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Significant Scots
Dr Robert Balfour


BALFOUR, DR. ROBERT. – This distinguished minister of the Church of Scotland, was born in Edinburgh, in April, 1740. He was early trained by his pious parents to the knowledge and practice of Christianity. He received his education at Edinburgh, and when only in the twelfth year of his age, came under decidedly religious impressions, which, joined to the natural amiability of his disposition, his promising talents, and diligence and success in his studies, gave a peculiar interest to his youthful character. When a mere youth, he became a member of a society which met for religious conversation and prayer. The devotional tendncy of his mind, thus early acquired, was a prominent feature of his character through life. Of his college career no record has been preserved; but that he soon gave indications of the talent which afterwards raised him to eminence, may be inferred from his having secured the friendship of Dr. Erskine, Lady Glenorchy, and other distinguished Christians of that day, who formed a high estimate of his abilities, and entertained sanguine expectations of his success as a preacher. In 1774, he was ordained to the ministry of the gospel in the small rural charge of Lecropt, near Stirling. Here he laboured with much acceptance and usefulness for five years, not inattentive meanwhile to his personal improvement, and in his pulpit duties giving no doubtful presages of the professional distinction and influence to which he was destined to rise. In June, 1779, he was translated to the Outer High Church of Glasgow, then vacant by the removal of Mr. Randal (afterwards Dr. Davidson) to Edinburgh.

At the time of Dr. Balfour’s settlement in Glasgow, evangelical religion was at a low ebb in the Established Church throughout Scotland, and a blighting Moderatism was in the ascendant. Dr. Balfour, from the outset of his ministry, warmly espoused the evangelical cause, which he recommended alike by the power of his preaching, and by the active benevolence and consistency of his life. His ministry in Glasgow gave a fresh impulse to the revival and diffusion of pure and undefiled religion in the west of Scotland. Christian missions were then in their infancy, and in Scotland met with much opposition from the dominant party in the Established Church. In the General Assembly of 1796, missionary enterprise to the heathen was denounced as corrupting the innocence and happiness of savage life, and missionary societies as "highly dangerous in their tendency to the good order of society" in this country. It was on this memorable, occasion that Dr. Erskine, then in his seventy-fifth year, vindicated the scriptural claims and obligations of missions to the heathen, in a speech which has become famous for its exordium—"Moderator, rax me that Bible!" Dr. Balfour was one of the founders of the Glasgow Missionary Society, which was established in 1796, a few months after the institution of the London Missionary Society. He preached a striking sermon at the commencement of the Society, which was one of the few discourses he ventured on publishing; and one of his last public acts, twenty-two years afterwards, was to sign a circular letter as its president. The following passage from the discourse just mentioned, bears testimony to the earnest interest he felt in the missionary cause, and affords an example of a style of appeal, which, with the aid of his melodious voice, keen eye, and graceful and fervid elocution, must have proved singularly animating. After describing the true missionary spirit and character, he proceeded—"We invite and press all of this description to come forward full of the Holy Ghost and of faith. We cannot, we will not tempt you with worldly prospects—if you are right-hearted men according to your profession, you will not seek great things for yourselves—you must not think of an easy life—you must labour hard—you must encounter difficulties, opposition, and dangers; for these, however, you are not unprovided. * * * We will follow you with our prayers, and with every blessing in our power to bestow. But what is of infinitely greater moment and advantage to you is, that the Lord Jesus, whose religion you are to teach, will be with you, and that he is greater than all who can be against you. Depending, then, on Him alone for your own salvation, and for the salvation of the heathen, seeking not your own pleasure, profit, or honour, but that he may be glorified in and by you, and by sinners converted from the error of their way, be not afraid—be strong and of good courage. To all who thus devote themselves to his service, we most heartily bid God speed. Fly, ye angels of grace, from pole to pole, and from the rivers to the ends of the earth, bearing to all men the glad tidings of the everlasting gospel; stop not in this bold flight of philanthropy, till you convey to the simple sons of the isles the knowledge of the true God and eternal life—till you arrest the wanderings of the roving savage with the wonders of redeeming grace—till you dart the beams of celestial light and love into the dark habitations of ignorance and cruelty— till you convert the barbarous cannibal to humanity, to Christian gentleness and goodness. Hasten to the shores of long-injured Africa, not to seize and sell the bodies of men, but to save their perishing souls. Follow the miserable captives to their several sad destinations of slavery, with the inviting proclamation of spiritual liberty, while you inculcate the strictest duty to their masters. Speed your way to India, to repay her gold with the unsearchable riches of Christ. Meet all the high pretensions of the Brahmin religion and literature, and all their fatal delusions and cruel impositions, with the overpowering evidence of the Christian as a divine revelation—with the full luminous display of evangelical truth and holiness. Cease not, till you see the whole earth filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the channel of the sea."

Dr. Balfour was "an eloquent man, and mighty in the Scriptures." But his was not an eloquence which sought its reward in popular applause. It flowed spontaneously from a heart deeply imbued with love to the Saviour and to the souls of men. Earnest preaching made earnest listening, and whilst his reputation in the pulpit continued unimpaired to the close of his life, the fruits of his ministry were abundant, and his influence extended far beyond the limits of his own congregation. His preaching was clear and comprehensive; textual, luminous, and pointed; exhibiting a remarkable intimacy with the varieties of Christian experience, and a profound knowledge of human nature; animated with a warm and persuasive earnestness; faithful and close in applying the truth; and exhibiting an exuberant flow of appropriate and powerful expression. All his pulpit addresses bore the impress of the cross; he preached Christ and the doctrines of salvation by free grace with simplicity and godly sincerity. "Those who have listened to him," wrote his attached friend, the late Dr. Wardlaw, "in his happy moments of warm and passioned elevation, have heard him pour forth the fulness of an affectionate spirit; warning, alarming, inviting, persuading, beseeching; his whole soul thrown into his countenance; and, in his penetrating eye, the fire of ardent zeal gleaming through the tears of benignity and love." His preaching engagements were frequent, and he was always ready.to afford his services on every call of public usefulness. He was not in the habit of writing his discourses at full length, but his preparations for the pulpit were never relaxed. Although not displaying the plodding habits of the scholar, he kept up his knowledge of general literature, and cultivated an acquaintance with the works of the best authors in his own profession. His morning hours were consecrated to study and devotion. He possessed the power of readily commanding his thoughts in the intervals of daily occupation, and was in the habit, to use his own expression, of "carrying about" with him the subjects on which he intended to preach. His stores of thought and illustration were ample and exuberant, and being gifted with a ready utterance, he could on every occasion express himself with ease and propriety. Without the appearance of much labour, therefore, he was able to appear in the pulpit with a felicity and success to which men of inferior minds find it impossible to attain after the most laborious efforts. He seldom engaged in controversy, and did not often obtrude himself upon the notice of church courts, for the business of which, however, he showed no want of aptitude His modesty and humility prevented him from issuing more than a few of his more public and elaborate productions through the press. An anecdote is related of him, which illustrates his disinclination to publish, as well as the readiness with which he could draw in an emergency upon the resources of his richly stored mind. On one occasion, after having preached with much acceptance on the divinity of Christ, he was waited upon by a young man, who, on his own part and that of two companions, preferred an urgent request that he would print his discourse, assigning as a reason that it had completely relieved their minds of doubts which they had been led to entertain on this momentous doctrine, and that it was fitted to have the same effect upon the minds of others similarly situated. On the Doctor expressing his aversion to appear in print, his visitor entreated the favour of a perusal of the manuscript. In this he was equally unsuccessful, for it then appeared that the Doctor, on proceeding to the church, had found himself—from some unwonted and inexplicable cause— utterly incapable of recalling the train of thought which had occupied his mind in preparing for the pulpit, and at the last moment he was under the necessity of choosing a new text, from which he delivered the unpremeditated discourse that had produced such a salutary impression upon the minds of his three youthful hearers.

The ministrations of Dr Balfour were not confined to the pulpit, he laboured assiduously from house to house, and proved himself a "son of consolation" in chambers of sickness and death. His philanthropy and public spirit led him also to take an active interest in every object for the relief and comfort of suffering humanity. His comprehensive Christian charity embraced all of every name in whom he recognized the image of his Lord and Master. Although himself conscientiously attached to the Established Church, he exemplified a generous and cordial liberality towards those who dissented from her communion. Christians of every persuasion united in esteeming and loving him and his praise was in all the churches. When called up to the metropolis in 1798, to preach before the London Missionaiy Society, he gave expression to views of Christian catholicity and union, which the organizations of later times have scarcely yet realized—"Why," said he, "may not every Christian society, and all denominations of Christian society, anticipate in their experience and relative situations, and exemplify to the world that happy state of things which we believe shall take place at the time appointed of the Father, and shall continue in the world for a thousand years! Though we cannot agree in all our views of divine truth, and therefore must have our separate churches to maintain our several distinct professions of Christian tenets, I have often thought that we might, with an equally good conscience, meet ocasionally, not only to converse, and pray, and sing praise, but to eat together the Lord’s Supper, in testimony of the faith and profession of fundamental principles wherein we are more closely united than we are by other things removed from one another. * * * O thrice blessed day! God of love, thy kingdom come! Prince of peace, let thy rest be visible and glorious! O! gracious Divine Spirit, fly like the peaceful dove over the field of universal nature, to produce, preserve, promote, and perfect the reign of kindness and of happiness, till misery be banished from the earth, murmurs be silenced, love and gratitude be excited, charity and generosity triumph, and all things which are on earth be reconciled to God, and to the whole world of the intelligent and moral creation."

His attachment to his congregation, which embraced many godly persons, was evinced on the occasion of his receiving an offer to be presented to Lady Glenorchy’s chapel in Edinburgh, which he declined, although in a worldly point of view it possessed considerable advantages over his charge in Glasgow. He was alike frank, friendly, and accessible to all classes of his people, and had always a kind word for the poor. He showed great tact in dealing with the humbler members of his flock, who sometimes came to the good man with unreasonable complaints. When the old-fashioned practice of the precentor reading line by line of the psalm was discontinued, an ancient dame presented herself to the minister, to express her concern at the innovation, at the same time gently reproaching him for departing from a good old custom of our pious forefathers—a custom, be it remembered, which had been introduced at a time when few persons in a congregation were able to read. "Oh, Janet," replied the doctor, in a tone of kindly remonstrance, "I read the psalm, and you sing it; what’s the use of coming over it a third time?" "Ou sir," was the ready answer, "I juist like to gust my gab wi’t!" In process of time "repeating tunes" were introduced in the precentor’s desk, and Janet hastened forthwith to the minister, to lodge her complaint against the profane innovation. "What’s the matter wi ye now?" inquired the doctor, as he welcomed the worthy old dame into his presence. "The sang tunes, wi’ their o’ercomes brocht into the worship of the sanctuary," quoth she; "it’s juist usin’ vain repetitions, as the heathens do." "Oh dear no, Janet," slyly interposed the doctor, "we juist like to gust our gabs wi’t"

Dr. Balfour married, in November, 1774, Isabella Stark, daughter of Mr. Stark, collector of excise at Kirkaldy. She died in October, 1781. In June, 1787, he married Catherine M’Gilchrist, daughter of Mr. Archibald M’Gilchrist, town-clerk of the city of Glasgow. She died in May, 1817. These were not the only instances of domestic bereavement which he experienced in the course of his life. He preached on the day after the celebration of the Lord’s Supper at Dumbarton, in July, 1786, with an earnestness and solemnity more fervid and impressive than ordinary, as if his mind were under a powerful impulse. On his way home he received information of the death of a beloved and only son, in circumstances fitted deeply to wound his heart. Henry, a fine spirited boy, had been left by his father, then a widower, during an absence of some days, under the charge of Mr. and Mrs. Denniston of West Thorn, and was accidentally drowned in the Clyde. After recovering from the first paroxysm of grief occasioned by the heart-rending intelligence, Dr. Balfour hastened to tender his sympathy to his deeply afflicted friends, whose kindness had been permitted to prove the innocent cause of involving him and his family in this calamity. This he did, in the first instance, in a letter of touching pathos and beauty, which afterwards found its way to the public, and was embodied in a little volume of "Letters addressed to Christians in Affliction," published in 1817. The death of his son Archibald took place many years previously, on the day when he preached the sermon by appointment of the Glasgow Missionary Society. His own death was sudden. On the 13th of October, 1818, Dr. Balfour appeared to be in his usual health and spirits. In the course of the day he became unwell while walking out with a friend, and made an effort to return home. But his illness increasing, he was assisted into a friend’s house in George Street, from which it was deemed imprudent to attempt to remove him. The symptoms were found to be those of apoplexy. He continued in a state of insensibility till the evening of the next day, the 14th, when he expired. He died in the seventy-first year of his age and forty-fifth year of his ministry. Of his whole family, only two daughters survived him: by his first marriage, Isabella, married to John Duncan Esq., merchant, Glasgow, son of his old friend, the Rev. Mr. Duncan of Alva; and Margaret, by his second marriage. We cannot better conclude our brief sketch of the life of this estimable man and eminent minister, than by the following tribute to his memory by Dr. Chalmers, who, when settled in Glasgow, ever found a true friend in Dr. Baffour, one perfectly free from all professional jealousy, and who rejoiced at the progress and success of that great man’s peculiar parochial labours:—

"The pulpit is not the place for panegyric, but surely it is the place for demonstrating the power of Christianity, and pointing the eye of hearers to its actual operation; and without laying open the solitude of his religious exercises, without attempting to penetrate into the recesses of that spirituality which, on the foundation of a living faith, shed the excellence of virtue over the whole of his character, without breaking in upon the hours of his communion with his God, or marking the progress and the preparation of his inner man for that heaven to which he has been called,—were I called upon to specify the Christian grace which stood most visibly and most attractively out in the person of the departed, I would say that it was a cordiality of love, which, amid all the perversities and all the disappointments of human opposition, was utterly unextinguishable; that over every friend who differed from him in opinion he was sure to gain that most illustrious of all triumphs, the triumph of a charity which no resistance could quell; that from the fulness of his renewed heart there streamed a kindliness of regard, which, whatever the collision of sentiment, or whatever the merits of the contest, always won for him the most Christian and the most honourable of all victories. And thus it was that the same spirit which bore him untainted through the scenes of public controversy, did, when seated in the bosom of his family, or when moving through the circle of his extended acquaintanceship, break out in one increasing overflow of good-will on all around him; so that, perhaps, there is not a man living who, when he comes to die, will be so numerously followed to the grave by our best of all mourners—the mourners of wounded affection, the mourners of the heart, the mourners who weep and are in heaviness under the feeling of a private, and a peculiar, and a personal bereavement."


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