Memorial: The Late Dr Symington (R. P. Magazine)

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Published in the Reformed Presbyterian Magazine, March 1862, pp 81-89

DR W. SYMINGTON died on the 28th January. A month accordingly has passed away since this sad event occurred, which has plunged our whole Church in mourning. But the wound is still green, as if it dated but of yesterday, and we feel as if the trial were too recent to admit of any very correct portraiture as yet of our lamented father. He was pre-eminently a man of whom the whole truth could be told. Make what allowance you please for human frailties, deduct from the rich assemblage of his gifts and excellences whatever justice might require or malice even suggest, there would still remain a character of Christian worth and dignity, at once so winning and majestic, than any tribute to his memory would be the nobler eulogy, in proportion to the distinctive and individualising faithfulness with what the analysis of his character was given. Such a task must be left with more skilful hands. For ourselves, we have just been gazing so wistfully and fondly on the departing luminary, that our vision is scarcely yet adjusted to the realities around us, or competent to exhibit with accuracy the image of it mirrored for ever upon our affections.

A pious merchant in Paisley gave three sons to the ministry of the Reformed Presbyterian Church. He may be pronounced, in the review of all that has issued from such a gift, the greatest benefactor our Church in Scotland has ever enjoyed. We can trace parental influence in the character of all his sons, who owed much to his sound instruction and happy example. Shrewd, genial and yet deeply religious, he evinced in his religion much of the “joy unspeakable;” and his children to the last bore the impress of his own cheerful godliness. The youngest of the three sons who thus chose the ministry for their calling, died shortly after he was licensed. The eldest was Professor Andrew at Paisley, whose name yet awakens so many precious and thrilling associations amongst us. The last survivor of them, Professor William, has just – and we resort to no figure when we use the phrase – amid the tears of hundreds, been committed to his grace in the Necropolis of Glasgow.

He was born in Paisley on the 2d of June 1795. After the ordinary course of instruction at the academy and college, he studied theology under Professor M’Millan of Stirling. As a youth, he possessed great energy of character, and on some occasions had evinced that gift of utterance for which he afterwards became so distinguished. It would seem, however, that the great doctrines of theology, when they became the subject of his special study, had first elicted the vigour of his faculties.  Professor M’Millan was a man venerable for his Christian dignity of character, but his method of instruction was sufficiently simple, consisting of extemporaneous comment upon the doctrines of systematic theology, in the order in which they appear in the Confession of Faith. It is certain that Dr Symington, after he received licence in 1818, began to indicate the singular gifts with what he had been endowed. His first appearances in the pulpit have been described as possessing, if not the mature thinking, at least all the evidence of careful preparation, which characterised his latest exhibitions of the gospel. No doubt he had great natural gifts, and seemed indeed born to the vocation of the Christian orator – an Apollos from the womb – yet it is a valuable lesson, that all this natural aptitude was never esteemed by him a plea for neglecting due preparation. We have heard testimony borne to the nervous anxiety with what from his very start as a preacher he laboured and studied, however small and humble might be the audience he had to face. His abilities as a preacher were immediately recognised. Though licensed towards the close of 1818, before May of the ensuing year, he had two competing calls from Airdrie and Stranraer. He accepted the call from the latter congregation, and was ordained to the pastoral charge of it in 1819.

The record of his pastoral labours at Stranraer would supply ample evidence of his official diligence and faithfulness. His reputation as a preacher grew exceedingly; yet amidst all the care with which his discourses were prepared, pastoral work in examinations, visitation and classes, was never overlooked. Various facts might be specified in token of the influence for good in the district which he speedily acquired, and to the last retained. The congregation grew strong under his care. It indicates the large-hearted Christian philanthropy to which they were trained, that their contributions for many years to the cause of missions, exceeded considerably those of every other congregation in the Church. A goodly band of pious youths had their zeal for the cause of the gospel aroused and directed by his ministrations and example. Devoting themselves to the ministry, many of them have been eminently useful to the Church, and one of them, Mr M’Gill of Hightae, has just been preaching the funeral sermon of the revered pastor of his early life, with great solemnity and effect. Beyond the range of his own flock, his character and labours soon told to the immense advantage of the district. He elevated the tone of society in his neighbourhood, taking ground at once against the mindless frivolity of certain prevailing amusements, and republishing a treatise on Lots in condemnation of petty gambling and cardplaying. Drawn to occasional attendance on his ministry, man in the upper circles of society received benefit from his powerful enforcement of truth and duty, which in subsequent years they were not slow to acknowledge. In a brief memoir of General M’Dowall we see his conversion ascribed, under God, to the preaching of Dr Symington. In his unfaltering advocacy of the great cause of the Sabbath, Sir Andrew Agnew owed not a little to the clear views of its obligation, derived from the Doctor’s earnest maintenance of that divine institution. He gave his best strength to the cause of the Bible Society, and was for many years its secretary in Stranraer; and it shews how much good can be effected in a remote district by men who have sagacity to recognise an object of paramount importance, when we mention that, as originated by Dr Symington, and sustained by an able successor in the secretaryship, the Stranraer Bible Society, of all provincial associations for the same object, has been perhaps the most efficient and fruitful in Scotland. The incident which he related when returning thanks for the gift of two splendid salvers, bestowed upon him by some friends on the occasion of his leaving Stranraer, illustrates the intensity with which his mind was devoted to the promotion of such religious objects. The annual meeting of the Society was to be held on the following day, when late in the evening he received an intimation that one of the chief speakers, whose aid was expected, could not attend. It was too late to make application elsewhere, and concerned about the success of the meeting, he retired to rest, with the view of rising early to prepare some address for the occasion. IN a dream, he imagined himself addressing the meeting and a train of thought rose up so vividly before him, that on awakening, he had simply to commit it to writing, and the speech thus prepared in a dream was well received. When the temperance movement began, he threw himself into the cause with great ardour and energy. The happy changes of public sentiment in regard to many evil customs fast waning into desuetude, if not utterly abolished by this time, was a great and beneficial result of the movement, in which he rejoiced to the close of his life. His fame as a powerful preacher of the Word was by this time rapidly spreading throughout Galloway. He never shinned to declare the whole counsel of God. Evangelical religion found in him a representative, whose high talents and Christian dignity could not be questioned, and an attachment for the doctrines of the cross began to revive in the district His services to his own Church, were at this period very great, and must not be forgotten. Its character had been injured by the misconduct of two ministers, one of them remarkably gifted as a public speaker. Dr Symington brought to his own Church, in these circumstances, a weight of character, and faithfulness in discipline, that more than counteracted unhappy impressions that might otherwise have been produced. Frequently invited to preach, in connection with some effort to erect or repair the monuments of the martyrs, in a district which, according to the beautiful phrase of Renwick, is “flowered with martyrs,” he had opportunity of vindicating great principles, and of rebuking the bigotry with which, under the guise of liberality, the heroism and services of our covenanting ancestors have been s often disparaged. We have imprinted upon our memory, with a vividness and completeness beyond all the art of the photographer, one occasion in which he preached under open sunshine on a green slope skirting a broad moor. It was not a martyr sermon, but it illustrated the commanding spell which he could throw over an audience. He had selected a great theme of the gospel, and mingling up with it felicitous allusions, seemingly the inspiration of the moment, to the circumstances and the scenery, he riveted the attention of his hearers, till, in the intensity of their feelings, all life for the time seemed concentrated in listening to him. Alas! and shall we look upon the noble form, and that expressive countenance no more? Is the very echo of that skilful and persuasive voice lost to earth for ever?

It will be seen that it was no life of inactivity which our departed father was leading at Stranraer. And yet he found time to prepare various sermons, and especially two volumes for the press. The former of these volumes on “The Atonement and Intercession of Christ,” appeared in May 1834. By October of the same year a second edition was published. The treatise was so able and so lucid, so remarkable for the apparently opposite qualities of comprehensiveness and condensation, that it has taken rank as a kind of representative book on the question, on the side of evangelical theology. It is well known and has been widely spread. An eminent publisher, in a ramble amongst Welsh scenery, thought he would try to push his wares in that obscure corner, and ventured to call on a worthy minister to see if he had any literary wants which his stores could supply. The only book for which a wish was expressed, was “Symington on the Atonement.” At the time it was published, a young man was striving to establish himself as a bookseller in New York. He kept himself on the outlook for some valuable work form the British press which could be republished with advantage in America. His attention was directed to the work referred to. He published one, the first of several editions of the same work, and it may be said to have been the commencement of a prosperous career to a man whose Christian virtues sanctify and adorn his prosperity. Better results could be specified. A convert from heathenism in India, now a distinguished preacher of the gospel, ascribes his first clear conception of the system of Christian truth to the perusal of the work. Another treatise – a fit sequel and companion to it – on ‘The Dominion of Christ,” appeared in 1839. It was the chief tribute which the author paid to the momentous doctrine which constitutes the distinctive tenet of his Church, and along with the prelections of his brother at Paisley, did much to illustrate the position of his denomination, as resting not on a mere protest against evils and abuses, but upon a great scriptural principle. Written during a hot controversy, it avoids polemical references, and aims at a calm statement of the truth as to the bearing of the mediatorial dominion on the ecclesiastical and civil relations of men. On the same year in which it was published (1839) the degree of D. D. was bestowed upon the author by the University of Edinburgh. It greatly enhanced the honour that the motion to that effect in the Senatus was made by Thomas Chalmers, and seconded by one scarcely less worthy of veneration, David Welsh.

Already one call to Glasgow had been tendered to him, but he had declined it. An importance principle, which our fathers of the second Reformation clearly apprehended, had been lost sight of in our church, that the prior obligation of the Christian ministry is not to man, not to the Church, but to the Head of the Church; and accordingly, that it is the duty of his official servants to labour precisely where, by the leadings of his providence, he would have them to labour. Although the opposite view might not have influenced the courts of the church directly, yet still it was so strongly held, that when Dr Symington ultimately accepted his third call to a congregation in Glasgow, no small dissatisfaction was felt in many quarters. The benefit to our Church, arising from his translation, in the prosperity of the Great Hamilton Street congregation of that populous city, in the new congregations that in a sense have spring from it as offshoots, and in the impulse given to the missions and public schemes of the Church can scarcely be overrated. Providence, it is true, can overrule the worst of actions to the best of issues. But the result in this instance is so direct and manifest, that faithfulness to sounder principles and a better policy in putting the right man in the right place, by general acknowledgment has had its reward. Years, long years, after the rupture of his connection with Stranraer, we have seen the heart of the deceased swell with emotion at the remembrance of his early pastorate in that town. “If a translation has its advantages, they only who have had my experience of it,” he remarked, “can know the bitterness connected with it.”

The history of his labours in Glasgow is identified with every public cause by which the interests of the kingdom of Christ have been promoted in that influential city. On almost every platform where some scheme of Christian philanthropy was to be advocated, the religious rights and liberties of men defended, or some important principle or institution to be upheld, he was sure to be seen, and was rarely exempted from taking some share in the proceedings. The analytic faculty which he possessed in an eminent degree fitted him for the exposition of leading principles. And hence, in connection with the Sabbath, or Slavery, or Marriage Affinity, or the Cardross Case, he had generally assigned to him the statement of the cardinal principle involved In the discussion. It is needless to say with what singular clearness and perfect order every irrelevant fact was eliminated from the case on hand, the grand substance of the question evolved, and its practical bearings were brought home with an energy that often electrified his audience. In the year 1844, when certain loose views on the subject of the atonement prevailed, he ventured to break a lance with Dr Wardlaw. The trenchant power with which the error of that acute divine was caught and crushed may be inferred from the elaborate solicitude with which he attempted – in our humble judgment wholly in vain – to make head against this vigorous exposure of his theory. Dr Symington’s review of it, reprinted from the Scottish Presbyterian, in which it originally appeared, had a wide and rapid sale, and created a deep sensation among the more thoughtful students of the controversy. Whatever advantage Dr Wardlaw may be supposed to have had in one or two subordinate details, nothing is more obvious than that his opponent successfully established two positions against him, namely, that the extent of the atonement depends, not upon any miserable word-catching as to the import of seemingly universal terms in Scripture, but upon its nature; and that the universality of the atonement cannot well be maintained except on views of divine justice, in no sense different from the Socinian view of that attribute; – a view of it which in reality dissipates all necessity for any atonement whatever. It is pleasing to add that, with this difference on a vital question, there was, notwithstanding, no interruption to the friendly intercourse of these two divines in the private relations of life. They did not meet often, but when they met, they met as brethren.

So catholic in spirit, indeed, was Dr Symington that his sermon, preached in the Free Assembly Hall at Edinburgh, at the opening of the commemoration of the Bicentenary of the Westminster Assembly, in 1843, may be said to have given birth to the Evangelical Alliance. The practical suggestion which the sermon urged was some such organisation. He goes beyond, in truth, what the Alliance has prescribed to itself as its function, and suggests action, on which it has never ventured, in the way of mutual conference among Christians in regard to the points on which they differ. More recently, when a schism took place in the Glasgow Bible Society, of which he was secretary, he exerted himself with great energy to heal the breach, and when unsuccessful, stood fast to the principle that genuine liberality of religious feeling must prevail in the management of all such societies.

A place is due, in any tribute to Dr Symington’s memory, however short, to his value as a counsellor, especially in the courts of the Church. He loved his Church with no sectarian partiality, but under a strong sense of principle. Appreciating with great warmth and readiness Christian excellence wherever he found it, he adhered to the scriptural principles of his own Testimony with a strength of conviction that grew upon him with the increase of years. He did not hesitate to rebuke any tendency to vainglorious sectarianism even in his own Church, and his attachment to its Testimony was all the stronger that it was wise and discriminating. With such views he took a deep interest in the affairs of the Church, was of great service in resolving into its simple elements any intricate case which might come before its courts, and was foremost when any special effort was to be made in the missionary cause. It lay beyond his province to work in mere financial details, but the scheme for the support of the weaker congregations of the body, so admirably and successfully wrought by Mr Neilson, was first sketched in its leading principles by our departed father.

Our father had passed through life with but few bereavements in his domestic circle. One sad event, the death of a son by an accident within his own garden at Stranraer, and almost under his own eye, cast a long shadow on his future life. It is but a few months ago since we heard him allude to the event, and as he spoke his lips quivered with emotion. “The sublime repression of himself.” Was indeed the habit of his nature, as well as the dictate of conviction with him. But the one event which, so far as we had opportunities of observing, most unmanned him, was the decease of his venerated brother Andrew, the Professor at Paisley, in 1853. Nobly as he redeemed his self-control in the simple but most touching discourse he preached after the funeral, our first interview with him after the death will never be forgotten. It was a spectacle, indeed, never to be expunged from the memory, as we witnessed that strong-minded man, with whom we were wont to associate all that was dignified and stately in Christian character, lost in the overpowering grief of the moment, and thankful, with the humility of a child, for the least whisper of Christian consolation we could muster presence of mind to impart. Long before the Synod met in January 1854, to fill up the office vacant by the brother’s decease, the Church had unanimously settled that Dr William should be his successor. How conscientiously he prepared his lectures, with what enthusiasm he embarked in his new duties, with what jealousy he resented all interference which drew his students from their proper work, how anxiously he toiled for their good, with what kindly deference he listened to any suggestion from his colleague in the business of the hall, are features of character on which might be written, and yet however much, it would fall far short of the impression we cherish of his claims on the gratitude of the Church for his services in this capacity.  

No right-hearted minister of the gospel who has ever preached to the Great Hamilton Street congregation since it has become what he made it, but must have sympathised with his desire to have a colleague in the ministry. With his high standard of pastoral efficiency, it was difficult for him to be reconciled to the measure of his labours on behalf of that large congregation. So frequently and so urgently pressed to take part in every public movement, so anxious to keep up the high character of his ordinary ministrations, and now burdened, as a Professor, with duties in some sense heavier than all, he felt his prime duty for the time to secure effective aid in his pastoral work. All difficulties encountered in the attempted were more than compensated when, looking round the City Hall on the evening of 3d March 1859, he beheld the largest assembly ever convened for any purpose connected with our Church since the Revolution, met to welcome the son and congratulate the father on the auspicious induction which had that day taken place of the former as his colleague.

Under the pressure of his pastoral duties, he had done little of literary work for the press since he had come to Glasgow. He edited, indeed, an edition of Scott’s Commentary, enriching it with various useful notes. He had written articles and published sermons. There was, at least, one volume for which he had collected materials, and which he intended to give to the world as soon as it could be prepared for the press. On receiving a colleague, he anticipated sufficient leisure for the work. One interruption ensued after another to retard the prosecution of his design. The work in consequence has been left incomplete. Out of his voluminous manuscripts, however, some literary memorials worthy of his reputation and attainments will doubtless be obtained.

It is appointed to all men once to die. Our father knew no exemption from the common lot. On the first Sabbath of this year he had preached on the text, “Occupy till I come.” On January 10th he felt unwell, and took to bed. He rose from it to preach on the succeeding Sabbath, but returned to it that day. After one or two ineffectual attempts to continue up after he had risen, he returned to it, never to quit it in life. It was thought to be fever under which his strength was so rapidly sinking. An examination after death proved that the main ailment that cut him off was aneurism in the knee. Though exceedingly spent, yet he continued to the last morning of his life to utter brief expressions of his faith and hope. A few hours before he died, consciousness seemed to have left him; but while it lasted, he replied to the inquiry, if the Lord was with him as his salvation and desire, in terms sufficiently distinct and emphatic, “Yes; with me.” In reference to some expression that dropped from him, allusion was made to the rest that remaineth for the people of God, and he quoted the passage which warrants this glorious hope – “There remaineth a rest for the people of God/” It was, indeed, with his sorrowful children round him, “the dreadful post of observation, darker ever hour,” as they watched the features of that noble countenance sinking in the mysterious collapse of death. The subdued and solemn light of a winter afternoon was streaming into the apartment. There was a wistful straining of the eye and ear to catch the last sound or motion from him. A brief prayer was offered for the easy dismission of the Lord’s servant, and for his abundant entrance into glory. Scarcely had the prayer closed ere the answer came. So peacefully had he dropped asleep on the bosom of the Lord, that the relatives could hardly persuade themselves that he was gone.

He was in the sixty-seventh year of his age, and the forty-third of his ministry. He died on the 28th of January; and on the following Monday, February 3d, he was interred, amidst an imposing concourse of people. The scene at the grace was peculiarly affecting, from the anxiety of multitudes to get a glimpse of the coffin that held the honoured dust, ere it sank to mingle with kindred dust. On the Sabbath following, the Rev. Mr M’Gill preached two able discourses, which, we trust, will be given to the public as a permanent tribute to the memory of the deceased.

There are some men whose name is their best eulogy. The epitaph over the graves of Washington and Thomas Chalmers is simply their own illustrious names. It will be long before, through the Reformed Presbyterian Church, the image of piety, talent, and usefulness which the name of WILLIAM SYMINGTON calls up, will cease to be the noblest monument to his honour.

In the mental structure of the man, the analytic faculty had predominance. His discussion of any topic was complete and exhaustive. He was never satisfied till any great truth on which he discoursed was placed before his hearers in the grounds on which it rested, in its relations to other truths, in its various elements and details. He was not content to seize synthetically the special aspect of it that served a practical purpose. Other great orators have generally adopted this course and, by the very concentration of thought upon a given view of a doctrine, have been wont to produce great immediate effect. With Dr Symington the aim was instruction rather than excitement. He sought to plant a truth in the minds of his hearers, so that it could endure as a spring and principle of action long after the echoes of his fervent appeals had died away upon the ear. Two circumstances counteracted the least tendency to weary under his detailed exhibition of a principle – the matchless lucidity of statement in which he excelled, and the skill with which, ever and anon, the bearing of any doctrine, or part of a doctrine, he was unfolding, on Christian duty or experience was indicated. His audience never lost confidence that some great practical issue would emerge from his most abstract discussion. It was very wonderful at times how, in the midst of a full and able statement of doctrine, by a single word almost he could sir to their depths the fountains of Christian sentiment, till one hardly knew whether the effect was due to the power of the reasoning, or the pathos of the brief appeal by which is was so skilfully relieved. His use of Scripture was admirable. There was no gathering of Scripture phrases to eke out feeble paragraphs, or cover barrenness of thought. The quotation came in so appropriately, and with such power, that it seemed as if it had been inspired in adaptation to the argument which it clenched.

The key to the moral qualities of his nature was the strong sense of justice that invariable animated him. A model of courtesy to the highest style of the Christian gentleman, with domestic affections of rare poignancy and strength, accustomed to the practice of a thoughtful kindness, all the nobler that it seldom transpired, it could not be said of him, however, that in the common intercourse of life, he would impress men with any very warm benignity of manner. He differed in this respected from his brother Andrew. But no one could be in his company without feeling at once that Dr Symington, at whatever cost or hazard, would invariably be found on the side of the right, and fit, and dutiful. It was not so much the beauty of love as the majesty of moral obligation, that was the fair ideal, haunting his thoughts, moulding his character, and shaping his life. This high sense of equity, indeed, gave colour and direction to his theology. His Christianity was of the Pauline rather than the Johannine type. The righteousness of God in its demand on the sinner; the righteousness of Christ as alone able to meet that demand; the righteousness exacted from the saint as, through grace, the essential complement of Christ’s work, was the substance of his teaching, as the last, indeed, was the steady aim and to an extent in which few men equalled him, the attainment of his life. To this good old theology he consecrated all his energies – ambitious to excel, not as a scholar, not in learning, not in any branch of science foreign to his profession, however warm his sympathies with scientific objects and pursuits, but simply as a theologian. The remark must be qualified by adding that we have met no man whose reading in British theological literature was more extensive and profound. Every phrase of theological error, even as it sprung up, was firmly confronted and accurately gauged. He had no taste for the odd and quaint in literature; the just, and true, and useful were uniformly the object of his quest. And yet his taste in the appreciation of literature was at once sound and refined. His whole reading, in short, was subservient to public duty. This rapt consecration to the business of the sanctuary is one of the many noble lessons which he has bequeathed us.

Many lessons, indeed, might be culled from his life and character. We might learn from it, what sometimes there is a tendency to forget, how possible it is to achieve greatness by attention to the common duties of life. He mingled in no great public events, such as yield materials for history; he wandered into no fields of science or general literature, in order to win the guerdon of fame. He kept his vow to Christ that he would be a servant to his cause, and nothing more. The sorrow of thousands at his death ratified the wisdom of his choice, and shewed that even the routine of a pastor’s duty can be the pathway to the love and veneration of multitudes. 

He was besides an instance of true earnestness. There may be earnestness under an outward vehemence of manner, and under a bustling activity, bringing a man for ever under the public eye. But it is not the only kind of earnestness; perhaps it is not the highest kind of earnest ness. As a lone worker in his study, amid anxious and prayerful care to bring forth “the acceptable words” which the Lord would bless to the spiritual recovery of souls, there was an earnestness more rarely exhibited, and far more likely to be fruitful in good results. Each man has his own gifts; still it is a duty to covet the best.

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 win 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. But we have touched on chords of love and sorrow too sacred and tender to be wakened as yet into sound for the public ear. His official character may be public property. All that he was in his private relationships – in the genial wisdom that regulated his household – to the widow who so faithfully soothed the cares of his life, and survives to mourn his death, to children and to grandchildren, must remain, a precious heirloom, in their memory for ever.