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Thomas M'Crie, D.D.


THOMAS M‘CRIE was born at Dunse, in Berwickshire, in November, 1772. His parents, who held a respectable position in the little town, were members of the Anti-burgher section of the Secession Church. They were both godly people of the old Scotch type; but it was from the instructions and prayers of his mother that Thomas received his first bias towards a religious life. He was encouraged by her in early predilections for the ministry, and while yet a boy looked forward with seriousness of thought to the day when he would bear the honours and responsibilities of the pastoral office.

The Grammar School of the parish afforded him the advantages of a classical education; and his progress in learning was such as to excite the interest of the more intelligent parishioners. Even in holiday times, when other boys were trying to forget their lessons in rural sports and rambles, he would take his books into the fields, and, sitting under the boughs of a tree, spend the day in his favourite studies. His father was not disposed to aid him in prolonging his scholastic pursuits, saying, he “would not make a gentleman of one of his sons at the expense of the rest but some of his relatives interposed on his behalf, and he was allowed to go on in his literary course. In order to lessen the weight of dependence on liis father, he taught a country school when he was only fifteen, and though a juvenile, was not in any way an inefficient “dominie.”

When he had reached his sixteenth year lie left his home for the University of Edinburgh. His mother accompanied him on the road over Coldingham Moor; and before bidding him farewell, knelt with him behind a rock, and in solemn yet pathetic tones, gave him np to the service, and comfnended him to the care, of Grod. She died the following year; but to the end of his life he was influenced by memories of her saintliness and deep affection, and rarely thought of her without his lips becoming tremulous and his eyes tearful. He missed nothing in the University that could be gained by industry, and thought highly of the professors, especially Dugald Stewart, who at that time held the Chair of Moral Philosophy. His admiration of the great academical orator was enthusiastic, and he did not think it possible for his magnificent prelections to be equalled by those of any later master of philosophic thought and rhetorical phrase; for when a friend once said to him, “I have been hearing Doctor Browne lecture with all the eloquence of Dugald Stewart,” he exclaimed with emphatic decision of manner, “Ho, Sir; you have not; and no man ever will.” In 1791 he entered the Anti-burgher Diviniiy Hall, which was at that time in Whitburn, under the care of the Rev. A. Bruce. As he had only to attend the Hall a few months in the year, he commenced a school in Brechin. He began with two or three scholars, but their progress was so satisfactory that the number soon increased, and the school became one of the best in the town.

In 1795, Mr. M‘Crie was licensed to preach by the Anti-burgher Presbytery of Kelso, and in the following year became minister of a congregation in the Potter-row, Edinburgh. His sermons were at first too metaphysical and rhetorical for the simple people; but what he witnessed when on a visit to the Orkneys, led him to adopt a more direct and evangelical style of preaching. He went to Kirkwall to assist in the ordination of a minister, and to preach on one of the islands where a revival had broken out in a prayer-meeting, and had been followed by an appeal to the Synod for ministerial help. Crowds were drawn together, and the young minister from Edinburgh was amazed and delighted as he saw the effect of the Gospel on the susceptible hearts of the islanders. He returned home with the impression on his mind that the truth in its native lustre, as he had been able to present it in the Orkneys, would be more likely to benefit his own people than elaborate disquisitions on abstruse themes; and from that time there was less of human wisdom and fuller announcement of Christian doctrine in his pulpit addresses. He was not gifted with the oratory which makes a man “as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice and can play well on an instrument;” but his sermons were marked by a solemn massiveness, resembling a temple hewn out of a rock of porphyry; and there are some among his published ones, especially that on “The Prayer of the Thief on the Cross,” worthy of taking rank with Hall’s “Modern Infidelity,” and Watson’s “Man Magnified by the Divine Regard.!’

Mr. M‘Crie was as diligent in pastoral as in pulpit duties, and manifested a beautiful disinterestedness in his relations to his people. In 1798 they proposed an addition to his stipend; but not wishing them to increase their financial responsibilities at a time when he thought they were doing all that could reasonably be expected of them, he interposed in a delicate and graceful manner, and besought them to delay their generous purpose: “I am persuaded that when Providence places it in your power, you will not be backward to make my circumstances easy; and having this confidence I have more satisfaction than any sum you can add could give me. I would wish to rejoice in my stipend as one of the fruits of my preaching among you; but the consideration of this being a burden to you would deprive me of this joy, and even hurt me in the exercise of my ministry. Go on, my brethren, in your regular attendance on the ordinances of Christ. Abound yet more and more in the fruits of righteousness; let me have joy in beholding your good order and the steadfastness of your faith in Christ; and every other thing shall, in due time, be added to me.”

Unfortunately Mr. M‘Crie allowed several years of his ministerial life to be embittered by ecclesiastical contentions. When he was licensed he objected to the formula of the Anti-burgher Synod in reference to the power of the civil magistrate in matters of religion; and would only take it with certain explicit reservations. The Synod, though in dissent from the Established Church as having been unfaithful to its original constitution, still adhered to Establishment principles, and in its Testimony insisted as strenuously as Knox or Melville could have done, on the duty of Christian governments to minister to the authority and revenue of the Church. But at the time of Mr. Marie’s request for license, the Synod was contemplating a change in its Testimony in reference to the duty of the State, and the young man, anticipating days when religion would no longer lean on the secular arm, could only be induced to accept the Testimony in the light of the prospective revision. The New Testimony was adopted in 1804, but Mr. M‘Crie was no longer animated by his youthful dream of a Church rising in the spirit of a calm independence above the patronage of the monarch and the statesman; and the liberal opinions he had once avowed were, in his later judgment, fatal to the right development of Christianity.

The close relationship of the Church to the State had become with M‘Crie a principle sacred as if it had been “written and engraven” on the stones of Horeb; and, in conjunction with three of hi3 brethren, he protested against the New Testimony in so fax as it favoured voluntaryism. The Synod, anxious to prevent even a small secession, offered liberty to the protesters, to retain their views on condition that they should not, either from the pulpit or by the press, impugn the principles of the revised formula. They refused to bind themselves to silence, and while the Synod of 1806 was sitting in Glasgow, formed themselves into what they called, “The Constitutional Associate Presbytery.” Their action soon became known to the Synod, and Mr. M‘Crie, being regarded as the greatest offender, was at once visited with deposition from the ministry and exclusion from sealing ordinances. When some of his people went to express sympathy with him on account of the sentence, he said, “I certainly looked for being suspended; I hardly expected they would have proceeded this length: but,” he added with solemn emphasis, “what am I that I should be counted worthy to suffer shame for His name.” The congregation in Potter Row was nearly equally divided in favour of, and against the principle for which Mr. M‘Crie had contended, and both parties claimed the meeting-house; the one, as representing the original basis of the Church; the other, as being in harmony with the authoritative deliverances of the Synod. After lengthened litigation, the adherents of Mr. M'Crie agreed, on receipt of a sum of money, to resign what they considered their right in the property, and went to an obscure chapel at the foot of Carrubber’s Close, where, with dingy windows above them, and seated in unsightly pews, they listened to sermons worthy of being preached before Divinity Professors in St. Giles Cathedral.

Though Mr. M'Crie’s studies had a narrowing effect on his opinions on ecclesiastical polity, they drew him into familiarity with the events of the Scottish Reformation, and the long struggle for the maintenance of Presbyterianism against the prelatical tendencies of the Stuarts. The great men who smote so boldly the Popery that had fastened itself on Scotland, and the not less heroic men who succeeded the Reformers, were vividly seen by Mr. M‘Crie, and their purposes and doings were as well known to him as if he had met them a hundred times in the Canongate or on the Grassmarket of Edinburgh. His knowledge was first utilised in a series of articles in the “Christian Magazine" and then in his famous work,—to the preparation of which he devoted the labour of several years,—the Life of John Knox. It appeared in 1811, and its author was at once recognised as a great master in the art of biographical portraiture. The Reviews broke out in a chorus of eulogistic remarks on the historical accuracy and literary genius of a writer whose name had not been previously heard, excepting in connection with a church squabble which had no interest but for those actually engaged in it. The University of Edinburgh honoured itself by bestowing on him the degree of Doctor of Divinity. But no commendation could have been more gratifying to him than that which he received from his favourite Professor, Dugald Stewart. The Professor, it is said, was one Sunday confined at home by illness. All the family, with the exception of himself and his old servant John, had gone to church. Heeding some attention he rang the bell, which, to his surprise, was not answered; he rang again, but still John did not come forward. After ringing in vain a third time, he thought it necessary to ascertain what had become of John. Opening the door of the servants’ room, he saw him seated at a little table, bending eagerly over a book; and it was not until he had been shaken by the shoulder, that he became conscious of his master’s presence. On being asked what book it was that had so captivated him, he replied, “Why, Sir, it is a book that my minister has written, and really it is a grand one.” It was the Life of Knox, and the Professor said that he would see what he could make of it. He began to read it, and found himself unable to lay it down until he had read it through. The following day he waited on Dr. M‘Crie, to express his admiration of the work, and spoke of it in highly laudatory terms. The author responded to the Professor’s eulogy in the Latin saying which signifies, “It is delightful to be praised by one who has himself gained the praise of mankind.” The Life of Knox was not only regarded as a welcome addition to the libraries of England and Scotland, but was also translated into French, Dutch, and Herman. Dr. M‘Crie fully deserved all the renown it brought him. He gave completeness and harmony to the story of the Scottish Reformation, and cleared away the prejudices and misconceptions that had gathered around the memory of Knox, as a blast of wind from the Campsie Hills clears away the mists that gather round the Reformer’s statue in the Glasgow Necropolis.

The Life of John Knox was followed by that of Andrew Melville. This did not excite the same attention as the previous work, but to many readers it is not less interesting; in addition to its masterly representation, of the principal figure, it gives many side glimpses of the political, ecclesiastical, and scholastic movements of the time; and is enriched with skilful pen-and-ink etchings of King James, George Buchanan, James Melville, and other prominent personages. Some parts of it have a pictorial vividness scarcely to be found in the Life of Knox. There are incidents which, though strictly historical, have all the charm of romance; and even readers who have but little sympathy with the Presbyterianism which dared to confront the crown and the mitre, must find it difficult not to execrate the kingcraft and prelatical intolerance which awarded persecution and an exile’s death to a man of such learning, genius, and patriotism as Andrew Melville.

The most noted of Di\ M‘Crie’s minor works was his Review of Scott’s “Old Mortality.” The famous novelist, while doing his best to present Claverhonse in all the features of heroic magnificence, had grossly caricatured the Covenanters, and under such designations as Mucklewrath, Poundtext, and Mause Headrigg, had turned men and women, who, though extreme in their views, were as to fidelity to principle and nobleness of Christian character the very flower of Scotland, into objects of ridicule and laughter. Dr. M‘Crie was righteously indignant at the perversion of history for the sake of popular effect, and gave Scott a literary castigation, about as severe as that which John Foster gave Sydney Smith in the Eclectic Review. Magician as Scott was, he could not elude the strokes of Dr. M'Crie’s pen; and though he said he had not, and certainly never should read, the articles in which his romance was criticised, he found it necessary to do so, and also to attempt a vindication of himself.

Dr. M‘Crie wrote a History of the Reformation in Spain, and also of the Reformation in Italy. Though neither of these books have the epical unity and perfect finish of his biographies, they are valuable as showing how the truth can be appreciated by Spanish and Italian hearts, and as bringing from obscurity the names of martyrs, who, sustained by the presence of the Lord, triumphed over the terrors of the executioner’s knife and the flaming fagot. It would be vain to take up those histories in the expectation of finding descriptions of scenery and architecture blended with the narrative of struggle and suffering. Dr. M'Crie was too eagerly employed in tracking human “footprints on the sands of time,” to linger amid the leafy loveliness of orange gardens and vineyards, or to spend time in the measurement of cathedrals, palaces, and monasteries. He was not a landscape painter, or an archaeologist, but a. delineator of man in his varied heroisms, failures, and successes. The last work on which he was employed was the Life of Calvin. One of his sons, who was on the Continent, supplied him with materials, which, if his life had been spared, he would have wrought into a stately memorial of the Genevan Reformer and Theologian. He had reared the pedestal, and thrown out a sketch of the great lines of the statue, when he was called away, and had to leave his task unfinished.

Dr. M‘Crie seldom took part in public meetings; but when he did he spoke with more than the effectiveness of the popular orator. In 1825 a number of ladies in Edinburgh were arranging for a meeting to aid the cause of female education in Greece. Sir James Mackintosh was to take the Chair, and a deputation of ladies waited on Dr. M‘Crie to solicit his help. “Doctor,” they said, “we are anticipating great things at our approaching meeting. We have endeavoured to select our speakers as judiciously as possible for the sake of the cause. For all we require in the way of argument we depend on you: and for the classical recollections and the appeals of eloquence we look with confidence to Sir James.” But as if half-humorously resolved to rebuke the ladies for entertaining the idea that he was simply a hard logician, he gave a speech so rich in allusions to the literature of Greece, so eloquent in its reminiscences of the ancient glories of the land, and so impassioned in its predictions of freedom for the people who had dared to rise against their Turkish oppressors, as to remind his hearers of the most magnificent orations of Edmund Burke.

Though as an ecclesiastic of the old Scottish mould, Dr. M‘Crie was hard and stem as Spenser’s iron man Talus, his soul was not lacking in tender affections, and no one could have desired a more loving friend or relative. He delighted in the “sweet societies” of his home, but had to lament the death of a child, and some years later of his wife. He also felt very keenly the death of his venerable instructor in theology, the Rev. A. Bruce, and that of his great friend, Dr. Andrew Thomson, of Edinburgh.

In the beginning of 1835 his health failed; his work became a burden; and half-an-hour’s speaking exhausted him. No man could have been less fanciful or superstitious; but a little before his death, he was powerfully impressed by a dream, in which he saw his mother in the same aspect, with the exception that her face was very pale, as when she knelt with him behind the rock, and bade farewell to him on Coldingham Moor. In the dream she beckoned to him to follow her, which he promised to do. The last sermon he preached was on the text, “Whose fan is in His hand, and He will throughly purge His floor, and gather His wheat into the garner; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” It was noticed at the close of the service, that, contrary to his usual custom, he sat at the door of the vestry watching the people as they left the church. There were but few of them that he saw again, for early the following week he was stricken with disease, which proved fatal; and he entered on his eternal rest on August 5th, 1835, in the sixty-third year of his age.


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