered,” he replied, “if they had found fault with my discourses, but why should they find fault with the Word of God? ” “I do not know,” said the busybody, “but that’s what they say, and I aye like to speak all my mind.” “Do you know,” inquired the minister, “what Solomon says of such as you?” “No,” said the man; “and what does Solomon say?” “He says, ‘A fool uttereth all his mind.’” He was visiting one day at the house of a friend, when a gentleman was present who frequently used the words, “The devil take me.” The dinner had only just begun, but the Doctor rose and ordered his horse. His host pressed him to give a reason for his abrupt departure. He said, “That gentleman has been praying pretty often this afternoon that the devil would take him, and as I have no wish to be present at the scene, I beg to be allowed to depart.” Being at one time in poor health, he went to consult the famous Dr. Gregory, of Edinburgh. The physician repeatedly made a profane use of the name of God. Dr. Lawson could not pass over so flagrant an evil, and on leaving, said to him, “Sir, it is written, ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh His name in vain.’” To a minister who indulged in a trifling and unbecoming spirit, he said, “Sir, your predecessor was a grave, good, godly man.” “You do not mean,” said the minister, “to insinuate that I am not.” “I only say emphatically,” was the reply, “that your predecessor was an eminently godly man.”

His own character as a minister was bright as St. Mary’s Loch when the sun shines full upon it. In his own manse, in his intercourse with his brethren, in his pastoral visits, whether in the streets of Selkirk or to quiet cottages on “the bonny holms of Yarrow,” in the vestry with his elders and deacons, or in the pulpit, where his voice was ever a welcome sound to his people, he maintained the spirit and deportment of a servant of God. As years increased, his wisdom and piety deepened and mellowed, and the venerableness of the patriarch and the grace of the Apostle were beautifully blended in his old age.

Though simple in appearance and manner, he had a native dignity and greatness qualifying him for intercourse with those high above him in social station. Sir J. Pringle, of Hayning, had on one occasion a number of noble and distinguished guests at his mansion. They wished to know if there were any “characters” in the neighbourhood. Their host thought of the Secession minister at Selkirk, and told them that he had for a neighbour one of the wisest and best men living, and that he would invite him to dine with them. Dr. Lawson went, and for a time the company was disappointed; for he gave no indication of either oddity or superiority. After awhile conversation turned on the British Constitution. This brought up the merits and demerits of the Spanish Constitution. The Doctor was drawn into the subject, and gave such full and varied information in reference to Spain and its politics that all present were enchanted. On leaving, one of the guests shook his hand with great cordiality, saying at the same time: “Sir, we were only anxious to see you at first as a 'character,’ and now there is not one of us but is ready almost to worship you.”

After the death of the Princess Charlotte, Prince Leopold went to Scotland, and visited Sir Walter Scott, at Abbotsford. He passed through Selkirk, and received all the honours the little town could afford. Dr. Lawson was presented to him. The Prince was struck by his venerable aspect, and among other things said: “Such a man as you need not be afraid of the infirmities of age, nor of any earthly calamity. God is your Friend and Protector.” To this the Doctor replied: “Please your Royal Highness, I have long had a wish to see you on your own account, and still more so on account of your illustrious ancestors, Frederic and John, who so warmly defended the Reformation, and suffered so much in protecting Luther. On this account I have a greater regard for your family than for any other of the Princes of Germany.” The Prince thus responded: “Reverend Doctor, I sincerely thank you for the high compliment you have just now paid me. Such a compliment I have never received before: I am proud to think it is a just one. My ancestors were all zealous Protestants, and I can assure you so am I, Doctor.” Sir Walter Scott said to one of the company: “You see, Dr. Lawson has done better than us all, and got beyond us all in favour.”

Dr. Lawson, who received his diploma as D.D. from the University of Aberdeen, was appointed to succeed John Brown, of Haddington, as Theological Professor for the Secession Church. There was no collegiate residence in Selkirk. The students obtained lodgings at such houses as were open to them, and attended lectures in the church or the manse. Selkirk became noted as a School of the prophets, and the Professor was revered by all who had the advantage of his instructions. Numbers of them became locally eminent, and some more famous than their master.

Dr. Alexander Fletcher, of London, so renowned as a preacher to children, studied under him. In youth he was remarkably popular, and was for two years his father’s assistant at the Bridge of Teith, in Perthshire. The old man was rather jealous when he saw crowds flocking to hear his son, while he had only the ordinary congregation. Alexander was pained by his father’s disturbance of mind and took generous means to allay it. He asked his father to lend him one of his manuscripts, he committed the sermon to memory, and delivered, it with more than common fervour. The people were in ecstasies, and one member of the congregation said, “The old man never preached a sermon in his life like that.” On entering the manse Alexander said, “Father, is that satisfactory?” “O, ay!” replied the old man, “quite satisfactory.” “Yes, and you see,” added the noble son, “how little worth the popular prejudices are.” The old man never manifested any jealousy after that.

Ralph Wardlaw was another of Dr. Lawson’s students. Though he left the Secession Church, he ever entertained a deep sense of gratitude for the benefits he received in the Selkirk Divinity Hall, and in sending his work on “The Socinian Controversy” to his old teacher, expressed himself as attached #by many pleasant and profitable memories “to the beloved and revered tutor tinder whom he spent so happily his allotted time as a student.”

Dr. John Brown, the great expositor, was also a Selkirk man. In early life he indulged in metaphysical subtlety and literary adornments, to the obscuration of evangelical thought. He delivered a discourse which was severely criticised by the students and a minister who was present. The kind Professor called him into his library at night, and asked him how he felt after the censures of his performance. He acknowledged that he deserved it all. “Yes,” added Dr. Lawson, “I fear you have, and if I had gone into criticism I might have been more severe; but, John, we have both good reason to look well to our work, for if you come short in anything, every one will say, how much better you would have turned out if you had studied under your grandfather.” This tender expostulation was not lost on young Brown, and his powers were worthily bent to the elucidation of Gospel truth.

Dr. Lawson’s last public service was a sermon on the death of George the Third. He was carried in a chair from the manse to the church, and preached in weakness of body, but with vigour of mind and fervour of heart, from the words, “I have said, ye are gods; and all of you are children of the Most High. But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.”

A few days after this service, his soul escaped from earth. When he was dying one of his sons said to him, “Dearest father, what is the ground of your hope and comfort in this trying hour?” “All my hope, and all my comfort,” he replied, “spring out of the mercy of God, as manifested in the mediation of Christ Jesus. Here are my only stay, and strength, and consolation.” Allusion was made to his useful life. He said, “No, no; had I been such a man as Mr. Brown, of Haddington, or Mr. Johnstone, of Ecclefechan, I would have done far more good. I have done little, very little.” He- called his family one after another to come near him. He took each by the hand, blessed them, and bade them farewell in a devout and affecting manner. He then lifted up both hands, and, looking on his children, and the friends who had come to be with him to the last, said, with faltering voice: “The Lord my God bless you all.” Prayer was made that his departure might be in peace. “Lord take me to Paradise,” was his response ; and then “he was not; for God took him.” He died in the year 1820; leaving a name that is still held in high honour throughout Scotland. His intellect was distinguished by simple grandeur, and resembled a bare and awful peak, such as that of Ben Ledi or Ben Lomond, rather than a gentle slope on which the flowers have made rich mosaics in gold and crimson. All his mental faculties were of the solid, practical order, and by tongue and pen he gave a fine example of the power of clear thinking expressed in plain words. His writings have gained a good position in religious literature; but his highest praise is that he was a good man, and mighty in the Scriptures.


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