Section navigation

James Buchanan

Although James Buchanan became known to posterity as a theologian – mainly through two of his books, The Office and Work of the Holy Spirit and The Doctrine of Justification (both re-published by the Trust) – it was as a preacher of unusual power and ability that he first made his name.

He studied theology under Dr. Thomas Chalmers in Edinburgh, and in 1827, at the age of 23, was ordained to the ministry at Roslin, near Edinburgh. A year later he was translated to a large church at North Leith which he soon filled to overflowing, his preaching being noted for its fulness and clarity as well as for its flights of impassioned oratory. One of his hearers, who had been to India, thought that his preaching was of the same stamp as that of Henry Martyn.

Buchanan seems to have been in poor health for most of his life and while he was at Leith most of his parochial duties were carried out by a succession of assistants. This gave him more time for study than he would otherwise have had and he read widely. During the twelve years of his ministrv at North Leith he wrote three books, two of them on the subject of affliction, the third being a practical treatise on the Holy Spirit.

In 1840, apparently because of his failing health, he became co-pastor with Dr. Gordon of the smaller but no less important church of St. Giles, Edinburgh. He remained there until 1843 when, at the Disruption of the Church of Scotland, he joined the overwhelming majority of the evangelical ministers in forming the Free Church of Scotland, and became the first minister of St. Stephen’s Free Church in Edinburgh.

The full-orbed doctrinal character of his preaching became well-known not only in Scotland but in America, and although antipathy to the evangelical party prevented his ability from being officially recognised by the theological department of Edinburgh University, the degree of Doctor of Divinity was conferred on him in 1844 by Princeton College, New Jersey. Some time later the University of Glasgow honoured him with the degree of Doctor of Law.

The esteem in which he was held by his own denomination was shown in 1845. A vacancy occurred in the chair of Apologetics in the New College, Edinburgh, and Buchanan was looked upon as the obvious choice. He occupied this chair for only two years, however, and on the death of Chalmers in 1847 he was appointed to a chair for which his talents and inclinations seem to have been more suited, that of Systematic Theology.

Buchanan’s appointment to the College did not bring an end to his preaching, nor did it cause him to regard theology in a more academic way. The following account of his experiences in the revival of 1859-60, shows that neither his faith in the saving efficacy of his theology, nor his pastoral concern for souls, diminished during his years as professor:

. . . recently, I have been privileged to witness the effects of the revival in the country district in which I reside in summer. For the last seventeen years, during which I have had the summer at my own disposal, I have been in the habit of preaching regularly, on the Lord’s Day evening, in the open air in Dumfriesshire. During the whole of that time I have had the attendance of members of all religious Denominations – Episcopalians, United Presbyterians, Established Church people – who would not come to any Free Church, but came to my tent. During these seventeen years, I had no evidence, though I had no doubt that the good seed sown was not thrown altogether away; but I could not put my hand upon a single case of decided conversion.

Last year [1860], suddenly, and without apparently any human instrumentality to account for it, the whole district was visited with an outpouring of the Spirit of God. Now, in my immediate neighbourhood I can point to many households where, for the first time, family worship has been established and now regularly maintained. The whole morals of the district seem to have undergone a complete change, and, as the police expressed to me, their office was, so far as serious crimes were concerned, all but a sinecure.

Some of those who came under religious impressions at that time may possibly have gone back, and therefore it would not be right in us to report all these cases of transient awakening as if they were cases of true conversion to God. We must judge of them by their subsequent fruits; but, at the same time, I know intemperance and profligacy of all kinds have been checked, and that the minds of the whole community have become impressed and awed by a sense of Divine things.

Although Buchanan’s theological ability and pastoral experience were ideal qualities for training students for the ministry, some of his students were less than appreciative of his lectures. The influence of the new German schools of theology was beginning to make itself felt in Scotland and those most affected by it were least in sympathy with Buchanan’s teaching. Robertson Smith, one of the first to propagate ‘higher’ critical theories in Scotland ‘was a somewhat impatient hearer of Dr. Buchanan,’ and Marcus Dods found him ‘painfully prolix.’

The evangelical world, however, held him in high regard and the publication of The Doctrine of Justification brought forth glowing reviews in such periodicals as Clerical Journal, Daily Review, Weekly Review, Non-Conformist and Wesleyan Methodist Magazine (even although Buchanan was quite candid about Wesley’s views on justification). A reviewer in the Original Secession Magazine wrote:

In selecting a subject for his ‘Cunningham Lectures’ he might have chosen a rarer and perhaps more popular theme. No one who knows the vigour of his disciplined intellect, his power of profound and luminous thinking, his large and ripe learning, and uncommon familiarity with the phases of modern thought, will imagine he has chosen this great commonplace in theology, from want of ability to deal with a less familiar topic.

The reviewer was quite right. Buchanan was a pastor to the end and his great work on Justification, published in 1866, was written to combat the opposition to the doctrine both by rationalists and ritualists, and to establish true believers in a well-grounded assurance. It was his last work. In 1868, afflicted by deafness and increasing infirmity he retired from the chair of Theology. He died in 1870.

[By Charles Walker – ‘Short Account of Author’ in The Doctrine of Justification, Banner of Truth, 1961.]