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Significant Scots
Ralph Erskine


ERSKINE, RALPH, the well known author of Gospel Sonnets, and other highly esteemed writings, was a young son of Henry Erskine, some time minister of Cornhill, in Northumberland, and, after the revolution, at Chirnside, Berwickshire, and was born at Monilaws, in Northumberland, on the eighteenth day of March, 1685. Of his childhood, little has been recorded, but that he was thoughtful and pious, and was most probably by his parents devoted to the work of the ministry from his earliest years. Of his earlier studies, we know nothing. Like his brother Ebenezer, he probably learned his letters under the immediate eye of his father, and like his brother, he went through a regular course of study in the University of Edinburgh. During the latter years of his studentship, he resided as tutor and chaplain in the house of Colonel Erskine, near Culross, where he was gratified with the evangelical preaching, and very often the edifying conversation of the Rev. Mr Cuthbert, then minister of Culross. He had here also frequent opportunities of visiting his brother Ebenezer, but, though younger in years and less liberally endowed with the gifts of nature, he was a more advanced scholar in the school of Christ, and his brother, if we may believe his own report, was more benefited by him than he was by his brother. Residing within its bounds, he was, by the presbytery of Dunfermline, licensed as a preacher on the eighth day of June, 1709. He continued to be a probationer nearly two years, a somewhat lengthened period in the then desolate state of the church, when the field, at least, was large, whatever might be the harvest, and the labourers literally few. At length, however, he received a unanimous call from the parish of Dunfermline, to serve as colleague and successor to the Rev Mr Buchanan, which he accepted, and to which he was ordained in the month of August, 1711, his friend Mr Cuthbert of Culross, presiding on the occasion. In common with all the churches of the reformation, the church of Scotland was from her earliest dawn of returning light, distinguished for her attachment to the doctrines of grace. There, as elsewhere, it was the doctrine of grace in giving thorough righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord, preached in its purity, freedom, and fullness, by Hamilton, Wishart, and Knox, which shook from his firm base the dagon of idolatry, and levelled the iron towers of papal superstition with the dust, and it was in the faith of the same doctrines that the illustrious list of martyrs and confessors under the two Charleses, and the Jameses sixth and seventh, endured such a great fight of affliction and resisted unto blood, striving against sin. At the happy deliverance from the iron yoke of persecution through the instrumentality of William, prince of Orange, in the year 1688, the ecclesiastical constitution of the country was happily restored with the whole system of doctrine entire. When her scattered ministry began to be assembled, however, it was found that the sword of persecution, or the scythe of time, had cut off the chief of her strength. The few that had escaped were men, generally speaking, of inferior attainments. Some of them had been protected purely by their insignificancy of character, some by compliances, real or affected, with the system of prelacy, and not a few of them had actually officiated as the bishops’ underlings, but for the sake of the benefice were induced to transfer their respect and obedience from the bishop to the presbytery, and to sign the Confession of Faith as a proof of their sincerity. This was the more unfortunate that there was among them no commanding spirit, who, imbued with the love of truth, and living under the powers of the world to come, might have breathed through the body an amalgamating influence, and have insensibly assimilated the whole into its own likeness. So far from this, their leading men, under the direction of the courtly Carstairs, were chiefly busied in breaking down to the level of plain worldly policy any thing that bore the shape of really disinterested feeling, and regulating the pulse of piety by the newly graduated scale of the court thermometer. In consequence of this state of matters, there was less attention paid, both to doctrine and discipline than might have been expected; and even with the better and more serious part of the clergy, considerable confusion of ideas on the great subject of the gospel, with no inconsiderable portion of legalism, were prevalent. A spirit of inquiry was, however, at this time awakened, and the diffusion of Trail’s works, with the works of some of the more eminent of the English nonconformists, had a powerful effect in correcting and enlarging the views of not a few of the Scottish clergy, among whom, was the subject of this memoir, who, from a very early period of life, seems to have felt strongly, and apprehended clearly, the great scheme of the gospel. Mr Ralph Erskine had been a most diligent student, and had made very considerable progress in the different branches of science, which were commonly studied at that time, but among his people he determined to know nothing save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. Having been exercised to godliness from his earliest years, he, by the grace of God, manifested himself to be a scribe instructed unto the kingdom of heaven, bringing forth out of his treasures things new and old. He continued to be a hard student even to his old age, generally writing out his sermons in full, and for the most part in the delivery, keeping pretty close to what he had written. For the pulpit, he possessed excellent talents, having a pleasant voice and an agreeable winning manner. He peculiarly excelled in the full and free offers of Christ which he made to his hearers, and in the persuasive and winning manner in which he urged their acceptance of the offer so graciously made to them on the authority of the divine word. He possessed also, from his own varied and extensive experience, a great knowledge of the human heart, and had a singular gift of speaking to the varied circumstances of his hearers, which rendered him more than ordinarily popular. On sacramental occasions, he was always waited upon by large audiences, who listened to his discourses with more than ordinary earnestness. During his incumbency, Dunfermline, at the time of dispensing the sacrament was crowded by strangers from all parts of the kingdom, many of whom, to the day of their death, spoke with transport of the enlargement of heart they had there experienced. To all the other duties of the ministry he was equally attentive as to those of the pulpit. His diligence in exhorting from house to house was most unwearied, his diets of public catechising, regular; and he was never wanting at the side of the sick bed when his presence was desired. Ardently attached to divine truth, he was on all occasions its dauntless advocate. In the case of professor Simpson, he stood up manfully for the regular exercise of discipline, both in his first and second process; and in the case of the Marrow, had his own share of the toil, trouble, and opprobrium cast upon the few ministers who at that time had the hardihood to make an open appearance for the genuine faith of the Gospel. Before the commencement of the secession, he was engaged, along with his copresbyters of the presbytery of Dunfermline, in a dispute with the general assembly, in behalf of the liberties of the presbyterian church of Scotland, in which, however, they failed. This was in the case of Mr Stark, who had been most shamefully intruded upon the burgh and parish of Kinross, and whom, in consequence, the presbytery of Dunfermline refused to admit as one of their members. The case was brought before the assembly, 1732, and summarily decided by ordering the presbytery to assemble immediately, and enrol Mr Stark as one of their members, give him the right hand of fellowship, and by all means in their power, to strengthen his hands, and hold him up against the opposition that was raised against him by the parish, under the pain of being visited with the church’s highest displeasure. Against this decision, protests were offered by Mr Ralph Erskine and others, but they were peremptorily refused. Another act of the same assembly became the ostensible cause of the secession. In this controversy, however, Mr Ralph Erskine had no share, farther than that he adhered to the protests that were offered in behalf of the four brethren who carried it on, took their part on all occasions, attended many of their meetings, and maintained the closest communion with them, both christian and ministerial; but he did not withdraw from the judicatures of the established church, till the month of February, 1737, when seeing no hope of any reformation in that quarter, he gave in a declaration of secession to the presbytery of Dunfermline, and joined the associate presbytery.

The fame of Mr Ralph Erskine was now, by his taking part with the secession, considerably extended; for the circumstances attending it were making a great noise in every corner of the country. It particularly attracted the notice of Wesley and Whitefield, who at this time were laying the foundations of Methodism in England. The latter of these gentlemen entered shortly after this period into correspondence with Mr Ralph Erskine, in consequence of which he came to Scotland, paid a visit to him, and preached the first sermon he delivered in this country from that gentleman’s pulpit in Dunfermline. The professed object of Mr Whitefield was the same as that of the secession, namely, the reformation of the church, and the promoting of the interests of holiness; and one mode of doing so he held in common with seceders, which was the preaching of the doctrines of the cross; in every thing else they were directly opposed to each other. Equally or even more decidedly attached to the doctrines of free grace, the seceders considered the settlement of nations and churches as of the last importance for preserving, promoting, and perpetuating true and undefiled religion. Nations, in consequence of the baptismal engagements of the individuals of which they may be composed, they held to be under indispensible obligations to make a national profession of religion; to cause that all their laws be made to accord with its spirit, and to provide for the due celebration of all its ordinances. Oaths, bonds, and civil associations, they held to be, in their own proper places, legitimate means of attaining, promoting, and preserving reformation. Hence they maintained the inviolable obligations of the national covenant of Scotland, and of the solemn league and covenant of the three kingdoms, and issued their testimony as a declaration for the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government of the church of Scotland. Of all these matters, Whitefield was utterly ignorant, and utterly careless. He had received priest’s orders in the English church, and had sworn the oath of supremacy, which one would suppose a pretty strong declaration of his being episcopal in his views. Of government in the church, however, he made little account, for he wandered about from land to land, acknowledging no superior, and seems to have regarded all the forms in which christianity has been embodied with equal favour, or rather, perhaps, with equal contempt. Of course, Mr Whitefield and Mr Erskine had no sooner met, and begun to explain their views, than they were mutually disgusted, and they parted in a manner which we think, has left no credit to either of the parties.

The associate presbytery was at this time preparing for what they considered the practical completion of their testimony, the renewal of the national covenants, in a bond suited to their circumstances, which they did at Stirling, in the month of December, 1743; Mr Ralph Erskine being the second name that was subscribed to the bond. The swearing of this bond necessarily introduced the discussion of the religious clause of some burgess oaths, which led to a breach in the secession body, an account of which the reader will find in a previous article (the life of Ebenezer Erskine). In this controversy Mr Ralph Erskine took a decided part, being a violent advocate for the lawfulness of the oath. He, however, did not long survive that unhappy rupture, being seized with a nervous fever, of which he died after eight days’ illness, on the 6th of November, 1752, being in the sixty-eighth year of his age, and the forty-second of his ministry.

Mr Ralph Erskine was twice married; first, to Margaret Dewar, daughter to the laird of Lassodie, who died in the month of November, 1730; having lived with him sixteen years, and born him ten children. He married, secondly, Margaret Simpson, daughter to Mr Simpson, writer to the signet, Edinburgh, who bore him four children, and survived him several years. Three of his sons lived to be ministers of the secession church, but they all died in the prime of life, to the grief of their relatives and friends, who had formed the highest expectations of their future usefulness.

Of the character of Mr Ralph Erskine there can be, and, in fact, we believe there is, but one opinion. Few greater names belong to the church of Scotland, of which, notwithstanding of his secession, he considered himself, and must by every fair and impartial man, be considered to have been a most dutiful son to the day of his death. During the days of Ralph Erskine, dissenterism was a name and thing unknown in the secession. Seceders had dissented from some unconstitutional acts of the judicature of the established church, and were compelled to secede, but they held fast her whole constitution, entered their appeal to her first free and reforming assembly, to which every genuine seceder long looked forward with deep anxiety, ready to plead his cause before it, and willing to stand or fall by its judgment. Of Mr Ralph Erskine’s writings, it is scarcely necessary to speak, any more than of his character. They have already, several of them, stood a century of criticism, and are just as much valued by pious and discerning readers, as they were on the day when they were first published. Models of composition they are not, nor do we believe that they ever were; but they are rich with the ore of divine truth, and contain many passages that are uncommonly vigorous and happy. Of his poetical works we have not room to say much; some of them are all that the author intended, which is more than can be said of many poetical productions that have a much higher reputation in the world. His Gospel Sonnets, by far the best of his poems, he composed when he had but newly entered on his ministry, as a compend of the scheme of the gospel, and we know few books that in a smaller compass contain one more perfect. The composition is very homely, but it is just so much better fitted for the serious and not highly instructed reader whose benefit alone the author had in view. Of his versions of the Song of Solomon, of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and of the Book of Job, it must be admitted that they are utterly unworthy of the gloriously divine originals; but it ought to be remembered, that he was put upon these labours by the urgency of his brethren, with a view to their being added to the psalmody, and that in this case, plainness and simplicity has always been aimed at, to a degree bordering on the bold, not to say the profane. Nor are these attempts, after all, beneath several of the same kind by the greatest names in English poetry.


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