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Voice of Nonconformity – A Review by Iain Murray

Category Book Reviews
Date October 28, 2011

Voice of Nonconformity: William Robertson Nicoll and the British Weekly
Keith Ives
Cambridge: Lutterworth, 2011
255pp. paperback, £23
ISBN: 978 0 71889 222 7

This engaging and important book is essential reading for an understanding of how once-powerful English Nonconformity and Scottish Presbyterianism became as feeble as they are today. W. Robertson Nicoll, founder and editor of the British Weekly, with its circulation of upwards of 100,000, took a main part in the influence that aided this decline. As we have been reminded in recent days, the print media drive public opinion.

Nicoll was born (1851) in a Free Church of Scotland manse in Aberdeenshire. He lost his mother at the age of eight. A book lover from early years, it is not surprising that he became a distinguished student at Aberdeen Grammar School and University, gaining his MA at the age of eighteen. Four years at the Divinity Hall in that city, led to pastorates at Dufftown (1874-77) and Kelso (1877-86) where he succeeded Horatius Bonar. He combined an earnest evangelical ministry with increasing literary and editorial interests, until a serious breakdown in health in 1886. When medical opinion counselled that he should stop speaking, he removed with his wife to England for his health and took up full-time work with the publishers, Hodder and Stoughton. The rest of his life was to be spent in London where, under the auspices of the same publishers, he launched the British Weekly in November 1886 and continued as its editor to his death in 1923.

Within the context of this biographical framework, Keith Ives centres his narrative on the two formative influences in Nicoll’s life, namely, evangelical belief and the new Higher Critical view of the Old Testament. At Aberdeen, Nicoll was a pupil of Robertson Smith, who (with A. B. Davidson) pioneered unbelief in the accuracy of the Old Testament in the Free Church of Scotland. Many of Nicoll’s closest friends throughout life were fellow Scots who shared the opinion that Higher Criticism represented an advance in scholarship which was not to be resisted. Were gospel belief and Higher Criticism consistent with each other, or did holding to the one necessitate opposing the other? This was the issue that became a turning point in British church history. The majority opinion was that there was nothing incompatible in holding both; and those adopting Higher Criticism led the way in asserting this to be the case. Of course, this entailed a ‘modification’ of belief in the nature of Old Testament Scripture, yet of such a supposedly secondary character that no fundamental evangelical truth was said to be affected. This outlook was named ‘believing criticism’ and whether such a label is legitimate is a main theme of this new biography of Nicoll.

Before he came to London, Nicoll had been working part-time for Hodder and Stoughton. In 1884 the publishers had removed the editor of their publication, the Expositor, and replaced him with Nicoll. They did so because Nicoll ‘was perceived to be a strong supporter of an orthodox view of doctrine, including the Scriptures…Being conservatively minded, he was at home with the publisher’s outlook, but his reading and the pressure of circumstances would not allow him to rest there’ (p. 42). The ‘pressure of circumstances’ included an unexpected controversy which arose almost immediately after the start of the British Weekly. It began on account of a challenge which Spurgeon issued in The Sword and the Trowel in 1887, in which he called for a division between those who held to orthodox belief in the inspiration of Scripture, and those who did not. Nicoll was an admirer of Spurgeon, and both read and heard him, but the ‘Down-Grade’ controversy became an issue which his weekly could not long avoid. Ives writes: ‘WRN was in truth a different breed of Evangelical, far more open to innovation…Forced into decisive action by the polarisation of the church, WRN moved towards the position of the believing critical school of his old tutor, William Robertson Smith’ (pp. 114-15). Two things illustrate Nicoll’s distance from Spurgeon. When the latter had Gaussen’s defence of the full inspiration of Scripture, Theopneustia, republished, Nicoll classified the volume as among ‘irrelevant arguments and obsolete books’, and he likened Spurgeon’s stance to ‘a modern general issuing “quantities of bows and arrows” to his troops’ (p. 120). Worse was his decision to publish Joseph Parker’s attack on Spurgeon as an ‘Open Letter’ in the British Weekly.

What affected Nicoll’s judgment? He no doubt believed that the case of the Higher Critics, advanced by a ‘considerable number of books’, was too sure to be denied. But he was not himself an Old Testament scholar and we are inclined to believe that following numbers played a real part in the path he took. The first year of publication for the British Weekly was critical for him; it had to reach a circulation of 20,000 in order to be viable, and that meant a right judgment of what would appeal to a contemporary leadership in Nonconformist circles. Achieving success was no small part of Nicoll’s thinking. He took ‘considerable notice as to where the majority of his readers stood; carefully treading the route least likely to impinge on his editorial success…Friendship aside, WRN was trying to run a successful periodical, and as Spurgeon grew more adamant, siding with him would have been to commit editorial suicide’ (p. 118). From our present standpoint, which sees the permanent popularity of Spurgeon, these words of Ives may sound strange, but they are an accurate representation of things in the late 1880s. ‘WRN noted that at a Baptist Union meeting, “not a voice was lifted to echo his [Spurgeon’s] sentiments…Mr Hugh Price Hughes [Methodist] in his powerful speech pointed out that Mr Spurgeon had not been supported by a single leader of religious thought in the country’ (p. 118).

It served the interests of ‘believing criticism’ to exaggerate the support for the position which was being popularised; even so, it has to be a sad reflection on the fallibility of Christians that Spurgeon was indeed in a minority in the Down-Grade controversy.

To say that Nicoll became an out-and-out liberal would be wrong. He did not. He even affirmed, ‘What Jesus believed about the Old Testament, we must believe.’ Both in public and in private letters he warned against unbelief. But how did he maintain, through more than 30 years of editorship, the thesis that the non-acceptance of traditional Christian belief in Scripture was compatible with evangelical belief and devotion? Ives rightly and clearly points out that the two are not compatible. There was an ‘inherent dissonance’ (p. 34). Why did Nicoll think otherwise? The question is made the more difficult by the fact that, at times, he was aware that representing ‘believing criticism’ as a spiritual benefit was questioned by leading Higher Critics themselves. When in conversation with one of them, the German Julius Wellhausen, Nicoll expressed the position of his mentor, Robertson Smith, ‘that Smith held the Bible to be inspired and historically true, along with Wellhausen’s views, and that he held to the truth of miracles. Wellhausen shook his head and said that while he did not deny that miracles were possible, there was no historical proof for them’ (p. 36). Nearer home, Marcus Dods was one of Nicoll’s closest friends and a frequent contributor to the British Weekly. A leader in Higher Criticism, Dods admitted in 1902, at least privately, ‘The churches won’t know themselves fifty years hence. It is to be hoped some little rag of faith may be left when all is done’ (p.126).

All that can be offered, by way of explaining Nicoll’s serious mistake, is that evidence that an evangelicalism founded on Scripture could not co-exist with a disbelief in that foundation did not immediately appear. For a while to many the opposite thesis seemed plausible. From its popularity they judged that spiritual advance rather than decline was the prospect for the churches. Intentionally or unintentionally, writes Ives, those who opposed Spurgeon, ‘merely masked a serious problem, which would only grow worse and worse’ (p. 120).

Ives’ book gives us clear information on the way spiritual weakness increased in Nicoll’s editorial work. An outspoken setting out of evangelical doctrines was no part of the British Weekly mission. There was no change in Nicoll’s profession and occasional defence of evangelical belief, but by the opening years of the 20th century it was muted in comparison with his earlier years. Literature and politics began to take centre stage, motivated by the desire that Christianity should be made relevant to every sphere of life, and that religion would continue to be formative in British culture. ‘WRN began to appear more interested in the world of politics than that of theology’ (p. 148).

We are full of admiration for the way Keith Ives has researched all the material relevant to his subject. This was no easy exercise. No biography of Nicoll has been published since T. H. Darlow wrote his in 1925. One hindrance to the understanding of his subject which Ives was not able to remove, was the lack of a diary or more personal information; Nicoll remains for us the largely private individual that he was. Such letters from him as survive are commonly on professional and literary matters. His dying words, ‘I believe everything that I have written about immortality’, are among the very few personal statements that we hear.

This biography rightly grasps ‘believing criticism’ as the key to understanding Nicoll’s public work, and along with a real appreciation of Nicoll as a man, a writer, and an editor, the tragedy of his life is quietly unfolded. With all the ability and opportunity which he had to do the opposite in the most influential weekly of the times, Nicoll gave his support to an understanding that would undermine faith while believing he was doing otherwise. Ives summarises this conclusion: ‘WRN and his fellow leaders did not succeed in halting the decline of church adherents. What he and his generation handed on was, in spite of their best intentions, a flawed and weakened church, which seemed to have lost its way’ (p. 245). This accords with the words of Lloyd-Jones, which he quotes in his Preface: ‘I have always regard W. Robertson Nicoll as one of the worst, because of the most subtle influences in the decline of Nonconformity at the end of the last century and the beginning of the present century’ (p. 13).

There is much in this book which is relevant to evangelicalism today:

  1. The quest to gain influence for the gospel by being ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’ is a dangerous one. The saying ‘he who marries the culture will soon be a widow’ was illustrated in the later history of Nicoll and the British Weekly. Recognising the rising public interest in newspapers and in fiction, he tailored his presentation to the mood of the times. Fiction was introduced into his columns in serial form and he ‘puffed’ the reputation of authors whose novels were sympathetic to Christianity. The best known of these – the so-called Kailyard School – ‘were narrowly focused on the past, ignoring the present, and did not display the kind of atmosphere that would inspire excitement or even positive feelings about the Church and its future’ (p. 182). Nicoll praised these books as ‘great literature’; an opinion which led to them being ‘often rammed down the throats of the Presbyterian young’. But they gained only a passing attention ‘and would cease to be in demand when the public taste moved on to a new interest or craze’ (p. 169). ‘There seems to have been an unwitting tension between what WRN wanted to achieve – in his own mind, at least – and the popular secularisation of reading culture to which he contributed’ (p. 182). There was more real power in the message of the young minister in Kelso than there was in that of the successful editor in London.
  2. Public success brings dangers from which perhaps few escape. Nicoll was knighted in 1909 and received adulation from Prime Ministers such as Lloyd-George. Thomas Hardy, Nicoll noted, ‘used to be a fiery Evangelical’ (p. 157). We are thankful Nicoll did not take the same path as Hardy, yet he suffered by being too close to the world.
  3. There can be a short distance between an educated Christian ministry (for which Nicoll rightly laboured) and an ‘inordinate love of books’. The second generation of Free Church of Scotland ministers, to which Nicoll belonged, were much interested in ‘the latest views and discoveries of the world of scholarship’, whereas their fathers consecrated their reading to the needs of the pulpit and the pastorate. As a result the latter are still being read today, whereas the books of so many of their successors are virtually unknown. There is good reason for us to beware of those who think that what happens in the churches is all to be explained in terms of ‘traditionalists’ and ‘modernisers’.
  4. Notes

    This review article first appeared in The Banner of Truth magazine, October 2011

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