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Significant Scots
Thomas Boston

BOSTON, THOMAS, an eminent doctrinal writer, was born in the town of Dunse, March 7th, 1676, and received the rudiments of his education at his native town, under a woman who kept a school in his father’s house, and afterwards under Mr James Bullerwill, who taught what is called the grammar school. His father was a nonconformist, and, being imprisoned for his recusancy, retained the subject of this memoir in prison along with him, for the sake of company; which, notwithstanding his youth, seems to have made a lasting impression on the memory of young Boston. Whether the old man was brought at length to conform, we have not been able to learn; but during his early years, Mr Boston informs us that he was a regular attendant at church, "where he heard those of the episcopal way, that being then the national establishment." He was then, as he informs us, living without God in the world, and unconcerned about the state of his soul. Toward the end of summer, 1687, upon the coming out of king James’s indulgence, his father carried him to a presbyterian meeting at Whitsome, where he heard the Rev. Mr Henry Erskine, who, before the Restoration, was minister of Cornhill, and father to the afterwards celebrated Messrs Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine. It was through the ministrations of this celebrated preacher, that Boston was first brought to think seriously about the state of his soul, being then going in the twelfth year of his age. After this he went back no more to the church till the curates were expelled, with whom, it was the general report of the country, no one remained after he became serious and in earnest about the salvation of his soul.—While at the grammar school, he formed an intimacy with two boys, Thomas Trotter and Patrick Gillies, who regularly met with him, at stated times, in a chamber of his father’s house, for reading the Scriptures, religious conference, and social prayer, "whereby," he says, "they had some advantage, both in point of knowledge and tenderness." Mr Boston made a rapid progress at the school, and before he left it, which was in the harvest of 1689, had gone through all the books commonly taught in such seminaries, and had even begun the Greek, in which language he had read part of John’s gospel, Luke, and the Acts of the apostles, though he was then but in his fourteenth year. After leaving the grammar school, two years elapsed before he proceeded farther in his studies, his father being doubtful if he was able to defray the expense. This led to several attempts at getting him into a gratuitous course at the university, none of which had any success. In the mean time he was partly employed in the composing and transcribing law papers by a Mr Cockburn, a public notary, from which he admits that he derived great benefit in after life. All his plans for a gratuitous academical course having failed, and his father having resolved to strain every nerve to carry him through the classes, he entered the university of Edinburgh as a student of Greek, December 1st, 1691, and studied for three successive sessions. He took out his laureation in the summer of 1694, when his whole expenses for fees and maintenance, were found to amount to one hundred and twenty eight pounds, fifteen shillings and eight pence, Scots money, less than eleven pounds sterling. That same summer he had the bursary of the presbytery of Dunse conferred on him as a student of theology, and in the month of January, 1695, entered, the theological class in the college of Edinburgh, then taught by Mr George Campbell, "a man," says Boston, "of great learning, but excessively modest, undervaluing himself, and much valuing the tolerable performances of his students. During this Session, the only one Boston appears to have regularly attended in divinity, he also for a time attended the Hebrew class, taught by Mr Alexander Rule, but remarks that he found no particular advantage from it. After returning from the university, Mr Boston had different applications made to him, and made various attempts to settle himself in a school, but with no good effect, and in the spring of 1696, he accepted of an invitation from Lady Mersington to superintend the education of her grand-child, Andrew Fletcher of Aberlady, a boy of nine years of age, whose father having died young his mother was married again to Lieutenant-Colonel Bruce of Kennet, in Clackmannanshire. This he was then rather induced to undertake, because the boy being in Edinburgh at the High School, it gave his preceptor the power of waiting upon the divinity lectures in the college. In less than a month, however, his pupil was taken home to Kennet, whither Boston accompanied him, and never had another opportunity of attending the college. In this situation Mr Boston continued for about a year, and during that period was pressed, once and again, by the united presbyteries of Stirling and Dumblane, to take license at a preacher, which, for reasons not very obvious, he declined. In the month of March, 1697, he returned to Dunse, and by his friend Mr Colden, minister of that place, was induced to enter upon trials for license before the united presbyteries of Dunse and Churnside, by which he was licensed as a probationer in the Scottish church, June 15th, 1697. In this character Mr Boston officiated, as opportunity offered, for two years and three months, partly within the bounds of his native presbytery, and partly within the bounds of the presbytery of Stirling. It was first proposed by his friends of the presbytery of Dunse to settle him in the parish of Foulden, the episcopal incumbent of which was recently dead, and, on the first day he officiated there, he gave a remarkably decisive proof of the firmness of his principles. The episcopal precentor was, under the protection of the great men of the parish, still continued. Boston had no freedom to employ him without suitable acknowledgements, which, not being clothed with the ministerial character, he could not take. On the morning, therefore, of the first Sabbath, he told this official, that he would conduct the psalmody himself, which accordingly he did, and there was nothing said about it. In the parish of Foulden, however, he could not be settled without the concurrence of Lord Ross, who had had a great hand in the enormous oppressions of the preceding period. A personal application on the part of the candidate was required by his lordship, and the presbytery were urgent with Boston to make it, but to this he could not bring his mind, so the project came to nothing. He was next proposed for the parish of Abbey; but this scheme also was frustrated through the deceitfulness of the principal heritor, who was a minister himself, and found means to secure the other heritors, through whose influence he was inducted by the presbytery to the living, though the parishioners were reclaiming, and charging the presbytery with the blood of their souls, if they went on with the settlement. "This," remarks Boston, "was the ungospel-like way of settling, that even then prevailed in the case of planting of churches, a way which I ever abhorred." After these disappointments, Mr Boston removed to his former situation in Clackmannanshire, where he remained for a twelvemonth, and in that time was proposed for Carnock, for Clackmannan, and for Dollar, all of which proposals were fruitless, and he returned to Dunse in the month of May, 1699.

Mr Boston had no sooner returned to his native place, than he was proposed by his friend Mr Colden for the parish of Simprin, where, after a great deal of hesitation on his part, and some little chicanery on the part of the presbytery and the people, he was ordained minister, September 21, 1699. In Simprin he continued conscientiously performing the duties of his calling till the year 1707, when, by synodical authority, he was transported to Ettrick. His introduction to his new charge took place on the 1st of May that year, the very day when the union between Scotland and England took effect; on which account he remarks that he had frequent occasion to remember it, the spirits of the people of Ettrick being imbittered on that event against the ministers of the church, which was an occasion of much heaviness to him, though he had never been for the union, but always against it from the very beginning. Simprin, now united to the parish of Swinton, both of which make a very small parish, contained only a few families, to whose improvement he was able greatly to contribute with comparatively little exertion, and the whole population seem to have been warmly attached to him. Ettrick, on the contrary, is a parish extending nearly ten miles in every direction, and required much labour to bring the people together in public, or to come in contact with them at their own house. Several of them, too, were society men or old dissenters, who had never joined the Revolution church from what they supposed to be radical defects in her constitution, as well as from much that had all along been offensive in her general administration. Of her constitution, perhaps, Mr Boston was not the warmest admirer, for he has told us in his memoirs, that, after having studied the subject of baptism, he had little fondness for national churches, strictly and properly so called, and of many parts of her administration he has again and again expressed decided disapprobation; but he had an undefined horror at separation, common to the greater part of the presbyterians of that and the preceding generation, which led him to regard almost every other ecclesiastical evil as trifling. Of course, he was shocked beyond measure with the conduct of a few of the families of Ettrick, who chose to adhere to Mr John Macmillan, or Mr John Hepburn, and has left on record accounts of some interviews with them, shortly after entering upon his charge, which, we have no hesitation in saying, bring not only his candour, but his veracity, very strongly into question. He was, however, a conscientious and diligent student, and had already made great progress in the knowledge of the doctrine of grace, which seems to have been but imperfectly understood by many very respectable men of that period. In this he was greatly forwarded by a little book, "The Marrow of Modern Divinity," which he found by accident in the house of one of his parishioners in Simprin, and which had been brought from England by a person who had been a soldier there in the time of the civil wars. Of this book he says, "I found it to come close to the points I was in quest of, and showed the consistency of those which I could not reconcile before, so that I rejoiced in it as a light which the Lord had seasonably struck up to me in my darkness." The works of Jerome Zanchrius, Luther on the Galatians, and Beza’s Confession of Faith, which he seems to have fallen in with at the same period, (that is, while he was yet in Simprin, about the year 1700,) also contributed greatly to the same end, and seems to have given a cast of singularity to his sermons, which was highly relished, and which rendered them singularly useful in promoting the growth of faith and holiness among his hearers. In 1702, he took the oath of allegiance to queen Anne, the sense of which, he says, he endeavoured to keep on his heart, but never after took another oath, whether of a public or private nature. He was a member of the first general assembly held under that queen in the month of March, 1703, of which, as the person that was supposed to be most acceptable to the commissioner, the earl of Seafield, Mr George Meldrum was chosen moderator. The declaration of the intrinsic power of the church was the great object of the more faithful part of her ministers at this time; but they were told by the leading party, that they already possessed it, and that to make an act asserting what they possessed, was only to waste time. While this very assembly, however, was in the midst of a discussion upon an overture for preventing the marriage of Protestants with papists, the commissioner, rising from his seat, dissolved the assembly in her majesty’s name. "This having come," Boston remarks, "like a clap of thunder, there were from all corners of the house protestations offered against it, and for asserting the intrinsic power of the church, with which," he adds, "I joined in: but the moderator, otherwise a most grave and composed man, being in as much confusion as a schoolboy when beaten, closed with prayer, and got away together with the clerk, so that nothing was then got marked. This was one of the heaviest days," he continues, "that ever I saw, beholding a vain man trampling under the privileges of Christ’s house, and others crouching under the burden; and I could not but observe how Providence rebuked their shifting the act to assert as above said, and baffled their design in the choice of the moderator, never a moderator since the revolution to this day, so far as I can guess, having been so ill-treated by a commissioner." This reflection in his private journal, however, with the exception of an inefficient speech in his own synod, appears to be all that ever Boston undertook for the vindication of his church on this occasion. It does not indeed appear that his feelings on this subject were either strong or distinct, as we find him at Ettrick, in the month of January, 1708, declaring that he had no scruple in observing a fast appointed by the court, though he thought it a grievance that arose from the union, and the taking away of the privy council. On this occasion he acknowledges that many of his hearers broke off and left him, several of whom never returned, but he justifies himself from the temper of the people, who, had he yielded to them in this, would have dictated to him ever afterwards. This same year he was again a member of the General Assembly, where application was made by persons liable to have the abjuration oath imposed upon them for an act declaring the judgment of the Assembly regarding it. The Assembly refused to do any thing in this matter; which was regretted by Mr Boston, and he states it as a just retribution which brought it to ministers’ own doors in 1712, only four years afterwards. On this occasion also he was in the Assembly, but whether as a spectator or a member he does not say. The lawfulness of the oath was in this Assembly keenly disputed, and Boston failed not to observe that the principles on which the answers to the objections were founded were of such latitude, that by them any oath might be made passable. They were indeed neither more nor less than the swearer imposing his own sense upon the words employed, which renders an oath altogether nugatory. In this manner did Principal Carstairs swear it before the justices in Edinburgh, to the great amusement of the Jacobites, and being clear for it, he, in the assembly, by his singular policy, smoothed down all asperities, and prevented those who had not the same capacity of conscience from coming to any thing like a rupture with their brethren, for which cause, says Boston, I did always thereafter honour him in my heart! Boston, nevertheless, abhorred the oath, and could not bring his mind to take it, but determined to keep his station in the church, till thrust out of it by the civil authorities. He made over to his eldest son a house in Dunse, which he had inherited from his father, and made an assignation of all his other goods to his servant, John Currie, so that, when the law took effect, he might elude the penalty of five hundred pounds sterling, that was attached to the neglect or the refusal to take the oath within a prescribed period. The memory of the late persecuting reigns was, however, still fresh, and no one appeared willing to incur the odium of imitating them; and, so far as we know, the penalty was never in one single instance exacted. The subject of this memoir, at least, was never brought to any real trouble respecting it.

Amid all Mr Boston’s attention to public affairs he was still a most diligent minister; and instead of relaxing any thing of his labours since leaving Simprin, had greatly increased them by a habit he had fallen into of writing out his sermons in full, which in the earlier part of his ministry he scarcely ever did. This prepared the way for the publication of his sermons from the press, by which they have been made extensively useful. The first suggestion of this kind seems to have come from his friend Dr Trotter, to whom he paid a visit at Dunse, after assisting at the sacrament at Kelso, in the month of October, 1711; on which occasion the notes of the sermons he had preached on the state of man were left with the Doctor for his perusal, and they formed the foundation of that admirable work, the Fourfold State, which was prepared for publication before the summer of 1714, but was laid aside for fear of the Pretender coming in and rendering the sale impossible. In the month of August, the same year, he preached his action sermon from Hosea ii, 19; which met with so much acceptance, that he was requested for a copy with a view to publication. This be complied with, and in the course of the following winter, it was printed under the title of the Everlasting Espousals, and met with a very good reception, twelve hundred copies being sold in a short time, which paved the way for the publication of the Fourfold State, and was a means of urging him forward in the most important of all his public appearances, that in defence of the Marrow of Modern Divinity.

During the insurrection of 1715, he was troubled not a little with the want of military ardour among his parishioners of Ettrick, and, in the year 1717, with an attempt to have him altogether against his inclination transported to the parish of Closeburn, in Dumfries-shire. In the meantime, the Fourfold State had been again and again transcribed, and had been revised by Mr John Flint at Edinburgh; and, in 1718, his friends, Messrs Simson, Gabriel Wilson, and Henry Davidson, offered to advance money to defray the expense of its publication. The MS., however, was sent at last to Mr Robert Wightman, treasurer to the city of Edinburgh, who ultimately became the prefacer and the publisher of the book, with many of his own emendations, in consequence of which there was a necessity for cancelling a number of sheets and reprinting them, before the author could allow it to come to the public; nor was it thoroughly purged till it came to a second edition. The first came out in 1720.

The oath of abjuration, altered, in a small degree, at the petition of the greater part of the presbyterian nonjurors, was again imposed upon ministers in the year 1719, when the most of the ministers took it, to the great grief of many of their people, and to the additional persecution of the few who still wanted freedom to take it, of which number Mr Boston still continued to be one. Mr Boston was at this time employed by the synod to examine some overtures from the assembly regarding discipline; and having been, from his entrance on the ministry, dissatisfied with the manner of admitting to the Lord’s table, and planting vacant churches, he set himself to have these matters rectified, by remarks upon, and enlargements of these customs. The synod did not, however, even so much as call for them, and, though they were by the presbytery laid before the commission, they were never taken into consideration. "And I apprehend," says Boston, "that the malady will be incurable till the present constitution be violently thrown down." Though the judicatures were thus careless of any improvement in discipline, they were not less so with regard to doctrine. The Assembly, in 1717, had dismissed professor Simson without censure, though he had gone far into the regions of error; and they condemned the whole presbytery of Auchterarder, for denying that any pre-requisite qualification was necessary on the part of the sinner for coming to Christ; and this year, 1719, they, at the instigation of Principal Haddow of St Andrews, commenced a prosecution against Mr James Hog of Carnock, who had published an edition of the Marrow, Alexander Hamilton minister of Airth, James Brisbane minister at Stirling, and John Warden minister at Gargunnock, who had advocated its principles: which ended in an act of the General Assembly, forbidding all under their inspection in time coming to teach or preach any such doctrines. This act of Assembly was by Boston and his friends brought before the presbytery of Selkirk, who laid it before the synod of Merse and Teviotdale. Nothing to any purpose was done in the synod; but the publicity of the proceedings led to a correspondence with Mr James Hog, Mr Ralph Erskine, and others, by whom a representation and petition was given into the Assembly, 1721. This representation, however, was referred to the commission. When called before the commission, on Thursday, May 18, Mr Hog not being ready, and Mr Boner of Torphichen gone home, Mr Boston had the honour of appearing first in that cause. On that day they were borne down by universal clamour. Next day, however, Principal Haddow was hardly pushed in argument by Mr Boston, and Logan of Culcross was completely silenced by Mr Williamson of Inveresk. The commission then gave out, to the twelve representing brethren twelve queries, to which they were required to return answers against the month of March next. These answers, luminous and. brief beyond any thing of the kind in our language, were begun by Mr Ebenezer Erskine, but greatly extended and improved by Mr Gabriel Wilson of Maxton. For presuming thus to question the acts of Assembly, the whole number were admonished and rebuked. Against this sentence they gave in a protestation, on which they took instruments in due form; but it was not allowed to be read. In the meantime, Mr Boston prepared an edition of the Marrow, illustrated by copious notes, which was published in 1726, and has ever since been well known to the religious public. The Assembly, ashamed, after all, of the act complained of, remodelled it in such a way as to abate somewhat its grossness, though, in the process, it lost little of its venom.

Following out his plan of illustrating gospel truth, Boston preached to his people a course of sermons on the covenants of works and of grace, which have long been in the hands of the public, and duly prized by judicious readers. His last appearance in the General Assembly was in the year 1729, in the case of Professor Simson, where he dissented from the sentence of the Assembly as being no just testimony of the church’s indignation against the dishonour done by the said Mr Simson to our glorious Redeemer, the Great God and our Saviour, nor agreeable to the rule of God’s word in such cases, nor a fit means to bring the said Mr Simson himself to repentance, of which, he added, he had yet given no evidence. This dissent, however, for the sake of the peace of the church, which some said it might endanger, he did not insist to have recorded on the Assembly’s books. His last public work was a letter to the presbytery, which met at Selkirk, May 2, 1732; respecting the overture for settling vacant parishes; which breathes all the ardour and piety of his more early productions, and in which he deprecates the turning of that overture into a standing law, as what cannot fail to be the ruin of the church, and he prays that his letter may be recorded as a testimony against it. His health had been for a number of years declining; he was now greatly emaciated; and he died on the twentieth of May, 1732, in the fifty-sixth year of his age. Mr Boston was married shortly after his settlement at Simprin to Katharine Brown, a worthy pious woman, by whom he had ten children, four of whom only survived him. Thomas, the youngest, was ordained to the pastoral care of the parish of Oxnam; but removing thence to Jedburgh without a presentation from the patron, or the leave of his presbytery, became one of the fathers of the Relief church. Of the fortunes of his other children we have not been informed. Ardent and pious, his whole life was devoted to the promoting of the glory of God and the best interests of his fellow-men. As an author, though he has been lowered by the publication of too many posthumous works, he must yet be admitted to stand in the first class. Even the most incorrect of his pieces betray the marks of a highly original and powerful mind, and his Fourfold State of Man cannot fail to be read and admired so long as the faith of the gospel continues to be taught and learned in the language in which it is written. [Mr. Boston’s name is still held in great reverence by the people of the south of Scotland. The editor of this work well recollects two questions which, in his youth, used to pass among the boys at a town not far from Ettrick – "who was the best, and who the worst man that ever lived?" – their minds evidently reflecting only upon modern times. The answer to the first query gave, "Mr Boston, the minister of Ettrick," the worst man, I regret to say, was the Earl of March, father of the last Duke of Queensberry, whose fame, it may be guessed, was purely local.]

Memoirs of the Life, Times, and Writings of Thomas Boston of Ettrick
Written by himself with Appendices (new edition) (1899) (pdf)

The Whole Works of the Reverend Thomas Boston of Ettrick
12 Volumes available on the Internet Archive

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