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Ideal Life
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A MEMORIAL SKETCH BY W. ROBERTSON NICOLL

Henry Drummond

PROFESSOR DRUMMOND’S influence on his contemporaries is not to be measured by the sale of his books, great as that has been. It may be doubted whether any living novelist has had so many readers, and perhaps no living writer has been so eagerly followed and so keenly discussed on the Continent and in America. For some reason, which it is difficult to assign, many who exercise great influence at home are not appreciated elsewhere. It has been said, for example, that no book of Ruskin’s has ever been translated into a Continental language, and though such a negative is obviously dangerous, it is true that Ruskin has not been to Europe what he has been to England. But Professor Drummond had the widest vogue from Norway to Germany. There was a time when scarcely a week passed in Germany without the publication of a book or pamphlet in which his views were canvassed. In Scandinavia, perhaps, no other living Englishman was so widely known. In every part of America his books had an extraordinary circulation. This influence reached all classes. It was strong among scientific men, whatever may be said to the contrary. Among such men as Von Moltke, Mr Arthur Balfour, and others belonging to the governing class, it was stronger still. It penetrated to every section of the Christian Church, and far beyond these limits. Still, when this is said, it remains true that his deepest influence was personal and hidden. In the long series of addresses he delivered all over the world he brought about what may at least be called a crisis in the lives of in numerable hearers. He received, I venture to say, more of the confidences of people untouched by the ordinary work of the Church than any other man of his time. Men and women came to him in their deepest and bitterest perplexities. To such he was accessible, and both by personal interviews and by correspondence, gave such help as he could. He was an ideal confessor. No story of failure daunted or surprised him. For every one he had a message of hope, and, while the warm friend of a chosen circle and acutely responsive to their kindness, he did not seem to lean upon his friends. He himself did not ask for sympathy, and did not seem to need it. The innermost secrets of his life were between himself and his Saviour. While frank and at times even communicative, he had nothing to say about himself or about those who had trusted him. There are multitudes who owed to Henry Drummond all that one man can owe to another, and who felt such a thrill pass through them at the news of his death as they can never experience again.

Henry Drummond was born at Stirling in 1851. He was surrounded from the first by powerful religious influences of the evangelistic kind. His uncle Mr Peter Drummond, was the founder of what is known as the Stirling Tract enterprise, through which many millions of small religious publications have been circulated through the world. As a child he was remarkable for his sunny disposition and his sweet temper, while the religiousness of his nature made itself manifest at an early period. I do not gather, however, that there were many auguries of his future distinction. He was thought to be somewhat desultory and independent in his work. In due course he proceeded to the University of Edinburgh, where he distinguished himself in science, but in nothing else. He gained, I believe, the medal in the geology class. But, like many students who do not go in for honours, he was anything but idle. He tells us himself that he began to form a library, his first purchase being a volume of extracts from Ruskin’s works. Ruskin taught him to see the world as it is, and it soon became a new world to him, full of charm and loveliness. He learned to linger beside the ploughed field, and revel in the affluence of colour and shade which were to be seen in the newly-turned furrows, and to gaze in wonder at the liquid amber of the two feet of air above the brown earth. Next to Ruskin he put Emerson, who all his life powerfully affected both his teaching and his style. Differing as they did in many ways, they were alike in being optimists with a high and noble conception of good, but with no correspondingly definite conception of evil. Mr. Henry James says that Emerson’s genius had a singular thinness, an almost touching lightness, sparseness, and transparency about it. And the same was true, in a measure, of Drummond’s. The religious writers who attracted him were Channing and F. W. Robertson. Channing taught him to believe in God, the good and gracious Sovereign of all things. From Robertson he learned that God is human, and that we may have fellowship with Him because He sympathises with us. It is well known that Robertson himself was a warm admirer of Channing. The parallels between Robertson and Channing in thought, and even in words, have never been properly drawn out. It would be a gross exaggeration to say that the contact with Robertson and Channing was the beginning of Drummond’s religious life. But it was through them, and it was at that period of his studentship that he began to take possession for himself of Christian truth. And it was a great secret of his power that he preached nothing except what had personally come home to him and had entered into his heart of hearts. His attitude to much of the theology in which he was taught was that not of denial, but of respectful distance. He might have come later on to appropriate it and preach it, but the appropriation would have been the condition of the preaching. His mind was always receptive. Like Emerson, he was an excellent listener. He stood always in a position of hopeful expectancy, and regarded each delivery of a personal view as a new fact to be estimated on its merits. I may add that he was a warm admirer of Mr R. H. Hutton, and thought his essay on Goethe the best critical piece of the century. He used to say that, like Mr Hutton, he could sympathise with every Church but the Hard Church.

After completing his University course he went to the New College, Edinburgh, to be trained for the ministry of the Free Church. The time was critical. The Free Church had been founded in a time of intense Evangelical faith and passion. It was a visible sign of the reaction against Moderatism. The Moderates had done great service to literature, but their sermons were favourably represented by the solemn fudge of Blair. James Macdonell, the brilliant Times leader-writer, who carefully observed from the position of an outsider the ecclesiastical life of his countrymen, said that the Moderate leaders deliberately set themselves to the task of stripping Scotch Presbyterianism free from provincialism, and so triumphant were they that most of their sermons might have been preached in a heathen temple as fitly as in St. Giles. They taught the moral law with politeness; they made philosophy the handmaid of Christianity with well-bred moderation, and they so handled the grimmer tenets of Calvinism as to hurt no susceptibilities. The storm of the Disruption blew away the old Moderates from their place of power, and men like Chalmers, Cunningham, Candlish, Welsh, Guthrie, Begg, and the other leaders of the Evangelicals, more than filled their place. The obvious danger was that the Free Church should become the home of bigotry and obscurantism. This danger was not so great at first. There was a lull in critical and theological discussion, and men were sure of their ground. The large and generous spirit of Chalmers impressed itself on the Church of which he was the main founder, and the desire to assert the influence of religion in science and literature in all the field of knowledge was shown from the beginning. For example, the North British Review was the organ of the Free Church, and did not stand much behind the Edinburgh and the Quarterly, either in the ability of its articles or in the distinction of many of its contributors. But especially the Free Church showed its wisdom by founding theological seminaries, and filling their chairs with its best men. A Professorship of Divinity was held to be a higher position than the pastorate of any pulpit. As time went on, however, and as the tenets of the Westminster Evangelicalism were more and more formidably assailed, the Free Church came in danger of surrendering its intellectual life. The whisper of heresy would have damaged a minister as effectually as a grave moral charge. Independent thought was impatiently and angrily suppressed. Macdonell said, writing in the Spectator in 1874, that the Free Church was being intellectually starved, and he pointed out that the Established Church was gaining ground under the leadership of such men as Principal Tulloch and Dr. Wallace, who in a sense represented the old Moderates, though they were as different from them as this age is from the last. The Free Church was apparently refusing to shape the dogmas of traditional Christianity in such a way as to meet the subtle intellectual and moral demands of an essentially scientific age. There was an apparent unanimity in the Free Church, but it was much more apparent than real. For one thing, the teaching of some of the professors had been producing its influence. Dr. A. B. Davidson, the recognised master of Old Testament learning in this country, a man who joins to his knowledge imagination, subtlety, fervour, and a rare power of style, had been quietly teaching the best men amongst his students that the old views of revelation would have to be seriously altered. He did not do this so much directly as indirectly, and I think there was a period when any Free Church minister who asserted the existence of errors in the Bible would have been summarily deposed. The abler students had been taking sessions at Germany, and had thus escaped from the narrowness of the provincial coterie. They were interested, some of them in literature, some in science, some in philosophy. At the New College they discussed in their theological society with daring and freedom the problems of the time. A crisis was sure to come, and it might very well have been a crisis which would have broken the Church in pieces. That it did not was due largely to the influence of one man—the American Evangelist, Mr. Moody.

In 1873 Mr. Moody commenced his campaign in the Barclay Free Church, Edinburgh. A few days before, Drummond had read a paper to the Theological Society of his college on Spiritual Diagnosis, in which he maintained that preaching was not the most important thing, but that personal dealing with those in anxiety would yield better results. In other words, he thought that practical religion might be treated as an exact science. He had given himself to scientific study with a view of standing for the degree of Doctor of Science. Moody at once made a deep impression on Edinburgh, and attracted the ablest students. He missed in this country a sufficient religious provision for young men, and he thought that young men could best be moulded by young men. With his keen American eye he perceived that Drummond was his best instrument, and he immediately associated him in the work. It had almost magical results. From the very first Drummond attracted and deeply moved crowds, and the issue was that for two years he gave himself to this work of evangelism in England, in Scotland, and in Ireland. During this period he came to know the life histories of young men in all classes. He made himself a great speaker; he knew how to seize the critical moment, and his modesty, his refinement, his gentle and generous nature, his manliness, and, above all, his profound conviction, won for him disciples in every place he visited. His companions were equally busy in their own lines, and in this way the Free Church was saved. A development on the lines of Tulloch and Wallace was impossible for the Free Church. Any change that might take place must conserve the vigorous evangelical life of which it had been the home. The change did take place. Robertson Smith, who was by far the first man of the circle, won, at the sacrifice of his own position, toleration for Biblical criticism, and proved that an advanced critic might be a convinced and fervent evangelical. Others did something, each in his own sphere, and it is not too much to say that the effects have been world-wide. The recent writers of Scottish fiction—Barrie Crockett, and Ian Maclaren, were all children of the Free Church, two of them being ministers. In almost every department of theological science, with perhaps the exception of Church history, Free Churchmen have made contributions which rank with the most important of the day. It is but bare justice to say that the younger generation of Free Churchmen have done their share in claiming that Christianity should rule in all the fields of culture, that the Incarnation hallows every department of human thought and activity. No doubt the claim has excited some hostility; at the same time the general public has rallied in overwhelming numbers to its support, and any book of real power written in a Christian spirit has now an audience compared with which that of most secular writers is small.

Even at that time Drummond’s evangelism was not of the ordinary type. When he had completed his studies, after brief intervals of work elsewhere, he found his professional sphere as lecturer on Natural Science in the Free Church College at Glasgow. There he came under the spell of Dr. Marcus Dods, to whom, as he always testified, he owed more than to any other man. He worked in a mission connected with Dr. Dods’ congregation, and there preached the remarkable series of addresses which were afterwards published as Natural Law in the Spiritual World. The book appeared in 1883, and the author would have been quite satisfied with a circulation of l ,000 copies. In England alone it has sold about 120,000 copies, while the American and foreign editions are beyond count. There is a natural prejudice against premature reconciliations between science and religion. Many would say with Schiller: “Feindschaft sei zwischen euch, noch kommt ein Bundniss zu fruhe: Forschet beide getrennt, so wird die Wahrheit erkannt.” In order to reconcile science and religion finally you must be prepared to say what is science and what is religion. Till that is done any synthesis must be premature. and any book containing it must in due time be superseded. Drummond was not blind to this, and yet he saw that something had to be done. Evolution was becoming more than a theory—it was an atmosphere. Through the teaching of evolutionists a subtle change was passing over morals, politics, and religion. Compromises had been tried and failed. The division of territory desired by some was found to be impossible. Drummond did not begin with doctrine and work downwards to nature. He ran up natural law as far as it would go, and then the doctrine burst into view. It was contended by the lamented Aubrey Moore that the proper thing is to begin with doctrine. While Moore would have admitted that science cannot be defined, that even the problem of evolution is one of which as yet we hardly know the outlines, he maintained that the first step was to begin with the theology of the Catholic Church, and that it was impossible to defend Christianity on the basis of anything less than the whole of the Church’s creed. Drummond did not attempt this. He declined, for example, to consider the relation of evolution to the Fall and to the Pauline doctrine of redemption. What he maintained was that, if you begin at the natural laws, you end in the spiritual laws; and in a series of impressive illustrations he brought out his facts of science, some of the characteristic doctrines of Calvinism—brought them out sternly and undisguisedly. By many of the orthodox he was welcomed as a champion, but others could not acquiesce in his assumption of evolution, and regarded him as more dangerous than an open foe. The book was riddled with criticisms from every side. Drummond himself never replied to these, but he gave his approval to an anonymous defence which appeared in the Expositor,1 and it is worth while recalling briefly the main points. (I) His critics rejected his main position, which was not that the spiritual laws are analogous to the natural laws, but that they are the same laws. To this he replied that if he had not shown identity, he had done nothing, but he admitted that the application of natural law to the spiritual world had decided and necessary limits, the principle not applying to those provinces of the spiritual world most remote from human experience. He adhered to the distinction between nature and grace, but he thought of grace also as forming part of the divine whole of nature, which is an emanation from the recesses of the divine wisdom, power and love. (2) His use of the law of biogenesis was severely attacked alike from the scientific and the religious side. Even Christian men of science thought he had laid dangerous stress on the principle omne vivum ex vivo, and declined to say that biogenesis was as certain as gravitation. They further affirmed, and surely with reason, that the principle is not essential to faith. From the religious side it was urged that he had grossly exaggerated the distinction between the spiritual man and the natural man, and that he ignored the susceptibilities or affinities of the natural man for spiritual influence. The reply was that he had asserted the capacity for God very strongly. “The chamber is not only ready to receive the new life, but the Guest is expected, and till He comes is missed. Till then the soul longs and yearns, wastes and pines, waving its tentacles piteously in the empty air, or feeling after God if so be that it may find Him.” (3) As for the charge that he could not reconcile his own statements as to divine efficiency and human responsibility, it was pointed out that this was only a phase of the larger difficulty of reconciling the exercise of the divine will with the freedom of the human will. What he maintained, in common with Augustinian and Puritan theology, was that in every case of regeneration there is an original intervention of God. (4) The absence of reference to the Atonement was due to the fact that the doctrine belonged to a region inaccessible to the new method, lying in the depths of the Divine Mind, and only to be made known by revelation. (5) The charge that he taught the annihilation of the unregenerate was repudiated. The unregenerate had not fulfilled the conditions of eternal life; but that does not show that they may not exist through eternity, for they exist at present, although in Mr. Drummond’s sense they do not live. There is no doubt that many of the objections directed against his book applied equally to every form of what may be called evangelical Calvinism. But I think that the main impression produced on competent judges was that the volume, though written with brilliant clearness of thought and imagination, and full of the Christian spirit, did not give their true place to personality, freedom, and conscience, terms against which physical science may even be said to direct its whole artillery, so far as it tries to depersonalise man, but terms in which the very life of morality and religion is bound up. Perhaps Drummond himself came ultimately to take this view. In any case, Matthew Arnold’s verdict will stand: “What is certain is that the author of the book has a genuine love of religion and genuine religious experience.”

His lectureship in Glasgow was constituted into a professor’s chair, and he occupied it for the rest of his life. His work gave him considerable freedom. During a few months of the year he lectured on geology and botany, giving also scattered discourses on biological problems and the study of evolution. He had two examinations in the year, the first, which he called the “stupidity” examination, to test the men’s knowledge of common things, asking such questions as, “Why is grass green?” “Why is the sea salt?” “Why is the heaven blue?” “What is a leaf?” etc., etc. After this Socratic inquiry he began his teaching, and examined his students at the end. He taught in a classroom that was also a museum, always had specimens before him while lecturing, and introduced his students to the use of scientific instruments, besides taking them for geological excursions. In his time of leisure he travelled very widely. He paid three visits to America, and one to Australia. He also took the journey to Africa commemorated in his brilliant little book, “Tropical Africa,” a work in which his insight, his power of selection, his keen observation, his fresh style, and his charming personality appear to the utmost advantage. It was praised on every side, though Mr. Stanley made a criticism to which Drummond gave an effective and good-humoured retort. During these journeys and on other occasions at home he continued his work of evangelism. He addressed himself mainly to students, on whom he had a great influence, and for years went every week to Edinburgh for the purpose of delivering Sunday evening religious addresses to University men. He was invariably followed by crowds, the majority of whom were medical students. He also, on several occasions, delivered addresses in London to social and political leaders, the audience including many of the most eminent men of the time. The substance of these addresses appeared in his famous booklets, beginning with the “Greatest Thing in the World,” and it may be worth while to say something of their teaching. Mr. Drummond did not begin in the conventional way. He seemed to do without all that, to common Christianity, is indispensable. He approached the subject so disinterestedly, with such an entire disregard of its one presupposition, sin, that many could never get on common ground with him. He entirely omitted that theology of the Cross which had been the substance hitherto of evangelistic addresses. Nobody could say that his gospel was “arterial” or “ensanguined.” In the first place, he had, like Emerson, a profound belief in the powers of the human will. That word of Spinoza which has been called a text in the scriptures of humanity might have been his motto. “He who desires to assist other people . . . . in common conversations will avoid referring to the vices of men, and will take care only sparingly to speak of human impotence, while he will talk largely of human virtue or power, and of the way by which it may be made perfect, so that men being moved, not by fear or aversion, but by the effect of joy, may endeavour, as much as they can, to live under the rule of reason.” With this sentence may be coupled its echo in the “Confessions of a Beautiful Soul”: “It is so much the more our duty, not, like the advocate of the evil spirit, always to keep our eyes fixed upon the nakedness and weakness of our nature, but rather to seek out all those perfections through which we can make good our claims to a likeness to God.” But along with this went a passionate devotion to Jesus Christ. Emerson said “The man has never lived who can feed us ever.” Drummond maintained with absolute conviction that Christ could for ever and ever meet all the needs of the soul. In his criticism of “Ecce Homo,” Mr. Gladstone answered the question whether the Christian preacher is ever justified in delivering less than a full Gospel. He argued that to go back to the very beginning of Christianity might be a method eminently suited to the needs of the present generation. The ship of Christianity was overloaded, not perhaps for fair weather, but when a gale came the mass strained over to the leeward. Drummond asked his hearers to go straight into the presence of Christ, not as He now presents Himself to us bearing in His hand the long roll of His conquests, but as He offered Himself to the Jew by the Sea of Galilee, or in the synagogue of Capernaum, or in the temple of Jerusalem. He declined to take every detail of the Christianity in possession as part of the whole. He denied that the rejection of the nonessential involved parting with the essential, and he strove to go straight to the fountain-head itself. Whatever criticisms may be passed, it will be allowed that few men in the century have done so much to bring their hearers and readers to the feet of Jesus Christ. It has been said of Carlyle that the one living ember of the old Puritanism that still burned vividly in his mind was the belief that honest and true men might find power in God to alter things for the better. Drummond believed with his whole heart that men might find power in Christ to change their lives.

He had seven or eight months of the year at his disposal, and spent very little of them in his beautiful home at Glasgow. He wandered all over the world, and in genial human intercourse made his way to the hearts of rich and poor. He was as much at home in addressing a meeting of working men as in speaking at Grosvenor House. He had fastidious tastes, was always faultlessly dressed, and could appreciate the surroundings of civilization. But he could at a moment’s notice throw them all off and be perfectly happy. As a traveller in Africa he cheerfully endured much privation. He excelled in many sports and was a good shot. In some ways he was like Lavengro, and I will say that some parts of “Lavengro” would be unintelligible to me unless I had known Drummond. Although he refused to quarrel, and had a thoroughly loyal and deeply affectionate nature, he was yet independent of others. He never married. He never undertook any work to which he did not feel himself called. Although he had the most tempting offers from editors nothing would induce him to write unless the subject attracted him, and even then he was unwilling. Although he had great facility he never presumed upon it. He wrote brightly and swiftly, and would have made an excellent journalist. But everything he published was elaborated with the most scrupulous care. I have never seen manuscripts so carefully revised as his. All he did was apparently done with ease, but there was immense labour behind it. Although in orders he neither used the title nor the dress that go with them, but preferred to regard himself as a layman. He had a deep sense of the value of the Church and its work, but I think was not himself connected with any Church, and never attended public worship unless he thought the preacher had some message for him. He seemed to be invariably in good spirits, and invariably disengaged. He was always ready for any and every office of friendship. It should be said that, though few men were more criticised or misconceived, he himself never wrote an unkind word about any one, never retaliated, never bore malice, and could do full justice to the abilities and character of his opponents. I have just heard that he exerted himself privately to secure an important appointment for one of his most trenchant critics, and was successful.

For years he had been working quietly at his last and greatest book, “The Ascent of Man.” The chapters were first delivered as the Lowell Lectures in Boston, where they attracted great crowds. The volume was published in 1894, and though its sale was large, exceeding 20,000 copies, it did not command his old public. This was due very much to the obstinacy with which he persisted in selling it at a net price, a proceeding which offended the booksellers, who had hoped to profit much from its sale. The work is much the most important he has left us. It was an endeavour, as has been said, to engraft an evolutionary sociology and ethic upon a biological basis. The fundamental doctrine of the struggle of life leads to an individualistic system in which the moral side of nature has no place. Professor Drummond contended that the currently accepted theory, being based on an exclusive study of the conditions of nutrition, took account of only half the truth. With nutrition he associated, as a second factor, the function of reproduction, the struggle for the life of others, and maintained that this was of co-ordinate rank as a force in cosmic evolution. Though others had recognised altruism as modifying the operation of egoism, Mr. Drummond did more. He tried to indicate the place of altruism as the outcome of those processes whereby the species is multiplied, and its bearing on the evolution of ethics. He desired, in other words, a unification of concept, the filling up of great gulfs that had seemed to be fixed. “If nature be the garment of God, it is woven without seam throughout; if a revelation of God, it is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever; if the expression of His will, there is in it no variableness nor shadow of turning.” After sketching the stages of the process of evolution, physical and ethical, he develops his central idea in the chapter on the struggle for the life of others, and then deals with the higher stages of the development of altruism as a modifying factor. The book was mercilessly criticised, but I believe that no one has attempted to deny the accuracy and the beauty of his scientific descriptions. Further, not a few eminent scientific men, like Professor Gairdner and Professor Macalister, have seen in it at least the germ out of which much may come. One of its severest critics, Dr. Dallinger, considers that nature is non-moral, and that religion begins with Christ. No man hath seen God at any time—this is what nature certifies. The only begotten Son of the Father, He hath declared Him—this is the message of Christianity. But there are many religious minds, and some scientific minds, convinced, in spite of all the difficulties, that natural law must be moral, and very loth to admit a hopeless dualism between the physical and the moral order of the world. They say that the whole force of evolution directs our glance forward, and that its motto is ______ oran.

With the publication of this book Drummond’s career as a public teacher virtually ended. He who had never known an illness, who apparently had been exempted from care and sorrow, was prostrated by a painful and mysterious malady. One of his kind physicians, Dr. Freeland Barbour, informs me that Mr. Drummond suffered from a chronic affection of the bones. It maimed him greatly. He was laid on his back for more than a year, and had both arms crippled, so that reading was not a pleasure and writing almost impossible. For a long time he suffered acute pain. It was then that some who had greatly misconceived him came to a truer judgement of the man. Those who had often found the road rough had looked askance at Drummond as a spoiled child of fortune, ignorant of life’s real meaning. But when he was struck down in his prime, at the very height of his happiness, when there was appointed for him, to use his own words, “a waste of storm and tumult before he reached the shore,” it seemed as if his sufferings liberated and revealed the forces of his soul. The spectacle of his long struggle with a mortal disease was something more than impressive. Those who saw him in his illness saw that, as the physical life flickered low, the spiritual energy grew. Always gentle and considerate, he became even more careful, more tender, more thoughtful, more unselfish. He never in any way complained. His doctors found it very difficult to get him to talk of his illness. It was strange and painful, but inspiring, to see his keenness, his mental elasticity, his universal interest. Dr. Barbour says: “I have never seen pain or weariness, or the being obliged to do nothing more entirely overcome, treated, in fact, as if they were not. The end came suddenly from a failure of the heart. Those with him received only a few hours’ warning of his critical condition.” It was not like death. He lay on his couch in the drawing-room, and passed away in his sleep, with the sun shining in and the birds singing at the open window. There was no sadness nor farewell. It recalled what he himself said of a friend’s death—“putting by the well-worn tools without a sigh, and expecting elsewhere better work to do.”

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