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James Haldane: The Making of a Christian

Category Articles
Date August 13, 2019

Under God the Haldane brothers began a remarkable spiritual movement in Scotland at the close of the eighteenth century. With Robert‘s wealth and drive and James’s preaching abilities, and with a talented band of enthusiastic colleagues, they made evangelistic tours, founded tabernacles and independent churches on Congregational lines and established a seminary that sent out over 200 itinerant preachers to the Scottish High­lands and Islands. Having left the Church of Scotland in 1799, the Haldanes split the movement by becoming Baptists in 1808, Robert going on to use his gifts in theological writing and personal conversation, as in his far-reaching work among the students of Geneva and Montauban in 1816 and 1817, and James going on to complete fifty years of faithful ministry in Edinburgh.

Robert Haldane was born on 28 February 1764 in London and his younger brother James on 14 July 1768 in Dundee. They came of an ancient Perthshire family who for centuries owned the free barony of Gleneagles, a valley on the north side of the Ochil hills. The Gleneagles Haldanes were Protestants from early days and sometimes married into the nobility. Among the brothers’ near ancestors were army and naval officers, scholars and politicians. Their own father was a naval captain serving the East India Company and was about to be elected a director of the Company when he died aged 39. The descendants of James include the Liberal-Labour politician Viscount Haldane, the scientist J. B. S. Haldane and the writer Naomi Mitchison.

Though born of a good and gifted family, rich in spiritual, intellectual and material things, the Haldane brothers were early struck by tragedy in the form of four bereavements. In 1768 their father died, in 1774 their mother, in 1776 their only and well-liked sister, and in 1777 their guardian grandmother.

Robert was only four when his father died. Of Captain James Haldane it was said that he paid particular attention to the morals of his seamen, whom he punished for swearing, and that he died with ‘full confidence in Jesus’. Two weeks after the father’s death Mrs Kate Haldane gave birth prematurely to James. Only six years later she herself died, but not before she had impressed her two sons with her living faith in God. They never entirely forgot the lessons she taught them about the dimension of eternity, the need for prayer and the value of memorising and understanding the Bible. Nor did Robert ever forget hearing his mother’s prayers for her children when she supposed them asleep in bed.

After their mother’s death, Robert and James, ten and six respectively, were cared for by their maternal grandmother. As Helen Haldane she had married Alexander Duncan, who in 1745 was Provost of Dundee. In 1774 she enjoyed the courtesy title of Lady Lundie and her household was being run by her third and youngest son Adam. A naval captain, 43 years old, 6ft 4in tall, broad-shouldered and handsome, modest and popular, Uncle Adam, the future victor over the Dutch fleet at Camperdown and first Viscount Duncan, was every boy’s hero. Another uncle Robert and James saw much of was Colonel Alexander Duncan, now retired after active service in the rebellion of ’45 and in Flanders and Canada.

The boys enjoyed a happy enough childhood, fishing and pony-riding, learning lessons from a private tutor and getting into boyish pranks and adventures. Of the two James seemed the greater extrovert whose ‘warm, affectionate disposition’ was noted from an early age. Spiritually the boys lived on a second-hand faith derived from their mother. In his early teens Robert wanted to be a minister and regularly and seriously ‘preached’ to the servants every Sunday at his grandmother’s home. And James later wrote of himself: ‘Till I was twelve years old I continued to pray, go to church, and read my Bible, or other good books, on the Sabbath, but it was only from a principle of duty. . . I had no pleasure in any religious duty, but conscience retained a certain influence, and made me afraid to give them up’.

As befitted their social status the lads received a sound education. After Lady Lundie’s death in 1777, the two boys were boarded out at the Royal High School of Edinburgh, the city’s oldest school, where they lived with the Rector, Dr Alexander Adam, scholar and author. Lord Cockburn wrote of Dr Adam who became Rector when 27 and built the school up over twenty years, ‘He was born to teach Latin, some Greek and all virtue. . . His private industry was appalling’. Robert entered the fifth or top class, taken by the Rector, and James the third class, where he became dux. Unknown to the boys at that time, John Campbell and Greville Ewing, their future co-workers, were also at the High School — the former described young James as an energetic and high-spirited boy, always in the vanguard of fun and frolic. At weekends and during the holidays the brothers found a great welcome at their newly-married Uncle Adam’s home near Edinburgh and his wife gave them much kindness.

When only eleven James, on whose life we now concentrate, reached the top class and till 1781 studied in the Rector’s class. ‘He was reckoned a clever, shrewd boy, observant, and of quick perception, possessing a retentive memory and the capacity of application, although his love of adventurous sport preponderated.’ From the High School he went to Edinburgh University and studied there for three sessions under Dr Adam’s guidance the lectures from the different professors in Greek, Latin, mathematics, logic, metaphysics and natural philosophy. Spiritually he was in decline and conforming to the world. ‘From about thirteen to sixteen I became more careless, often spending the Sabbath evenings in idle conversation with my companions, and I was pleased to find my conscience become less and less scrupulous. I also began to swear, because, according to the fashion of the times, it seemed to be manly, and, except a form of prayer, which I still kept up, every serious idea seemed to have fled.’

In 1783 Uncle Alex took James on a sight-seeing trip to London where they stayed at Clapham Common, at the edge of which the Clapham Sect was soon to assemble as a great pressure group for God. From London they went to Gosport, just a mile across the water from the naval base of Portsmouth, where they visited Uncle Adam’s new home and met the Rev David Bogue.

Bogue’s influence for God and for good on the adolescent Haldane brothers was profound and lasting. As a Christian pastor, teacher and statesman he deserves to be far better known than he is. A former pupil, colleague and co-author of his wrote a frank biography of Bogue, but from historians he has suffered, as have the Haldanes themselves, from being a dissenter. Born the son of a Berwickshire laird, he entered Edinburgh University when still twelve and studied there for nine years before becoming a licensed preacher in the Established Church. But he opposed the law of patronage and so became a self-exiled Scot, first teaching in London and then becoming the pastor of the recently split independent or dissenting church at Gosport, in 1777 a town of 5,000. Two years later on a visit to Scotland he preached for Dr John Erskine, but he was never a great preacher: his sermons were ‘rational, instructive and evangelical’ but of a ‘severely simple style’. He was a very reserved and dignified man, always prudent and mature beyond his years. When fifteen-year-old James first met him Bogue was 33, not yet married and just beginning to see real growth in grace and in numbers in his congregation.

The year following his tour to the south James went on a tour through the north of England. This time his riding companions were his head­master, a school friend and the Rev James Macknight, the translator and commentator. The Presbyterian minister impressed the others by his disregard of the sabbath when in England, persuading them that they need not stop their journey because of the sabbath when in an Episcopalian country. From Berwick they rode to Derbyshire and by way of Lancashire and Cumberland home to Edinburgh where after almost seven years James said goodbye to Dr Adam and his Charles Street house.

At sixteen James became a midshipman on the ‘Duke of Montrose’, an East India Company ship with a crew of 145. His naval career was determined by the fact that for three generations his family held the chief interest in the ‘Melville Castle’, another E. I.C. ship. In 1784 this was commanded by Captain Philip Dundas who, it was arranged, would retire when James was fit to take over the command. Other shareholders in the ‘Melville Castle’ included Thomas Coutts whose offer at this time to take James into his Strand bank was declined with thanks. If the offer had been accepted James might well have prospered materially, for Coutts became George III’s banker and died almost a millionaire, but his life would certainly have taken a different course.

On the ‘Duke of Montrose’, which took 29 months to do the return journey to Bombay and Macao, James diligently applied himself to learn seamanship and to read the books carefully prescribed for him by his tutor Bogue. History, literature and Christianity were all represented in the sea-chest full of books. Doddridge’s ‘Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul’ brought James under more than common concern, so he ‘resolved to begin to amend, but my resolution was like the morning cloud and early dew’.

His second voyage saw James as fifth officer on the ‘Phoenix’. In Calcutta where he was lavishly entertained for nearly six months by a wealthy relation he enjoyed society and society enjoyed him. His third voyage to the Far East was as third officer on the ‘Hillsborough’ and his fourth and last voyage was as second officer on the ‘Duke of Montrose’ again, where the indecisive captain came to rely heavily on him. One night he was awakened by an alarmed passenger and urged to check the ship’s position. By prompt and firm action he averted disaster, calling out the crew to adjust the heavy sails and so turn the ship away in time from dangerous rocks. The voyage ended in June 1793 by which time Britain was at war with Revolutionary France and James was almost 25.

But throughout his years at sea Almighty God had been patiently hauling his man in and there had been several occasions when James had consciously felt the tug of God’s pull. On 2 June, 1785 on his first voyage he was ordered aloft to take in sail during a gale, but as he was starting to climb the rigging the captain ordered an able seaman to go first instead. Minutes later, in taking in the main top-sail, the seaman was struck on the head, knocked overboard and drowned. Not only did James look on the seaman as dying in his place, but he never forgot the anxious look on the man’s face as he searched in vain for help while drowning or that the seaman was the only person he ever heard of at sea who seemed to have been a true Christian.

A second providential escape occurred later in the voyage when James was the last to be ashore with a man who was later attacked and murdered by natives, especially as earlier James by himself had tried to contact those same natives.

A third incident involved his late arrival in London from Scotland to take up an unexpected appointment as third officer on the ‘Foulis’, only to find the ship had sailed without him. But the ship was never heard of again.

Another incident that made a lasting impression on him was when, returning to his ship possibly the worse for drink after an evening out, he nearly fell down the hatchway to an almost certain death. A fifth incident concerned a duel to which he was challenged in circumstances that did him credit by an experienced duellist of an army captain. Raising his pistol and secretly praying ‘Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit’ James fired, but his pistol burst its contents upwards and his opponent’s pistol failed to fire properly and there the duel ended.

There was yet another occasion when James looked death coolly in the eye. A mutiny broke out on the ‘Dutton’ at Portsmouth and the crew had forced their officers on to the quarterdeck when James, newly appointed captain of the ‘Melville Castle’, boarded the ship and came to the officers’ rescue. Virtually seizing command, he calmly reasoned the mutineers into submission and threatened to shoot dead the two drunken men who were setting about blowing up the powder magazine, at the same time ordering handcuffs to be brought for the men. The rest of the ringleaders were also handcuffed and next day the chief mutineers were taken away into custody. Certainly James was not lacking in initiative, leadership and courage.

Nor did he lack energy and determination. Within three months of landing at Deptford in June 1793, egged on by his brother, he met, wooed and married a young lady of charm, vivacity and sweetness. She was the only child of Major Alexander Joass, Fort Major and Acting Deputy-Governor of Stirling Castle, and the niece of General Sir Ralph Abercromby.

The first Mrs James Haldane is important in her husband’s conversion for, having attended the Stirling church where the Evangelicals Dr Walter Buchanan and William Innes had in turn been ministers, she brought to the marriage a greater orthodoxy than did James — for example, she was shocked when they lived for some months in London after their marriage and James gave up going to church on Sundays. The marriage had another effect on James, too — it made him more serious-minded — as did the responsibility of commanding the family ship.

The ‘Melville Castle’ reached Portsmouth on the last day of 1793 and prepared to sail away in a war convoy but its departure was delayed till April. These four months of enforced idleness were vital to James’s conversion, for throughout this period he lived on board ship at Ports­mouth and time hung heavily on his hands. He turned to reading the Bible and ‘the more I read the more worthy it appeared of God; and after examining the evidences with which Christianity is supported, I became fully persuaded of its truth’. He turned also to David Bogue who lent him more Christian books and encouraged him to go on searching for God in the Bible, in prayer and in public worship, and waiting for his self-­revelation. For though he believed the Bible, James did not yet believe in the God of the Bible. And though he might know something of the power of the Bible intellectually, he did not yet know anything of the power of God experientially, and it was only with the advantage of hindsight he could write: ‘God began a work of grace on my soul living on board the ‘Melville Castle’. His voice was indeed still and small, but I would not despise the day of small things. . .’

As the crisis slowly developed in his spiritual life, events took a dramatic turn in his temporal affairs. The idea suddenly came to him (how or from whom we are not told) of leaving the sea, selling his command and settling down in Scotland where a young and now pregnant wife awaited him. Robert had in fact already offered James financial inducements if he would come and live near him, and when somebody offered James £9,000 for his command Robert advised him to sell, which he did, to the surprise of his friends and to the unconcealed annoyance of his uncles and wife’s relations.

This abrupt change in James’s plans allowed him to be at hand at the birth of his daughter Elizabeth, the first of his fifteen children, on 6 October 1794 and at the death a month later of his father-in-law. The Haldanes now moved from Stirling to Edinburgh, where they attended Dr Buchanan’s church in Canongate and met for the first time David Black, the godly young minister of Lady Yester’s Church. However, though still enquirers after the truth, they were not yet true Christians.

In the summer of 1795 James’s spiritual quest took on a new urgency, though more ‘from a conviction of its importance than any deep con­viction of sin’. Struck by the testimony of ‘an eminently pious man’ who declared ‘If I did not know my Saviour to be God, I should this night lie down in despair’ James concentrated on the Gospel records and soon became convinced that ‘Jesus was indeed the Son of the living God’. Two ministers (Buchanan and Black?) also helped him by what they said. A book by Andrew Fuller, the wise Secretary of the Baptist Missionary Society, caused James to see his ‘views of sin must be very inadequate. . . my thoughts began now to be particularly turned to election’. At first the doctrine was foolishness to him, but once his self-confidence was shaken it ‘became his chief concern to know God’s will’ and then the text ‘As many as were ordained to eternal life believed’ (Acts 13:48) ‘overturned his whole system as to free will’.

We cannot do better than continue in his own words: ‘I saw that being ordained to eternal life was not the consequence of faith, but that the children of God believed because they were thus ordained. This gave a considerable blow to my self-righteousness, and henceforth I read the Scriptures more in a childlike spirit. . . I now saw more of the freeness of the grace of the Gospel and the necessity of being born again, and was daily looking for satisfactory evidence of this change. My desire was now set upon frames and feelings, instead of building on the sure foundation.’

Finally, he rested on the promises of God and looked for salvation freely by grace. Then at last Jesus Christ became precious to him as he passed from darkness into the marvellous light of a new relationship with God.

No date can be given for James’s conversion, it seems, perhaps because the great change took place by degrees over many months or because he followed Bogue’s odd habit of never telling anyone of his conversion date. James’s biographer, his barrister Anglican son Alexander, is sometimes vague in his chronology, but apparently James’s conversion occurred towards the close of 1795. His brother’s conversion followed shortly after. Political and social expectations roused initially by the French Revolution had set Robert on the royal road to the King of heaven.

Within a few years of their conversion the Haldane brothers were known throughout Scotland as zealous Christian workers.

This article was first published in the July-August edition of the Banner of Truth magazine.

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