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Principal Cairns by John Cairns

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sentiments on such matters I esteem more highly, for there is no one
who, I am sure, is more earnest for the truth, and no one who pursues
it with more independence and, at the same time, with greater
confidence in the promised aid of God. May this promised aid be
vouchsafed to me."[7]

[Footnote 7: _Memoir of Sir W. Hamilton_, pp. 299-301.]



It was confidently expected, not merely by Cairns's personal friends
but by others in a much wider circle, that he would make a name for
himself in the world of letters and speculative thought. It was not
only the brilliance of his University career that led to this
expectation, for, remarkable as that career had been, there have been
many men since his time who, so far as mere prize taking is concerned,
have equalled or surpassed him--men who never aroused and would not
have justified any high-pitched hopes about their future. But Cairns,
in addition to gaining academic distinctions, seems to have impressed
his contemporaries in a quite exceptional degree with a sense of his
power and promise. Professor Masson, writing of him as he was in
his student days, thus describes him: "There was among us one whom
we all respected in a singular degree. Tall, strong-boned, and
granite-headed, he was the student whom Sir William Hamilton himself
had signalised and honoured as already a sterling thinker, and the
strength of whose logic, when you grappled with him in argument,
seemed equalled only by the strength of his hand-grip when you met him
or bade him good-bye, or by the manly integrity and nobleness of his
character."[8] And again, writing of him as he was at a later date,
the same critic gives this estimate of his old fellow-student's mental
calibre: "I can name one former student of Sir William Hamilton's, now
a minister in what would be accounted in England one of the straitest
sects of Scottish Puritanism, and who has consecrated to the duties of
that calling a mind among the noblest I have known and the most
learned in pure philosophy. Any man who on any subject of metaphysical
speculation should contend with Dr. Cairns of Berwick-on-Tweed, would
have reason to know, ere he had done with him, what strength for
offence and defence there may yet be in a Puritan minister's

[Footnote 8: _Macmillan's Magazine_, December 1864, p. 139.]

[Footnote 9: _Recent British Philosophy_, pp. 265-66.]

That this is no mere isolated estimate of a partial friend it would
not be difficult to prove. This was what his friends thought of him,
and what they had taught others outside to think of him too. The time,
however, had now come when it had to be put to the proof. During the
first five years of his ministry at Berwick, as we have seen, Cairns
devoted himself entirely to his work in Golden Square. He must learn
to know accurately how much of his time that work would take up,
before he could venture to spend any of it in other fields. But in
1850 he felt that he had mastered the situation, and accordingly he
began to write for the Press. The ten years between 1850 and 1860 were
years of considerable literary activity with him, and it may be said
at once that their output sustained his reputation, and even added
to it. There falls to be mentioned first a Memoir of his friend John
Clark, who, after a brief and troubled ministerial career, had died of
cholera in 1849. Cairns's Life of him, prefixed to a selection from
his Essays and Sermons, fills only seventy-seven small pages, and it
is in form to a large extent a defence of metaphysical studies against
those who regard them as dangerous to the Christian student. But it
contains many passages of great beauty and tenderness, and delineates
in exquisite colours the poetry and romance of College friendships.
"I am greatly charmed," wrote the author of _Rab and his Friends_
to Cairns, "with your pages on the romance of your youthful
fellowship--that sweet hour of prime. I can remember it, can feel it,
can scent the morn."[10]

[Footnote 10: See above, pp. 44-45.]

In 1850 the _North British Review_, which had been started some years
previously in the interests of the Free Church, came under the
editorship of Cairns's friend Campbell Fraser. Although he was a Free
Church professor, he resolved to widen the basis of the _Review_, and
he asked Cairns to join his staff, offering him as his province German
philosophy and theology. Cairns assented, and promised to furnish two
articles yearly. The first and most important of these was one which
appeared in 1850 on Julius Mueller's _Christian Doctrine of Sin_. This
article, which is well and brightly written, embraces not merely a
criticism of the great work whose name stands at the head of it, but
also an elaborate yet most lucid and masterly survey of the various
schools of theological thought which were then grouping themselves in
Germany. Other contributions to the _North British_ during the next
four years included articles on "British and Continental Ethics and
Christianity," on "The Reawakening of Christian Life in Germany," and
on "The Life and Letters of Niebuhr"; while yet other articles saw
the light in the _British Quarterly Review_, the _United Presbyterian
Magazine_, and other periodicals. In 1858 appeared the important
article on "Kant," in the eighth edition of the _Encyclopedia
Britannica_, which was written at the urgent request of his friend
Adam Black, and which cost him ten months reading and preparation.

As has been already said, his reputation appears to have been fully
maintained by these articles. They brought him into touch with many
interesting people, such as Bunsen and F.D. Maurice; and, in Scotland,
deepened the impression that he was a man with a future. In 1852
John Wilson resigned the Professorship of Moral Philosophy in the
University of Edinburgh, and the Town Council, who were the patrons
of the chair, took occasion to let Cairns know that he might have
the appointment if he desired it. He declined their offer, and with
characteristic reticence said nothing about it either to his relatives
or to his congregation. He threw himself, however, with great ardour
into the support of the candidature of his friend Professor P.C.
M'Dougall, who ultimately was elected to the post.

Four years later Sir William Hamilton died, and a fierce fight ensued
as to who was to be his successor. The two most prominent candidates
were Cairns's friend Campbell Fraser, then Professor of Logic in the
New College, Edinburgh, and Professor James Frederick Ferrier of St.
Andrews. Fraser was then a Hamiltonian and Ferrier was a Hegelian, and
a great hubbub arose between the adherents of the two schools. This
was increased and embittered by the importation of ecclesiastical and
political feeling into the contest; Fraser being a Free Churchman,
and Ferrier receiving the support of the Established Church and Tory
party. The Town Council were very much at sea with regard to the
philosophical controversy, and, through Dr. John Brown, they requested
Cairns to explain its merits to them. Cairns responded by publishing
a pamphlet entitled _An_ _Examination of Professor Ferrier's Theory
of Knowing and Being_. This pamphlet had for its object to show that
Ferrier's election would mean a renunciation of the doctrines which,
as expounded by Hamilton, had added so greatly to the prestige of the
University in recent times as a school of philosophy, and also to
expose what the writer conceived to be the dangerous character of
Ferrier's teaching in relation to religious truth. It increased
the storm tenfold. Replies were published and letters sent to the
newspapers abusing Cairns, and insinuating that he had been led by
a private grudge against Ferrier to take the step he had taken. It
was also affirmed that he was acting at the instigation of the Free
Church, who wanted to abolish their chair of Logic in the New College,
but could not well do so so long as they had its present incumbent
on their hands. A doggerel parody on _John Gilpin_, entitled "The
Diverting History of John Cairns," in which a highly coloured account
is given of the supposed genesis of the pamphlet, was written and
found wide circulation. The first two stanzas of this effusion were
the following:--

"John Cairns was a clergyman
Of credit and renown,
A first-rate U.P. Church had he
In far-famed Berwick town.

John likewise had a loving friend,
A mighty man of knowledge,
The Rev. A.C. Fraser, he
Of the sanctified New College."

Cairns found it needful to issue a second pamphlet, _Scottish
Philosophy: a Vindication and Reply_, in which, while tenaciously
holding to what he had said in the last one, he challenged Ferrier to
mention one single instance in which he had made a personal attack
on him. When at length the vote came to be taken, and Fraser was
elected by a majority of three, there were few who doubted that the
intervention of the Berwick minister had been of critical importance
in bringing about this result.

Two years later George Wilson, who was now a professor in the
University, had the satisfaction of intimating to his friend that
his _alma mater_ had conferred on him the degree of D.D., and in the
following year (1859) a much higher honour was placed within his
reach. The Principalship of the University became vacant by the death
of Dr. John Lee, and the appointment to the coveted post, like that
to the two professorships, was in the hands of the Town Council. It
was informally offered to Cairns through one of the councillors, but
again he sent a declinature, and again he kept the matter carefully
concealed. It was not, in fact, until after his death, when the
correspondence regarding it came to light, that even his own brothers
knew that at the age of forty this great and dignified office might
have been his.

These declinatures on Cairns's part of philosophical posts, or posts
the occupation of which would give him time and opportunity for doing
original work in philosophy, are not on the whole difficult to
understand when we bear in mind his point of view. He had, after
careful deliberation, given himself to the Christian ministry, and
he meant to devote the whole of his life to its work. He was not to
be turned aside from it by the attractions of any employment however
congenial, or of any leisure however splendid. His speculative powers
had been consecrated to this object, as well as his active powers, and
would find their natural outlet in harmony with it. And so the hopes
of his friends and his own aspirations must be realised in his work,
not in the field of philosophy but in that of theology. Accordingly,
he decided to follow up his work in the periodicals by writing a book.
He took for his subject "The Difficulties of Christianity," and made
some progress with it, getting on so far as to write several chapters.
Then he was interrupted and the work was laid aside. The great book
was never written, nor did he ever write a book worthy of his powers.
A moderate-sized volume of lectures on "Unbelief in the Eighteenth
Century," a volume of sermons, most of which were written in the first
fifteen years of his ministry, a Memoir of Dr. Brown,--these, with the
exception of a quantity of pamphlets, prefaces, and magazine articles,
were all that he gave to the world after the time with which we are
now dealing. How are we to account for this? The time in which he
lived was a time of great intellectual activity and unsettlement--time
that, in the opinion of most, needed, and would have welcomed, the
guidance he could have given; and yet he stayed his hand. Why did he
do so? This is the central problem which a study of his life presents,
and it is one of no ordinary complexity; but there are some
considerations relating to it which go far to solve it, and these
it may be worth while for us at this point to examine.

At the outset, something must be allowed for the special character
of the influence exerted on Cairns by Sir William Hamilton. That
influence was profound and far-reaching. In the letter to Hamilton
which was quoted at the end of the preceding chapter, Cairns tells his
master that he must "bear, by the will of the Almighty, the impress of
his hand through any further stage of existence," and, strong as the
expression is, it can scarcely be said to be an exaggeration. But
Hamilton's influence, while it called out and stimulated his pupil's
powers to a remarkable degree, was not one which made for literary
productiveness. He was a great upholder of the doctrine that truth is
to be sought for its own sake and without reference to any ulterior
end, and he had strong ideas about the discredit--the shamefulness,
as it seemed to him--of speaking or writing on any subject until it
had been mastered down to its last detail. This attitude prevented
Hamilton himself from doing full justice to his powers and learning,
and its influence could be seen in Cairns also--in his delight in
studies the relevancy of which was not always apparent, and in a
certain fastidiousness which often delayed, and sometimes even
prevented, his putting pen to paper.

But another and a much more important factor in the problem is to be
found in the old Seceder ideal of the ministry in which he was trained
and which he never lost. It has been truly said of him that "he never
all his life got away from David Inglis and Stockbridge any more than
Carlyle got away from John Johnston and Ecclefechan." According to the
Seceder view, there is no more sublime calling on earth than that of
the Christian ministry, and that calling is one which concerns itself
first and chiefly with the conversion of sinners and the edifying of
saints. This work is so awful in its importance, and so beneficent
in its results, that it must take the chief place in a minister's
thoughts and in the disposition of his time; and if it requires the
sole place, that too must be accorded to it. "To me," wrote Cairns to
George Gilfillan in 1849, "love seems infinitely higher than knowledge
and the noblest distinction of humanity--the humble minister who wears
himself out in labours of Christian love in an obscure retreat as a
more exalted person than the mere literary champion of Christianity,
or the recondite professor who is great at Fathers and Schoolmen. I
really cannot share those longings for intellectual giants to confront
the Goliath of scepticism--not that I do not think such persons useful
in their way, but because I think Christianity far more impressive
as a life than as a speculation, and the West Port evangelism of
Dr. Chalmers far more effective than his Astronomical Discourses."[11]

[Footnote 11: _Life and Letters_, p. 307.]

It was to the ministry, as thus understood, that Cairns had devoted
himself at the close of his University course and again just before he
took license as a probationer, when for a short time, as we have seen,
he had been drawn aside by the attractions of "sacred literature." He
never thought of becoming a minister and was putting his main strength
into philosophy and theology. Not that he now forswore all interest in
either, but from the moment of his final decision, he had determined
that the mid-current of his life should run in a different direction.

Yet another important factor in the case is to be found in the
circumstances of his Berwick ministry. Had his lot been cast in a
quiet country place, with only a handful of people to look after, the
great book might yet have been written. But he had to attend to a
congregation whose membership was at first nearly six hundred, and
afterwards rose to seven hundred and eighty and, with his standard
of pastoral efficiency, this left him little leisure. Indeed it is
wonderful that, under these conditions, he accomplished so much as
he did--that he wrote his _North British_ articles, maintained a
reputation which won for him so many offers of academic posts, and at
the same time laid the foundation of a vast and spacious learning in
Patristic and Reformation theology. Akin to his strictly ministerial
work, and flowing out of it, was the work he did for his Church as
a whole--the share he took in the Union negotiations with the Free
Church during the ten years that these negotiations lasted, and the
endless round of church openings and platform work to which his
growing fame as a preacher and public speaker laid him open.

But there is one other consideration which, although it is to some
extent involved in what has already been said, deserves separate and
very special attention. Although his friends and the public regretted
his withdrawal from the speculative field, it is not so clear that he
regretted it himself. He had, it is true, worked in it strenuously
and with conspicuous success, and had revealed a natural aptitude for
Christian apologetics of a very high order. But it does not appear
that either his heart or his conscience were ever fully engaged in the
work. He never seemed as if he were fighting for his life, because he
always seemed to have another and an independent ground of certainty
on which he based his real defence. There is a passage in his Life of
Clark which bears upon this point so closely that it will be well to
quote it here:--

"The Christian student is as conscious of direct intercourse with
Jesus Christ as with the external world, or with other minds. This is
the very postulate of living Christianity. It is a datum or revelation
made to a spiritual faculty in the soul, as real as the external
senses or any of the mental or moral faculties, and far more exalted.
This living contact with a living person by faith and prayer is, like
all other life, ultimate and mysterious, and must be accepted by him
in whom it exists as its own sufficient explanation and reason, just
as the principles of natural intelligence and conscience, to which it
is something superadded, and with which, in this point of view, though
in other respects higher, it is co-ordinate. No one who is living in
communion with Jesus Christ, and exercising that series of affections
towards Him which Christianity at once prescribes and creates, can
doubt the reality of that supernatural system to which he has been
thus introduced; and nothing more is necessary than to appeal to his
own experience and belief, which is here as valid and irresistible as
in regard to the existence of God, of moral distinctions, or of the
material world. He has no reason to trust the one class of beliefs
which he has not, to trust the other.... To minds thus favoured, this
forms a _point d'appui_ which can never be overturned--an _aliquid
inconcussum_ corresponding to the '_cogito ergo sum_' of Descartes.
Their faith bears its own signature, and they have only to look within
to discover its authenticity. Philosophy must be guided by experience,
and must rank the characters inscribed on the soul by grace at least
as sacred as those inscribed by nature. Such persons need not that any
man should teach them, for they have an unction from the Holy One; and
to them applies the highest of all congratulations: 'Blessed art thou;
for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but My Father
which is in heaven.'"[12]

[Footnote 12: _Fragments of College and Pastoral Life_, pp. 38-40.]

These words contain the true explanation of Cairns's life. There was
in it the "_aliquid inconcussum_"--the "unshaken somewhat"--which made
him independent of other arguments, and which kept him untouched by
all the intellectual attacks on Christianity. Other people who had
not this inward testimony, or who, having it, could not regard it as
unshaken by the assaults of infidelity, he could argue with and seek
to meet them on their own intellectual ground; but for himself, any
victories gained here were superfluous, any defects left him unmoved.
Was it always so with him? Or was there ever a time when he was
carried off his feet and had to struggle for dear life for his
Christian faith amid the dark waters of doubt?

There are indications that on at least one occasion he subjected his
beliefs to a careful scrutiny, and, referring to this later, he spoke
of himself as one who, in the words of the Roman poet, had been "much
tossed about on land and on the deep ere he could build a city."
This, coming from one who was habitually reticent about his religious
experiences, may be held as proving that there was no want of rigour
in the process, no withholding of any part of the structure from the
strain. But that that structure ever gave way, that it ever came
tumbling down in ruins about him so that it had to be built again
on new foundations, there is no evidence to show. The "_aliquid
inconcussum_" appears to have remained with him all through the
experience. This seems clear from a passage in a letter written in
1848 to his brother David, then a student in Sir William Hamilton's
class, in which he says; "I never found my religious susceptibilities
injured by metaphysical speculations. Whether this was a singular
felicity I do not know, but I have heard others complain."[13]

[Footnote 13: _Life and Letters_, p. 295.]

This, taken in conjunction with the passage quoted above from
Clark's Life, in which it is hard to believe that he is not speaking
of himself, seems decisive enough, and in a mind of such speculative
grasp and activity it is remarkable. "Right down through the
storm-zone of the nineteenth century," writes one who knew him well,
"he comes untroubled by the force of the '_aliquid inconcussum_.'
Edinburgh, Germany, Berwick; Hamilton, Kant, Hegel, Strauss, Renan, it
is all the same. The cause seems to me luminously plain. Saints are
never doubters. His religious intuitions were so deep and clear that
he was able always to find his way by their aid. They gave him his
independent certainty, his '_aliquid inconcussum_.'"

His influence on the religious life of his time was largely due to
the spiritual faculty in him that is here referred to. He was the
power he was, not so much because of his intellectual strength as
because of his character,--because he was "a great Christian." But
in this respect he had the defects of his qualities; and it is open
to question whether he ever truly appreciated the formidable character
of modern doubt, just because he himself had never had full experience
of its power, because the iron of it had never really entered into
his soul.

George Gilfillan, who, with all his defects, had often gleams of real
insight, wrote thus in his diary 14th January 1863: "I got yesterday
sent me, per post, a lecture by John Cairns on 'Rationalism,
Ritualism, and Pure Religion,' or some such title, and have read it
with interest, attention, and a good deal of admiration of its ability
and, on the whole, of its spirit. But I can see from it that he is
not the man to grapple with the scepticism of the age. He has not
sufficient sympathy with it, he has not lived in its atmosphere, he
has not visited its profoundest or tossed in its stormiest depths.
Intellectually and logically he understands it as he understands most
other matters, but sympathetically and experimentally he does not."

There is a considerable amount of truth in this, although it is
lacking somewhat in the sympathy which the critic desiderates in the
man he is criticising. Cairns did not feel that the battle with modern
doubt was of absolutely overwhelming importance, and this, along with
the other things to which reference has been made, kept him from
giving to the world that new statement of the Christian position which
his friends hoped to get from him, and which he at one time hoped to
be able to give.



The close of the period dealt with in the last chapter was made sadly
memorable to Cairns by the death of some of his closest friends. In
October 1858 died the venerable Dr. Brown, with whom, since he was a
student, he had stood in the closest relations, and whom he revered
and habitually addressed as a father. In November 1859 the bright
spirit of George Wilson, the dearest of all his friends, passed away;
and in the same year he had to mourn the loss of Miss Darling, the
correspondent and adviser of his student days. His brave old mother
died in the autumn of 1860, and in the following year he lost another
old and dear friend in Mrs. Balmer, the widow of his predecessor in
Golden Square, who perhaps knew him better than his own mother, and
had been deeper in his confidence than anyone since he came to
Berwick. From this period he became more reserved. With all his
frankness there was always a characteristic reticence about him, and
this was less frequently broken now that those to whom he had so
freely poured out his soul had been taken from him. But he drew closer
to those who were still left--especially to his own kindred, to his
sisters, to his brother William at Oldcambus, and to his brother
David, who had now been settled for some years as minister at
Stitchel, near Kelso.[14]

[Footnote 14: His eldest brother, Thomas, had died from the effects of
an accident in 1856.]

Dr. Brown had nominated him as one of his literary executors, and
his family were urgent in their request that he should write their
father's Life. With great reluctance he consented, and for eighteen
months this task absorbed the whole of his leisure, to the complete
exclusion of the work on "The Difficulties of Christianity," with
which he had already made some progress. The undertaking was a labour
of love, but it cannot be said to have been congenial. Memoir writing
was not to his taste, and in this case he had made a stipulation that
still further hampered him and made success very difficult. This was
that he should omit, as far as possible, all personal details, and
leave these to be dealt with in a separate chapter which Dr. Brown's
son John undertook to furnish. This chapter was not forthcoming when
the volume had to go to press, and was separately issued some months
later. When the inspiration did at length come to "Dr. John," it came
in such a way as to add a new masterpiece to English literature, and
one which, while it gave a wonderfully living picture of the writer's
father, disclosed to the world as nothing else has ever done the true
_ethos_ and inner life of the Scottish Secession Church. The Memoir
itself, of which this "Letter to John Cairns, D.D." is the
supplementary chapter, is a sound and solid bit of work, giving an
accurate and interesting account of the public life of Dr. Brown and
of the movements in which he took part. It is, as William Graham said
of it, "a thoughtful, calm, conclusive book, perhaps too reticent and
colourless, but none the less like Dr. Brown because of that."

No sooner was this book off his hands than Cairns was urged to
undertake another biographical work--the Life of George Wilson. But
this, in view of his recent experience, he steadfastly refused to
do, and contented himself with writing a sketch of his friend for the
pages of _Macmillan's Magazine_. When, however, Wilson's biography
was taken in hand by his sister, Cairns promised to help her in every
possible way with his advice and guidance, and this he did from week
to week till the book was published. This help on his part was
continued by his seeing through the press Wilson's posthumous book,
_Counsels of an Invalid_, which appeared in 1862. With the completion
of this task he seemed to be free to return to his theological work,
and he did return to it; but his release turned out to be only a brief
respite. In 1863 the ten years' negotiations for Union between the
Free and United Presbyterian Churches, in which he felt impelled to
take a prominent and laborious part, were begun, and they absorbed
nearly all of his leisure during what might have been a productive
period of his life. When he emerged from them he was fifty-four years
of age, he had passed beyond the time of life when his creative powers
were at their freshest, and the general habits of his life and lines
of his activity had become settled and stereotyped.

This is not the place in which to enter into a detailed account of the
Union negotiations. That has been done with admirable lucidity and
skill by such writers as Dr. Norman Walker in his Life of Dr. Robert
Buchanan, and by Dr. MacEwen in his Life of the subject of the present
sketch, and it does not need to be done over again. But something
must be said at this point to indicate the general lines which the
negotiations followed and to make Cairns's relation to them clear.
That he should have taken a keen and sympathetic interest in any great
movement for ecclesiastical union was quite what might have been
expected. What interested him in Christian truth, and what he had,
ever since he had been a student, set himself specially to expound and
defend, were the great catholic doctrines which are the heritage of
the one Church of Christ. Constitutionally, he was disposed to make
more of the things that unite Christians than of those which divide
them; and, while he was loyally attached to his own Church, many of
his favourite heroes, as well as many of his warmest personal friends,
belonged to other Churches. Hence anything that made for Union was
entirely in line with his feelings and his convictions. Thus he had
thrown himself heartily into the work of the Evangelical Alliance, and
at its memorable Berlin Meeting of 1857 had created a deep impression
by an address which he delivered in German on the probable results of
a closer co-operation between German and British Protestantism. In the
same year he took part in a Conference in Edinburgh which had been
summoned by Sir George Sinclair of Ulbster to discuss the possibility
of Church Union at home. And when in 1859 the Union took place in the
Australian Colonies of the Presbyterian Churches which bore the names
of the Scottish Churches from which they had sprung, it was to a large
extent through his influence that the Australian United Presbyterians
took part in the Union.

His ideal at first was of one great Presbyterian Communion co-extensive
with the English language, and separately organised in the different
countries and dependencies in which its adherents were to be found,
but having one creed and one form of worship and complete freedom from
all State patronage and control. But, as the times did not seem ripe
for such a vast consummation, he made no attempt to give his ideal a
practical form, and concentrated his energies on the lesser movement
which was beginning to take shape for a union of the Presbyterian
Churches in England and the non-Established Presbyterian Churches in
Scotland. He was one of those who brought this project before the
Synod of the United Presbyterian Church in May 1863, when he appeared
in support of an overture from the Berwick Presbytery in favour of
Union. The overture was adopted with enthusiasm, and the Synod agreed
by a majority of more than ten to one to appoint a committee to confer
with a view to Union with any committee which might be appointed by
the Free Church General Assembly. The Free Church Assembly, which met
a fortnight later, passed a similar resolution unanimously, although
not without a keen discussion revealing elements of opposition which
were afterwards to gather strength.

It is quite possible that, as competent observers have suggested,
if the enthusiasm for the project which then existed had been taken
advantage of at once, Union might have been carried with a rush.
But the able men who were guiding the proceedings thought it safer
to advance more slowly; and, when the Joint Union Committee met,
they went on to consider in detail the various points on which the
two Churches differed. These had reference almost entirely to the
relations between Church and State. The United Presbyterians were,
almost to a man, "Voluntaries," _i.e._ they held that the Church ought
in all cases to support itself without assistance from the State, and
free from the interference which, in their view, was the inevitable
and justifiable accompaniment of all State establishments. The Free
Churchmen, on the other hand, while maintaining as their cardinal
principle that the Church must be free from all State interference,
and while therefore protesting against the existing Establishment,
held that the Church, if its freedom were adequately guaranteed,
might lawfully accept establishment and endowment from the State. An
elaborate statement was drawn up exhibiting first the points on which
the two Churches were agreed with regard to this question, and then
the points on which they differed. From this it appeared that they
were at one as to the duty of the State--or, in the language of the
Westminster Confession, the "Civil Magistrate"--to make Christian laws
and to administer them in a Christian spirit. The Civil Magistrate
ought, it was agreed, to be a Christian, not merely as a man but as a
magistrate. The only vital point of difference was with regard to the
question of Church establishments--as to whether it was part of the
Christian Civil Magistrate's duty to establish and endow the Church.
But, as it seemed to be a vain hope that the Free Church would ever
get an Establishment to its mind, it was urged that this was a mere
matter of theory, and might be safely left as an "open question" in a
United Church. The statement referred to, which is better known as the
"Articles of Agreement," was not ready to be submitted in a final form
to the Synod and Assembly of 1864, and the Committee, which was now
reinforced by representatives from the Reformed Presbyterian Church
and from the Presbyterian Church in England, was reappointed to carry
on its labours.

But meanwhile clouds were beginning to appear on the horizon. In
the United Presbyterian Synod there was a small minority of sturdy
Voluntaries who, while not opposed to Union, were apprehensive that
the price to be paid for it would be the partial surrender of their
testimony in behalf of their distinctive principle. They did not wish
to impose their beliefs on others, but they were anxious to reserve
to themselves full liberty to hold and propagate their views in the
United Church, and they were not sure that, by accepting the Articles
of Agreement, they were in fact doing this. The efforts of Dr. Cairns
and others were directed, not without success, to meeting their
difficulties. But in the Free Church a more formidable opposition
began to show itself. There had always been a conservative element
in that Church, represented by men who held tenaciously to the more
literal interpretation of its ecclesiastical documents and traditions;
and, as the discussions went on, it became clear that the hopelessness
of a reconciliation with the Establishment was not so universally felt
as had been at first supposed. The supporters of the Union movement
included almost all the trusted leaders of the Church--men like Drs.
Candlish, Buchanan, Duff, Fairbairn, Rainy, and Guthrie, Sir Henry
Moncreiff, Lord Dalhousie, and Mr. Murray Dunlop, most of whom had
got their ecclesiastical training in the great controversy which had
issued in the Disruption; but all their eloquence and all their skill
did not avail to allay the misgivings or silence the objections of the
other party. At length in 1867 a crisis was reached. The Articles of
Agreement, after having been finally formulated by the Committee,
had been sent down to Presbyteries for their consideration; and the
reports of the Presbyteries were laid on the table of the Assembly
of that year. The question now arose, Was it wise, in view of the
opposition, to take further steps towards Union? The Assembly by
346 votes to 120 decided to goon; whereupon the Anti-Union leaders
resigned the seats which up to this time they had retained on the
Union Committee.

It is true that, after the Committee had been relieved of this
hostile element, considerable and rapid progress was made. Hopes were
cherished for a time that the Union might yet be consummated, and
the determination was expressed to carry it through at all hazards.
But the Free Church minority, ably led and knowing its own mind,
stubbornly maintained its ground. Its adherents, who included perhaps
one-third of the ministers and people of the Church, were specially
numerous in the Highlands, where United Presbyterianism was
practically unrepresented.

Here most distorted views were held of the Voluntaryism which most of
its ministers and members professed. It was represented as equivalent
to National Atheism, and from this the transition was an easy one,
especially in districts where few of the people had even seen a United
Presbyterian, to the position that an upholder of National Atheism
must himself be an Atheist. It became increasingly clear, as the years
passed, that if the Union were to be forced through, there must be
a new Disruption, and a Disruption which would cost the Free Church
those Highland congregations which for thirty years it had been its
glory to maintain. Moreover, it was currently reported that the
Anti-Union party had taken the opinion of eminent counsel, and that
these had declared that, in the event of a Disruption taking place
on this question of Union, the protesting minority would be legally
entitled to take with them the entire property of the Church. The
conviction was forced on the Free Church leaders (and in this they
were supported by their United Presbyterian brethren) that the time
was not yet ripe for that which they so greatly desired to see, and
that even for Union the price they would have to pay was too great.
And so with heavy hearts they decided in 1873 to abandon the
negotiations which had been proceeding for ten years. All that they
felt themselves prepared to carry was a proposal that Free Church
or United Presbyterian ministers should be "mutually eligible" for
calls in the two Churches--a proposal that did not come to much.

Three years later, the Reformed Presbyterian Church united with the
Free Church, and in the same year (1876) the United Presbyterian
Church gave up one hundred and ten of its congregations, which united
with the English Presbyterian Church and thus formed the present
Presbyterian Church of England. The original idea, at least on the
United Presbyterian side, had been that all the negotiating bodies
should be welded into one comprehensive British Church; but this,
especially in view of the breakdown of the larger Union, proved to be
unworkable, and the final result for the United Presbyterians was that
they came out of the negotiations a considerably smaller and weaker
Church than they had been when they went into them.

In all the labours and anxieties of these ten years Dr. Cairns had
borne a foremost part. At the meetings of the Union Committee he took
an eager interest and a leading share in the discussions; and, while
never compromising the position of his Church, he did much to set it
in a clear and attractive light. In the United Presbyterian Synod,
where it fell to his lot year by year to deliver the leading speech in
support of the Committee's report, his eloquence, his sincerity, and
his enthusiasm did not a little to reassure those who feared that
there was a tendency on the part of their representatives to concede
too much, and did a very great deal to keep his Church as a whole
steadily in favour of Union in spite of many temptations to have done
with it. Dr. Hutton, one of those advanced Voluntaries who had never
been enthusiastic about the Union proposals, wrote to him at the close
of the negotiations: "We have reached this stage through your vast
personal influence more than through any other cause."

Outside of the Church Courts he delivered innumerable speeches at
public meetings which had been organised in all parts of the country
in aid of the Union cause. These more than anything else led him to be
identified in the public mind with that cause, and gained for him the
name of the "Apostle of Union." The meetings at which these speeches
were delivered were mostly got up on the Free Church side, where there
seemed to be more need of missionary work of this kind than on his
own, and his appearances on these occasions increased the favour with
which he was already regarded in Free Church circles. "The chief
attraction of Union for me," an eminent Free Church layman is reported
to have said, "is that it will bring me into the same Church with John

That he was deeply disappointed by the failure of the enterprise on
which his hopes had been so much set, he did not conceal; but he never
believed that the ten years' work had been lost, and he never doubted
that Union would come. He did not live to see it, but when, on October
31, 1900, the two Churches at length became one, there were many in
the great gathering in the Waverley Market who thought of him, and
of his strenuous and noble labours into which they were on that day
entering. Dr. Maclaren of Manchester gave expression to these thoughts
in his speech in the evening of the day of Union, when, after paying
a worthy tribute to the great leader to whose skill and patience the
goodly consummation was so largely due, he went on to say: "But all
during the proceedings of this day there has been one figure and one
name in my memory, and I have been saying to myself, What would John
Cairns, with his big heart and his sweet and simple nature, have said
if God had given him to see this day! 'These all died in faith, not
having received the promises... God having provided some better thing
for us.'"



All the time occupied by the events described in the last two
chapters, Dr. Cairns was carrying on his ministry in Berwick with
unflagging diligence. True to his principle, he steadily devoted to
his pulpit and pastoral work the best of his strength, and always let
them have the chief place in his thoughts. He gave to other things
what he could spare, but he never forgot that he had determined to be
a minister first of all. His congregation had prospered greatly under
his care, and in 1859 the old-fashioned meeting-house in Golden Square
was abandoned for a stately and spacious Gothic church with a handsome
spire which had been erected in Wallace Green, with a frontage to the
principal open square of the town. A few years earlier a new manse had
been secured for the minister. This manse is the end house of a row of
three called Wellington Terrace. These stand just within the old town
walls, which are here pierced by wide embrasures. They are separated
from the walls by a broad walk and a row of grass-plots, alternating
with paved spaces opposite the embrasures, on which cannon were once
planted. The manse faces south, and is roomy and commodious. When Dr.
Cairns moved into it, he had an elderly servant as his housekeeper, of
whom he is said to have been not a little afraid; but, after a couple
of years or so, his sister Janet was installed as mistress of his
house; and during the remaining thirty-six years of his life she
attended to his wants, looked after his health, and in a hundred
prudent and quiet ways helped him in his work.

The study at Wellington Terrace is upstairs, and is a large room
lighted by two windows. One of these looks across the river, which
at this point washes the base of the town walls, to the dingy village
of Tweedmouth, rising towards the sidings and sheds of a busy
railway-station and the Northumberland uplands beyond. The other looks
right out to sea, and when it is open, and sometimes when it is shut,
"the rush and thunder of the surge" on Berwick bar or Spittal sands
can be distinctly heard. In front, the Tweed pours its waters into the
North Sea under the lee of the long pier, which acts as a breakwater
and shelters the entrance to the harbour. Far away to the right, Holy
Island, with the castle-crowned rock of Bamborough beyond it, are
prominent objects; and at night, the Longstone light on the Outer
Farne recalls the heroic rescue by Grace Darling of the shipwrecked
crew of the _Forfarshire_.

Opposite this window stood the large bookcase in which Dr. Cairns's
library was housed. The books composing the library were neither
very numerous, very select, nor in very good condition. Although he
was a voracious reader, it must be admitted that Dr. Cairns took
little pride in his books. It was a matter of utter indifference to
him whether he read a favourite author in a good edition or in a cheap
one. The volumes of German philosophy and theology, of which he had a
fair stock, remained unbound in their original sober livery, and when
any of them threatened to fall to pieces he was content to tie them
together with string or to get his sister to fasten them with paste.
One or two treasures he had, such as a first edition of Bacon's
_Instauratio Magna_, a first edition of Butler's _Analogy_, and a
Stephens Greek Testament; also a complete set of the Delphin Classics,
handsomely bound, and some College prizes. These, with the Benedictine
edition of Augustine, folio editions of Athanasius, Chrysostom, and
other Fathers, some odd volumes of Migne, and a considerable number
of books on Reformation and Secession theology, formed the most
noteworthy elements in his collection. He added later a very complete
set of the writings of the English Deists, and the works of Voltaire,
Rousseau, and Renan. Side by side with these was what came to be a
vast accumulation of rubbish, consisting of presentation copies of
books on all subjects which his anxious conscience persuaded him that
he was bound to keep on his shelves, since publishers and authors
had been kind enough to send them to him. Nearly all the books that
belonged to his real library he had read with care. Most of them
were copiously annotated, and his annotations were, as a rule,
characterised by a refreshing trenchancy,--in the case of some,
as of Gibbon, tempered with respect; in the case of others, as of
F.W. Newman and W.R. Greg, bordering on truculence. The only other
noteworthy objects in the study were two splendid engravings of
Raphael's "Transfiguration" and "Spasimo" (the former bearing the
signature of Raphael Morghen), which had been a gift to him from Mrs.

The greater part of each day was spent in this room. He could get
along with less sleep than most men; and however late he might have
sat over his books at night, he was frequently in his study again long
before breakfast. After breakfast came family worship, each item of
which was noteworthy. Although passionately fond of sacred music, he
had a wild, uncontrollable kind of voice in singing. He seemed to have
always a perfectly definite conception of what the tune ought to be,
but he was seldom able to give this idea an accurate, much less a
melodious, expression. Yet he never omitted the customary portion of
psalm or hymn, but tackled it with the utmost gallantry, fervour, and
enthusiasm, although he scarcely ever got through a verse without
going off the tune.

His reading of Scripture had no elocutionary pretensions about it;
it was quiet, and to a large extent gone through in a monotone; but
two things about it made it very impressive. One of these was the deep
reverence that characterised it, and the other was a note of subdued
enthusiasm that ran all through it. It was clear to the listener that
behind every passage read, whether it was history, psalm, or prophecy,
or even the driest detail of ritual, there was visible to him a great
world-process going on that appealed to his imagination and influenced
even the tones of his voice. And his prayers, quite unstudied as they
of course were, brought the whole company right into the presence of
the Unseen. They were usually full of detail,--he seemed to remember
everybody and everything,--but each petition was absolutely
appropriate to the special case with which it dealt, and all were
fused into a unity by the spirit of devotion that welled up through
all. After prayers he went back to his study, and nothing was heard or
seen of him for some hours, except when his heavy tread was heard
upstairs as he walked backwards and forwards, or when the strains of
what was meant to be a German choral were wafted down from above.

The afternoon he usually spent in visiting, and, so long as he
remained in Berwick, there was no more familiar figure in its streets
than his. The tall, stalwart form, already a little bent,--but bent,
one thought, not so much by the weight of advancing years as by way
of making an apology for its height,--the hair already white, the
mild and kindly blue eye, the tall hat worn well back on the head,
the swallow-tail coat, the swathes within swathes of broad white
neckcloth, the umbrella carried, even in the finest weather, under the
arm with the handle downward, the gloves in the hands but never on
them, the rapid eager stride,--all these come back vividly to those
who can remember Berwick in the Sixties and early Seventies of last
century. His visitations were still carried out with the method and
punctuality which had characterised them in the early days of his
ministry, and he usually arranged to make a brief pause for tea with
one of the families visited. On these occasions he would frequently be
in high spirits, and his hearty and resounding laughter would break
out on the smallest provocation. That laugh of his was eminently
characteristic of the man. There was nothing smothered or furtive
about it; there was not even the vestige of a chuckle in it. Its deep
"Ah! hah! hah!" came with a staccato, quacking sound from somewhere
low down in the chest, and set his huge shoulders moving in unison
with its peals. The whole closed with a long breath of purest
enjoyment--a kind of final licking of the lips after the feast
was over.

Returning to his house, he always entered it by the back door,
apparently because he did not wish to put the servant to the trouble
of going upstairs to open the front door for him. It does not seem
to have occurred to him to use a latch-key. In the evening there was
generally some meeting to go to, but after his return, when evening
worship and the invariable supper of porridge and milk were over, he
always went back to his study, and its lights were seldom put out
until long past midnight.

Although his reading in these solitary hours was of course mainly
theological, he always kept fresh his interest in the classical
studies of his youth. He did not depend on his communings with Origen
and Eusebius for keeping up his Greek, but went back as often as he
could find time to Plato and to the Tragedians. Macaulay has defined a
Greek scholar as one who can read Plato with his feet on the fender.
Dr. Cairns could fully satisfy this condition; indeed he went beyond
it, for when he went from home he was in the habit of taking a volume
of Plato or Aeschylus with him to read in the train. One of his
nephews, at that time a schoolboy, remembers reading with him, when
on a holiday visit to Berwick, through the _Alcestis_ of Euripides.
It may have been because he found it necessary to frighten his young
relative into habits of accuracy, or possibly because an outrage
committed against a Greek poet was to him the most horrid of all
outrages; but anyhow, during these studies, he altogether laid aside
that restraint which he was usually so jealous to maintain over his
powers of sarcasm and invective. He lay on the study sofa while the
lesson was going on, with a Tauchnitz Euripides in his hand; but
sometimes, when a false quantity or a more than usually stupid
grammatical blunder was made, he would spring to his feet and fairly
shout with wrath. Only once had he to consult a Greek lexicon for the
meaning of a word; and then it turned out that the meaning he had
assigned to it provisionally was the right one. A Latin lexicon he
did not possess.

On Sunday, Wallace Green Church was a goodly sight. Forenoon and
afternoon, streams of worshippers came pouring by Ravensdowne, Church
Street, and Walkergate Lane across the square and into the large
building, which was soon filled to overflowing. Then "the Books" were
brought in by the stately beadle, and last of all "the Doctor" came
hurriedly in, scrambled awkwardly up the pulpit stair, and covered his
face with his black gloved hands.[15] Then he rose, and in slow
monotone gave out the opening psalm, during the singing of which his
strong but wandering voice could now and again be distinctly heard
above the more artistic strains of the choir and congregation
rendering its tribute of praise. The Scripture lessons were read in
the same subdued but reverent tones, and the prayers were simple and
direct in their language, the emotion that throbbed through them being
kept under due restraint. The opening periods of the sermon were
pitched in the same note, but when the preacher got fairly into his
subject he broke loose from such restraints, and his argument was
unfolded, and then massed, and finally pressed home with all the
strength of his intellect, reinforced at every stage by the play of
his imagination and the glow of a passionate conviction. His "manner"
in the pulpit was, it is true, far from graceful. His principal
gesture was a jerking of the right arm towards the left shoulder,
accompanied sometimes by a bending forward of the upper part of the
body; and when he came to his peroration, which he usually delivered
with his eyes closed and in lowered tones, he would clasp his hands
and move them up and down in front of him. But all these things seemed
to fit in naturally to his style of oratory; there was not the
faintest trace of affectation in any of them, and, as a matter of
fact, they added to the effectiveness of his preaching.

[Footnote 15: In accordance with the old Scottish custom, Dr. Cairns
wore gloves during the "preliminary exercises," but took them off
before beginning the sermon. On the Sunday after a funeral he
discarded his Geneva gown in the forenoon, and, as a mark of respect
to the deceased, wore over his swallow-tail coat the huge black silk
sash which it was then customary in Berwick to send to the minister
on such occasions.]

In Wallace Green Dr. Cairns was surrounded by a devoted band of
office-bearers and others, who carried on very successful Home
Mission work in the town, and kept the various organisations of the
church in a vigorous and flourishing state. He had himself no faculty
for business details, and he left these mostly to others; but his
influence was felt at every point, and operated in a remarkable degree
towards the keeping up of the spiritual tone of the church's work.
With his elders, who were not merely in regard to ecclesiastical
rank, but also in regard to character and ability, the leaders of the
congregation, he was always on the most cordial and intimate terms. In
numerical strength they usually approximated to the apostolic figure
of twelve, and Dr. Cairns used to remark that their Christian names
included a surprisingly large number of apostolic pairs. Thus there
were amongst them not merely James and John, Matthew and Thomas, but
even Philip and Bartholomew.

The Philip here referred to was Dr. Philip Whiteside Maclagan, a
brother of the present Archbishop of York and of the late Professor
Sir Douglas Maclagan. Dr. Maclagan had been originally an army
surgeon, but had been long settled in general practice in Berwick in
succession to his father-in-law, the eminent naturalist, Dr. George
Johnstone. It was truly said of him that he combined in himself the
labours and the graces of Luke the beloved physician and Philip the
evangelist. When occasion offered, he would not only diagnose and
prescribe but pray at the bedsides of his patients, and his influence
was exerted in behalf of everything that was pure and lovely and of
good report in the town of Berwick. His delicately chiselled features
and fine expression were the true index of a devout and beautiful soul
within. Dr. Cairns and he were warmly attached to one another, and he
was his minister's right-hand man in everything that concerned the
good of the congregation.

It will readily be believed that Dr. Cairns had not been suffered to
remain in Berwick during all these years without strong efforts being
made to induce him to remove to larger spheres of labour. As a matter
of fact, he received in all some half-dozen calls during the course of
his ministry from congregations in Edinburgh and Glasgow; while at one
period of his life scarcely a year passed without private overtures
being made to him which, if he had given any encouragement to them,
would have issued in calls. These overtures he in every case declined
at once; but when congregations, in spite of him or without having
previously consulted him, took the responsibility of proceeding
to a formal call, he never intervened to arrest their action.
He had a curious respect for the somewhat cumbrous and slow-moving
Presbyterian procedure, and when it had been set in motion he felt
that it was his duty to let it take its course.

Once when a call to him was in process which he had in its initial
stages discouraged, and which he knew that he could not accept, his
sister, who had set her heart on furnishing an empty bedroom in the
manse at Berwick, was peremptorily bidden to stay her hand lest he
might thereby seem to be prejudging that which was not yet before him.
Two of the calls he received deserve separate mention. One was in 1855
from Greyfriars Church, Glasgow, at that time the principal United
Presbyterian congregation in the city. All sorts of influences were
brought to bear upon him to accept it, and for a time he was in
grave doubt as to whether it might not be his duty to do so. But two
considerations especially decided him to remain in Berwick. One was
the state of his health, which was not at that time very good; and the
other was the pathetic one, that he wanted to write that book which
was never to be written.

Nine years later, in 1864, a yet more determined attempt was made
to secure him for Edinburgh. A new congregation had been formed at
Morningside, one of the southern suburbs of the city, and it was
thought that this would offer a sphere of work and of influence worthy
of his powers. A call was accordingly addressed to him, and it was
backed up by representations of an almost unique character and weight.
The Free Church leaders, with whom he was then brought into close
touch by the Union negotiations, urged him to come to Edinburgh. A
memorial, signed by one hundred and sixty-seven United Presbyterian
elders in the city, told him that, in the interests of their
Church, it was of the utmost importance that he should do so. Another
memorial, signed by several hundred students at the University, put
the matter from their point of view. A still more remarkable document
was the following:--

"The subscribers, understanding that the Rev. Dr. Cairns has received
a call to the congregation of Morningside, desire to express their
earnest and strong conviction that his removal to Edinburgh would
be a signal benefit to vital religion throughout Scotland, and more
especially in the metropolis, where his great intellectual powers, his
deep and wide scholarship, his mastery of the literature of modern
unbelief, and the commanding simplicity and godly sincerity of his
personal character and public teaching, would find an ample field
for their full and immediate exercise."

This was signed (amongst others) by three Judges of the Court of
Session, by the Lord Advocate, by the Principal and seven of the
Professors of the University, and by such distinguished ministers
and citizens as Dr. Candlish, Dr. Hanna, Dr. Lindsay Alexander, Adam
Black, Dr. John Brown, and Charles Cowan. It was a remarkable tribute
(Adam Black in giving his name said, "This is more than ever was done
for Dr. Chalmers"), and it made a deep impression on Dr. Cairns. The
Wallace Green congregation, however, sought to counteract it by an
argument which amusingly shows how well they knew their man. They
appealed to that strain of anxious conscientiousness in him which he
had inherited from his father, by urging that all these memorials were
"irregular," and that therefore he had no right to consider them in
coming to his decision. They also undertook to furnish him with the
means of devoting more time to theological study than had hitherto
been at his disposal. After a period of hesitation, more painful and
prolonged than he had ever passed through on any similar occasion, he
decided to remain in Berwick. He was moved to this decision, partly by
his attachment to his congregation; partly by a feeling that he could
do more for the cause of Union by remaining its minister than would
be possible amid the labours of a new city charge; and partly by the
hope, which was becoming perceptibly fainter and more wistful, that
he might at last find leisure in Berwick to write his book.

But, although he did not become a city minister, he preached very
frequently in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and indeed all over the country.
His services were in constant request for the opening of churches and
on anniversary occasions. He records that in the course of a single
year he preached or spoke away from home (of course mostly on week
days) some forty or fifty times. Wherever he went he attracted
large crowds, on whom his rugged natural eloquence produced a deep
impression. It has been recorded that on one occasion, while a vast
audience to which he had been preaching in an Edinburgh church was
dispersing, a man was overheard expressing his admiration to his
neighbour in language more enthusiastic than proper: "He's a deevil
o' a preacher!"

With all this burden of work pressing on him, it was a relief when the
annual holiday came round and he could get away from it. But this
holiday, too, was usually of a more or less strenuous character, and
embraced large tracts of country either at home or, more frequently,
on the Continent. On these tours his keen human interest asserted
itself. He loved to visit places associated with great historic
events, or that suggested to him reminiscences of famous men and
women. And the actual condition of the people, how they lived, and
what they were thinking about, interested him deeply. He spoke to
everybody he met, in the train, in the steamboat, or in hotels, in
fluent if rather "bookish" German, in correct but somewhat halting
French, or, if it was a Roman Catholic priest he had to deal with,
in sonorous Latin. And, without anything approaching cant or
officiousness, he always tried to bring the conversation round to
the subject of religion--to the state of religion in the country in
which he was travelling, about which he was always anxious to gain
first-hand information, and, if possible and he could do it without
offence, to the personal views and experiences of those with whom he
conversed. He rarely or never did give offence in this respect, for
there was never anything aggressive or clamorous or prying in his
treatment of the subject.

On his return to Berwick his congregation usually expected him to give
them a lecture on what he had seen, and the MSS. of several of these
lectures, abounding in graphic description and in shrewd and often
humorous observation of men and things, have been preserved. It must
suffice here to give an extract from one of them on a tour in the West
of Ireland in 1864, illustrating as it does a curious phase of Irish
social life at that time. Dr. Cairns and a small party of friends had
embarked in a little steamer on one of the Irish lakes, and were
taking note of the gentlemen's seats, varied with occasional ruins,
which were coming in view on both sides.

"A fine ancient castle," he goes on to say, "surrounded by trees
and almost overhanging the lough, attracted our gaze for some time ere
we passed it. The owner's name and character were naturally brought
under review. 'Is not Sir ---- a Sunday man?' says one of the company
to another. 'He is.' The distinction was new to me, and I inferred
something good, perhaps some unusual zeal for Sabbath observance
or similar virtue. But, alas! for the vanity of human judgments.
A 'Sunday man' in the West of Ireland is one who only appears on the
Sunday outside his own dwelling, because on any other day he would be
arrested for debt. Even on a week day he is safe if he keeps to his
own house, where in Ireland, as in England, no writ can force its way.
Sir ---- was also invulnerable while sitting on the grand jury, where
quite lately he had protracted the business to an inordinate length in
order to extend his own liberty. As the boat passed close beside his
castle, a handsome elderly gentleman appeared at an open window, and
with hat in hand and a charming smile on his face made us a most
profound and graceful salutation. We could not be insensible to so
much courtesy--since it was Sir ---- himself who thus welcomed us; but
as we waved our hats in reply, one of our party, who had actually a
writ out against the fine old Irish gentleman at the very time, with
very little prospect of execution, muttered something between his
teeth and pressed his hat firmer down on his head than usual. Such
landlordism is still not uncommon. The same friend is familiar with
writs against other gentlemen whose house is their castle, and to whom
Sunday is 'the light of the week.'"

The closing period of Dr. Cairns's ministry at Berwick was made
memorable by a remarkable religious revival in the town. Following on
a brief visit in January 1874 from Messrs. Moody and Sankey, who had
then just closed their first mission in Edinburgh, a movement began
which lasted nearly two years. With some help from outside it was
carried on during that time mostly by the ministers of the town,
assisted by laymen from the various churches, among whom Dr. Maclagan
occupied a foremost place. Dr. Cairns threw himself into this movement
with ardour, and although he did not intend it, and probably was not
aware of it, he was its real leader, giving it at once the impetus and
the guidance which it needed. Besides being present, and taking some
part whenever he was at home in the crowded evangelistic meetings that
for a while were held nightly, and in the prayer-meeting, attended by
from one hundred and fifty to two hundred, which met every day at
noon, he must have conversed with hundreds of people seeking direction
on religious matters during the early months of 1874. And, knowing
that many would shrink from the publicity of an Inquiry Meeting, he
made a complete canvass of his own congregation, in the course of
which by gentle and tactful means he found out those who really
desired to be spoken to, and spoke to them. The results of the
movement proved to be lasting, and were, in his opinion, wholly good.
His own congregation profited greatly by it, and on the Sunday before
one of the Wallace Green Communions, in 1874, a great company of young
men and women were received into the fellowship of the Church. The
catechumens filled several rows of pews in the front of the spacious
area of the building, and, when they rose in a body to make profession
of their faith, the scene is described as having been most impressive.
Specially impressive also must have sounded the words which he always
used on such occasions: "You have to-day fulfilled your baptism vow by
taking upon yourselves the responsibilities hitherto discharged by
your parents. It is an act second only in importance to the private
surrender of your souls to God, and not inferior in result to your
final enrolment among the saints.... Nothing must separate you from
the Church militant till you reach the Church triumphant."



It had all along been felt that Dr. Cairns must sooner or later find
scope for his special powers and acquirements in a professor's chair.
In the early years of his ministry he received no fewer than four
offers of philosophical professorships, which his views of the
ministry and of his consecration to it constrained him to set aside.
Three similar offers of theological chairs, the acceptance of which
did not involve the same interference with the plan of his life, came
to him later, but were declined on other grounds. When, however, a
vacancy in the Theological Hall of his own Church occurred by the
death of Professor Lindsay, in 1866, the universal opinion in the
Church was that it must be filled by him and by nobody else. Dr.
Lindsay had been Professor of Exegesis, but the United Presbyterian
Synod in May 1867 provided for this subject being dealt with
otherwise, and instituted a new chair of Apologetics with a special
view to Dr. Cairns's recognised field of study. To this chair the
Synod summoned him by acclamation, and, having accepted its call,
he began his new work in the following August.

As in his own student days, the Hall met for only two months in each
year, and the professors therefore did not need to give up their
ministerial charges. So he remained in Berwick, where his congregation
were very proud of the new honour that had come to their minister, and
that was in some degree reflected on them. Instead of "the Doctor"
they now spoke of him habitually as "the Professor," and presented him
with a finely befrogged but somewhat irrelevant professor's gown for
use in the pulpit at Wallace Green.

Dr. Cairns prepared two courses of lectures for his students--one on
the History of Apologetics, and the other on Apologetics proper, or
Christian Evidences. For the former, his desire to go to the sources
and to take nothing at second-hand led him to make a renewed and
laborious study of the Fathers, who were already, to a far greater
extent than with most theologians, his familiar friends. His knowledge
of later controversies, such as that with the Deists, which afterwards
bore fruit in his work on "Unbelief in the Eighteenth Century," was
also widened and deepened at this time. These historical lectures were
almost overweighted by the learning which he thus accumulated; but
they were at once massive in their structure and orderly and lucid in
their arrangement.

In the other course, on Christian Evidences, he did not include
any discussion on Theism which--probably because of his special
familiarity with the Deistical and kindred controversies, and also
because the modern assaults on supernatural Christianity from the
Evolutionary and Agnostic standpoint had not yet become pressing--he
postulated. And, discarding the traditional division of the Evidences
into Internal and External, he classified them according to their
relation to the different Attributes of God, as manifesting His
Power, Knowledge, Wisdom, Holiness, and Benignity. With this course
he incorporated large parts of his unfinished treatise on "The
Difficulties of Christianity," which, after he had thus broken it
up, passed finally out of sight.

The impression which he produced on his students by these lectures,
and still more by his personality, was very great. "I suppose," writes
one of them, "no men are so hypercritical as students after they have
been four or five years at the University. To those who are aware of
this, it will give the most accurate impression of our feeling towards
Dr. Cairns when I say that, with regard to him, criticism could not be
said to exist. We all had for him an appreciation which was far deeper
than ordinary admiration; it was admiration blended with loyalty and
veneration."[16] Specially impressive were the humility which went
along with his gifts and learning, and the wide charity which made
him see good in everything. One student's appreciation of this latter
quality found whimsical expression in a cartoon which was delightedly
passed from hand to hand in the class, and which represented Dr.
Cairns cordially shaking hands with the Devil. A "balloon" issuing
from his mouth enclosed some such legend as this: "I hope you are very
well, sir. I am delighted to make your acquaintance, and to find that
you are not nearly so black as you are painted."

[Footnote 16: _Life and Letters_, p. 560.]

During the ten years' negotiations for Union a considerable number of
pressing reforms in the United Presbyterian Church were kept back from
fear of hampering the negotiations, and because it was felt that such
matters might well be postponed to be dealt with in a United Church.
But, when the negotiations were broken off, the United Presbyterians,
having recovered their liberty of action, at once began to set their
house in order. One of the first matters thus taken up was the
question of Theological Education. As has been already mentioned, the
theological curriculum extended over five sessions of two months. It
was now proposed to substitute for this a curriculum extending over
three sessions of five months, as being more in accordance with the
requirements of the times and as bringing the Hall into line with the
Universities and the Free Church Colleges. A scheme, of which this was
the leading feature, was finally adopted by the Synod in May 1875.
It necessarily involved the separation of the professors from their
charges, and accordingly the Synod addressed a call to Dr. Cairns
to leave Berwick and become Professor of Systematic Theology and
Apologetics in the newly constituted Hall, or, as it was henceforth to
be designated--"College." In this chair it was proposed that he should
have as his colleague the venerable Dr. Harper, who was the senior
professor in the old Hall, and who was now appointed the first
Principal of the new College.

Dr. Cairns had thus to make his choice between his congregation and
his professorship, and, with many natural regrets, he decided in
favour of the latter. This decision, which he announced to his people
towards the close of the summer, had the incidental effect of keeping
him in the United Presbyterian Church, for in the following year the
English congregations of that Church were severed from the parent body
to form part of the new Presbyterian Church of England; and Wallace
Green congregation, somewhat against its will, and largely in response
to Dr. Cairns's wishes, went with the rest. He had still a year to
spend in Berwick, broken only by the last session of the old Hall in
August and September, and that year he spent in quiet, steady, and
happy work. In June 1876 he preached his farewell sermon to an immense
and deeply moved congregation from the words (Rom. i. 16), "I am not
ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto
salvation unto every one that believeth." "For more than thirty
years," he concluded, "I have preached this gospel among you, and I
bless His name this day that to not a few it has by His grace proved
the power of God unto salvation. To Him I ascribe all the praise; and
I would rather on such an occasion remember defects and shortcomings
than dwell even upon what He has wrought for us. The sadness of
parting from people to whom I have been bound by such close and tender
ties, from whom I have received every mark of respect, affection, and
encouragement, and in regard to whom I feel moved to say, 'If I forget
thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning,' inclines me
rather to self-examination and to serious fear lest any among you
should have suffered through my failure to set forth and urge home
this gospel of salvation. If then any of you should be in this case,
through my fault or your own, that you have not yet obeyed the gospel
of Christ, I address to you in Christ's name one parting call that you
may at length receive the truth."

A few weeks later he and his sister removed to Edinburgh, where they
were joined in the autumn by their brother William. William Cairns,
who had been schoolmaster at Oldcambus for thirty-two years, was in
many respects a notable man. Deprived, as we have seen, in early
manhood of the power of walking, he had set himself to improve his
mind and had acquired a great store of general information. He was
shrewd, humorous, genial, and intensely human, and had made himself
the centre of a large circle of friends, many of whom were to be found
far beyond the bounds of his native parish and county. Since his
mother's death an elder sister had kept house for him, but she had
died in the previous winter, and at his brother's urgent request he
had consented to give up his school al Oldcambus and make his home for
the future with him in Edinburgh. The house No. 10 Spence Street, in
which for sixteen years the brothers and sister lived together, is a
modest semi-detached villa in a short street running off the Dalkeith
Road, in one of the southern suburbs of the city. It had two great
advantages in Dr. Cairns's eyes--one being that it was far enough away
from the College to ensure that he would have a good walk every day in
going there and back; and the other, that its internal arrangements
were very convenient for his brother finding his way in his
wheel-chair about it, and out of it when he so desired.

The study, as at Berwick, was upstairs, and was a large lightsome
room, from which a view of the Craigmillar woods, North Berwick Law,
and even the distant Lammermoors, could be obtained--a view which was,
alas! soon blocked up by the erection of tall buildings. At the back
of the house, downstairs, was the sitting-room, where the family meals
were taken and where William sat working at his desk. He had been
fortunate enough to secure, almost immediately after his arrival in
Edinburgh, a commission from Messrs. A. & C. Black to prepare the
Index to the ninth edition of the _Encyclopaedia Britannica_, then in
course of publication. During the twelve years that the work lasted he
performed the possibly unique feat of reading through the whole of the
twenty-five volumes of the Encyclopaedia, and thus added considerably
to his already encyclopaedic stock of miscellaneous information.
Opening off the sitting-room was a smaller room, or rather a large
closet, commanding one of the finest views in Edinburgh of the
lion-shaped Arthur's Seat; and here of an evening he would sit in his
chair alone, or surrounded by the friends who soon began to gather
about him,

"And smoke, yea, smoke and smoke."

Sometimes a more than usually resounding peal of laughter would bring
the professor down from his study to find out what was the matter, and
to join in the merriment; and then, after a few hearty words of
greeting to the visitors, he would plead the pressure of his work and
return to the company of Justin or Evagrius.

His three nephews, who during the Edinburgh period were staying in
town studying for the ministry, always spent Saturday afternoon at
Spence Street, and sometimes a student friend would come with them.
Dr. Cairns was usually free on such occasions to devote an hour or two
to his young friends. He was always ready to enter into discussions on
philosophical problems that happened to be interesting them, and the
power and ease with which he dealt with these gave an impression as of
one heaving up and pitching about huge masses of rock. His part in
these discussions commonly in the end became a monologue, which he
delivered lying back in his chair, with his shoulders resting on the
top bar of it, and which he sometimes accompanied with the peculiar
jerk of his right arm habitual to him in preaching. A _snell_ remark
of his brother William suggesting some new and comic association with
a philosophic term dropped in the course of the discussion, would
bring him back with a roar of laughter to the actual world and to
more sublunary themes. When the young men rose to leave he always
accompanied them to the front door, and bade each of them good-bye
with a hearty "[Greek: Panta ta kala soi genoito],"[17] and an
invariable injunction to "put your foot on it,"--"it" being the
spring catch by which the gate was opened.

[Footnote 17: "All fair things be thine."]

Once a week during the session a party of six or eight students came
to tea at Spence Street, until the whole of his two classes had been
gone over. After tea in the otherwise seldom used dining-room of the
house, some of the party accompanied the professor to the study.
Here he would show them his more treasured volumes, such as his
first edition of Butler, which he would tell them he made a point of
reading through once a year. Others, who preferred a less unclouded
atmosphere, withdrew with his brother into his sanctum. Soon all
reassembled in the dining-room, and a number of hymns were sung--some
of Sankey's, which were then in everybody's mouth, some of his
favourite German hymns with their chorals, which might suggest
references to his student days in Berlin or to later experiences in
the Fatherland, and some by the great English hymn-writers. At last
came family worship, always impressive as conducted by him, but often
the most memorable feature by far in these gatherings. It was a very
simple, and may seem a very humdrum, way of spending an evening; but
the homely hospitality of the household--the conversational gifts,
very different in kind as these were, of himself and his brother--and,
above all, his genial and benignant presence, made everything go off
well, and the students went away with a deepened veneration for their
professor now that they had seen him in his own house.

During his first two years in Edinburgh he was busily engaged
in writing lectures and in adapting his existing stock to the
requirements of the new curriculum. Of these lectures, and of others
which he wrote in later years, it must be said that, while all of
them were the fruit of conscientious and strenuous toil, they were
of unequal merit, or at least of unequal effectiveness. Some of
them, particularly in his Apologetic courses, were brilliant and
stimulating. Whenever he had a great personality to deal with, such as
Origen, Grotius, or Pascal, or, in a quite different way, Voltaire,
he rose to the full height of his powers. His criticisms of Hume, of
Strauss, and of Renan, were also in their own way masterly. But a
course which he had on Biblical Theology seemed to be hampered by
a too rigid view of Inspiration, which did not allow him to lay
sufficient stress on the different types of doctrine corresponding
to the different individualities of the writers. And when, after the
death of Principal Harper, he took over the entire department of
Systematic Theology, his lectures on this, the "Queen of sciences,"
while full of learning and sometimes rising to grandeur, gave one on
the whole a sense of incompleteness, even of fragmentariness. This
impression was deepened by the oral examinations which he was in the
habit of holding every week on his lectures.

For these examinations he prepared most carefully, sitting up
sometimes till two o'clock in the morning collecting material and
verifying references which he deemed necessary to make them complete.
His aim in them was not only to test the students' attention and
progress, but to communicate information of a supplementary and
miscellaneous character which he had been unable to work into his
lectures. And so he would bring down to the class a tattered Father or
two, and would regale its members with long Greek quotations and with
a mass of details that were pure gold to him but were hid treasure
to them. His examination of individual students was lenient in the
extreme. It used to be said of him that if he asked a question to
which the correct answer was Yes, while the answer he got was No,
he would exert his ingenuity to show that in a certain subtle and
hitherto unsuspected sense the real answer _was_ No, and that Mr.
So-and-so deserved credit for having discovered this, and for having
boldly dared to _say_ No at the risk of being misunderstood. This, of
course, is caricature; but it nevertheless sufficiently indicates his
general attitude to his students.

It was the same with the written as with the oral examinations.
In these he assigned full marks to a large proportion of the papers
sent in. Once it was represented to him that this method of valuation
prevented his examination results from having any influence on the
adjudication of a prize that was given every year to the student who
had the highest aggregate of marks in all the classes. He admitted the
justice of this contention, and promised to make a change. When he
announced the results of his next examination it was found that he
had been as good as his word; but the change consisted in this: that
whereas formerly two-thirds of the class had received full marks,
now two-thirds of the class received ninety per cent.!

And yet the popular idea of his inability to distinguish between a
good student and a bad one was quite wrong. He was not so simple as he
seemed. All who have sat in his classroom remember times when a sudden
keen look from him showed that he knew quite well when liberties were
being attempted with him, and gave rise to the uncomfortable suspicion
that, as it was put, "he could see more things with his eyes shut than
most men could see with theirs wide open." The fact is, that all his
leniency with his students, and all his apparent ascription to them of
a high degree of diligence, scholarship, and mental grasp, had their
roots not in credulity but in charity--the charity which "believeth
all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things." His very defects
came from an excess of charity, and one loved him all the better
because of them. Hence it came about that his students got far more
from contact with his personality than they got from his teaching.
It is not so much his lectures as his influence that they look back
to and that they feel is affecting them still.

When Dr. Cairns came to Edinburgh from Berwick, it was only to a
limited extent that he allowed himself to take part in public work
outside that which came to him as a minister and Professor of
Theology. There were, however, two public questions which interested
him deeply, and the solution of which he did what he could by speech
and influence to further. One of these was the question of Temperance.
During the first twenty years of his ministry he had not felt called
upon to take up any strong position on this question, although
personally he had always been one of the most abstemious of men. But
about the year 1864 he had, without taking any pledge or enrolling
himself on the books of any society, given up the use of alcohol. He
had done so largely as an experiment--to see whether his influence
would thereby be strengthened with those in his own congregation and
beyond it whom he wished to reclaim from intemperance.

When he became a professor he was invited to succeed Dr. Lindsay
as President of the Students' Total Abstinence Society, and, as no
absolute pledge was exacted from the members, he willingly agreed
to do so. From this time his influence was more and more definitely
enlisted on behalf of Total Abstinence, and in 1874 he took a further
step. In trying to save from intemperance a friend in Berwick who was
not a member of his own congregation, he urged him to join the Good
Templars, at that time the only available society of total abstainers
in the town. In order to strengthen his friend's hands, he agreed to
join along with him. This step happily proved to be successful as
regarded its original purpose, and Dr. Cairns remained a Good Templar
during the rest of his life.

While there were some things about the Order that did not appeal to
him, such as the ritual, the "regalia," and the various grades of
membership and of office, with their mysterious initials, he looked
upon these things as non-essentials, and was in hearty sympathy with
its general principles and work. But, although he was often urged to
do so, he never would accept office nor advance beyond the initiatory
stage of membership represented by the simple white "bib" of infancy.
On coming to Edinburgh, he looked about for a Lodge to connect himself
with, and ultimately chose one of the smallest and most obscure in the
city. The members consisted chiefly of men and women who had to work
so late that the hour of meeting could not be fixed earlier than 9
p.m. He was present at these meetings as often as he could, and only
lamented that he could not attend more frequently.

While fully recognising the right of others to come to a different
conclusion from his own, and while uniformly basing his total
abstinence on the ground of Christian expediency and not on that of
absolute Divine law, his view of it as a Christian duty grew clearer
every year. And he carried his principles out rigidly wherever he
went. He perplexed German waiters by his elaborate explanations as to
why he drank no beer; and once, as he came down the Rhine, he had a
characteristically sanguine vision of the time when the vineyards on
its banks would only be used for the production of raisins. At the
same time his interest in Temperance work, alike in its religious,
social, and political aspects, was always becoming keener. He was
frequently to be found on Temperance platforms, and was in constant
request for the preaching of Temperance sermons. Some of his speeches
and sermons on the question have been reprinted and widely read, and
one New Year's tract which he wrote has had a circulation of one
hundred and eighty thousand.

The other question in which he took a special interest was that of
Disestablishment. To those who adopted the "short and easy method"
of accounting for the Disestablishment movement in Scotland by
saying that it was all due to jealousy and spite on the part of
its promoters, his adhesion to that movement presented a serious
difficulty. For no one could accuse him of jealousy or spite. Hence
it was a favourite expedient to represent him as the tool of more
designing men--as one whose simplicity had been imposed upon, and who
had been thrust forward against his better judgment to do work in
which he had no heart. This theory is not only entirely groundless,
but entirely unnecessary; because the action which he took on this
question can readily be explained by a reference to convictions he had
held all his life, and to circumstances which seemed to him to call
for their assertion.

He had been a Voluntary ever since he had begun to think on such
questions. His father, in the days of his boyhood, had subscribed,
along with a neighbour, for the _Voluntary Church Magazine_, and the
subject had often been discussed in the cottage at Dunglass. It will
be remembered that during his first session at the University he was
an eager disputant with his classmates on the Voluntary side, and that
towards the close of his course, after a memorable debate in the
Diagnostic Society, he secured a victory for the policy of severing
the connection between Church and State. These views he had never
abandoned, and in a lecture on Disestablishment delivered in Edinburgh
in 1872 he re-stated them. While admitting, as the United Presbyterian
Synod had done in adopting the "Articles of Agreement," that the State
ought to frame its policy on Christian lines, he denied that it was
its duty or within its competence to establish and endow the Church.
This is, to quote his own words, "an overstraining of its province,--a
forgetfulness that its great work is civil and not spiritual,--and an
encroachment without necessity or call, and indeed, as I believe, in
the face of direct Divine arrangements, on the work of the Christian

These, then, being his views, what led him to seek to make them
operative by taking part in a Disestablishment campaign? Two things
especially. One of these was the activity at that time of a Broad
Church party within the Established Church. He maintained that this
was no mere domestic concern of that Church, and claimed the right as
a citizen to deal with it. In a national institution views were held
and taught of which he could not approve, and which he considered
compromised him as a member of the nation. He felt he must protest,
and he protested thus.

The other ground of his action was the conviction, which recent
events had very much strengthened, that the continued existence of
an Established Church was the great obstacle to Presbyterian Union
in Scotland. It is true that there was nothing in the nature of things
to prevent the Free and United Presbyterian Churches coming together
in presence of an Established Church. As a matter of fact, they have
done so since Dr. Cairns's death, though not without secessions,
collective and individual. But experience had shown that it was the
existence of an Established Church, towards which the Anti-Union
party had turned longing eyes, which was the determining factor in
the wrecking of the Union negotiations. Besides, Dr. Cairns looked
forward to a wider Union than one merely between the Free and United
Presbyterian Churches, and he was convinced that only on the basis of
Disestablishment could such a Union take place. To the argument that,
if the Church of Scotland were to be disestablished, its members would
be so embittered against those who had brought this about that they
would decline to unite with them, he was content to reply that that
might safely be left to the healing power of time. The petulant threat
of some, that in the event of Disestablishment they would abandon
Presbyterianism, he absolutely declined to notice.

The Disestablishment movement had been begun before Dr. Cairns left
Berwick, and he supported it with voice and pen till the close of his
life. He did so, it need not be said, without bitterness, endeavouring
to make it clear that his quarrel was with the adjective and not with
the substantive--with the "Established" and not with the "Church," and
under the strong conviction that he was engaged "in a great Christian



During 1877 and 1878 the United Presbyterian Church was much occupied
with a discussion that had arisen in regard to its relation to the
"Subordinate Standards," i.e. to the Westminster _Confession of Faith_
and the _Larger and Shorter Catechisms_. These formed the official
creed of the Church, and assent to them was exacted from all its
ministers, probationers, and elders. A change of opinion, perhaps
not so much regarding the doctrines set forth in these documents as
regarding the perspective in which they were to be viewed, had been
manifesting itself with the changing times. It was felt that standards
of belief drawn up in view of the needs, reflecting the thought,
and couched in the language of the seventeenth century, were not an
adequate expression of the faith of the Church in the nineteenth
century. The points with regard to which this difficulty was more
acutely felt were chiefly in the region of the "Doctrines of
Grace"--the Divine Decrees, the Freedom of the Human Will, and the
Extent of the Atonement. Accordingly, a movement for greater liberty
was set on foot.

There were many, of course, in the Church who had no sympathy with
this movement, and who, if they had been properly organised and led,
might have been able to defeat it. But the recognised and trusted
leaders of the Church were of opinion that the matter must be
sympathetically dealt with, and, on the motion of Principal Harper,
the Synod of 1877 appointed a Committee to consider it, and to bring
up a report. This Committee, of which Dr. Cairns was one of the
conveners, soon found that, if relief were to be granted, they had
only two alternatives before them. They must deal either with the
Creed or with the terms of subscription to it. There were some who
urged that an entirely new and much shorter Creed should be drawn up.
Dr. Cairns was decidedly opposed to this proposal. The subject of the
Creeds of the Reformed Churches was one of his many specialties in the
field of Church History, and he had a reverence for those venerable
documents, whose articles--so dry and formal to others--suggested to
his imagination the centuries of momentous controversy which they
summed up, and the great champions of the faith who had borne their
part therein. Besides, he was very much alive to the danger of falling
out of line with the other Presbyterian Churches in Great Britain and
America, who still maintained, in some form or other, their allegiance
to the Westminster Standards.

His influence prevailed, and the second alternative was adopted.
A "Declaratory Statement" was drawn up of the sense in which, while
retaining the Standards, the Church understood them. This Statement
dealt with the points above referred to in a way that would, it was
thought, give sufficient relief to consciences that had shrunk from
the naked rigour of the words of the _Confession_, It also contained
a paragraph which secured liberty of opinion on matters "not entering
into the substance of the faith," the right of the Church to guard
against abuse of this liberty being expressly reserved. Dr. Cairns
submitted this "Declaratory Statement" to the Synods of 1878 and 1879,
in speeches of notable power and wealth of historic illustration,
and, in the latter year, it was unanimously adopted and became a
"Declaratory Act." The precedent thus set has been followed by nearly
all the Presbyterian Churches which have since then had occasion to
deal with the same problem.

Except when he had to expound and recommend some scheme for which he
had become responsible, or when he had been laid hold of by others
to speak in behalf of a "Report" or a proposal in which they were
interested, Dr. Cairns did not intervene often in the debates of the
United Presbyterian Synod. He preferred, to the disappointment of
many of his friends, to listen rather than to speak, and shrank from
putting himself in any way forward. He had been Moderator of the Synod
in 1872, and as an ex-Moderator he had the privilege, accorded by
custom, of sitting on the platform of the Synod Hall on the benches
to the right and left of the chair. But he never seemed comfortable
up there. He would sit with his hands pressed together, and in a
stooping posture, as if he wanted to make his big body as small and
inconspicuous as possible; and, as often as he could, he would go down
and take his place among the rank and file of the members far back in
the hall. But he had all a true United Presbyterian's loyal affection
for the Synod, and a peculiar delight in those reunions of old friends
which its meetings afforded. Amongst his oldest friends was William
Graham, who although, since the English Union, no longer a United
Presbyterian, simply could not keep away from the haunts of his youth
when the month of May came round. On such occasions he was always Dr.
Cairns's guest at Spence Street. He kept things lively there with his
nimble wit, and in particular subjected his host to a perpetual and
merciless fire of "chaff." No one else ventured to assail him as
Graham thus did; for, with all his geniality and unaffected humility,
there was a certain personal dignity about him which few ventured to
invade. But he took all his friend's banter with a smile of quiet
enjoyment, and sometimes a more than usually outrageous sally would
send him into convulsions of laughter, whose resounding peals filled
the house with their echoes.

In the spring of 1879 died the venerable Principal Harper.
Dr. Cairns felt the loss very keenly, for Dr. Harper had been a loyal
and generous friend and colleague, on whose clear and firm judgment
he had been wont to rely in many a difficult emergency. Besides, as
his biographer has truly said, "he was habitually thankful to have
someone near him whom he could fairly ask to take the foremost
place."[18] Now that Dr. Harper was gone, there seemed to be no doubt
that that foremost place would be thrust upon him. These expectations
were fulfilled by the Synod of that year, which unanimously and
enthusiastically appointed him Principal of the College. His friend
Dr. Graham, who, as a corresponding member from the Synod of the
Presbyterian Church of England, supported the appointment, gave voice
to the universal feeling when he described him as "a man of thought
and labour and love and God, who had one defect which endeared him to
them all--that he was the only man who did not know what a rare and
noble man he was."

[Footnote 18: _Life and Letters_, p. 661.]

In the following year (1880) Principal Cairns delivered the Cunningham
Lectures. These lectures were given on a Free Church foundation,
instituted in memory of the distinguished theologian whose name it
bears; and now for the first time the lecturer was chosen from beyond
the borders of the Free Church. Dr. Cairns highly appreciated the
compliment that was thus paid him, regarding it as a happy augury of
the Union which he was sure was coming. He had chosen as his subject
"Unbelief in the eighteenth century as contrasted with its earlier and
later history"; and, although it was one in which he was already at
home, he had again worked over the familiar ground with characteristic
diligence and thoroughness. Thus, in preparing for one of the
lectures, he read through twenty volumes of Voltaire, out of a set
of fifty which had been put at his disposal by a friend. The first
lecture dealt with Unbelief in the first four centuries, which he
contrasted in several respects with that of the eighteenth. Then
followed one on the Unbelief of the seventeenth century, then three
on the Unbelief of the eighteenth century, in England, France, and
Germany respectively; and, finally, one on the Unbelief of the
nineteenth century, from whose representatives he selected three for
special criticism as typical, viz. Strauss, Renan, and John Stuart
Mill. These lectures, while not rising to the level of greatness,
impress one with his mastery of the immense literature of the subject,
and are characterised throughout by lucidity of arrangement and by
sobriety and fairness of judgment. They were very well received when
they were delivered, and were favourably reviewed when they were
published a year later.[19]

[Footnote 19: In the following year (1882) he received the degree of
LL.D. from Edinburgh University.]

Between the delivery and the publication of the Cunningham Lectures
Dr. Cairns spent five months in the United States and Canada. The
immediate object of this American tour was to fulfil an engagement to
be present at the Philadelphia meeting of the General Council of the
Presbyterian Alliance--an organisation in which he took the deepest
interest, as it was in the line of his early aspirations after a great
comprehensive Presbyterian Union. But he arranged his tour so as to
enable him also to be present at the General Assembly of the American
Presbyterian Church at Madison, and at that of the Presbyterian Church
of Canada at Montreal. The rest of the time at his disposal he spent
in lengthened excursions to various scenes of interest. He visited the
historic localities of New England and crossed the continent to San
Francisco, stopping on the way at Salt Lake City, and extending his
journey to the Yo-Semite Valley. More than once he went far out of his
way to seek out an old friend or the relative of some member of his
Berwick congregation. Wherever he went he preached,--in fact every
Sunday of these five months, including those he spent on the Atlantic,
was thus occupied,--and everywhere his preaching and his personality
made a deep impression. As regarded himself, he used to say that
this American visit "lifted him out of many ruts" and gave him new
views of the vitality of Christianity and new hopes for its future

After the publication of the Cunningham Lectures there was a widely
cherished hope that Dr. Cairns would produce something still more
worthy of his powers and his reputation. He was now free from the
incessant engagements of an active ministry, and he had by this time
got his class lectures well in hand. But, although the opportunity had
come, the interest in speculative questions had sensibly declined.
There is an indication of this in the Cunningham Lectures themselves.
In the last of these, as we have seen, he had selected Mill as the
representative of English nineteenth-century Unbelief. Even then Mill
was out of date; but Mill was the last British thinker whose system
he had thoroughly mastered. In the index to his _Life and Letters_
the names of Darwin and Herbert Spencer do not occur, and even in an
Apologetic tract entitled _Is the Evolution of Christianity from mere
Natural Sources Credible_? which he wrote in 1887 for the Religious
Tract Society, there is no reference whatever to any writer of the
Evolutionary School. With his attitude to later German theological
literature it is somewhat different, for here he tried to keep himself
abreast of the times. Yet even here the books that interested him
most were mainly historical, such as the first volume of Ritschl's
great work on Justification (almost the only German book he read
in a translation), and the three volumes of Harnack's _History
of Dogma_.

This decay of interest in speculative thought might be attributed to
the decline of mental freshness and of hospitality to new ideas which
often comes with advancing years, were it not that, in his case, there
was no such decline. On the contrary, as his interest in speculative
thought gradually withered, his interest on the side of scholarship
and linguistics became greater than ever, and his energy here was
always seeking new outlets for itself. When he was nearly sixty he
began the study of Assyrian. He did so in connection with his lectures
on Apologetics,--because he wanted to give his class some idea of the
confirmation of the Scripture records, which he believed were to be
found in the cuneiform inscriptions. But ere long the study took
possession of him. His letters, and the little time-table diary of
his daily studies, record the hours he devoted to it. When he went to
America he took his Assyrian books with him, and pored over them on
the voyage whenever the Atlantic would allow him to do so. And he was
fully convinced that what interested him so intensely must interest
his students too. One of them, the Rev. J.H. Leckie, thus describes
how he sought to make them share in his enthusiasm:--

"One day when we came down to the class, we found the blackboard
covered with an Assyrian inscription written out by himself before
lecture hour, and the zest, the joy with which he discoursed upon the
strange figures and signs showed that, though white of hair and bent
in frame, he was in the real nature of him very young. For two days he
lectured on this inscription with the most assured belief that we were
following every word, and there was deep regret in his face and in his
voice when he said, 'And now, gentlemen, I am afraid we must return to
our theology.'"[20]

[Footnote 20: _Life and Letters_, p. 743.]

Another of his students, referring to the same lectures, writes as

"It was fine, and one loves him all the more for it, but it was
exasperating too, with such tremendous issues at stake in the world of
living thought, to see him pounding away at those truculent old Red
Indians in their barbarian original tongue. Yet I would not for much
forget those days when we saw him escaping utterly from all worries
and troubles and perfectly happy before a blackboard covered with
amazing characters. It was pure innocent delight in a new world of
knowledge, like a child's in a new story-book."

When he was sixty-three he added Arabic to his other acquirements. It
is not quite clear whether he had in view any purpose in connection
with his professional work beyond the desire to know the originals
of all the authorities quoted in his lectures. But, when he had
sufficiently mastered the language to be able to read the Koran,
he knew that he had two grounds for self-congratulation, and these
were sufficiently characteristic. One was that he had his revenge on
Gibbon, who had described so triumphantly the career of the Saracens
and who yet had not known a word of their language. The other was
that he was now able to pray in Arabic for the conversion of the

About the same time he began to learn Dutch. He assigned as one reason
for this that he wanted to read Kuenen's works. But as the only one of
these that he had was in his library already, having come to him from
the effects of a deceased friend, it is possible that this was just an
unconscious excuse on his part for indulging in the luxury of learning
a new language--that he read Kuenen in order to learn Dutch, instead
of learning Dutch in order to read Kuenen. However, his knowledge of
the language enabled him to follow closely a movement which excited
his interest in no common degree, viz. the secession of a large
evangelical party from the rationalistic State Church of Holland,
under Abraham Kuyper, the present Prime Minister of that country,
and their organisation into a Free Presbyterian Church.

Other languages at which he worked during this period were Spanish,
of which he acquired the rudiments during his tour in California;
and Dano-Norwegian, which he picked up during a month's residence at
Christiania in 1877, and furbished for a meeting of the Evangelical
Alliance at Copenhagen in 1884. All this time he was pursuing his
Patristic and other historical studies with unflagging vigour,
always writing new lectures, always maintaining his love of abstract
knowledge and his eager desire to add to his already vast stores of
learning. When, a year and a half before his death, a vacancy occurred
in the Church History chair in the College, he stepped into the breach
and delivered a course of lectures on the Fathers, which took his
class by storm.

"His manner," says one who heard these lectures, "was quite different
in the Church History classroom from what it was in that of Systematic
Theology. In the latter he taught like a man who felt wearied and old;
but in the former he showed a surprising freshness and enthusiasm.
It was delightful to see him in the Church History class forgetting
age and care, and away back in spirit with Origen and his other old

These lectures, while abounding in searching and masterly criticism
of doctrinal views, are specially noticeable for their delineation of
the living power of Christianity as exhibited in the men and the times
with which they deal. This was the aspect of Christian truth which had
all along attracted him. It was what had determined his choice of
the ministry as the main work of his life, and in his later years it
still asserted its power over him. Although he had now no longer a
ministerial charge of his own, he could not separate himself from the
active work of the Church--he could not withdraw from contact with the
Christian life which it manifested.

During the winter months he preached a good deal in Edinburgh,
especially by way of helping young or weak congregations, more than
one of which he had at different times under his immediate care until
they had been lifted out of the worst of their difficulties. In summer
he ranged over the whole United Presbyterian Church from Shetland to
Galloway, preaching to great gatherings wherever he went. In arranging
these expeditions, he always gave the preference to those applications
which came to him from poor, outlying, and sparsely peopled districts,
where discouragements were greatest and the struggle to "maintain
ordinances" was most severe. His visits helped to lift the burden
from many a weary back, and never failed to leave happy and inspiring
memories behind them. Among these summer engagements he always kept a
place for his old congregation at Berwick, which he regularly visited
in the month of June, preaching twice in the church on Sunday, and
finishing the day's work by preaching again from the steps of the Town
Hall in the evening. On these occasions the broad High Street, at the
foot of which the Town Hall stands, was always crowded from side to
side and a long way up its course, while all the windows within
earshot were thrown open and filled with eager listeners.

In this continual pursuit of knowledge, and in the contemplation,
whether in history or in the world around him, of Christianity as
a Life, his main interests more and more lay. In the one we can
trace the influence of Hamilton, in the other perhaps that of
Neander--the two teachers of his youth who had most deeply impressed
him. Relatively to these, Systematic Theology, and even Apologetics,
receded into the background. Secure in his "_aliquid inconcussum_,"
he came increasingly to regard the life of the individual Christian
and the collective life of the Church as the most convincing of all
witnesses to the Unseen and the Supernatural.

Meanwhile the apologetic of his own life was becoming ever more
impressive. In the years 1886 and 1887 he lost by death several of
his dearest friends. In the former year died Dr. W.B. Robertson of
Irvine; and, later, Dr. John Ker, who had been his fellow-student at
the University and at the Divinity Hall, his neighbour at Alnwick in
the early Berwick days, and at last his colleague as a professor in
the United Presbyterian College. In the early part of the following
year his youngest sister, Agnes, who with her husband, the Rev. J.C.
Meiklejohn, had come to live in Edinburgh two years before for the
better treatment of what proved to be a mortal disease, passed away.
And in the autumn he lost the last and the dearest of the friends
that had been left to him in these later years, William Graham. These
losses brought him yet closer than he had been before to the unseen
and eternal world.

He was habitually reticent about his inner life and his habits of
devotion. No one knew his times of prayer or how long they lasted.
Once, indeed, his simplicity of character betrayed him in regard to
this matter. The door of his retiring-room at the College was without
a key, and he would not give so much trouble as to ask for one. So,
in order that he might be quite undisturbed, he piled up some forms
and chairs against the door on the inside, forgetting entirely that
the upper part of it was obscure glass and that his barricade was
perfectly visible from without. It need not be said that no one
interrupted him or interfered with his belief that he had been
unobserved by any human eye. But it did not require an accidental
disclosure like this to reveal the fact that he spent much time in
prayer. No one who knew him ever so little could doubt this, and no
one could hear him praying in public without feeling sure that he
had learned how to do it by long experience in the school of private

Purified thus by trial and nourished by prayer, his character went
on developing and deepening. His humility, utterly unaffected, like
everything else about him, became if possible more marked. He was not
merely willing to take the lowest room, but far happiest when he was
allowed to take it. In one of his classes there was a blind student,
and, when a written examination came on, the question arose, How was
he to take part in it? Principal Cairns offered to write down the
answers to the examination questions to his student's dictation, and
it was only after lengthened argument and extreme reluctance on his
part that he was led to see that the authorities would not consent
to this arrangement.

It was the same with his charity. He was always putting favourable
constructions on people's motives and believing good things of them,
even when other people could find very little ground for doing so.
In all sincerity he would carry this sometimes to amusing lengths.
Reference has been made to this already, but the following further
illustration of it may be added here. One day, when in company with a
friend, the conversation turned on a meeting at which Dr. Cairns had
recently been present. At this meeting there was a large array of
speakers, and a time limit had to be imposed to allow all of them
to be heard. One of the speakers, however, when arrested by the
chairman's bell, appealed to the audience, with whom he was getting
on extremely well, for more time. Encouraged by their applause, he
went on and finished his speech, with the result that some of his
fellow-speakers who had come long distances to address the meeting
were crushed into a corner, if not crowded out. Dr. Cairns somehow
suspected that his friend was going to say something strong about this
speaker's conduct, and, before a word could be spoken, rushed to his
defence. "He couldn't help himself. He was at the mercy of that
shouting audience--a most unmannerly mob!" And then, feeling that
he had rather overshot the mark, he added in a parenthetic murmur,
"Excellent Christian people they were, no doubt!"

But not the least noticeable thing about him remains to be
mentioned--the persistent hopefulness of his outlook. This became
always more pronounced as he grew older. Others, when they saw the
advancing forces of evil, might tremble for the Ark of God; but he saw
no occasion for trembling, and he declined to do so. He was sure that
the great struggle that was going on was bound sooner or later, and
rather sooner than later, to issue in victory for the cause he loved.
And although his great knowledge of the past, and his enthusiasm for
the great men who had lived in it, might have been expected to draw
his eyes to it with regretful longing, he liked much better to look
forward than to look back, using as he did so the words of a favourite
motto; "The best is yet to be."

All these qualities found expression in a speech he delivered on
the occasion of the presentation of his portrait to the United
Presbyterian Synod in May 1888. This portrait had been subscribed for
by the ministers and laymen of the Church, and painted by Mr. W.E.
Lockhart, R.S.A. The presentation took place in a crowded house, and
amid a scene of enthusiasm which no one who witnessed it can ever
forget. Principal Cairns concluded a brief address thus: "I have now
preached for forty-three years and have been a Professor of Theology
for more than twenty, and I find every year how much grander the
gospel of the grace of God becomes, and how much deeper, vaster, and
more unsearchable the riches of Christ, which it is the function of
theology to explore. I have had in this and in other churches a band
of ministerial brethren, older and younger, with whom it has been a
life-long privilege to be associated; and in the professors a body
of colleagues so generous and loving that greater harmony could not
be conceived. The congregations to which I have preached have far
overpaid my labours; and the students whom I have taught have given me
more lessons than many books. I have been allowed many opportunities
of mingling with Christians of other lands, and have learned, I trust,
something more of the unity in diversity of the creed, 'I believe in
the Holy Catholic Church.' In that true Church, founded on Christ's
sacrifice and washed in His blood, cheered by its glorious memories
and filled with its immortal hopes, I desire to live and die. Life
and labour cannot last long with me; but I would seek to work to the
end for Christian truth, for Christian missions, and for Christian
union. Amidst so many undeserved favours, I would still thank God and
take courage, and under the weight of all anxieties and failures,
and the shadows of separation from loved friends, I would repeat
the confession, which, by the grace of God, time only confirms:
'_In Te, Domine, speravi; non confundar in aeternum_.'"



In May 1891 the report of an inquiry which had been instituted in the
previous year into the working of the United Presbyterian College was
submitted to the Synod. The portion of it which referred to Principal
Cairns's department, and which was enthusiastically approved,
concluded as follows: "The Committee would only add that the whole
present inquiry has deepened its sense of the immense value of the
services of Dr. Cairns to the College, both as Professor and as
Principal, and expresses the hope that he may be long spared to adorn
the institution of which he is the honoured head, and the Church of
which he is so distinguished a representative." The hope thus
expressed was not to be fulfilled.

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