Stranraer history

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.

An RP worship service in 1847

On the 21st of February, Stephen will be giving a talk at the Wigtownshire Antiquarian & Natural History Society on William Symington. 2019 marks 200 years since Symington’s ordination in Stranraer and he remains Stranraer’s most famous minister.

The blurb for the talk is as follows:

2019 will be the 200th anniversary of the Reverend William Symington’s ordination in Stranraer where he commanded significant influence on the south west of Scotland and the wider ecclesiastical scene. A noted evangelical in the covenanting tradition, Symington was none the less outward-looking and deeply involved in social issues such as slavery, illiteracy, and poor working conditions. As the current Reformed Presbyterian minister in Stranraer, and with an MA in history, the Reverend Stephen Steele will present the findings of his research into one of Scotland’s most powerful and eloquent preachers.

As part of his research for the talk, Stephen has been reading some contemporary accounts of Symington. One, in a book entitled Our Scottish Clergy, includes a description of the morning and afternoon worship services in the Great Hamilton Reformed Presbyterian Church in Glasgow in 1847, eight years after Symington moved there from Stranraer.

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Here’s the relevant excerpt:

Last Sabbath, at seven minutes past eleven, he entered his pulpit, and at a quarter-past eleven, the greater part of his large congregation had assembled. Some, however, continued to enter till the half hour. The services were commenced by singing the last four verses of the 31st psalm; and, after prayer, Psalm Ixxi. 10th to 15th verses inclusive, were read and expounded at considerable length (twenty minutes), and then sung. The only thing remarkable in this part of the public services of the body (the Reformed Presbyterian) to which Dr Symington belongs, is their exclusive use of the psalms — paraphrases and hymns being both prohibited. Two minutes before twelve, the 11th and 12th verses of the sixth chapter to the Hebrews were read as the subject of lecture. The lecturer first showed that these verses might be connected with the warning against apostacy in the beginning of the chapter, or with the verses immediately preceding them, in which the apostle had expressed his full confidence in those he addressed. He then proceeded to minutely analyse the subject of lecture, and to give the strict meaning of some of its original terms. He remarked that the word rendered desire in the eleventh verse, means vehement or intense desire, and indicates the deep anxiety a minister feels for his people. He also pointed out the minuteness of ministerial care indicated by the terms "every one" In speaking of Christian assurance, he said that Paul mentions it in three places, and in each of the three its aspect is peculiar. In Col. ii. 2, it is the assurance of understanding; in Heb. x. 22, it is the assurance of faith ; and in the passage under consideration, it is the assurance of hope. The former two passages, he said, referred to objective assurance, the latter to subjective assurance — a perception and conviction of truth revealed, and a personal interest in truth received — the former being the assurance of faith, the latter of sense. He then stated the character of this assurance ; that it was no vague idea of safety, nor even of the mere acting of faith, but a deep personal persuasion of an interest in Christ, founded on satisfactory evidence. That such assurance is attainable he proved from the facts, that it is the subject of apostolic benediction, exhortation, promise, and example. He stated that it was attainable by perseverance and practical godliness, and that all believers had it not, and that no believer had it always. He deprecated the conduct of those who consider doubts and fears essential to safety; these he affirmed were neither parts nor evidences of a man's Christianity. He then stated the three things that the apostle desired of the Hebrews — to show diligence, to avoid sloth, and to imitate those inheriting the promises, who, he said, might be either the living Gentiles, or their departed brethren, the Jews. He concluded by showing that sloth was sufficient to secure irretrievable ruin, and that the example of the saints is designed for imitation. He finished his excellent lecture at five minutes to one o'clock, and concluded the services by prayer, singing, and the benediction which was pronounced shortly after one o'clock.  

In the afternoon the people had assembled by a quarter after two. The church was well filled, almost every pew being fully occupied. After singing, a prayer of much fervour and very great length was offered. A chapter was then read without remark, and the second singing being over, Rom. xiii. 14, "But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ," was announced as the text. He commenced by stating that the text is a counteractive of the evil stated before it. He then divided his subject into two parts. First, he would open up what was meant by putting on Christ ; and, second, he would offer some remarks suggested by the text. On his first head, he remarked that the phrase "put on" is figurative, and is used in reference to God, who is said to put on vengeance, zeal, &c., and also to man — Job says, "I put on righteousness." More particularly he observed, first, that putting on Christ means to make a profession of religion. As many as are baptized, in a certain sense, put on Christ ; but in a higher sense, those who voluntarily and intelligently attend the other rite — the Lord's Supper — comply with the injunction in the text. To put on Christ includes, secondly, believing in him for justification. Thirdly, it means being conformed to the image of Christ, or the possession of a new moral nature. He quoted Ephes. iv. 24, and Col. iii. 10. Fourthly, it includes imitating Christ's example, which he considered the chief idea of the text. Finally, it supposes an appropriating of Christ wholly. He then proceeded to make his general remarks suggested by the text. First, what clothing is to the body, Christ is to the soul — a covering, a comfort, a protection. Second, in putting on Christ, we must put off whatever is opposed to him. Third, Christ ought to be seen in his people — the command is to put on Christ, and what we put on is visible. Fourth, Christ is to be so put on as never to be put off. Fashion or decay induces a change of raiment, but neither affects the putting on in question. He then concluded by censuring those who think it enough that God sees and knows their religion — man must also see and know it. He briefly described the happiness of those who have put on Christ, who are clothed in the fine linen clean and white — the righteousness of saints. The discourse commenced at a quarter to three, and was finished at twenty minutes to four. The concluding services were similar to those in the forenoon, and the congregation was dismissed at ten minutes to four.