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James Fraser of Alness (1)

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Date July 16, 2010

A paper given at the Theological Conference of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland in 2008. Its full title was, ‘James Fraser of Alness and the Preaching of the Gospel’. The subject was divided into three sections: (1) James Fraser, the Man; (2) James Fraser’s Magnum Opus, and (3) James Fraser as Preacher and on Preaching.1

1. The Man

James Fraser was born in 1700. After studying philosophy and theology in Aberdeen he was licensed to preach in 1723 and was ordained and inducted as minister of Alness on 17 February 1726. He remained there until his death on 5 October 1769. A few facts may give us some idea of the historical location of his ministry. He belonged to the Church of Scotland which had been re-established on Presbyterian lines after the Covenanting times and the Glorious Revolution, a Church in which there were only too many ministers of a Moderate persuasion, who, whatever their theology, tended to preach morality rather than grace. For more than half his life, the Jacobite threat was a reality with which people had to live.

Among his Evangelical contemporaries in the Ross-shire pulpits was John Porteous of Kilmuir Easter, who was his close relative. We have no detailed records of Fraser’s own experiences, but indicative of the times in which these men lived is the fact that, when Porteous was to have preached in Daviot with a view to being settled there in 1729, the Episcopalians of the parish organised a mob which not only kept him from getting into the church but pursued him with stones so that he just escaped with his life. In 1746 Porteous had to flee from Kilmuir Easter to the heights of Kildonan for several months to escape from Jacobite sympathisers who roamed the country after Culloden. Fraser’s other Ross-shire contemporaries included John Balfour of Nigg, Daniel Beaton, or Bethune, of Rosskeen, and Hector MacPhail of Resolis. For part of his time Alexander Fraser was in Inverness and James Calder in Croy. The teacher, catechist and poet, Dugald Buchanan, converted in 1744, flourished throughout the latter period of Fraser’s ministry.

In the south Thomas Boston was ordained just a year before Fraser was born. Thomas Halyburton was ordained in 1700. John Willison ministered in Brechin and Dundee between 1703 and 1750. Ebenezer and Ralph Erskine were in their prime during the earlier years of his ministry. The Marrow Controversy culminated in the secession of 1733 – a Secession which scarcely touched the Highlands, except in Nigg, where local difficulties produced a schism. In England, George Whitefield was ordained in 1736. On the international scene, Jonathan Edwards was Fraser’s contemporary for much of his life (1703-1758). The Cambuslang Revival took place in 1742 and this was a period of spiritual revival throughout the eastern Highlands also. These miscellaneous facts remind us that the work of God often goes on quietly in relatively obscure places far away from the famous names and more publicised events.

James Fraser’s father, John, was minister of Alness from 1696 to November 1711. His mother, Jean Moffat, came from the Borders, near Abbotsford. John Fraser inherited Pitcalzean, a small estate in Nigg, near which the Highland Fabricators yard was built in more recent times. He had suffered during Covenanting times, as did his wife to be. After being arrested at a conventicle in London he was imprisoned in the Newgate Prison and Dunnottar Castle, where we are told that ‘as many as 42 prisoners would be confined in a room 15 by 9 feet, to which air and light were admitted by a single narrow slit placed near the floor’.2 He was then transported to New Jersey in 1685 to be sold as a slave, as he put it himself. When set free he moved to New England and was licensed to preach. His labours seem to have been much blessed in Waterbury, a town in Connecticut. After a short time he returned to Scotland and became minister at Glencorse near Edinburgh, from where he was translated to Alness in 1696.

He was recognised by the Marrowmen as a friend to the doctrines of grace.3 Daniel McKilligan, whose father John was the famous persecuted Covenanting minister of Fodderty, was minister of Alness from 1714 to 1723. It was when he died that James Fraser was settled in what had been his father’s parish and his own birthplace.

A certain section of the congregation [organised by some of the lairds] opposed his settlement, and on the day of his ordination the Presbytery found the doors of the church bolted against them, which led to some discomfort, for the services had to be conducted in the churchyard. Here, under the open sky, Mr Fraser had to preach for some Sabbaths.4

Dr Kennedy records that

the Session and all the communicants remained steadfast, in the face of all the power of the lairds, but a great number of the people who had at first signed his call were induced to oppose him as the time for ordaining him approached . . . An appeal against the ordination was taken to the Synod and thereafter to the Assembly, but the Presbytery’s conduct was ultimately approved of, and Mr Fraser confirmed in his charge.5

John MacPherson, in his biographical notice of James Fraser, comments that during the latter half of the seventeenth century

though many districts remained in a state of ignorance and rudeness that seemed more pagan than Christian, there were here and there throughout these provinces communities gathered around devoted and earnest ministers, whose profound personal experience of spiritual truths, and minute acquaintance with the doctrinal and religious teaching of Scripture, has been the astonishment and admiration of all who have studied the history of this locality and age. The parish of Alness lay in the heart of the district in which, during that period, spiritual religion flourished in the highest degree.

The parish in which Fraser was settled was one from which that glow had not died away. Indeed, John Macleod affirms that these were ‘the peak days of gospel power in his Synod’.6

Fraser has been described as a man of imposing appearance. Popular knowledge of his life amounts to little more than three frequently repeated facts:

(a) His wife, a MacLeod of Geanies in Easter Ross, has been characterised as an unfeeling person whose lack of sympathy with her husband was one of the great trials of his life. But Alexander Fraser of Inverness, who knew the family well, described James Fraser as ‘a kind and indulgent husband’.

(b) A number of his congregation, at least occasionally, attended the preaching of his neighbour, John Porteous, allegedly to receive comfort after being wounded and awakened under Mr Fraser’s preaching. When this might have created tensions between the two, Mr Porteous went to speak to Mr Fraser to ensure that there would be no bad feeling. The way in which they rejoiced in the complementary gifts which the Lord had given them is an abiding example of devotion to God’s glory and the good of souls, and of brotherly love and self-denial. According to the version of the story in Religious Life in Ross Fraser said to Porteous:

My dear brother, the thing you have spoken of will cause no unpleasantness between us, for it is of the Lord. He has given me a quiver full of arrows, some of which have pierced the consciences of sinners, and those who have been wounded need the soothing balm. This they did not find in my teaching, for the quiver given me is not yet exhausted. But, beloved brother, the Lord who has given me the quiver of arrows, has given you a cruise of oil. Those who are wounded go to you for comfort. In this way souls are wounded and healed, and God is glorified, and let us rejoice and be glad.

(c) When Hector MacPhail, Resolis, resolved to resign from the ministry because he was so depressed by the consideration that, if he was not unconverted, his ministry was barren and unfruitful, he sent for Mr Fraser to come and preach to his people; he intended to intimate his resignation after the sermon. John MacPherson tells us that Mr Fraser preached

doctrine at once so encouraging and so clear in the way of pointing out the path of duty, that Mr MacPhail interfered before the intimation of his resolution to resign had been made, and, to Mr Fraser’s great joy, announced that all his bonds were loosed, that he was never united to the parish of Resolis until that day.

Professor Sinclair Ferguson suggests that Fraser’s ‘consuming passion was the exposition of Scripture in a pastoral context . . . He was a fine example of the principle that it is not where we serve Christ but how we serve Him that is of lasting importance.’ John MacPherson gives us a little insight into his regular parish work when he tells us that,

besides his pulpit services on Sabbath, for which he made very laborious and careful preparation, he had frequent meetings in different parts of the parish, and for different classes of men and women, during the week.

Once a month, Monday was observed as the question day, when meetings were held for conference on topics of doctrine and experience . . . There was also once a month, on Tuesday, a meeting of pious women . . . This also seems to have been a question meeting, for we are told that these pious females, who were not allowed to speak in other meetings, came to these Tuesday gatherings with a great variety and wealth of difficult questions in what might be called casuistic divinity . . . Mr Fraser . . . confessed that the puzzles presented to him on such occasions were often so perplexing that the ordeal of these Tuesdays constituted the most serious and trying part of his work as a minister.

According to Religious Life in Ross, ‘he used to say that, although he got a competent measure of education, yet he got more divinity from the pious females of Clais-nam-buidheag than ever he got in the Divinity Hall’.

Professor Meek informs us that from 1758 Mr Fraser assisted James Stuart of Killin with the translation of the SSPCK’s Gaelic New Testament, published in Edinburgh in 1767 under the supervision of Dugald Buchanan.

Alexander Fraser, who has left one of the few first-hand accounts of the man, writes that

in judicatories [church courts] he discovered singular prudence and judgement, with a steady adherence to the principles and constitution of our Church. And if at any time he swayed any of his brethren to his sentiments, it was not by an overbearing temper or conduct, but by his admirable good sense, which he always displayed with great modesty and meekness. All who knew him can bear testimony that he was richly endowed with the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit. He was remarkably zealous for the interest of truth and holiness, and lamented greatly the progress of error and immorality. He appeared to have been set in a peculiar manner for the defence of the gospel, in opposition to the pernicious tenets and principles that have been spread in the land.

As he applied with unwearied diligence and activity to the duties of his ministerial office, which was followed with remarkable success, so in more private life he shone in all the virtues of the Christian. Though of very quick feeling, yet at the same time he showed the greatest patience in trials and adversities. Singular wisdom and discretion, with equal goodness and integrity, were visible in his whole conduct. His deportment was grave and cheerful, his conversation most entertaining. He was a kind and indulgent husband, a steady friend, and faithful counsellor. In short, his mannerly and courteous behaviour as a gentleman, his piety and goodness as a Christian, his singular knowledge and learning as a divine, made him highly acceptable to all ranks. No wonder the life of this worthy man was exceeding useful and greatly valued and prized. His death, on 5 October 1769, was deeply and generally lamented.

John Russell, of Kilmarnock, a faithful minister lampooned by Robert Burns in two of his poems, was personally acquainted with Mr Fraser, probably during Russell’s teaching days in Cromarty, and considered that to be one of the happiest circumstances of his life. When he published Fraser’s Sacramental Sermons in 1785 he wrote:

In him concentred all the amiable qualities of the divine, the scholar and the Christian. Indeed, one may say, without exceeding the bounds of truth, that the illustrious title marked out for gospel ministers by Paul, when he says ‘that they are the glory of Christ’, eminently belonged to him.

Many of the biographical notices of that time lack the kind of information that we would like about persons in whom we are interested, and we have to acknowledge that it is principally by his writings that we can know James Fraser today, which is all that really matters, given that ‘we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us’ (2 Cor. 4:7).

Notes

  1. Reproduced with kind permission from The Free Presbyterian Magazine, May 2010.
  2. A Treatise on Sanctification by the Rev James Fraser (of Alness). New and Revised Edition with Biographical and Critical Introduction by the Rev John MacPherson, MA, Foreword by Dr Sinclair B. Ferguson, Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA, Old Paths Publications, 1992. The volume was first published in 1774; MacPherson’s revised edition appeared in 1897.
  3. John Brown (Ed.), Gospel Truth Accurately Stated and Illustrated.
  4. John Noble, Religious Life in Ross.
  5. The Days of the Fathers in Ross-shire.
  6. Scottish Theology.

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