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Significant Scots
John Barclay

BARCLAY, JOHN, A.M. was the founder of a religious sect in Scotland, generally named Bereans, but sometimes called from the name of this individual, Barclayans. The former title derived its origin from the habit of Mr Barclay, in always making an appeal to the Scriptures, in vindication of any doctrine he advanced from the pulpit, or which was contained in his writings. The perfection of the Scriptures, or of the Book of divine revelation, was the fundamental article of his system; at least this was what he himself publicly declared upon all occasions, and the same sentiments are still entertained by his followers. In the Acts of the Apostles, xvii. 10, the Bereans are thus mentioned, "These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the Scriptures daily, whether those things were so." These words were frequently quoted by Mr Barclay. It ought to be observed, however, that originally it was not a name of reproach invented by the malevolent part of the public, with the design of holding up Mr Barclay and his associates to contempt, but was voluntarily assumed by them, to distinguish them from other sects of professed Christians.

Mr Barclay was born in 1734. His father, Mr Ludovic Barclay, was a farmer in the parish of Muthill, in the county of Perth. Being at an early age designed by his parents for the church, he was sent to school, and received the best education which that part of the country could afford. The name of his master is now forgotten, but if we are to judge from the eminent proficiency of the pupil, we must infer, that he was a good scholar and an excellent teacher, and was well aware of the absolute necessity and advantages of being well grounded in the elements of classical learning. Respectable farmers, such as Mr Barclay’s father, had a laudable ambition in affording to their sons an opportunity of being instructed in the learned languages, and to do the parish schoolmasters justice, many of them were eminently qualified for performing the task which they had undertaken.

Young Barclay was sent by his father to St Andrews, and was enrolled as a student in that University; where he regularly attended the literary and philosophical classes, and having submitted to the usual examinations, he took the degree of A.M. At the commencement of the subsequent session, he entered the New Divinity, or St Mary’s College, a seminary in which theology alone is taught. Nothing very particular occurred during his attendance at the Hall, as it is generally called. He was uniformly regular in his private conduct, and though constitutionally of very impetuous passions, and a fervid imagination, at no time of his life was he ever seduced into the practice of what was immoral or vicious. The Christian principles, with which he seems to have been impressed very early in life, afforded him sufficient protection against the allurements or snares to which he was exposed. He prosecuted his studies with the most unremitted industry, and with great care prepared the discourses prescribed by the professor, and publicly delivered in the Hall.

While he attended the lectures on divinity, the University of St Andrews, and indeed the Church of Scotland in general, were placed in a very unpleasant situation, by the agitation of a question which originated with Dr Archibald Campbell, professor of Church History in St Mary’s College. He maintained "that the knowledge of the existence of God was derived from Revelation, not from Nature." This was long reckoned one of the errors of Socinus, and no one in Scotland, before Dr Campbell’s time, had ever disputed the opinion that was generally current, and consequently esteemed orthodox. It was well known that the Doctor was not a Socinian, and did not favour any of the other dogmas of that sect. The constitutional tendency of his mind was metaphysical, and he certainly was possessed of great acuteness, which enabled him to perceive on what point his opponents were most vulnerable, and where they laid themselves open to attack. He published his sentiments without the least reserve, and was equally ready to enter upon a vindication of them. He considered his view of the subject as a foundation necessary to be laid in order to demonstrate the necessity of revelation. A whole host of opponents volunteered their services to strangle in the birth such dangerous sentiments. Innumerable pamphlets rapidly made their appearance, and the hue and cry was so loud, and certain persons so clamorous, that the ecclesiastical courts thought that they could no longer remain silent. Dr Campbell was publicly prosecuted on account of his heretical opinions, but after long litigation the matter was compromised, and the only effect it produced was, that the students at St Andrews in general became more zealous defenders of the Doctor’s system, though they durst not avow it so openly. Among others, Mr Barclay with his accustomed zeal, and with all the energies of his juvenile but ardent mind, had warmly espoused Dr Campbell’s system. Long before he left College he was noted as one of his most open and avowed partisans. These principles he never deserted, and in his view of Christianity it formed an important part of the system of revealed truth. It must not be imagined, however, that Mr Barclay slavishly followed, or adopted all Dr Campbell’s sentiments. Though they were both agreed that a knowledge of the true God was derived from revelation and not from nature, yet they differed upon almost every other point of systematic divinity. Mr Barclay was early, and continued through life to be a high predestinarian, or what is technically denominated a supralapsarian, while Dr Campbell, if one may draw an inference from some of his illustrations, leaned to Araminianism, and doubtless was not n decided Calvinist.

Mr Barclay having delivered the prescribed discourses with the approbation of the professor of Divinity, he now directed his views to obtain license as a preacher in the establishment, and took the requisite steps. Having delivered the usual series of exercises with the entire approbation of his judges, he was, on the 27th September, 1759, licensed by the presbytery of Auchterarder as a preacher of the gospel. He was not long without employment. Mr Jobson, then minister of Errol, near Perth, was advanced in years, in an infirm state of health, and required an assistant. Mr Barclay, from his popularity as a preacher, and the reputation he enjoyed through a great part of Perthshire, as well as of Angus and Mearns, easily obtained this situation. Here he remained for three or four years, until a rupture with his principal obliged him to leave it. Mr Jobson was what may be called, of the old school. He warmly espoused (as a great many clergymen of the Church of Scotland in those days did, the system of the Marrow of Modern Divinity, a book written by Edward Fisher, an English dissenter, about the middle of the seventeenth century. This work had a vast circulation throughout Scotland. The celebrated Mr Thomas Boston of Ettrick, when visiting his parish ministerially, casually found it in the house of one of his parishioners. He carried it home, was a warm admirer of the system of divinity it contained, and was at the labour of writing notes upon it. Boston’s name secured its success among a numerous class of readers. For many years this book occasioned a most serious commotion in the Church of Scotland, which is generally called, "The Marrow Controversy." It was, indeed, the remote cause of that great division, which has since been styled the Secession.

But there was another cause for the widening of this unfortunate breach. The well known Mr John Glass, minister of Tealing, near Dundee, had published in 1727, a work entitled, "The Testimony of the King of Martyrs." With the exception of the Cameronians, this gentleman was the first dissenter from the Church of Scotland since the Revolution, and it is worthy of remark that the founders of the principal sects were all originally cast out of the church. Mr Glass was an admirer of the writings of the most celebrated English Independents, (of Dr John Owen in particular) and of their form of church government. Mr Barclay, who was no independent, heartily approved of many of his sentiments respecting the doctrines of the Gospel, and as decidedly disapproved of others, as shall be mentioned in the sequel. At no time were disputes carried on with greater violence between Christians of different denominations. Mr Barclay had a system of his own, and agreed with none of the parties; but this, if possible, rendered him more obnoxious to Mr Jobson. Much altercation took place between them in private. Mr Barclay publicly declared his sentiments from the pulpit, Mr Jobson did the same in defence of himself, so that a rupture became unavoidable.

About the time of Mr Barclay’s leaving Errol, Mr Anthony Dow, minister of Fettercairn, in the presbytery of Fordoun, found himself unfit for the full discharge of his duties. He desired his son, the Rev. David Dow, then minister of the parish of Dron, in the presbytery of Perth, to use his endeavour to procure him an assistant. Mr Dow, who, we believe, was a fellow student of Mr Barclay at St Andrews, was perfectly well acquainted with his talents and character, and the cause of his leaving Errol, immediately made offer to him of being assistant to his father. This he accepted, and he commenced his labours in the beginning of June, 1763. What were Mr Anthony Dow’s peculiar theological sentiments we do not know, but those of Mr David Dow were not very different from Mr Barclay’s. Here he remained for nine years, which he often declared to have been the most happy, and considered to have been the most useful period of his life.

Mr Barclay was of a fair, and in his youth, of a very florid complexion. He then looked younger than he really was. The people of Fettercairn were at first greatly prejudiced against him on account of his youthful appearance. But this was soon forgotten. His fervid manner, in prayer especially, and at different parts of almost every sermon, rivetted the attention, and impressed the minds of his audience to such a degree, that it was almost impossible to lose the memory of it. His popularity as a preacher became so great at Fettercairn, that anything of the like kind is seldom to be met with in the history of the Church of Scotland. The parish church being an old fashioned building, had rafters across; these were crowded with hearers;—the sashes of the windows were taken out to accommodate the multitude who could not gain admittance. During the whole period of his settlement at Fettercairn, he had regular hearers who flocked to him from ten or twelve of the neighbouring parishes. If an opinion could be formed of what his manner had been in his youth, and at his prime, from what it was a year or two before he died, it must have been vehement, passionate, and impetuous to an uncommon degree. At the time to which we allude, we heard him deliver in his own chapel at Edinburgh, a prayer immediately after the sermon, in which he had alluded to some of the corruptions of the Church of Rome; the impression it made upon our mind was of the most vivid nature; and, we are persuaded, was alike in every other member of the congregation. The following sentence we distinctly remember, "We pray, we plead, we cry, 0 Lord, that thou wouldst dash out of the hand of Antichrist, that cup of abominations, wherewith she hath poisoned the nations, and give unto her, and unto them, the cup of salvation, by drinking whereof they may inherit everlasting life." But the words themselves are nothing unless they were pronounced with his own tone and manner.

During his residence at Fettercairn he did not confine his labours to his public ministrations in the pulpit, but visited from house to house, was the friend and adviser of all who were at the head of a family, and entered warmly into whatever regarded their interests. He showed the most marked attention to children and to youth; and when any of the household were seized with sickness or disease, he spared no pains in giving tokens of his sympathy and tenderness, and administered consolation to the afflicted. He was very assiduous in discharging those necessary and important duties, which he thought were peculiarly incumbent upon a country clergyman. Such long continued and uninterrupted exertions were accompanied with the most happy effects. A taste for religious knowledge, or what is the same, the reading and study of the Bible, began to prevail to a great extent; the morals of the people were improved, and vice and profaneness, as ashamed, were made to hide their heads. Temperance, sobriety, and regularity of behaviour, sensibly discovered themselves throughout all ranks.

Mr Barclay had a most luxuriant fancy, a great liking for poetry, and possessed considerable facility of versification. His taste, however, was far from being correct or chaste, and his imagination was little under the management of a sound judgment. Many of his pieces are exceedingly desultory in their nature, but occasionally discover scintillations of genius. The truth probably is, that he neither corrected nor bestowed pains on any of his productions in prose or verse. From the ardour of his mind, they were generally the result of a single effort. At least this appears particularly the case in his shorter poems. He does not seem to have perceived or known that good writing, whether in prose or verse, is an art, and not to be acquired without much labour and practice, as well as a long and repeated revisal of what may have been written. Mr Barclay’s compositions in both styles, with two or three exceptions, appear to have merely been thrown forth upon the spur of the moment. As soon as written, they were deposited among his manuscripts, and, instead of being attentively examined by him, and with a critical eye, were shortly after submitted to the public. Besides his works in prose, he published a great many thousand verses on religious subjects.

He had composed a Paraphrase of the whole book of Psalms, part of which was published in 1766. To this was prefixed, "A Dissertation on the best means of interpreting that portion of the canon of Scripture." His views upon this subject were peculiar. He was of opinion that, in all the Psalms which are in the first person, the speaker is Christ, and not David nor any other mere man, and that the other Psalms describe the situation of the Church of God, sometimes in prosperity, sometimes in adversity, and finally triumphing over all its enemies. This essay is characterized by uncommon vigour of expression; yet in some places with considerable acrimony. The presbytery of Fordoun took great offence at this publication, and summoned Mr Barclay to appear at their bar. He did so, and defended himself with spirit and intrepidity. His opinions were not contrary to any doctrine contained in the Confession of Faith, so that he could not even be censured by them. The truth was, that they had taken great offence at the popularity of Mr Barclay as a preacher, and it was only in this way that they could avenge his superiority over themselves. Being disappointed in establishing heresy, their rancour became more violent, and they determined to give him as much annoyance as they possibly could. Even the names of the members of the presbytery of Fordoun are now forgotten. None of them were distinguished for remarkable talents of any kind, and they have long lain mute and inglorious. But at this time they possessed an authority, which they resolved to exercise to the utmost stretch. Having engaged in the invidious and ignoble employment of heresy hunting, they seem to have been aware, that it was necessary to proceed with caution. The presbytery have the charge of the spiritual concerns of all the individuals within their bounds. They have a right to inspect the orthodoxy of the doctrine taught, as well as the moral conduct of clergymen and laymen. It is their especial business to examine narrowly into the behaviour of the former class. Having pounced upon Mr Barclay, they made the most they could of his supposed offence, which at the worst, was only a venial error.

Mr Barclay, who being naturally of a frank, open, and ingenuous disposition, had no idea of concealing his opinions, not only continued to preach the same doctrines which were esteemed heretical by the presbytery, but published them in a small work, entitled, "Rejoice evermore, or Christ All in All." This obstinacy, as they considered it, irritated them to a very high degree. They drew up a warning against the dangerous doctrines that he preached, and ordered it to be read publicly in the church of Fettercairn after sermon, and before pronouncing the blessing, by one of their own members, expressly appointed for that purpose on a specified day, which was accordingly done. This attempt to ruin Mr Barclay’s character and usefulness, and deprive him of the means of obtaining daily bread, contained an enumeration of his supposed errors, which they were cautioned to avoid, and strictly enjoined not to receive. Mr Barclay viewed their conduct with indifference mingled with contempt. At a former meeting of presbytery, the points of difference had been argued in public at great length, and he is generally allowed to have come off victorious. He was, it is confessed, too keen in his temper to listen, with sedate composure, to the arguments of an opponent, when engaged in a private debate. But his talents for controversy were of a superior order. He had a clear understanding, a tenacious memory, and a ready elocution; and at no time of his life did he decline an argument. No effect of any kind resulted from the warning to the people of Fettercairn, who were unanimous in their approbation of Mr Barclay’s doctrine. He continued during Mr Dow’s life-time to instruct the people of his parish, and conducted his weekly examinations to the great profit of those who gave attendance.

In 1769, he published one of the largest of his treatises, entitled, "Without Faith without God, or an appeal to God concerning his own existence." This was a defence of similar sentiments respecting the evidence in favour of the existence of God, which were entertained by Dr Campbell already mentioned. The illustrations are entirely Calvinistical. This essay is not very methodical. It contains, however, a great many acute observations, and sarcastic remarks upon the systems of those who have adopted the generally current notions respecting natural religion. The author repeatedly and solemnly declares, that he attacks doctrines and not men—that he has no quarrel with any man, nor means to hurt any one. The metaphysical arguments in favour of his side of the question, as well as what may not improperly be called the historical proofs, he has left to others, esteeming such kind of evidence as of small value in regard to settling the point at issue. His object is to prove from the Scriptures, that the knowledge of God comes not by nature, innate ideas, intuition, reason, &c. but only by Revelation. But we must refer to the treatise itself, it being impossible in this place to give even an abridgment of his reasoning. It may be observed, however, that he exposes in the most unreserved language, and denies, that the merely holding that there is a first, original, unoriginated cause of all things, &c. is the same with the knowledge of God, whose character and works are revealed in Scripture.

In the course of the same year, 1769, he addressed a letter on the "Eternal Generation of the Son of God," to Messrs Smith and Ferrier. These two gentlemen had been clergymen in the church of Scotland. They published their reasons of separation from the established church. They had adopted all the sentiments of Mr Glass, who was a most strict independent, and both of them died in the Glassite communion. The late Dr Dalgliesh of Peebles had, about the time of their leaving the church, published a new theory respecting the son-ship of Christ, and what is not a little singular, it had the merit of originality, and had never before occurred to any theologian. He held the tri-personality of Deity, but denied the eternal Sonship of the second person of the Godhead, and was of opinion that this filiation only took place when the divine nature was united to the human, in the person of Christ, Immanuel, God with us. Novel as this doctrine was, all the Scottish Independents, with a very few exceptions, embraced it. The difference between Dalgliesh and the Arians consists in this, that the second person of the Trinity, according to him, is God, equal with the Father, whilst the latter maintain in a certain sense his supreme exaltation, yet they consider him as subordinate to the Father. Mr Barclay’s letter states very clearly the Scriptural arguments usually adduced in favour of the eternal generation of the Son of God. It is written with great moderation, and in an excellent spirit.

In 1771, he published a letter, "On the Assurance of Faith," addressed to a gentleman who was a member of Mr Cudworth’s congregation in London. Cudworth was the person who made a distinguished figure in defending the celebrated Mr Hervey against the acrimonious attack of Mr Robert Sandeman, who was a Glassite. Excepting in some peculiar forms of expression, Cudworth’s views of the assurance of faith did not materially differ from Mr Barclay’s. There appeared also in the same year, "A Letter on Prayer," addressed to an Independent congregation in Scotland.

The Rev. Anthony Dow, minister of Fettercairn, died in 1772. The presbytery of Fordoun seized this opportunity of gvatifying their spleen; they prohibited Mr Barclay from preaching in the kirk of Fettercairn, and used all their influence to prevent him from being employed, not only within their bounds, which lie in what is called the Mearns, but they studied to defame him in all quarters. The clergy of the neighbouring district, that is, in Angus, were much more friendly. They were ready to admit him into their pulpits, and he generally preached every Lord’s day, during the subsequent autumn, winter, and spring. Multitudes from all parts of the country crowded to hear him.

The patronage of Fettercairn is in the gift of the crown. The parish almost unanimously favoured Mr Barclay. They were not, however, permitted to have any choice, and the Rev. Robert Foote, then minister of Eskdale Muir, was presented. At the moderation of the call, only three signed in favour of Mr Foote. The parishioners appealed to the Synod, and from the Synod to the General Assembly, who ordered Mr Foote to be inducted.

The presbytery carried their hostility against Mr Barclay so far, as to refuse him a certificate of character, which is always done, as a matter of course, when a preacher leaves their bounds. He appealed to the Synod, and afterwards to the Assembly, who found (though he was in no instance accused of any immorality) that the presbytery were justified in withholding the certificate. He had no alternative, and therefore left the communion of the Church of Scotland.

A great many friends in Edinburgh, who had adopted his peculiar sentiments, formed themselves into a church, and urged him to become their pastor. The people of Fettercairn also solicited him to labour in the ministry amongst them; but for the present he declined both invitations. Having hitherto held only the status of a probationer or licentiate, he visited Newcastle, and was ordained there October 12th, 1778. The certificate of ordination is signed by the celebrated James Murray of Newcastle, the author of the well known " Sermons to Asses;" which contain a rich vein of poignant satire, not unworthy of Swift. It was also signed by Robert Somerville of Weardale, and James Somerville of Swalwell, and Robert Green, clerk.

His friends at Fettercairn meanwhile erected a place of worship at Sauchyburn, in the immediate neighbourhood, and renewed their application to have him settled amongst them. But Mr Barclay, conceiving that his sphere of usefulness would be more extended were he to reside in Edinburgh, gave the preference to the latter. Mr James M’Rae, having joined Mr Barclay, was ordained minister at Sauchyburn in spring, 1774. The congregation there, at this time, consisted of from one thousand to twelve hundred members.

Mr Barclay remained in Edinburgh about three years; and was attended by a numerous congregation, who had adopted his views of religious truth. But having a strong desire to disseminate his opinions, he left the church at Edinburgh under the care of his elders and deacons, and repaired to London. For nearly two years he preached there, as well as at Bristol, and other places in England. A church was formed in the capital. He also established there a debating society, which met weekly in the evening, for the purpose of disputing with any who might be disposed to call his doctrines in question. One of those who went with the design of impugning Mr Barclay’s opinions was Mr William Nelson, who eventually became a convert. This gentleman had been educated in the Church of England, but, when Mr Barclay came first to London, had joined the Whitefieldian or Calvinistic Methodists. He afterwards came to Scotland; was connected with Mr Barclay; practised as a surgeon in Edinburgh, and delivered lectures on chemistry there, for about ten years. He was a man of considerable abilities; amiable in private life, and of the most unblemished character. He was cut off by apoplexy in 1800.

At Edinburgh, Mr Barclay published an edition of his works in three volumes, including a pretty large treatise on the sin against the Holy Ghost, which, according to him, is merely unbelief or discrediting the Scripture. In 1783 he published a small work for the use of the Berean Churches, "The Epistle to the Hebrews Paraphrased," with a collection of psalms and songs from his other works, accompanied with "A close examination into the truth of several received principles."

Mr Barclay died on the 29th of July, 1798. Being Sabbath, when on his road to preach, he felt himself rather unwell; he took a circuitous route to the meeting-house, but finding himself no better, he called at the house of one of the members of his congregation. In a few minutes after he entered the house, while kneeling in prayer beside a chair, he expired without a groan, in the sixty-fourth year of his age, and thirty-ninth of his professional career. His nephew, Dr John Barclay, was immediately sent for, who declared his death to have been occasioned by apoplexy. He was interred in the Calton Old Burying-ground, Edinburgh, where a monument has been erected to his memory. Mr Barclay was a very uncommon character, and made a great impression upon his contemporaries.

There are Berean churches in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Crieff, Kirkaldy, Dundee, Arbroath, Montrose, Brechin, Fettercairn, and a few other places.

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