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The Life of James Stewart
The Moderator, 1899 - 1900

The Genius of Presbyterianism —Missionary Moderators—Dr. Stewart’s Addresses—His Speech at Washington.

For eschewing confusion in reasoning, the whole Assembly present named Mr. George Buchanan, Principal of St. Leonard’s College in St. Andrews, Moderator during the Convention.‘—From Minute of the AppointmenI of the first Moderator of the Church of Scotland.

‘Of necessity it is that Generall Assemblies maun be, in the which the judgment and gravitie of many may concur to correct or to represse the folyes or errouris of a few. ‘—John Knox’s Works, ii. 296, 297.

‘It was a maist pleasant and comfortable thing to be present at these Assemblies, there was sic frequencie (large attendance) and reverence.’— James Melville’s Diary.

‘Presbyterianism means organised life, regulated distribution of forces, graduated recognition of gifts, freedom to discuss, authority to control, and agency to administer.’—Principal Rainy.

THE Presbyterian Church is at once a thorough democracy and a thorough aristocracy. In it, as in the New Testament Church, no one person is priest because all are priests, and Jesus Christ is the great High Priest. It is one of the marvels of history that the Apostles founded a perfect democracy in the heart of a military despotism, and for a society composed largely of downtrodden slaves. The Apostolic Catholic Church is thus the mother of free institutions. According to the New Testament model, all the officers of the Presbyterian Church are chosen by the members, and men and women have an equal right to vote. But in so far as it approaches its ideal, the Church of Christ is a perfect aristocracy, for all its members are the professed followers of Jesus Christ, and should form an aristocracy of character and service, and so secure the virtues a democracy demands. The aim of this divine democracy is to unite all classes as equal before God, in one holy fellowship and brotherhood.

Hence it follows that all ordained Presbyterian pastors are equals in respect of privilege and position, There is, however, one apparent exception to this ‘Presbyterian parity.’ Every year a President is chosen as the highest official of his Church. He presides over the General Assembly—its supreme Court or Parliament—which sits in Edinburgh during ten days in May, in what Mr. Gladstone pronounced to be ‘the finest audience-hall he had seen or used.’ This President is called a Moderator, as he is to moderate or restrain all excesses or irrelevancies in debate, and secure that all things are done decently and in order.

When the Free Church severed its connection with the State, in 1843, the then Moderator, Dr. Welsh, headed the procession in the full court dress which he was wearing in recognition of the presence of the Lord High Commissioner as the representative of the Sovereign. His example was followed regularly till 1900, and with one exception it has been followed since. The Moderator’s dress, with lace and ruffles, knee-breeches, silver-buckled shoon and cocked-hat of the Middle Ages, and over all, the Geneva gown and bands, is therefore an interesting, and to some, a pathetic piece of antiquity.

The first Moderator was the famous George Buchanan, ‘a stoik philosopher, of guid religion for a poet.’ He was succeeded by ‘John Erskine of Dun, Knyght,’ who also was not an ordained pastor. Since then all the Moderators have been pastors. During the fifty-seven years of its separate existence, the Free Church of Scotland five times called a missionary to the Moderator’s chair—a remarkable proof of the Church’s appreciation of her missions and her missionaries.

The first of the five was the Rev. Dr. Alexander Duff of Calcutta, who had the peculiar honour of twice occupying the highest seat in the Church. In 1851, at the unusually early age of forty-five, he was the first missionary to fill the Moderator’s chair, and he was Moderator again in 1873. Dr. John Wilson of Bombay, Dr. Thomas Smith of Calcutta, and Dr. William Miller, C.I.E., of Madras, were also Moderators. Dr. Stewart was Moderator in 1899. The present Moderator of the now United Free Church, is Dr. Robert Laws of Livingstonia. In 1888, the Rev. Williamson Shoolbred, D.D., of Rajputana, was Moderator of the United Presbyterian Synod, and the Rev. John Robson, D.D., formerly an Indian missionary, was Moderator in 1889. [A learned Indian Professor of Science recently declared his conviction that the future Indian historians of India would give the first place among their British benefactors to Alexander Duff of Calcutta, John Wilson of Bombay, and William Miller of Madras. He was aware, he said, that English historians would claim the honour for some of their warriors and statesmen. The reason he gave for his assurance was, that these three missionaries have done more than any others to secure for influential Indians the education which alone can fit them for occupying their rightful position among the nations of the earth.]

Before leaving Lovedale for Scotland, Dr. Stewart’s staff presented him with an address and a sum of  money to provide his Moderator’s gown. The address recorded with warm appreciation his services to Lovedale and missions. We quote only the closing words: ‘We desire to include Mrs. Stewart in our congratulations. She has had a very great share in the work of Lovedale, and her gracious influence has been felt throughout every department. Her wise advice and kindly sympathy have been greatly valued, and will be much missed by us all. We trust that you and your family will have a safe and pleasant voyage home, and we can assure you of a hearty welcome on your return. It is our earnest prayer that the blessing of God may attend you in the work to which you go forward, and that you may have much pleasure and success therein.’

Dr. Stewart was the first African missionary, and the second physician who had ever presided over a Scottish General Assembly He presided with dignity, tact, alertness, and efficiency. Like the Speaker in the House of Commons, he spoke as little as possible during the deliberations, and secured as many opportunities as possible for others. He had the art of leaving off, and the still greater art of not beginning except when speech was really necessary. Except at the opening and closing of Assembly, he seems to have spoken only once during the sittings. It was when the young missionaries were presented to the Assembly. [Harry W. Smith, Esq., W. S., Secretary of Dr. Stewart when Moderator, writes:—‘ It was a privilege and an education of the best and highest kind to have been associated with Dr. Stewart. His his genial bearing to all, his noble simplicity, his untiring energy, never failed to attract all who came into contact with him, and his influence for good will ever remain indelibly impressed upon those of us who had the privilege of his friendship.’]

The Moderator delivers an opening and closing address. Dr. Stewart’s first theme was—’ The King of the World, or Christian Imperialism.’ His motto was from Browning—’ We gave the Cross when we owed the Throne.’ He gratefully acknowledged the honour conferred, through him, on African Missions and the medical profession. He rejoiced in the new interest in Africa, in its mysteries and magnetic attractions. His favourite convictions about missions and civilisation were earnestly expounded in a spirit of Christian optimism. He pled for a Christian interest in Africa, ‘whose soil has been soaked in blood, and its sky filled with tortured cries.’ ‘All questions,’ he said, ‘as to the final success of the work may be set at rest.’ In support of his hopefulness, he mentioned the astonishing fact, commented on by Lecky and Kidd, that ancient history contains only some ten or twelve scornful references to the Church during the first three centuries, and yet the new faith was all the while preparing a mine and setting a train which was soon to explode and tear up heathenism from its lowest depths. He cherished the hope that such an experience might be repeated in our day. In modern phrase, and only on their spiritual side and in the interests of missions, he expounded the great historic Scottish ideas of Christ’s Crown and Covenant, the Headship of Christ over the nations, and the Crown rights of the Redeemer. He expatiated on the mission of Christianity to Christianise the whole world, and avowed his conviction that the Church which devoted itself most heartily to this imperial work would come to the front among the Churches of the world’s future. This great Christian Imperialist, then in his sixty-eighth year, declared that if his Church were disposed to adopt a bold missionary policy, he was willing to go again as a pioneer. ‘Visionary it is not,’ he said, ‘but so far as the human eye can see, it is a vision of the world and the wonders that shall be.’

‘Twenty-four years ago,’ he said, ‘on the floor of this house, a certain proposal was made by the individual who has now the honour to address you.

That idea or proposal was to plant Christianity on the shores of Lake Nyasa, a region where Christianity had never been since rivers into ocean ran. Has the Free Church been any the worse for that Livingstonia Mission?’

In his closing address he discoursed on ‘Things Primary and Secondary.’ It was then the penultimate Assembly before the union of the two Scottish Churches. The most notable part of his address was his appeal to the protesting minority, and the last public appeal to them. His words derived fresh significance from the fact that to some extent he had sympathised with them, and they had counted on him as one of their party. He thus spoke :— ‘We are on the eve of great changes. The widening of men’s thoughts on the great unity of the Church has grown not only with the process of the suns, but with the progress of the Church and its advance in its true conception of the real object of its existence and its true work. This has rendered it needful to reconsider our position and to ask whether more good can not be accomplished by throwing in our lot with the majority than by holding out any longer. My appeal and earnest request is that: "We hang the trumpet in the hail, and study war no more"; in other words, that we shall now begin to practise what we preach for the sake of the unity of the Church of Christ.

‘I might add many other reasons. Here is one. It is a sign of the times. There is no more marked feature of the last half-century than the growth of association. Men believe that by association, cooperation, or union, they can accomplish a great deal more than when acting singly and alone. Everything now is done by association, with liability limited or unlimited. Let us apply this principle to our service in the Church. When the majority moves let us move with it. Let us not sulk in our tents. When the right time comes let us go in a solid body, and leave not a stick or a dirk behind. There are other battles to fight. And so, dear friends, Fathers and Brethren, whether you come or not, I am going over the valley to the other camp, and that for some further reasons I shall now state. I believe that there is daily growing amongst Christians more real regard, esteem, and recognition of other men’s Christianity. This regard is modified no doubt by the influences of education, association, and other eidola or disturbing causes such as Bacon pointed out as affecting the human mind on all subjects. They affect the Church as well as the schools of thinking. We are like men in a mist; or like sections of an army in the darkness, mistaking each other, and attacking each other because we have not the same regimental facings on our coats, or a slightly different regimental flag. Let me not be misunderstood as throwing about self-confident blame on other Churches of the world, and freeing ourselves.


‘Amongst the causes which keep Churches apart, it is possible or probable, I think, that mistakes have been made by exalting to the rank of primary duties, and raising to corresponding primary places in belief, certain things—call them ideas, views, opinions, or deductions from Scripture—about which Jesus Christ has said nothing. These ideas may concern Church government, that perpetual bone of contention, Church ceremonial, or even doctrine itself, or the special duties of individuals. It is possible also, seeing the width and general freedom of Scripture statement, that some of these views may have been evolved from the Church’s inner consciousness rather than from another and safer source. It is not that such things or ideas themselves are wrong or unimportant, but that they are put in wrong places, and are exalted to positions which they do not deserve, and which belong to something very much higher and greater, and that is the true spirit of Christianity itself, and the practice and exhibition of that charity which we are solemnly assured will live, long after these things have vanished away.

‘In our estimation of the value of these things, and in our decisions as to what shall be regarded as primary and what as secondary in the Church’s testimony and activity, it is possible that our judgments, and the judgments of those who have gone before us, may also have been affected by the inevitable narrowness and weakness which clings to the human mind. It is possible, nay, it is historical, as it is the saddest chapter in the history of religion, that at times even human bitterness and the feelings and jealousy of sect or Church have played their parts. These feelings may come to us in the guise of angels of light, though they are not that at all, bat angels of darkness; and they may have told us this lie, that by the intensity, zeal, and perhaps even bitterness with which we fight for these secondary things, we are making ourselves more really the defenders of Christ’s truth. These false counsellors did not tell us that some of these things were the secondary laws of Christ’s Church and kingdom; and that, the more time that is spent on lifting them up to the rank of first importance, the less time and strength the Church has for its primary duty—the care and conversion of souls at home, and the spread of the knowledge of Christ among the millions of men abroad, who hardly know they have souls at all; to whom life is great darkness and a great perplexity, and death a still deeper darkness and a more baffling mystery. These false angels did not tell us that whole centuries of the Church’s existence have been spent in dealing with such controversies; and that the energies of some of the strongest minds and most loving hearts with which God has blessed the Church have been consumed in this—I will not say internecine, but inter-ecclesiastical war, with the result of leaving the hostile denominational camps more hostile than before. Our one Teacher, Master, and Commander, is Jesus Christ, and that to which He mainly directs our attention should be by us mainly attended to; and yet we have learned some of His lessons and attended to His commands so badly.


‘in this connection, and as an illustration, I wish to be allowed to quote a single sentence bearing on this great question, of what is primary and what is secondary in a Church’s life. The words were spoken a few days ago to a Church Society in this city. They were not addressed to a Free Church Society, nor to a United Presbyterian one. They bear on a question of the present hour—the question that is agitating the whole of the great historical Church of England—a controversy about which we shall all hear more and know more before very long. The sentence is this: "Is it possible to conceive of Jesus Christ being deeply occupied with questions of ‘the ceremonial use of incense,’ or of lights on the altar,’ or of the wearing of copes, aibs, and vestments, or of any other question of an ornamental rubric !" We shall all agree, I think, that such a conception is absolutely impossible. Jesus Christ, we know, was deeply occupied with entirely different things—with human hearts and human sin, and with the sorrows of those hearts because of that sin, and mainly He tried to help those sore overburdened hearts to a better state. What Christ did is the primary work of His Church—to which all the strength and time and energy of every minister of His and every member of His Church should be mainly devoted while life’s short day lasts. That a question of this kind should be at this hour convulsing the greatest and most powerful Church of the Reformation only shows how far the attention of a Church may be distracted and its energies wasted on things of secondary importance. The blame lies entirely with those who insist on making these things of primary importance. But these things have no more to do with the real work and primary duty of any Church than the coat I have now the honour to wear, and the triangular hat I wear when I go outside, have to do with my personal Christianity. These externals and secondaries may be useful, and are all right in their Own places as the accidents or ornaments of work or office; they are all wrong when they take the place of things essential and indispensable to a Church’s life and efficiency.

‘I hope in what I have now said I shall give no offence to a single member of the Ritualistic party who is a genuine Protestant at heart. Within that section of the Church of England I have had some of my oldest and most esteemed friends—men whom I have loved for the true and pure Christianity their lives exhibited. We always disagreed when we talked about these things, and we always agreed when we ceased talking. Some of these friends are in heaven now, and probably see differently; at least they know more about the importance or non-importance of these things than we do. The single sentence I have made use of was addressed the other day by a man whom I have the honour to call my old friend, Professor Sir William T. Gairdner, of Glasgow University, to the Church Service Society of the Church of Scotland—and it was addressed, not as a commination or denouncement, but in brotherly love and charity—the charity which our Master teaches and enjoins. If you ask why I have so occupied your time I will answer thus: Let nothing but what is of primary importance keep this, or any other Church apart from other portions of Christ’s Church which are willing to work along with us. And, second, let us be perfectly sure that what we class as of primary importance is really so, There is so much to do of the real primary kind— the care and conversion of souls at home, the finding of souls without number abroad. In the face of this work, awful in magnitude and in its consequences, I don’t think it matters very much whether we have or have not already settled every question, which might become a subject of pretty warm controversy if once we started on that work.’

In the fall of 1899, Stewart attended the seventh General Council of the alliance of Reformed Churches at Washington, D.C. He was a commanding personality there. He gave a very striking address on ‘Yesterday and To-day in Africa.’ His chief plea was for union in the mission-field, union of all Presbyterian Churches, and the rousing of the Christian Church, ministers, members, and adherents, to a sense of the magnitude of the work on hand, and of the individual responsibility of each and all within the Church in connection therewith. He closed his address in these words: ‘Your flag has had a marvellous history—short though the past has been, and as the lifetime of nations is measured. And the future—the future of the Stars and Stripes—what living man is able to predict what that great and not very distant future shall be? There is also the other—the old Union Jack—which, with all its faults, is still the flag that has waved a thousand years in the breeze and battle of the world’s freedom. My prayer to God is, that those two flags—emblems of two nations that God has gifted with many blessings—may ever wave together in peace, and that for no temporary or selfish or empty sentimental reason, but for the credit of our common Christianity, and for the good of the world. Thus they may promote the conditions most favourable to the world’s peace, and help forward the extension of the Kingdom of Him who is the real King and Ruler of this world.’

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