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Significant Scots
Robert Balmer


BALMER, REV. ROBERT, D.D.—This profound theologian and valued ornament of the Secession church, was born at Ormiston Mains, in the parish of Eckford, Roxburghshire, on the 22d of November, 1787. His father, who was a land-steward, was a man in comfortable though not affluent circumstances, and Robert’s earliest education—besides the ordinary advantages which the peasantry of Scotland possessed—enjoyed the inestimable benefit of a careful religious superintendence, both of his parents being distinguished for piety and intelligence. The result of such training was quickly conspicuous in the boy, who, as soon as he could read, was an earnest and constant reader of the Bible, while his questions and remarks showed that he studied its meaning beyond most persons of his age. His thirst for general knowledge was also evinced by a practice sometimes manifested by promising intellectual boyhood—this was the arresting of every stray-leaf that fell in his way, and making himself master of its contents, instead of throwing it carelessly to the winds. On the death of his father, Robert, who, although only ten years old, was the eldest of the family on the evening of the day of the funeral, quietly placed the books for family worship before his widowed mother, as he had wont to do before his departed parent when he was alive. She burst into tears at this touching remembrance of her bereavement, but was comforted by the considerate boy, who reminded her that God, who had taken away his father, would still be a Father to them, and would hear them—"and, mother," he added, "we must not go to bed to-night without worshipping him." Consolation so administered could not be otherwise than effectual: the psalm was sung, the chapter read, and the prayer offered up by the sorrowing widow in the midst of her orphans; and the practice was continued daily for years, until Robert was old enough to assume his proper place as his father’s representative.

The studious temperament of Robert Balmer, which was manifested at an early period, appears to have been not a little influenced by his delicate health, that not only prevented him from joining in the more active sports of his young compeers, but promoted that thoughtfulness and sensibility by which sickly boyhood is frequently characterized. The same circumstance also pointed out to him his proper vocation; and he said, on discovering his inability even for the light work of the garden, "Mother, if I do not gain my bread by my head, I’ll never do it with my hands." As to which of the learned professions he should select, the choice may be said to have been already made in consequence of his domestic training: he would be a minister of the gospel, and that, too, in the Secession Church to which his parents belonged. He proceeded to the study of Latin, first at the parish school of Morebattle, and afterwards that of Kelso, at the latter of which seminaries he formed a close acquaintanceship with his schoolfellow, Thomas Pringle, afterwards known as the author of "African Sketches," which was continued till death. In 1802 Mr. Balmer entered the University of Edinburgh, and, after passing through the usual course of classical, ethical, and scientific study, was enrolled as a student in theology in connection with the Associate Synod. Even already he had established for himself such a respectable intellectual reputation, that his young brethren in preparation for the ministry received him with more than ordinary welcome. As Dr. Lawson, the Theological Professor of the Associate Synod, lectured only for two months of each year, at the end of summer and commencement of autumn, Mr. Balmer, in common with several of his fellow students, attended the regular course of theology during the winters at the university of Edinburgh. They thus themselves of the two-fold means of improvement which they possessed, without any compromise of their principles being exacted in return; and the fruits of this were manifest in after life, not only by the highly-superior attainments of many of the Secession ministry, but the liberal spirit and kindly feeling which they learned to cherish toward their brethren of the Established Church, and the affectionate intercourse that often continued between them to the end. This, however, alarmed some of the elder and more rigid brethren of the Synod: they thought that this liberality savoured of lukewarmness, and would in time prove a grievous snare; and, under the impression an overture was introduced into the Synod, for the prevention of all such erratic courses in future. The students of Selkirk, who studied under Dr. Lawson took the alarm at this threatened restriction, and the petition and remonstrance presented by them in vindication was drawn up by Mr. Balmer. Although some indignation was expressed at the students for the liberty they had thus taken in addressing the supreme court of their church, the petition was received by the Synod, and the obnoxious overture dismissed. One of the senior and leading members observed on this occasion, that he would be sorry to see any measure adopted which would tend to drive from their body the man who could write such a paper.

After having finished the four years’ course of divinity prescribed by the Presbyterian Churches of Scotland, it was expected that Mr. Balmer should apply for license as a preacher. This was the more necessary in the communion to which he belonged, as the number of its licentiates scarcely equalled that of the vacant congregations. But, to the surprise of his friends, he held back for two years, although his delay was attributed to unworthy motives. Already one of the most promising students of the connection, it was thought that he demurred from mere pride of intellect, and was unwilling to identify himself with a cause which as yet had produced so few men of high mark: others, who were aware that he had already been advised to pass over to the Established Church, and share in its honours and emoluments, imagined that he had taken the advice to heart, and only waited the fit season for such a step. But these surmises were as unkind as they were untrue. His ambition went no higher than to be the humble, useful minister of some country Burgher congregation, while his humility confirmed him in the belief that he would have for his brethren men of still higher attainments than his own. His delay entirely originated in scruples of conscience. He had thought anxiously and profoundly upon the subject, and could not wholly admit the formula which he would be required to subscribe as a licentiate. "On the question," he afterwards said, "demanding an assent to the Confession and Catechisms, I stated, that to me these documents appeared so extensive and multifarious as to be disproportioned to the narrow limits of the human mind; that I at least had not studied every expression in them so carefully as to be prepared to assent to it with the solemnity of an oath; that I approved of them, however, in so far as I had studied them; and that the Presbytery might ascertain, by strict examination, the amount of my attainments, and treat me accordingly—which of course they did." His scruples were respected, his explanations in assenting to the formula admitted, and on the 4th of August, 1812, he was licensed as a preacher of the gospel by the Associate Presbytery of Edinburgh.

On commencing the great work to which all his studies had been hitherto directed, and all his life was to be henceforth devoted, Mr. Balmer began under rather inauspicious circumstances. All are aware how essential certain external advantages are in the formation of an acceptable and popular preacher, and how completely a Dissenting preacher depends upon this popularity for his call to the ministry, and the successful discharge of his duties. But in the graces of person and manner Mr. Balmer was decidedly wanting. His eyes, from their weakness, had an unpleasant cast, and his figure was ungainly; his voice was monotonous; and his gestures were, to say the least, inelegant. For a person in his position to surmount such obstacles argued a mind of no ordinary power. And he did surmount them. Such was the depth and originality of thought, the power of language, and heart-moving unction which his sermons possessed, that his growing acceptability bade fair in a short time to convert these defects into positive excellencies in the eyes of his captivated auditories. In a few months he received calls from not less than four congregations, so that he would have been in a strait to choose, had not the laws of his church provided for such doubtful emergencies. Amid such competition, the choice devolved upon the Synod, modified, however, by the personal wishes of the preacher thus called; and on Balmer expressing a preference for the congregation at Berwick, he was ordained its minister on the 23d of March, 1814.

The life of a Secession minister in a third-rate town affords few points for a limited memoir. They are also of such a regular monotonous character, that the history of a single month is a sufficient specimen of whole years so occupied. And yet, while thus employed, Mr. Balmer was neither a dull nor inefficient workman. He threw the whole of his large intellect and warm heart into his sacred duties; and while he secured the love of his congregation, his reputation was silently growing and going onward, until, without seeking it, he found himself a man of high mark and influence in that important segment of the church universal to which he belonged. And all the while he was continuing to improve his faculties, and extend his intellectual resources, for his was not a mind to rest satisfied with past acquirements, however sufficient they might be for the present demand. Events also occurred, or were searched out and found sufficient to keep up that wholesome stir of mind without which the best of duties are apt to become a monotonous task. Among these was the exercise of his pen in a review of the work of "Hall of Leicester on Terms of Communion,’ which was inserted in two numbers of the Christian Repository of 1817. He was also on several occasions a visitor to London, whither he was called on clerical duty; and in these southward journeys he enjoyed much "colloquy sublime" with Robert Hall, of whom his reminiscences are among the most interesting that have appeared of that great pulpit orator and theological metaphysician. He also took a keen interest in the union of the two parties of the Secession Church, known by the names of Burghers and anti-Burghers, which took place in 1820. This was an event that was dear to his heart, for not only was he a lover of Christian concord, and the enemy of all infinitesimal distinctions that keep brethren asunder, but he had been born in that union; for although his father and mother had belonged to the different parties, they had always lived and acted as those who are completely at one. In 1826 he married Miss Jane Scott, daughter of Mr. Alexander Scott of Aberdeen, and sister of John Scott, the well-known author of "Visits to Paris." In the year following he was involved—as what minister in Scotland was not more or less involved-—in what is still vividly remembered under the name of the "Apocrypha Controversy." Mr. Balmer endeavoured on this occasion to reconcile the contending parties, and was requited by the suspicions of the one, and the active hostility of the other, for his pains. Such was the fate of not a few at this time who endeavoured to perform the part of peacemakers. They are "blessed" indeed—but not of men, and must look elsewhere than to the earth for their reward. After the Apocryphical, the Voluntary controversy predominated, in which the Secession, utterly renouncing the Establishment principle, which it had hitherto recognized in theory, became thoroughly and completely a Dissent, by proclaiming the inexpediency and unlawfulness of civil establishments of religion, and contending for a separation between Church and State. On this occasion, Mr. Balmer took the part that might have been expected from his character and situation. He was allied in friendship with many ministers of the Established Church; and, in common with many of his brethren, he was conscious of the fickleness of popular rule. All this was well so long as the question was left to every man’s conscience. But when it swelled into a public controversy, and when every person was obliged to take a side, and be either the friend or the enemy of Voluntaryism, Mr. Balmer acted as every Secession minister did, who still meant to abide at his post, instead of passing over to the opposite church. He thought that the voluntary system although an evil, was the least evil of the two, and therefore he became its apologist and advocate.

On the death of Dr. Dick of Glasgow, who for thirteen years had been professor of theology in the Associate, and afterwards of the United Associate Synod, it was resolved to establish three divinity professorships, instead of one. On this occasion Mr. Balmer’s high talents were recognized, by his appointment in 1834, first to the chair of pastoral theology, and afterwards to that of systematic theology. Although Glasgow was the sphere of his professorship, his duties called him away from Berwick only two months in the year. The duties of such a brief session, however, were scarcely less than those of a six months’ course in our well-endowed universities. The following is an account of them given by one of his pupils:—"It is not, I presume, necessary to say more of the nature of his course than that it consisted of five parts—one preliminary, on the Christian evidences; one supplementary, on Christian morals; the other three consisting respectively of—topics in Revelation preparatory to the scheme of redemption; of the work of the Redeemer; and of the blessings of redemption. Those subjects were gone over in a series of lectures, extending over the last three years of the students’ course. Each session occupied eight weeks, and the number of weekly lectures, each of an hour’s length, was five, so that the total number delivered in a full course was, after every abatement for interruption and irregularity, somewhere below one hundred and twenty. Another hour daily was somewhat irregularly divided between examinations, or rather oral lectures, and hearing of the discourses of between forty and fifty students, in the third and fifth years of their progress, to which was sometimes added an occasional voluntary essay." Of the manner in which these duties were discharged, the same pupil affectionately adds:—"Who can ever forget the hours spent in hearing these prelections, or the singularly impressive manner of him by whom they were delivered? The simplicity of the recluse student, exalted into the heavenliness of mature saintship—the dignified composure, mixed with kindly interest—the look of unworldly purity and abstract intelligence, that more than redeemed the peculiar and unpromising features—the venerable hoary head, that no one could refuse to rise up and honour—all strongly fixed the eye; and then came the full stream of a never-to-be-forgotten voice, monotonous only in simple and unimportant sentences, but varied in striking cadence through all the members of an exquisitely balanced period, and now kindling into animation and emphasis in the glow of argument, now sinking into thrilling solemnity and tenderness with the falls of devout emotion; while all the while no play of look, or fervour of tone, or strange sympathetic gesture, could disturb your idea of the reigning self-possession and lofty moral dignity of the speaker. Never had lecturer a more attentive audience. The eagerness of note taking alone broke the general silence."

When these important labours were finished, Mr. Balmer returned at the end of each session to Berwick, not for the purpose of rest, however, but to resume his clerical duties with double vigour. In this way his life went on from year to year—silent indeed, and overlooked by the world in general; but who can trace or fully estimate the effects of such a life upon the generations to come? He who in such fashion rears up teachers of religion may live and die unnoticed, but never unfelt: his deeds will travel onward, from generation to generation, even when his name has utterly passed away; he will still live and instruct, in his pupils, and the disciples of his pupils, though his dust may long ago have mouldered in the winds. In 1840 Mr. Balmer received from the university of St. Andrews the degree of Doctor in Divinity, which was spontaneously conferred upon him by the Senatus, without influence or solicitation. During the latter years of his life, a controversy was agitated in the United Secession, upon the extent of the atonement, which threatened at one time to rend that church asunder, and which even yet has not been terminated. In such a case, it could not be otherwise than that Dr. Balmer, however unwillingly, should express his sentiments upon the question at issue. This he did, but with such gentleness and moderation, as to soften the keenness of debate, and increase the general esteem in which he was held by all parties. After this his season arrived in which every theological doubt and difficulty ends in unswerving and eternal certainty. A short but severe illness, the result of mental anxiety acting upon a feeble frame—the first and last attack of serious pain and sickness he had ever felt—ended his life on the 1st of July, 1844. This event, however anticipated from his years and growing infirmities, not only threw his whole congregation into the deepest sorrow, each individual feeling himself bereaved of an honoured and affectionate father, but struck with a sudden thrill the extensive Associate Secession church through its whole range in Scotland and England. Even the funeral of Dr. Balmer was significant of his catholic liberality and high talents—of one who had lived in Christian peace and love with all, and won the admiration and esteem of all; for in the town business was suspended, the inhabitants assembled as if some prince of the land was to be honoured and bewailed in his death, and the coffin was followed to the grave by the ministers of every denomination, both of the English and Scottish Establishment and Dissent, who dwelt in the town and country. A monumental obelisk was soon after erected over the grave by his affectionate congregation. Two volumes of his writings have also been published since his death, the one consisting of Pulpit Discourses, and the other of Academical Lectures, in which the high estimate taken of his talents by the church to which he belonged is fully justified.


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