On this day in: December
Each month we remember key figures from the past whose stories have contributed to the life of the church in Scotland and continue to provide encouragement and inspiration to us today.
This month we remember, among others, celebrated authors and hymn composers, influential reformers, an American Evangelist and the saint said to be at the origin of Santa Clause.
3 December: Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson was the writer of Kidnapped, Treasure Island and other books which are as fresh now as when they were written in the second half of the nineteenth century. One commentator has said that: "the Scotch Presbyterian was the truest strain in his character", and his themes had a strong moral streak running through them, a morality "founded in the faith of his fathers", as the same commentator remarked. When in Samoa, Stevenson taught in the Sunday School and it is while there that his Prayers Written at Vaimila and A Christmas Sermon were written. Dr Jekell and Mr Hyde portrays the tension between good and evil in human nature but it also addresses society as a whole. Stevenson was a fine writer, to whom the internationally famous author Henry James once gave a book saying he was "the only Anglo-Saxon capable of understanding how well it is written." He died in 1894.
Also on this day: 3 December is observed as the United Nations International Day of Disabled Persons.
6 December: Nicholas
Nicholas is the original of ‘Santa Claus’ (from the Dutch Sinter Claes) but that is probably the only sure thing we know about him! As often happens, stories grew round this (probably) Mediterranean saint later in life, making him patron saint of sailors (churches with his name are often found near enough the coast to act as a landmark for those at sea) and of children (the raising to life of three pickled boys is one tradition – captured in Benjamin Britten’s wonderful Cantata St. Nicholas. He was bishop of Myra and is thought to have lived in the fourth century. He is also the patron saint of Russia.
7 December: Edward Irving
Edward Irving was a colourful Church of Scotland minister, born in Annan in Dumfries and Galloway, who with a magnetic personality and great rhetorical power became a sensation in London attracting many people of distinction to the small Scottish chapel in Hatton Garden and building up a huge congregation which subsequently built a bigger church in Regent Square. He developed strong views about the imminence of the Second Coming, but his clash with the Church of Scotland of the time was not this but over his teaching that Christ had sinful tendencies, albeit neutralized by the Holy Spirit dwelling in him and he was deposed. In retrospect, commentators suggest that he wanted to do no more than emphasise how like us Christ was and how accessible to us, and that it was the way he put this that caused offence.
Some years later he clashed again, this time with his own elders, when he championed those in his congregation who were practising what they saw as the spiritual gifts of speaking in tongues, prophesying and healing. Leaving, he became a part of the new Catholic Apostolic Church, precursor Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement, but died in 1834 in poor health of body and spirit and almost in obscurity, a ‘blinded eagle’, the title given to his biography by Harry Whitley. Well known contemporary the Rev Murray McCheyne wrote: "I look back on him with awe, as on the saints and martyrs of old. A holy man in spite of all his delusions and errors. He is now with his God and Saviour, whom he wronged so much, yet, I am persuaded, loved so sincerely."
8 December: Richard Baxter
Richard Baxter was a highly influential Puritan (who believed the church, even after the reformation in England, still needed purified from unscriptural practices in its worship, its life and its government). He is valued in Scotland both for his support of views which were current there but also for his very successful books, which seemed to strike a chord with his contemporaries. The Saints’ Everlasting Rest became a devotional classic while his Reformed Pastor advocated an organised approach to pastoral ministry which was taken up with enthusiasm. In a popular ministry amongst the clothmakers of Kidderminster, England, he successfully persuaded all denominations to co-operate in the church’s work of care in the community. His preaching was effective because it was as "a dying man to dying men". He was an advocate of tolerance and moderation in religious opinions and suffered persecution as a result. In the end, being against government through bishops, he lost even the right to serve as an ordinary clergyman. His hymns, like Ye holy angels bright and He wants not friends that hath thy love, are still much sung. He died in 1691.
9 December: Karl Barth
Karl Barth was born Swiss but served most of his very distinguished academic career in Germany. Early on, his Commentary on Romans had a similar impact to Honest to God in the Britain of the Sixties, challenging dearly held views. Courageously he was one of those who formed the Confessing Church which opposed the views of Hitler and largely wrote the famous Barmen Declaration. He lost his chair, and later his German doctorate, continuing his work in Basle. His monumental multi-volumed theological work, Church Dogmatics, advocated a return to the principles of the Reformation, stressing the finiteness of humankind, the sovereignty of God, and the need for his grace. His style was graphic and forceful and his views now colour the theological discussion in the church, even amongst those who are not ‘Barthians’, and his influence on Scottish academic theology has been profound. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church describes him as "perhaps the most notable Christian prophet of our times". He died in 1968.
12 December: Peter Waldo
Peter Waldo was a twelfth century merchant of Lyons who - struck by the words of Matthew 19:21, If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess - did just that, becoming an itinerant preacher, begging for his bread. His followers (for whom he produced a New Testament in the Provencal language ) were known as 'the poor men of Lyons' and might well have become an order in the mediaeval church but for their opposition to the worldliness of the Church of the day. Thus they organised themselves into a separate church with their own ministers, always incurring the suspicion of the dominant religious authorities of the day and suffering much persecution (Milton’s well known sonnet, Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints referred to a particularly bloody event). Their principles resonated with the continental reformers and alliances were formed. As the Waldensian Church, they now flourish in peace in Italy. Waldo died in 1217.
17 December: Ignatius Loyola
Ignatius Loyola grew up in Basque high society, "a man given up to the vanities of the world", as he himself put it. After being wounded in battle, he decided after much prayer and study to become a 'soldier of Christ'. With six others he formed a little company pledging themselves to lives of poverty and chastity. In 1540 they were acknowledged by Pope Paul III, ultimately becoming known as the Society of Jesus – a very powerful, well-educated spiritual force that played a significant part in the Counter-Reformation, opposing heresy, reforming the Church from within, spreading the Gospel in the newly discovered world and promoting education. At times controversial, the Jesuits, as they are popularly known, have shown unswerving devotion to the papacy. However, their tradition is now being valued by many branches of the church through ‘Ignatian spirituality’, an approach to prayer which is Scripture-based and which derives from Loyola’s renowned Spiritual Exercises, written early in his life after a period of prayer and personal mortification. He died in 1556.
18 December: Monirus
A pool in the River Dee in the North of Scotland called Polmanuire reminds us of the influence of this saint in Aberdeenshire and Banffshire in the ninth century. He is remembered particularly at Crathie where there was a church in his name and a local fair. He died in 824.
20 December: Lady Grisell Baillie
Lady Grisell Baillie was commissioned, in 1888, as the first deaconess in the Church of Scotland. Although this was only three years before her death, it followed a lifetime of dedicated work locally in the parishes of Bowden, Mertoun and Earlston, in which at various times she lived, as well as nationally and globally. She was one of the founder members of a mission which provided medical care by women doctors for Muslim women in India. At home she worked for temperance causes as well as undertaking work for the welfare of women. She gave the opening address to the first conference of the Women’s Guild. It was in commemoration of her life and work that the Deaconess Hospital was founded in Edinburgh. She died in 1891.
21 December: John Newton
John Newton is remembered chiefly for his hymns, which include Amazing Grace, Glorious things of thee are spoken, How sweet the name of Jesus sounds. Press ganged into the navy, an adventurous but also feckless life ended with his dramatic conversion as he faced what seemed like certain death in a foundering vessel. He was much influenced by George Whitefield and the Dissenters, but became an Anglican priest, known for his evangelical zeal and his unwearying work for the Gospel through preaching, visiting and prayer meetings. Former captain of a slave ship, he became firm friend of William Wilberforce who campaigned for an end to the slave trade. With William Cowper, he produced the famous and influential Olney Hymns in 1779. He died in 1807.
22 December: Dwight L. Moody
Dwight L. Moody was an American evangelist who, with Ira D. Sankey, attracted vast crowds on his three visits to Scotland in 1873, 1881 to 1882, and 1891 to 1892. His influence was not just in the number of converts made but in the way his preaching of God’s love to all challenged the lingering conviction that only some were ‘elected’ by God to enjoy salvation. He is credited with giving a new confidence to the church that was much needed at the time and with stimulating philanthropic work. His pioneering use of hymns and of the organ also had its influence in a context where both were still suspect. He died in 1899.
Also on this day: Athernase. Sometimes so little is known about a named saint that the focus moves to the area or church which bears his name and we are prompted to remember the many ‘saints’ who have been active there over centuries. Athernase’s name is given to the beautiful Norman church at Leuchars, in Fife, Scotland, whose history embraces the Crusades, the Reformation, a visit from the famous lexicographer Dr Johnson, and the development of flight, including the defence of the country during war.
23 December: William Carstares
William Carstares was a staunch Presbyterian in a time when episcopacy was in the ascendant in Scotland. While serving as a minister in England he was arrested and confined in Edinburgh Castle for possible complicity in a plot against Charles II. On release, he moved to Holland where he had been partly educated and there became the confidant and friend of William of Orange, and returned with him as chaplain when he became King. Carstares was very influential in the final securing of presbyterianism government for the Church of Scotland. Nicknamed The Cardinal on account of his eminence, William Carstares became principal of Edinburgh University (where he did much to prepare the university for the Enlightenment) and Moderator of the General Assembly. He died in 1715.
24 December: Hugh Miller
Hugh Miller was born in Cromarty in the Highlands of Scotland and trained as a stone mason. Although something of a poet and antiquarian, his chief fame was as a geological pioneer and populariser (e.g. Testimony of the Rocks), as well as a theologian, writer, and editor. His journal, The Witness, campaigned against patronage and state influence on the church and was an influential factor in the Disruption of 1843 and in the founding of Free Church, in which he became a very prominent figure. For him science opened up great vistas and witnessed to a God greater, he believed, than theologians had imagined. A writer and public speaker of monumental output, stress, possibly manic depressiveness, and perhaps brain disease led him to take his own life in 1856.
29 December: Thomas Beckett
Thomas Beckett was a chivalrous English courtier, able lawyer, and clever diplomat, who on becoming Archbishop of Canterbury adopted a strict ascetic life and proved himself as zealous for the Church as he had earlier been for the Crown. The widespread fame of "this turbulent priest" rests on his defence of ecclesiastical rights against Henry II, leading to his murder in 1170 in his own cathedral, in spite of reconciliation with the King. His death sparked outrage throughout Europe and culminated in the King making public penance. The place of his death became one of the principal places of pilgrimage in Christendom.
30 December: Josephine Butler
Josephine Butler was a very notable Victorian social reformer principally campaigning for the reclamation of prostitutes and the suppression of "the white slave trade". Married to a canon of Westminster, she was deeply devotional woman who modelled her life on Catherine of Siena. Perhaps her greatest achievement was the founding at Geneva of the International Federation for the Abolition of the State Regulation of Vice. Her Personal Reminiscences of a Great Crusade illustrates her interesting and inspiring life. She died in 1906.
31 December: John Wycliffe
John Wycliffe was known a philosopher and theologian whose career was divided between the University of Oxford and service in local parishes. His theological studies led him to make powerful onslaughts on commonly held views. He questioned transubstantiation, described the pope and the church hierarchy as of anti-christ, attacked pilgrimages and the cult of saints, asserted the equality of believers, and called for the Scriptures, as sole authority for the faith and practice of the church, to be available to everyone in English – to which end he translated the New Testament into the common tongue. The controversies he ignited continued after his death in 1384 and ultimately the works of this Morning Star of the Reformation were condemned by the Council of Constance in 1415 and ordered to be burned. His ideas lived on in the Lollard movement, prominent also in Scotland, and through John Huss and his followers on the continent.