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The Father of St. Kilda
Chapter I - Birth - Church Schism - General Remarks


Unquestionably my birth was unpropitious. I came into the world just when Dr. Chalmers and his contemporaries were in the heat ot theological contention, when the disruption of the Church of Scotland closed our parish school, and the potato blight darkened the fortunes of the island. With the exception of about ten per cent, in the town of Stornoway, the whole population of the Lewis went over en masse to the new party, and in heroic mood, strong though delusive, nailed their colours to the new mast. One feels sometimes inclined to ask what became of religious faith amid all this bickering. While the shepherds belaboured each other with their crooks the wolves carried off the sheep from both sides. Perhaps this was not to be regretted. The spectacle of this theological party strife sets the thoughtful mind to work to find out what lies behind, and so not uncommonly liberty of conscience, tolerance, justice, and humanity are found. In the outer developments pure reason has only a minor part to play. For Fraser of Brae, Campbell of Row, Erskine of Linlathen, and Morrison of Bathgate were deposed for preaching a large and generous gospel, in advance of the stricter Calvinism, and thus secessions had begun as early as 1733. The blissful inertia of the “Auld Kirk,” however, and the unsatisfactory operation of the laws of patronage provided a more rational basis of complaint. And both abuses were more than made up for by the invention by the immortal man of Anstruther of the famous Sustentation Fund.

It is surely not impious to say that Christianity was one thing to Paul, another to John, and yet another to James. For their conceptions of it introduce us to three separate thought-worlds. And so through the ages. There are Calvin and Rabelais, contemporary ecclesiastics, fellow-countrymen, each furnished with all the learning of the day, each with the same religious facts within his view, yet one offers us the “Institutes,” and the other “Pantagruel.” The African Augustine and the Alexandrian Origen had the same records and traditions to go upon; but how different an affair each made of it! The brothers Newman, again, men so closely related, so pure, and so high-minded—is not their absolute oneness on mathematical questions in itself a proof that some other element than pure reason had come into play to produce their religious differences? And so the minds mystic and the minds rationalistic, the minds inductive and the minds deductive, tunnel continually through the same mountain all to emerge at last into the same light.

The true secret of our theologies lies deep down in that “philosophy of the unconscious ” which waits yet to be explored. It is the secret of temperament which creates for each of us a separate universe, a separate creed. What a man sees depends as much on the inner instrument as on the outer object, and a Swedenborg could never see as a Voltaire. The truth lies in the Aristotelian principle “ that our nature is not simple, and there is in us an element of corruption which makes us prone to change. We are all material as well as spiritual, sensual as well as intellectual, composite organisms.”

But to return to the disruption in the Lewis. There was no compromise possible. A Scotchman spends no small part of his life in splitting theological hairs, while his neighbour uses the hairs to stuff a social mattress on which he may comfortably repose. Feeling ran high, and angry words were spoken. There was no lack of faith and zeal, though a good deal of mere complaisance and unreasoned emotion, among the people. Ignorance and fear led many of them, and they followed like sheep with docility and such thought as they were capable of, hoping only that the new departure would not long remain “a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.” For this they had not long to wait, for soon there happened in the Lewis one of the most wonderful revivals ol the century. The Scottish Church had hitherto occupied itself chiefly with religion in the abstract. The broader minds had now come to understand that there Is a sphere ol “applied” religion as truly as of “applied” mathematics. They were beginning to recognise that religion comprises in the true range of its operations the whole of human life. Yet the Westminster Confession still reigned unchallenged. The clergy and the elders subscribed it, and the immortal Shorter Catechism, which has dene so much to train the Scottish mind in metaphysics, carried its theology into every school and home. People thought in the categories of Calvinism. Things happened because God had so ordained. Faith was His gift, and to it men were elected. Unless so elected, their names could not be written in the book of life. Original sin was as worthy of death as actual, for all were involved in the guilt of Adam’s transgression. The Atonement was for the elect; the men for whom Christ died could not but be saved; those for whom He had not died could not but be lost. The work of the Spirit was as restricted as the sacrifice of the Son, and so the numbers of the saved and the lost were fixed beyond possibility of increase or decrease. Even as a boy I grieved over these harsh beliefs, this narrowing down of grace and of salvation. But I fear I had no sympathisers.

The quoad sacra parish of Ness was thus suddenly broken up, and although born in the bosom of the good “Auld Kirk,” I became a Dissenter at a very early age. I remember the long walk with my parents to the baptistery, a temporary substitute for the new church, not yet built, the funds for which, according to an impious critic, were yet to be drawn from the slaves of the Southern States of America, where the law of compensation is exacting payment for the excesses of the “ Auld Kirk.” So complete was the change in popular feeling, that the “Auld Kirk” minister, whom the people had a short time before worshipped as a kind of superior being, had now hastily to leave manse, church, and parish. Having been crammed with texts from Holy Writ, they probably remembered one which says that the hireling fleeth because he is a hireling. The case was the same in all the rural parishes except that of Barvas, where the Rev. Mr. McRae bravely held his pulpit as a captain might his quarterdeck, though without supporters worth counting. Israel had taken to stoning her old prophets.

In the spring-time we could see the Dundee whalers sailing past the Butt’s Eye for Davis Straits, and possibly the ships Erebus and Terror passing to their doom in the same regions in search of the unsearchable Northwest Passage, carrying Sir John Franklin and 128 souls, destined never more to be seen by sorrowful friends and grateful country, and subsequently search expeditions in earnest quest of the same. But my youthful community knew nothing beyond the optical vision; knowledge of all this realisation being cruelly closed against them at the expense of religious upheaval, burning a red-hot iron into their brows. The Church of dour John Knox, of George Wishart, and of Jenny Geddes, sustained a severe shock. Out of that wreck there might come something that should be for the Divine glory, and praise will be abundantly fulfilled—

“She let us legions thunder past,
And plunged in thought again.”

“Talking of sects till late one eve,
Of the various doctrines the saints believe—
That 'light I stood in a troubled dream
By the side of a darkly flowing stream."


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