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Significant Scots
Rev Robert Gordon


GORDON, REV. ROBERT, D.D.—This acute original thinker and eloquent preacher was born in Glencairn, Dumfriesshire, on the 5th of May, 1786. His early opportunities for obtaining a superior education appeared certain, as his father, a man of considerable natural endowments, as well as high religious worth, was parochial schoolmaster at Kirkland of Glencairn. This prospect, however, was apparently extinguished when Robert was about six years old, by the death of his father; but it often happens that such a bereavement, instead of discouraging, only braces a mind of native energy, and fits it for future excellence by a stern apprenticeship of effort and self-reliance. Besides this, he still possessed an able guide, so far as his school-boy studies and the bias of his mind were concerned, in his surviving parent, of whom he was the only son; a woman characterized in her limited circle by strong intellect, as well as pious principles. How Robert availed himself of these advantages was well attested by the fact, that when he had scarcely reached his sixteenth year he was appointed by the heritors of Kirkland to the office of parish teacher, which his father had occupied. Not only the excellence of his scholarship, but also the steadiness and energy of his character, must have been well established, when they were allowed to outweigh such an immaturity in point of years. The choice was justified; for though so young, he conducted himself in such a trying position with the steadiness and gravity of matured manhood; and his pupils, several of whom were older than himself, regarded him not only with affection, but deep, dutiful respect.

As it was to the office of the ministry that the wishes of Robert Gordon had been directed, he did not long remain in that of a schoolmaster. Attendance at the university was necessary, and he repaired to Edinburgh, where, like many of those who have become the most talented divines of the day, he supported himself during his course of study at the university by the scanty resources of tutorship; and thus fought his way onward, step by step, until he reached the Divinity-hall. In this rough fashion not a few of the ablest linguists, as well as profoundest thinkers, of our church are formed for active service. A situation as tutor in Perthshire occasioned his removal from Edinburgh, and the prosecution of his theological studies at Marischal College, Aberdeen, where he enrolled as a student in divinity in 1809, and at the age of twenty-three. At this period, also, he was a member of the Theological Society, composed of theological students of the college, and there formed acquaintanceships with several who afterwards became distinguished ornaments in the church, and with whom his intercourse continued till the close of life. His appearances as a student at this period are thus described by one of the members. He "soon attracted much attention by his power of reasoning and of expressing his thoughts in nervous language. In fact, there was a general reluctance to encounter him in argument, or to take the opposite side of a question to that which he supported. He manifested both a great facility in dealing with principles, and a great acuteness in detecting the fallacies of an opponent. Still, his example unquestionably exercised a very salutary influence in stimulating the other members to prepare themselves on questions to be discussed, so as not to treat them in a superficial manner, as they were aware that their reasonings and averments would have to undergo a sifting process. His manner of debating, too, characterized by great fairness, tended much to correct a habit into which young controversialists are apt to fall, viz., that of triumphing in small advantages, and of substituting empty declamation for argument." While such was his intellectual character, his moral deportment was in admirable coincidence and harmony. The same commemorator of his early days thus continues:--"Modesty was a quality by which he was eminently characterized at the time of which we speak. He could bear his part well in general society, but he always showed much deference to his elders, especially if they had other claims to respect. His early friends will remember that he used to manifest the deepest abhorrence of anything in the shape of falsehood, mean selfishness, and hypocrisy, and a most withering contempt of all false and hollow pretensions." In what strong relief all these qualities of his youth were brought out when Dr. Gordon entered into public life, can be well remembered by those who enjoyed his society, and now deplore his recent departure.

The attendance of Mr. Gordon at the Divinity-hall extended over five sessions, partly at the University of Edinburgh, but more especially at Aberdeen; and with the study of theology, that of the exact sciences occupied much of his attention. It was to these, indeed, that his original bias tended, and their study influenced his intellectual character both as a scholar and theologian. He cared little for the produce of imagination, and would at any time have preferred a problem to a poem: instead of being contented to see an idea looming in the distance and through the mist, and taking it upon such doubtful security, he must needs gauge it in all its length, breadth, and thickness, before he could be satisfied. It was no wonder, therefore, that he was so impassive to transcendentalism, and that in after years he characterized one of Coleridge’s marvellous monologues, to which he had listened with a countenance of mathematical severity, as "all buff." This intellectual tendency had made him a close and accurate meteorological observer; had enabled him to discharge successfully the duties of a factor as well as tutor to one of his employers, and had pointed him out as the fittest person to write the articles, "Geography," "Euclid," and "Meteorology," in the Edinburgh Encyclopedia. It was also these powers of calculation, combined with capacity for the multifarious details of business, that procured for him the tempting offer of an important situation in the East India House. But all these capacities he devoted exclusively to the service of the church, and they were manifested not only in his mode of teaching as an investigator and expounder of the lessons of Divine truth, but the efficiency with which he managed those financial operations connected with the church’s welfare that were committed to his care.

The first public situation which Robert Gordon held was that of master in the Academy of Perth; but not long after, he was appointed minister to the parish of Kinfauns, Perthshire. In this rural charge he remained only four years, having been called in 1820 to the old chapel of ease in Buccleuch Street, Edinburgh; and soon after to the quoad sacra church of Hope Park, which was built for him. His arrival in Edinburgh produced an unwonted stir, and he was soon one of the most popular and highly-valued preachers of the day. At this no one was so astonished as himself: his innate modesty could not perceive wherefore he was so followed after; and while he shrunk from such popularity as a misplaced and uncertain liking, it only clung to him the more pertinaciously on that account. His preaching, indeed, was in a style that was all his own—it was religious truth in its own native simplicity and distinctness, enforced with all the impassioned earnestness of one pleading upon a life-and-death question—theological speculation without its coldness and abstraction, and oratory without its meretricious ornaments. Few could refuse to listen, or listening, fail to comprehend such preaching, although it so much transcended, both in expansiveness and depth, the usual standard of pulpit ministrations. A volume of these sermons, which he published, attested its true character, so that the work went through several editions, and is still prized as a standard production, while the most intellectual of the inhabitants of Edinburgh became part of his regular congregation. As might be expected, also, the diploma of doctor in divinity was speedily conferred upon him. In 1825 he was translated from Hope Park to the new North Church, and in 1830, to the High Church of Edinburgh.

During the whole course of Dr. Gordon’s ministry, he was seldom to be found engaged in the controversies of church courts; but when it was necessary in any important question to express his sentiments, they bore the stamp of his reflective conscientious character, and were received with respect. Such was the case in 1829, when the great question of Catholic emancipation would not permit him to be silent, and when he also found himself compelled to dissent from most of his brethren. In spite of all the warnings of history to the contrary, the majority had persuaded themselves into the fond belief that Popery, which must be all or nothing, would be contented with only a part; and that when its present demands were conceded, the question would be sett1ed to all future time, and a vexatious controversy for ever laid to rest. His prophetic declarations upon this occasion, while they have been but too well justified by succeeding events, were very different from that uncharitable sweeping condemnation with which it is so much the fashion to condemn every item of Popery, and every individual holder of its tenets. Addressing the Presbytery of Edinburgh, who had for the most part become enamoured of the soothing system, he said:—"I know nothing in the history of Popery, and I have been able to discover nothing in the manifestations of its spirit, that will warrant me to hope that the removal of Catholic disabilities will induce the priesthood of the Romish Church to remove the seal which they have dared to put on the Word of God, and to permit us to carry the Bible, without let or hinderance, among the multitudes from whom they have hitherto excluded it. I give them credit for a deeper and a stronger attachment to their faith, than to suppose that any political boon, or, as they think it, any act of political justice on our part, will have any weight with them in rendering them more willing to see their flocks transferred to the guardianship of Protestant pastors; nor can I conceive that they will do otherwise than smile at our simplicity when we avow a hope, that by conceding to them the privileges which they now demand, we shall have disarmed their hostility to our tenets, and drawn them over to what they think our heresies and our delusions. I should be disposed to draw the very opposite conclusion. It is by their fidelity to their common cause—their determined, persevering, united efforts—such efforts as a religious union alone could make—that they have compelled Government to adopt the measures now in progress for conceding to them certain privileges. I say, compelled; for, after all the attempts to explain it away, this is in reality the acknowledgment of the highest political authority in the empire. And are they so unskilful either in spiritual or political tactics—so little able to avail themselves of the vantage ground on which this measure, if successful, will place them—as to be less careful of the union which has secured so important a step towards the attainment of what must be the wish and ultimate object of every consistent Catholic—the supremacy of their system!" Such were his sentiments upon the question of Catholic emancipation in 1829, and the events of the present day but too well attest their soundness.

After this decided stand, which Dr. Gordon made in opposition to the most esteemed and talented of his brethren, events succeeded of still more imperious urgency, which dragged him from his peaceful seclusion, and sent him into the arena. These were, the preludes to the disruption of the Church of Scotland, and finally the disruption itself. Still, however, his gentle spirit predominated, and throughout the storm of controversy that raged for years, his words were like oil upon the troubled waters when their commotion is at the fiercest. So high, however, was his intellectual standing, and so well understood the uncompromising conscientiousness of his principles, that this very gentleness which, in an inferior or doubtful person, might have gone for nothing, only seemed, in the case of Dr. Gordon, to give his opinions greater weight and ascendancy. The public, that looked on in doubt and uncertainty, were compelled to respect a cause which had such a man for its advocate, and even the wavering of his own party were confirmed, when they saw his hearty zeal in its behalf, and remembered his well established character for wisdom, circumspection, and forbearance. Such was especially the case when they beheld him accompanying the Presbytery of Dunkeld to the bar of the Court of Session in 1839, to be censured for ordaining a minister to the parish of Lethendy in opposition to a civil interdict. In 1841 he presided as moderator of the General Assembly, and in this capacity it was his painful duty—from which he did not shrink—to depose the seven ministers of Strathbogie. In the same year, Dr. Gordon presided at the great meeting which was held on the 25th of August in the West Church, Edinburgh—a meeting limited expressly to those office-bearers of the church who approved of its late resistance to the civil power, and were willing to persevere at every hazard; and his address on that solemn occasion, to about twelve hundred ministers and elders assembled from every part of Scotland, while he announced the principles for which they were now called to contend, and his own settled resolution to maintain them at whatever cost or hazard, sunk deep into every heart. His next public appearance was at the convocation held at Edinburgh in November, 1842, in consequence of the judgment pronounced by the House of Lords on what was called the second Auchterarder case, in which it was declared, that the refusal of a people to a patron’s presentee was not only no bar to his enjoying the temporalities of his parochial charge, but none also to his being ordained as minister of the parish. It was evident that the contest had come to such a height that a separation between church and state was inevitable, if each party still continued to hold by its respective principles, and accordingly the convocation was called for the purpose of considering whether, and in what manner, the separation should take place. These meetings extended over several evenings, and were held in Roxburgh church, where between four and five hundred ministers gave their attendance. It was at one of those meetings that a speech of Dr. Gordon made a solemn impression upon the hearts of his auditory; and in the course of it he so clearly defined and so distinctly announced the duties of a church thus circumstanced; that his statements form the best apology for the disruption that afterwards ensued. "I set out," he said, "with the principle, that the state, the supreme power in the state, has an absolute, uncontrolled, uncontrollable dominion over civil things. Civil rulers may exercise their power in a bad way—they may do what is clearly wrong; but theirs is the power, as an ordinance of God: to God they are responsible; but I, as a subject of the realm, am bound to obey them. In the next place, I hold that we have a certain connection with the state, in which connection a certain temporal thing is concerned. They were entitled to offer us these temporalities on any conditions they chose at first. In the same way they may come forward at any future period and say, ‘We have changed our mind:’ they may propound new conditions to us; and if we cannot agree to these conditions, they may take back the temporalities they gave us. But then it may be said, ‘We are not come to that; the state does not insist yet on the conditions to which we object.’ It must be admitted, however, that the judgment of the supreme civil court is a prima facie ground for the belief that the state regards these conditions as binding, and that these decisions, unless repudiated by the state, must be so interpreted. We don’t need them to pass a new statute declaring what the conditions are. The statute, as interpreted by the supreme court, is virtually a new statute. It is thought by some parties that the ecclesiastical courts will succumb to the decisions of the civil, and therefore that the interference of the state will not be required; it is therefore our duty to go to the state, and say that we cannot and will not succumb. I cannot understand how I, as an honest man, could retain my temporalities on other conditions than those on which they are offered me. A reverend gentleman in the house spoke of voluntarily abandoning the temporalities, and said that to do so would be to act at a disadvantage. Now, I do not go out of the Establishment voluntarily; I am forced to it by what is infinitely more terrible to me than the soldiers sword or the constable’s baton—my own conscience. I am persecuted into it. You may talk of maintaining the people’s privileges; I cannot maintain them at the expense of honesty. Some may think that the attachment of the people to our cause would be much stronger if they saw our ministers thrust out by violence, but that is not the sort of attachment we desire. We wish the attachment of men conscientiously holding our views, for that is the only kind of attachment which will stand the test to which our people may be exposed. Any feeling towards a minister arising from indignation at personal violence offered to him would be of very short duration."

Day by day events went onward until the moment of trial arrived. And would a disruption in very deed take place at last, and five hundred clergymen be found so true to their promise, and so self-denying, as to lay down their comfortable state endowments at the demand of what so many considered a mere abstract principle? No, it is impossible: martyrdom is only for a rough cheerless period of society, and not for the sleek comfortable days of this middle term of the nineteenth century in which our happy lot has been cast! So said statesmen; so said the well-endowed dignitaries of the Church of England; so said the moderate party of the Church of Scotland, whose violence had precipitated matters to this dangerous point. But it was not among them alone that there was either scornful scepticism or sympathetic doubt; for even among the most confirmed of the out-goers there was a painful apprehension that, even at the last moment, there might be a wavering among their ranks, and a falling away of many. Upon this point even Dr. Gordon too had experienced moments of gloomy anticipation, in which he feared that the promised disruption would finally dwindle down into a trivial dissent, whose testimony would be unheard or unnoticed. But still, the fact that he did not flinch for an instant in his purpose, whether he might be accompanied by many or by few, only places his high conscientious disinterestedness in a stronger and fairer light. To him, also, the sacrifice was accompanied with peculiar aggravations. The clerical charge he held, besides being one of the highest in Scotland, enabled him, from its being a collegiate one, to devote a considerable portion of time to his favourite studies; and he held also the lucrative office of collector of the Widows’ Fund, to which he had been appointed in 1836. But high office, leisure, and emolument, were to be foregone for the labour and precariousness of a missionary life, burdened in his case by the growing infirmities of age, and the maintenance of a very large family of young children, who looked wholly to him for support, and whose interests would be deeply compromised by the sacrifice. But he rendered it cheerfully, and went forth with the rest; and perhaps, as his eye glanced backward at the long array of his brethren on their march to the new place of meeting at Tanfield, and contrasted their numbers with his previous doubts and misgivings, the devout joy of the triumph swallowed up all remembrance of the sacrifice. His speech at the new General Assembly of the Free Church gave full testimony to that effect; where, among other declarations, to which the assembled multitudes listened with breathless interest, he uttered these words:--

"Thank God, I breathe in a better atmosphere than I have done for years back. I was not insensible to the taunts with which we were everywhere met— the taunt that, as honest men, we should leave the Establishment. It was very wearisome and fatiguing—very exhausting, even for the ablest of our men, to be day after day defending us and themselves from that charge. It was still more painful, perhaps, for many like me, who had not the power nor the qualifications to make that defence, to be remaining in silence, and hearing ourselves treated as men rebellious against the powers that be. We were all conscious of the injustice of this charge; we had the mens conscia recti, and that was our consolation. Still these trials were severe. But I feel now that I am a free man. Nay, Sir, I am not only a free man, but I am entitled to say to my adversaries, who have twitted me so often with dishonesty—and whatever they may think of the bearing with which I say it, I say it with a very humble heart, and full of gratitude to Almighty God—I can say to them, I am an honest man. I have given what ought to satisfy you at least that I am an honest man; I have sacrificed my all, except the promise of my heavenly Father, who will bring me support for myself and my children, through the beneficence of his own people who have been turned from darkness to light."

This trust was not disappointed, and the remaining years of the life of Dr. Gordon were spent in domestic comfort, as well as public honour and usefulness. He threw himself into his new sphere of increased duties with all the ardour of his matured manhood, and the energy with which these were discharged showed little or no abatement of his former power. If any change indeed was preceptible, it was that his style of preaching betokened the purifying furnace of trial through which his mind had passed, for his sermons had an increase of apostolic simplicity and unction, which made his pulpit ministrations even more effective than before. His studies also were more exclusively confined to his pulpit ministrations; and although he might have lightened these labours by accepting a colleague, he conscientiously persisted in encountering the same amount that fell to the lot of his younger brethren. His death, which occurred in Northumberland Street, Edinburgh, on the 21st of October, 1853, in the sixty-eighth year of his age, and thirty-eighth of his ministry, was occasioned by a stroke of paralysis.

Dr. Gordon was a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and of the Royal Scottish Society of Arts; he was also one of her Majesty’s master printers for Scotland. Besides the volume of sermons, and the articles in the "Encyclopedia Britannica" which we have mentioned, he published nothing; but from the care with which his discourses were written, a series of them have been deemed fit for the press, and are accordingly in course of publication, under the title of "Christ as made known to the Ancient Church," and will be comprised in four octavo volumes.


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