I first came across this short story back in the early 1980s and made a photocopy of it, as I liked it so much.That was of course, was when I was at University, and there were, I am sorry to say, Christians very like the elders in this story, although there were also ones who displayed much more generosity of spirit. This is very much a story about a hard line Scots Calvinism, and it was written by the Reverend John Watson (3 November 1850 – 6 May 1907), known by his pen name Ian Maclaren.
Maclaren's first stories of rural Scottish life, Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush (1894), achieved extraordinary popularity, selling more than 700 thousand copies, and were succeeded by other successful books, The Days of Auld Lang Syne (1895), Kate Carnegie and those Ministers (1896), and Afterwards and other Stories (1898). By his own name Watson published several volumes of sermons, among them being The Upper Room (1895), The Mind of the Master (1896) and The Potter's Wheel (1897).
A Local Inquisition
His first service in St. Jude's Church was over and Carmichael had broken upon his modest dinner with such appetite as high excitement had left; for it is a fact in the physiology of a minister that if he preaches coldly he eats voraciously, but if his soul has been at a white heat his body is lifted above food. It had been a great change from the little Kirk of Drumtochty, with its congregation of a hundred country people, to the crowd which filled every corner of the floor below and the galleries above in the city church. While the light would that Sunday be streaming into the Highland Kirk and lighting up the honest, healthy faces of the hearers, the gas had been lighted in St. Jude's, for the Glasgow atmosphere was gloomy outside, and when it filtered through painted windows was as darkness inside.
There is no loneliness like that of a solitary man in a crowd, and Carmichael missed the company and sympathy of his friends. This mass of city people, with their eager expression, white faces and suggestion of wealth, who turned their eyes upon him when he began to preach, and seemed to be one huge court of judgment, shadowed his imagination. They were partly his new congregation and partly a Glasgow audience, but there were only two men in the whole church he knew, and even those he had only known for a few months.
When he rose to preach, with the heavy pall of the city's smoke and the city fog encompassing the church, and the glare of the evil-smelling gas lighting up its Gothic recesses, his heart sank and for the moment he lost courage. Was it for this dreary gloom and packed mass of strange people that he had left the sunlight of the glen and the warm atmosphere of true hearts? There were reasons why he had judged it his duty to accept the charge of this West End Glasgow church, and selfish ambition had certainly not been one, for Carmichael was a man rather of foolish impulses than of far-seeing prudence. He had done many things suddenly which he had regretted continually, and for an instant, as he faced his new environment and before he gave out his text, he wished that by some touch of that fairy wand which we are ever desiring to set our mistakes right or to give us our impossible desires, he could be spirited away from, the city which as a countryman he always hated, back to the glen which he would ever carry in his heart.
While vain regret is threatening to disable him the people are singing with a great volume of melody :
Jerusalem as a city is compactly built together;
Unto that place the tribes go up, the tribes of God go thither:
and his mood changes. After all, the ocean is greater than any river, however picturesque and romantic it be, and no one with a susceptible soul can be indifferent to the unspoken appeal of a multitude of human beings. Old and young of all kinds and conditions, from the captains of industry whose names were famous throughout the world to the young men who had come up from remote villages to push their fortune, together with all kinds of professional men administering justice, relieving suffering, teaching knowledge, were gathered together to hear what the preacher had to say in the name of God.
His message would be quickly caught by the keen city intellect and would pass into the most varied homes and into the widest lives, and there was an opportunity of spiritual power in this city pulpit which the green wilderness could not give.
As he looked upon the sea of faces the depths of Carmichael’s nature were stirred, and when his lips were opened he had forgotten everything except the drama of humanity in its tragedy and in its comedy, and the evangel of Jesus committed into his hands. He spoke with power as one touched by the very spirit of his Master, and in the vestry the rulers of the church referred to his sermon with a gracious and encouraging note. He walked home through the gloomy street with a high head, and in his own room, and in a way the public might not see, he received the congratulation he valued more
than anything else on earth. For Kate was proud that day of her man, and she was not slow either in praise or blame as occasion required, being through all circumstances, both dark and bright, a woman of the ancient Highland spirit. She was not to be many years by his side, and their married life was not to be without its shadows, but through the days they were together his wife stood loyally at Carmichael's right hand, and when she was taken he missed many things in his home and heart, but most of all her words of cheer, when in her honest judgment, not otherwise, he had carried himself right knightly in the lists of life.
His nerves were on edge, and although it mattered little that he was interrupted at dinner, for he knew not what he was eating, he was not anxious to see a visitor. If it were another elder come to say kind things, he must receive him courteously, but Carmichael had had enough of praise that day; and if it were a reporter desiring an interview he would assure him that he had nothing to say, and as a consolation hand him his manuscript to make up a quarter column.
But it was neither a city merchant nor a newspaper reporter who was waiting in the study; indeed, one could not have found in the city a more arresting and instructive contrast.
In the centre of the room, detached from the bookcase and the writing table, refusing the use of a chair, and despising the very sight of a couch, stood isolated and self-contained the most austere man Carmichael had ever seen, or was ever to meet in his life. He had met Calvinism in its glory among Celts, but he had only known sweet-blooded mystics like Donald Menzies or Pharisees converted into saints, like Lachlan Campbell, the two Highland elders of Drumtochty. It was another story to be face to face with the inflexible and impenetrable subject of Lowland Calvinism. Whether Calvinism or Catholicism be the more congenial creed for Celtic nature may be a subject of debate, but when Calvinism takes hold of a Lowland Scot of humble birth and moderate education and intense mind there is no system which can produce so uncompromising and unrelenting a partisan.
Carmichael always carried in mental photograph the appearance of Simeon MacQuittrick as he faced him that day his tall, gaunt figure, in which the bones of his body, like those of his creed, were scarcely concealed, his erect and uncompromising attitude, his carefully-brushed, well-worn clothes, his clean-shaven, hard-lined face, his iron gray hair smoothed down across his forehead, and, above all, his keen, searching, merciless gray eyes. Before Simeon spoke Carmichael knew that he was anti-pathetic, and had come to censure, and his very presence, as from the iron dungeon of his creed Simeon looked out on the young, light-hearted, optimistic minister of St. Jude's, was like a sudden withering frost upon the gay and generous blossom of spring.
"My name is Simeon MacQuittrick," began the visitor, "and I'm a hearer at St. Jude's, although I use that name under protest, considering that the calling of kirks after saints is a rag of popery, and judging that the McBriar Memorial, after a faithful Covenanter, would have been more in keeping with the principles of the pure Kirk of Scotland. But we can discuss that matter another day, and I am merely protecting my rights." As Carmichael only indicated that he had received the protest, and was willing to hear anything else he had to say, Simeon continued:
"Whether I be one of the true Israel of God or only a man who is following the chosen people like a hanger-on from the land of Egypt is known to God alone, and belongs to his secret things ; but I have been a professor of religion, and a member of the Kirk for six-and-forty years, since the fast day at Ecclefechan when that faithful servant of God, Dr. Ebenezer Howison, preached for more than two hours on the words, 'Many be called, but few are chosen/ " And Carmichael waited in silence for the burden of Simeon's message.
"It was my first intention," proceeded Simeon, as he fixed Carmichael with his severe gaze, "to deal wi' the sermon to which we have been listening, and which I will say plainly has not been savoury to the spiritual and understanding souls in the congregation, although I make no doubt it has pleasantly tickled the ears of the worldly. But I will pretermit the subject for the present first, because time would fail us to go into it thoroughly, and second because I am come to offer a better opportunity." Carmichael indicated without speech that Simeon should go on to the end.
"Ye will understand, Mr. Carmichael, that the congregation gathering in your Kirk is a mixed multitude, and the maist part are taken up wi' worldly gear and carnal pleasures like dinners, dancing, concerts and games ; they know neither the difference between sound doctrine and unsound, nor between the secret signs of saving faith and the outward forms of ordinary religion; as for the sovereignty of the Almighty, whereby one is elected unto light and another left unto damnation, whilk is the very heart o' religion, they know and care nothing.”
"Gin the Lord has indeed given ye a true commission and ye have been ordained not by the layin' on o' hands, whilk I judge to be a matter of Kirk order and not needful for the imparting of grace, as the Prelatists contend, but by the inward call of God, it will be your business to pull down every stronghold of lies, and to awaken them that be at ease in Zion with the terrors of the Lord. And ye might begin with the elders who are rich and increased in goods, and who think they have need of nothing. But I have my doubts." And the doubts seemed a certainty, but whether they were chiefly about the elders' unspiritual condition or Carmichael’s need of a true call Simeon did not plainly indicate.
"I am very sorry, Mr. MacQuittrick" and Carmichael spoke for the first time "that you consider the congregation to be in such a discouraging condition, especially after the faithful ministry of my honoured predecessor, but I trust out of such a large number of people that there must be a number of sincere and intelligent Christians." Which was a bait Simeon could not resist.
"Ye speak according to the Scriptures, Mr. Carmichael, for in the darkest days when Elijah testified against the priests of Baal and he is sorely needed to-day, for there be many kinds of Baal there were seven thousand faithful people. Yea, there has always been a remnant, and even in those days when the multitude that call themselves by the name of the Lord are hankering after organs and hymns and soirees and Arminian doctrine, there be a few who have kept their garments unspotted, and who mourn over the backslidings of Zion."
"Well, I hope, Mr. MacQuittrick, that some of the remnant can be found in St. Jude's." And Carmichael began to enter into the spirit of the situation.
"It doesna' become me to boast, for indeed there are times when I see myself in the court of the Gentiles, aye, and maybe in the outer darkness, but ye will be pleased to know that there are seven men who meet ae night every week to protest against false doctrine, and to search into the experiences o' the soul. Myself and another belong to the faithful remnant of the Scots Kirk, whilk the world calls the Cameronians ; two have been members wi' the original secession ; ane came from the black darkness o' the Established Kirk; and two were brought up in the Free Kirk, and I'll not deny, had a glimmerin' o' light. , When the godly minister who has gone to his reward, as we will hope, but the day alone will declare, lifted up his voice in the pulpit of St. Jude's against Sunday cars, opening the girdens on the Lord's Day, singing paraphrases at public worship, the worldly proposals for union with the Voluntaries, the preaching of teetotalism, and the blasphemy of the Higher Critics, we came to this Kirk and foregathered here as in a haven of refuge.”
"It came to our mind, Mr. Carmichael' and the representative of the remnant concluded his message "that it would strengthen your hands to know that ye have some discernin' professors in your Kirk, with whom ye could search into the deep things of God which might be beyond the depths of youth, and who will try the doctrine which ye may deliver from Sabbath to Sabbath. And we will be gathered together on Thursday night at 272 Water Street, by eight o'clock, to confer with you on the things of the kingdom."
When Carmichael arrived at the meeting-place of the remnant he had a sense of a spiritual adventure, and when he looked at the seven gray and austere faces, he imagined himself before the Inquisition. His host the brand plucked from the burning of the Establishment shook hands with gravity, and gave him a vacant chair at the table, where before him and on either side sat the elect. After a prayer by an original seceder, in which the history of the Scots Kirk from the Reformation and her defections in the present day were treated at considerable length and with great firmness of touch, and some very frank petitions were offered for his own enlightenment, the court was, so to say, constituted, and he was placed at the bar. If Carmichael imagined, which indeed he did not, that this was to be a friendly conference between a few experienced Christians and their young minister, he was very soon undeceived, for the president of the court called upon Simeon's fellow-covenanter to state the first question.
"It is one, Mr. Carmichael, which goes to the root of things, for he that is right here will be right everywhere; he that goes astray here will end in the bottomless pit of false doctrine.”
“Whether would ye say that Christ died upon the cross for the salvation of the whole world, and that therefore a proveesion was made for the pardon of all men gin they should repent and believe, or that he died only for the sins of them whom God hath chosen unto everlasting life, and who therefore shall verily be saved according to the will of God." And there was a silence that might be heard while the seven waited for the minister's answer.
When Carmichael boldly declared that the divine love embraced the human race which God had called into being, and that Christ as the Incarnate Saviour of the world had laid down his life not for a few but for the race, and that therefore there was freeness of pardon and fullness of grace for all men, and when finally he called God by the name of Father, the inquisitors sighed in unison. They looked like men who had feared the worst, and were not disappointed.
"Arminianism pure and simple," said one of the favoured children of the Free Kirk, "contrary to the Scriptures and the standards of the Kirk. Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated; a strait gate and a narrow way, and few there be that find it. And the end of this deceiving error which pleases the silly heart is Universalism nae difference between the elect and the multitude. But there were ither questions, and our brother Mr. MacCosh will maybe put the second." Although it was evident hope was dying out both for Carmichael and for the inquisitors.
"Do ye believe, Mr. Carmichael, and will ye preach that the offer of the gospel should be made to all men in the congregation, and that any man who accepts that offer, as he considers, will see the salvation of God ; or will ye teach that while the offer is made in general terms to everybody with words such as, 'Come unto me all ye that labour’, ’it is only intended for certain who are already within the covenant of redemption, and that they alone will be enabled by effectual grace to accept it, and that for them alone there is a place at the marriage feast? “
"And I am asking this question because there are so-called evangelists going up and down the land offering the invitation of the kingdom unto all and sundry, and forgetting to tell the people, if indeed they know it themselves, that it matters not how freely Christ be offered, and how anxious they may be to take him, none of them can lift a little finger in his direction unless by the power of the Spirit, and the Spirit is only given to them who have been in the covenant from all eternity."
Carmichael felt as if he were again making his vows before ordination, and any sense of the ludicrous which was a snare unto him and had tempted him when he came into the room, was burned out. He was face to face with a conscientious and thoroughgoing theology, against whose inhumanity and ungraciousness both his reason and his soul revolted.
"May I in turn put a question to you, sir, and the other brethren, and if you will answer mine I will answer yours. Would you consider it honest, I will not say kindly, to invite twelve men to come to dinner at your house, all the more if they were poor and starving, and to beseech them to accept your invitation in the most tender terms, while you only intended to have six guests, or shall I say three out of the twelve, and had been careful to make provision for only three? You would despise such a host, and, Mr. MacCosh, will you seriously consider God to be more treacherous and dishonourable than we frail mortals?"
"Very superfeecial," burst in Simeon; "there is no question to be answered. Human analogies are deceiving, for nae man can argue from the ways of man to the ways of God, or else ye would soon be expectin' that the Almighty would deal wi' us the same as a father maun deal wi' his bairns, which is the spring o' that soul-destroying heresy, the so-called Fatherhood of God. Na, na" and MacQuittrick's face glowed with dogmatic enthusiasm, in which the thought of his own destiny and that of his fellow-humans was lost "he is the potter and we are the clay. Gin he makes one vessel for glory and another for shame aye, and even gin he dashes it to pieces, it is within his just richts. Wha are we to complain or to question? Ane oot o' twelve saved would be wonderful mercy, and the eleven would be to the praise of his justice." And a low hum of assent passed round the room.
"After what has passed, I'm not judging that it will serve any useful purpose to pit the third question, Mr. MacCosh," said the brand from the Establishment, "but it might be as well to complete the investigation. It's a sore trial to think that the man whom we called to be our minister, and who is set over the congregation in spiritual affairs knows so little of the pure truth, and has fallen into sae many soul-enticing errors. Oh ! this evil day ; we have heard wi' our ain ears in this very room, and this very nicht, first Arminianism, and then Morisonianism, the heresy of a universal atonement and of a free offer. I'll do Mr. Carmichael justice in believin' that he is no as yet at any rate a Socinian, but I'm expecting that he's a Pelagian. Oor last question will settle the point.
"Is it your judgment, Mr. Carmichael" and there was a tone of despair in the voice of the president "that a natural man, and by that I mean a man acting without an experience of effectual and saving grace given only to the elect, can perform any work whatever which would be acceptable to God, or whether it be not true that everything he does is altogether sinful, and that although he be bound to attempt good works in the various duties of life they will all be condemned and be the cause of his greater damnation?" And when, at the close of this carefully-worded piece of furious logic, Carmichael looked round and saw approval on the seven faces, as if their position had been finally stated, his patience gave way.
"Have you" and he leaned forward and brought his hand down upon the table "have you any common reason in your minds; I do not mean the pedantic arguments of theology, but the common sense of human beings? Have you any blood in your hearts, the blood of men who have been sons, and who are fathers, the feelings of ordinary humanity? Will you say that a mother's love to her son, lasting through the sacrifices of life to the tender farewell on her deathbed is not altogether good? That a man toiling and striving to build a home for his wife and children and to keep them in peace and plenty, safe from the storms of life, is not acceptable unto God? That a man giving his life to save a little child from drowning, or to protect his country from her enemies, is not beautiful in the sight of heaven? That even a heretic, standing by what he believes to be true, and losing all his earthly goods for conscience's sake, has done a holy thing tell me that ?" And Carmichael stretched out his hands to them in the fervour of his youth.
No man answered, and it was not needful, for the minister's human emotion had beaten upon their iron creed like spray upon the high sea cliffs. But one of them said, "That completes the list, downright Pelagianism," and he added gloomily, "I doubt Socianism is not far off."
The court was then dissolved, but before he left the room like a criminal sent to execution, a sudden thought struck Carmichael, and in his turn he asked a question.
"It is quite plain to me, brethren" for so he called them in Christian courtesy, although if was doubtful if they would have so called him "that you have suspected me of unsoundness in the faith, and that you have not been altogether unprepared for my answers; I want to ask you something, and I am curious to hear your answer. There are many names attached to the call given to me by the congregation of St. Jude's, and I do not know them all as yet, but I hope soon to have them written in my heart. The people who signed that call declared that they were assured by good information of my piety, prudence and ministerial qualifications, and they promised me all dutiful respect, encouragement, support and obedience in the Lord. I have those words ever in my memory, for they are a strength to me as I undertake my high work. May I ask, are your names, brethren, upon that call, and if so, why did you sign it?"
As he was speaking, Carmichael noticed that the composure of the seven was shaken, and that a look of uneasiness and even of confusion had come over their faces. He was sure that they had signed and he also guessed that they had already repented the deed. It seemed to him as if there was some secret to be told, and that they were challenging one another to tell it. And at last, under the weight of his responsibility as president of the court, MacCosh made their confession.
"Ye must understand, Mr. Carmichael, that when your name was put before the congregation we, who have been called more than others to discern the spirits, had no sure word given us either for or against you, and we were in perplexity of heart. It was not according to our conscience to sign lightly and in ignorance as many do, and we might not forbear signing unless we were prepared to lay our protests with reasons upon the table of the presbytery. We gathered together in this room and wrestled for light, and it seemed to come to us through a word of our brother Simeon MacQuittrick, and I will ask him to mention the sign that we judged that day to be of the Lord, but it may be it came from elsewhere."
"That very morning," explained Simeon, with the first shade of diffidence in his manner, "I was reading in my chamber the Acts of the Apostles, and when I came to the words 'send men to Joppa’ I was hindered and I could go no further. The passage was laid upon my soul and I was convinced that it was the message of God, but concerning whom and concerning what I knew not. But it was ever all the hours of the day, 'send men to Joppa.'
"That very afternoon I met one of the elders who is liberal in his gifts and full of outward works, but I judge a mere Gallic, and he asked me whether I was ready to sign the call. I answered that I was waiting for the sign, and I told him of the words said to me that day. 'Well’ he said to me in his worldly fashion, 'if you will not call a man unless he be at Joppa you may have to wait some time, MacQuittrick ; but, by the way, I hear that Mr. Carmichael is staying near Edinburgh just now, and there is a Joppa on the coast next to Portobello.'
"He may have been jesting," sadly continued MacQuittrick, "and he is a man whose ear has never been opened, but the Almighty chooses whom he will as his messengers, and spake once by Balaam's ass, so I mentioned the matter to the brethren. And when we considered both the word of Acts and the saying of this Gallic, we accepted it as a sign. So it came to pass that we all signed your call. But it pleases God to allow even the elect to be deceived ; behold are there not false prophets and lying signs? And it may be ye were not at Joppa." And when Carmichael declared with joyful emphasis that he had never been at Joppa in his life, MacCosh summed up the moral of the call and the conference. "It was a sign, but it was from Satan."