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Alexander Moody Stuart:
Rediscovering a Forgotten Visionary

Category Articles
Date July 10, 2023

Approximately halfway between the Scottish cities of Perth and Dundee, on the southern slope of the Sidlaw Hills above the fertile landscape of the Carse of Gowrie, nestles the small settlement of Kilspindie. Next to its seventeenth-century parish church stands the walled family tomb of the Stuarts of Annat. On the far interior wall of this grey dynastic monument, out of reach behind locked iron gates, is a tablet marking the resting place of Jessie Stuart (1821–91), and her husband—the subject of this Memoir—Alexander Moody Stuart (1809–98). That most of the inscription under the latter’s name was, at the time of the present publisher’s visit, rendered unreadable by the intrusion of self-seeded shrubbery, seemed appropriate on a memorial to a man whose memory has become obscured by the passage of time, and the absence of a literary gardener to cut back the weeds of neglect.

The Banner’s new edition of Alexander Moody Stuart: A Memoir will hopefully serve as that gardener. It was originally published in 1899, this being the first time it has been re-issued in a new edition in well over a hundred years. Some, especially those not connected to Scotland, may well question the value of reading such a memoir as this, its time and space being perceived as distant and foreign to our own contemporary circumstances. It would be a grave mistake, however, to pass this book by on the basis of such perceptions. Biographies are not just paper and ink, but the preservers and carriers of the ideas and events which shaped the lives of their subjects. Circumstances naturally change, but good ideas, rooted in biblical truth, outlive changing circumstances. The ideas contained in this memoir, about the fundamental character and shape of an enduringly fruitful Christian ministry, have much to say to our contemporary scene. Indeed, the pages that lie before you contain not only an interesting record of a significant yet relatively unknown nineteenth-­century ministry, but serve as a window into the living piety and gospel vision which sustained that ministry through many decades.

This record is ‘partly autobiographical’ in that the earlier chapters consist mostly of Alexander Moody Stuart’s own words, written with the intention of publication, in the hope that ‘they may prove profitable.’ His eldest son Kenneth, himself a minister, served as editor of these early chapters, and author of the subsequent narrative recounting the middle and later years of his father’s life and labours. He does an admirable job—unlike some biographies of a similar vintage which now appear tediously detailed, this one moves at a pace. Indeed, there are places when you will likely wish that the son had lingered a while longer on certain aspects of the father’s life. Nevertheless, the opinion of John Macleod, the erudite and profoundly well-read principal of Edinburgh’s Free Church College during the first half of the twentieth century, is well worth bearing in mind as you begin to read this volume: ‘There are few ministerial biographies that are better worth reading than Moody Stuart’s Life by his son.’

When those words of Principal Macleod first appeared in his Scottish Theology, a certain proportion of his older readers would have possessed a living memory of Moody Stuart’s ministry. That is not the case today. It is likely that those who have come across the name of Alexander Moody Stuart have done so in the form of passing references which appear in the memoirs of his friends Andrew Bonar and Robert Murray M‘Cheyne. These relatively few references hide the true extent of the influence of Moody Stuart’s own long ministry amongst his contemporaries, both at home and overseas. In the estimation of his colleagues in the Free Presbytery of Edinburgh, ‘Few were honoured to wield an influence so profound and far-reaching.’

Alexander Moody Stuart’s vision extended far beyond his own congregation, and his own country. The 1830s witnessed a renewed interest in missionary endeavour within the Church of Scotland, and Moody Stuart early became associated with the cause of mission to the Jews. He was in the same circle as Andrew Bonar and Robert Murray M‘Cheyne, who would form part of the party which was sent to Palestine to undertake an enquiry into the possibility of a mission to the Jews—a trip which would lead to the establishment of a mission not in Palestine, but in Hungary. Moody Stuart’s subsequent championing of the cause of mission to the Jewish populations of Europe became a marked feature of his life’s work. Moody Stuart’s long involvement in this mission field was marked by the conviction that it was at heart a spiritual endeavour—it was, in his understanding, part of the divine plan for the conversion of the world to Christ.

The ‘eminently spiritual’ character, as John Macleod described it, of Moody Stuart’s ministry goes some way toward explaining his involvement in two church controversies—the debate which took place between 1863 and 1873 surrounding a proposed union between his own Free Church of Scotland and the United Presbyterian Church, and that which surrounded the ‘Higher Criticism’ movement of the later nineteenth century. In both these debates, and especially in the latter, he perceived that the authority of Scripture was at stake, and so was prepared to take a stand. For Moody Stuart, the Bible and its integrity lay at the heart of the church’s purpose and missionary success. It was, therefore, no wonder, with all his pastoral and missionary interests, that he was prepared to enter into the debate and defend what he considered to be an affront to the evangelical heart of the church. These debates were of their time, yet involved principles which remain at the core of what it is to stay faithful in ministry when the tide of opinion is moving in a contrary direction.

These are just a few of the noteworthy aspects of Alexander Moody Stuart’s long ministry, in which he variously was a missionary, church planter, pastor, and promoter of world mission. Biographies are not their subjects, and to some extent there will always be aspects of Moody Stuart’s life and thought, the warmth of his personal interactions with his family, friends, and congregation, that will remain for us in the shadows of the past. But it is hoped that the republication of his Memoir will go some way to lift Alexander Moody Stuart, as a servant of Christ worthy of imitation, out of relative obscurity—a man who, in his allotted time and circumstances, exercised a deep and penetrating ministry of the word. The character and aroma of that influential ministry, often vividly brought to life in the following pages, contain much to stimulate and inspire those engaged in that same spiritual work in the twenty-­first century.

 

Alexander Moody Stuart: a Memoir is available now.

 

Sam Cunnington is on the editorial team at the Banner of Truth Trust. His talk at the 2023 Youth Conference, Alexander Moody Stuart (1809–98): Forgotten Visionary can watched here.

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