Stranraer history

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

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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.

Symington Special!

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The latest issue of Good News, our denomination’s magazine, features former Stranraer minister William Symington on the front cover. Inside, there’s an article about his life written by Stephen, along with a review of the book Penman of the Covenanters, written about him by Roy Blackwood and Michael Lefebvre.

The magazine is available to read in pdf format here. Stephen’s article on Symington (part 1 of 2) is available below:

It would be hard to overestimate the influence of the brothers Andrew and William Symington on the Scottish RP Church. When William, the younger of the two, died in 1862 the Reformed Presbyterian Magazine declared that the brothers ‘will be ever remembered in our community as the most distinguished ministers who have been raised up to us since the martyrdom of James Renwick’. Andrew’s influence came through training generations of ministry students as the denomination’s sole Professor of Theology. William’s came through his writing, public speaking, and preaching ministry, first in the heartland of the Covenanters in South-West Scotland, and then in a large congregation in Glasgow at the height of the Industrial Revolution.

The fact that a 150,000 word PhD has been written on William Symington is an indication that a couple of magazine articles can only scratch the surface when it comes to his extraordinary life. This first article will deal with Symington’s background, early life and years in Stranraer. A second article will cover his family life, writings, ministry in Glasgow and wider influence. 

William Symington lived at a key time in the history of the Scottish RP church, being ordained less than a decade after the scattered congregations of the Reformed Presbytery had been organised into a Synod. The Covenanters who had remained outside what they saw as a ‘new’ Established Church in 1688, had existed as a network of ‘societies’, without a minister until 1706. The first Presbytery was formed in 1743 and a Synod in 1811, with the Symingtons’ father one of the elders present when it was constituted.

William was born in June 1795. After his schooling in Paisley, he began Glasgow University at the age of 15. The most significant event of his early life was undoubtedly his conversion, which took place around the time he turned 17.

When Symington was growing up, the RP Church was still suffering from a shortage of ministers. One of the effects of this is that the Lord’s Supper was only celebrated once a year, at most. Writing in 1881, his sons note ‘At that time it was more of a great and solemn occasion than it is now’. A number of different ministers would have taken part in the services, and crowds of people, often numbering thousands would have travelled long distances to take part.

And it was to a communion season in the summer of 1812 that he traced his own conversion. He wrote in his journal: ‘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 in months past’. 

While there was clearly an emotional element to what happened him that summer, he would have distinguished it from mere emotionalism. In fact, he writes elsewhere that as a schoolboy he had ‘something like what may be called a religious fit’ – where he and a classmate swapped their ‘sinful amusements’ for reading the Bible. But it did not last, and he says ‘in a short time our youthful resolutions and ardent hopes were as though they had not been’.

After university, he began his studies for the ministry, which at the time consisted in attending a term of lectures each autumn under the Reformed Presbyterian Professor of Theology at Stirling.  After his 4 years of training he underwent a year-long ‘probationary tour’ around the vacant churches.

Scotland’s railway network was still a couple of decades in the future so the young Symington had to travel by pony. He called his trusty steed ‘the Irishman’ and the two of them travelled across the bounds of the church. At this time the communicant membership numbered over 10,000 and ministering to them involved travelling from Perthshire to Galloway and from Berwick to the Western Highlands.

He proved a popular preacher from the beginning. There’s no doubt that he was an impressive orator. His sons say that his manner of speaking was more cultivated and graceful than the people had been used to from the older ministers of the denomination. However interestingly he would later instruct students for the ministry to speak naturally – and for an example of natural earnestness he told them to go to the Salt-market and watch the fish-wives bargaining and scolding.

People from other denominations, particularly the Church of Scotland, would also come to hear him – and if he was preaching somewhere for successive weeks the numbers coming to hear him would increase each time. We see from his diary that this was the case when he first preached in Stranraer, coming for a month in January 1819.

The congregation were keen to call him, however he had also received a call from the Airdrie congregation. He chose Stranraer, and that summer made the move from Paisley to Stranraer via boat – a steamer named the Rob Roy.

He was ordained in the open air on the 18th of August, in front of an immense crowd, estimated at between four and five thousand people, which met in the burying ground beside the church. At the time the population of Stranraer itself was only 2,500, with 33,000 in Wigtownshire as a whole. Even allowing for the tradition of people travelling long distances for ordinations and communions, it shows the extent of Reformed Presbyterian influence in the area.

The new minister had his work cut out for him. Local newspaper accounts of the day are filled with lurid details of ‘child murder by unnatural mothers’ and ‘melancholy deaths by drowning, starving and drunken riot’. After some time in Stranraer, we find Symington bemoaning the fact that he can’t get people to give up card playing and parties on the Sabbath. He was also concerned about the growing drinking culture.

Yet even within the churchgoing population, he didn’t find a ready audience. His sons say: ‘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…propounded by the young minister sounded strange and startling to many ears’.

Another contemporary account says: ‘evangelical preaching, at least in the Establishment, was greatly wanting in and around Stranraer as well as generally throughout Galloway’.

However Symington’s greatest concern was not with the state of other congregations, but with that of his own. Soon after he came to Stranraer, the church building was rebuilt to accommodate the growing crowds coming to hear him. Surprisingly, about six months after the new building was opened, we find him down in the dumps. His brother, who has just been visiting, felt the need to write a letter to try and encourage him. It’s clear from both William’s preaching and his diary that he felt many of those coming to hear him were unconverted and indifferent.

Yet while his preaching was to some a fragrance from death to death, to many others it was a fragrance from life to life (2 Cor 2:16). One person who lived in Stranraer at the time writes: ‘During 1819 to 1822, many whom we knew in circles all around believed, for the Gospel was powerfully sent home to his hearers by the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus permanent friendships began—new societies were formed—new lives began’.

While Symington is known as a preacher, he was also a devoted pastor. He kept a record of his pastoral visitation, quite apart from the constant visits required by baptisms, marriages, illness and death. He held classes for the youth who were considering joining the congregation.

In fact, because of the nature of the RP Church at the time, Symington was also responsible for the remainders of the loose network of Covenanting societies throughout the region. These included people who were too geographically remote to regularly attend any of the current RP congregations. He began a regular yearly programme of visitation that took him away from home many days at a time, in all kinds of weather. Following one long period of illness he wrote to another minister: ‘My complaints I ascribe to cold and fatigue…the week  before Presbytery I rode…through bogs and moors visiting in upper Leswalt, and exposed to a keen east wind. The effects of this exertion I had not thrown off when I set off for Castle Douglas’.

The results of his visiting and preaching can be seen in new congregations established around this time in Whithorn, Gatehouse of Fleet, Kilbirnie, Sanquhar and Ettrick, along with four others in and around Dumfries.

Yet even as he saw much fruit from his ministry, he also faced personal affliction and bereavement, with his six-year-old son Robert dying in a tragic accident. And it is with this ‘overwhelming tragedy’ (as two of his other sons describe it) that we’ll take up the story next time.

For a fuller account of Symington’s life, check out the audio and powerpoint of the talk Stephen gave about him in February at the Wigtownshire Antiquarian and Natural History Society.

John Livingstone Commemorated

Last month a new plaque was unveiled marking the ministry of the Covenanter John Livingstone in Stranraer from 1638-48.

His ministry up to and including his time in Stranraer is summarised in the Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology as follows:

The plaque on the church street wall - an identical plaque is on the gate of the High Kirk

The plaque on the church street wall - an identical plaque is on the gate of the High Kirk

‘Licensed to preach in 1625, Livingstone quickly gained a reputation as a powerful preacher, but he refused to enter the parish ministry through opposition to the Five Articles of Perth. In 1630, after being instrumental in a revival at the Kirk of Shotts (Lanarkshire), he crossed to Ireland and became minister of Killinchy in County Down, but he was deposed for nonconformity in 1632. In 1637 Livingstone returned to Scotland to support the Covenanters against Charles I, and became minister of Stranraer, Wigtownshire. He played a notable part in the tumultuous events of the following years. He joined those who demanded the abolition of some traditional practices in worship as unwarranted, and insisted on the right of the godly to hold prayer meetings in addition to attending public worship.’

Livingstone himself recounts how in 1638 he received calls from both ‘Stranrawer in Galloway’ and Straiton in Carrick. He would have chosen Straiton, but sought the advice of six ministers (Robert Blair, David Dickson, Andrew Cant, Alexander Henderson, Samuel Rutherford and his own father) who advised him to choose Stranraer, because it was within four miles of Portpatrick ‘and so nearer for the advantage of our people in Ireland’.

He recounts the 3-day boat journey from Irvine to Stranraer, including a whole day without food or water, concluding ‘yet it pleased the Lord we came safe to Lochryen’. And in words quoted in the newspaper report above, he writes: ‘Some of our friends out of Ireland came and dwelt at Stranraer, and at our communions twice in the year great numbers used to come; at one time 500 persons; and at one time I baptized towards twenty-eight children brought out of Ireland’.

You can read more about Livingstone in:

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W, K. Tweedie, Select Biographies edited for the Wodrow Society (2 vols, Edinburgh, 1845-7), i, 127-370

(republished by Banner of Truth in 2008 as Scottish Puritans).

Church buildings in Wigtownshire

Our church building features in a 2016 publication entitled Church Buildings in Wigtownshire, by John R. Hume.

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In a helpful introduction to the book, Hume notes the pivotal role of Wigtownshire in the Christianisation of Scotland, with physical evidence of early Christianity at Kirkmadrine and Whithorn (where there used to be an RP church). He also notes that in the 20th and 21st centuries rural depopulation has continued, and with it the number of active places of worship, with only a handful of new church buildings constructed since 1945.

It could be added that even in Stranraer itself, church closures and mergers are a constant feature. And while socio-economic factors are doubtless part of it, the Bible alerts us to the fact that there may be another reason for the closure of churches - the Lord Jesus Christ coming and removing lampstands (churches) when they lose their first love (Revelation 2:5). Even in churches which remain open, the Bible has long since been stolen from unsuspecting churchgoers. Against this background we’re grateful that God has preserved us as a congregation to bring the good news about Jesus Christ to 21st century Stranraer.

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The book is available from the Stranraer and District Local History Trust for £4.50.

William Symington, RP minister in Stranraer 1819-39

On Thursday evening, Stephen gave a talk at the Wigtownshire Antiquarian and Natural History Society on Rev. William Symington, who was ordained in Stranraer 200 years ago this year. You can listen to the talk above, and view the accompanying presentation below:

A number of sources mentioned in the talk are available to read on our website. They are:

We have previously made available the contemporary account of his preaching mentioned in the talk, and the entry on Symington in the Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology.

Yesterday, just three days after Stephen’s talk, Roy Blackwood (whose PhD thesis on Symington is invaluable) passed away. You can read a tribute to him on the Gentle Reformation website.