Memoir of William Symington D. D. (1795-1862)
Memoir of William Symington, by his son Alexander Macleod Symington, taken from the 1881 edition of Messiah the Prince
MEMOIR OF THE AUTHOR
A clause in the will of Professor Symington directs that “the whole of my manuscripts shall be committed to the custody of my son William, to be disposed of as may be thought proper, with this express reservation, that no part of my manuscripts shall be printed excepting such as may be left by me in a fit state for the press, and with explicit instructions that they shall be disposed of in this way.” No manuscripts were so left; but his son at once began to prepare a Memoir, and intended to have accompanied it with a re-issue of his principal works. The labour of love was interrupted by repeated and serious illnesses; and seasons of health were fully occupied in the exhausting toils of a city pastor.
Dr. William Symington, junior, died on the 9th of February 1879, having carried on the Memoir to the year 1823, on a plan which would have resulted in a large book. His being the oldest son, and therefore more our father’s companion than any of us; his sharing with him the pastoral charge for three years; his fine taste and literary faculty, make it matter of very deep regret that he was not able to execute his plan. He clung to the hope of doing so to the very last.
The lapse of so many years, the very scanty leisure of a minister in a large town, and a sad heart, must be held to excuse a youngest child for having contracted the record of our father’s life into the limits of a sketch. No father could ever have commanded more of the veneration and affection of his children; but this circumstance, creating a distressing sense of inadequacy, has made my task such that escape from it would have been eagerly welcomed, if any escape, consistent with filial duty, had appeared. That, of course, could not be.
Those who did not know William Symington will learn, in part, how excellent and good a man he was; and his character may be recommended to the study of those particularly who are entering on the ministry of the gospel. “Onward and Upward” was a motto chosen by himself long ago, and was true of his whole life.
Those who did know him will painfully feel how far this attempt to delineate Dr. Symington’s admirable character has failed; but to such I may appeal, in the words of Tacitus about his life of Agricola, “aut laudatus erit aut excusatus.” This sketch can scarcely be praised, but let it be excused.
ALEX. MACLEOD SYMINGTON.
Birkenhead, July 1879.
birth and training. 1795–1818
William Symington was born at Paisley on the 2d of June 1795. We are not able to gratify curiosity by tracing his genealogy far back into the past, or to supply notices of the remoter ancestors from whom he was sprung. The family of Symington seems to have had its origin in the upper ward of Lanarkshire, to one of the parishes of which, near the base of Tinto, it has given its name, as also to another parish in the district of Kyle in Ayrshire; and as early as the times of the haughty lords of Douglas, whose “coronet so often counterpoised the crown,” it produced men of considerable note and influence. It is more to our purpose, however, to observe that this region of Scotland, where the name is still a common one, was the stronghold of that stricter section of the Presbyterian Church, who suffered so much during the twenty-eight years of faithful contending and fierce persecution preceding the Revolution, and who at that time—while deeply grateful for the deliverance brought to the land by the accession of William and Mary to the throne, and foremost to evince their loyalty by the raising of the famous “Cameronian Regiment”—still held out from the main body, contending for the preservation in all their integrity of the attainments of the second Reformation. To those representatives, as they held themselves, of the old free kirk of Scotland—known by the name of “the Society People” until the accession to their ranks in the year 1706 of the Rev. John M‘Millan, and the constitution in 1743 of the “Reformed Presbytery”—belonged the more immediate progenitors of the subject of this memoir. His grandfather occupied the farm of Shields, in the parish of Douglas; and several of the neighbouring farms, Poniel, Place, Monkshead, Crowhill, &c., were tenanted by his grand-uncles. From the last-named place, when on a visit to his friends there, we find him dating a boyish letter to his father: “From the seat of the Symingtons for five hundred years.” His grandfather’s house was frequently the abode of the earlier ministers of the denomination, when preaching and dispensing ordinances in that locality, and here a large family was carefully and piously reared, among whom was William Symington, his father, who was accustomed to tell with much humour how grievously one of these old ministers (the elder Fairley, we believe) had put him to the blush, when a little boy, before the whole family, by the question, “What made you so loud at your prayers this morning, William?”—which instantly called forth the self-condemning vindication, “It couldna’ be me, I prayed nane.”
When but a young man, this William left the parental home, and settled in the town of Paisley, where, in the first instance, he laboured at the loom (a very different occupation then from what it has now become), and afterwards, when regard for his health led him to abandon sedentary work, entered into business as a woollen and linen merchant. His previous habits of industry, his frugality and enterprise, enabled him, with the blessing of God, to earn for himself and his household, in this business, an honourable competency. Some yet surviving can remember with pleasure his shop at the cross at Paisley, and its genial occupant. His natural talents, which were of no mean order, were made the more marked and memorable in their development by his shrewd wit, and a strong vein of humour and keen relish for innocent jocularity, while all about him was pervaded by that genuine, consistent, Christian character, in virtue of which he left to children and children’s children the best of all inheritances. Not long after his settlement in Paisley he was united in marriage to Marion Brown, a help-meet of strong natural good sense and sterling Christian worth, and the member of a family distinguished for godliness. These pious parents were blessed with a numerous offspring, whom they brought up, as they had themselves been trained, in intelligent attachment to the principles of the Scottish Covenanted Reformation, and in the love and practice of holiness. Three of their sons were early dedicated to the ministry of the Church,—Andrew, the eldest, to whose life and labours we shall have occasion frequently to refer,—James, the youngest, who after affording high promise of future usefulness, and having been just licensed to preach the gospel, was cut down in the flower of life in April 1830,—and William, ten years the junior of Andrew, whose earthly career we would now attempt to sketch.
Of his childhood and early youth we have not much information over which to linger. When about six years of age he was sent to an elementary school, where he remained till he had acquired some knowledge of English reading, grammar, writing, and accounts. Four years afterwards he entered the Paisley Grammar School, in which he continued a pupil for upwards of four years, and where he appears to have devoted himself with assiduity to the proper business of the classes through which he passed, and was always distinguished by more than a respectable station among his schoolfellows. There is no reason to think that his early youth afforded any remarkable promise of future distinction. There was no extraordinary precocity of talent, nor marked devotedness to the service of Christ, perceptible at this time. He was not exempt, probably, from those faults and follies which commonly bring a healthy schoolboy, with exuberance of natural spirit, into “scrapes.” There may have been only too good reason for the trenchant rebuke of a servant in the family who, indignant at some juvenile misdemeanour which seemed in her eyes flagrantly inconsistent with the sacred calling to which even then he was supposed to aspire, exclaimed: “They’ll be scant o’ wood for the tabernacle, if they take thee to make a pin o’t.” It is manifest, however, that the propensity to evil was powerfully held in check by the wholesome restraints of parental government; by the example and counsel of his brother Andrew, who was early distinguished for gravity of character, and to whom he was not only then but ever afterwards accustomed to look up; and, above all and through all, by the gracious influence of Him to whom he had been dedicated from the womb, and to whom his pious mother was wont in devout humility to trace every promise of goodness and greatness in her sons. “You may well be proud of two such sons” (as Andrew and William), once said an acquaintance to Mrs. Symington, after the younger had begun to share the fame of the elder as a preacher; “they are as great an honour to you as if they had been two emperors.” “No, no,” was the Christian matron’s reply, “give the honour to whom it is due; many a mother has ta’en mair pains than I ha’e done wi’ twa ne’er-do-weels.”
Among his private papers, one of the earliest date is a fragment in the form of an autobiography written when he was a Student of Divinity, and not afterwards resumed. It is a deeply interesting document, in which his object is to trace the influences which had contributed to the formation of his own character, and to assist him in ascertaining whether or not his mind had been truly brought under the power of divine grace. We could not better fulfil this part of our task than by presenting the reader with extracts from this fragment. In the outset we find him deploring that, throughout his schoolboy days, he was “a stranger to religious principle or even to serious thought, and plunged into all the frivolities of thoughtless childhood.” “The wicked practices of my associates, in which I too readily joined, shall always be remembered with pungent grief. Here (the Grammar School) the bad example of all around was too powerful to be counteracted by the pious instruction and sober walk of the domestic circle in which I lived. I sehwed myself a depraved sinner by choosing the path of wickedness and turning my back on the way of rectitude.” His aversion to public schools in after life, and preference of home education for his own children, may perhaps be in some measure accounted for by his recollection of their injurious moral influence on himself.
But the same record from which these words are taken contains abundant evidence that even thus early the Spirit of all grace was striving with His child, that the life-long struggle in which he was to be more than conqueror had already begun.
“The only subject of a grave kind with which I was at an early period impressed, and upon which I remember to have ruminated till quite overwhelmed, was one calculated to arrest the attention and confound the comprehension of a mind greater than that of a frivolous child—eternity of misery. A slavish fear of condemnation was no doubt at the bottom of my early contemplations of this awfully sublime subject, as I well remember not to have been so deeply impressed with its opposite—everlasting felicity. But even the appalling consideration which seemed to arrest my early thoughts was soon forgotten.” “I remember only once during this period to have experienced something like what may be called a religious fit. The frivolity and sinful amusements of my class-fellows were exchanged for prayer and reading the Scriptures and other pious books. My natural levity was, as it were, for a moment transformed into the utmost composure and gravity. I selected from the schoolboys one the circumstances of whose education and manners induced me to reveal to him my thoughts. A proposal was made to engage mutually in the same exercises, and to stir one another up by our company and youthful epistles, which was readily complied with. But this confidential treaty being discovered by some of our fellows, it became the subject of much ridicule and taunt. Our share of fortitude was too scanty to oppose the scorn of those around, and in a short time our youthful resolutions and ardent hopes were as though they had not been.”
Having completed the usual course of an elementary education, he was at his own desire sent to Glasgow College in the autumn of 1810, and entered the Latin and Greek classes under Professors Richardson and Young, applying himself at once to the business of both classes with assiduity and spirit. “You will, I hope, mind your duty,” writes his anxious father to the young student who had just left his roof, “and consider that though you are from under my daily notice, yet God seeth you always, and God hateth all sin. Mind that you are in Glasgow for the improvement of your mind; see that you progress in that matter; above all things, fear God, and I may say, fear all that do not fear him, though in a different way. Fear God, to love and draw near him; fear the latter, to avoid them as much as possible. Farewell. Dear William, yours in all duty.”
“Be industrious in your room,” counsels his brother Andrew; “prudent, reserved, and humble before others; and, above all, remember God. You have greater objects before you than the temporary fuss of academic contention, and higher rewards than the often partial and perishing laurels of the first of May. Depend upon it, diligence, the fear of God, prudence, and even only moderate talents, will bring a young man forward. And I can assure you that the grasp of your mind will afterwards so enlarge that you will wonder at yourself.”
Such wise and wholesome charges were not thrown away upon the young student. “I was now,” he himself writes in the autobiography, “a thoughtless youth of fifteen in the heart of a great and licentious city, and exposed to the immediate influence of a class of society not the most favourable for cherishing the seeds of pious instruction,—not a parent’s eye to watch over my youthful steps, or to awe into the external observance of moral and religious duty. But blessed be God that, through the influence of a natural conscience which a regular system of instruction had formed to the abhorrence of gross and open vice, and the providential care of the Almighty, I was deterred from yielding to the thousand fascinating temptations with which I was every day surrounded.”
Greek, Logic, Moral Philosophy, Mathematics, and Natural Philosophy, formed the subjects of his study, according to the usual curriculum, during the three succeeding sessions of his attendance at college. In all the classes he applied himself with exemplary diligence, and in several distinguished himself. Logic and Moral Philosophy had special attractions for him. To the study of the latter his application was so ardent and intense as to threaten injury to his health, and to call forth the kindly expostulations of his brother Andrew.
But his mind was now beginning to put forth its powers, and he was determined to excel. “It was during this session,” he says, “that I began to study. And though the grave metaphysical questions of moral science were too much for my untutored mind, nevertheless a relish for philosophical inquiry was begotten which, with the ardent pursuit and final success which attended my studies, combined to render my third year at college neither unpleasant nor unprofitable.” In both the Moral Philosophy and Mathematical classes he carried off prizes at the close of the session. Having thus completed his four years’ course at the university, he now began to turn his thoroughly awakened mind with all earnestness to the study of Theology. But we must not leave this period of college life without marking his religious progress, and the way in which he was led to make a public profession of his faith.
His early religious impressions appear to have been all more or less intimately connected with the services, continued over several days, which usually accompany the dispensation of our Lord’s Supper in Scotland. At that time “the Sacrament,” enjoyed generally but once in the year, if not seldomer, was more of a great and solemn occasion than it is now. It was looked forward to with deep interest for many weeks before, and careful preparation was made for the due observance of the holy rite. It was then customary for members of the Reformed Presbyterian Church to travel to great distances from their homes, that they might enjoy opportunities of communion with their Saviour and with one another; and it was not unusual for pious parents, yearning for the salvation of their children, to take with them on these occasions such members of their families as were fit for the journey, that they might profit by what they saw and heard. There can be no doubt that the novelty of the scene, the voice and venerable appearance of the stranger-ministers, the varied addresses and appeals from the tent, the solemn distribution of the tokens, the crowds of reverent worshippers assembled on the mount of ordinances, the filling and emptying of the successive tables spread on the green field under the open sky, the more private exercises of godly fathers on the evenings of the preaching days, and the deep-toned religious conversation with which they beguiled the way as they travelled in groups to and from the appointed place, all tended to produce hallowed and lasting impressions on the susceptible minds of youth. These were not only times of precious reviving and strengthening to maturer saints, but times when many of “the seed of the blessed of the Lord” were led to take hold of God’s covenant with their fathers. In company with his father, who was a Ruling Elder in the Church, and well known and beloved throughout the community, or in the society of other esteemed Christian friends whose acquaintance he had formed during his residence in Glasgow, young William Symington often travelled in the summer season to communions at Wishaw, Douglas, Laurieston, near Falkirk, and even as far as to Lorn in the Western Highlands. It is deeply interesting to mark the effect produced on him by such excursions.
In the summer after his return from his first session at college (1811) he was laid low by a severe attack of scarlet fever, from which after long debility he gradually recovered. While in the state of weakness in which this illness left him, he had some thoughts about religion, but these he considered could not properly be called serious thoughts. They had no practical effect. He still remained a stranger to the true knowledge of Christ. Soon after his recovery, however, he went to Wishawtown, where the Lord’s Supper was to be dispensed by the Rev. Mr. Mason. On seeing some youthful acquaintances to whom he was attached approach the table of the Lord, he “felt as though he could have joined the honourable company, and was disposed to interrogate himself why he was not a member of the Church, and on returning home he was prompted to question his mother on the nature of the ordinance and the pre-requisites of those to whom it was dispensed.” The good thoughts and purposes thus suggested were to be ripened into decision by attendance on another sacramental occasion in the following year, as appears by the following extract from the autobiography, which may be commended to the special attention of the young reader, and of elders of the Church.
“In the month of August (1812) I went to Laurieston, in the vicinity of Falkirk, with a Christian friend (Mr. D. Campbell, a worthy elder in the Glasgow congregation, and long after a member of his session) who waited upon the celebration of Christ’s death. His conversation was suitable and his example instructive. From this time I think may date the commencement of my serious impressions about divine things. The circumstances were favourable for thought. I was hearing sermons every day; and when I returned to my chamber there was no companion but my good friend, whose mind was too much occupied about the solemn work in which he was engaged to entertain me with trifles; and in his absence, my Bible.… I meditated. I conversed. My mind was in some degree impressed, and circumstances which we are accustomed to call accidental served to heighten the impression. On Saturday evening, as I approached one of the ministers (Mr. Mason) with whom I was acquainted, he, supposing my object to be the reception of a token, instantly pulled one from his pocket and presented it. I shrank back involuntarily, in such a way as discovered to him his mistake. The circumstance, however, was not without its use. It affected my mind, and created a variety of feelings, and wishes, and resolutions which may better be supposed than delineated. I retired in the evening to an adjoining forest for the purpose of secret devotion. The impression was still lively. My meditations and reflections were overpowering. I fell upon my knees and poured forth to God a fervent prayer that he would open my eyes to see the spiritual import of the sacred ordinance I was soon to witness, give me a personal interest in the glories which it represents, and prepare me in due time for sitting down at his table. After returning to my lodging I talked of it to my friend, who expressed a hope that I would see it my duty soon to join myself to the church by an open and voluntary profession, to which I made some indistinct, evasive reply. Upon my return home, these feelings in some measure passed away, with the immediate cause by which they were excited. But they were keenly revived when, not long after, an elder of the church with which my parents are connected waited upon me and talked of the propriety of making a public accession to the church. I mentioned several things which had weight with me as motives to postpone so serious a step in life. In the course of several conferences which followed, these were overcome, and after carefully examining the history and testimony of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, and seriously considering the nature of the sacred ordinance to which actual church-membership gave me access, I gave myself away to the Lord in a solemn personal covenant, and thus became a public member of the visible church by openly participating of the Lord’s Supper. This step of my life shall never be forgotten, and as I have hitherto had occasion to reflect upon it with feelings of satisfaction and delight, I earnestly hope they may continue through eternity. My feelings and enjoyments at this period cannot be described, and often since, when contemplating my lethargy and indifference and sinful departure from God, have I recurred to this joyful season with the exclamation of Job in my heart, Oh that I were as in months past, as in the days when God preserved me, when his candle shined upon my head, and when by his light I walked through darkness! I could dwell with rapturous delight on this part of my history did not the recollection of sinful back-slidings mingle bitter ingredients into the cup of reflection.”
After completing his fourth session at college, instead of returning home as usual during the summer months, he remained in Glasgow, with the view of acquiring some knowledge of the Hebrew and French languages. About this time he became tutor to a young boy, grandson of Mrs. Robert Tennent, a venerable Christian lady, in whose family he continued to reside, excepting the five weeks of his attendance on the Hall at Stirling, for a year, either at Glasgow or their summer quarters at Largs. An intimacy was thus formed with Christian friends moving in a higher circle of society, which was productive of much pleasure and advantage, and which was interrupted only by death. While letters from different members of that family testify their high respect for the young tutor, he was ever accustomed to look back with pleasure to the happy days spent in their society, and to speak with gratitude of the kind attentions he had received and the benefits he had derived from “the Tennents.”
During the earlier part of the present century the Theological Hall of the Reformed Presbyterian Church was presided over by the Rev. John M‘Millan of Stirling, a man of grave and venerable character and an able and accomplished divine. His method of instruction, though sufficiently simple,—consisting mainly of extemporaneous lectures on the doctrines of systematic theology in the order in which these are presented in the Confession of Faith,—was not behind the age. Such was the mode of tuition commonly followed at that time, not only in the humble seminaries of the then despised dissenting communities, but even in the theological faculties of the national universities. But whatever defects may be chargeable on the system of teaching then in vogue, and whatever improvements may have been effected in later times, there is evidence sufficient to show that the prelections of the Professor and the preparation of the prescribed exercises had a stimulating effect on the minds of the students; and from the humble class-room, the little session-house adjoining the Craigs’ Church,—less at that time even than it is now,—there came forth not a few able and successful ministers of the New Testament.
In September of the year 1814 our student accordingly repaired to Stirling. The picturesque situation and environs of the ancient town, and its stirring associations, had many charms for him. For four successive sessions he here “sat at the feet of Gamaliel,” and found, as so many have done, his Hall days to be among the happiest of his life. Not long after his arrival he writes to his brother Andrew, expressing great satisfaction with the instruction he was receiving and the congenial work to which his faculties were now bent.
“Your satisfaction will increase,” replies his brother,—subscribing himself “Yours with fraternal concern,”—“as the sphere of your knowledge enlarges and your faculties expand. Divinity is unsearchable. The highest attainments of the most profound come infinitely short of the immense subject. This study, when practically improved, raises the powers of the human mind to their highest pitch, and fills the soul with refreshing consolations. It is pleasant to think of a profession in life, the labours of which have so kindred a relation to man’s highest end, and advancement in which carries the person himself on to that which is most noble, and which is eternal. But there is danger of the mind familiarising with the study from the call of duty, so as to become rather indifferent. I have had some difficulties on this matter. The life of religion is the best incentive to the study of theology. Might I say, while it is sublime as a Science or a Theory, its excellence chiefly appears as an Art? In this study laborious reading, deliberate thinking, patient investigation, impartial judgment, are required. All these will be successful if sanctified with prayer. The miner must dig perseveringly, and he finds the hidden treasure in small portions, which, after much toil and care and patience, become an aggregate treasure. You must labour. Gold is not sprinkled like common clay upon the surface. Intellectual attainments are but a part of the divine. These can shine only when surrounded with piety. The days of youth stamp the character for life. Circumspection in every particular is eminently required of the student for the ministry. All eyes are upon him.”
In the spirit thus inculcated, he entered upon and prosecuted his theological studies, not only during the few weeks of each autumn which were spent at Stirling, but in the intervening months which were passed either at home, or in the family of Mrs. Tennent, or in the house of his brother Andrew at Paisley, who invited him to stay with him during the winter months, for the convenience of readier access to his library, and more uninterrupted fraternal conference. These were years of close and earnest study, in which we find him recording his resolution never to be in bed after six, when it was light at that hour, and in winter to be up with the sun,—to devote the morning to the Scriptures and works on systematic theology; the forenoon to composition, and works connected with the subject of composition; the afternoon and evening to ecclesiastical history, general literature, and recreation. Witsius and Bell on the Covenants, Brown’s System of Natural and Revealed Religion, Paley’s Natural Theology, Newton on the Prophecies, Shuckford’s, Prideaux’s, and Milner’s Histories, were among the books thoroughly studied by him at this time.
For some years before he had been in the habit of keeping a diary, but, ashamed at the slovenly way in which it had been written, he now committed it to the flames, and commenced anew. The journal thus resumed in July 1816, was continued, with a few breaks, sometimes only of a month or two, again of a whole year, and in one instance of more than three years, down till near the close of life. In the earlier portion of it we have the record of much deep religious exercise, lamentations over seasons of spiritual declension, resolutions for the future, notices of sacramental occasions which he had attended, and of books he was engaged in reading.
“I am again at Stirling,” he writes 19th September 1816, “attending on the instructions of the very learned and pious Professor M‘Millan. I would look forward to my future prospects, and see in them an important stimulus to the diligent improvement of every moment of time and to a careful attention to the lectures which I am now privileged to hear. May God bless them as a means of preparation! Thus may I be fitted for a station of public usefulness in the Church of Christ. May I still be more and more distrustful of myself, and write upon all my acquirements and labours, in the sincerity of my heart, the unfeigned motto, μονῳ τῳ θεῳ δοξα.”
Of the year 1816 he speaks as the busiest and perhaps happiest he had spent. “Never before did I enter with such spirit into the retirements of study, never with the same eagerness did I pursue the acquisitions of knowledge.” While living in Glasgow, he availed himself of the privilege of attending, as private student, on the lectures of several of the professors in the University, with the view of keeping up and confirming former attainments in languages and philosophy. It was during this year also that he made his first attempts in the field of literature, sending contributions on various subjects which engaged his attention at the time to the pages of the “Christian Instructor” and “Christian Repository.”
To the “Christian Instructor” of July 1816 he contributed a paper on “The application of the name Sunday to the first day of the week,” and another on “The neglect of Christians with respect to the Holy Spirit.” Other papers of the same date which we find in his scrap-book, on “The Study of Church History,” on “The Use of Uninspired Songs in the Worship of God,” &c., although they do not appear to have been sent to any periodical for publication, serve to shew the great activity of his mind at this period.
There is also a long elaborate and able letter addressed by him about this time to the editor of the “Christian Repository,” but which was not inserted, in reply to certain strictures which had appeared in that magazine on Dr. Alexander Macleod’s (of New York) Lectures on the Revelation. The perusal of this work seems to have produced a very deep impression on his mind, and awakened in him that sentiment of profound admiration for its gifted author, which he always cherished and long afterwards expressed by giving his name to his youngest son. He shared, as might be expected in one of so ardent temperament, in the political excitement which pervaded all classes of the community during that eventful period in the history of Europe, and appears to have laboured under a solemn impression of the national guilt resting upon Britain as an abettor of the antichristian system. He even seems to have had some thought of following the example of Dr. Macleod, and seeking a home for himself in the new world; but from such purpose, if it was ever seriously entertained, he was dissuaded by the advice of wise friends. His venerable friend, Mrs. Tennent, whose Christian counsel was in many ways beneficial to him as a youth, and to whom he had lent Dr. Macleod’s volume, thus writes to him from Largs (14th March 1816): “I see now, my good friend, more reasons than one for your wishing to cross the seas; you wish to get sheltered in the land that will be free of the blood of the witnesses. Whether the Doctor is or is not right respecting Britain having that awful judgment before her, I think I shall be sheltered from the calamity without going so far. But if I were as young as you, perhaps I should like to accompany you over the Atlantic Ocean. My prayer is that my great High Priest may divide to me the deeper waters through which I most certainly am soon to pass, and land me where there will be no more death. He will take care of all his own people whatever their time or situation may be: to him it is my desire to commit myself, and all I am to leave behind me.”
But we may not dwell much longer upon that period of his life which was devoted to theological study in connexion with attendance on the Hall. The diary shews how steadily he kept in view, during all those years, the great work which he had in prospect, his deep sense of the magnitude and responsibility of the office to which he aspired, and the high standard of qualification which he had proposed to himself; and contains abundant evidence of the assiduity with which he laboured to prepare himself for entering with efficiency upon the functions of the Christian ministry. By means of copious yet wisely selected and careful reading; by availing himself of every opportunity afforded for improving conversation and correspondence with Christian friends; by active efforts for the establishment and efficient on-carrying of such associations as the “Paisley Youths’ Society for Religious Purposes;” by occasional visits to the bedsides of the sick and dying; and by the vigilant cultivation of devotional habits, he was during this period gradually ripening and being furnished for the Master’s service. It was at this time also that his acquaintance commenced with her who was to be the future partner of his life, and it is not difficult to see how great a share this circumstance had in consolidating his character and in stimulating and directing his energies.
The following sentences from his diary shew with what feelings he looked forward to becoming a preacher.
“January 1, 1818. May I have the influence and aid of the Holy Ghost in the studies to which my attention is presently directed, and in due time may I be prepared and strengthened for publishing the glad tidings of salvation to perishing sinners! By a growing acquaintance with my own heart, and habitual meditation on the matchless perfections, mediatorial fulness, and infinite love of the Redeemer, may I be fitted for discovering to others the plagues of their own hearts, and for recommending to their esteem and reception the Saviour of the world.” And again (May 4, 1818). “Tomorrow I make my third appearance as a candidate for license. I desire this evening to devote myself anew to God. May he purify my motives in looking forward to the work of preaching the Gospel. May every selfish and mercenary principle be completely eradicated, and my soul be absorbed in the magnificent prospect of being instrumental in gathering souls to Christ!”
On the 30th of June 1818, at the age of twenty-three, having successfully passed his preparatory trials, he was duly licensed by the Presbytery, in the name of the Church’s Head, to preach the everlasting Gospel, his brother Andrew presiding on the occasion; and on the following Sabbath (July 5) he made his first public appearance in the pulpit at Paisley, preaching from Rom. 1:16: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ.”
“My life, my soul, my body, my talents, my opportunities of usefulness, my all, I dedicate to the Redeemer of men. May he never leave me nor forsake me, but as my days so may my strength be!” (Diary, June 30, 1818).
early ministry in stranraer. 1819–1825
A short time after receiving license, the youthful preacher set out on his probationary tour of the churches, and for about a year was employed in itinerating among the vacancies. The life of the preacher then was considerably different from what it is now, in these days of rapid and easy travelling. The long journeys from place to place were accomplished on horseback, and the pony with his saddle-bags were an indispensable part of the preacher’s equipment. A suitable steed having been procured for him, whom he always speaks of by the name of “the Irishman,” he traversed in this way almost the entire bounds of the Church, from Perthshire to Galloway, and from Berwick to the Western Highlands, and evidently enjoyed with much zest the new scenes into the midst of which he was thus carried, gratefully appreciating the hospitable entertainment which he received in the different houses where he sojourned, amusing himself by close observation of the various characters whom he met with in his wanderings, and eagerly availing himself of every opportunity of visiting places of interest on his way or in the neighbourhood of the stations where he laboured.
Though “in journeyings oft” at this season, he was fully alive then, as he ever continued to be, to the necessity of careful preparation for pulpit work, and always studied so to arrange his movements as to secure a day or two of bodily rest and retirement in the end of the week, that he might be ready for the duties of the Sabbath. And no doubt it is due to this cause, as well as to natural talent and previous training, that from the very first he proved a popular preacher, and at the very outset of his ministry acquired that fame as an eloquent and powerful evangelist, which never afterwards waned. Not only were the congregations which he supplied, and which, for the most part, were but small, charmed by a style of oratory more cultivated and graceful than they had been accustomed to from the older ministers of the denomination, but many from other churches, particularly from the Establishment, were attracted to the humble meeting-house by the rich and forcible exhibition of gospel truth. Crowds seem to have attended his preaching in almost every place to which his appointments carried him; and if he remained over a few weeks in one place, the audience was sure to increase on each successive Sabbath. It is a proof, too, of the estimation in which he was held, and the confidence which was placed in him by fathers in the ministry, that even while a probationer he was repeatedly employed to assist on sacramental occasions, and had sometimes the principal parts of service, such as the Sabbath evening sermon, assigned to him.
Soon after the commencement of his itineracy, a most harmonious call came out in his favour from the congregation at Airdrie, requesting him to take the oversight of them. But nowhere were his services more appreciated than at Stranraer, where the congregation had recently been deprived by death of their faithful and beloved minister, Rev. John Cowan; and to no place does he seem to have felt his heart so much drawn. His first visit to Stranraer was in January 1819, when he spent a happy month under the roof of Mrs. Cowan, widow of the late pastor. He preached on four Sabbaths to the vacant congregation; the following jottings culled from his diary are very significant:—
“Stranraer, January 8.—In house all day except a few moments that I went out to see the meeting-house and get the pulpit adjusted to my height. The chapel is neat and compact, though rather small.
“January 10.—Preached to very respectable audience. The day was extremely stormy.
“January 17.—Had a large and respectable audience. House quite packed. Spoke too loud, and so did not feel quite so comfortable. Intimated a meeting for instituting a Bible Society.
“January 27.—Attended the first meeting of the Stranraer and Rhinns of Galloway Auxiliary Bible Society.
“January 31.—House immensely crowded, the day being very fine. Spoke with more ease than sometimes. O blessed Jesus! send thy Holy Spirit to water with His divine influences the seed that has been sown!”
Before he left Stranraer, the congregation there had resolved to endeavour to secure him as their pastor, and some of its members were most anxious to obtain from him some indication of his mind as to acceptance of their call. This, however, he deemed premature, feeling it to be his duty carefully to weigh the claims of the other congregation which had called him, and desiring to be made willing to go wherever he might be of most service to the Church. In due course a cordial invitation from Stranraer was regularly issued; and at the meeting of Synod in May the two calls were presented, when he made choice of that from Stranraer, praying the Head of the Church to prepare him for entering upon the solemn work of the ministry.
During this summer, while regularly preaching with great acceptance wherever his services were required, we find him busily engaged in purchasing books, and making other necessary preparations for his settlement in Stranraer. Early on the morning of August 14th, having taken affectionate leave of many kind friends, he left Paisley, his “dear native town, his father’s house, and the people that were his.” In a letter a few days later to his dearest friend, who was soon to become his help-meet in Stranraer, he thus describes his voyage thither:—
“On the morning after I left you, I went on board the ‘Rob Roy’ at Renfrew. We came to Greenock about eleven o’clock, but had to wait nearly five hours on the mending of the boiler. We left Greenock about four, and were at sea all night. The wind blew what sailors call a half gale, and it was right ahead. Every passenger on board was sick. I occasionally left my place and scrambled up to deck, to gratify myself with whatever could be seen—the lights on different parts of the coast, the island of Arran, the rock Ailsa, &c. We got to Loch Ryan soon after break of day, and were landed at Stranraer about six o’clock on Sabbath morning. Andrew preached all day. Monday and Tuesday I spent mostly with him. Wednesday was the solemn day.”
On that day, 18th August 1819, he was ordained to the office of the ministry, in the presence of an immense crowd, estimated at between four and five thousand assembled in the burying-ground adjoining the meeting-house. The Rev. John West of Colmonell preached from 2 Cor. 5:20; his brother Andrew presided in the act of ordination; and the solemnity was closed with a sermon by the Rev. Mr. Rowatt of Penpont, from Phil. 2:29.
“In the afternoon I ascended with trembling limbs and beating heart to commence my public ministerial labours. I do not remember to have been so much appalled at any former time. I addressed the audience from Exodus 3:11: ‘And Moses said unto God, Who am I that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?’ As I have put my hand to the plough, the Lord keep me from looking back!”
Those who had heard, only a month before, his last sermon, were thus addressed by one who could claim to be “very intimately acquainted with his earlier career, and to have felt and witnessed the great power of his influence throughout his whole course.”
“I have a very lively recollection of his settlement in his former charge, now nearly forty-three years ago. The tall and elegant form of the youth who, on that solemn day, received his ordination vows, deeply impressed with the responsibility of the arduous office he was undertaking, is still vividly before me. A most warm and hearty welcome did he receive from the people, who were justly proud of their young minister. The name he bore was, even then, well known and honoured throughout the Church. The people expected much, and they were not disappointed. Well do I remember the remarks of the rural patriarchs of those days—men of godliness and integrity, familiar with their Bibles, well read in the olden divinity, and well instructed by their previous pastors—as on the evening of Sabbath after Sabbath they travelled on foot to their distant homes, recalling with grateful and admiring affection the rich and eloquent discourses to which they had just listened. By refreshing each other’s memories with the precious truths they had been hearing, they easily beguiled the length of the journey.”
On 27th June 1820 he was united in marriage to her to whom for about two years he had been tenderly attached, Agnes Speirs, eldest daughter of Mr. Robert Speirs, farmer at Inch, near Paisley, who was to be the faithful companion of his pilgrimage to the end, the sharer of all his joys and sorrows. Having been thus happily settled in the place where he believed God had appointed him to labour, he immediately threw himself with characteristic ardour into his proper work, and the record of the earlier years of his ministry in Stranraer affords ample evidence of great pastoral diligence and devotedness. While a large part of his time was given to study and careful preparation of the discourses which Sabbath after Sabbath he delivered with so much acceptance and effect to the audiences which thronged the church to overflowing, until larger accommodation had to be provided, no other part of pastoral duty was neglected or discharged in a perfunctory manner. In visiting the sick, holding diets of visitation and examination, often at a considerable distance from his home, for the congregation was scattered over many parishes, and in instituting and conducting classes for the instruction of the young, it may be truly said that he was instant in season and out of season. From the first, in performing all such duties, he proceeded on a regular plan, duly considered, determined on and adhered to, which enabled him to get through a far greater amount of work than could have been accomplished by one less accustomed to act upon system.
It was not long till the effects of such an earnest ministry began to appear, not only in the growth and prosperity of the congregation, but in the influence for good diffused throughout the general community. Evangelical religion was at a low ebb then in that locality. The preachers were but few and far between who testified the Gospel of the grace of God; and the truths so eloquently and forcibly propounded by the young minister sounded strange and startling to many ears. He early found admission into the best society of the place, and instead of conforming himself to the frivolous worldly customs which he found prevailing, sought to elevate and Christianise the tone of that society. Many were induced to study their Bibles who had seldom before thought of looking into such a book. A party of strolling players, who had been well patronised on their former visits to Stranraer, commenced operations on the evening of a day observed as a thanksgiving in his congregation, but complained sadly of the small attendance, the manager of the company assigning as the reason of their failure, that some new minister had condemned theatrical entertainments and dissuaded the people from giving them countenance. “I wish,” he adds, “I could as effectually persuade them to give up card playing and parties on Sabbath.” The influence exerted by his ministry at this period, beyond the bounds of the congregation and church, will be seen from the following letter from a very dear friend of our father, a Christian lady then living in Stranraer, but now and for many years resident in England:—
“When my father entered upon a government situation at Stranraer, obtained for him by the widow of his maternal uncle, Sir John Dalrymple Hay, the darkness of spiritual ignorance which prevailed in Wigtonshire and in parts of Kirkcudbrightshire and Dumfriesshire, was a darkness that might be felt. With a few bright and blessed exceptions, vital religion was rare, and principally existed amongst the humbler classes of society. From these sounded forth the varied excellences of the young minister. At that time he stood almost alone in his views, aims, and efforts, and curiosity was excited. One person after another went to hear for themselves the eloquent and promising young man. Numerous objections were brought forward to deter people; these kept back many, and caused others to delay for a little while going to hear the fearless, faithful preacher. But his bold, uncompromising, and lucid statements of Gospel truths were proclaimed in such attractive language, with so much earnestness, good feeling, and refinement of mind and manners, that few, I may say none, that went once, could resist the desire and opportunity to go again. Prejudice gave way, and objections were dealt with as chaff. Early in April 1820 I was brought home ill from school. As an invalid, I was an object of solicitude to my parents, and more constantly in their company and present in the society of visitors than is usual for girls; and heard the conversations and remarks current at that period. It was interesting to observe that the topics were generally politics, the landlord’s past and present rent-rolls, the best and wisest plan to adopt to meet the farmer’s difficulties, the danger of the coast, the Portpatrick harbour, and Mr. Symington. All admitted his pulpit abilities (either from hearsay or personal knowledge), his store of information, his refined taste, his intelligent eye, his beaming countenance, his power to attract, instruct, and win; and yet with all this, it was the glorious subject in hand, not himself, that was prominently before the mind and powerfully fixed in it. From my father’s public post he mingled amongst all classes of the community, and heard alike the comments of the county families, town residents, and naval officers, as well as those of farmers, labourers, sailors and fishermen. Their remarks shewed the depth and extent to which Scripture truths had penetrated. It was not deemed right that a government officer should attend elsewhere than at the parish church, but one or more of our household were allowed in turns to go occasionally to hear Mr. Symington, and were charged to treasure up, so as to retail to others, what could be remembered of the instruction received. This was communicated from one to another, if not with fulness and accuracy, at least with zest and pleasure, and much religious knowledge was thus diffused. His sermons were like a nail fastened in a sure place, but it was his lectures and expositions that were remembered best, and conveyed the most light and benefit. The words of the passage expounded, when re-read, helped to recall what had been stated, and the mind and heart were stored and fed by the Divine Word. I was not often able to have the privilege enjoyed by those in stronger health, and can only remember being present on a few occasions, and at one Bible class as a listener. I sat in a pew at right angles to the catechumens, who were placed in front of the desk. Their undivided attention, gravity, and intelligence bespoke the interest they felt, the solemnity of the theme under consideration, and the vigour and depth of their apprehension of it. I had one dear listener to any scraps which I could gather together and convey to her, either directly or at second hand; and that was Mrs. Captain R——, then in deep consumption. She used to greet me with ‘Well I——,’ or ‘Now I——, tell me what you heard last Sunday at Mr. Symington’s, or have heard from those who were present;’ and in her eager desire to listen, would forget the tray before her with the food she so greatly needed. After we left Stranraer in 1822, our information regarding your father’s ministrations were mainly received from General M‘Dowell, Sir Andrew and Lady Agnew, the late Lady Hay and Mrs. Berger. In 1825, during a round of visits, we renewed our personal intercourse with our esteemed friend, heard him preach in his enlarged church, and met him at breakfast at Mr. A. M‘Dowell’s. He had then a band of attached friends around him, who appreciated him as he deserved, and aided him in many ways in his works of faith and love.”—I.M.
Another member of the same esteemed family thus vividly describes her recollections of these early days at Stranraer:—
“In my thirteenth year I first saw in company, and occasionally heard Dr. Symington, and heard my mother and your mother converse. As one of us three sisters was permitted a seat in a pew, we brought home Truth as we best could to the home circle on the Sabbath evening, for the Gospel was precious in those days at Stranraer. The morning lectures, from the eighth of Matthew, taught many concerning Christ. The first sermon I recall was on ‘What is his name?’ (Exod. 3:13), followed evidently with design, on the Perfections of God—Power, Wisdom, Goodness, &c. At a later date, those of particular use to myself were on these texts: ‘Cursed is every one which continueth not in all things written in the law to do them;’ ‘Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us;’ ‘Where sin abounded, grace hath much more abounded.’ After this I was in a different position—interested and decided. Visiting at G——, I found a governess in mental distress. She was tempted and sorrowful. Too young to advise or teach, I offered to send to her that which I might gather from your father’s services. She asked me to read her details to himself. The reply you have, of spring 1822. So immediate, so frank a reply made me feel Dr. Symington will be my friend. This clause in that letter has comforted many: ‘When I place myself on a seat on which I have never before sat, I trust or believe that it will support me; it is not till after I have sat on it that I become assured that it does support me.’ During 1819 to 1822, many whom we knew in circles all around believed, for the Gospel was powerfully sent home to the hearers of your dear father by the power of the Holy Ghost. Thus permanent friendships began—new societies were formed—new lives began.”
The letter alluded to above is a specimen of wise ministerial fidelity. We give extracts calculated to be useful to some reader who may be disquieted with similar doubts and difficulties.
“The thing at which your young friend seems to have stumbled is the doctrine of Election—a doctrine not only recognised by both the national churches in our land, but one which I firmly believe to be sanctioned by him ‘who cannot lie.’ Were I therefore conversing with your friend, I should try to persuade her that, while she freely acknowledged the doctrine as one of ‘the true sayings of God,’ and derived from it ground at once of adoration and of praise—adoration at the sovereignty with which the choice is made, and praise that ever any of our fallen family should have been made the objects of God’s eternal love—it should at the same time give her no uneasiness in inquiring into the state of her soul. If on examination she finds that she is a subject of grace, she has every reason to conclude that she is elected—she is among those who are denominated the election of grace—she has made her calling and election sure. If she has not the comfort of arriving at this conclusion, if she still finds herself to be in a state of nature, she has no reason to consider that she is among the nonelect, and her duty is to improve with diligence those means of grace and salvation in the use of which God is pleased to communicate the blessings of His love; she must look to Him in the Gospel, convinced that they that look shall be saved; she must seek Him daily, in the confidence that He never bade any seek His face in vain; she must betake herself to prayer and make her voice be heard in the morning, in the full persuasion that He will incline His ear, hear, and her soul shall live.
“There is one subject more on which I feel inclined to subjoin a few sentences. It is the distinction betwixt doubting and unbelief. These are apt to be confounded; and the young Christian in particular is ready to conceive that the former is at least presumptive, if not decisive, evidence of the latter. But it is one thing to believe—it is quite another thing to be assured of our being believers or in a state of salvation. Whenever a sinner trusts in Christ for salvation, he believes; whenever he puts dependence on the righteousness of the Redeemer for the eternal welfare of his soul, he is a believer: but his assurance that he is in a state of grace, that is to say, that he has believed, must follow at some distance of time the previous act. When I place myself on a seat on which I have never before sat, I trust or believe that it will support me—it is not till after I have sat on it that I become assured that it does support me.
“These observations are made if possible to ease the mind of your young friend. But it must not be inferred from them that assurance is neither a necessary nor a possible attainment. Assurance is attainable. An apostle could say, ‘Hereby we know that we are of the truth and shall assure our hearts before Him’ (1 John 3:19). This is implied in the promises made to particular characters, by which all who possess these characters are assured of their enjoying the blessings annexed. (Matthew 5:1, &c.) The saints have often reached this most desirable attainment,—as Jabez, David, and Job, who could say, ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth,’ &c. And that it is the duty, no less than the privilege, of all to seek the assurance of which we are speaking appears from the exhortation, ‘Brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure’ (2 Peter 1:10, 11). While it is our duty to seek the comfort of assurance, it is also our duty to be on our guard against occasions of doubting. Upon these I find I cannot enlarge. I may simply observe that doubts are occasioned either by erroneous notions, as in the case of Asaph (Psalm 77); or by indolence, as in the case of the Spouse (Song 5); or by sinful passions which war against the soul (1 Peter 2:11); or by Satan, of whose devices the people of God are not ignorant. By guarding against these we shall best preserve ourselves from all that uneasiness and torture which necessarily attend a state of dubiety with respect to our eternal interest, and it should be our daily prayer that grace may be given us so to do, for without the aid of the Holy Spirit we can do nothing.
“With best wishes for the spiritual welfare of yourself and friend, I remain, my dear Miss G——, yours very sincerely,
“Stranraer, January 4, 1822.”
The ministry begun with such assiduity and ardour was continued in the same earnest and devoted spirit which marked its commencement during the whole course of his twenty years’ residence and labour in Stranraer. Of this part of his life it would be in vain to attempt any detailed narrative, exhibiting in consecutive order the events of each passing year. We must content ourselves with a general survey of the whole, merely attempting to record some of the more prominent features of a comparatively quiet and uneventful history.
The stream of his domestic life flowed on for years smoothly and happily, uninterrupted by any great bereavement or trial. In his character and habits he was eminently domestic. What Wordsworth says of the lark, “True to the kindred points of Heaven and Home,” was a quotation often on his lips, and might be said to be to a large extent exemplified in his own life. When absent, as he frequently was, for short intervals from his family on public duty, he always wearied till the time arrived when he could return to them; and his letters to his wife and children when away ever breathed a spirit of the warmest affection and solicitude. At Stranraer all his seven children were born to him. Each, as his diary testifies, was received at birth as a gift from God, and dedicated in the most solemn manner to his service. Their birthdays were noted year by year in his pocket-book, that he might specially remember and dedicate them anew. And now that he is gone, many affecting proofs appear of how his heart yearned for their highest good, with an intensity of affection far beyond what they could have imagined while he was yet alive. He had, at this time, a very decided preference for the system of home education over that of the public school, which might be owing partly to a cause already adverted to, viz., his recollections of the injurious influences to which he himself had been exposed when a schoolboy, and partly to the inferior character of the local schools at that time. Until his children were pretty well advanced in the rudiments of education, the father and mother were their sole instructors. In a letter to his brother James, we find him saying: “The evenings are devoted to family reading. Besides, I give the children a part of every forenoon and afternoon, and they are already somewhat acquainted with the first principles of English grammar, geography, natural history, and arithmetic. Besides English reading and religious knowledge, they also write a little every day. Now that I have got into it, I do not dislike teaching them. This will be interesting to mother.” The aid of a private tutor was afterwards called in; but it was not till after the removal of the family to Glasgow that any of them were sent to a public school.*
About two years after his settlement at Stranraer, our father began a course of systematic sermons, covering the breadth and length of Calvinistic theology. For these he read elaborately; and the matter thus accumulated, was of considerable service when, thirty years later, he was called to prepare a course of lectures as Professor of Systematic Theology. These sermons were not fully written out: the time that could be found for their preparation was rather given to thorough study, logical arrangement of topics, and such filling of the heart with the practical bearings of the doctrines discussed as effectually secured a delivery anything but uninteresting. These sermons formed a basis on which much future reading was laid.
Alongside of a pulpit ministry sustained with unflagging vigour, there went careful pastoral work. A record remains in his own handwriting of successive visitations of the congregation extending from 1819 to the end of March 1839, that is, till within two months of his leaving Stranraer. These visits were in addition to those constantly required by baptisms, marriages, sicknesses, and deaths. Classes for the young were kept up with spirit season after season, and were attended, especially an afternoon class for young ladies in the middle of the week, by many who were not connected with the congregation.
The sphere of our father’s ministry was not confined to Stranraer. He preached often in the villages around—Cairnryan, Kirkcolm, Portpatrick, Glenluce, New Luce, Carnweel, Kirkmaiden—sometimes on weekdays, sometimes on Sabbath evenings; and the audiences always grew larger and more interested so long as he remained in Galloway. And in these days the dispensation of the Lord’s Supper was an occasion of great public interest in the less populous parts of Scotland. At Newton Stewart and Whithorn; at Springholm and Castle Douglas; at Quarrelwood and Dumfries; at Colmonell and Kilmalcolm, he was eagerly listened to by open-air audiences often numbering thousands. Martyrs’ sermons; sermons in behalf of the great Catholic societies, the beginning of home auxiliary branches formed in the south of Scotland; and sermons in aid of the Sabbath-school and the Temperance cause, were preached during these years in many places. The generation among which all this seed was scattered has nearly quite passed away, but there were many fruits; and unexpected wafts of fragrance from the mown grass sometimes meet us still when an old man or woman, hearing our name, will say, “Aye, you’re a son of William Symington, are ye? I heard him at such a place in such a year, and it seems but yesterday. Eh! he was a grand preacher, your father.”
A reference has been made to his attending the first meeting of the Stranraer and Rhinns of Galloway Auxiliary to the British and Foreign Bible Society, in January of 1819, when he first visited the town which was to be the scene of twenty years’ earnest labour. A few notes may here be gathered from his diary shewing the remarkably early dates at which he began to take lively interest in this and other great societies for the spread of Christ’s kingdom.
“March 8th, 1821.—Attended meeting of Bible Society Committee, which is always conducted in the most heartless manner.”
“September 9th (Kirkcudbright).—Preached in the flat of a large mill. Immense concourse; but small collection for the Bible Society.”
“April 11th, 1821.—Preached a sermon for the Sabbath Schools. Few people in church. Great coldness here about every scheme of public benevolence.”
The sermon, that on The Evil of Ignorance, was published; and more cheerful entries occur before long.
The Conversion of the Jews had begun to engage his heart so early as 1822, in June of which year we find him preaching in behalf of the London Society at Gatehouse, and saying, “Very poor audience and collection.” But he was not discouraged. In 1825 he preached, at Annan, the sermon which was afterwards published on The Salvation of Israel; and we shall find many later proofs of deep and intelligent interest in a cause which even to-day is far from receiving the sympathy due to it. How long will it be before the Christian Church, longing for more power and blessing at home and among the heathen, shall awake to see the hindrance in its own neglect of the Master’s direction to begin at Jerusalem?
At the close of 1825 a Society for Religious Purposes was formed in Stranraer, in which our father took zealous interest from the first. It seems to have had for its object the diffusing of information about whatever was being done anywhere for the spread of Christianity, and the Collection of funds which the Committee distributed annually among the various societies. He used often to say that his own birthday and that of the London Missionary Society were the same, and that each of his children were contributors from their infancy. A stronger impulse, however, in the matter of missions to the heathen was to come twelve years later.
While thus originating some parts of the machinery which the evangelical revival called for, and heartily helping to work other parts already originated, our father’s chief care was his own congregation. It grew apace in membership, and the desire of the public to hear occasionally continued unabated. Sir Andrew and Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, and Lady Hay of Dunraggat, were sometimes to be seen in the “Cameronian Meeting-house,” glad to find seats among the crowd. In June of 1824 the old building was taken down, preaching being kept up on the green while summer lasted, and in the Relief or the Antiburgher Meeting-house when autumn came; and on the 2d day of January 1825 he entered the pulpit of a new and handsome church, adapted to the size of the audience. But while he was profoundly grateful for this measure of prosperity, it was very far from satisfying his heart. We find him at one time earnestly pleading with his hearers to pray for the revival of vital religion among them, and at another time bewailing in secret the vis inertiæ of prevailing apathy and indifference to spiritual things against which he had to struggle. He was much too deeply in earnest to let the applause of crowds take the place of saving results. His brother Andrew seems to have found the young minister in a mood of despondency when he visited Stranraer in the summer of 1825, for the first letter after his return closes thus:—
“Paisley, July 7, 1825.
“My Dear Brother,—… Every situation in which a minister can be placed has its difficulties. I cannot refrain from expressing my increased conviction that yours is one of great interest and usefulness. You are in part entered on the labours of others, but you are also breaking up fallow ground. The cause of evangelical truth and of the Reformation is finding a way to a class of society who formerly were ignorant of it, or were blind with unfavourable prejudices. The little opposition you receive is a favourable sign. Be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might. Your circle is much wider than that of the obscure occupant of Oakshaw Street conventicle. And I hope, through the divine blessing, your labour will not be in vain. Some success you may be permitted to see to encourage you, while there may be much to see hereafter, when you rest from your labours and your works follow you. But it cannot be all success now. We must have something to exercise faith. Without the enemy, where were the soldiers? Let us endure hardness as good soldiers of Jesus Christ.”
These words are a very slight specimen of a correspondence, rich in all good things and extending over many years, which the Christian world would, we think, receive with pleasure and profit. Only scanty extracts, and these only on one side, can be given here.
later ministry at stranraer—authorship. 1826–1839
The reader of the two previous chapters will have formed some conception for himself of the character of William Symington, and of the sphere in which his ministry was exercised. No attempt will be made to follow his life year by year, giving details of its principal events. Embracing fully thirteen years in this chapter, we shall arrest attention on some indications of growth and fruit-bearing.
The spring of all our father’s success and usefulness lay in watchful, secret piety. Extracts from his diary have already indicated this. We do not wish to multiply these, and shall, therefore, here present two, nine years apart, which the reader may regard as faithfully indicating the habitual frame and temper of the inner man.
“April 17th, 1826.—For some time back attention directed to subject of secret prayer, in performance of which I charge myself with remissness as regards frequency, length, and spirit. With divine aid I would wish to amend; and for this purpose to act on some such plan as the following:—
“Morning. Adoration, praise, thanksgiving, petition for personal blessings, &c., &c.
“Mid-day, say two o’clock. Petitions and thanksgivings for wife, children, inmates, servants. For relatives,—mother, brothers, sisters and their families. Acquaintances and personal friends. Enemies, or such as act towards me in that character.
“Afternoon, say five o’clock. Congregation,—young, aged, sick, troublesome, occasional hearers, &c. R. Church in general. Church at large,—extension, knowledge, purity, peace, unity. Pagans, Mohammedans, Jews, &c., &c.
“Evening. Personal confession, dedication, petition, &c., &c.
“I would wish to observe something of this plan daily, and when so situated as not to have opportunity of retirement, to retire as much as possible in my own thoughts at the given time, and employ myself in ejaculations on the subject.
“June 2d, 1835.—I am this day forty years of age, and feel solemnised at the thought of having reached such a period, while at the same time so deficient in many things, I may say in everything that is good. The good Lord pardon all my many shortcomings, and make the remainder of my days more useful to others and profitable to myself. Alas! how little advancement have I made in the divine life, if I have made even a commencement; and how little if anything have I done for God during my past existence. Truly may I say, ‘I am a worm and no man.’ Blessed Jesus! send thy Spirit to enlighten, sanctify, comfort, and seal to the day of redemption. And to thee be glory for ever. Amen.”
These words were never intended to meet any eye except his own; they are printed that those who knew our father as the busy, genial man he was, may understand the hidden secret of his strength. And for those who did not know him, it may be as well to say that no one more loathed than he did the spiritual gushing which it seems so difficult to reconcile with sincerity toward him who seeth in secret.
The living in the sight of God and earnest simple faith, the unfeigned humility and profound sense of the seriousness of life, which are indicated by these extracts, were accompanied by early rising, careful arrangement of his time, and plans of study. Order and method became with him almost a passion; and any who wonder at the amount and variety of work he accomplished will find the explanation there rather than in his vigour of mind or any favouring circumstances.
The happy tenor of domestic life in the manse was twice interrupted during this period by afflictions which left behind them peaceable fruits of righteousness.
The fourth child and second son of the family, Robert, was born on the 22d of August 1827, and that day solemnly “committed to the grace and care of a covenant God.” Just six years later, on the 29th of August 1833, when playing with two of the older children in the manse garden, the stone pillar supporting a sun-dial was upset and fell on his body, causing some internal injury which resulted fatally in less than thirty-six hours. It is very characteristic of our father that there should be found among his papers a carefully written “Memorial of a severe domestic bereavement” extending to sixteen pages, in which every circumstance of the overwhelming calamity is recorded,—the names of friends who were present, the means used by three surgeons, the prayers offered; and in which the special marks of the heavenly Father’s hand are detailed, with the spiritual lessons he, sought to learn. There is reason to think that this memorial was read by him many times in later years. Our mother—who on such occasions revealed the firmness which comes from high principle, a quality commonly veiled by her great gentleness and never-to-be-forgotten love—asked Robert, “Who redeems you, my sweet dear?” “Christ.” “Would you like to go to Christ?” “Yes.” “Where do the righteous go at death, my dear?” “To heaven.” “Who are the righteous that go to heaven at death?” “Such as believe in Christ, love God, and hate evil.” “Would you like to go to heaven?” “Yes.” Nearly thirty years later, during the few months of her widowhood, she recalled how the little sufferer had answered the next question—“Would you not be sorry to leave us all?”—by clasping his arms round her neck and bidding her not cry because he was going to be with Jesus. At the same time (the summer of 1862) the mother, who drew to herself almost more, if possible, of her children’s revering love than our father did, charged her youngest child never to forget a certain friend. “You were an infant six weeks old when Robert died. Mr. M‘G—— had baptized you, and was on his way home when the tidings overtook him. He turned his horse and came back on the Saturday evening (Robert had died in the morning) and preached on the Sabbath; and I crept into the vestry with you at my breast, and heard him preach on ‘Jesus wept.’ Never forget Mr. M‘G—— as long as you live.”
At the close of 1836 the home of Professor Andrew Symington was desolated by fever. A son and a daughter in the prime of youth were laid in the same grave; and within a very few weeks the grave was reopened to receive the mother and one of her twin-children newly-born. Sympathising deeply with the brother whom he loved and honoured as a second father, William Symington had gone to Paisley to attend the funeral, and purposed to remain and occupy the pulpit in Oakshaw Street; but tidings reached him that the scourge had entered his own manse. He hastened home to find three of his children under typhus. On New Year’s day, 1837, he made the last entry in his diary for fully three months. Day and night till the 22d he watched assiduously over sick beds on which the cloud deepened daily, all the six children being visited with the same alarming disease; then he came from the pulpit to bed, and did not rise for eight weeks. The plague had fastened on himself; and during the remainder of the winter the manse was turned into a hospital.
On the 2d of April we find him making the first use of his restored pen in fixing for his own spiritual profit the memorable features of the dispensation, under regular heads eight in number. The hand of his heavenly Father is recognised in sending help through five women in humble station, four of them strangers, when friends stood aloof in fear of contagion: in sparing his life while his brother Walter was taken away; in remarkably sustaining our mother, so that, although getting only snatches of rest for five weeks, “the supports of religion never forsook her—her calm trust in the promises served to bear her through;” in the provision made for his pulpit, and in special answers to prayer. On the 7th of May he was allowed to return to his pulpit after more than three months’ silence, and preached on Lam. 3:22. He records with thankfulness the marked attention of a large audience, and the “freedom and much earnestness” he enjoyed “in calling on sinners to betake themselves to a God of mercies.” The family being now either wholly or nearly restored to health, the 1st of June was set apart as a day of domestic thanksgiving; and the entries in his diary for that day and the following—his forty-second birthday—shew him prayerfully anxious “that some saving impressions may be left on the hearts of the dear young persons who have been plucked as brands from the fire,” and that “the Husbandman, who has been pruning me much of late, may cause His pruning to issue in my bringing forth more fruit.”
We shall see how his prayer was answered; but meanwhile we must look back to observe the steady growth of his public influence. One of the very few of our father’s early friends who still survive very kindly supplies the following recollections.* The Rev. Thomas Liddell, D.D., minister of the parish of Lochmaben, writing in 1862, says—
“My acquaintance with my beloved friend Dr. Symington commenced in the spring of 1826, when I had the great privilege of entering the family of the late Sir Andrew Agnew of Lochnaw, as tutor to his two eldest sons. When I arrived at Lochnaw I had not yet received license, or orders, to preach. I felt myself thus more at liberty on Sundays to exercise my freedom of hearing and worshipping. I was thus not long in finding out the place of meeting of the Cameronians in Stranraer, six miles distant from Lochnaw. After a few Sabbaths of interrupted attendance, being very much struck with the learned, profound, and systematic style in which the minister delivered his messages from the inspired book of the Lord, I introduced myself, and soon found that he was the polite, affable gentleman out of the pulpit, as I had previously found him to be the diligent and ripe student, the sagacious and judicious expositor of Scripture, and the earnest and fearless ambassador of Christ, in his place of accredited teacher in the congregation.
“From the time now described our acquaintance ripened into intimacy, and the most devoted friendship and Christian attachment, increasing in warmth and intensity to the very last of his stay on earth. My visits to him in Stranraer, as a Christian friend, were frequent, and, on my part, most edifying and profitable. Most ready did I find him to open to me his rich and varied stores of knowledge and experience, as a student and a pastor. His exchange visits to me at Lochnaw Castle were as frequent as his pastoral duties would allow. His visits were very highly valued and appreciated by Sir Andrew and Lady Agnew. In both of them he found warm admirers of his talents as a preacher, and of his devotedness to the cause of Christian truth in his advocacy of it, not only in eloquent words, but in holy and consistent practice.… In consequence of his not being restricted, by the nature and terms of his commission within parochial limits, he not unfrequently—nay, he very often—volunteered to preach for the attainment of Christian missionary objects; and on such occasions his fame as an eloquent orator for Christian ends attracted large congregations, formed of all grades of society, and of all ecclesiastical denominations, assured as they all came to be, that nothing merely sectarian in church government would be the theme dwelt on, but chiefly ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’ as the ground and object of the Christian’s faith, and the aim of the Christian’s exertions.…
“I must now record my much cherished remembrance of him in his domestic relationships. His unquenchable affection, in the highest sense, for his wife and children was very striking and remarkable. In the year 1833 I happened to pay a visit to my very kind friends at Lochnaw. [Dr. Liddell was then minister of Lady Yester’s, Edinburgh.] While there I received a sudden message from Dr. Symington, intimating that his son Robert had been deprived of life in a moment.… I can never forget the beautiful mingling of natural sorrow and Christian acquiescence in the mysterious and sovereign will of their heavenly Father, as manifested by both the suffering parents, on the occasion of this the first and only loss they were called as parents to sustain.”
The ministry thus described was kept fresh by unwearied and conscientious study. Whatever was new and valuable in theological literature was got, so far as his means allowed, and read with care. Elaborate digests of the contents are often to be found on the fly-leaves at beginning and end of his books. He kept up also his acquaintance with Hebrew and Greek. And the devotional habits already mentioned quickened all with fresh spiritual life.
Another friend whom our father made about this time was Dr. Welsh, then minister of Crossmichael. Between him and the future moderator of the Disruption Assembly there was a fulness of intelligent sympathy, on questions affecting the Church of Christ in Scotland, which led each to embrace whatever opportunities—not very frequent—they found of meeting. He formed also the acquaintance of Dr. Chalmers, when more than once he came into the neighbourhood on his great errand of church extension; and speaks with warmth of the pleasure he had in spending a day with the greatest man of his generation at Lochryan House in 1838. There will be occasion to mention these distinguished friends again.
It is with very peculiar pleasure that we insert here the recollections of one, less distinguished, who was far more than any other the friend of our parents’ hearts, a saintly man and greatly beloved by all who have the privilege of knowing him. The Rev. James M‘Gill of Bournemouth, speaking of this period, says—
“An impulse was given to the cause of religion in the whole district. A relish for evangelical preaching was widely and rapidly diffused, which not only caused his own church to be densely crowded, but which led to the erection of new churches and the settlement of additional ministers, in other denominations as well as our own. Bible, and missionary, and educational societies, libraries and Sabbath-schools, sprang up in the town and neighbourhood. A mighty power was felt to be at work. In short, what in these days Dr. Chalmers was to Glasgow, and Dr. Andrew Thomson to the west end of Edinburgh, that, in many respects, was William Symington in Wigtonshire and Galloway.”
The same intimate and cherished friend thus gathers together our father’s “lofty endowments and qualities”:—
“His singularly well-balanced mind; his clear perception of truth; his marvellous power of presenting it in the most luminous and impressive form; the extraordinary degree in which he combined great powers of observation, piercing discernment of character, and sound practical judgment, with metaphysical acumen and abstract thought; … his love of order, the perfect regularity of all his habits; his accuracy and diligence; his careful and conscientious improvement of time, never in haste, never forgetting anything; his ceaseless activity, always performing a vast amount of labour. These qualities were continually operating on those around him. His very appearance was enough to shame away from his presence everything like sloth, or idleness, or disorder, or the slovenly performance of any kind of duty.
“As a preacher he had no equal in our own church, and very few equals in any other, in the beautiful arrangement of his discourses, the transparent clearness of his statements, the elegance and force of his language, the warmth and earnestness of his appeals, accompanied by that complete command of his subject which arose from habits of perfect preparation.”
To this period belongs our father’s work as an author. Although he wrote much and published a little after going to Glasgow, it was in the prime and vigour of his early manhood at Stranraer that the greater part of his literary work was accomplished. There the demands for pastoral, pulpit, and public labour, although great, were not so exacting and exhausting as in the great city: at any rate, having the will, he made the time. Besides the elaborate sermons which were gathered by the author into a volume in 1850, he published a little work on the profane use of the Lot in 1827, and in the same year a Life of John Williamson, a lad in Dumfries who died at the age of sixteen after giving unusual promise of talent and grace. This little work he was induced to undertake by his friend Mr. M‘Diarmid, the distinguished editor of the “Dumfries Courier,” who furnished him with the facts. A life-long friendship, helpful to our father’s literary culture and of which the fragrance is not yet quite spent, subsisted between the man of letters and the earnest minister.
In 1829, when the Catholic Emancipation agitation was at its height, he published a little treatise called “Popery the Mystery of Iniquity,” being the substance of sermons preached five years before, on the occasion of a Roman Catholic Chapel being erected in the town. In the same year the Charge to minister and people, delivered at the ordination of Mr. M‘Gill as minister of Hightae, was printed,—an utterance full of suggestive things, faithfully and racily put. About the same time he elaborated the plan of a work on “The State and Prospect of the Jews,” in ten chapters. A MS. remains, written in 1828, which contains a very full skeleton, with references to sources of information astonishingly minute and full. And there is another MS. of at least twelve years’ later date, going carefully over the same ground, which proves how long the hope of writing on this great theme had kept hold of his heart. One handles this outline with a wistful sadness that the author was not permitted to perform the service he so longed to perform; but doubtless it was said to him, “Thou didst well that it was in thine heart.”
We ventured to speak of the severe afflictions which marked the years 1833 and 1837 as resulting in fruit. In each case one of his two principal works followed the affliction at the distance of about twelve months. The treatise on the “Atonement and Intercession of Jesus Christ” had been begun in 1831, but laid aside in consequence of uncertain health and much other work. The death of his son probably moved him to fresh labour as both the best medicine for sorrow and the most fit response to the Master’s chastening; and the work was issued in May of 1834. The treatise on the “Mediatorial Dominion of Jesus Christ” had been begun before the affliction in 1837, but not much more than begun: as soon, however, as his health was restored, and the long arrears of pastoral work were faithfully overtaken, he gave all the leisure he could command to writing for the press; and the goodly octavo which appeared in December 1838 was the result. Of this latter work we need not say anything, seeing that the reader has it in his hands; but a pleasing story may be told. Our father’s diary, under date 14th November, says: “This day finished MS. of ‘Messiah the Prince,’ and on Monday (12th) corrected first proof-sheet;” and just eight days later comes the following: “Was surprised this morning by a letter from Dr. Chalmers, announcing that the Senatus Academicus of the University of Edinburgh had, on the 20th, unanimously conferred upon me the degree of Doctor in Divinity. This is a most unexpected honour from man, which will require new grace to keep me humble and to enable me to act consistently. The Lord grant the needed grace, and make me more desirous of the honour that cometh from God only.” The degree, given with reference to his former book and to his public usefulness, was just in time to appear on the title-page of the forthcoming volume. Every circumstance about it was gratifying. Moved by Chalmers and seconded by Welsh, the degree was heartily conferred by the Senatus. Edinburgh, it was found, had by a few days anticipated his own Alma Mater, Glasgow, which had a diploma filled up and waiting the signatures of some members of its Senatus. And the country minister and his wife, whose frugal care had struggled hard to make the ends of a very scanty stipend meet, after waiting some weeks in fear that a demand would come for considerable fees, found that it never came! The explanation was given some time afterwards, when Sir Andrew Agnew, presiding at a public dinner at Stranraer in honour of Dr. Symington, took the opportunity to mention that, being in Edinburgh at the time when the degree was gazetted, and knowing how seriously the usual fees would affect his friend’s purse, he had taken the liberty of going to the University that he might have the pleasure of discharging them; and had been told that in this case they were entirely dispensed with.
The origin of another considerable fruit is deeply interesting, in more than one way. In October of 1837 Dr. Duff visited Stranraer, in the course of his splendid missionary progress through Scotland; and our father seems to have received a remarkable impulse from the great apostle of modern missions. He speaks of the meeting thus: “Dr. Duff’s statements are clear, his reasoning sound, and his eloquence surpassing anything I ever heard. Notwithstanding a weak frame and a bad voice, his appeals are most impassioned and thrilling. He touches the springs of emotion, lays down the path of duty with unceremonious fidelity, and rebukes the apathy and indifference of professing Christians with fearless independence.” Missionary zeal was, as we have seen, no new thing for Dr. Symington; but the deep impression made now led to its taking a new direction. After speaking of the “inexpressible satisfaction and delight of hearing Duff, and the great privilege of meeting with that great and good man,” our father adds: “May it be blessed for increasing my zeal for the conversion of the heathen.” These were not words, of course, soon to be forgotten. On the 12th of January 1838, observed as old New Year’s day in Stranraer, he gathered the youth of his congregation, read missionary intelligence, delivered an address on the obligation of Christians to diffuse the Gospel among the heathen, and formed a juvenile missionary society on the spot. Nearly sixty names were put down and about £10 subscribed; but not content with this very gratifying result, he reaches forth in faith and prayer to much greater things: “May this be the commencement of a mission to the heathen from the Reformed Presbyterian Church!” We by no means wish to claim for Dr. Symington the honour of altogether originating the New Hebrides Mission which four years later received the sanction of the Synod; but this is the earliest historical trace of that mission, and he did his utmost to help it from the first.
In the year before their death our parents had the great satisfaction of receiving under their roof two honoured missionaries, Mr. and Mrs. Inglis, through whom largely the Lord of the harvest had changed Aneityum into a Southern Iona, and with them a native elder whose baptismal name, Williamu, linked the former savage with the earnest Scottish minister.
The success of the New Hebrides Mission has been remarkable; and it stirs many a thought which it would not be easy to express, to reflect that Alexander Duff unconsciously received in old age the fruit of his address at Stranraer. The happy union of the Free and Reformed Presbyterian Churches in 1876, brought the thriving mission in Polynesia under his care as convener: he mastered the facts of its growth, and gave it a warm place in his noble heart; but it is scarcely possible that he could know of the interesting link between 1877 and 1837. Those who accomplish most for the Lord Christ are those whose faith is the least dependent on knowing about fruits here. “He that reapeth receiveth wages and gathereth fruit unto life eternal, that both he that soweth and he that reapeth may rejoice together” (John 4:36).
Before passing from the years covered by this chapter, it is right, while omitting much else that might have been of interest to some, to mention two things briefly. Our father helped his revered brother, Dr. Andrew Symington, in freeing the Church of our fathers from that narrowness in matters of occasional hearing and the like which would have obscured its testimony for great truths by surrounding it with a chill and misty atmosphere, far from being Christ-like. Both brothers did much in this direction, by their personal influence and in the courts of the Church.
Indications of a loosening from Stranraer appear in occasional references to the size and scatteredness of the congregation, and in repeated invitations to preach in the West. In 1836 a call came from the congregation of West Campbell Street, Glasgow, and his diary contains a very remarkable proof of his conscientiousness in an elaborate weighing of the pros and cons. To print this could serve no good purpose, but we would not be doing justice to our father’s memory if we did not mention the fact with emphasis. In those days the translation of a minister was almost, or quite, a new thing; and, by the Synod refusing to present the call, he was saved the pain of a public statement. A decision then would probably have been in favour of Stranraer; at least, when the West Campbell Street congregation renewed their call in the beginning of 1838 he promptly declined it. The publication of “Messiah the Prince,” and the recognition of his public worth by the University of Edinburgh, were soon followed by a unanimous call from the Great Hamilton Street congregation, Glasgow. He seems to have been saved from much anxiety as to his decision, first, by referring back to the exceedingly elaborate calculation of reasons for and against made three years before; and secondly, by the supreme court deciding on the 16th of May to present the call. This was regarded as so far vox ecclesice, vox Dei: and from that date a distinct epoch of his life began.
earlier years in glasgow. 1839–1853
The perusal of our father’s private records during those years, and of a mass of materials which would suffice for a complete biography, leaves an impression of immense diligence, of large success, and of a hidden life, growing in godly simplicity and humility, by which all the visible strength and success are explained.
In the spring of 1839 Dr. Symington was permitted to accomplish a long-cherished wish in a visit to London. He was the guest of the family mentioned at the beginning of this sketch, some of the members of which were among the earliest seals of his ministry. The whole month of April was thus spent; and most interesting records remain in his journal and letters of how each day of the great holiday was occupied. The principal sights of the great city were explored; many meetings of the religious and missionary societies were attended, in some of which he took part; the services of different churches were keenly observed; and a considerable amount of intercourse was enjoyed with persons eminent in the Christian world.*
The holiday was well-timed, as it was certainly well-earned. It was a break in his career, dividing it at mid-time; and the impulse to mind and heart from witnessing fresh scenes and mingling with men and enterprises hitherto known chiefly by report, was the most suitable under which to enter on an enlarged sphere. On the wide field of Christian labour in the second city of the empire he entered two months after his return.
The leaving Stranraer was full of distressing heart-strain, and it was a relief when the farewell was at length spoken. On his forty-fifth birthday (June 2d) he preached to a sorrowing crowd on the words: “With me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man’s judgment: yea, I judge not mine own self. For I know nothing by myself; yet am I not hereby justified: but he that judgeth me is the Lord” (1 Cor. 4:3, 4); and again on the 23d, from Paul’s farewell words at Miletus. He thus speaks of the parting in a letter, dated July 8th, to one of the friends whose guest he had recently been in London:—
“So we are fairly moved from Stranraer and settled in this great city. The parting with my flock was the most trying event I have ever met with. The affection of my poor people was extraordinary. I never witnessed such expressions of genuine grief. The last Sabbath I was at Stranraer was an awful day to me. The forenoon service was from Acts 20:20–27; that in the afternoon from ver. 32. Many lingered about the church door to get a last look and shake of my hand; and on Tuesday hundreds followed me to the ship with tears and audible weeping. It was more than I could stand, and I was obliged to keep below till the vessel began to move, and then I went on deck and received and returned their salutations as long as we were in sight.”
On the 14th of July William Symington was introduced to the congregation in Great Hamilton Street, Glasgow, by his brother and second father, Professor Andrew Symington of Paisley; and his text for four Sabbaths was: “By manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. But if our Gospel be hid, it is hid to them who are lost” (2 Cor. 4:2, 3).
That portion of the old historical Church of Scotland which bore the brunt of the Stuart tyranny and regarded the Revolution Settlement of 1688–90 as a compromise unworthy of the Church’s attainment from 1560 to 1638, remained long without a ministry, keeping up its spiritual life by means of the societies which Cameron and Renwick had organised. The Reformed Presbyterians in and around Glasgow continued thus until 1765, when the Rev. John Macmillan (son of the first minister of the Church, Macmillan of Balmaghie) became their pastor. He preached to large audiences in the fields till 1777, when a small place of worship was built at Sandhills, about three miles east of the city. In 1791 another meeting-house was erected in the Calton of Glasgow, and for some years the preaching alternated between the two places. At length Sandhills was given up. In 1794 the Rev. John Fairley became the colleague of Mr. Macmillan, and continued in the pastoral charge until 1807. The congregation remained for seven or eight years without a minister, when the Rev. David Armstrong, “a good man, and a substantial and able preacher,” was ordained (February 23, 1815). In 1819 the present church in Great Hamilton Street—large, and, for these days, handsome—was built. Mr. Armstrong died on the 30th of March 1838, leaving a congregation of about three hundred members, over which our father was set, many of whom came in to worship from places three, five, and even eight miles distant.
We shall not be charged with partiality if, looking back over forty years, we say that his influence and success kept pace with the rapid growth of the city, and that his ministry of twenty-three years was a distinguished blessing both to the Reformed Presbyterian Church and to the community at large. His pulpit work told at once in Glasgow, as it had done in Stranraer. The Communion-roll had fifty or sixty names added to it at each half-yearly dispensation of the Lord’s Supper, and the church, seated for a thousand persons, was soon quite filled by a stated congregation. And side by side with preaching there went faithful and very exhausting pastoral work. There were systematic visitations from house to house; the sick felt the support of his sympathetic counsels and prayers; the young were gathered into weekly classes; Sabbath-schools and mission work were organised; ordinary prayer-meetings, missionary prayer-meetings, and district fellowship meetings were established or strengthened: by every means his own vigorous Christian spirit was diffused into the large and growing congregation.
Courses of monthly lectures on Sabbath evenings became a remarkable feature of his ministry. The first was on the Book of Daniel, and began in November 1839. So great was the popularity of the new preacher that, after the first six lectures had been given, it became necessary to deliver the remainder in the afternoon as well as the evening, a second audience waiting on the street eager to secure the places vacated by the first. The course on Daniel was concluded in July 1842; another course on the life of Joseph was begun in August, and extended to March 1845; the same unprecedented demand for a repeated delivery lasting for five years. A course of lectures on the Apocalypse, begun on the 4th of May 1845,—marked as the day on which “my son William preached his first sermon,”—was not finished until October of 1850, being interrupted more than once by prolonged afflictions. The audiences were as large as ever, but the repeated delivery was not continued for want of strength. These discourses, like all his public utterances, were the fruit of much careful preparation,—not fully written, much less read—but thoroughly studied and digested, the beginning of each sentence and references to texts being put down in neat and orderly form. Not read, certainly; for no one understood more thoroughly the true theory of preaching as a concio ad populum, an address in which the speaker is in full, electric communication with his hearers. The larger writing was reduced to notes on a thin slip; these he went over again and again until his mind was familiar with the whole process of thought; by prayer his soul was brought up to the level of the divine message he was charged to utter; and thus were secured the pellucid clearness, the obvious mastery, the unaffected unction, which made his preaching so attractive and useful. Not a few who are now ministers of various churches in different places, still speak with pleasure and gratitude of the opportunity enjoyed by them of hearing these courses of lectures while pursuing their studies at the University.
Professor Binnie, now of the Free College, Aberdeen, was intimately associated with Dr. Symington from the time of his going to Glasgow as a member of his congregation, and a greatly valued friend. He very kindly writes thus—
“How much your father excelled as a preacher there is no need to tell: the crowds who constantly resorted to his ministry, from first to last, sufficiently attest that. Other testimonies could easily be given. A venerable friend of mine in Stirling, who was an elder of the Established Church long before the Disruption of 1843, told me that, having occasion to pay an annual visit to an estate belonging to him in Galloway, it was his unfailing custom to arrange his visit so that he might spend a Sabbath day in Stranraer; and this he did for the sole purpose of hearing Dr. Symington preach.
“Some of the causes of his popularity were obvious to every hearer. He had all the natural parts of an orator,—a commanding and winsome presence; a good voice; singular lucidity of thought and expression. He never lost himself in misty attempts at thinking, or failed to convey clearly what was in his mind. But other and deeper causes were at work. For one thing, he was a most diligent student, giving himself continually to reading and meditation. Besides having always in hand some course of systematic reading in divinity, he kept himself well abreast of the best literature of the day.… What is of still greater importance, he knew and loved the Gospel of the grace of God: his preaching, therefore, whatever the topic might be, was always perfumed with a certain unction which commended it to the hearts of Christian hearers. And this again was connected with the fact that he was a man of prayer. From himself, indeed, one did not hear much regarding his private feelings and habits. He was reticent about himself, perhaps to a fault. But secret emotion cannot be quite hidden. If, when he entered the pulpit, his garments often smelled of myrrh, the reason, I do not doubt, was that he had just come forth from the palace of the King.”
The records of his inner life now before us abundantly confirm what Dr. Binnie has so finely expressed.
The services of such a man were sure to be claimed by the city charities, by the large religious societies, and in behalf of the evangelical side in great public questions, such as Sabbath observance, Non-intrusion, resistance to Papal aggression, and the like. These services were cheerfully rendered to the utmost measure of his strength. For many years he was Secretary, in conjunction with Dr. A. N. Somerville (who still survives in a singularly world-wide fruitfulness), of the Glasgow branch of the National Bible Society of Scotland. To the Old Men’s Charity, the Boy’s House of Refuge, and other similar institutions, he gave practical help year after year, by preaching to the inmates and serving on the committees. And for all his frequent platform appearances in the City Hall and elsewhere, in which he was hailed by large audiences, he made the same careful preparation as for his sermons.
When these manifold labours were beginning, he undertook another literary task, the editing of Scott’s Commentary. The brief leisure which he was able to command among the noble scenery of Loch Long and Loch Lomond during June of 1841, was spent in writing the introductory essay to that work; and for a long time thereafter no week passed without the preparation of notes, or the irksome correction of proof-sheets.
The year 1843 must meanwhile be regarded as the highest mountain peak in the history of the Church of Scotland this side of 1638: another and loftier is yet to be reached when, the relations of the reigning Mediator to both Church and State being more adequately apprehended, the Church shall be one again, more thoroughly reformed, more perfectly united and free than she has yet been, “and the Highest himself shall establish her.” The book “Messiah the Prince” had been well known these four years among those who were struggling for the crown rights of the Redeemer against Erastianism; and its author had now, besides meeting more frequently with Chalmers and Welsh, added to the list of his friends such men as Dr. Brown of St. John’s, Dr. Smyth of St. George’s, Dr. Henderson of St. Enoch’s, and Dr. Buchanan of the Tron. He had watched the Ten Years’ Conflict with eager sympathy; and when the middle of May came, every preparation was made to admit of his being in Edinburgh to witness the event in which he so heartily rejoiced.
“May 18th, 1843.—Witnessed the Disruption in the Church of Scotland. A splendid sight, worth living a century to behold! The meeting at Canonmills immense, and proceedings full of deepest interest.” He walked with the great procession from St. Andrew’s Church to Canonmills; attended the Free Assembly the next day; and on the Monday following gave an account of the magnificent event to his congregation. “When sometimes asked why he, who sympathised with it so enthusiastically, did not join the Free Church, he would say, “With a great sum you have purchased this freedom, but we were free-born,” thus pleasantly expressing what is better understood to-day than it was then, that the church he represented had long anticipated the Disruption, although with smaller numbers and no public eclat, by standing aloof from what has proved the root of so much mischief, the Revolution compromise.
The Reformed Presbyterian Church met the public excitement in the way for her most appropriate. The Synod was convened in the first week of July to commemorate the Bi-Centenary of the Westminster Assembly by sermons and speeches; and sent a cordial message of goodwill to the new Assembly. On that occasion Dr. Symington read a Historical Sketch of the Westminster Assembly which, together with other papers of considerable value by other ministers, is now to be found in a little volume published at the time. In the conclusion of that paper he put emphasis on his longing after union thus—
“May the Lord the Spirit give the ministers and members of the divided churches of the Reformation one heart and one way, that they may fear him for ever, for the good of them and their children after them! Then—and not till then—shall be fulfilled the great, the bright, the glorious conceptions of the Solemn League and of the Westminster Assembly; it being the explicit design of the latter ‘to bring the church at home into nearer agreement with other reformed churches abroad,’ and of the former ‘to bring the churches of God in the three kingdoms to the nearest conjunction and uniformity, and to encourage other christian churches to join in the same or like association and covenant, to the enlargement of the kingdom of Christ, and the peace and tranquillity of Christ’s kingdoms and commonwealths.”
A more extended celebration took place in Edinburgh during the following week, in which ministers of various denominations took part. Dr. Symington was asked to open the meetings with a sermon, and preached in Canonmills Hall on “Love one another “(John 13:34). It is due to his revered memory, since he did not live to take part in the happy union consummated in June 1876, to give the concluding paragraphs of that sermon. He took part in the subsequent proceedings; and exclaims: “Two days of high delight. Felt great satisfaction in meeting so many of different denominations who harmonise on the grand doctrines of Christ. May blessed fruits result from these meetings.”
In the beginning of this year Dr. Wardlaw published a volume of “Discourses on the Nature and Extent of the Atonement,” in which he traversed the views expounded by Dr. Symington in his book ten years before. Judging Dr. Wardlaw’s opinions fitted to do harm, he wrote an elaborate review in the “Scottish Presbyterian” for November 1843. Dr. Wardlaw replied in a pamphlet entitled “The Reviewers Reviewed;” and the controversy was closed, in so far as these two theologians were concerned, by a second paper in the same journal for May 1844. These papers commanded by their vigour and acumen the high respect even of those whom they did not fully convince. They are in our judgment of permanent value and the best of our father’s writings. It is delightful to know that the controversy only for a little time estranged the two faithful servants of Christ: before long we shall find them together on the platform of Christian union.
A few years later he interested himself in the republication of Dr. Charles Hodge’s “Essay on the Extent of the Atonement” (Review of Beman) from the “Princeton Review.” The pamphlet was introduced to the British public by a preface, written by him, and to which the names of Thomas M‘Crie, Robert Caudlish, and William Cunningham, as well as his own name, were attached.
While enjoying vigorous health and in the midst of the fullest activities, our father resolved to set his house in order. Two sentences from his will, which is dated 21st March 1845, may be given as shewing the spirit in which this duty was discharged.
“First, That my wife and children shall continue to walk in the ways of truth and godliness, resting their hopes of eternal salvation on the finished righteousness of Jesus Christ the Son of God and the alone Saviour of sinners, adhering to the visible fellowship of that church which shall appear to them, on diligent, conscientious examination, to possess the firmest basis of scriptural authority, and choosing as their companions, whether permanent or occasional, only such as give evidence that they fear God and keep his commandments.”
Then, after bequeathing to each child by name a piece of household furniture, he concludes thus:—
“These individual bequests I make that my children may possess a memorial of the love and esteem of their affectionate father, who, having dedicated them often to the Lord in prayer, and recorded many supplications on their behalf at the throne of grace, through the merit and grace of the blessed Jesus cherishes the good hope of meeting them all in the Father’s House, in which are many mansions, there to resume social intercourse and to enjoy throughout eternal ages the blessings of an inheritance that is incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away.”
The knowledge that this most precious document was signed and ready must have been a source of comfort to our beloved father when, six months later, he was very suddenly brought down to the gates of death. Early in October an inflammatory attack, occurring between Saturday night and Sabbath morning, exhausted his strength in a few hours; and eight weeks passed in silence. Another illness, of nearly equal duration but less alarming, occurred in the winter of 1848–49. Let it be enough to say that both of these led to exercises of personal piety as deep as those already recorded.
In 1846 Dr. Symington was permitted to see the desires he had long cherished in behalf of the house of Israel in some measure realised. On 14th May the Rev. John Cunningham, a man of colossal learning and the most single-hearted devotedness, was ordained missionary from the Reformed Presbyterian Church to the Jews in London. Dr. Symington, who had eighteen months before written a Pastoral Address on the Conversion of the Jews, was appointed to give the customary charge,—an address full of scriptural wisdom and spirit; and for many years afterwards, acting as the Synod’s missionary secretary, he formed the link between the missionary and the Church.
Our father was urged to attend the conference in Liverpool out of which the Evangelical Alliance sprang; but while that conference was meeting he was stretched on a bed of sickness. When he recovered, he took part heartily in the work of the committees by which preparation was made for the constitution of the Alliance in August 1846; and particularly interested himself in securing that the intercession and reign of Christ should be recognised in the Basis, for this purpose moving the addition of certain words to the fourth (afterwards made the fifth) article. Mr. Bickersteth, in proposing the adoption of the Basis, alluded to the change thus made in the following terms:—
“After having come together in so large a conference on the former footing, I felt at first some hesitation in making the addition: but in this I soon found I was short-sighted. I did not look at the largeness of our work—at the wide field which was gradually opening before us. My Scotch brethren and my American brethren have helped me here. When my beloved brother Dr. Symington proposed, and Dr. Wardlaw seconded, the addition to the fourth article, my whole mind concurred with it: but I was afraid to consent till I saw how the other brethren came forward and concurred in the alteration. And it was singular enough that, at the next meeting, my friend and beloved brother Dr. Keith, when I stated to him that the aggregate committee had made that alteration, gave me permission to propose his name to the nomination committee. He is going on an important mission to Germany: may the Lord bless him in it! I may add that he told me he felt comfort and assurance in going as a member of the Evangelical Alliance to the brethren on the continent with that amendment subjoined.”*
Before the time came for the great meetings in London he had studied the subject of Christian union and made himself master of all its bearings. The part he took in the conferences, his journals, and letters, bear witness to the lively delight he felt in the inauguration of this great means for promoting and turning to good account the visible unity of Christians. On the 23d of August he preached in the pulpit of Dr. James Hamilton, Regent Square; and on the 25th moved the following resolution: “That in this Alliance it is distinctly understood, that no compromise of the views of any member, or sanction of those of others, is either required or expected; but that all are held as free as before to maintain and advocate their religious convictions, with due forbearance and brotherly love.” The following sentences from his speech will be read with interest in the light of those efforts after incorporating union in Scotland which began two years after his death:—
“There is no danger, I think, from a cordial acquiescence in the sentiments of the resolution: but there may be some danger of individuals going away with the impression that they are to keep up their differences of opinion for ever. Now, one of the things which from the very commencement has commended this movement to my mind has been that it holds out to me a prospect—I grant, but a very distant one—that our differences of opinion will be got over. It is one of the means, and it appears to me one of the most likely means, of bringing us to be of one mind. There is, indeed, a mode of speaking on this subject which, I confess, I do not like. There is a talking of forgetting our differences, and banishing our differences; and as some express it, merging our differences. I go further than all these: I want the differences to be done away with altogether. I am afraid that, if we merely agree to forget them, it will not be long before something forcibly reminds us of them. I am afraid, if we merely banish them, like some old culprits they will find their way back before the time of punishment has expired. I am afraid, if we only merge them, there will be some sectarian antiquary who will invent a diving-bell to bring them up from the bottom of the ocean. I think the best way, therefore, is to get rid of them altogether; and I have very great confidence in the moral influence of this Alliance, in finally disposing of our differences. I think there is, in the moral influence exerted on the minds of the members by our devotional exercises and by combined action, that which may give rise to another element which will bind us together and bring us to agreement, that is, communication of ideas, which has always been an element in the union of individuals formerly strangers. In these things there is much that is calculated to unite us. It is not the inability to place our distinct opinions in a clear light, that keeps us from seeing eye to eye; but there is a worldly feeling, a prejudice, in our breasts that prevents us from doing justice to our own intellects and judgments: and until such an influence as that I have adverted to is exercised, we should never be able to see these things alike. This is not theory. If I may refer to my own experience, I would say, I realised this at the Bi-centenary Commemoration of the Westminster Assembly, three years ago. We met there under peculiar circumstances; it was immediately after the heat of the Voluntary Controversy in which we had been pitted together for years. We read the Scriptures of truth—we sang the praises of God—we joined in prayer—we read essays in one another’s hearing. And the result was, although I had taken part in the controversy and though I did not feel that I had compromised my principles, that I could not for my life have said a bitter thing of any one member with whom I had been associated there.”*
It was a favourite phrase of our father, in speaking of anyone whose course of life he had occasion to observe from year to year, “He’s a growing man;” and he rejoiced whenever he could say this with truth. The handling of his private records reminds us of the phrase, and brings to the children who were accustomed to look on him as perfect the feeling how true the phrase was of himself. There was a pretty thick octavo book, in strong boards and closed with a stout lock, which used to lie on his study table, an object of some curiosity and awe. Only now (1879) is that book open before us, and we make the discovery that it was begun on the 10th of January 1848, under a “long continued and growing and painful sense of defectiveness in experimental piety.… I find it difficult, amid the turmoil of incessant occupation, to keep alive the flame of inward devotion. It is not the secular business of the world only, but the more sacred business of a minister’s life, which is apt to trample down, or trample out, the fire of personal religion.” Page after page, on to the end of his life, reveals how earnestly and prayerfully he strove to counteract these influences by courses of devotional reading, by noting the hand of God in providence, and by a solemn exercise of personal consecration once a month. The contents are far too sacred for publication; but we may venture to give a portion of the entry on 2d June 1853.
“This day I complete the fifty-eighth year of my life and enter on the fifty-ninth, coming near to what Dr. Chalmers calls happily ‘the Sabbath of our earthly existence,’ the seventh decade of life. The year has been one of great health, calling for gratitude; and of much activity, calling for prayer to God to bless it to his glory. I have not for long done so much work in my study as during the past year; and through God’s grace I am enabled to continue this kind of cherished labour.
“From the point of time which I now occupy I feel favourably situated to contemplate ‘the funeral procession of centuries, the hand’s-breadth of man’s earthly existence, and the vast gulf of duration beyond.’ Let me hear the summons, ‘Behold the Bridegroom cometh, go thou out to meet him!’ Let me diligently inquire whether I am receding from or approximating to the source of all light and life—whether I am nearing ‘the blackness of darkness for ever’ or the blaze of celestial brightness. In the year on which I am about to enter, and during the brief remainder of my earthly pilgrimage, may I have grace to put forth the energies of my soul more vigorously in the service of God in the Gospel of his Son; and, in order to this, may I be studious to secure for myself as much time as possible for exercises of sacred devotion—‘those golden hours to fit me for the skies.’ Thou divine Spirit! work in me according to thy mighty power! Μονῳ Θεῳ τιμη και δοξα.”
These words reveal the secret of the past part of our father’s life and of the fruitful years that remain.
professorship and last days. 1853–1861
Throughout the whole of his ministry William Symington took hearty interest in young men. The dignity of his character, although felt by everyone, did not prevent his intercourse with the young being genial and helpful: it was soon forgotten in the consciousness of sincere goodwill and sympathy. At Stranraer the opportunity of intercourse with those preparing for the ministry was limited; but when he came to Glasgow he put himself into contact with the students of the Reformed Presbyterian Church attending the University, formed classes for them, and invited them to his house.
The following letter, the date of which very nearly marks the writer’s jubilee as a minister, shews the kind of influence Dr. Symington exerted in this direction. Every reader will, we are sure, share our feeling of very sincere gratitude that this memoir is enriched by such a communication.
“5 Westover Villas, Bournemouth, Hants, 12th June 1879.
“My dear Mr. Symington,—I am glad that you have undertaken to write a memoir of your lamented father. He was a very distinguished man: many who have now passed away would have read with the deepest interest the record of one whom they so much admired and loved.
“Beyond the immediate circle of his own family, I do not think there was anyone that was more indebted to him than myself. When he was ordained at Stranraer I was thirteen years of age, just the time of life when the mind begins to open; and his sermons were to me the chief source of mental stimulus and spiritual instruction. When, a few years later, I became a student of divinity, he treated me with every possible kindness, admitting me to his study, showing me whatever work he was engaged with, conversing freely on every subject which he thought would interest me, and, without seeming to exercise the least authority, really guiding my thoughts and directing my studies. When I was ordained in July 1829, he preached the ordination sermon, and delivered the charges to the minister and people which were at the time published. Looking over some of the numerous letters which I received from him then and afterwards, although saddened by the memory of the many desolating changes which fifty years have wrought, it is refreshing to recall, not only his talent and eloquence, which were known to all, but his sound judgment, his wise counsels, his great and considerate kindness, and his powerful personal influence. He constantly told me of the books he was reading, giving me his opinion of them, and directing my attention to whatever he thought specially worthy of notice. This I felt at the time, and still more I feel now at the distance of so many years, was intended for my benefit.… Your father made frequent mention of the essays of John Foster, the sermons of Robert Hall, the works of Isaac Taylor, Tytler’s ‘History of Scotland,’ and the biographies and histories of the first Dr. M‘Crie. Foster’s ‘Essay on Decision of Character’ he read many times, and I always thought that celebrated essay had a considerable share in moulding his own character. Hall’s sermons he always delighted in, saying they were the finest specimens of pulpit eloquence in the English language. Isaac Taylor was a special favourite, and his successive volumes were eagerly perused and warmly recommended.”*
“For myself, I can only say, with all sincerity, that if I have been of any use in the world, if my ministry has been of any service to those among whom I have laboured, this is, under God, greatly due to his character, his instructions, and his example. And I am not the only one who might have made a similar confession. His influence had the happiest effect upon the whole church of which he was a member: the intelligence, the mental culture, and the efficiency of her ministers were perceptibly improved; and their worth and excellence were better known and acknowledged than they had previously been, after he became one of their number.—Believe me to remain, my dear Mr. Symington, yours very truly,
In the communication from which an extract has been already given, Professor Binnie mentions a significant fact.
“I can never forget a parting visit I paid him in his study one day in the autumn of 1845. I was going off to spend a winter on the continent. He made me kneel along with him, and commended me to God in a prayer which affected me far more than any public prayer of his had ever done: it was so simple, so warm, so wise, so clearly an outpouring of the heart.”
It was our father’s custom thus to pray with his children at turning-points in the journey of life, and on other special occasions.
The theological training of the students of the Reformed Presbyterian Church had been, since 1820, under the care of Dr. Andrew Symington of Paisley. In the middle of September 1853, while the Hall was in session, his health gave way suddenly, in consequence of an injury received in leaving a railway carriage. Still the noble old man toiled on in his much-loved work, meeting with us in his dining-room during the last week, when unable to cross the road to the Hall. The last of these meetings was on the morning of the 20th; on the evening of the 22d he fell asleep,—a ripe saint, tender, prayerful, fervent, eloquent, “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit,” a man to whom the rare privilege was granted of having trained nearly all the ministers of his church who survived him, besides many others in Ireland and America, and who lives in the grateful love of every one who knew him.
When he returned from his deathbed, the bereaved brother wrote in his diary: “The scene was a solemn and affecting one. May I have grace to improve it by following the dear departed in his faith, holiness, humility and devotedness, by occupying till Christ come, and by standing ready for the call of my divine Master.” Many similar references, written at much later dates, shew how keenly the loss was felt which closed a singularly warm and fruitful brotherhood; and among our father’s papers there is the full plan of a memoir of the man whom he revered and loved more than any other.
The Synod met early in January 1854, and unanimously appointed Dr. William Symington to the vacant Chair of Systematic Theology, the efficiency of the Hall being at the same time greatly increased by the appointment of Dr. Goold to a new Chair of Biblical Literature and Church History. The office was accepted with undisguised pleasure, for the work was his delight; but at the same time with some hesitation and many fears, for he was now in his fifty-ninth year. The record of secret devotions, to which reference has been made, bears witness to the profound sense of responsibility and the many prayers with which he entered on the task.
Those about him, however, even those in the family, were not permitted to see much of these feelings. What we saw was an increase of diligence, where there seemed no room for increase; earlier rising so as to secure more than the one hour hitherto spent in the study before breakfast; snatches of leisure from pastoral duties eagerly used, at Bridge of Allan or some quiet spot on the Firth of Clyde; until a complete course of lectures had been fully written. This extra labour extended over four or five years, each year yielding about six hundred pages of closely written manuscript. His pulpit was supplied by Synod during the eight weeks’ session of Hall; but otherwise the pastoral charge remained as before, and these two months were more full of work than any others. On five days of the week two hours were spent with the students; and sometimes there were extra meetings on Saturdays.
For the Professor did not limit himself to delivering lectures on Systematic Theology. Besides hearing exercises and conducting examinations, he gave a remarkable course of lectures on Homiletics. He held a very decided opinion to the effect that those only who have themselves had some success in preaching ought to be set to train preachers; and he eagerly gave his students the benefit of his large reading, his shrewd acquaintance with human nature, and his ripe experience. These lectures were specially instructive, rich in wisdom, and leaving on our minds a deep sense of the greatness of the preacher’s office. The Professor never appeared to greater advantage than when delivering them colloquially, and enlivening them with many a racy anecdote. All the greater is our regret that, unless some student may have preserved copious notes, they exist now only in the shape of a fleshless skeleton,—neat and orderly jottings, but scarcely intelligible even to one who heard them.
The following letter shews how fresh the impressions left on the mind of a student remain after twenty years:—
“36 Cumberland Street, Glasgow, 30th June 1879.
“My dear Mr. Symington,—My recollections and impressions of your father are of the most agreeable kind. It was more as a professor than as a minister that I came under his influence. We students were all proud of him as a man, a professor, a friend. As a man, his commanding figure, gentlemanly manner, natural enthusiasm and eloquence, inspired us with respect. As a professor, he approached as near as perhaps is possible to a model. Punctual to the hour, reverent in reading the Word of God, devout in prayer, he fanned in our hearts the flame of devotion. Then these Lectures on Systematic Theology, what a treat to our opening minds! so comprehensive, methodical, demonstrative, elevated and elaborated, brimming with information, all poured forth with such glowing energy as at once revealed the sympathy of his own mind with his theme and fixed ours. I would give much to be able to listen to them again. The Homiletic Lectures, which were only occasional, gave outlet to his abounding humour. Many a mirth-provoking story is still remembered illustrative of the foibles of preachers in the selection and division of texts. But these sallies served only to impress on our softened natures an all-important truth. ‘Gentlemen,’ he would add, ‘be powerful preachers. Some are known as funny, fine, flowery, pretty, sweet, and so forth: be you mighty. Aim at being known as men of power.’ Such, doubtless, was his own ideal. Having chosen a substantial text, he spared no pains on the matter, style, spirit and delivery to make the truth tell on the hearts and minds of his audience; and he had a corresponding reward.
“As a friend dispensing hospitality in his own house, he could admirably adapt himself to students. Books new and old, articles from and for the press, presents from lands far and near, were made to interest us nearly as much as himself. A finer combination of the gentleman, the preacher, the professor, the friend, it would be hard to find.—I am, my dear Sir, sincerely yours,
Some of the rules which he often pressed upon his students remain in our memory. Although no originality can be claimed for them, they are given here to illustrate his character and perpetuate his usefulness.
1. Never use a text in praying or in preaching without having read it in your own Bible. By this means accuracy is secured, much light is often found in the context, and mastery of Scripture is at length acquired.
2. Begin every piece of study and composition with solemn prayer. If interrupted, on resuming the pen lift up your heart afresh.
3. Be superior to moods. Do not wait on an afflatus before beginning to work. Seek strength, and go at your work with courage; the mood will come. (The example and words of Chalmers used to be quoted to enforce this.)
4. Be always natural in speaking. Study elocution, of course, but the best thing such study can do for you is to make your utterance perfectly natural. For an example of the natural expression of earnestness, go to the Salt-market and watch the fish-wives bargaining and scolding.
The work of his large congregation was carried on with unabated vigour during the last years of Dr. Symington’s life. He maintained it in conspicuous prosperity—numerous, united, warmly attached to himself, and with considerable evangelistic fruitfulness—to the very last. An offshoot on the south side of the city, kindly cherished by him in 1853, has for many years been a considerable and fruitful congregation, under the bountiful and genial pastorate of the Rev. John M‘Dermid. The mission in Green Street grew apace in the hands of Mr. Edgar (whose admirable letter has just been quoted); and from it, in 1863, a congregation was formed in the extreme east of the city, which is still highly prosperous. A third congregation in the west end, although formally constituted by a disjunction from West Campbell Street, derived a good part of its strength from the old church in the east without diminishing the attendance in its pews or the vigour of its congregational life.
So much toil brought with it occasional illness, a frequent sense of weariness, and the fear that while one part of his work was done well, other parts might be left undone. Not that any part was left undone: he preached as earnestly and visited as assiduously as ever. But, although he maintained his habitual cheerfulness—which was not easily affected, because it had its roots in Christian simplicity of heart and genuine goodwill to men—the double work of minister and professor was carried on at a serious expense of vital energy. This is a thing which congregations and churches, when they see a man going on earnestly with his work, do not, alas! understand. He craved assistance, not that he might do less, but that more might be done; and his congregation at length took steps to procure him a colleague. Their choice fell, in March 1857, on his oldest son, who had for thirteen years been minister at Castle Douglas,—a man of culture and wisdom, with a singular power of winning hearts, well fitted by his gifts as a preacher to sustain the character of the Great Hamilton Street pulpit. But the opposition made by his attached flock, and his own deep conviction, retained to the last, that he was not suited for a charge in a large city, led my brother to decline this call. Our father was sorely disappointed; but he neither murmured nor was disheartened: and on the 3d of March 1859, the call having been renewed, he was granted the desire of his heart in seeing; his first-born son inducted as his colleague and successor.
One evening (the date cannot be precisely fixed) our father returned in very good spirits from dining with a Christian merchant, and told us that as soon as his name had been announced, the Rev. Rajah Gopaul had come to him and asked if he were the author of a book on the Atonement, saying that was the first treatise on theology put into his hands after he had begun to study for the ministry in Madras. Later in the evening, Mr. Anderson, the missionary under whom the Brahmin had been brought to Christ, had taken him aside and asked whether he remembered having preached at Springholm, in the open air, from a certain text. He had preached often there, he said, but could not recall the occasion or the text. “But I can,” said the missionary, “for I was on the outskirts of the crowd, and my attention was then for the first time seriously fixed on divine truth.” It was the only time they met here. Our father told us this with simplicity and gladness, but not without emotion.
“When the breath of revival began to move with gracious quickening over all parts of the church, Dr. Symington was among the first to hail it. We find him reading Arthur’s “Tongue of Fire;” rejoicing in Spurgeon’s Puritan soundness and astonishing energy of faith; circulating a pastoral address on revival which Mr. M‘Gill had prepared at the instance of the Synod; and taking part in special meetings for prayer.
It is impossible to convey to those who did not know him a just idea of what our father was in private life and in the family. Great knowledge of human nature was accompanied by an indescribable pleasantness, the product of love and humour. The look of gravity which might be caught when his features were at rest, changed instantly when one spoke to him into the sunniest of smiles. He told a story admirably, and laughed heartily at the wit of others if it was anything genuine. Every inch a Christian gentleman in the best sense of the word, his distinguished courtesy appeared quite as much at home as in general society: it was his nature. One who gave and received the love of a son—the Rev. Dr. Goold—has felicitously described him:—
“The power and value of system was notably exemplified by our departed father. He owed most of his usefulness in life to what we may designate his peculiar love and faculty of order. His very study was the image of his thoughts—a place for everything, and everything in its place. It was the same principle that gave him success in that walk which he chiefly cultivated—systematic theology. He was in his own person a living refutation of the folly of the modern prejudice against it. It was with him no dead herbarium, but a living garden—no fetter cramping the native elasticity of his thoughts, but the wing with which he soared upward, till he could take more accurate survey of the whole domain of divine truth.
“It is but right to add, that he ‘adorned’ the doctrine of his Saviour, as well as professed and believed it. In private habits he was eminently devout. His delight was communion with God. His closet could testify to his prayerfulness. But yet there was nothing of the morose about him. Genial and buoyant with the glee of childhood, he was the life and spirit of every company in which he mingled; in wit and repartee never rivalled, but never losing in the joyousness of his nature the dignity which became the Christian and the minister; the youngest of his grandchildren hailed him as a companion, while they revered him as a patriarch.”
The home at Annfield Place became in these latter years strangely lonely, yet had a pathetic beauty about it. All their six children were, after 1856, settled in families of their own; and our parents were left with only a very faithful servant, Sarah, one of the good old sort that is getting too rare, and without any domestic society except that of one another. None of the family, it is true, was far away, and two sons and a daughter had their homes in Glasgow, so that the old house was frequently enlivened by the presence of children and children’s children. But the beautiful thing was, that it was not dull even when none of these were there. The old folks, as they sometimes called themselves, laughingly said they were beginning life again, and renewing the happiness of a youth forty years past. It was quite true: they understood if any ever did the secret of renewing youth by joy in God and glad thankfulness for his abounding mercies.* Our father contrived to spend less time in the study that he might spend more with our mother, and watched over her failing strength with the gallantry of a bridegroom. It may seem a singular expression, but it is the only one that will suit. Both hailed each grandchild as it was born with a warmth of love which could not be exceeded; and after her death the following paper—her only will!—was found in our mother’s workbox. The date shows it to have been written at a time when she was called to look death in the face: it is inscribed now on more than twenty little Bibles, and her prayer has been signally answered in the case of some who received them.
“Grandmama Symington’s Dying Gift to her Grandchild (William Symington)
“May 1858.—Should it be the Lord’s will to take me away suddenly and soon, I add my wish that every grandchild may get a Bible as my dying gift, and marked so; and that they may read it daily and make it the rule of their life. And, oh! may their heavenly Father pour out his Spirit upon them, opening their eyes to see clearly his great love, and thus drawing them unto him through Jesus Christ their Lord.”
Our mother survived her husband for a few months, and was, she said, as well and happy as a person could be with a broken heart. When the end came she said, “My anchor was cast long ago, and it is holding firm now;” and so composed herself to sleep.
But while the sunset was bright, it was the brightness of grace shining against clouds. At the close of 1861 his first serious illness required his son and colleague to go to Leamington for prolonged rest. The following is the last entry in his private record:—
“January 1, 1862.—The year which has just closed, like its predecessors, has been a chequered one. The last month the darkest of all, from illness first of my son and latterly of my wife. The amount of anxiety, distress, and watching compressed into the last four or five weeks has been all but overwhelming. The Lord, however, has upheld me. And now the invalids are both in a state of promising convalescence. The Lord has had mercy on them, and not on them only, but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. Blessed be his gracious name! May we be prepared for whatever shall fall out during this period on which we have entered! We would rest on the Lord and wait patiently for him.…
“A gloom hangs over our country from the death of great public men, the prevalent commercial stagnation, and the possibility of a war with America. May the Governor of the nations dispel the cloud and send prosperity, by giving grace to repent and reform.”
The only words omitted from the above extract are those recording work done and books read.
The whole of the very last entry in his diary is this—
“January 14.—Still weak as ever.”
On the first Sabbath of 1862 Dr. Symington preached two sermons on the words “Occupy till I come.” On Friday the 10th he was attacked with influenza; but rose from bed on the 12th and insisted on preaching all day. His text in the forenoon was Matthew 6:19–21: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” The feelings of weakness and depression with which he was bravely struggling, may explain the striking fact that his text in the afternoon, his last text, was the same from which he had preached nearly a quarter of a century before at Stranraer, when permitted to return to his pulpit after long affliction—“It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not” (Lam. 3:22).* He appeared feeble in the forenoon, but had much of his old fire and unction in the afternoon.
He returned from the pulpit to bed, but rose on Monday and wrote to his youngest son at Dumfries, who was to occupy his pulpit on the 19th, asking him to come prepared to lecture to the Young Men’s Society, as he feared his cold would prevent him keeping that engagement. Although he never rose after the 14th, nothing more serious than influenza was suspected for some days; and everything which the highest medical skill could do in the hands of warm Christian friends, Dr. George Wilson and the late Dr. Harry Rainy, was done. His son preached again in his pulpit on the 26th, and by that time hope was quite gone. Extreme and mysterious exhaustion, for which there was no apparent cause, baffled all skill: it was only after death that an aneurism, the result of a strain years before through slipping on ice, was discovered, which had been allowing the life blood to ebb away from a large artery under the skin. The parting from his old Christian friend Dr. Rainy, after the beloved physician could no longer conceal that his hopes were gone, was a scene not to be forgotten: friend could still help friend.
During these two weeks our father frequently asked that certain psalms and chapters should be read to him, with prayer. When his faithful old beadle, Robert Walker (a man of remarkable gifts), called one morning, he said, “Robert, have you ever had any desire to depart from this world?… I had sweet meditations last night on departing hence.” “Save for the friends you hold so dear,” said Robert. “Oh yes,” our father answered, “but it is my dear old wife that I am thinking of: the children are all settled in their own families.” He then named several of the elders to whom he wished Robert to go and ask their prayers for him, adding, “You and Mrs. Walker should set apart some time and remember your minister at the throne of grace.” The good old man, after setting down these things in writing, says: “The meekness and familiarity of his conversation struck me much: his soul seemed to me like a weaned child.”
It was truly so. The pen that writes these closing words trembles at the remembrance of a ten days’ conflict with the last enemy, in which he saw an unclouded mind winning decisive victory every hour through the simplicity of faith. No description shall be ventured. Let it only be said that there was not a single murmur nor one longing toward earth; that he was surrounded by wife and children, and took a Christian’s leave of them; that his constant desire was for the Word of everlasting life. One day in the first week he said to me, “I think if I were taken away in this illness I could exercise a calm trust in the Redeemer.” Near the end he repeated old Rowland Hill’s lines—
“And when I’m to die
‘Receive me,’ I’ll cry;
For Jesus hath loved me,
I cannot tell why:
But this I can find
We two are so joined
He’ll not be in glory and leave me behind.”
And the very last words were—
“There remaineth a Rest to the people of God.”
The remembrance of such a victory is beyond all price. Still my heart turns rather to two sayings of our father that fell from him in talking with me some years before, when he was in full health.
“Of course no one gets a particle of true peace except in looking straight out to Jesus.”
And on another occasion, when the matter we were speaking about was the case of one called on to relinquish his own likings for the advancement of the cause of Christ—
“A man’s life is worth nothing at all unless it be fruitfully joined to the kingdom of Christ. Nothing else is of value, because nothing else will last.”
William Symington’s life, from an early period of it, was fruitfully joined to the kingdom of Christ. The lesson and the comfort for us, who so sorely miss that life now, are that its issues remain with the King whom he served, and serves, and shall serve for ever, “seeing his face and having His name in his forehead.”