William Symington (Part 2): Family man, author and public figure


The latest issue of the RPCS magazine ‘Good News’ features the second part of Stephen’s biographical sketch of Stranraer’s most famous minister, William Symington. The first part can be read here.

A modern-day minister, when asked for his thoughts on the art of preaching, said ‘a thousand sorrows teaches a man to preach’. William Symington certainly knew about sorrow, and the greatest grief of his life was the death of his six-year-old son in August 1833.

During the month that marked fourteen years since his ordination in Stranraer, William and Agnes’s fourth child, Robert, was playing in the manse garden when a stone pillar supporting a sun dial fell on him. He suffered an internal injury, and despite the efforts of three doctors, died within thirty-six hours.

There are a number of touching details associated with the tragic event. His mother gently asked him a number of questions about his faith in Christ and hope for Heaven. Doubtless most of them were catechism questions he had learnt before. But she couldn’t help asking him a final question: ‘Would you not be sorry to leave us all?’ To which he responded by putting his arms around her neck and telling her not to cry because he was going to be with Jesus’.

Thinking back to the event as a widow, nearly 30 years later, Agnes charged her youngest son never to forget a certain friend because of the love he’d shown at the time. The sons don’t tell us his full name, but she was almost certainly talking about James M’Gill. M’Gill was a farmer’s son from Portpatrick and had been part of the Stranraer congregation as a 13 year-old when Symington was ordained. He had gone on to become a minister himself, at Hightae, near Lockerbie.

Agnes told her youngest son: ‘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. 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.’

For her husband, grief drove him to writing – both for himself and for a wider audience. Among his papers was found a sixteen-page document called ‘Memorial of a severe domestic bereavement’, where every detail is recorded of what the sons describe as an ‘overwhelming calamity’.

His grief also led him to resume writing his first book-length publication. It was entitled On the Atonement and Intercession of Jesus Christ and was published in May 1834, less than a year after Robert’s death. As the title suggests, the book is about Jesus’ role as a priest – both in the past, as he made atonement for our sins on the cross – and in the present as he prays for us in Heaven.

The book was well received, and a second edition was published four months later. Within two years, the book had made its way across the Atlantic where it went through four editions by 1858.  By the middle of the century it had become one of the standard works in the field, and even as far away as southeast India students for the ministry were being trained with it as a primary text.

The preface to the book gives us an insight into the challenge of writing such a book in a location like Stranraer two hundred years ago. Symington says that since commencing the undertaking he had often had occasion to regret the remoteness of his situation, which was at a distance from those stores of learning to which he might otherwise have had access. Any time he was in Glasgow or Edinburgh he found himself spending part of the day at bookshops. Occasionally this would be supplemented by bundles of pamphlets or journals from friends in America.

Any booklover could identify with the following tongue in cheek paragraph, written in a letter to a fellow minister, that he would surely have been mortified to think of being made public:

‘The love of books is with me a perfect mania. When I see anything particular advertised, I immediately conceive a wish to have it – I persuade myself that really I ought to have it – and between the desire to have it and the reluctance to pay for it I am on the fidgets day and night. Then some demon or other whispers, “Your credit is good, it is a good while to the month of May, before then you will have had your purse replenished with next half year’s stipend” - the temptation succeeds; and off goes a post letter for the desired article, all objections, financial as well as others, being unceremoniously sent about their business. In this way I have nearly ruined myself - and the worst of it is that I am nearly incorrigible. Unlike other sinners, misery does not lead me to repent – or if I do repent, I do not at all events reform. Can you tell me what is to become of me? The jail I suppose’.

A second book, and the for which he’s most well-known, followed in 1839, entitled Messiah the Prince – a phrase taken from the book of Daniel. If his first book had been about Christ as a priest, this one was about Christ as a king. It remains the definitive articulation of the principles of the Covenanting movement. Both of his books have been republished in the twenty-first century.

The Covenanters had abandoned the state churches and taken to the hills because they believed that no king, archbishop or any other human being could decide how the church worshipped – that would be a usurpation of the rights of Christ. But although they believed in a separation of church and state, they didn’t believe in a radical separation. They believed that it was the duty of political leaders to rule according to God’s word. In other words, they believed in the kingship of Christ in the state as well as the church.  

The book was written at a time when the doctrine of Christ’s kingship over the church was becoming particularly relevant. Long running grievances in the National Church were coming to the boil, and would result in the Disruption of 1843, when one third of the ministers in the Church of Scotland left to form the Free Church.

The key issue which led to the Disruption was whether congregations had the right to choose their own ministers, or if they had to submit to the wishes of the local landowner – so it was really an issue of who gets to call the shots in the church. Those who formed the Free Church in 1843 saw the debate as being about the ‘Crown rights of Jesus Christ’. Given this background, Symington’s book about the kingship of Christ, published four years before the key event, was timely to say the least. There’s no doubt that the book, written in Stranraer at such a key time, impacted some of those who would lead the new denomination out of the Established Church.

When the momentous day came, Symington was there to see it. He wrote in his journal: ‘Witnessed the Disruption in the Church of Scotland – a splendid sight. Worth living a century to behold’.

When asked why he didn’t join the Free Church himself, he quoted the exchange between the Apostle Paul and a Roman tribute in the book of Acts. The tribune says: ‘With a great sum obtained I this freedom’. Paul replies: ‘But I was free born’. In other words, Symington was saying he didn’t need to join a church free from state interference, because his church had been free of it from the start.

It would be wrong, however, to see Symington as someone who delighted in division. The 19th century was the era of great religious and philanthropic societies. Symington was involved in many of them from the beginning, alongside evangelicals from other denominations. These included Bible Societies, Temperance Societies, the Sabbath School movement, missionary societies, Widow and Orphan societies.

He preached in many churches outside his own denomination. Shortly after the formation of the Free Church he was asked to preach the opening sermon at an interdenominational conference to mark the bicentenary of the Westminster Assembly, where the key documents of British and American Presbyterianism had been drawn up. That sermon, entitled ‘Love one another’, included a call for unity, which led two years later to the first meeting of the World Evangelical Alliance.

Symington also took part in many public meetings and gatherings in Glasgow, often at the city hall, on the great issues of the day. He spoke in favour of government education, Gaelic schools and a public female benevolent society – and against government support for a Roman Catholic training college at Maynooth, Sabbath railways and the government’s slave trade treaties with Spain and Brazil.

By this time, he was a minister in Glasgow, in a building which held 1000 people. But would the message of this descendent of the seventeenth century Covenanters still be relevant in a booming nineteenth century city in the grip of the Industrial Revolution?

It is with an account of Symington’s 23 years of ministry in Glasgow that we will conclude this series next time.