Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

John Stuart Blackie
Chapter II. At School and College 1820 - 1829

I MIGHT wish to retain for ever the mixed elements of youth and manhood that belong to middle age,—to the season between twenty and forty,—but I never could seriously desire to have been eternally a boy. A boy is a fruitful thing for a thoughtful spectator to contemplate, but a somewhat barren and a very imperfect thing to be. However, I was quite happy in my boyhood in the measure that happiness belongs to that age, and have not a single memorial sorrow to recall. At school I got my lessons carefully, kept at the top of my class, or quite close to it, and enjoyed peg-tops, marbles, "Robbers and Rangers," and other sports in their season, with that healthy gusto that belongs to all normally constituted British boys. I got my lessons carefully, but I cannot say that this proceeded from any particular love either of books or lessons. I imagine it was merely from the natural energy of my character, with an ambitious impulse that did not like to be last, where there was a fair chance of being first. I was put into a little world—the school— where action was the law, and it was contrary to my nature to be lazy or to be last. I was called upon to act for honour and glory with my equals, and I did my best with decision. That was the whole secret of my school activity.

So wrote the Professor when his hair was white, and, to some extent, his retrospective estimate of the ten years' old schoolboy may have weight with us. But already feathery- winged seeds of this and that great influence had floated within reach of his receptive nature, and had found lodgment there, to sink deep and to grow strong. Within the gable of a house just below the schoolroom in Netherkirkgate was a statue of William Wallace. John looked out on it daily—looked up to it as he came and went from school. The Scottish hero and his story grew into his heart, the biggest lesson he received at Merson's Academy. It was the nucleus from which radiated all his interest in Scotland and her history. Wallace led easily to Bruce; and his knowledge of both was stimulated by his excursions with Mr Blackie, who took the boy with him on his holidays to fish near Kintore or at Pitmedden, in the Don, the Deveron, or the Urie. The memory of Bruce clung to castle and cottage in these districts, and Mr Blackie found eager audience for his tales of the national champions. To he where Bruce had been, to look on Wallace day after day, brought both quite close to John's imagination, which, indeed, they filled for a time. Scotland began to be a holy land for him. Books which told of her trials and resistance grew valuable, and we find him, as the years passed, liking books better, and in his leisure hours poring over Walter Scott's matchless stories, many of which had come out, and over Robert Burns's glorious lyrics. The latter he first learned from his father. Mr Blackie's many gifts included a rich and musical voice; he sang the old Scottish ballads dear to our fathers, and every beautiful song by Robert Burns which had found a native setting. Scottish song and Scottish story took possession of the boy's heart before he left Merson's Academy.

When this happened he was twelve years old. Mr Merson taught well, and John's equipment of Latin enabled him to win a small bursary on his entry at Marischal College, which he resigned in favour of a poorer student. But the grammar- schools and private academies of that time considered the elements of Greek as no part of their curriculum, and schoolboys crowded the classes of the University, whose professors were expected to do mere usher's work for some eighty or ninety students, whose age and acquirements made the title a mockery.

John was overpowered by the transition from a class of twelve to a class of ninety. It was easy to make head against the smaller number in the little Academy, where the capacity of each boy could be quickly gauged; but the resources of ninety were less obvious, and amongst them were many well-furnished scholars from the Burgh Grammar-School, famous for its teaching of Latin, and naturally better qualified to give its pupils the self-assertion needed for contest with numbers. For three years he went to the College, learning his lessons at home carefully, but without any ambitious dream of excelling the rest of his class-mates.

Greek, indeed, was scarcely taught in a manner to excite ambition; it was plodding work, and the boy plodded conscientiously and modestly. The Natural Philosophy class, taught attractively by Dr Knight, stimulated his interest and his courage more effectively, and in the last year of his course he took the third prize for mechanics and mathematics. This was due to the teaching, not to any native inclination towards these studies; but he scarcely knew as yet what interested him most, and he was glad to learn what was best taught.

For in Aberdeen during the first quarter of this century the teaching was barren enough. Enthusiasm was banished from both chair and pulpit. The professors were learned but pompous; the preachers were Moderates, and turned out formal homilies, which passed over listless congregations like gusts of an arid wind over a withered plain -"clats o' cauld parritch," in homely contemporary phrase. Aberdeen was chilled to its centre by Moderatism; it dulled every faculty except those in the service of a dignified self-interest, which the Moderates studiously proclaimed to be common-sense. The boy's three years' curriculum left not a memory behind except this of gaining a. prize in mechanics and mathematics.

At home the mother's place was supplied by her sister Marion, and to her kindly care both Mr Blackie and the children owed much. Of the ten children only six had survived—Christina, John, Marion, James, Alexander, and Helen, the last a baby when Mrs Blackie died. Mr Blackie had hardly emerged from the shadow of his loss. He was more solitary than before,. and spent his leisure in his study, where he read, and pored over drawers of plaster-of-Paris casts which came from abroad. He fitted up a tiny furnace in his room, and here he fused his metal and turned out clever replicas of his favourite medallions, which he presented to his friends. John's presence was always welcome to him, and the other children were glad when the favourite was at home, as the father was brighter then and more accessible.

He decided that John should be bred to the law, and found an opening for him in a friend's office in Aberdeen, and in 1824 he began his apprenticeship. It lasted only a few months, and of this short experience we have little record. In a letter to his sister Christina, who was now at an Edinburgh school and spent her holidays with the Tweedside cousins, he says: "I am now made a lawyer totally. I like the occupation pretty well, and might like it very well, if I could be sure of getting off at two o'clock." But lawyers' work presents no complaisant pliability to young apprentices whose minds teem with other interests. To please his father, John would have gone steadily through his probation, had not a change of the most engrossing character come over his whole attitude towards life. This was effected by two events, which struck forcibly at his sensitive apprehension and roused the most vivid and serious realisation. The first was the death of his little brother Alexander, who had been ailing for some time. Four little brothers and sisters had been taken before this, but his reflective powers had not till now reached the stage when the full significance of death could excite and occupy them. His kindness to the little ones was a household word; he was never known to be cross in the nursery or irritable with one of the children. Sandy was seven years old, and had been a favourite of the big brother of fifteen, and now the large place filled by the household pet was vacant, and it chilled his astonished heart, worsted in death's onslaught.. In this loss his affections realised the terrific power of death; another event roused his mind to face the fact and ascertain his own relation towards it.

His father had several friends, wont to spend an evening hour or two in his study, to which John was now admitted on equal terms. Amongst these was a young advocate, a tall and energetic man, full of vitality, brimming over with good spirits and laughter. He went into the country on some business connected with his profession, slept at a little inn in damp sheets, took a chill, and died of rapid consumption, disappearing from his accustomed place with a suddenness which startled John as if a miracle had taken place before his eyes. The man had been the very embodiment of overflowing health. There had been no natural mounting up to full maturity and gradual decadence to death. In the bloom and vigour of early manhood death smote him and laid him low. That old men should die seemed plain enough; that weakly children should fade from life was grievous, but not mysterious; but that, after all the preparation which which youth must undergo to fit the man for life—that, so fitted and equipped, on the very threshold of usefulness and experience, death might leap from an ambuscade and lay him low—that pulled him up from all easy-going acceptance of what today and to-morrow had to offer, since the third day might find him face to face with the same dread experience.

His training hitherto had provided him with no foundation of actual creed on which he might have built some jerry philosophy wherein to hide his consciousness of "the terror that walketh by day." His father was not what is called a religious man; his mother, about whose memory there lingers some sweet perfume of piety, was gone; his aunt was very doctrinal, but a Moderate. The boy had to do the work himself, and had to discover for himself what death was and what life, and in what degree the life that now is stands towards the life that is to come. He became absorbed in his task. There could be no knowledge so important as this, none indeed of any importance except this, and so every other interest fell away. Some religious books adorned the circular table in the parlour of state. They were such as respectability deemed suitable for the parlour-table, and, except the hand which dusted them, nothing interfered with their recognised functions. Boston's 'Fourfold State,' the 'Pilgrim's Progress,' Blair's 'Sermons,' were part of this parlour furniture, and John seized the staid volumes, and pored over them at every leisure moment. Shakespeare, Scott., and Burns were set aside, and grew to his anxious young eyes mere fascinating fiends bent on luring him from the one thing needful - his soul's salvation. The things of this world became literally mere shadows to him, if not sins. He had begun to take dancing lessons, that he might bear his part at the little social gatherings to which he was invited. He left them off, declined all invitations, refused to go to the theatre, abjured all lighter reading, questioned seriously the need of graver reading, and came to the conclusion that since this world and the things thereof must pass away, it was folly to be occupied with any of its concerns. So even Rollin's 'Ancient History' was discarded as profane study. No Bernard nor Bruno could have set the respective claims of this life and the other in sterner antithesis. For through and through the Calvinistic teaching runs the bitter strain of ingratitude for this wonderful and blessed life on earth, for its wealth of good and perfect gifts which come to us from the eternal Father. And this bitterness and blindness are a direct inheritance from the monks of the middle ages, when the times were often evil and hid the working of God's providence.

Had he lived before John Knox, he would have settled the problem for himself, as did Bernard and Bruno; but at a time when there was no shuffling off the mundane coil, he could only hope to get himself saved with fear and trembling by bending every faculty towards the contemplation of eternity and its claims. The lawyer's office became intolerable. Sordid motives and dull handling of money were the sum of its inspiration and activity, and he entreated his father to remove him from an atmosphere so noxious to a soul in travail.

We can imagine the surprise with which the clever, kindly father would contemplate a son of his so abnormally affected, and it speaks volumes for his affection that he made no demur, but consented at once that he should study for the ministry, and enter himself as a student at the Edinburgh University, there to complete his course in Arts before beginning his Divinity. No doubt that, with his sanguine temperament, Mr Blackie foresaw a fine career for his gifted son: his ready utterance, his attainments in natural philosophy, augured well for his success. At that time, too, there were but four constitutional ministers for the forty thousand inhabitants of Aberdeen, and these were pluralists, most of them combining a chair in the University with a pulpit in the town. The calling had its picked places, and John was sure to mount the ladder which led to them.

Perhaps, too, Mr Blackie was now better able to spare his son, for this year he had married again, and his second resembled his first wife in many important qualities, more particularly in cheerfulness and kindliness. She was a Mrs Patteson, the widow of an officer in the army, and the daughter of a Mr Miller, a West Indian merchant, who lived in Glasgow. Her mother had been James Watt's daughter, and this influence in her home training had inspired her with a great admiration of talent, whether literary or scientific. She became at once attached to the clever Blackie children, and from the first singled out John for special affection. Not a dissentient voice was raised against her entrance into the family circle, and so great were her tact and amiability that "Aunt Manie" stayed on, an essential member of the family, consulted on all important points by both Mr Blackie and his wife, and as influential as either with regard to the children. Her step-children were soon as eager for the new mother's affection and approval as if they had been her own. She added certain personal tastes to the heterogeneous "fads" of the household. She collected old china, and had a cabinet for specimens, which bore the proud name of "The Museum."

Early in 1825 John went to Edinburgh, where he was boarded with a family of Tweedside cousins who had settled in Hart Street. They were a widowed Mrs Blackie with two sons, the elder of whom was engaged in journalistic work. Besides these relations, whose home he shared, his father's sister lived in Edinburgh, and made him welcome whenever he cared to go to her home in Lynedoch Place. She had married a Mr Gibson, W.S., with whose family John Gibson Lockhart had some relationship, and her two sons were one a little older and the other a little younger than John Blackie, so that the cousins became readily friends and companions.

John was in his sixteenth year when he applied himself to Greek, Logic, and Moral Philosophy, completing the course in Arts. Dr Ritchie occupied the chair of Logic, which Sir William Hamilton was afterwards to raise to European fame; and "glorious John Wilson "-"Christopher North ."—expounded the principles of Moral Philosophy.

Of the young student's Greek we hear nothing. He was probably still stumbling along the dreary approach to its well-guarded treasures. But we learn that the storms of anxiety which swept over his mind paralysed its free play in the other classes. Despair had seized him, because he felt no firm conviction that he had passed from darkness into light. Some book, presuming to explain all the counsel of God, had fallen into his hands, "insisting, as an indispensable point of Christian experience, that a man should be able to point out a moment in his life when he passed into a new state, as strongly and strikingly as a child does when it emerges from the darkness of the womb into the proud light of the living and winsome world." Of course the worthy Calvinist, so eager to help his fellows into a ditch, forgot that in the human birth the being most concerned is quite unconscious of the change, and that to many the spiritual life comes likewise without observation. For a long time John Blackie was plunged into mental agony because he could not point his finger to a date and say, "On this day and at this hour I was born again." It is remarkable that he took these perverted glosses for the Gospel. So tremblingly did he seek the narrow way that he turned down every by-path lest he should miss it., and only when one after another led him into the wilderness did he turn back to where he started, to find at last that the lamp of God's Word alone can light the feet along the way of His commandments.

His cousin Archy Gibson was made the confidant of all the turns in this labyrinth. John Blackie seized upon him, and demanded that he too should cast aside every concern which interfered with this the only concern, and Archy was whirled into the vortex of his fervour. The two lads talked together, prayed together, and finally sketched out a course of Bible reading to be carried out simultaneously, whether together or separate. Their reading bade them seek light in service, and it is touching to learn that John, submissive to every mandate, began patiently to visit the sick and miserable in some of the darkest dens of Edinburgh. In and out of the wynds and closes, toiling up to attics in the Cowgate, diving into cellars in the Grassmarket, he spent every leisure hour, seeking God's purpose in regard to him. He was obedient, but not assured; fear and trembling possessed him, but salvation seemed still far off. His scanty allowance of pocket-money was devoted to the sick and dying, and beside their beds he knelt and prayed, and read the Bible. This was religious work; and, engaged in this, he awaited the happy moment of his spiritual birth.

But he lagged behind in his classes, and if some temporary relaxation of his mind permitted him to work for his professors, the interval of relief was soon resented as a diabolic interference with his "soul-concern."

Dr Ritchie interested him in spite of himself, and in his first year at the Logic class he wrote an essay on "Conception" which the Professor rated highly. At the close of his second session, when the inner turmoil had begun to abate, he took the third prize in Logic. His experiences at the Moral Philosophy class were more dramatic. That he was not altogether careless of John Wilson's lectures is evidenced by the fact that in a letter to his sister Christina, now at home and eager to enter into his studies and to make them her own, he drew up an excellent abstract of the Professor's teaching, suggesting books for her use, if she cared to pursue the subject. But in this very letter he admits that his work at College seemed to him to be fleeting and shadowy compared with his search for the sure foundation on which to build the structure of his life.

During an interval of intellectual ambition he wrote an essay for Professor Wilson which gained high approbation. When the Professor returned it he said heartily, "A remarkably clever essay, a very clever essay indeed," and for a short time this tribute pleased him; but the very pleasure became a source of pain, and he shirked every opportunity of reviving it. When the session was over, and he went into the Professor's room to ask for his certificate, Christopher North, looking at him fully with his keen blue eyes and leonine grandeur of expression, said, "What has been the matter, Mr Blackie? There is something here that I cannot understand. You gave me in an excellent essay, one of the best I have received this session, and I fully expected to have you on my prize-list; but you have given me only one, and you know my rule." The poor boy burst into tears. How could he tell the truth to that Homeric hero, who would shout with incredulous laughter at the tale? He took his certificate with drooping head, and walked away. The kindly Professor had made the most of that one essay on the card, which remains to this day in record of a time of honest anguish.

In his letters to Mr Blackie he avoids all mention of the subject which so engrossed his time, although he expresses regret for his inadequate work at College. His letters are full of details about the wide circle of cousins and half-cousins with whom he came into contact, and who seemed to be getting themselves steadily married or buried. Passages concerning new clothes for either celebration occur, bearing witness to Mr Blackie's care for his son's personal appearance, and to the son's desire to stock his wardrobe scantily, and to be trammelled with no supernumerary coats and hats.

His student life in Edinburgh ended with the summer session of 1826, and Mr Blackie came to visit the cousins and to take John home by the steamer from Leith to Aberdeen. He found his son much changed; a settled gravity subdued the wonted frolicsome spirit; he no longer filled the house with shouting. His sisters could not at first accustom themselves to this sedateness, but his interest in all their higher pursuits was greater than ever, and his brotherly tenderness and helpfulness reconciled them to his entreaties that they should busy themselves most with the life to come. It is difficult to discover how far he influenced them. Christina and Marion were clever girls, and they were at that stage of feminine development which sets high store on intellectual success. His prestige must have suffered from the undistinguished sessions in Edinburgh, but both loved him, and record that he was the kindest of brothers.

He was more successful with his brother James, a boy about fourteen years old, unusually handsome, with dark and dreamy eyes, and features moulded like a Greek's—so much, at least, we may judge from a portrait painted a few years later by Spanish Phillip. James consented to be taught and stimulated, and the earnest missionary brother read the Bible with him morning and evening, and rejoiced to find response in his sensitive heart.

But even already the tempest within was wearing itself out. It had done its perfect work, and that was to lead after many years to larger, truer views of the purposes of God. Already it had called him, with no uncertain sound, to stand aside from every folly which can betray the soul to the destroyer, and he tells us—

They had not the slightest attraction for me. I was not happy; I was not wise; but I did not go astray after vanities. I grew up in the atmosphere of purity, which was a rich compensation for all the thorny theology which my morbid subjectiveness and my Calvinistic discipline had imported into it. All my spiritual troubles were, as I afterwards found, only a process of fermentation, out of which the clear and mellow wine was to be worked. With all its sorrows, a youth spent in Calvinistic seriousness is in every way preferable to one spent in frivolity.

When he returned to Aberdeen he found Aunt Manie away, gone to see her relatives in Hamilton. He undertook to send her a chronicle of home news, which she cherished proudly as an archive. This letter illustrates his tendency to subjectiveness. He begins, with a brave effort at self-suppression, to tell her the family doings. These included a visit to a menagerie of wild beasts, to which Mr Blackie had taken his children, poor Marion being left at home to expiate some girlish prank. The account of this visit comes early in the record, and then, alas! for Aunt Manie thirsty for homelier gossip, these wild beasts suggest a lengthy homily, divided into four parts, upon the advantages to be derived from the study of zoology. Two closely written pages, out of the three which form the letter, are filled with weighty observations on this subject, and the honour of the thing had to compensate for their dulness.

When the holidays were over he enrolled himself as a regular student of theology at the University of Aberdeen, as there he could take his full course and remain an inmate of his father's house.

The two professors who chiefly influenced his studies were Dr William Laurence Brown, Principal of the University and occupant of the Divinity Chair at Marischal College, and Dr Duncan Mearns, Professor of Divinity at King's College.

Both of these men were strong Moderates, hostile to the growing Evangelicalism which possessed a number of the younger students, and of which Thomas Chalmers was a powerful exponent. With this Evangelicalism John Blackie scarcely came into contact. His father's friends were Moderates, as were all the professors of note in the University. The only Evangelical preacher who visited the house was a man of small attainments and of sleepy manners, held of little account by Mr Blackie, and not likely to attract his son. Such of his fellow-students as were fervent against Moderatism, carried their arguments about with them more like weapons of offence than prevailing influences, and were seldom intellectually impressive. All that was sober, judicious, scholarly, dignified, was on the side of Moderatism; the Evangelicals were indiscreet, undisciplined, hot-headed, and it was not yet surmised that because they were hot - hearted too, it would be given to them to rouse the sluggard Church of Scotland from torpor to life.

But from these very Moderates John Blackie received enduring lessons, and he records them with full gratitude.

Principal Brown, whose twofold function it was to inculcate Divinity and to improve the Latinity of his class, succeeded at all events in the latter half of his undertaking. Influenced by Holland, where he had held the post of Professor at Utrecht, he was perhaps the most accomplished Latinist in Aberdeen, where scholarship ranked high. It was as easy for him to think and speak in Latin as in English. It is true that in neither language did his thoughts display much depth, for he was more concerned with the phrasing than with the sentiment; but the ease with which he criticised the essays and discourses of the students in flowing Latin, stimulated them to follow his example, and by constant reading and composing to enlarge and practise their vocabulary. To John Blackie particularly the Professor's powers acted as a useful spur, and he determined to follow every method suggested till he should secure a like facility. Once more the house in Marischal Street began to echo to his voice. High-sounding quotations from Cicero, transposed and paraphrased, bore witness to his diligence, and orations in imitation of his favourite author were delivered in the retirement of his room, against a bedpost grovelling in sedition or a wardrobe which revelled in impious luxury and crime. He recognised at once the importance of a method which Dr Brown had imported from learned Holland, and he soon acquired enough of fluency to enable him to risk a critical adventure, which won for him not only the Professor's applause, but a somewhat notable position amongst Latinists at the University.

Every student had to prepare and deliver a theological discourse in Latin, and this had to be prepared without assistance. Before his public criticism of each discourse, Dr Brown was in the habit of asking the members of his class to offer such critical remarks as occurred to them. Unbroken silence had always followed this challenge, and it had become a mere formality. But one memorable day young Blackie rose in answer to its delivery, and began to criticise the foregoing discourse in English. The Professor brought his fist down with emphasis on the desk: "At hoc non fas est, domine; que Latine scripta ea et Latine judicanda sunt." The student expected this, and turned deftly into some well - worded sentences, no doubt in sounding Ciceronian triplets. The Professor was delighted, and John Blackie's position as a Latinist was made. But he was not contented with this success, and continued to think, speak, and compose in Latin until it presented no further difficulty. That this is the right method of acquiring every language, whether living or dead, was borne in upon him from the precept and example of Principal Brown, and it has still to be recorded how steadily he maintained its importance throughout his life.

But the Divinity Professor rendered him further service. His course of lectures was on the body of Patristic lore, and embraced a review of heathenism and its teaching, between which and that of the Fathers a sharp line of demarcation was drawn to define the contrast. Perhaps the subject lent itself to the oratorical displays in which Dr Brown delighted, and swelling words veiled inadequate thought. One of his students has given it on record that in four years of lectures he never once heard the name of Jesus Christ; but then he was an Evangelical, and clearly expected too much. John Blackie was eager to learn, and so he learned enough, no doubt, to set him reading and thinking for himself.

He attended the Divinity lectures in King's College by Dr Duncan Mearns, as well as those by the Principal, and this course was weightier both in matter and manner than the other. Dr Mearns was a man of great ability and of extensive reading. He was thoroughly versed in his subject, and was besides capable of treating it with entire conscientiousness. But his severe and pompous manner, the distance which he maintained between his dignified self and the raw youth whom he loftily instructed, made kindly discipleship impossible, and when young Blackie from time to time ventured to ask for further light, he was publicly and ruthlessly snubbed. Dr Mearns was a leader in the Moderate party, and as such he descended into the arena of controversy, and published an invective against Evangelicalism as represented by Thomas Chalmers. It pleased his party mightily. Even John Blackie approved of its arguments, for in those days the new interpretation seemed to vulgarise salvation, which the respectable felt to be their monopoly. Respectability lay heavy as lead upon the Church of Scotland, and pedantry was piled upon respectability. And yet it was from a Moderate, that John Blackie got his best and most lasting lesson.

He was still occupied with his religious life, although its mental fermentation had subsided to a somewhat dull and moody self-absorption. Still he sought help from this and that writer's interpretation of the Gospel, and laying hands upon a ponderous tome, Boston's 'Body of Divinity,' he proposed to himself to solve the question with the help of the famous divine of Ettrick. One of his father's friends was Dr Patrick Forbes, minister of the parish of Old Machar, and Professor of Humanity and Chemistry at King's College. Moderate although he was, a certain warmth and impulsiveness characterised him, altogether foreign to his pompous fellows. It was a pleasant walk to his manse, and John went now and again to see him, and to convey some message from Mr Blackie. One day he found him in his study, Horace on one hand, the Hebrew Scriptures on the other, seated at a high desk, the walls round him lined with huge quartos and folios bound in vellum,—works classical, scientific, horticultural, and polemical. John had come on an errand of his own, to ask the Doctor about his course of theological reading, and particularly to discover his opinion of Boston's 'Body of Divinity.' His outspoken adviser made short work of Boston:-

What have you to do with books of divinity by Boston or any other? Are you a Christian? What should a Christian read before his Bible? Do you know Greek? Whence should a student of theology fetch his divinity in preference to the Greek Testament?

The word was opportune and final. The scales fell from John Blackie's eyes.

There was [he says] both sense and gospel here. I immediately flung aside my 'Body of Divinity,' and forthwith got my Greek Testament interleaved, and commenced a course of Scripture study without the slightest reference to the Westminster Confession or any other systematised essay of Christian doctrine.

He was now face to face with divine teaching, which guides each mind by different processes to realise the same great truths, and from that day the well - thumbed Testament lay ready to hand in his coat-pocket.

Take your knowledge of the case from the evidence of the original witnesses, from them directly and from them only in the first place; you will then be in a condition to profit by the observations and opinions of other men, which, without such a previous course of independent training, could only confound and cripple you. This was what my Gamaliel taught me.

To Dr Forbes he owed many pregnant lessons, and towards him his attitude was always docile. A friendship sprang up between him and the sons of Old Machar manse, and this gave him frequent opportunities of seeking and receiving the fresh, suggestive, imperious dicta which the Doctor, half genially, half defiantly, hurled at him about every topic of the day. The Professor's chemical researches had given him more than ordinary insight into the working of the divine energy, and he taught his young friend to recognise it in every process by which the world is maintained and renewed. "Wherever life is," said the Doctor, "God is." The sentence solved much for his disciple. It illuminated a whole horizon dense with cloud, a curtain which had seemed to him providentially disposed, and to be accepted with dumb endurance. And now he found that without an effort on his part the cloud was dissolved and gone - that God was its interpreter, no grim deity who loved to limit and perplex His creatures, but the omnipresent Wisdom. It was a release from bondage to freedom. In middle life he wrote:-

This absolute and only possible truth I found afterwards in Plato, but it did not appear to me a whit more evident, touched by the imaginative genius of the great Greek idealist, than when it came forth in full panoply from the hard head of the Aberdeen Doctor. Resting upon this postulate, I have since then always looked on Materialism and Atheism as two forms of speculative nonsense, and a firm faith in God was made clear to me as the one keystone which makes thought coherent and the world intelligible.

Many years passed before lie realised his full debt to Dr Forbes. He was still under the impression that a learned Moderate might give him a lift oil question of speculation, but he would have scorned to seek his advice on a question of inward and personal religion. It took a long time to teach him that the impulses which develop our spiritual life are as surely correlated as the physical force which is heat, or light, or motion, as conditions decide its form.

Always teachable, although always eclectic, he found here and there the lessons which he needed, gathering them out of the open hand of Providence. Thus Dr Forsyth, the minister of Belhelvie, taught him to use his eyes. He was another of Mr Blackie's friends who took an interest in John, and he helped him insensibly out of the preoccupations which at this time gave a touch of moodiness to his manner. Dr Forsyth was a student of nature like Dr Forbes, physics and botany occupied his leisure, and the young science of geology claimed his walks about the district, hammer in hand. The flora of Belhelvie hedgerows and fields, the material of Beihelvie dykes—with such homely plants and stones he made his walks a page in God's great Missal, and taught the young friend, who sometimes shared them, to decipher for himself the characters which conveyed His Wisdom, inscribed in stern relief, or wreathed with delicate beauty.

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus