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Significant Scots
Stevenson MacGill


MACGILL, STEVENSON, D.D., professor of theology in the university of Glasgow, was born at Port-Glasgow, on the 19th January, 1765. His father, Thomas Macgill, a native of Dunbar, had been apprenticed to a ship-builder of that town; and one evening, when only seventeen years of age, he happened to step into a prayer-meeting, kept by a party of pious Methodist soldiers who had just returned from Germany. Such was the influence produced by this incident, that he joined the Methodist connection, and from that period, till his death in 1804, adhered steadily to that body, while his piety and worth were an example to every Christian community. The mother of the professor was Frances Welsh, daughter of Mr. Welsh, of Locharet, in East Lothian, a family supposed to be connected with that of John Welsh, the son-in-law of our great reformer, John Knox. She too, in the words of her son, "was a true Christian, of fervent piety, and habitually animated by the Divine principle of faith in the Son of God." Stevenson Macgill received the earlier part of his education in the parish school of Port-Glasgow; and at the age of ten, was sent to complete it at the university of Glasgow. Here, as his destination was for the ministry, he went through a nine years’ course, where his proficiency in literature, science, and theology, obtained a considerable number of class honours, and secured the approbation of his professors. On the completion of his studies, Mr. Macgill was licensed as a preacher by the presbytery of Paisley in 1790, and soon after, received the offer of the chair of civil history in St. Andrews, a charge which was to be united with a small country parish. But even thus early, and in spite of so alluring a temptation, he was the uncompromising enemy of ecclesiastical plurality, and therefore the offer was refused. In the year after he was licensed to preach, he was presented to the parish of Eastwood; and while he continued there, his ministry was distinguished not only by careful study and preparation for the duties of the pulpit, but also by his attention to the moral and religious instruction of the young of his parish, and the proper support of the helpless poor. The diffusion of infidel and revolutionary principles, which the recent events in France had occasioned, also called forth the anxiety of Mr. Macgill; and in 1792, he published a small tract, entitled "The Spirit of the Times," particularly addressed to the people of Eastwood, in which he temperately and judiciously warned them against the anarchical theories of the day. After having been for six years minister of Eastwood, he was translated, in 1797, to the charge of the Tron Church of Glasgow, that had become vacant by the death of the Rev. Dr. M’Call. Here his pastoral labours were at least of threefold amount, in consequence of the rapid growth of the population, and the increase of poverty, ignorance, and crime, with which it was accompanied. But to these he addressed himself in a right apostolic spirit, and with an effectiveness of which Glasgow still reaps the fruits. Soon after his arrival in Glasgow, the well-known period called "the dearth" occurred, and Mr. Macgill became an active advocate for the establishment of soup-kitchens, and other means for the relief of the poor. The comforts and cure of the sick, and the coercion and reformation of the criminal, were continual objects of his pastoral solicitude, and therefore he became a careful superintendent of the wants of prisons and the infirmary. In him, too, the Lunatic Asylum of Glasgow, which has been so efficient an institution for the relief of the worst of all maladies, found not only its best friend, but also its chief originator, in consequence of the impulse which he gave towards the erection of that noble structure. One defect also under which Glasgow laboured, until it had grown into an evil of the first magnitude, called forth his active exertions. This was the deficiency of church accommodation, which, although common to Scotland at large, from the increase of the population, was particularly felt in Glasgow, where the ratio of increase had been unprecedented, and was still continuing to go onward with a constantly growing magnitude, while the number of the city churches remained stationary. Nothing could more effectually encourage dissent than such a state of things; and accordingly, the great mercantile city of the west, once so famous for its hearty attachment to the Kirk which the Reformation had established within its walls, was now becoming the great emporium of Scottish sectarianism. Nor was this the worst; for even the numerous chapels that were erected by the different sects were still inadequate either for the growth of the population, or for the poverty of the masses, who were unable to contribute their prescribed share for the maintenance of the self-supporting principle. All this struck the observant eye of Dr. Macgill, who tried every method, both with the church-court and town-council, to have the evil removed, by the erection of new churches, as well as the way prepared for their full efficiency, by the extension and improvement of the civic parochial education. For the present, however, he laboured in vain; for the city dignitaries of the day were more intent upon the great wars of the continent, and the movements in the peninsula, than those evils around them that required no far-seeing sagacity to detect; and thus "the righteousness that exalteth a nation" was left to a future hearing. But his appeals were not ineffectual, although, for the present, they seemed to be scattered to the winds, or buried in the earth; for after many years the harvest shot up, and before he closed his eyes he had the satisfaction of seeing the principle of church extension reduced to vigorous action, in that very city where his former appeals on the subject had been unheeded.

While Dr. Macgill was thus actively employed upon the important subject of civic economy as developed in prisons, schools, and churches, he was far from being remiss in those studies with which the more sacred duties of the ministerial office are connected. Seldom, indeed, in any man, was a life of contemplation more harmoniously blended with a life of action; and, therefore, amidst a career of practical hard-working usefulness, which he continued until he was stretched upon a death-bed, he was an inquiring and improving student, who felt that he had still something to learn. Such was the disposition with which he commenced his ministry in Glasgow. He knew the quantity of outdoor work that would beset him in the discharge of his duty, and he was aware of its tendency to mar the occupations of the study, and arrest or throw back the mind of the minister, and shut him up within the narrow circle of his early acquirements. But he knew, withal, that the duty of intellectual self-improvement was equally urgent with that of active everyday usefulness. On this account, he proposed to his brethren of the presbytery the plan of a literary and theological association for mutual instruction, by the reading of essays, and oral discussions; and the proposal was so acceptable, that in 1800 a society for the purpose was formed, whose meetings were held once a-month. The important subjects which it kept in view, and its plan of action, were admirably fitted for the clergy of a large city, who, of all men, must keep abreast of the learning and intelligence of the age. While he was a member of this literary and theological association, Dr. Macgill read, in his turn, a series of essays which he had written on the pastoral office and it duties, and the best ways of discharging them with effect. These essays, which were afterwards published in the form of letters, entitled, "Considerations addressed to a Young Clergyman," gave ample proof of his high appreciation of the ministerial office, and sound views of an appropriate clerical training. The work, also, as well as the consistent manner in which he had always acted upon its principles, pointed him out as the fittest person to occupy a most important office in the church. This was the chair of theology in the university of Glasgow, which became vacant in 1814, by the death of Dr. Robert Findlay, who had held it for more than thirty years.

On his election to the professorship of divinity, Dr. Macgill addressed himself in earnest to the discharge of its onerous duties. And that these were neither few nor trivial, may be surmised from the fact, that the general number of the students in the Divinity Hall was above two hundred, while their exclusive instruction in theology, instead of being divided among several professors, devolved entirely upon himself. The mode, also, of teaching that most complex, as well as most important of sciences, was still to seek; for as yet the training to the ministerial office was in a transition state, that hovered strangely between the scholastic pedantry and minuteness of former years, and the headlong career of innovation and improvement that characterized the commencement of the 19th century. And in what fashion, and how far, was it necessary to eschew the one and adopt the other? It is in these great periodic outbursts of the human mind that universities stand still in astonishment, while their learned professors gaze upon the ancient moth-eaten formulas, and know not what to do. To teach theology now was a very different task from the inculcation of Latin and Greek, which has continued the same since the days of Alfred. The first years, therefore, of Dr. Macgill’s labours as a professor, consisted of a series of experimenting; and it was fortunate that the duty had devolved upon one so patient to undergo the trial, and so observant of what was fittest and best. At length the whole plan of theological instruction was methodized into a system that worked harmoniously and effectively under the control of a single mind. It was felt to be truly so by the students who passed under its training; so that each fell into his own proper place, and the daily work of the Divinity Hall went on with the regularity of a well-adjusted machine. It was sometimes objected to the course of lecturing, that it attempted to comprise too much; that it descended to too many minutiae and that the fit proportion which each subject should bear to the whole, was thus lost sight of. Dr Macgill himself was sensible of these defects, and many years before his death employed himself in lopping off whatever he considered to be redundant in his lectures, and condensing whatever was too diffuse. But let it be remembered, also, that when he commenced he was groping his way along an untried path. Even his learned predecessor, Dr Findlay, had laid out for himself a theological course of such vast range as an ordinary life would have been utterly insufficient to overtake, and thus, at the end of each four years course, his pupils escaped with a few theological ideas that had been extended and ramified to the uttermost, a little segment, instead of a full body of divinity. But in the other duties of his professorship, where his own individuality was brought into full play, unfettered by forms and systems, Dr. Macgill was unrivalled. In his oral examinations of the class, he seemed to have an intuitive sagacity in entering at once into the character of each pupil, and discovering the kind of management which he most needed. In this case, it was most gratifying to witness with what gentleness, and yet with what tact, he repressed the over-bold and animated the diffident, stimulated the slothful and encouraged the career of the diligent and enterprising, while his bearing, which was in the highest degree that of a grave divine and accomplished scholar, adorned by the graces of a Christian gentleman, won the reverence, the confidence, and affection of his students. But it was not alone in the class room that these qualities were exhibited in their fullest measure. His evenings were generally devoted to his students, of whom he was wont to have a number in rotation around the tea table, so that at the end of the session none had been omitted; and while, at these conversaziones, he could unbend from the necessary formality of public duty, and encourage a flow of cheerful intercourse, it always tended more or less to the great object which he had most at heart—the formation of a learned, pious, and efficient ministry. Nor was this all. Few, indeed, can tell or even guess his cares, his labours, and his sacrifices in behalf of these his adopted children, whom once having known, he never ceased to remember and to care for, and for whose welfare his library, his purse, and his personal labours were opened with an ever-flowing liberality. These were the very qualities most needed by a professor of theology, and best fitted to influence the pupils under his training. Dr. Macgill, indeed, was neither a man of high genius nor commanding eloquence; at the best he was nothing more than what might be called a third-rate mind—a man who, under different circumstances, might have passed through life unknown and unnoticed. But with a mind so balanced, and animated with such high and holy principles, he was enabled to acquire an ascendency and accomplish a work which first-rate intellects have often attempted in vain.

After having continued for several years exclusively devoted to the duties of the theological chair, Dr. Macgill suddenly found himself summoned to the arena of a church-court, and that, too, upon a question where the conflict would be at outrance. Hitherto he had been the enemy of ecclesiastical plurality, modified though it was in the Church of Scotland by the union of some professorship with the ministerial charge of a parish, instead of the care of two or more parishes vested in one person. And while some confined their hostility to the objection that the chair and the pulpit generally lay so far apart that the holder must be a non-resident, the objections of Macgill were founded upon higher principles. He knew that plurality was totally opposed to the laws and spirit of the Scottish Church; and he was too well aware of the important duties of a minister, to have his office conjoined with any other pursuit. And now the time and occasion had arrived when he must boldly step forward and speak out. In 1823, the Rev. Dr. Taylor, principal of the university of Glasgow died, and the Rev. Dr. Macfarlan, minister of Drymen, was appointed to succeed to the office. And few were better fitted to occupy that important charge. But, hitherto, the principal of the college had also been minister of St. Mungo’s, or the High parish of Glasgow, and it seemed a matter of course that Dr. Macfarlan should hold both livings conjointly, to which he was appointed accordingly. It was the gentlest form in which plurality had ever appeared in Scotland, for both charges were in the same city, while the one, it was thought, could not infringe upon the duties of the other. But to Dr. Macgill it appeared far otherwise. By the statutes of the college, the principal was bound to superintend its secular affairs, and teach theology, which was a task sufficient for any one man; and thus the holder would be compelled either to give half-duty to both offices, or reduce one of them to a sinecure. It was upon these arguments that Dr. Macgill opposed the double induction. It was a stern and severe trial that thus devolved upon one who had hitherto been such a lover of peace; and it was harder still, that his opposition must be directed against one who was thenceforth, let the result be what it might, to become his daily colleague as well as official superior. Many in his situation would have contented themselves with a simple non liquet, whispered with bated breath, and thought their vote a sufficient testimony of their principles. Superior, however, to such considerations, and anticipating the great controversy that would be at issue upon the subject, Dr. Macgill, several months before it took place, brought the question before the senate of the university, and finding that his learned brethren would not coincide with him, he had entered, in the college records, his protest against the induction. In the keen debates that afterwards followed upon the subject in the presbytery of Glasgow, the synod of Glasgow and Ayr, and at last the General Assembly, to which it was carried for final adjudication, Dr. Macgill assumed the leadership; and few, even of his most intimate friends, were prepared for that masterly eloquence which he exhibited at the first step of the controversy. In taking his chief ground upon the argument of the responsibility of city ministers, and the immense amount of labour which they had to undergo, especially in such a city as Glasgow, he invoked his brethren of the presbytery in language that was long afterwards felt and remembered. The question, as is well known, was lost by the evangelical party; and the union of the offices of principal of the university of Glasgow, and minister of the church and parish of St. Mungo was confirmed, as well as the continuance of plurality sanctioned. But this was only a last effort. The opposition which Dr. Macgill so boldly and bravely commenced, had aroused the popular feeling so universally upon the subject, as to command the respect of the government; and the Royal Commission, which was afterwards appointed for visiting the universities of Scotland, confirmed the popular expression. Let us trust that the evil thus denounced and banished, will never again find an entrance into our national church.

Besides his hostility to ecclesiastical plurality, Dr. Macgill was decidedly opposed to patronage, and earnest for its abrogation. He did not, however, go the whole length of his brethren in advocating the rights of popular suffrage. On the contrary, he was opposed to merely popular elections, and held that they had never been the law of the Church of Scotland. Still, he was of opinion that the existing patronage was a great evil, that required a total amendment. He declared it to be a hard thing upon the people of Scotland, that an individual, who might be deficient in principles, knowledge, and morals, should dictate to the worthy and respectable the man whom they should receive as their minister. And it was harder still, he thought, that this patron might be of any or of no religious belief, and in either case, opposed to the faith of those over whom he appointed a minister. But, worst of all, this right, originally intended for the good of the people in their highest interests, might be bought, like any marketable commodity, by a person wholly unconnected with the parish, and who had no interest in its welfare. The church, indeed, had power to judge and decide on the qualifications of the presentees, by previously trying them as licentiates, and finding them competent for the work of the ministry in general, in life, doctrine, and knowledge. But the preacher thus approved of might be unqualified for the particular charge to which he was designated; so that, however orthodox, learned, and pious, his manners, his habits, and mode of preaching might be such as to make him unsuitable for the people over whom he was appointed. For all this a remedy was necessary; and that which Dr. Macgill had long contemplated, he propounded before the Committee of the House of Commons appointed to try the question of patronage in Scotland. For this purpose his first desideratum was, the abolition of the act of Queen Anne for the restoration of patronage in our church. This being obtained, he proposed to divide the representation of the parish between three bodies, consisting of the heritors, the elders, and the male communicants, each body to be represented by three delegates, to whom the nomination of the future pastor might be intrusted. Let this committee of nine, after having weighed the case, present to their constituents the person of their choice, whom they had approved by a majority of votes; and should any disputes afterwards arise upon the concurrence of the people, let the case be settled by the decision of the church-courts. Such is an abstract of his plan, by which he hoped the despotism of patronage on the one hand, and the anarchy of popular election on the other, would be equally avoided. But subsequent events showed that this, as well as many other such plans, was but a "devout imagination." The agitation against patronage was followed by the Veto-law, and finally by the Disruption. No compromise or half measures—nothing short of a total abrogation of the evil complained of, was found sufficient to satisfy the remonstrants.

After this the course of Dr. Macgill’s life went onward tranquilly but usefully; and of the events that occurred till the close, a brief notice may suffice. In 1824, in consequence of a discovery by Dr. M’Crie, the able biographer of John Knox, that our Scottish reformer was educated, not at St. Andrews, as had hitherto been supposed, but at the university of Glasgow, Dr. Macgill conceived that Glasgow was the proper place in which a monument should be erected to his memory. The idea was eagerly caught by several of the spirited citizens, and the result was that stern column on the height of the Fir Park, better known as the Glasgow Necropolis, surmounted by the statue of Knox himself, with the Bible in one hand, and the other stretched out towards the rapidly-growing city, as if he were in the act of uttering the old civic motto, "Let Glasgow flourish by the preaching of the word." In 1828, Dr. Macgill was unanimously elected to the office of moderator of the General Assembly—an office which it was thought he should have occupied at a still earlier period, but for the predominance of that party in the church to which his views in doctrine and discipline were opposed. In 1835 he was made one of the deans of the Chapel-Royal, a merely honorary appointment, having neither emolument nor duties at that time attached to it. Three years after (1838) he was busily occupied with the plan of erecting a house of refuge for juvenile delinquents in Glasgow—one of his many successful public efforts for the instruction of the young, and reformation of the vicious. During 1838 and 1839 he was also employed in preparing two volumes for the press. In 1839, though now borne down by age, and the pressure of domestic misfortunes, he resolved to encounter the labours of the winter as he had been wont; and in October, he opened the Divinity Hall, and went through the half-year’s course without having been absent a single day. But it was life’s last effort. In the end of July, while returning from Bowling Bay, where he had been visiting a friend, he was caught in a heavy shower of rain: a cold and sore throat ensued, that soon turned into fever, accompanied with delirium, in which he was generally either in the attitude of prayer, or employed in addressing an imaginary audience. It was indeed the ruling passion strong in death--the predominance of that piety and activity which had formed his main characteristics through life. He died on the morning of the 18th of August, 1840, in the seventy-sixth year of his age.

Dr. Macgill was not a voluminous writer; this, his devotedness to his daily public duties prevented, as well as the fastidious views which he entertained on authorship, that made him unwilling to commit to the press anything which he had not deeply studied and carefully elaborated. Whatever, therefore, he has written, he has written well. Besides his "Letters to a Young Clergyman," he published "Discourses and Essays on Subjects of Public Interest," "Collection of Translations, Paraphrases, and Hymns"—several of which were his own composition—"Lectures on Rhetoric and Criticism, and on Subjects introductory to the Critical Study of the Scriptures," and a volume of Sermons, dedicated "to his former pupils, now his brethren, as a remembrancer of past times." But even when his writings are forgot, his labours in the Scottish Church, rent asunder though it has been since his death, and the benefits of these labours upon all parties, will continue to remain a unanimous and hallowed remembrance.


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