Chapter I. – On Religious Feelings and Religious Observances, pp.1-20.

[Reminiscences Contents]

N this subject we would speak with deference. We have no intention of entering, in this volume, upon those great questions which are connected with recent church movements amongst us, or with national peculiarities of faith and discipline. It is impossible, however, to overlook entirely the fact of a gradual relaxation having gone on for some years, of the sterner features of the Calvinistic school of theology, – at any rate, of keeping its theoretic peculiarities more in the background. What we have to notice, in these pages are changes in the feelings with regard to religion and religious observances, which have appeared upon the exterior of society – the changes which belong to outward habits rather than to internal feelings. Of such changes many have taken place within my own experience. Scotland has ever borne the character of a moral and religious country; and the mass of the people are a more church-going race than the masses of English population. I am not at all prepared to say that in the middle and lower ranks of life, our countrymen have undergone much change in regard to religious observances. But there can be no question that amongst the upper classes there are manifestations connected with religion now, which some years ago were not thought of. The attendance of men on public worship is of itself an example of the change we speak of. I am afraid that when Walter Scott described Monkbarns as being with difficulty “hounded out” to hear the sermons of good Mr. Blattergowl, he wrote from a knowledge of the habits of church going then generally prevalent amongst Scottish lairds. The late Bishop Sandford told me that when he first came to Edinburgh – I suppose fifty years ago – few gentlemen attended church – very few indeed were seen at the communion – so much so that it was a matter of conversation when a male communicant, not an aged man, was observed at the table for the first time. Sydney Smith, when preaching in Edinburgh some forty years ago, seeing how almost exclusively congregations were made up of ladies, took for his text the verse from the Psalms, “Oh that men would therefore praise the Lord;” and with that touch of the facetious which marked everything he did, laid the emphasis on the word “men.” Looking round the congregation and saying, “Oh that men would therefore praise the Lord,” implying that he used the word, not to describe the human species generally, but the male individuals as distinguished from the female portion. In regard to attendance by young men, both at church and communion, a marked change has taken place in my own experience. In fact, there is an attention excited towards church subjects, which, thirty years ago, would have been hardly credited. Nor is it only in connection with churches and church services that these changes have been brought forth, but an interest has been raised on the subject from Bible societies, missionary associations at home and abroad, schools and reformatory institutions, most of which, as regard active operation, have grown up during fifty years. 

   Nor should I omit to mention, what I trust may be considered as a change belonging to religious feeling, viz., that conversation is now conducted without that accompaniment of absurd and unmeaning oaths which was really once considered an essential embellishment of polite discourse. I distinctly recollect an elderly gentleman, when describing the opinion of a refined and polished female upon a particular point, putting into her mouth an unmistakeable round oath as the natural language in which people’s sentiments and opinions would be ordinarily conveyed. This is a change wrought in men’s feelings, which all must hail with great pleasure. Putting out of sight for a moment the sin of such a practice, and the bad influence it must have had upon all emotions of reverence for the name and attributes of the Divine Being, and the natural effect of profane swearing, “to harden a’ within,” we might marvel at the utter folly and incongruity of making the practice an expression of anger, of surprise, or of using oaths as mere expletives in common discourse. A quaint anecdote, descriptive of such senseless ebullition, I have from a friend who mentioned the names of parties concerned:- A late Duke of Athole had invited a well-known character, a writer of Perth, to come up and meet him at Dunkeld for the transaction of some business. The Duke mentioned the day and hour when he should receive the man of law, who accordingly came punctually at the appointed time and place. But the Duke had forgotten the appointment, and gone to the hill, from which he could not return for some hours. A highlander present described the Perth writer’s indignation, and his mode of shewing it, by a most elaborate course of swearing. “But whom did he swear at?” was the inquiry made of the narrator, who replied, “Ou, he didna sweer at ony thing parteecular, but juist stude in ta middle of ta road and swoor at lairge.” I have from a friend also an anecdote which shews how entirely at one period the practice of swearing had become familiar even to female ears when mixed up with the intercourse of social life. A sister had been speaking of her brother as much addicted to this habit – “Our John sweers awfu’, and we try to correct him; but,” she added in a candid and apologetic tone, “nae doubt it is a great set aff to conversation.” 

   This is the place to notice changes which have taken place in regard to the questions of taste in the building and embellishing Scottish places of worship generally. Some years back there was a great jealousy of ornament in connection with churches and church services, and, in fact, all such embellishments were considered as marks of a departure from the simplicity of old Scottish worship, – they were distinctive of Episcopacy as opposed to the severer modes of Presbyterianism. The late Sir William Forbes used to give an account of a conversation, indicative of this feeling, which he had overheard between an Edinburgh inhabitant and his friend from the country. They were passing St. John’s, which had just been finished, and the countryman asked, “Whatna kirk was that!” “Oh,” said the townsman, “that is an English chapel,” meaning Episcopalian. “Ay,” said his friend, “there’ll be walth o’ images there.” But, if unable to sympathize with architectural church ornament and embellishment, how much less could they sympathize with the performance of divine service, which included such musical accompaniments as intoning, chanting, and anthems? On the first introduction of Tractarianism into Scotland, the full choir service had been established in an Episcopal church, where a noble family had adopted those views, and carried them out regardless of expense. The lady who had been instrumental in getting up these musical services was very anxious that a favourite female servant of the family – a Presbyterian of the old school – should have an opportunity of hearing them; accordingly, she very kindly took her down to church in the carriage, and on returning asked her what she thought of the music, etc., “Ou, it’s varra bonny, varra bonny; but oh, my lady, it’s an awfu’ way of spending the Sabbath.” The good woman could only look upon the whole thing as a musical performance. The organ was a great mark of distinction between Episcopalian and Presbyterian places of worship. I have heard of an old lady describing an Episcopalian clergyman, without any idea of disrespect, in these terms:- “Oh, he is a whistle-kirk minister.” Of late years, however, a spirit of greater tolerance of such things has been growing up amongst us, – a greater tolerance, I suspect, even of organs and liturgies. In fact, we may say a new era has begun in Scotland as to church architecture and church ornaments. The use of stained glass, and the restoration of ancient edifices, indicate a revolution of feeling regarding this question. Beautiful and expensive churches are rising everywhere, and belonging to all denominations. It is not long since the building or repairing a new church, or the repairing and adapting an old church, implied in Scotland simply a production of the greatest possible degree of ugliness and bad taste at the least possible expense, and certainly never included any notion of ornament in the details. Now, large sums are expended on places of worship without reference to creed. First-rate architects are employed. Fine Gothic structures are produced. The rebuilding of the Greyfriars’ Church, the restoration of South Leith Church and of Glasgow Cathedral, the very bold experiment of adopting a style little known amongst us, the pure Lombard, in a church for Dr. W. L. Alexander, on George IV. Bridge, Edinburgh; the really splendid Free Church now erecting in Albany Street, with a Gothic mansion attached, and many similar cases, mark the spirit of the times regarding the application of what is beautiful in art to the service of religion. One might hope that changes such as these in the feelings, tastes, and associations, would have a beneficial effect in bringing the worshippers themselves into a more genial spirit of forbearance with each other. A friend of mine used to tell a story of an honest builder’s views of church differences, which was very amusing, and quaintly professional. An English gentleman, who had arrived in a Scottish country town, was walking about to examine the various objects which presented themselves, and observed two rather handsome places of worship in course of erection nearly opposite to each other. He addressed a person, who happened to be the contractor for the chapels, and asked, “What was the difference between these two places of worship which were springing up so close to each other?” – meaning, of course, the difference of the theological tenets of the two congregations. The contractor, who thought only of architectural differences, innocently replied, “there may be a difference of sax feet in length, but there’s no aboon a few inches in the breadth.” Would that all our religious differences could be brought within so narrow a compass! 

   It might be a curious question to consider how far motives founded on mere taste or sentiment may have operated in creating an interest towards religion, and in making it a more prominent and popular question than it was in the early portion of the present century. There are in this country two causes which have combined in producing these effects:- 1st. The great disruption which took place in the Church of Scotland no doubt called forth an attention to the subject which stirred up the public, and made religion at any rate a topic of deep interest for discussion and for partizanship. Men’s minds were not allowed to remain in the torpid condition of a past generation. 2d. The æsthetic movement in religion, which some years since was made in England, has, of course, had its influence in Scotland, and many who shewed little concern about religion, whilst it was merely a question of doctrines, of precepts, and of worship, threw themselves keenly into the question when it became associated with ceremonial, and music, and high art. New ecclesiastical associations have been presented to Scottish tastes and feelings. With some minds, attachment to the church is attachment to her Gregorian tones, jewelled chalices, lighted candles, embroidered altar-cloths, silver crosses, processions, copes, albs, and chasubles. But from whatever cause it proceeds, a great change has taken place in the general interest excited towards ecclesiastical questions. Religion now has numerous associations with the ordinary current of human life. In times past it was kept more as a thing apart. There was a false delicacy which made people shrink from encountering appellations that were usually bestowed upon those who made a more prominent appearance than the world at large, in regard to a religious profession. 

   A great change has taken place in this respect with persons of all shades of religious opinions. With an increased attention to the externals of religion, we believe that in many points the heart is more exercised also. Take, as an example, the practice of family prayer. Many excellent and pious households of the former generation would not venture upon the observance, I am afraid, because they were in dread of the sneer. There was a foolish application of the terms “Methodist,” “saints,” “over-righteous,” where the practice was observed. It was to take up a rather decided position in the neighbourhood, and I can testify, that less than fifty years ago, a family would have been marked and talked of for a usage of which now throughout the country the exception is rather the unusual circumstance. A little anecdote from recollections in my own family will furnish a good illustration of a state of feeling on this point now happily unknown. In a northern town of the east coast, where the earliest recollections of my life go back, there was usually a detachment of a regiment, who were kindly received and welcomed to the society, which in the winter months was very full and very gay. There was the usual measure of dining, dancing, supping, card-playing, and gossiping, which prevailed in country towns at the time. The officers were of course an object of much interest to the natives, and their habits were much discussed. A friend was staying in the family who partook a good deal of the Athenian temperament, viz., a delight in hearing and telling some new thing. On one occasion she burst forth in great excitement with the intelligence that “Sir Nathaniel Duckinfield, the officer in command of the detachment, had family prayers every morning!” A very near and dear relative of mine, knowing the tendency of the lady to gossip, pulled her up with the exclamation: “How can you repeat such things, Miss Ogilvy; nothing in the world but the ill-natured stories of Montrose!!” The remark was made quite innocently and unconsciously of the bitter satire it conveyed upon the feeling of the place. The “ill-nature” of these stories was true enough, because ill-nature was the motive of those who raised them; not because it is an ill-natured thing of itself to say of a family that they have household worship, but the ill-nature consisted in their intending to throw out a sneer and a sarcasm upon a subject where all such reflections are unbecoming and indecorous. It is one of the best proofs of change of habits and associations on this matter, that the anecdote, exquisite as it is for our purpose, will hardly be understood by many of our young friends, or, at least, happily has lost much of its force and pungency. 

   These remarks apply to the state of religious feeling amongst the upper classes of society. I am not aware of much change in the religious habits of the Scottish peasantry – perhaps the elders have yielded something from the sternness of David Deans. But, as compared with the corresponding class in England, there are many circumstances to distinguish the theological tenets and strict observance of religious ordinances of the Scottish from the usual feelings of the English peasant. 

   The kindly feelings and interest of the pastoral relation always formed a very pleasing intercourse between minister and people. I have received from an anonymous correspondent an anecdote illustrative of this happy connection, for which he vouches as authentic:- 

   John Brown, Burgher minister at Whitburn (son of the commentator, and father of the late Rev. Dr. John Brown of Edinburgh, and grandfather of the present accomplished M.D. of the same name, author of “Rab and his Friends,” etc.), in the early part of the century was travelling on a small sheltie1 to attend the summer sacrament at Haddington. Between Musselburgh and Tranent he overtook one of his own people. “What are ye dain’ here, Janet, and whaur ye gaun in this warm wather?” “Deed sir,” quo’ Janet, “I’m gaun to Haddington for the occasion,2 an’ expeck to hear ye preach this efternoon.” “Very weel, Janet, but whaur ye gaun to sleep.” “I dinna ken, sir, but Providence is aye kind, an’ll provide a bed.” On Mr. Brown jogged, and after service in the afternoon, before pronouncing the blessing, he said from the pulpit, “Whaur’s the auld wifie that followed me frae Whitburn?” “Here I’m sir,” uttered a shrill voice from a back seat. “Aweel,” said Mr. Brown, “I have fand ye a bed; ye’re to sleep wi’ Johnnie Fife’s lass.” 

   There was at all times amongst the older Scottish peasantry a bold assertion of their religious opinions, and strong expression of their feelings. The spirit of the Covenanters lingered amongst the aged people whom I remember, but which time has considerably softened down. We have some recent authentic instances of this readiness in Scotchmen to bear testimony to their principles – 

   A friend has informed me that the late Lord Rutherfurd often told with much interest of a rebuke which he received from a shepherd, near Bonally, amongst the Pentlands. He had entered into conversation with him, and was complaining bitterly of the weather, which prevented him enjoying his visit to the country, and said hastily and unguardedly, “What a d——d mist!” and then expressed his wonder how or for what purpose there should have been such a thing created as east wind. The shepherd, a tall, grim figure, turned sharp round upon him. “What ails you at the mist, sir; it weets the sod, it slockens the yowes, and” – adding with much solemnity – “it’s God’s wull;” and turned away with lofty indignation. Lord Rutherfurd used to repeat this with much candour as a fine specimen of rebuke from a sincere and simple mind. 

   Something like this is reported of an eminent professor of geology, who, visiting in the Highlands, met an old man on the hills on Sunday morning. The professor, partly from the effect of habit, and not adverting to the very strict notions on Sabbath desecration entertained in Ross-shire, had his pocket hammer in hand, and was thoughtlessly breaking the specimens of minerals he picked up by the way. The old man for some time eyed the geologist, and going up to him, quietly said, “Sir, ye’re breaking something there forbye the stanes!” 

   The same feeling under a more fastidious form was exhibited to a traveller by a Scottish peasant:- An English artist travelling professionally through Scotland had occasion to remain over Sunday in a small town in the north. To while away the time, he walked out a short way in the environs, where the picturesque ruin of a castle met his eye. He asked a countryman who was passing to be so good as tell him the name of the castle. The reply was somewhat startling – “It’s no the day to be speering sic things!” 

   A manifestation of even still greater strictness, on the subject of Sabbath desecration, I have received from a relative of the family in which it occurred. About fifty years ago the Hon. Mrs. Stewart lived in Heriot Row, who had a cook, Jeannie by name, a paragon of excellence. One Sunday morning when her daughter (afterwards Lady Elton) went into the kitchen, she was surprised to find a new jack (recently ordered, and which was constructed on the principle of going constantly without winding up), wholly paralyzed and useless. Miss Stewart naturally inquired what accident had happened to the new jack, as it had stopped. The mystery was soon solved by Jeannie indignantly exclaiming that “she was nae gaeing to hae the fule thing clocking and rinning about in her kitchen a’ the blessed Sabbath day.” 

   There sometimes appears to have been in our countrymen an undue preponderance of zeal for Sabbath observance as compared with the importance attached to other commands, and especially as compared with the virtue of sobriety. The following dialogue between Mr. M——— of Glasgow, the celebrated artist, and an old highland acquaintance whom he had met with unexpectedly, will illustrate the contrast between the severity of judgment passed upon treating the Sabbath with levity and the lighter censure attached to indulgence in whisky. Mr. M——— begins:- “Donald, what brought you here?” “Ou, weel, sir, it was a baad place yon; they were baad folk – but they’re a Godfearin’ set o’ folk here!” “Well, Donald,” said Mr. M., “I’m glad to hear it.” “Ou ay, sir, ‘deed are they; an’ I’ll gie ye an instance o’t. Last Sabbath, just as the kirk was skailin’, there was a drover chield frae Dumfries comin’ along the road whustlin’, an lookin’ as happy as if it was ta muddle o’ the week; weel, sir, oor laads is a God-fearin’ set o’ laads, an they were just comin’ oot o’ the kirk – od they yokit upon him, an’ a’most killed him!” Mr. M., to whom their zeal seemed scarcely sufficiently well directed to merit his approbation, then asked Donald whether it had been drunkenness that induced the depravity of his former neighbours? “Weel, weel, sir,” said Donald, with some hesitation, “may-bee; I’ll no say but it micht.” “Depend upon it,” said Mr. M., it’s a bad thing whisky.” “Weel, weel, sir,” replied Donald, “I’ll no say but it may;” adding in a very decided tone – “speeciallie baad whusky!” 

   The Scottish peasantry of the older school delighted in expositions of doctrinal subjects, and in fact were extremely jealous of any minister who departed from their high standard of orthodox divinity, by selecting subjects which involved discussions of strictly moral or practical questions. A worthy old clergyman having, upon the occasion of a communion Monday, taken a text of such a character, was thus commented on by an ancient dame of the congregation, who was previously acquainted with his style of discourse; – “If there’s an ill text in a’ the Bible, that creetur’s aye sure to tak it.” 

   It may be well supposed that a peasantry with such religious opinions would be much shocked at any persons whose principles were known to be of an infidel character. There is a story traditionary in Edinburgh regarding David Hume, which illustrates this feeling in a very amusing manner, and which I have heard it said, Hume himself often narrated. The philosopher had fallen from the path into the swamp at the back of the Castle, the existence of which I recollect hearing of from old persons forty years ago. He fairly stuck fast, and called to a woman who was passing, and begged her assistance. She passed on apparently without attending to the request; at his earnest entreaty, however, she came where he was, and asked him, “Are na ye Hume the Atheist?” “Well, well, no matter,” said Hume; “Christian charity commands you to do good to every one.” “Christian charity here, or Christian there,” replied the woman, “I’ll do naething for you till ye turn a Christian yersell – ye maun repeat the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed, or faith I’ll let ye grafel3 there as I fand ye.” The sceptic, really afraid for his life, rehearsed the required formulas. 

   The feelings on such subjects entertained by the inhabitants of our crowded cities, wynds, and closes, are no criterion of the national religious character. It is a great difficulty to get them to attend Divine worship at all, as many circumstances combine to break off all associations with public services. 

   A lady, who is most active in visiting the houses of these outcasts from the means of grace, gives me an amusing instance of self-complacency arising from such attendance. She was visiting in the West Port, not far from the church established by my illustrious friend the late Dr. Chalmers. Having asked a poor woman if she ever attended it for Divine service – “Ou ay,” she replied; “there’s a man ca’d Chalmers preaches there, and I whiles gang in and hear him, just to encourage him, puir body!” 

   From the religious opinions of a people, the transition is natural to their political partialities. One great political change has passed over Scotland, which none now living can hardly be said to have actually witnessed; but they remember those who were contemporaries of the anxious scenes of ‘45, and many of us have known determined and thorough Jacobites. The poetry of that political period still remains, and we hear but as pleasant songs, those words and melodies which stirred the hearts and excited the deep enthusiasm of a past generation. But Jacobite anecdotes are fading from our knowledge. To many young persons they are unknown. Of these stories illustrative of Jacobite feelings and enthusiasm, many are of a character not fit for me to record. The good old ladies who were violent partisans of the Stuarts had little hesitation in referring without reserve to the future and eternal destiny of William of Orange. One anecdote which I had from a near relative of the family may be adduced in illustration of the powerful hold which the cause had upon the views and consciences of Jacobites. 

   A former Mr. Stirling of Keir had favoured the Stuart cause, and had in fact attended a muster of forces at the Brig of Turk in the year 1708. This symptom of a rising against the Government occasioned some uneasiness, and the authorities were very active in their endeavours to discover who were the leaders of the movement. Keir was suspected. The miller of Keir was brought forward as a witness, and swore positively that the Laird was not present. Now, as it was well known that he was there, and that the miller knew it, a neighbour asked him privately when he came out of the witness-box, how he could on oath assert such a falsehood. The miller replied, quite undaunted, and with a feeling of confidence in the righteousness of his cause approaching the sublime – “I would rather trust my soul to God’s mercy than trust Keir’s head into their hands.” 

1  A Shetland pony 

2  The Lord’s Supper. 

3  Lie in a grovelling attitude. See Jamieson.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s