William Symington: Stranraer's most famous minister

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Undoubtedly, the most well-known minister the RP Church in Stranraer has ever had was William Symington. He was minister here for twenty years, from 1819-39. Shortly after he came the church building was rebuilt to hold 700, and was regularly packed out. He's most well-known for two books which he wrote while minister in Stranraer, which are still in print today.

We recently were reminded of him twice in a week. Firstly, in our study on the Shorter Catechism, we reached Q25 which is about how Jesus is our great high priest. That was the subject of Symington's first book, On the Atonement and Intercession of Jesus Christ. Then, in our sermon series on Daniel, we reached the end of Daniel chapter 9, which is where the title of Symington's most famous book, Messiah the Prince, comes from.

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Here is the entry on Symington from the out-of-print Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology by the RPCNA's Roy Blackwood:

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Symington, William (1795-1862), RP theologian. He was born in Paisley and ordained in the RPC in Stranraer in South West Scotland, serving as pastor there 1819-39 and then in Great Hamilton Street Church, Glasgow, 1839-62. He published two theological works, On the Atonement and Intercession of Jesus Christ (Edinburgh, 1834) and Messiah the Prince (Edinburgh, 1839). The latter was his most important contribution to Scottish theology; it expounds a basis in the theology of Christ's kingship and kingdom for Church-state relationships.

The RP Synod elected him Professor of their Theological Hall after the death of his brother, Andrew Symington in 1853, and once described the two brothers as 'the most distinguished ministers who have been raised up to us since the martyrdom of James Renwick. They led the RPC out of an attitude of narrow provincialism focused on self-preservation and into a sense of missionary responsibility for the Church in Scotland and throughout the world.

Symington was pre-eminently a Covenanter Evangelical. He once described how, at the age of seventeen, 'I gave myself away to the Lord in a solemn, personal covenant.' He insisted that the only basis for Scotland's national covenants was the covenant of grace. He became deeply involved in social reform because he saw intemperance, ignorance of the Scriptures, illiteracy, slavery, bad working conditions and corruption in government as moral sins in a nation committed to God in public covenant. He was recognized as one of Scotland's most powerful and eloquent preachers and frequently spoke to these issues in other churches and on public platforms. What Thomas Chalmers and Andrew Thomason were to Glasgow and Edinburgh, Symington was to south-west Scotland. In Glasgow he focused on the thousands drawn into deplorable living conditions by the Industrial Revolution. The church (which seated a thousand people) went to three services, then formed two mission churches and a school system involving over 900 students and fifty teachers. In 1838 the University of Edinburgh recognised his leadership by granting him the degree of DD. His life motto was (in Greek) 'To God Alone be Glory'.

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In 2009, an account of his life, as well as summaries of his books, by Roy Blackwood and Michael Lefebvre, was published by Reformation Heritage Books entitled: William Symington: Penman of the Scottish Covenanters.

The original account of Symington's life was written by his sons and included in the second edition of Messiah the Prince. It is now available on our website. These last two resources make use of Symington's unpublished journal.