Thomas M'Crie the elder
- For his eldest son, of the same name, see Thomas M'Crie the Younger.
Thomas M'Crie was born in Duns, the eldest of a family of four sons and three daughters. His father was a manufacturer and merchant in Duns, and lived to witness the literary celebrity of his son, as his death did not occur until 1828. Thomas was educated at the High School in Edinburgh.
He was nursed in the class of Secession called "Anti-burghers" during the time when it still retained much of the primitive earnestness and simplicity of the old days of the covenant. Upon being sent to the parish school, young M'Crie soon became not only an apt scholar, but distinguished for applying the habits of hard work in which he would later employ in his historical and antiquarian research. This progress, however, was somewhat alarming to his cautious father, who saw no reason for impoverishing a whole family to make his first-born a finished scholar. Had these paternal purposes been carried out, perhaps the future biographer of John Knox and Andrew Melville would have become nothing better than a thriving Berwickshire store-keeper, or a prosperous mercantile adventurer in London. But kind relatives interposed, and the boy was allowed to follow his original bent. This he did so effectually that before he had reached the age of fifteen, he was himself able to become a teacher in two country schools successively.
Education and marriage
At the age of 16, Thomas M'Crie enrolled as a student in the University of Edinburgh. His favourite studies at the university were those allied with ethics, philology, and history. In this way his course went on from year to year, his studies being frequently alternated with the laborious work of a schoolmaster, but his mind exhibiting on every occasion a happy combination of student-like diligence. In September 1795, he was licensed to be a preacher by the Associate Presbytery of Kelso; and in this capacity his first public attempts were so acceptable that, little more than a month after being licensed, he received a call from the Associate congregation in Potter Row, Edinburgh, to become their second minister.
A short time after he had entered the work of the ministry, he married Miss Janet Dickson, daughter of a respectable farmer in Swinton, to whom he had long been attached. Their long marriage lasted until the death of his wife some years later.
At the outset of his ministry, Thomas M'Crie's sermons were distinguished by a careful attention to those requirements of eloquence and rules of oratory, in which he excelled. Indeed, the older brethren seem to have been of the opinion that M'Crie's eloquence and speech was carried to such an undue length that it was in danger of glorifying himself more than the Word of God. He soon appears to have been of the same opinion himself, more especially after a missionary tour through the Orkney Islands, hitherto in a state of grievous spiritual destitution, but now eager to hear the word of life, in whatever form it was proclaimed; and there he saw, in the demeanour of his primitive audiences, the vast importance of the great doctrines of salvation, as compared with those mere human appliances by which it is adorned and recommended. This wholesome conviction brought him back, not, however, with recoil into the opposite extreme, but into that happy medium where the true grandeur of the subject is allowed its full predominance, and where its expression is valued by how much the speaker himself becomes invisible behind his all-important theme.
This, indeed, is the secret of true pulpit eloquence; an eloquence M'Crie attained after his return from Orkney. The consequence was that his acceptability as a preacher increased, his congregation became more numerous, and a deeper spirit of earnestness was manifested in their general bearing and character.
The same spirit of disinterested devotedness to his work was also evinced by Mr. M'Crie in trials which some may reckon equally hard to be withstood. Though his flock was numerous, it was chiefly from the humbler classes, so that his income was a small one; and in 1798, the price of provisions rose so high that families of limited means were reduced to near or outright poverty. In this state of things, the congregation of Potter Row adopted the generous resolution of increasing the salary of their minister; but no sooner did he hear of it, than he wrote to them a letter, earnestly dissuading them from the measure. "The allowance which you promised me," he said,
"when I first came among you as your minister, and which has been always punctually paid, though not so liberal as what may be given to others of the same station in this place, has hitherto been sufficient. From any general knowledge I have of the state of your funds, it is as much as you can be supposed to give, especially considering the burdens under which you labour. The expense of living has indeed been increasing for some time past, but the incomes of trades-people have not increased in proportion; and as the most of you are of that description, I don't consider myself entitled to make any increasing demand upon you."
This kind negation was gratefully received, and inserted in the minute-book of the congregation. Here, however, the disinterestedness of their pastor did not terminate. That period of famine, so universal throughout Britain, and still well remembered in Scotland as "The Dearth," had reached its height in 1800, so that the middle were now transformed into the lower classes, while the lower were little better than paupers. At this crisis the minister stepped forward with a generous proposal; it was that, in consequence of the prevalent poverty, the amount of his stipend should be reduced. The people, however, who were able to appreciate his motives, refused to consent, and thus ended a contest that was equally honourable to both.
The Scottish Reformation and controversy
After this, the life of Mr. M'Crie was fated for some time to be embittered by ecclesiastical controversy. The great subject of religious debate in Scotland has been, since the Reformation, not so much about Christian doctrine as about Christian polity. What is the duty of the state in aiding, upholding, and fortifying the spiritual government of the church? And what is the nature and amount of that deference which the church should render to the state in return? The relationship between these powers was fully established in Scotland by the first and second Books of Discipline, and finally ratified by the Westminster Confession of Faith.
But toward the close of the last century, the principles of the French revolution, so active in other countries, had also found their entrance into Scotland; and there they menaced not only the civil but also the ecclesiastical authority of the state. This was especially the case in that body called the Secession, to a part of which Mr. M'Crie belonged. The Seceders had caught that Gallican spirit so hostile to kings and rulers, and they now found out that all connection between church and state should cease. Each was to shift for itself as it best could, without the aid or co-operation of the other; while kings and magistrates, instead of being bound by their office to be nursing fathers of the church, were engaged to nothing more, and could claim nothing higher, than what they might effect as mere members and private individuals. In this way the Voluntary principle was recognised as the only earthly stay of the church's dependence, and the party who adopted it thenceforth became, not seceders from the Establishment, but Dissenters. It was thus that they closed and bolted the door against any future reunion with the parent church, let the latter become as reformed and as pure as it might.
In this painful controversy, Mr. M'Crie was deeply involved, and he took the unpopular side of the question, holding fast by those original standards of the Secession which the majority were so eager to abandon. The result was that numbers and votes prevailed, so that he, and three conscientious brethren of the church who held the same principles with himself, were formally deposed in 1806. The dissidents, under the new name of the Constitutional Associate Presbytery, were thus dispossessed of their churches, but not of their congregations, who still adhered to them. They repaired to new places of worship and continued to exercise their ministry as before. In this way they formed a separate and distinct, though small and unnoticed body, until 1827, when they united themselves with another portion of protesters from the same synod, under the common title of Original Seceders.
During the progress of these events, which extended over a course of years, and with which Mr. M'Crie was so vitally connected, their whole bearing of the Original Seceders had a most momentous influence upon M'Crie's future literary labours. They threw his mind back upon the original principles of the Scottish Reformation, and made them the chief subjects of his inquiry; they brought him into close contact with those illustrious characters by whom the Reformation was commenced; and they animated and strengthened that love of religious consistency, and hostility to ecclesiastical tyranny and oppression, that accorded so materially with his original character.
In the following sentence from one of his letters in 1802 can be glimpsed the man who set at nought the demolition of such things as cathedrals and monasteries when they hindered the erection of a true church, and who was well fitted to become the biographer of him whose stern principle was, "Pull down the nests and the rooks will flee." "There is something," he thus writes,
"in the modern study of the fine arts, belles-lettres, and mere antiquities, that gives the mind a littleness which totally unfits it for being suitably affected with things truly great in characters eminent for love of religion, liberty, and true learning. To demolish a Gothic arch, break a pane of painted glass, or deface a picture, are with them acts of ferocious sacrilege, not to be atoned for, the perpetrators of which must be ipso facto excommunicated from all civil society, and reckoned henceforth among savages; while to preserve these magnificent trifles, for which they entertain a veneration little less idolatrous than their Popish or Pagan predecessors, they would consign whole nations to ignorance or perdition."
Sentiments thus inspired, and researches so conducted, were not allowed to lie idle; and accordingly, from 1802 to 1806, he was a contributor to the Christian Magazine, the pages of which he enriched with several valuable historical and biographical sketches. The titles of these sufficiently indicated the nature of his present studies, while their excellence gave promise of what might yet be accomplished. The chief of them were an Account of the concluding part of the Life and the Death of that illustrious man, John Knox, the most faithful Restorer of the Church of Scotland, being a translation from the work of Principal Smeton; a Memoir of Mr. John Murray, minister of Leith and Dunfermline, in the beginning of the 17th century; a Sketch of the Progress of the Reformation in Spain, with an account of the Spanish Protestant Martyrs; The Suppression of the Reformation in Spain; the Life of Dr. Andrew Rivet, the French Protestant minister; the Life of Patrick Hamilton; the Life of Francis Lambert, of Avignon; and the Life of Alexander Henderson.
The journal in which they appeared was of limited circulation, and its literary merits were little appreciated, so that these admirable articles were scarcely known beyond the small circle of subscribers to the Christian Magazine, most of whom were Seceders.
In this way, the mind of the author had been imbued with the subject of the Reformation at large; and he had been thus led to study its developments, not only in Scotland, but in Spain, France, and Italy. But in which of these important departments was his first great attempt in historical authorship to be made? Happily, his mind was not out at sea upon this conclusive question, for by the close of 1803 his choice had been decided. It was that of a leal-hearted Scotsman and zealous Covenanter, and on the proposal that had been made to him of writing a separate work instead of unconnected articles, he thus replies:
"As you have suggested this, I shall use the freedom of mentioning to you a floating idea which has sometimes passed through my mind, without ever assuming the formality of a resolution or design; namely, a selection of lives of Scottish reformers, in some such order as to embrace the most important periods of the history of the Church of Scotland; in which a number of facts which are reckoned too minute and trivial for general history might be brought to bear upon, and occasionally illustrate it. The order, for instance, might be (I write merely from the recollection of the moment), Patrick Hamilton, George Wishart, John Knox, John Craig, Andrew Melvine, Patrick Simpson, Robert Bruce, &c."
It is easy to see how this variety, comprising the chief personages of the first and second great movements of the Scottish Reformation, would finally resolve themselves into John Knox and Andrew Melville, to whom the others were merely subsidiary. With Knox, therefore, he commenced; and the task was not an easy one. Obscure authors had to be discovered, and long-forgotten books resuscitated; contending facts had to be weighed, and contradictory statements reconciled; while a mass of manuscripts, such as might have daunted the most zealous antiquary at a period when Scottish antiquarianism was still in infancy, had to be pored over and deciphered. And all this was to be accomplished, not by the sung Fellow of a college, reposing in learned leisure in the deep shadow of Gothic halls which the sound of the world could not reach, but by one who had the weekly and daily toil of a Scottish Secession minister to interrupt him, as well as its very scanty emoluments to impede his efforts and limit his literary resources.
And all this for what? The whole literary world was now united against John Knox, whose very name was the signal for ridicule or execration. The man whose heart was so hard and pitiless, who demolished stately architectures and fair churches from sheer hatred of things grand or beautiful, who shared in, or at least who countenanced, the foulest assassinations of the period, and who had finally imposed upon the land a sour, shrivelled, and soul-stunting creed, under the name of a reformation, which, thanks to Moderatism, the country was now getting rid of. This was he whom M'Crie, under every disadvantage, and at every hazard, was resolved to chronicle and to vindicate.
The materials for this important work, as may readily be surmised, had been long in accumulating: as for the Life itself, it appears to have been fairly commenced in 1807, and it was published in 1811. On its appearance, the public was for a while silent: many were doubtless astonished that such a subject should have been chosen at all, while some must have wondered that it could be handled so well. A complete change was to be wrought upon public feeling, and the obloquy of two centuries was to be recanted.
At length, "the song began from Jove,"—for the first keynote was sounded, and the chorus led by no less a journal than the Edinburgh Review, now the great oracle of the world of criticism, while the article itself was written by no less a personage than Francis Jeffrey, the hierophant and Pontifex Maximus of critics. After commencing his critique with an allusion to those distinguished benefactors whose merits the world has been tardy in acknowledging, the reviewer thus continues:
"Among the many who have suffered by this partiality of fortune, we scarcely know any one to whom harder measure has been dealt, than the eminent person who is the subject of the work before us. In the reformed island of Great Britain no honours now wait on the memory of the greatest of the British reformers; and even among us zealous Presbyterians of the north, the name of Knox, to whom our Presbyterian Church is indebted, not merely for its establishment, but its existence, is oftener remembered for reproach than for veneration; and his apostolic zeal and sanctity, his heroic courage, his learning, talents, and accomplishments, are all coldly forgotten; while a thousand tongues are still ready to pour out their censure or derision of his fierceness, his ambition, and his bigotry. Some part of this injustice we must probably be content to ascribe to the fatality to which we have already made reference; but some part, at least, seems to admit of a better explanation."
After having stated these palliating circumstances, in which a portion of the general prejudice originated, the critic adds:
"From these, or from other causes, however, it seems to be undeniable that the prevailing opinion about John Knox, even in this country, has come to be, that he was a fierce and gloomy bigot, equally a foe to polite learning and innocent enjoyment; and that, not satisfied with exposing the abuses of the Romish superstitions, he laboured to substitute for the rational religion and regulated worship of enlightened men, the ardent and un-rectified spirit of vulgar enthusiasm, dashed with dreams of spiritual and political independence, and all the impracticability's of the earthly kingdom of the saints. How unfair, and how marvellously incorrect these representations are, may be learned from the perusal of the book before us – a work which has afforded us more amusement and more instruction than any thing we ever read upon the subject; and which, independent of its theological merits, we do not hesitate to pronounce by far the best piece of history which has appeared since the commencement of our critical career. It is extremely accurate, learned, and concise, and, at the same time, very full of spirit and animation, exhibiting, as it appears to us, a rare union of the patient research and sober judgment which characterize the more laborious class of historians, with the boldness of thinking and force of imagination which is sometimes substituted in their place. It affords us very great pleasure to bear this public testimony to the merits of a writer who has been hitherto unknown, we believe, to the literary world either of this or the neighbouring country; of whom, or of whose existence at least, though residing in the same city with ourselves, it never was our fortune to have heard till his volume was put into our hands; and who, in his first emergence from the humble obscurity in which he has pursued the studies and performed the duties of his profession, has presented the world with a work which may put so many of his contemporaries to the blush, for the big promises they have broken, and the vast opportunities they have neglected."
This was much, coming as it did from the Edinburgh Review, a work that hitherto had been by no means distinguished for its advocacy of Christian principles or love of evangelical piety; and nothing, therefore, was better fitted to arrest the attention of the world in behalf of the volume that had lately appeared. The subject thus discussed in the great northern journal for July 1812, was taken up by its powerful southern rival, and in the Quarterly Review of July 1813, appeared a critique, in which the reviewers, in their admiration of John Knox, seem to have allowed their well-known devotedness to Episcopacy and Toryism for the time to go to sleep.
After expressing their admiration that the Scottish reformer should have found a better biographer than had yet fallen to the lot of even John Calvin and Martin Luther, they thus characterise the literary merits of the work:
"Compact and vigorous, often coarse, but never affected, without tumour and without verbosity, we can scarcely forbear to wonder by what effort of taste or discrimination the style of Dr. M'Crie has been preserved so nearly unpolluted by the disgusting and circumlocutory nonsense of his contemporaries. Here is no puling about the 'interesting sufferer,' 'the patient saint,' 'the angelic preacher.' Knox is plain Knox, in acting and in suffering always a hero; and his story is told as a hero would wish that it should be told – with simplicity, precision, and force."
Still, however, the reviewers could not well get over the old John Knox, the destroyer of cathedrals, the man whose heart was said to be so hard and pitiless that the tears of Queen Mary fell on it as upon cold iron, and in their wrath they administered the following rebuke to the biographer, which, however, he accepted as no small compliment:
"But of the literal subversion of many noble buildings, which, perhaps unavoidably, took place in the course of this great revolution, Dr. M'Crie permits himself to speak with a savage and sarcastic triumph, which evinces how zealous and practical a helper he would himself have proved in the work of destruction, had he been born in the 16th century. Less, we are persuaded, would then have been heard of Row or Willock, as auxiliaries of Knox, than of M'Crie.... Like Knox himself, he has neither a tear nor a sigh for Mary; and we doubt not that, like him, he would have voted to bring the royal adulteress and murderer, for such both esteem her, to the block."
"Is not that great praise?" says M'Crie, with good humour, while quoting to a friend this portion of the criticism. The other journals followed the lead of their two Titans; and encouraged by the reception of the work, and the high importance it quickly attained, the author commenced a second edition, in which he judiciously availed himself not only of the advice, but in many cases of the harsh censures of his numerous reviewers. The result was that in 1813, he published a second edition of the Life of John Knox, so greatly amplified and improved, as to be almost a new work; and this, in course of time, was translated and published in French, Dutch, and German.
Previous to the appearance of the second edition, the author had been honoured with the degree of doctor in divinity by the University of Edinburgh, the first instance in which it had ever conferred the title upon a Dissenting minister. This distinction, however, Dr. M'Crie had neither sought nor expected; it was frankly given upon the application of Mr. Blackwood, his publisher, and the chief difficulty lay in persuading the author to allow the initials to be appended to his name in the second edition of the work. His opinion was, that such distinctions were incompatible with the strictness of Presbyterian parity.
A compromise, however, was effected. He could not prevent the world from terming him Doctor, or become deaf when he was thus hailed; but when he went to the church courts he there sought equality with his brethren, and nothing more, and would allow himself to be designated as nothing higher than the Rev. Mr. M'Crie. It would, indeed, have been passing strange if our northern seats of learning had failed to confer their highest honours upon him who had achieved a literary feat so difficult, and achieved it so well. For by one great effort he had rolled back the tide of obloquy under which the most honoured of our national names had been buried so long, and restored it to its proper eminence and lustre. He had enabled Scotsmen to avoid the shame which they and their fathers had felt when that name was mentioned in their hearing, and inspired them with an honest pride in the character of their reformer. He had even carried this success into England, and made John Knox as popular there as he was at first, when he was the friend and assistant of Cranmer, the chaplain of Edward VI, and the solicited but recusant object of an English mitre. But wider and wider still the circle of intelligence upon the character of the Scottish reformer had been expanded, until the pious and reflective of Europe at large were enabled to perceive, and obliged to confess, that the ruthless demolisher of goodly architecture, which every other country had spared, was neither an illiterate Goth nor a ferocious Vandal, but one of those illustrious few of whom history is so justly proud. All this was much, but it was not yet the utmost which Dr. M'Crie had effected. Knox had, as it were, been recalled to life, and sent once more upon his momentous mission. His presence was seen and his voice heard in every district in Scotland. A heedless generation, by whom he was despised or neglected, had been compelled yet again to hear the instructions which he had formerly uttered, and to ponder for themselves how woefully these instructions had been forgot.
In short, their attention had been irresistibly called to the subject of the Scottish Reformation, and the principles upon which their church had been founded, and to the inquiry as to whether these principles were still in operation, or hastening to become a mere dead letter. And this inquiry was neither unnecessary nor in vain. A death-blow was struck at that Erastianism which had lately become so predominant in the Church of Scotland; and such was the spirit of research among the mouldering records of its long-neglected library, and the ardour with which they were published and diffused, that the former ignorance and indifference could be tolerated no longer. These effects went on from year to year, and their result we know. Scotland is now awake, and the creed which was almost filched from her relaxing hand, is held with as tight a grasp as ever.
The next literary undertaking, in which we find Dr. M'Crie employed, was a conflict with an antagonist every way worthy of his prowess. The "Great Unknown" was now in the ascendant, and as he wrote to amuse, he was sure of the sympathies of at least three-fourths of the community. Such he must have felt when he gave to the world the tale of "Old Mortality," in which the Covenanters were held up to derision, while their sufferings were described as justly merited. All this was enough for the novel-reading public, that was too ignorant to know, and too idle to inquire, and accordingly the statements of Sir Walter Scott, embodied as they were in so attractive a form, were received as veritable history. Nothing was now more common in England, and it may be added in Scotland also, than to hear the martyr-spirit of the days of the covenant laughed at, and its choicest adherents represented as madmen, fanatics, and cut-throats. It was needful that the "Author of Waverley" should be met by a fitting antagonist, and this he soon found in the author of the life of John Knox. No two such other men could have been culled from the crowded ranks of British literature -— the one so completely the type of ancient feudalism and Episcopacy in grafted on modern Toryism, and the other of the sturdy independence of the good old Whiggamores, and the Presbyterian devotedness of Drumelog and the Grassmarket.
Dr. M'Crie had also the greater right to step forward on this occasion. An elaborate review of "Old Mortality" was therefore written, and published in the first three numbers of the Christian Instructor for the year 1817. It could scarcely have been expected from one so competent to the task as Dr. M'Crie, that it would have been otherwise than a complete historical refutation of the misstatements of the novel, and a successful vindication of the vilified Covenanters. But it was also something more than this in the eyes of Scott and his admirers; for it attacked him with a strength of wit and power of sarcasm that threatened to turn the laugh against himself, and foil him at his own chosen weapon. So at least he felt, and his complaints upon the subject, as well as his attempted defence in the Quarterly Review, bespoke a mind ill at ease about the issue of such a controversy. The result was that the novelist was generally condemned, and that his tale, notwithstanding the popularity which at first attended it, sank in popular estimation, and became one of the least valued of all his admired productions.
The success, with which the Life of Knox was attended, would have been sufficient to make most authors repeat the attempt; but, besides this, the task of Dr. M'Crie had already been chosen, of which his first great effort had only been the commencement. The distinguished lights of the Scottish Reformation had long stood arrayed before his view as successively demanding their due commemoration; and after having completed the first and best in the series, the choice of the next was not a matter of difficulty. "If the love of pure religion, rational liberty, and polite letters," he writes, "forms the basis of national virtue and happiness, I know no individual, after her reformer, from whom Scotland has received greater benefits, and to whom she owes a deeper debt of gratitude and respect, than Andrew Melville."
Upon this, therefore, he had been employed for years, and towards the close of 1819 the Life of Andrew Melville was published. Such was the toil which this work occasioned him, which he was wont to say it had cost him "a hundred times more labour than the life of Knox." This will be apparent when we consider not only the immense quantity of facts which such a narrative involved, but the difficulty of finding them, as they were no longer the broad, distinct, and widely published statements which so largely enter into the history of our first reformers. And yet, though the life of Melville is to the full as well written as that of Knox, and exhibits still greater learning and research, it never attained the same popularity. The cause of this is to be found in the subject itself. After the national hero has crossed the scene, all who follow in his path, be their deeds and merits what they may, must possess an inferior interest. Besides this, Melville was not a reformer from Popery, the common enemy of the Protestant Church, but from Episcopacy; and therefore, while the interest of the event was mainly confined to Presbyterian Scotland, it excited dislike in England, while it awoke scarcely any sympathy in the continental reformed churches. But will the work continue to be thus rated beneath its value?—we scarcely think so. The great question of centuries, the question of the rights of the church in reference to its connection with the state, promises to become more generally felt and more keenly agitated than ever; and in this important controversy, the opinions and example of Andrew Melville are likely to assume their due weight. And where, in this case, will posterity be likely to find a record better written than that of Dr. M'Crie? It may be, that before the present century has closed, his Life of Andrew Melville will be more widely perused and deeply considered than the author himself could have anticipated.
Calamities and afflictions of various kinds were now at hand to try the temper and purify the patience of the hitherto successful author. The perils by which the principle of church establishment was beset, and the prospect of further division among Christian communities, clouded his spirit with anxious forebodings -— for his was not a temper to rest satisfied that all should be well in his own day. Domestic sorrow was soon added to his public anxieties; for his amiable partner in life, who for the last six years had been an invalid, was removed from him by death in June 1821. Soon afterwards his own health began to fail, in consequence of his intense application to study; and even his eyesight was so impaired with the poring of years over dim and difficult manuscripts, as to threaten total blindness.
Cessation from labour and the recreation of travel were judged necessary for his recovery; and accordingly, in the summer of 1822, he made a short tour of two months to the continent, during which his studies were only changed, not suspended, and he returned home considerably invigorated in health and spirits. On his return, a new and soul-inspiring subject quickly brought him into action; it was the cause of Greece, that land so trampled under foot and crushed into the dust by centuries of oppression, but now rising from the dead; the first to attempt the great historical problem, as to whether a whole nation may be capable of a resurrection and a new life after ages of death and burial. But something more than mere historic curiosity was aroused by the event. Sympathy was also kindled throughout our whole island for the sufferings of the Greeks in their new war of independence, so that British swords and British money were freely tendered in their behalf. And not the least or the latest in this good cause was the city of Edinburgh, now rejoicing in the title of "Modern Athens," and prompt, by its brotherly sympathy, to make that title good.
Public meetings were called for the purpose of raising money for the relief of the inhabitants of Scio, and for the promotion of education in Greece, and on both occasions Dr. M'Crie was enlisted as the advocate of suffering Hellas. He was now to appear before the public in a new phase. Hitherto he had carefully avoided addressing such meetings, while his pulpit oratory was the stern, unadorned, didactic theology of the old school. But eloquent as was the historian of Knox in the closet, and amidst historic details, was he also capable of eloquence in the crowded popular assembly, with a subject so delicate as Greece for his theme? The answer was given in addresses so imbued with the spirit of ancient heroism and Marathonian liberty, so pervaded by the classical tone of Athenian poetry, and so wide in their range, from playful, refined, subtle wit, to the most vehement and subduing appeals of outraged indignant humanity, that the audiences were astonished and electrified.
It was now evident that, had he so pleased, he might have been among the first of our orators. But hitherto he had been content to be known as a theologian and historian, while he magnanimously left it to others to shine upon the platform; and having now performed his allotted task, he retired, amidst the deep wonderment of his hearers, to the modest seclusion of his study, and the silent labours that awaited him there.
And these labours were not pursued remissly. Besides his studies for the pulpit, which he prosecuted with all the diligence of his early days, he continued his researches into the history of the period of the Reformation; and in 1825, he published his edited Memoirs of Mr. William Veitch and George Bryson, written by themselves, narratives which he considered of high importance, as illustrative of the covenanting days of Scotland, and to which he appended biographical sketches and illustrative notes. In 1827 appeared his History of the Progress and Suppression of the Reformation in Italy, a work that had formed the subject of his earlier studies, but for many years had been laid aside. It was a most complex and laborious task, as he was obliged to trace the origin, progress, and decline of the Reformation through twenty-five of the Italian states, among which the great movement was divided. Such was the interest of this work, that it was translated into French, German, and Dutch, and inserted by the ecclesiastical tribunal of Rome in the Index Expurgatorius.
In 1829, he published The Progress and Suppression of the Reformation in Spain in the Sixteenth Century, a sequel to The History of the Reformation in Italy during the same period. As a proof of his indefatigable diligence and zeal in the study of history, it may be mentioned here, that to make himself fully acquainted with the two last subjects, he had mastered, in the decline of his days, the Spanish and Italian languages, that he might study the proper authorities from their original sources.
While Dr. M'Crie was thus occupied, the bill introduced in 1829 for the emancipation of Roman Catholics from political restrictions, and their admission into places of authority and trust, was passed. It is perhaps unnecessary to add, that one who had studied and written as he had done, was entirely opposed to the measure. He not only thought it unsafe to concede such privileges, in a Protestant country, to men doing homage to a foreign ecclesiastical power and a hostile creed, but he was also of opinion that by such concessions our country abandoned the solemn covenants to which it had pledged itself since the Reformation, and forfeited the privileges which it enjoyed as the head of European Protestantism.
In the old covenanting spirit, he carried the subject to the pulpit, where it had but too much right to enter, and in his lectures on the book of Ezra, where it could be appropriately introduced, he uttered his prophetic warnings.
"We have been told from a high quarter," he said, "to avoid such subjects, unless we wish to rekindle the flames of Smithfield, now long forgotten. Long forgotten! where forgotten? In heaven? No. In Britain? God forbid! They may be forgotten at St. Stephen's or Westminster Abbey, but they are not forgotten in Britain. And if ever such a day arrives, the hours of Britain's prosperity have been numbered."
He drew up a petition against the measure, which was signed by 13,150 names, but this, like other petitions of the same kind, was ineffectual. The bill was passed, and silly, duped, disappointed Britain is now ready, like the Roman voter in favour of Coriolanus, to exclaim, "An' it were to do again -— but no matter!"
Career's end and more controversy
The career of Dr. M'Crie was now drawing to a termination. His literary labours, especially in the lives of Knox and Melville, combined with his extreme care that every idea which he gave forth to the public, and every sentence in which it was embodied, should be worthy of those important subjects in which he dealt —- all this, connected with the daily and almost hourly avocations of his ministerial office, and the numerous calls that were made upon him, in consequence of his interference with the great public movements of the day, had reduced him to the debility and bodily ailments of "threescore and ten," while as yet he was ten years short of the mark. But his was a mind that had never rested, and that knew not how to rest.
In 1827, he had enjoyed the satisfaction, after much labour and anxiety, of seeing a union effected between the church party to which he belonged, and the body who had seceded from the Burgher and Antiburgher Synods in 1820, under the name of Protesters; and, in 1830, his anxieties were excited, and his pen employed, in endeavours to promote a union between his own party, now greatly increased, and the Associate Synod of Original Burghers. Many may smile at these divisions as unnecessary and unmeaning, and many may wonder that such a mind as that of Dr. M'Crie should have been so intent in reconciling them. But religious dissension is no triviality, and the bond of Christian unity is worth any sacrifice short of religious principle; and upon this subject, therefore, the conscientious spirit of Dr. M'Crie was as anxious as ever was statesman to combine jarring parties into one, for the accomplishment of some great national and common benefit. While thus employed, a heavy public bereavement visited him with all the weight of a personal affliction; this was the death of the Rev. Dr. Andrew Thomson, who, in the full strength and vigour of his days, suddenly fell down and expired upon the threshold of his home, which he was just about to enter.
By this event, which occurred on 9 February 1831, Dr. M'Crie was bereaved of a close affectionate intercourse which he had for years enjoyed with a most congenial heart and intellect, and saw himself fated to hold onward in his course, and continue the "good fight," un-cheered by the voice that had so often revived his courage.
At this time he was living on the south side of Edinburgh at 13 Salisbury Place.
After he had rallied from the unexpected blow, Dr. M'Crie was employed in what was called the "Marrow Controversy," which, notwithstanding the uncouth title it bore, had for its object the vindication of the important doctrine of justification by faith against Arminianism. This was followed by the Anti-patronage controversy in 1833, a subject which the Kirk of Scotland had never lost sight of since the time when patronage was first imposed upon it, and which was now fast ripening into such important results as neither friend nor enemy could anticipate.
As might be expected, Dr. M'Crie was no mere onlooker. He belonged to a body whose conscientious hope was a return to the church of their fathers, when it was loosed from its bonds and purified from its errors; but who saw no prospect of the realisation of that hope until the right of pastoral election was conceded to the people. Upon this question Dr. M'Crie published what proved to be the last work he was to produce as an author, in the form of an anonymous pamphlet, entitled What ought the General Assembly to do at the Present Crisis? His answer to the question was express and brief: "Without delay, petition the legislature for the abolition of patronage."
The outcry in Scotland against patronage became so loud that statesmen saw they must be up and doing and a committee of the House of Commons was appointed to hold an inquest upon the alleged grievance. It was natural that the most distinguished of Scotland's ecclesiastical historians should be heard upon the subject, more especially as his testimony was likely to be unbiased either by party feeling or self-interest; and accordingly, besides the many eminent ministers of the Established Church who were summoned before the committee, Dr. M'Crie was called to give his statement upon the effects of ecclesiastical patronage.
He repaired to London at this authoritative summons, although with reluctance, and underwent two long examinations before the committee, the one on 2 May 1834, the other on 7 May 1834. It was not thus, however, that the question was to be settled; and he returned from London, wondering what would be the result, but comforting himself with the conviction that an over-ruling wisdom predominated over earthly counsels, and that all would be controlled for the best.
Amidst these public cares, and a debility that was daily increasing, Dr. M'Crie now addressed himself in earnest to accomplish what, in all likelihood, would have proved the most laborious of his literary undertakings. It was nothing less than a "Life of Calvin", to which his attention had been directed during his studies upon the progress of the Reformation on the continent, and for which he had collected a considerable amount of materials. This, however, was not enough, for he felt that to accomplish such a work in a satisfactory manner, it would be necessary to consult the ancient records of Geneva, a step which his ministerial duties prevented.
His friends, aware of his wishes on the subject, had offered to send, at their own expense, a qualified person to Geneva to transcribe the required documents; but this kind offer, which was made in 1831, he declined. In 1833, however, his son John, a young man of high talent, who was studying for the church, had repaired with two pupils on a travelling excursion to Geneva, and to him the task was committed of making the necessary extracts upon the subject. The commission could not have been better bestowed. "John has been so laborious in his researches," said the affectionate father, "and sent me home so many materials, that I found myself shut up to make an attempt, if it were for no other reason than to show that I was not altogether insensible to his exertions."
He felt more and more the growing lassitude that was stealing upon him, and thus wrote, eight months afterwards, about the materials that were pouring in upon him from Geneva: "I have neither time nor leisure to avail myself of them; and instead of rejoicing, as I used to do, at the sight of such treasures, I rather feel inclined to weep. Yet if I can make nothing of them, some other may."
Thus he went on until the middle of the following year, his attention to Calvin being in the meantime divided by the great ecclesiastical events that were hastening onward to the disruption of the Church of Scotland. Of the Life of the great Reformer, however, he had already written out, and prepared for the press three ample chapters, in which Calvin's career was traced through the studies of his youth, onward to his adoption of the reformed doctrines, his preface to the Institution of the Christian Religion, and his residence in Geneva. But here the historian's task was to terminate, and terminate most unexpectedly and abruptly.
On 4 August 1835, he was suddenly taken unwell; a stupor succeeded, from which it was impossible to rouse him; and on the following day he breathed his last, without a groan or struggle, but insensible to the presence of his grieving friends who were assembled round his death-bed. Thus died in his sixty-third year of age. His remains were buried in the western extension of Greyfriars Kirkyard, halfway down the eastern path. A large monument was erected by his congregation, with an inscription commemorative of his worth and their regret. Unfortunately the bronze portrait head of McCrie on the grave has been stolen.
At his death, he left a widow, for he was twice married, upon whom government, to show their sense of his worth, settled a liberal pension. His children, who were all by his first marriage, consisted of four sons, of whom John, the third, his faithful assistant among the archives of Geneva, died only two years after his father. Besides these, he had one daughter, married to Archibald Meikle, Esq., Flemington.
(in addition to those mentioned in the text of the article above)
- The Duty of Christian Societies towards each other, in relation to the Measures for Propagating the Gospel, which at present engage the attention of the Religious World; a Sermon, preached in the meeting-house, Potter Row, on occasion of a Collection for promoting a Mission to Kentucky. 1797.
- Statement of the Difference between the Profession of the Reformed Church of Scotland as adopted by Seceders, and the Profession contained in the New Testimony and other Acts lately adopted by the General Associate Synod; particularly on the Power of Civil Magistrates respecting Religion, National Reformation, National Churches, and National Covenants. Edinburgh, 1807.
- Letters on the late Catholic Bill, and the Discussions to which it has given rise. Addressed to British Protestants, and chiefly Presbyterians in Scotland. By a Scots Presbyterian. Edinburgh, 1807.
- Free Thoughts on the late Religious Celebration of the Funeral of her Royal Highness the Princess Charlotte of Wales; and on the Discussion to which it has given rise in Edinburgh. By Scoto Britannus. 1817.
- Two Discourses on the Unity of the Church, her Divisions, and their Removal. Edinburgh, 1821.
- Sermons (posthumous volume). Edinburgh, 1836.
- Lectures on the Book of Esther (posthumous), Edinburgh, 1838.
- The Life of Thomas M'Crie, D. D., Philadelphia: William S. Young, 1842
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