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The Life of James Stewart
The Student of Divinity, 1855 - 1859

His Individuality—His Stepmother—His Comrades—His Club—‘Stewart Africanus’—At Erlangen—The Cotton Famine—His first two Books.

Ideals are prophesies that work out their own fulfilment.’—Bishop Lightfoot.

‘Who climbs keeps one foot firm on fact
Ere hazarding the next step.

‘Pectus facit theologum’ (The heart makes the theologian).—Amesius. (The motto of Tholuck and Neander.)

STEWART took the ordinary course of four sessions in the New College, Edinburgh, the Divinity Hall of the Free Church of Scotland. His relation to his studies there was the same as it had been in the Universities of St. Andrews and Edinburgh. His energies, not confined within the customary bounds, overflowed upon the adjoining fields of knowledge. So far as is known, he did not call any of his professors ‘my master,’ in the classical, exclusive and rich sense of that term. But in the middle of his Divinity course he found his master and lifelong hero.

Here is the image of Stewart which lives in the memories of his surviving fellow-students.—Healthy in body, mind, and soul, he had a passion for fact and reality. Though a zealous idealist, he did not look at present things through the stained glass of the imagination. He was a good, whole-hearted, practical Christian man, and free from every petty feeling. Sometimes he seemed to be over-masterful, and he did not always moderate his language in conference and controversy. On the Godward side he had an exacting conscience, and sternly took himself to task for his failings. The devout life was diligently cultivated, and he cherished an intense aversion to a wooden orthodoxy, and a tottering morality in alliance with a Christian profession. He wished a thoroughly practical theology which he could transmit to the heathen, and which would move him to transmit it. In every part of his life he was profoundly Christian. ‘I have an impression,’ one of his fellow-students writes, ‘of his manly, forcible, upright, and generous Christian character.’

His social nature—’ which needed a little development’—was enriched in two directions. As his father had died during his university course, for some years he lived with his stepmother, to whom he was warmly attached. The comradeship of these two was greatly admired. It was like the relation of an affectionate elder sister to a devoted younger brother. The care of her was a sacred duty to him, and not till he had laid her body in the grave, could he say, ‘I am now free to go to Africa.’ ‘I cannot tell you,’ he then wrote, ‘how this has affected me. What a world of affection that woman lavished upon me. Now I can never repay her. My interest in things has suddenly diminished within the last few hours.’ He adds—’ I had formed what, no doubt, was a rash resolution, not to go abroad while she lived. . . . This event removed my self-made difficulty and set me strangely free, as I had then neither father nor mother, sister nor brother alive, though of the latter there were at one time five.’ Some time after the death of his stepmother, writing to an intimate friend, he said, ‘For the first few weeks I dozed over the fire and did nothing. I hardly thought that a man in ordinary tolerable health could be so stupefied with one stroke as to forget half the things he had to do, and only half do what remained. . . . I was asked to come here (Selkirk) and was glad to go where I must work. It will be no fault of mine, I hope, if our friendship is not perpetuated. I feel more every day the need of holding to those old friends for whom I care, and for whom those who are no longer amongst us really cared, so let us understand that I wish the bond to be made, if possible, stronger. You say "God has had some wise end in view." I believe He has, though I do not yet understand it. You must not think I am complaining. I have felt as never in my life before that it is good that a man should suffer, yet these poor hearts of ours will have their say. I had often wished for a few years in which to have repaid my mother for all her surprising love. In the last letter I wrote to her from Paris, I told her of this. I wanted to provide a quiet home for her, but— Despite all my infirmity of temper, sometimes, too often alas, overcoming me, I loved my mother and she knew it. I loved her as if she had been my own mother, but it seems to me I did not love her half enough, and God has sent His rebuke. I must wait therefore till I meet her in Heaven, and tell her of my repentance on earth after she left it. It seems also that I have a tie now there, and a real piece of work to be done when I get there, that I never had before.’

To Free Church students of Divinity, the New College was their Alma Mater. The smaller number was favourable to comradeship, and unity of conviction and aims created an added sense of brotherhood. In such an atmosphere are formed the friendships which last throughout life and enrich it.

Stewart took a prominent part in the theological and missionary societies of the New College, of which he was an affectionate alumnus. He had even then the mysterious power of leadership and a fertile initiative. Several of his St. Andrews fellow-students were with him at the New College. He formed them into the S.A.S.C.—the St. Andrews Students’ Club, with the St. Andrew’s Cross for their symbol. They had a very beautiful coat of arms with two mottoes: ‘One in Christ’ (in Greek), and ‘To lose a friend is the greatest of losses’ (in Latin). By frequent correspondence, friendship was fostered among the clubmen after they had left Edinburgh, and they all agreed to do their utmost to support the mission to which the founder of their club had devoted his life. Stewart carefully kept these memories alive, for, like the fuel in the hearth, they preserved and radiated upon him the sunshine of the past.

In after days, his memory fondly reverted to this society, and he maintained a fraternal correspondence with several of its members, and was a loyal and devoted friend.

They met once a week in each other’s rooms, had a devotional meeting every Saturday evening, and engaged in Home Mission work. Stewart wrote a booklet to be circulated by the members. It was based upon the story of Felix, and entitled Thoughts on an Ancient Narrative, or, Circumstances and the Soul’s Salvation. With him, as with Strafford, thorough was his motto in all he did. This booklet is carefully written, closely reasoned, and well fitted for its purpose.

In 1857 he received his second great epoch-making impulse. The first came to him between the stilts of the plough; the second, from the pages of a book. The Rev. J. Macknight of Whit-burn writes: ‘One Saturday afternoon in 1857 I had a walk in the country with James Stewart. He then told me that he had just read Livingstone’s travels. He was so fascinated with the book that he was busy tabulating its contents. Chapter i. in his notes was headed "Dr. Livingstone as a Botanist," and in the later chapters he dealt with Livingstone as a zoologist—a geologist—a medical man—an explorer—a missionary—and a Christian. Under the several heads he had summed up quite an array of references, giving the subject and the page. Livingstone’s many-sidedness had amazed him, also the extraordinary wisdom and clearness with which every topic was handled, and especially the new world of Africa which just then was dawning upon us. It would have required a prophet to foretell the issue of young Stewart’s enthusiasm, but looking back to it now, across all that he has since done and been, we can see that he had already found his hero and his function. If that old notebook of his can be traced, it should be deposited in some missionary museum, as a sacred memorial of our honoured friend.’

After this, ‘long Stewart ‘—as he was called in the easy colloquial of the college, to distinguish him from another whose name was ‘short Stuart’—was known as ‘Africa Stewart’ or ‘Stewart Africanus.’ He was cherishing visions and dreaming dreams about missions in the heart of Africa. Some were disposed to regard him as a dreamer and a visionary. They could not know that the first love of his boyhood had then become a well-defined, overmastering passion, which would create for him one of the most notable missionary careers of the century.

Dr. Wallace thus recalls these days: ‘Along with some others and myself he spent part of the summer session of 1858 at the University of Erlangen. [In Bavaria, then one of the most famous schools of theology, as among its professors were Delitzsch, Von Hofmann, Thomasius, Ebrard and Herzog. Stewart knew German well and could converse in it.] The German students sampled us Scotchers and labelled us. He was known as "der Schotte mit dem grossen Stock" (the Scotchman with the big stick). At that time he sported a walking-stick of formidable size, which rather astonished the Germans. They gave a more correct picture of the man than they knew. He was essentially a born traveller and a pioneer, a man of strong independence and firm resolution, leaning on his own stick, and that a pretty sturdy one, prepared to encounter difficulties and to surmount them. For such a role he was well fitted both by bodily physique and mental courage. He knew that he had in himself a reserve of fitness and strength, which he had a right to use, which it was in fact his duty to use for the glory of God and the good of mankind. There was something in him which made one feel that, however unreasonable his aim might seem to be, he himself must have good reasons for it, and that nothing on his part would be lacking to bring about a successful issue. Let no one, however, suppose that he was moved by the mere love of adventure or by the desire to do something uncommon, so that he might get credit for originality. The springs of action in his soul were connected with a higher source. He sought to hear the voice of God calling him to duty. Those who knew him best knew how earnestly he longed to serve God in any sphere to which he might be called. He did not wear his religion on his sleeve where all could see it, but he hid the word of God in his heart that he might be ready for obedience in the spirit of the Apostle Paul when he asked, " Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?"’

About the time when he formed the resolve to do his utmost to plant a mission in the districts opened up by Livingstone, his sympathies were drawn forth to the myriads of mill-workers in England who were suffering from the cotton famine caused by the war in the United States. As he had embraced with his whole heart the idea of industrial missions, he had the hope that he might establish cotton-fields in the valleys of the Zambesi and the Shire, and thus help to secure work and bread for the starving at home. This hope strengthened his resolution to visit these regions. He afterwards discovered that that part of Africa was admirably suited for the better varieties of the cotton-plant, but that it was impossible to cultivate it as long as slave-raiding lasted.

‘More than most men I have known,’ Dr. Wallace writes, ‘he was characterised by decision and self-reliance. He seemed to be always looking ahead, and to know what he meant to be at. It was sometimes disconcerting, in the course of that kind of talk in which things are said with little meaning, to be pulled up by him with such questions as, "What do you mean by that?" or, "What do you intend to accomplish thereby?" His self-reliance was, of course, of the nature indicated by the Apostle Paul, when he says, "Our sufficiency is of God." "I can do all things through Christ who strengtheneth me." Sometimes it was almost provoking to find him so sure of himself, especially when one was not prepared to adopt his views. For in truth he was not always disposed to allow to others the same independence of judgment which he claimed for himself. He was so .absorbed in looking at things from his own point of view as scarcely to realise that there was another point of view. But this was part of the strength of the man, and enabled him to accomplish a life work equalled by few, though I believe it sometimes deprived him of the help which others would have given as far as they were able, though they could not go as far as he expected.’

When describing his New College days, Stewart wrote, ‘I had also travelled a good deal, first, at my own expense, and a second time through a great part of Europe, including Greece and Turkey, with two young Cambridge students.’ One of these writes: ‘We had the greatest regard for him and a very vivid recollection of his sincerity, kindness, and abilities. I have always followed his distinguished and self-sacrificing career with the greatest interest.’

It is fitting here to notice two books by James Stewart, as they were the fruitage of his by-studies while a student. One is a quarto and undated. Its title is: A Synopsis of Structural and Physiological Botany, presenting an outline of the Forms and Functions of Vegetable Life. It has as its motto these words: ‘There are many, even among the educated classes, who are in the habit of regarding the botanist as a dealer in barbarous Latin names, as a man who plucks flowers, names them, dries them, and wraps them up in paper, and whose whole wisdom is expended in the determination and classification of this ingeniously collected hay.’ (The Plant, a Biography, by Schleiden.) His introduction closes with these words: ‘Above all, we shall be more frequently reminded, not less by the tiniest moss and spreading lichen, than by the magnificent palm, and still mightier pine, of the power, the wisdom, and the benevolence of the Great Creator.’

The other book is a folio, with the title Botanical Diagrams, illustrating the elementary tissues, nutritive organs, inflorescence, and general classification. It bears the date of 1857. He was then half-way through his theological studies. Its motto is, ‘Matter is made for mind, and mind for truth and God.’ In the introduction he says: ‘Much shall have been gained if any by the examination of these sheets may be enabled to look with more intelligence or fresh pleasure on the matter of the vegetable world, moulded as it is into so many forms of varied beauty by the finger of the Almighty.’ Both are published by Reynolds, London, and only one bears the name of James Stewart. They show wide reading, and among the authorities quoted are many French and German authors. The pictures are very numerous, artistically drawn, and beautifully coloured. They illustrate all the parts of plant life. The cost of producing these volumes must have been great. They were evidently a labour of love, and they were used as text-books in Scottish schools and colleges for many years. One of them at least was sanctioned by the Board of Education for use in their schools.

James Stewart, like Carey, added to the love of Christ the love of all things beautiful in God’s world. He revelled in the poetry of earth, sea, and sky, adoring God, the Father Almighty, ‘the Poet of heaven and earth.’

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