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The Life of James Stewart
The Student of Medicine

EDINBURGH, 1859-61. GLASGOW, 1864-66.

NativeMedicine—African Faith-healing—Ordination—Fellow-students—A Touching Incident—A Beautiful Tribute.

‘A medical missionary is a missionary and a half, or rather a double missionary.’—Robert Mofat.

‘The angelic conjunction of Medicine with Divinity.’ —Cotton Mather.

‘Christ is the Head of our Profession,’—Sir J. Y. Simpson.

‘Heal the sick that are therein and say unto them, the kingdom of God is come nigh unto you. ‘—Jesus Christ.

EAGER to equip himself for every side of mission-work, James Stewart began the study of medicine in Edinburgh, immediately after he had left the Divinity Hall. His medical studies were interrupted by his visit to Central Africa, but on his return he resumed them—this time in Glasgow—with growing earnestness. He knew that the foreign missionary must often be a ‘medicin malgré lui,’ and that medical skill can open most closed doors in heathen lands. But Africa gave him a new conception of medicine as an ally to the Gospel, while his frequent fevers taught him its unspeakable value for the white man. He then discovered that native medicine is one of the mightiest and most malignant influences in Africa. The doctor there is the priest, the tyrant and the terror of the people. ‘Quackery and the love of being quacked,’ writes Dr. John Brown, ‘are in human nature as weeds in a garden.’ As Thomas Fuller puts it, ‘Well did the poets feign AEsculapius and Circe brother and sister, children of the Sun! for in all times, in the opinion of the multitude, witches, old women, and impostors have had a competition with physicians.’ But the situation is far worse in South Africa, as the witches, impostors, and physicians are all the same and have no rivals or checks. Magic and medicine are wedded, the priest and the doctor are one person, and he causes infinitely more diseases than he cures.

At the same time he has some valuable knowledge in certain directions. He knows the properties, poisonous or curative, of plants unknown to our doctors, has acquired some natural secrets, and has anticipated some modern discoveries. In his own rude way he uses suggestion, mesmerism, and faith-healing, and sometimes, as at Lourdes and other wonder-working resorts, he succeeds: ‘for in so far as the disease is a lack of faith,’ says a medical authority, ‘in just that degree is the cure an act of faith.’

Most of the diseases whose seat is in the mysterious border-land between the soul and the body arise from a paralysis of the will-power, and can be cured by anything that rouses the imagination, and coaxes the sick man to throw off his nightmare and work as if he were quite well. All the medicine-man’s ceremonies, incantations, and mysterious ongoings are fitted and intended to give the patient a deep impression of power, and to rouse the expectation of a cure, One meets white men in Africa who have been healed by native doctors when all other remedies had failed, and some white doctors believe in the skill of the natives in the treatment of certain diseases. Still the fact remains that millions have been tortured and killed by native doctors or witch doctors, and that millions have through them had their lives darkened by nameless terrors. What is false in their medicine can be driven out only by the true, and thus European medicine is fitted to overthrow the whole system of African superstition. The union of medical and spiritual work seems reasonable to the African, as his doctor is also his priest.

All these considerations intensified Stewart’s desire to bring the ‘double cure’ within reach of the benighted Africans, and created in him a voracious appetite for medical knowledge.

It should be remembered that he preached regularly during all the years of his medical studies.

In February 1865 he was ordained as a missionary by the Free Church Presbytery of Glasgow, but it was arranged that he should remain at home till he had gained his medical degree. He was a very earnest student of medicine. It suited his individuality and gratified his longing to do the whole work of Christ. Its certainties, practicalities, and humanities powerfully recommended it to him.

A few of his fellow-students are still alive. They all bear witness to his commanding personality. One of them says that he then believed him to be of Scandinavian origin, and a fine representative of the old Vikings. His diagnoss was correct, though he knew nothing about his ancestry.

‘The strength of the impression he made on me,’ says another of his fellow-students, ‘is revealed by the fact that I have still a very vivid image of him in my memory, while the pictures of all the rest have faded away.’

He had a certain aloofness which remained with him through life. It was fostered, if not created, by his complete devotion to his work, and by the fact that he was older than those around him. They wished to get his African stories, but usually they failed. One of the more advanced students succeeded in ‘drawing him,’ by arranging an exchange of medical knowledge for African news.

He was ‘capped’ in August 1866. He then received the degrees of M.B. and C.M., gaining special distinction in the classes of Surgery, Materia Medica, and Forensic Medicine.

Sir Hector Cameron, a fellow-student who was intimate with him, writes:—’ He was held in great esteem both by his professors and also by his fellow-students, although from disparity of years and consequent difference of daily life and habits, he was in a sense apart from them, and only well known by one or two. He acted as one of the dressers in the wards of Professor (now Lord) Lister, in the Royal Infirmary, at the time when the antiseptic method of wound-treatment, which has so marvellously revolutionised surgical practice, and been so fruitful of benefits to suffering humanity, was just beginning to be evolved by that great surgical genius.’

Stewart’s aim in studying medicine was to fit himself for promoting the Kingdom of Christ. The incident recorded in the following letter took place soon after he reached Lovedale, and it proves that he had not studied medicine in vain.

‘Having had the privilege, as a child, of sitting under Dr. Stewart’s ministry, I should like to send you the following incident which occurred at our house in Alice, about a mile and a half from Love-dale. My father was District Surgeon there for some years.

‘To me then, although a child, Dr. Stewart seemed a second St. John "whom Jesus loved." His love to Christ seemed to permeate his being, and his tender graciousness to all made him my young heart’s ideal of a Christian, and I can still remember a sermon he preached on "Son, remember."

‘One evening about forty years ago, there was a hurried knocking at our hail door, and upon opening we found a recent acquaintance whose husband, Major G—, was absent for a short time, standing with her little boy in her arms.

Oh!" she cried, "R— has been bitten by a snake." He was a dear little fellow of about four years of age, just promoted to knickerbockers, her only child, as she had lost her baby-boy not long before.

‘The little fellow had been bitten in several places, as Mrs. G— in her fright had fallen with him, and forehead, leg, and hands all bore marks of the snake’s malice. My father was away! What was to be done? We sent for Dr. Stewart. He came, and remained all night. I can see them now—Mrs. G— on her knees by the bedside, the little boy between life and death, and dear Dr. Stewart. He sucked every one of these wounds. He was medical man only for the Mission; his valuable and busy life could not admit any risks; his wife and little girl surely claimed his caution personally; and yet for the passing stranger whose mother-heart was crying so sorely, "Let this cup pass," for the wee unknown laddie, whose little life compared to his was as nought, he took in the poison and saved the child. The snake was a puff-adder, and the wounds were venomous enough.

‘In the morning the little one was sitting up in bed making shadows on the wall with his little fingers.

‘This deed was just like Dr. Stewart. It sank into my young heart, and the memory of not only lovely words, but lovely actions—quite apart from his daily mission - work at Lovedale—has been one of the deepest joys of my life, for he was the first true living manifestation of Christ I ever knew, the first whose whole life and ways shed abroad the fragrance of Christ, and from whom the "sweet savour" went, not only up, but abroad. In him there was an utterly selfless manifestation of the love of God. It was what he was in Christ as well as what he did, that seemed to reveal so clearly the "heights and depths, lengths and bread ths," which he had searched and rejoiced in. He was a living witness of the wonderful love of Christ who loved him and died for him, and whom alone he desired to glorify. What impressed me as a child in his preaching was the reality, not only of his message, but of his knowledge of Christ as a living person. I always thought of him as one who had heard and answered fully Christ’s words, "Follow thou me." My last remembrance of the Scotch Church at Alice was hearing Dr. Stewart speaking there upon Livingstonia, and his purposed work. I remember that he said that this had been upon his heart for fifteen years. I certainly owe to Dr. Stewart my first clear sight of Christ in all His beauty, and if in any measure I have been able to tell of Him in other lands, by pen or act, it has been owing greatly to this revelation of Christ to me in my early days.


The puff-adder is one of the most dangerous of serpents. Experts say that its venom is compounded of a nerve poison and a blood poison, which would probably prove fatal to a doctor sucking it, if there were a tiny scratch on the skin inside his mouth.

In his Pastoral Theology Vinet makes the following statement :—‘ The danger which may attend frequent visits to sick persons, in cases of epidemic or contagion, is usually in the inverse ratio to the courage and devotion of the pastor. Do not flee from danger and then danger will flee from you.’

Stewart makes the following marginal comment:— ‘This page assumes the simple fact that the minister must risk his life in this way. Well, it may be right—" we are immortal till our work is done." There are circumstances, however, in the determination of this matter not to be left out.’ Yes; and circumstances which must often be left out as they lie beyond our ken. For example, the boy whose life Stewart saved became his son-in-law.

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