1902 Encyclopedia > Norman McLeod

Norman MacLeod
Scottish divine

NORMAN MACLEOD (1812-1872). There were three Norman Macleods, all ministers of the Church of Scotland, and all men of some note in their day. The first was settled in Morven, the " Highland parish," looking out on the Sound of Mull, of which his grandson has given us so many pleasant and sunny reminiscences. The second was minister of Campbeltown, afterwards of Campsie, and finally of St Columba's Gaelic Church in Glasgow, an able Celtic scholar and popular preacher, with a dash of dry humour in him, and general Highland "pawkiness." The third Norman was born in Campbeltown on June 3, 1812, and, like his father, he too could tell a good story, only his humour was not of the pawky kind, but verged on caricature, when it had not, as it mostly had, a vein of pathos in it; for he had received, probably from his mother, Agnes Maxwell, a richer blood and a larger life than we can trace in his more purely Celtic ancestry.

A sunny, light-hearted youth, full of jest and song, given to miscellaneous literature rather than to accurate scholar-ship or professional learning, would hardly seem to have been the kind of training to prepare for the life of an eloquent preacher and earnest pastor. Yet the broad human sympathies which were thus fostered were, after all, more serviceable for the work that lay before him than a knowledge of the Greek drama or of Dutch divinity; and, though he was never much of a scholar or a theologian, he was out and out a man, which is of more consequence in the long run. He had also moved about, and seen a good deal of the world in Highland Morven, in Glasgow, in Edinburgh, in England, and in Germany, when in 1838, on the recommendation of Dr Chalmers, he was presented by the dowager marchioness of Hastings to the parish of Loudoun, and began his ministry among a curious com-bination of Davie Deanses and Silas Marners—covenant-ing small farmers and Chartist hand-loom weavers. There, in the small rural parish, his work had the same character-istic features as in the larger sphere which afterwards opened up to him in the Barony church and in general literature. He carefully prepared for his pulpit, yet he was most eloquent when most spontaneous, for he was naturally more of a speaker than a writer. Courteous and chivalrous, yet also homely and ready-witted, he was as much liked by the radical weavers as he was honoured and trusted by the marchioness and her family. And if his natural gaiety of heart, which now and then amounted to rollicking animal spirits, gave him an occasional twinge of conscience which is duly recorded in his secret diary, that only shows that his genuine piety had not yet harmonized his whole nature, as it afterwards did, blending the grave and gay in one beautiful human service.

When he began his ministry, the troubles in the Scottish Church were already gathering to a head, and he found himself compelled to look around, and choose his ground. He wanted to get for the church all that Chalmers and his friends wanted. He felt that the best men, both lay and cleric, were with them, and against himself. He had no love for lay patronage, and he wished the church to be free to do its proper work. But more than all else he clung in those days to the idea of a national Established Church; and it was not without a sinking of heart that he saw the long array file out of the Assembly of 1843 after Drs Welsh and Chalmers. Yet he girded himself up for the task that had now to be done with courage and wisdom. It was a heavy job to fill four hundred and thirty pulpits with such materials as came to hand, mostly men who had already failed, and practically given up the profession. For years Macleod, and those who worked with him, toiled almost despairingly to inspire them with any living interest in the real business of the Christian Church. But in the long run his labours were crowned with a large measure of success, though his own brethren to the last hardly gave him the credit for it which was due almost to him alone—to him, at any rate, above all others. With his broad sympathies he flung himself upon the masses, and taught the working men to feel that the Church of Scotland was still as interested in their wellbeing as any denomination. Discerning also that the harder forms of Calvinism had no longer the hold on their minds that they once had, he made room for the thoughtful teachings of his cousin, Dr John Macleod Campbell, whom the Evangelical party had formerly cast out as a heretic, gaining by this means not a little influence with the young and inquiring intellects of the country. And finally, by his efforts to diffuse a wholesome religious literature through the land, he so identified his church with the growing spirit of the age that at length he lived to see it, not indeed the strong and united community which in his youth practically controlled the nation, but yet once more a great power, dear to the hearts of many of the people, and doing good Christian service to the land.

It may be doubted if the work which Norman Macleod did for Scotland could have been done in his day without the disruption of the church. For the Evangelical party, using that word in its technical sense, had not only gained the confidence of the people by much faithful service, but also had confirmed their power by somewhat sharp treat-ment of all who differed from them. It needed a different kind of church to tolerate the views of Macleod Campbell; but as these were now, more or less, identified with the living element in the kirk, with those who were most diligent in parochial work, and most zealous in mission enterprise, they gradually established their right to be preached in Calvinistic pulpits. Norman Macleod, of course, was not long left to expend his energies on the weavers of Loudoun. Bemoving first to Dalkeith, he was finally, in 1851, called to the Barony church, Glasgow, where the rest of his days were passed, in honour and influence, as the foremost of its citizens. There the more liberal theology rapidly made way among a people who judged it more by its fruits than its arguments. And, as they heard his eloquent voice pleading on behalf of churches and schools for the poor, penny savings banks, foreign missions, and every likely scheme for doing good to men, they learned to look without suspicion at opinions which yielded such Christian results.

Two other events also helped not a little to increase his influence. These were his position as editor of Good Words, and his relation to the queen and the royal family.

In 1860 a magazine was projected which was to deal with subjects common to all, only with a decidedly religious tone. It was not for Sunday only, nor was it for Christians only; but it was to be broadly human, and at the same time clearly pious. For the conduct-ing of such a magazine Macleod was singularly well qualified. Not that he had yet attained any great lite-rary position, or indeed was ever likely to do so. He had written some ecclesiastical pamphlets, amusing but not weighty. He had edited the Edinburgh Christian Magazine, without achieving any marked success. His best work as yet was the life of his friend and brother-in-law, John Mackintosh. But nothing human was foreign to him, and " good words," on things in general, were just the words that he could make quick and powerful. Very soon Good Words came to be by far the most popular magazine of the day. Nearly all his own literary work, by which he will be judged in other times, appeared in its pages,—sermons, stories, travels, novels, poems,—all of them honest " good words " which it was wholesome to read. But they hardly give him a name in literature,—at least, not such a name in the future as he had while he was still alive. They were too much the hurried productions of a life busy with many affairs. The short stories, like "Wee Davie" and "Billy Buttons," are those which are most likely to retain a place in letters, on account of their mingled humour and pathos. Of his more studied works " The Starling " is perhaps the best; but, while he could tell a brief tale admirably, he could not sustain a long narrative, with its play of varied character and incident; and, instead of leaving his art to read its own lesson, he preached a sermon by means of a story. Always, indeed, it is evident that he was more of an orator than a writer. The best of his poems is the hymn " Trust in God and do the right," though the " Curling" song has the right ring of the stones rattling over the ice. Altogether, his work was honest and good, not the highest in point of literary finish, but wholesomer than much that is more perfect in its form.

While Good Words made his name widely known, and helped the cause he had so deeply at heart, his relations with the queen and the royal family strengthened yet further his position in the country. Never since Principal Carstairs had any Scotch clergyman been on such terms with his sovereign; and their friendship was felt to be alike honourable to both, resting, on her part, on esteem for his work and character, and on his, on a loyal desire to serve his queen as a Christian minister may. All this helped not a little to increase his influence in the councils of the church, and to restore its prestige, which had for a time been nearly overthrown; and yet, while his popu-larity was in full swing, one unlucky piece of honesty made him for a time the man in all Scotland most profoundly distrusted.

Scotch Sabbatarian ideas had been a good deal disturbed by the running of Sunday trains and by other novelties, and in 1865 the presbytery of Glasgow issued a pastoral letter on the subject to be read from all the pulpits there. Macleod, of course, loved the day of rest as much as any of them, but he did not like the grounds on which they rested it, nor yet the spirit in which they would have it observed. Therefore he resolved to deliver his mind on the subject to his brethren. Like St Paul, he refused to let any man judge him concerning " new moons and Sab-baths." His speech was not at first well reported, those parts only being printed which were most likely to startle the religious public; and in consequence it was, for a while, greatly misunderstood. Old friends shrunk from him. His house seemed to be shunned as if plague-stricken. His brethren in the presbytery threatened a " libel" for heresy. And he needed all his courage to bear up against the outcry which assailed him on all hands. A more correct version of the speech was issued, however, and the good sense and Christian intelligence of the people soon learned to form a juster estimate of its real bearing. The threatened prosecution broke down. Truer ideas of Sabbath observance got a lodgment in men's minds. And, four years after, the church, which at one time seemed ready to cast him from her bosom, accorded him the highest honour in her power to give, by choosing him as moderator of her General Assembly.

Before that, however, he had already gained her con-fidence so far as to be sent, along with Dr Archibald Watson, to India to inquire into the state of her mission there. He had always taken a deep interest in the India mission, and had been for some time convener of the com-mittee which took charge of its interests. When asked to undertake this duty, he was already labouring under the disease which afterwards shortened his days ; his medical advisers were not without grave anxieties as to the effect of the climate on his constitution, and it was with clear consciousness of the risk he ran that, in 1867, he sailed for the East. He returned fully resolved to devote the rest of his days largely to the work of rousing the church to her duty in carrying out "the marching orders" of her Commander. But he was not destined to do much more for the cause that lay so near his heart than to make one or two stirring appeals to the conscience of the church. His health was now broken, and his old energy flagged. Always his habits of work had been somewhat irregular; properly, indeed, he had no fixed habits, but only tremendous fits of labour and periods of exhaustion. Now neither body nor brain could stand this strain, and with reluctance and pain he had to give up the charge of the India mission. His speech in doing so was the last and greatest he ever made. It was as if he had gathered up his failing powers for one final effort, and spent his life on it. Shortly after his return from the Assembly of May 1872, his disease showed some fresh symptoms that alarmed the doctors. And on Sunday the 16th of June, shortly after completing his sixtieth year, Norman Macleod peacefully fell asleep, the country hardly knowing how it had loved him till he was borne to his quiet resting-place in Campsie churchyard.

Memoir of Norman Macleod, D.D., by his brother, the Rev. Donald Macleod, 2 vols., appeared in 1876. (W. C. S.*)

The above article was written by Rev. Walter C. Smith, author of Olrig Grange.

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