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Scots Humour and Heroism
Chapter VII - Minister and Parish


A kind of halo used to surround the Parish Minister in former days, as though he were a being from another world. This often led no doubt to his becoming opinionative and peremptory; yet as the elders and beadle were opinionative too, any undue exaltation on his part was kept in check.

On the whole, however, the Minister ruled his district like a prince, in things temporal and spiritual.

A Divine of the old school, very authoritative but a trifle deaf, had a manner that was rather awe-inspiring. Once at a baptismal service when the child was presented by the diffident mother, he majestically demanded the baby's name for a second time, not having caught the whispered word at first.

"Lucy," was the trembling response.

"What?" he said. "Speak out. What's the name?"

"Lucy, Sir;" said the quaking country-woman.

"Lucifer!" cried his reverence in horror; "Madam, I shall baptize no child by the name of the Prince of Darkness. The child's name is John!"

The parish liked that sort of rule. People had only a contempt for a minister that got confused and incoherent in public. This was the case with a young preacher once who used an extemporaneous form of the marriage service. Losing the thread of what he was saying through the excitement of officiating in this way for the first time, he accosted the married pair with the startling pronouncement: "Those who have been joined asunder, let no man put together."

Tradition does not tell us if this was the same speaker who once - he was a small man and near -sighted, just before preaching, built up on the reading desk a kind of barricade with double cushions, a Bible and Hymn-book and several odds and ends. Spreading out the manuscript upon this structure, which almost hid him, he surprised everyone by giving out the text: "Greater things than these shall ye see."

Curiously enough a clear and simple sermon was not always to the taste of country parishes. "He is too simple for me," said a beadle, criticising to his own minister a certain plain-spoken student he had heard.

"Now I like a preacher that jumbles the judgment and confounds the sense. And, Sir, I never heard anyone to beat you at that."

But as a rule definite and closely reasoned discourses were demanded; and they were expected to be delivered with fire. That is, a measure of intellectual enthusiasm and of religious fervour was looked for; and mere noise was at a discount. The most illiterate seemed to know that screaming and wild gesticulation had little to do with thought.

One of these loud-voiced preachers had appeared on trial in a particular church, and afterwards he inquired of the beadle about his chances. He did so, of course, in a very round-about and (as he thought) diplomatic way. "How did the people regard the sermon of Mr. Anderson?"

The beadle said: "It was no soun." (no soun' = not sound, not orthodox)

"And what did they think of Mr. Bowen?" he asked.

"Oh," replied the beadle. "They say Mr. Bowen is verra soun."

"Well; and what about myself?"

"Deed, Sir," was he reply; "they say you are a' soun." (a' soun' = all sound, all noise)

If a minister had earnest ness and force of character he enjoyed the esteem of all classes.

Norman Macleod is a good example of this old type. Queen Victoria liked him and consulted him in difficulties; and so popular was he that the people of Glasgow used to call him "oor Norman".

By the way, he is a good instance of a Scotsman who is witty as well as humorous. Many of his sallies are still remembered. Once he went to the Hebrides and for some weeks stayed at the house of a minister called Honey. Mr. Honey was one day late in rising, and after the bell had gone, he rushed into the breakfast-room with signs of a hasty toilet on his hair.

Macleod looked up with a twinkle in his eye and greeted his friend. "Hillo, here comes Honey - fresh from the comb!"

Many curious instances are given of the commanding influence of these divines of a former day. Though times are very much changed, yet now and again a preacher is still found who excercises a sort of patriarchal rule over all and sundry.

One famous Glasgow orator in the last century was much annoyed on a Sunday morning by noticing that one or two hearers kept tittering and giggling. He bore it patiently for a while; then stopped, and, looking at the disturbers, said: "Some years since, as I was addressing a congregation, a young man drew off my attention by constantly laughing, talking and making faces. I paused and administered a severe rebuke. At the close of the service, however, a gentleman came up to me and said: `Sir, you made a great mistake; for that young man you reproved is an idiot!'

"Well, since that time, I have always been anxious to avoid finding any fault with those who misbehave, lest I should repeat the mistake and - reprove another idiot!"

It was in another church that the preacher was distracted during the first half of his sermon by a curious sound like `Swish', `swish', coming from the gallery.

The culprits proved to be a young man and a young woman who were whispering, with their heads near together. At last not being able to endure it any longer, the minister stopped at the sixth subdivision of the third head, and looking straight at them said: "Ma yong freens (freens = friends) ! If you come to my house to-morrow nicht at eight o'clock, I'll marry ye for nothing - if only ye agree to stop saying 'swish, swish' during the rest of the sermon."

Not a sound more was heard ! The young people were in terror lest perhaps he might make them man and wife before the Benediction was pronounced.

These divines of a former generation were very fatherly in a way. They had a great deal of sympathy with those who were poor and ignorant. A signal instance of this forbearance is related in the case of Robertson of Irvine. A message was brought to him that an old labourer belonging to his congregation had something on his mind, and that, being much troubled, he must see the minister.

Robertson hurried off, at considerable inconvenience, in the late evening, and found the old man in bed with a cold. This was puzzling; and the divine inquired was there nothing more; for he had heard that there was some matter of conscience involved. Well, yes; there was. The old man averred that he was much troubled about a pressing question of religion. He had offered his evening prayers, he said, - without taking off his nightcap! And how could he expiate this irreverence?

A learned scholar like Robertson might very well have treated a trifle of this sort with contempt, and scornfully have told him not to be childish. This, however, he would not do.

The experienced parish minister knew that there was here a scrupulousness that arose from the cottar's best qualities, and needed delicate treatment. So he drew his chair near the bedside and reasoned. "You know, Hamish," said he, "there are two ways of showing reverence. In the West we uncover our heads; but in the East, you remember, people uncover their feet. You will recall what Moses did at the burning bush. He took his shoes from off his feet."

"Yes, yes; a min' that weel", said Hamish.

"Now," resumed the Doctor, "I presume you had not your shoes on when you offered your evening prayer?"

"Na, na" said the labourer vehemently. "A hadna the shoes on - nor my stockin's either."

"Well then," concluded his minister triumphantly. "You're all right; for you have shown reverence in the Eastern way!"

The answer was final and comforting.

There is no end to the stories told about probationers or licenciates, and their endeavours to secure a favourable hearing in this or that vacant congregation.

Popular election leads at times to curious demands on the young preacher coming to a church `on trial'.

Sometimes congregations were impressed by the aptness and fitness of the speaker's exposition of Scripture in reference to events of the hour.

Forcible speech and clear thought were most prized. But an odd time the bare selection of a strange text has been known to carry weight.

This, of course, must have been a rare and occasional taste, seeing that for the most part sound learning and vigour carried the day, Yet anecdotes survive of the clever use of the words of a text, - where indeed it was more an intellectual excercise or play of wit, that was aimed at, than ought else. All this trenching on irreverence (as we should deem it now) was part of the old life of a century ago, and has quite passed away.

But curious compilers give us some quaint stories.

Once, it appears, there were two probationers preaching on trial the same Sunday for the same large country charge.

There had been a vast amount of canvassing on the part of the followers of both young men; and excitement ran high.

One of the candidates was called Lowe; the other bore the name of Adam.

In the morning Mr. Lowe preached a moving discourse on:

"Adam, where art thou?"

Everyone felt that there was a decisive utterance that could not be easily surpassed. But in the evening all were thrilled by Mr. Adam's sermon from the text; "Lo! here am I." The discomfited Lowites had to admit Adam's superiority.

But the ministers of those days were `masters of assemblies', and took good care to keep even the bitterest party strife within reasonable bounds. Congregations but seldom got out of hand.

Still, the coming of a youthful incumbent into a parish always remained a matter of considerable interest.

Witness the excellent answer given by a boy of ten to his Sunday-School teacher. She was an attractive young lady, and was accompanied on this occasion by the juvenile divine to hear the examination.

Now, as it happened, this young clergyman and she had often been observed together at various meetings and ecclesiastical functions; and the parish had drawn conclusions. "Well, Johnnie," said the teacher turning to her pet pupil, after the other children in the class had missed the question, "can't you tell me? What is a miracle, Johnnie?"

"Aye; A ken fine! Mither says it will be a miracle, if you don 't marry the new Minister!"

In the good old times the Precentor, the Beadle, and the Minister's man used to shine with a kind of reflected ecclesiastical glory. The latter especially had a fitting sense of his importance, and was ready with advice. Here is an instance.

A young preacher at Greyfriars Church was given a huge bundle of announcements to intimate. He wondered as to the method of reading them, and was told that he should give the important notices in the morning, and keep the others for the evening.

This happened in the vestry. The young man was about to divide the intimations into two parts, when the minister's man who had been measuring the probationer in his mind's eye for some time, broke in with the advice; "Ye'd better give them all now, for there'll be naebody here in the evening."

"Now, Jeams", said a parish minister to his man as they were walking about, looking at some proposed improvement. "Don't you think these proposed alterations a great improvement?"

"Weel," replied Jeams, "I don't know. Do you think it would make ye preach better?"

"Well," said the incumbent, "I believe it would."

"Then," said Jeams emphatically, "there's nae doot about the improvement; and the sooner it's done the better."

In old-fashioned churches the precentor took a great deal on him', as the Scots phrase runs. He had to read out the Psalm line by line, after he had raised the tune.

He chose the tune, and then got the note from a tuning-fork, which he struck on his desk. Organs and other instruments of music were not used in the services. The praise was led by the precentor, in many cases quite unsupported by a choir.

This reading out of the Psalm line by line was a survival of the times when books were scarce, and when the congregation really required to have the words given to them in small portions.

Dean Ramsey relates that in many a congregation the precentor was inclined to import into his office a considerable sense of authority, and that he used to hurry up people lingering in the aisles, and to direct them to their seats in a kind of stage whisper.

This was in the Parish Church which the Earl of Eglinton attended. One Sunday morning when the Earl's family came to Public Worship, they found Jock Halliday blocking up the passage, and shyly hesitating about moving to his seat.

The service had already begun. The precentor had sung the first three lines when he noticed this confusion near the door. Sotto voce, he called out audibly: "Come back, Jock Halliday; and let the noble family of Eglinton go to their seats." Then turning to his Psalm-book, he announced in stentorian tones: "Nor stand in sinner's way."

Of course this line-reading was likely to be productive of confusion in many other ways. This was particularly the case in congregations where hymns had begun to be used, but were not familiarly known.

A grotesque tradition comes down from those queer times. It bears internal evidence of being a fabrication; but we give it for what it is worth.

The aged precentor in a congregation of this kind, having one day forgotten his spectacles, endeavoured to carry through his work without their aid.

After rising in his place and pitching the tune, he tried to see the line to be given out, but could note. He apologized by saying: "My eyes are dim, I cannot see."

This line seemed sufficiently like a Hymn, and the congregation unhesitatingly sang it. Hastily, however, the precentor explained, when the singing ceased "I spoke of my infirmity."

This, however, did not mend matters, The people treated the apology as the second line of their Hymn.

Almost frantic with shame and annoyance, the old gentleman, as soon as he could be heard, interjected emphatically: "I did not mean to sing a hymn. - I only said my eyes were dim!"

But alas ! explanations were useless; and the assemblage sang the words through to the end !

Possibly the most noteworthy person in many a country parish used to be the dominie, or schoolmaster. For generations these schoolmasters used to be University Graduates with a great love for learning. Admirable and enthusiastic pedagogues, they were, too.

Their special pride was to prepare their pupils in Latin and Greek for the University; and they produced excellent scholars.

The dominie's chief ambition was to turn out really good writers of Ciceronian Latin. When we take into account the early age at which boys used to matriculate, it is astonishing what an amount of literary taste and even fine Latinity the country schoolmaster could induce his quicker pupils to acquire.

Sometimes the work of the precentor and the clerk were combined; and if the person holding these offices were the village schoolmaster as well, he deemed himself important indeed.

A brisk clerk of this type frequently made the announcements, in church, the minister merely emphasizing what specially required the people's attention. We are told that, many years ago, this custom was observed in a big country church, the elderly incumbent of which was exceedingly deaf. Notwithstanding this defect, he was eager to improve the music and had given himself a world of trouble about a new Book of Hymns with music.

One Sunday the clerk made several intimations, the last of which was, "Those parents having children to be baptized are asked to give in their names by Thursday."

The minister, imagining that these words were about the new Hymn-book, hastily got up and said: "And, brethren, let me add for the benefit of those who have none, that they may be had in the Session Room at one shilling each, and a special kind with beautiful red backs at one and sixpence."


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