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Principal Cairns by John Cairns

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The specially heavy work of the preceding session--the session in
which, as already described, he had undertaken part of the work of
the Church History class in addition to the full tale of his own--had
overtaxed his strength, and, acting on the advice of Dr. Maclagan and
his Edinburgh medical adviser, he had cancelled all his engagements
for the summer. Almost immediately after the close of the Synod an old
ailment which he had contracted by over-exertion during a holiday tour
in Wales reappeared, and yielded only partially to surgical treatment.
But he maintained his cheerfulness, and neither he nor his friends had
any thought that his work was done. In the month of July he paid a
visit to his brother David at Stitchel. He had opened his brother's
new church there thirteen years before, and it had come to be a
standing engagement, looked forward to by very many in the district,
that he should conduct special services every year on the anniversary
of that occasion. But these annual visits were very brief, and they
were broken into not only by the duties of the Sunday, but by the
hospitalities usual in country manses at such times. This time,
however, there were no anniversary sermons to be preached; he had
come for rest, and there was no need for him to hasten his departure.
The weather was lovely, and so were the views over the wide valley
of the Tweed to the distant Cheviots. He would sit for hours
reading under the great elm-tree in the garden amid the scents of
the summer flowers. "I have come in to tell you," he said one day
to his sister-in-law, "that this is a day which has wandered out of
Paradise." "We younger people," wrote his niece, "came nearer to him
than ever before. He was as happy as a child, rejoicing with every
increase of strength. He greatly enjoyed my brother Willie's singing,
especially songs like Sheriff Nicolson's 'Skye' and Shairp's 'Bush
aboon Traquair.' We were astonished to find how familiar he was with
all sorts of queer out-of-the-way ballads. Never had we seen him so
free from care, so genial and even jubilant."[21] The summer Sacrament
took place while he was at Stitchel, and he was able to give a brief
address to the communicants from the words, "Ye do shew forth the
Lord's death till He come," in a voice that was weak and tremulous,
but all the more impressive on that account. One of his brother's
elders, a farmer in the neighbourhood whom he had known since his
schooldays, had arranged that he should address his work-people in the
farmhouse, and to this quiet rural gathering he preached what proved
to be his last sermon.

[Footnote 21: _Life and Letters_, p, 769.]

He himself, however, had no idea that this was the case; and when he
left Stitchel he did so with the purpose of preparing for the work
of another session. But as the autumn advanced and his health did
not greatly improve, another consultation of his doctors was held,
the result of which was that he was pronounced to be suffering
from cardiac weakness, and quite unfit for the work of the coming
winter. He at once acquiesced in this verdict, and, with unabated
cheerfulness, set himself to bring his lectures into a state that
would admit of their being easily read to his classes by two friends
who had undertaken this duty. This done, he wrote out in full the
Greek texts--some five hundred in all--quoted in his lectures on
Biblical Theology. These two tasks kept him busy until about the end
of the year 1891, when he began an undertaking which many of his
friends had long been urging upon him--the preparation of a volume
of his sermons for the press. He selected for this purpose those
sermons which he had preached most frequently, and which he had,
with few exceptions, originally written for sacramental occasions
at Berwick--some of them far back in the old Golden Square days.
These he carefully transcribed, altering them where he thought this
necessary, and not always, in the opinion of many, improving them
in the process.

He found that his strength was not unduly strained when he worked thus
six or seven hours a day. But he always, as hitherto, spent one hour
daily in reading the Scriptures in the original tongues, in which time
he could get through three pages of Hebrew and an indefinite quantity
of Greek. There was, however, one change in his habits which had
become necessary. He was forbidden by the doctors to study at night.
And so, instead of going upstairs in the evening, he remained in the
comfortable parlour, where he wrote his letters, talked to his brother
and sister, or to visitors as they came in, and regaled himself with
light literature. This last consisted sometimes of volumes of the
Fathers, but more frequently of the Koran in the original. He would
frequently read aloud extracts, translating from the Greek and Latin
without ever pausing for a word; as regards the Arabic, he had Sale's
translation at hand to help him through a tough passage, but he was
always a very proud man when he could find his way out of a difficulty
without its aid.

As the winter advanced he felt that it was desirable that he should
have another medical opinion, so that, in the event of his further
incapacity, the Synod at its approaching meeting might make permanent
arrangements for carrying on the work of his chair. On the 19th of
February he was examined by Drs. Maclagan, Webster, and G.W. Balfour,
who certified that he was "unfit for the discharge of any professional
duty." After consulting his relatives, he decided to resign his
Professorship and the Principalship of the College, and on the 23rd
a letter intimating this intention was drafted and despatched. The
committee to which it was sent received it with great regret, and a
unanimous feeling found expression that, at anyrate, he should retain
the office of Principal. This was echoed from every part of the
United Presbyterian Church as soon as the news of his contemplated
resignation became known; and in a wider circle adequate utterance
was given to the public sympathy and regard.

On the 3rd of March he was able to preside at the annual conversazione
of his students, when he was in such genial spirits, and seemed to be
so well, that humorous references were made by more than one speaker
to his approaching resignation as clearly unnecessary, and indeed
preposterous. On the following Saturday he travelled to Galashiels to
attend the funeral of his cousin John Murray, whose room he had shared
during his first session at the University, and in his prayer at the
funeral service he referred in touching terms to the close of their
life-long friendship. Returning to Edinburgh, he went to stay till
Monday with an old friend, whose house afforded him facilities for
attending the communion service at Broughton Place Church next day.
For although this church, which he had attended as a student, and of
which he had been a member since he came to live in Edinburgh, was
more than two miles distant from Spence Street, his Puritan training
and convictions with regard to the Sabbath would never allow him to
go to it in a cab.

On reaching home next week he resumed his work of transcription, and
went on with it till Thursday, when, after taking a short walk, he
became somewhat unwell. Next day he felt better, and did some writing
in the forenoon; but in the afternoon the illness returned, and he
went to bed. In the early hours of next morning, Saturday 12th March,
his sister, who was watching beside him, saw that a change was coming,
and summoned Mr. and Mrs. David Cairns, who had fortunately arrived
the evening before. His brother William, on account of his bodily
infirmity, remained below. The end was evidently near, but he was
conscious at intervals, and his voice when he spoke was clear and
firm. "You are very ill, John," said his brother. "Oh no," he replied,
"I feel much better." "But you are in good hands?" "Yes, in the best
of hands." Then his mind began to wander, and he spoke more brokenly:
"There is a great battle to fight, but the victory is sure ... God
in Christ ... Good men must unite and identify themselves with the
cause." "What cause?" asked his brother. "The cause of God," he
replied. "If they do so, the victory is sure; otherwise, all is
confusion ... I have stated the matter; I leave it with you." Then,
after a short pause, he suddenly said, "You go first, I follow."
These eminently characteristic words were the last he spoke, and as
David knelt and prayed at his bedside death came.

The impression produced on the public mind by his life and character,
and called into vivid consciousness by the news of his death, found
memorable expression on his funeral day, Thursday 17th March. It
had been the original intention of his relatives that the funeral
arrangements should be carried out as simply as possible, with a
service in Rosehall Church, which was close at hand, for those who
desired to attend it, and thereafter a quiet walk down to Echo Bank
Cemetery, where he was to rest beside his sister Agnes. It was thought
that this would be most in accordance with his characteristic humility
and shrinking from all that savoured of display. But the public
feeling refused to be satisfied with this idea, and the relatives
gave way.

The Synod Hall of the United Presbyterian Church, to which the coffin
had been removed in the early part of the day, and which holds three
thousand, was crowded to its utmost capacity. The Moderator of Synod
presided, and beside him on the platform were the Lord Provost,
Magistrates and Council of the city, the Principal and Professors of
the University, the Principal and Professors of the New College, and
many other dignitaries. In the body of the hall were seated, row
behind row, the members of the United Presbyterian Synod, who had
come from all parts of the country, drawn by affection as well as
veneration for him of whom their Church had been so proud. Along
with them was a very large number of ministers of the other Scottish
Churches, and representatives of public bodies. The galleries were
thronged with the general public. The brief service was of that
simple and moving kind with which Presbyterian Scotland is wont to
commemorate her dead. There was no funeral oration, and the prayers,
which were led by Dr. Macgregor, the Moderator of the Established
Church General Assembly, by Principal Rainy, and by Dr. Andrew
Thomson, while full of the sense of personal loss, gave expression
to the deep thankfulness felt by all present that such a life had
been lived, and lived for so long, among them. One incident created
a deep impression. After the coffin had been removed, the various
representative bodies successively left the hall to take their places
in the procession that was being marshalled without. "Wallace Green
Church, Berwick" was called. Then a great company of men rose to their
feet, showing that, after an absence of sixteen years, their old
minister still retained his hold on the affections of the people
among whom he had lived and worked so long.

Outside the hall the scenes were even more impressive, and were
declared by those whose memories went back for half a century to have
been unparalleled in Edinburgh since the funeral of Dr. Chalmers, in
1847. Along the whole of the three miles between the Synod Hall and
Echo Bank Cemetery traffic was suspended, flags were at half-mast, and
all the shops were closed. As the procession, which was itself fully
a mile in length, made its slow way along, the crowds which lined the
pavements, filled the windows, and covered the tops of the arrested
tramway cars, reverently saluted the coffin. When the gates of the
University were passed, not a few thought of the time, more than
fifty-seven years before, when he who was now being borne to his
grave amid such great demonstrations of public homage, came up a shy,
awkward country lad to begin within these walls the life of strenuous
toil that had now closed. How much had passed since then! How great
was the contrast between the two scenes! A little later, when
the procession passed down the Dalkeith Road, everyone turned
instinctively to the house in Spence Street, where he had lived his
simple and godly life, unconscious that the eyes of men were upon him.
As the afternoon shadows were lengthening he was laid in his grave;
and many of those who stood near felt that a great blank had come into
their lives, and that Scotland and the Church were the poorer for the
loss of him who had followed his Master in simplicity of heart and had
counted cheap those honours which the world so greatly desires.[22]

[Footnote 22: Six years later the sister who had so long lived with him
was laid in the same grave. William Cairns sleeps with his kindred in
Cockburnspath churchyard.]

It is difficult to count up the gains and losses of a life. He had
great gifts,--gifts of abstract thinking and writing, powers of
scholarly research and continuous labour,--but his life had followed
another path determined by his early choice. Was this choice a wise
one? It is difficult to say. But two things seem clear. One is that
he never appears to have regretted it. At the public service in the
Synod Hall, Principal Rainy gave thanks for "those seventy-four
years of happy life." These words are entirely true. His life was
an exceptionally happy one. This surely means a great deal. If he
had missed his true vocation, he could not have had this happiness.

The second noticeable point is, that his choice made the influence
of his personality strong throughout Scotland. He seems to have
recognised that his true home lay in the region of Christian faith
and works, in the great common life of the Church; and so he made his
appeal, not to the limited number of those who could read a learned
theological treatise which the changing fortunes of the battle with
Unbelief might soon have put out of date, but to the common heart of
the whole Church. That great assemblage from all parts of the country
on his funeral day was the response to this appeal, and the best
answer to the question as to whether he had erred in the choice of a
calling and wasted his powers. Waste there undoubtedly was. In every
life this cannot but be so, for a man must limit himself; but, if it
be for a high end, the renunciation will be blessed with some fruit
of good. And so, although the memory and the name of John Cairns may
become fainter as the years and generations pass, his influence will
live on in the Christian Church, to whose ideal of goodness he brought
the contribution of his character.

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