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.