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John Caird
Principle of Glasgow University


An Appreciation

During the later half of the nineteenth century Scotland produced scarcely any man of finer intellect and nobler character than John Caird. He was undoubtedly the most eloquent preacher of his time and occupied no mean place among the philosophical students and thinkers of the period.

He was born in Greenock in 1820, and died in 1898. His father was partner and manager in a well-known firm of engineers, and young Caird, on leaving school, was taken into the office, and for more than two years worked as if engineering was to be his destiny. But a year or two at the University of Glasgow inspired him with new tastes and aspirations, and when the engineering firm was dissolved on the death of his father, followed shortly by the death of an uncle, he resolved to give up business and study for the Church. The love of learning which had been kindled during his brief period at College, and religious impressions deepened by the death of his father and unde combined to fix this decision, and so when twenty years of age he resumed his studies at the University of Glasgow. The period was one of intense ecclesiastical controversy, for “The Ten Years’ Conflict” was rapidly approaching its sad climax in the so-called Disruption of 1843.

But from temperament and conviction John Caird had little caring for these fiery disputes. While loyal to the Church of Scotland, he never was, then or afterwards, a “party man,” and had no liking for Church Courts, which he seldom or never entered during his whole life. What did move him was the bitterness which had been engendered, while the questions in debate failed to enlist his sympathies or to stir his enthusiasm. The spiritual and practical aspects of Christianity attracted him, ecclesiastical warfare utterly repelled him.

His first charge was Newton-on-Ayr, a parish which from that day became for several years the happy starting point of several of the most celebrated preachers of the Church. John Caird was the first and by far the greatest of these.

But his fame spread rapidly, and eighteen months afterwards he was appointed minister of Lady Yester’s parish in Edinburgh. The Church was a plain building in an obscure neighbourhood, but soon after his arrival it became the chief centre of religious interest in a city at that time renowned for famous preachers and famous men of letters and science. Yet here was a lad of about twenty-six years of age whose extraordinary eloquence and power were such that long before the hours of service eager crowds hurried from all parts to gain admission to the very unpretending edifice which had suddenly become a focus of command* ing spiritual influence. I can myself remember the sensation which his preaching then created, and the extraordinary impression it made upon myself, young as I was. His very appearance fascinated me and the peculiarly rich voice and musical accentuation thrilled the hearer. Nothing can be truer than the picture given of his preaching at that time by Dr. Mackmillan, quoted by the Master of Balliol in his beautiful but too brief memorial of his brother. “Profoundly impressed himself, his words rang out strong and fervent, emphasized by the most appropriate gestures. Standing back from the book-board, tossing his long hair from his forehead, his eye kindling with a dusky yet piercing light, “orb within orb," he poured forth a succession of impassioned sentences which fairly carried you away. There was no pretence, no studied unnatural effect, but the fire and rapture of native eloquence. . . . With a long and highly-wrought peroration, in which he seemed to exhaust all his oratorical powers, he brought his discourse to a conclusion; and the loud sob of the audience indicated how profoundly they had been thrilled and strained in the course of its delivery.”

His preaching at that time was in certain aspects better fitted for mere popular effect than in his after life. It was more unrestrained, and while he never fell beneath the requirements of his inborn fastidiousness as to literary quality, yet his abandon to the deeply stirred emotions he experienced was in continual evidence and the consequent passion of his oratory became frequently overpowering. The whirl of the splendid periods and the self-forgetfulness which often led to the piling up of his appeals until his voice approached almost a scream in his desire to emphasize the thought he was enforcing, lent a quality to his early efforts which gradually vanished or became moderated as his style became more chastened. Yet those who heard him then will recall these early years of his ministry as having displayed his gifts as an orator in a form which for mere effect was unique in their experience.

After three years of immense toil during which the mental and nervous tension was more than flesh and blood could stand, he sought retirement in a country parish, where he might have quiet for study, and enjoy the calming influences of the Scottish Manse with the congenial interests of pastoral work among the rural parishioners. He thus became minister of the parish of Errol in the Carse of Gowrie, and soon displayed the practical side of his nature by devising methods for the benefit of the young, especially for the girls engaged in weaving and field labour. For this end he built and organised a school— of a character not so commonly found then as now—which might be an attraction and a place where the interests of the girls might find a healthy stimulus through instruction in domestic economy, dress-making, cooking, etc. The result was all he had hoped for. The sordid and careless lives soon showed the improvement which his wise project effected, and the keen interest he experienced in guiding his venture, and the hard work he undertook in raising the necessary funds and in placing the school on the best working basis revealed that practical aptitude which found ampler scope when he became head of a great University.

It was when at Errol that, in 1855, he was invited to preach at Crathie before the Queen and the Prince Consort, and delivered his sermon on “The Religion of Common Life,” which was afterwards published by command of the Queen, and at once drew the attention of the nation to the preacher. Although the teaching was of a kind which has since become more common, yet it is proof of its exceptional power that after more than fifty years the sermon is still sold in thousands.

It was, however, impossible that such a man could be allowed to remain in retirement. The quiet years at Errol with their hours of hard study and systematic reading could not have been regarded even by himself as an end. The result of these days of reflection, the enlargement and maturing of his views, and the stronger grasp he gained of the principles which formed the basis of all his work could not fail to command an outlet in a more important field than a retired Perthshire parish, and, accordingly, in 1857, he was forced to make a choice between St. George’s Church, Edinburgh, and what was then the unfinished Park Church, in the West of Glasgow. After some deliberation he decided in favour of Park Church, and on the last Sunday of 1857 he was inducted. I well remember the wide interest which the services of that day created. The forenoon service was conducted by Norman Macleod and in the afternoon by John Caird. At once the success of the new Church was more than assured. Not only was every seat let but crowds waited Sunday after Sunday for admission, and were glad if they could obtain standing room. The four years he remained in Park Church were years of hard work and splendid achievement. In my opinion his power as a preacher reached its zenith at that time. There was a fulness of thought, a sustained brilliance of diction, a masterly exposition and impassioned application of practical principles which showed spiritual and mental growth when compared with his earlier ministry. The very fact that he was addressing people immersed in business, the intelligent merchants and captains of industry, the lawyers, and physicians of a great dity, gave a practical turn to his teaching and a direction to his earnestness that was often startling and not in such evidence afterwards, when it was his duty to address an audience of professors and students, and when questions of another kind pressed upon his attention. For while ever presenting the noblest ideals, yet sometimes in scathing language he would set the vulgar pursuit of wealth for its own sake in vivid contrast with the nobler uses of riches and of life itself. His oratory as a preacher also reached its highest point in Park Church. If it lacked the unrestrained abandon of the days when he was at Lady Yester*s, yet the perfection of style, which seemed his birthright, was charged full of a passion held in greater restraint, yet because of the restraint more moving and convincing. At the forenoon services he generally gave an exposition of Scripture from such brief notes as left the impression of extempore speaking, but so interesting were these simple addresses that many preferred them to the finished and glowing orations of the later service. We can appreciate, as far as the difference admits between printed discourses and those delivered with the fire of burning earnestness, the high standard reached during his first year in Park Church by referring to the volume of sermons he published in 1858.

As on the conclusion of the intervening ministry of Dr. Charteris I became minister of Park Church, I had special opportunities for learning what Dr. Caird’s pastoral work had been. No one could have been more faithful in the visitation of the sick. “His visits when I was ill,” a lady once said to me, “were like those of a messenger of God. I can never forget the simplicity, tenderness, and beauty of his words and prayers.” At the request of Norman Madeod, he undertook a mission in a poor and degraded district in the large Barony parish, and laid down lines on which the work was conducted, and inspired the energies of the workers so effectually, that it was continued for years afterwards by the congregation, and still remains in the fuller form of an endowed parish. He had little caring for the calls which “Society” made upon his time, for by taste he was a scholar, and loved what he termed “his hermit’s life” among his books. Yet when he did enter into social life no one could be more charming. But it was among his intimate friends that the richness of his genial nature was unveiled and his native sense of humour manifested. Some of his amusing stories were about himself. I remember one he used to tell with immense delight. It referred to the time when in Park Church his fame as a preacher was highest, and when he went for a brief rest to the Bridge of Allan. On the Sunday morning a message came that the minister of the parish was so unwell that he could not preach and Caird was pressed to take his place. The church was crowded and the audience thrilled, but as he was escaping home with that shy avoidance of observation which was characteristic, he overheard one old woman saying to another, “D’ye ken I wadna wonder but that yon young man may get a parish!”

“The Essays for Sunday Reading” which are embraced in this volume consist of gleanings from the sermons he preached in Park Church, and were contributed to Good Words in 1863, the year after he had entered on his duties as Professor of Theology in the University. It is necessary to remember that fact because, as might have been expected, these sermons contain the substance of teaching which naturally appears in other forms in later publications. But the similarity of thought does not indicate re-production but simply the continuity of his convictions presented in the more mature form which experience and requirements different from weekly congregational teaching created. If there is any similarity at all it is because his views were fundamentally the same throughout, although he passed into other fields and had to deal with other subjects and interests. If there are also contrasts these are only such as may be looked for when there is spiritual and mental growth and a deeper understanding of the relative problems which philosophy and science suggest.

One recollects with sadness how in those days of a narrow and intolerant evangelicalism the suspicion was whispered that John Caird was not “sound,” and that he “did not preach Christ.”

If any man ever preached Christ he did, although not in the dogmatic form or expressed in the Shibboleths which were then deemed incumbent. Similar insinuations were made against Norman Macleod, John Tulloch, and others whose souls were on fire with the love of Christ. The accusation was in each case as untrue as it was stupidly ignorant. I can never forget while he was preaching in Park Church late, I think, in the eighties, the burning words with which in an unexpected outburst he made a pathetic confession of his devotion to the Word of God and to the Gospel of Christ as the source of all his light and all his hope. It came as a surprise, not because he so felt, but because of the intensity of the emotion displayed, and the eloquence of the apparently interjected passage.

Dr. Caird entered on the duties of Professor of Theology under a deep sense of responsibility and with the firm determination to dedicate all his powers to the task of educating those who were afterwards to be ministers in our Scottish and other Churches—for he attracted many nonconformist students as well as those who were preparing for the Church of Scotland. He became himself a student and showed full sympathy with his class, dealing with the questions on hand in the loving spirit of one seeking to “commend the truth to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” The whole trend of his nature was opposed to the enforcement of mere external authority. He had such confidence in truth that he did not fear to submit every subject to the test of the closest reasoning, and endeavoured to lead the young minds he was instructing to perceive the eternal fitness of the views he was commending. He studied hard, sparing himself no fatigue and so lectured that he ever kindled a fine spiritual and intellectual enthusiasm. All felt the influence of that noble soul and worked for him “with a will.” He had a marvellous analytic power and, as with the sharp knife of the dissector, he would lay bare the weak points in not a few accepted theological arguments, and again pour forth his positive beliefs with a dearness and an earnestness which carried conviction. His methods were certainly not those of the “crammer,” but of the teacher who stimulates living thought and makes men think out problems for themselves, training them in prindples and methods. He was at once a keen dialectician and an idealist, cutting deep foundations and building high. His students were devoted to him and carried from his dass the inspiration of the high tone and exalted aspirations of a great and good man who was at once their teacher and their friend.

On the death of Principal Barclay in 1893 a petition was forwarded to the Government, signed by all the members of the Senate, requesting the appointment of Dr. Caird to be his successor. At that time the University had been xvii recently removed from the small but picturesque academic buildings in the High Street, hemmed in by a population and surrounded by the social and sanitary conditions of what may be termed “slums.” The spacious buildings erected on Golmorehill at the west of Glasgow are nobly situated and, as in contrast to the ancient pile in the High Street, are surrounded by a fine park. The change had a stimulating effect on the life of the University, and it synchronized with a series of legislative and other measures of reform which greatly altered its constitution. The office of Principal accordingly involved Dr. Caird in discussions which required all the technical knowledge he had gained during the years he was a member of Senate, and brought into play the wisdom and tact and firmness combined with a spirit of conciliation which were so important for the safe guiding of the University at this period of transformation. It will be heartily conceded by all who bore an active part in moulding the future of the College that his influence and counsel were of the utmost value. He at once maintained the dignity of his office and displayed the open mind and wise judgment of a statesman.

The years when he was Principal afforded more opportunity than he previously had possessed for prosecuting those philosophical studies which had ever a profound attraction for him. Delivered from the daily exactions which his professorship xviii entailed, he turned, like one athirst, to the works of the great thinkers in philosophy ancient and modem and worked with absorbing devotion. His brother, now the famous Master of Balliol, became Professor of Philosophy in Glasgow and was rapidly gaining the position, he now holds without challenge, of being one of the prominent philosophers of our time. The two brothers thus like-minded were moving in orbits which, if not wholly identical, were at all events similar, and each afforded stimulus and the benefit of acute criticism to the other. Almost daily might they have been seen taking their long walks together and apparently engrossed in most earnest talk.

The results of these studies were made manifest in the rich literary productiveness of his later years. From the time of his entrance on the duties of Professor of Theology to the end of his career there was a visible deepening of his intellectual life, and while retaining the religious convictions which had formed the groundwork of his character and teaching, yet every one felt the change in the wider outlook of his views and the firmness of his grasp of the multitude of questions which modem research suggested. He was a man who grew mentally and spiritually to the very end, and his later works reveal a power which mark the greatness of the advance. His oratory remained—for it was inborn—but it was greatly chastened, and his style assumed the character rather of the thoughtful scholar than of the popular preacher. As specimens of literature these later works undoubtedly excel the earlier, for as examples of English pure and undefiled the University Sermons and University Addresses, the “Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion,” and his Gifford “Lectures on the Fundamental Ideas of Christianity” can scarcely be surpassed for clearness and beauty of expression, and for an eloquence in which imagination brilliantly illuminates argument without suggesting die slightest desire of using it for mere effect.

Looking back on these prelections delivered annually in the University one can scarcely think of any more useful work on the part of an academic chief than the series of Addresses which served to raise the minds of the students from the mere grind and specialisation of class studies, to the contemplation of far-reaching and ennobling principles. Taken together they give us the best insight into the richness of intellectual culture, the breadth of sympathy, the warmth of human emotion, and the sanctity of the spiritual mindedness which characterised Principal Caird.

But only those who knew him personally can fully appreciate what the man was. For myself, among the many distinguished persons it has been my privilege to meet, I have known no one, except perhaps the venerable Lord Kelvin and another, who was at once so great and so modest, simple, honest and sincere. He disliked display, and absolutely shrank from ostentation and from the deference which the staring crowd pays to its heroes. Although the most famous preacher of his time, yet so self-diffident and even nervous was he that I have seen him all a-tremble when about to take part in some such function as a marriage.

Pure as a child, and child-like in his reverence, gentle and loving in heart, he consecrated his great gifts to the highest ends and having faithfully “ served his generation by the will of God, he fell asleep.”

DONALD MACLEOD.
6th July, 1906
1 Woodlands Terrace,
Glasgow.

Download his Essays for Sunday Reading
Also his An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion


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