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Northern Lights
Duncan Matheson

DUNCAN MATHESON, an evangelist who worked for Christ, with both hands earnestly was born at Huntly in Aberdeenshire, on November 22nd, 1824. His parents were very poor, and there was nothing of the golden romance in his boyhood which is so fascinating in the narrative of Hugh Miller’s exploits on the beach, and up the cliffs of Cromarty. When in bed he often wept as he thonght of the labours and anxieties which paled his mother’s cheek, and was eager for the time to come when he would be able to lighten her burden. Though his heart was affectionate, he resented injustice, and one day when the master of the school he attended began to beat him for an act of boyish mischief with which he had been wrongfully charged, he became so violent in his muscular demonstrations that the tawse had to be laid aside. Most of the Established Churches in that northern district were, as to religion, cold as the snow on Ben Nevis; but Duncan’s grand-uncle, George Cowie, who was minister of an Independent Church in Huntly, preached the Gospel with great power, not only in the town, but also in the villages to which he had access, and encouraged penitent sinners to trust in Christ, by his frequent and favourite saying, “There is life for a look; there is life for a look!”

Many were converted and established in grace by the Divine energy which accompanied his ministrations. When he died, thousands of men and women to whom his sermons had been reviving as the palms and cool wells to the fainting pilgrims in the desert, followed him to the grave, and his tombstone was appropriately inscribed with the words, “They that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness, as the stars for ever and ever.” In after years Duncan often knelt at that grave, and prayed that he might be endued with a zeal for Christ impassioned as that of his sainted relative, and that he might have a like success in winning souls for heaven. Religion, as it was represented in his home, and in the character of godly friends of the family, appeared to him in boyhood as a possession to be desired, and his conscience was aroused by sickness, and by the death of a beloved sister, but he did not apply himself with thorough earnestness to the work of salvation. His heart, clinging to the world, urged delay; yet he had a clear perception of the necessity of Divine grace, especially in a minister of the Gospel. An offer was made to him of such pecuniary help as would enable him to enter a University, on condition that he should study for the ministry; but he would not intrude on an office for which he had no spiritual qualification, and said, “A minister ought to be a converted and a holy man. I am not that. I cannot do it.”

Indulging in dreams of artistic renown, he determined to be a sculptor, and made choice of the employment of stone-hewing, as a step towards the majestic images he hoped one day to bring out of Italian marble. After working about six months with mallet and chisel, his master sent him into the quarry, where his visions of beautiful statuary were soon dissipated. He became expert as a builder, and obtained work in Edinburgh. There he attempted to get rid of the serious thoughts that still haunted him, and instead of attending church, spent his Sabbaths in novel-reading, or in rambles through the romantic scenes in the neighbourhood of the city. In 1845, lie was called to his mother’s death-bed, and was deeply affected as with tender pathos in her voice she urged him to follow Christ and meet her in heaven. Returning to Edinburgh he again endeavoured to close his heart to the work of righteousness, but was aroused by a sermon preached by the Rev. A. Bonar, and began to seek salvation. So intense was his desire for acceptance in Christ, that he prayed all day, and again prayed on every one of the seventy steps he had to climb to his lodgings. By the ministrations of Mr. Bonar, and. the counsels of other good men, he was encouraged to cast his soul on the atoning grace of the Lord Jesus, and had a sense of ineffable peace while meditating on the words, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” His joy in his new relation to God was at first unbounded, but clouds intervened, and for some time he was in deep despondency, fearing that he had been deceiving himself with unwarranted assurances of the Divine favour. After a stem struggle with doubts and fears he obtained the victory, and henceforth went on his way with gladness in his heart and songs on his lips. Knowing the faith that unites the soul to Christ, he wished to publish it, and began that course of evangelistic labour by which he rendered far greater service to his fellow men than he could have done if he had worked his dreams of the sculptor’s glory into recognised facts, and had even excelled the grace and symmetry of the Elgin marbles. The Duchess of Gordon having heard of his successful aggressions on the kingdom of Satan, engaged him as a Missionary at a salary of £40 a year. Huntly, and the adjacent country, were the scenes of his efforts, and he was encouraged to diligence by the aged saints who had been the friends or converts of Mr. Cowie. Visiting Isobel Chrystie who was ninety years old he was delighted to hear her thus break out about the dying thief: “That was a gey trophie to gang throw the gowden gates o’ heaven. I’m thinkin’ there was a gey steer amo’ the angels; but nane o’ them would try to pit him oot. Na, na; Christ brocht him ben!” Another venerable servant of God said to him, “Haud in wi’ Christ; whatever happens, aye think weel o’ God; and tak care o’ yoursel’; for, ye ken, a breath dims a polished shaft.”

Mr. Matheson wished to serve his generation not only by his voice, but also by the extensive circulation of religious tracts. Having spent his last penny in this work, he was lifting up his heart to God for help, when the thought came into his mind, “If I could get a printing press I could make as many tracts as I could use.” He went on praying for a press for several months, and then discovered that an old one, with a set of worn types, was for sale. He quickly made the purchase, set up the press in his room, and wrote on it “For God and for eternity.” His first attempts at printing ended in failure, and once when he had got a page composed, and flattered himself that he was at last successful, had the mortification of seeing the whole suddenly fall into confusion. But he persevered, and was at length able to print two thousand four-page tracts in a day. “How,” he remarked, “I did toil, and sweat, and pray at it! Some nights I never slept at all, but went on composing. My constitution was strong, and night after night was spent at the work.”

In 1854, he witnessed the departure of British troops for the Crimea. As he looked on the brave men on their way to deadly conflict with the gigantic power of Russia, his sympathies were excited, and he began to pray that God would open a way for him to follow them, that he might direct them to the Captain of their salvation, and cheer them in their hardships by rehearsing in their ears the melodies of eternal love. Through what appeared to be a remarkable interposition of Divine Providence, lie was soon engaged in those labours of love. The Countess of Effingham wished to send a Missionary to the Highland Brigade, and Mr. Matheson received a letter, the substance of which was, “If you are still in the mind to go to the East, reply by return of post, and please say when you could start.” He felt sure there was a mistake, but took the letter to the Duchess of Gordon, who on reading it, exclaimed, “How strange, I have been praying that God would incline you to go, and others have been praying also. If there is a mistake, I will send you myself.” The letter was intended for a licentiate of the Free Church bearing the same name, but it fell into the right hands. The evangelist was soon in readiness for his mission to the Crimean encampment. Before leaving England he stayed a short time in that house Beautiful, the rectory at Beckenham, and received a parting blessing from the saintly and apostolic Dr. Marsh. Arriving at Constantinople, he embarked as speedily as possible for the Crimea, and though landing at Balaklava with the report of cannon in his ears, was cheered on finding that his text for the day was, “The Lord preserveth those that love Him.” The proud names of Alma and Inkermann had been added to the long roll of British victories, and the “Six Hundred” had ridden into the valley of death, “Charging an army, while all the world wondered!” but the camp had become an almost indescribable scene of destitution and wretchedness. The hospitals were crowded, and ships were constantly bearing away the sick and wounded to Scutari. Many of the soldiers on duty were in rags, and haggard with toil and hunger. Even officers, no longer glittering with martial insignia, were so bespattered with mud as scarcely to be distinguished from the privates. Mr. Matheson, with characteristic ardour, began to administer to the bodily and spiritual wants of his countrymen. He was cheered in his work by the Christian sympathy of Hector Mac-pherson, drum-major in a Highland regiment. The first Sabbath after his arrival, he and Hector retired to a quiet ravine, where they read and prayed together, and united in singing the psalm to which they had resorted when in trouble at home:

“God is our refuge and our strength,
Id straits a present aid ;
Therefore, although the earth remove,
We will not be afraid,”

In order to be near the army he lodged in an old stable infested with rats, and admitting the bleak winds through many crevices in the walls and roof. Yet he was so happy in the consecration of his life to the Saviour, that even of that miserable hovel he could write, “I have a perfect palace, and I have decorated the walls with copies of the 'Illustrated London Hews.' I fear it is too good to last, but it is in the Lord’s hands. How contented I feel with all, and how well it is, that when young I learned to help myself. I am as happy as a king, yea, ten thousandfold more so than one without grace.” He was out all the day, gladdening the hearts of destitute soldiers with gifts of food and clothing, distributing Hew Testaments, attending to the sick and wounded with a hand gentle as that of a woman, and speaking now in his native Doric, and now in broken French and Italian, words of wisdom and good cheer in the name of Christ. One evening he was returning weary and sad from Sebastopol to his rude lodging in Balaklava. At almost every step he sunk to the knees in mud; but the stars were shining serenely in the heavens, and as he lifted his eyes to their quiet beauty he was reminded of the beatified spirits before the throne of God, and began to sing the Scottish paraphrase:

"How bright these glorious spirits shine
Whence all their bright array;
Now came they to the blissful seats
Of everlasting day?

“Lo! these are they from sufferings great,
Who came to realms of light,
And in the blood of Christ have washed
Those robes which shine so bright."

The following day was stormy, and Mr. Matheson saw a soldier in rags, and almost shoeless, standing for shelter under a verandah. He spoke kindly to him, and gave him half a sovereign to get shoes. His kindness opened the heart of the soldier, who said, “I am not what I was yesterday. Last night, as I was thinking of our miserable condition, I grew tired of life, and said to myself, "Here we are not a bit nearer taking that place than when we sat down before it. I can bear this no longer, and may as well try and put an end to it.’ So I took my musket and went down yonder in a desperate state about eleven o’clock; but as I got round the point, I heard some person singing, "How bright these glorious spirits shine" and I remembered the old tune and the Sabbath-school where we used to sing it. I felt ashamed of being so cowardly, and said, "Here is some one as badly off as myself, and yet is not giving in." I felt he had something to make him happy, of which I was ignorant, and I began to hope I too might get the same happiness. I returned to my tent, and to day I am resolved to seek the one thing.” "Do you know who the singer was?” asked Mr. Matheson. "No,” was the reply. "Well,” said the Missionary, "it wasI.” Tears filled the soldier’s eyes, as he held out the half sovereign to be taken back, saying, "Never, Sir, can I take it from you, after what you have been the means of doing for me.”

When Mr. Matheson first met Hedley Vicars he felt his heart at once drawn to him, and rejoiced greatly in religions conference with that brave soldier of Jesus Christ. One entry in his journal has a deep and tender interest: “At Sebastopol. Met with Dr. Cay and Major Ingram in Vicars* tent. We had prayer and reading the Word together. It was to us all a well in the desert, a bright spot amidst surrounding gloom. We blessed God on hearing that a day of national humiliation and prayer was appointed. Cay and Vicars accompanied me on my way. After Cay left us, Vicars and I stood on the plateau above Sebastopol—the doomed city, as it was often called—lying in its beauty before us. The sky was without a cloud: the sea was as calm as a pond. It was on one of those sweet evenings you never can forget. Our conversation was on the purity, blessedness, and endless peace of heaven, where the din of battle shall never be heard, nor the strifes of earth be known. We expressed to one another much longing to reach it. Speaking of some who had gone, we remembered Peden at the grave of Cameron, exclaiming, *O, to be wi' Ritchie!" and our feeling was the same ; we could hardly part. He agreed to meet and spend a day with me at Balaklava.** But they never met again on earth. The day oh which Vicars intended renewing his fellowship with the Missionary, he experienced a sudden transition from the Crimean camp, to the steps of the everlasting throne; and from the tumult of the cannon’s “adamantine lips,” to “a sevenfold chorus of hallelujahs, and harping symphonies.”

After the fall of Sebastopol, Mr. Matheson spent six weeks in Scotland for the purpose of recruiting his health which had been broken by his excessive labours, and then went back to the Crimea, taking with him a large stock of Bibles and Christian books. He had shown such kindnesses to the men of the Sardinian army, that he was known as “the Sardinian’s friend,” and was gladdened by their eagerness to obtain the Holy Scriptures. Eighteen thousand copies of the Word of God which had passed through his hands, were carried by them into Italy. When peace was proclaimed, he had access to the Russians, and gave them the Hew Testament in their own language. The Cossacks especially appreciated his acts of Christian love, and some of them in the exuberance of their gratitude embraced him, a proceeding more gratifying to his heart than agreeable to his nostrils. Leaving the Crimea he went to Constantinople, and thence to Egypt. He also visited Italy, and while appalled by the immoral tendencies of papal superstition, was cheered by seeing numerous indications of a desire for a nobler life than was possible under the malign influences of the Vatican.

In 1857, Mr. Matheson was engaged in evangelistic labour in Cumberland, and also originated a periodical called, “The Herald of Mercy,” which reached a circulation of over thirty thousand a month. He married a Christian lady, and went to reside in Aberdeen, extending his Missionary operations from that city to almost every part of Scotland. His success in Dundee was extraordinary, and his memory is fragrant as the cinnamon and spikenard of a Syrian garden to many of the townspeople. One Sabbath evening, he addressed a crowded congregation in the Hilltown Free Church. His text was, “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment; but the righteous into life eternal.” With graphic power and deep pathos he pictured the sinner’s eternal banishment from God, and effectually illustrated his subject by referring to the loud wail of agony, he had heard when in the East, from a crowd of Circassians who were being driven from the mountains, to whose crags they had so fondly clung, to exile in strange lands. Solemn awe rested on the congregation, and sobs and tears and pallid faces, told of the feeling that was stirring in many hearts. After the service, the vestries were thronged by seekers of salvation; and numbers that night were enabled to say, “I have found Him! I have found Him! ” In the autumn following that service, open-air meetings were held in the Barrack Park, near Dudhope Castle the ancient home of the Scrymgeours. Where the pomp and chivalry of the royal standard-bearers once blazed, Mr. Matheson and a number of ministers and laymen knelt for special prayer, and continued kneeling on the grass for two hours, pleading for the baptism of the Holy Ghost. When the prayer was ended, a heavy rain came down, and the people began to leave, but the voice of Duncan Matheson was heard crying, “Perhaps God is trying us by the rain; let us wait a little.” About three hundred remained, and soon the rain ceased, the sun shone between the parting clouds, and a wonderful power rested on the whole company. One who was present, wrote, “Till memory fails, or the more excellent glory of the unveiled face of Immanuel, obliterates the remembrance of faith’s brightest visions on earth, it is impossible for us to forget the awful nearness of God at the time, the overpowering sense of blended majesty, love, and holiness, and the soft, pure radiance of the Redeemer’s face that chased the dark shadows of doubt and sin away from many a soul. After this visitation many were saved. Some of the incidents connected with Mr. Matheson’s work in Dundee are very beautiful and touching.

A girl who had wandered into sin, returned to her home, and was thus greeted by the grey-haired mother: “O, my Annie! my Annie! my ain lost Annie! I never thocht I wad hae seen ye mair. But the gude God has been better to me than a* my fears. Are we ever gaun to pairt again, Annie?” “Never, mither, never,” was the reply; “Jesus has saved me Him-sel’, an’ He has promised to keep me, an’ He will never brack His word. We'll never pairt, mither; na, by His grace, never, never.” And they did not part until Jesus came, and took Annie to Himself. A godly woman whose ' husband had been a drunkard, and who had been beaten by him on account of her godly ways, went to her minister, saying, “ I am happier than I was on my marriage day. God has heard my prayer; my poor husband is converted; he is like a lamb now, and thinks he cannot do enough to please me. O, Sir, if you had but seen him the other night holding family worship for the first time! It was like heaven upon earth! There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, and our little lassie looked up in his face and said, ‘Father, ye’ll win to heaven noo, an’ I’ll gang wi* you, an’ we’ll a* be there. I never thocht I would like to gang to heaven afore.’ ”

Mr. Matheson had a remarkable aptitude in preaching at feeing-markets and village fairs. When other means failed he often got the attention of the, shouting, laughing, crowd, by saying in a familiar manner, “I will tell you a thing that happened while I was in the Crimea.” There would be an almost instant hush, and after giving a stirring narrative of British heroism, or picturing some feature in the scene of flame and blood before Sebastopol, he preached Christ and eternity until thoughtless hearts were troubled, and lips which to that hour were profane and blasphemous, began to quiver with emotion. In one place the manager of a penny theatre challenged Mr. Matheson and his companion to go on his platform and try if they Could speak there. To his astonishment the challenge was accepted, and Mr. Matheson, standing on the boards which had been intended only for histrionic vanities, addressed the multitude before him in wdrds of solemn warning and affectionate entreaty. On another occasion, when Mr. Matheson and his friends were preaching near a showman’s van, the magic bottle was brought out, and the mountebank glancing towards the preachers said, “Talk of revivals! Here is something that will revive yon.” The people thought this very witty, and responded in peals of laughter, which for a moment seemed to disconcert the evangelists. But they soon recovered their courage, and throwing their hearts and voices into the melody of the twenty-third psalm, drew the greater part of the crowd from the showman. The green pastures and the still waters, proved a stronger attraction than the conjuring tricks on the stage, and tears streaming down numbers of cheeks, attested the pathos of the story of the Good Shepherd seeking the lost sheep, as it was told by those devoted servants of Christ. Mr. Matheson was preaching at a market in the north of Scotland, from the words, Behold, He cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see Him.” A scoffer came up, and with a sneer cried out, “Ay, but when is He coming?” The preacher held up the Bible in his hand, and looking round on his audience, said, “Ah, friends, you see this is a wonderful book. Eighteen hundred years ago it predicted that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, and saying, ‘Where is the promise of His coming?’ I call you to witness that the prediction is just now fulfilled. What do you think, Sirs. Is not the Bible true? ‘He that shall come, will come, and will not tarry.’ ”The reply silenced the objector, and the sermon was continued without further interruption. Those open-air services were effectual in the conversion of many souls, and entitled Mr. Matheson to be regarded as “an unmitred Archbishop of Open-air.”

Being at the close of 1861 depressed in mind and body, he said to a friend, “ Come, and let us visit St. Andrew’s and see the place where the old Scottish heroes fought their good fight; it will stir and cheer us, and perhaps God will give us of their martyr spirit.” They visited the spot where George Wishart was burned for the truth, and where Rutherford breathed out his soul in the triumphant exclamation, “Glory, glory dwelleth, in Immanuel’s land.” Then going into the cathedral yard, they wept and prayed on Rutherford’s grave, and having consecrated themselves more fully to the service of Christ, sang “Rock of Ages” and 44 There is rest for the weary.” That solemn hour was frequently reverted to by Mr. Matheson as a cheering memory for his darker hours, and as an incentive to diligence in his work, and his preparation for eternity. His excessive exertions induced disease, and after vainly seeking health on the Continent, and in different parts of Scotland, he went to Perth, where he ended his useful career in peace and hope. In his last days he told his children that the chariot was coming to carry him to glory, and bade them trust in and love Jesus, so that they might meet him in heaven. He had many cheering words for his wife, and assured her that the Lord would take charge of her and their little ones. “Mary,” he said, "I have another text to give you to-day. It is this: 'A Father of the fatherless, and a Judge of the widows, is God in his holy habitation.’” Another time he said, 44 Mary this room is filled with the heavenly host. Had I strength how we would sing!” The lines, in which Dr. Yalpy at the close of life expressed his desire and his belief, were frequently repeated by him:

"In peace let me resign my breath,
And Thy salvation see;
My sins deserve eternal death,
But Jesus died for me.”

When his friend, the Rev. John Macpherson, went to see him, he said, after talking of Christ and glory, "I have cast my five fatherless children upon the Lord, and all shall be well.” Prayer having been offered, he wished to have singing. "Man,” he said, " don’t get singing enough; I want to sing; will you help me?” They were about to unite in “Shall we gather at the river,” when cramp came on, and with the cry on his lips, “Lord Jesus, come quickly! O, come quickly!” he passed through death to eternal glory. “Thus, writes Mr. Macpherson, “departed a right brave and great-hearted man,—the man, who above millions had lived for God; the man who, above most men, had laboured for souls and for eternity.” He died on September 16th, 1869, and his friends, mingling praises to God with their tears and lamentations, buried him according to his own request in the new burial-ground at Scone.

Life and Labours of Duncan Matheson
By the Rev. John MacPherson (1876) (pdf)

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