Horatius Bonar (1808-1889) and His Writings
A month or two ago we had the pleasure of reading a short sketch of 'The Life of Horatius Bonar' by Arthur W. Medley in the Spring number of the Evangelical Library Bulletin. It is characteristic of the good work done by the Evangelical Library that they should not fail to remember the centenary of the death of this eminent Christian. We thought little more of the subject until a letter from South Australia a few days ago sought more information on Horatius Bonar. This reminded us afresh of just how little material exists today for those who want to turn to his writings.
There is no biography and apart from his two small works, God's Way of Holiness and When God's Children Suffer (original title, The Night of Weeping, or Words For the Suffering Family of God), both published by the Evangelical Press, nothing else is currently available. This is a strange fact when one notes that our current Banner of Truth Trust catalogue contains information on no less than five books now in print by his brother, Andrew. The choice of publishers must never be taken as a sure guide to the relative worth of the Christian authors of former centuries! With such promptings as these in mind we determined not to let this present day — July 31, 1989 — pass without putting something together to support what the Evangelical Library has already done. For today is exactly the centenary of the day when Horatius Bonar 'fell asleep' in his home at Grange, Edinburgh.
Horatius Bonar was a prominent member of a brotherhood in two senses of that word. Of his own four brothers two were to be colleagues in the work of the gospel as Scottish Presbyterian ministers, John James Bonar, born in 1803, and Andrew A. Bonar, born in 1810. For over forty years these three men were to work together and not a year would pass without their supporting one another by preaching in each other's pulpits during communion seasons. Many references to Horace, as the family called him, will be found in The Diary and Life of Andrew Bonar,1 but in a spiritual sense the brotherhood was a great deal wider for Bonar belonged to a school of preachers who, as Alexander Whyte once said, 'had an immense influence on the religious life of Scotland'. On the Sunday after Horatius Bonar's funeral in Edinburgh, his aged brother Andrew, two years his junior, sat in the vestry of Horace's former church during the morning service 'listening to the prayers and singing of the congregation assembled for devotion'. He says in his Diary: 'Once or twice I almost realised what it may be to hear the great congregation singing together as they welcome a brother arrived in glory!', and then his memory went back to the 'beloved companions' who had gone before — 'M'Cheyne, John Milne, William Burns, Dr Chalmers, James Hamilton and hundreds of such'.
The main facts of Bonar's life can soon be told. Born in a godly Edinburgh home, where his much loved father died when he was 13, he was educated at the High School where his brilliance as a classical scholar was evident even by his early teenage years. He entered the University of Edinburgh and then its Divinity School, where his principal instructor was Thomas Chalmers, the greatest Christian, in his opinion, that he ever knew. His first work was as an assistant in the parish of St John's, Leith (the port of Edinburgh) from whence he was settled at Kelso in 1837. Bonar's first sermon in the North Parish Church at Kelso was from Mark 9:29, 'And he said unto them, this kind can come forth by nothing but by prayer and fasting'. For the next 30 years Bonar's ministry in Kelso was lived out in the spirit of that text.
It was his happiness to have been called into the service of the gospel at a time when, in many parts of Scotland, there was a new thirst for the Word of God. The year 1837, in fact, may be taken as the year when in various places there was the beginning of a true reviving amongst the churches. Such is certainly Bonar's own opinion, for, speaking of the year 1843, he writes:
The tide of blessing which, from 1837, had been flowing without intermission, had not yet begun to ebb. Many were daily added to our living membership. The Church's true work went on happily in parts where it had already commenced; and it began in many places to which it had not yet reached. We look back on these months with thankful joy. Gladly should we live them over again, with all their tear and wear of body and mind, had we but our former strength, and the hope of like success. No one who passed through them would wish either to forget or underestimate the privilege of having been one of the 'labourers' in the reaping of that blessed harvest.
Elsewhere he gives the following description of this momentous period in Scottish church history:
During this season there were all the marks of a work of God which we see in the account given of the preaching of the gospel by the apostles. The multitude was divided, families were divided; the people of God were knit together, they were filled with zeal and joy and heavenly-mindedness; they continued steadfast, and increased in doctrine and fellowship, being daily in church and in prayer-meetings; and numbers were constantly turning to the Lord.
It would be misleading to suppose that Kelso in any sense lay at the centre of this period of awakening, yet Horatius Bonar's ministry in the Scottish Borders was long to be remembered for its fruitfulness. Robertson Nicholl, one of his successors at Kelso, was to say of Bonar's ministry in the year 1909:
He set himself to evangelise the Borderland. His name was fragrant in every little village, and at most of the farms. He conducted many meetings in farm kitchens and village schoolrooms, and often preached in the open air. The memory of some sermons lingered, one in particular on the Plant of Renown. The chief characteristic of his preaching was its strange solemnity. It was full of entreaty and of warning.
In 1866 Bonar became the minister of a new charge, the Chalmers Memorial Church, at Grange, Edinburgh, 2 in which office he remained until his death, being dependent upon a colleague in the few final years. For a meeting to celebrate his Jubilee as a minister on April 5, 1888 he started to prepare an address of an autobiographical nature but his preparation was never concluded. He laid down his pen for the last time in the middle of a sentence and could not be present at the celebration. His last sermon to his people had been preached on September 11, 1887 and its concluding words, characteristically, were 'In such an hour as ye think not the Son of Man cometh.'
Had a biography of Bonar ever been written it is apparent that his love of children and young people would have been a prominent feature. His first work at Leith was mainly among that age group and when he left there for Kelso in 1837, 283 girls and boys — all carefully named in one of his notebooks — were present at a meeting to bid him farewell. At Kelso it is said that 'his sermons to the young were peculiarly attractive'. On Wednesday afternoons it was his custom at Kelso to hold a Bible class and many years later one of the young people who attended recalled the 'bright, happy band of schoolgirls, sitting around listening to his earnest, loving, faithful teaching'. She went on: 'I see Dr Bonar seated at the end of a long table with the large Bible spread out before him, the Bible-hymnbook in his hand, his dear handsome face beaming, and the pleasant smile which lighted it up, as some of us gave a fuller, clearer answer than he expected to the question asked.' His son, H. N. Bonar, gives us some insight into his father's appeal to young people. He speaks of the happiness of his disposition and of the skill with which he guided his children:
He very rarely said 'don't' to me — not that he did not indicate very strongly what he would like me to do ... All my holidays were passed with him. We boated together, we walked together, we swam together, we climbed hills together. Stern! No, he was never stern in my boyish eyes. I can remember another little personal incident — you will pardon me for mentioning it in this connection. Once an officious neighbour came to him to complain of one of my misdeeds. I fancy I had been climbing to the rooks' nests in Warrender Park, then unbuilt on. He reported this to my father, and wound up by saying, I hope you will give the boy a good thrashing. My father replied, If I thrashed the boy for that, what would I do if he told me a lie?
It is interesting to note that Bonar's best remembered work, namely his Hymns, seems to have arisen out of his concern to help young people. His first hymns were written for the young people's class at Leith, one of these being: I was a wandering sheep.
In 1845 he published a little collection of 300 hymns, The Bible Hymn Book, 'designed both for general use and for Sabbath schools'. This contained some 16 of his own pieces with no name attributed to them. More than 20 years elapsed between his first hymns and their publication as a collection with his own name attached. What is now known worldwide as a communion hymn, beginning 'Here, O my Lord, I see Thee face to face,' was first written at his brother John's request to be read aloud at the close of a communion service at Greenock in 1855.
As already suggested, it ought to be a matter of surprise that Horatius Bonar is so little remembered as an author today. I was surprised myself when I began to look around my bookshelves, to see how many of his titles I possessed. The number exceeds a dozen and yet it is probably not even half of what he published. While it is obvious that Bonar had from birth a gift for writing, it was the needs of his people that prompted his extensive ministry in print. 3 He has to be bracketed with J. C. Ryle, and a few others of that era, in his understanding of the power of the press and in putting it to extensive use. He began with some 36 Kelso tracts. This was followed in 1845 by The Night of Weeping and the next year by Truth and Error; or Letters to a Friend. A regular flow of other books was to follow, including sermons, expositions of Scripture, poetry and biographies. His first biography, A Stranger Here, the life of an unnamed Christian woman, was published in 1853. His best biography, and surely one of the very best of the last century, was his Life of the Rev. John Milne of Perth, 1869. His last major work was also a biography, The Life and Work of the Rev. G. T Dodds, 1884, who was his son-in-law and a missionary in France. 4
As though all this writing were not enough, Bonar was also editor of The Quarterly Journal of Prophecy from 1848 to 1873 and of the very widely read Christian Treasury from 1859 to 1879.
It is a pity that Principal John Macleod, in speaking of the Bonar brothers in his Scottish Theology, concentrates on their prophetical views. He notes, almost in passing, that they 'did not shift the centre of gravity of the gospel message from the Word of the Cross to the hope of the Crown'. It is true that both Andrew and Horatius were premillenial in their convictions — convictions which, at the time that they espoused them, were rare and regarded as peculiar in Scotland. In the Bonars' view, the church had far too largely lost the joyful anticipation of Christ's return and to counteract what was undoubtedly a general deficiency they launched into views which the reformed churches generally have not cared to follow. Yet, in so doing, they did give prominence to the great truth that the Christian's hope is to be placed in nothing this side of the Advent and that earnest longings for that Advent and for glory ought to be the mark of every believer. Horatius Bonar has been described as a man with 'a nostalgia for heaven', and certainly many of his writings breathe this spirit. 'All his life on earth he was homesick', says Robertson Nicholl. 'He was of those who declared plainly that they seek a country.'
The majority of Bonar's writings belong very definitely in their emphasis to the school of evangelism which came down through the Puritans and Jonathan Edwards (one of his favourite authors). It was Bonar in 1845 who had John Gillies' Historical Collections of Accounts of Revival reprinted at Kelso, and his Preface to that fine volume, which is happily in print today, 5 gives a true impression of the type of preaching which he longed to see restored. He believed in 'a free gospel; that is to say, a gospel unfettered by qualifications. The door has to be set wide open for sinners to enter and they need to know that it is solely by believing, not by doing, that we enter the kingdom of God. This same emphasis is so beautifully expressed in many of Bonar's hymns. In his Life of John Milne he describes the type of gospel preaching which prevailed in the era of revival witnessed in his early ministry and says:
It was with this free gospel that the men of '39, '40, and '41, went forth to do the work of the ministry. It was with this weapon that they assailed the rebellious heart; not parleying with the conscience, but laying hold of it; not giving place, even for a moment, to the sinner's excuses or reasons for delay, but urging him with the divine demand and claim; calling on him, at the peril of aggravated and augmenting guilt, to receive at once the great salvation.
Bonar had a great burden for the conversion of sinners and yet it must also be noted how clearly he saw the danger of making evangelism the one priority of the church. Two of his most forceful early books, Truth and Error, 1846, and Man: His Religion and His World, 1851, are directed chiefly against the danger of superficial evangelism. He viewed as misguided any attempt to make conversion 'easier'. He was concerned at the growing tendency to make conversion less dependent upon God and at the failure to emphasise that the ultimate purpose of conversion is God's glory: 'We think if we can but get men converted, it does not much matter how'. Our whole anxiety is, not how shall we secure the glory of Jehovah, but how shall we multiply conversions? The whole current of our thoughts and anxieties takes this direction.
Dr Bonar's assessment of the state of the church as she entered the last quarter of the 19th century would be worthy of close study. His little book, Our Ministry, How It Touches the Questions of the Age, 1883, is very perceptive. In the Preface to that book he writes:
Man is now thinking out a Bible for himself; framing a religion in harmony with the development of liberal thought; constructing a worship on the principles of taste and culture; shaping a god to suit the expanding aspirations of the age. The process of evolution on all these points is so satisfactory and so well advanced that disguise is no longer needful.
On this same theme, his poem, 'The Coming Creed', is worthy of quotation:
The creeds have gone, so speaks the age;
The era of the sects is past.
Forward! In spite of saint or sage,
True freedom has begun at last.
The Christ of God is now no more,
The Christ of man now sits supreme;
The cross is part of mythic lore,
The resurrection-morn a dream.
The age's progress fears no God,
No righteous law, no Judge's throne;
Man bounds along his new-found road,
And calls this universe his own.
Old misbelief becomes earth's creed;
The falsehood lives, the truth has died;
Man leans upon a broken reed,
And falls in helplessness of pride.
He spurns the hand that would have led,
The lips that would have spoken love;
The Book that would his soul have fed,
And taught the wisdom from above.
Eternal Light, hide not Thy face;
Eternal Truth, direct our way;
Eternal Love, shine forth in grace,
Reveal our darkness and Thy day!
In 1873 Bonar was one of the Presbyterian leaders who supported the first visit of D. L. Moody to Edinburgh, a visit which, in the view of many, constituted a true revival. Dr John Kennedy of Dingwall believed that Moody's preaching lay too close to the very kind of evangelism which Bonar himself criticised and their disagreement drew the two men into a public controversy by way of pamphlets. I do not think that the truth in this controversy lay wholly on one side or the other. Probably Bonar, as an old Christian, was too hopeful in his eagerness to see revival again before his course was run and he did not see the danger (which became all too apparent in the next twenty years) that an evangelism containing little theology could easily be accommodated with the Higher Critical Movement which was now entering the church and which Bonar himself so greatly deplored. Bonar failed to see some things against which Kennedy rightly gave warning and yet it must not be supposed that he intended in any way to weaken a theological approach to gospel preaching. Neither did he have any countenance for changes in Christian praise which would blur the difference between worship and entertainment. Thus, in his Life of G. T Dodds, 1884, he includes an Appendix from Dodds which contains these remarks on the missionary's apprehension with respect to what he had seen in the United States:
The American churches are large and well attended. They have organs and, generally, a paid choir; some of their sopranos and contraltos get immense salaries. One is paid, in Dr Taylor's Tabernacle in New York, about £100, I think, and is driven at the church's expense to the church from her home every Sunday morning. The choir sing solos and quartettes, and, altogether, it is a kind of theatrical performance in a church — which I don't like, however artistic and perfect may be the singing. The congregation join, however, in the common singing, though at other times they are content to be sung to.
There are obviously questions here far too large in their significance to be addressed further at the present time. The importance of these questions is one reason why the reprinting of more Bonar is warranted. The greater reason, however, is not to do with controversy, it is in the positive lead which he gives us in experimental and spiritual Christian faith and practice. We feel rebuked that this day, July 31, has almost slipped by us unnoticed and we earnestly hope that something may yet be done to rectify the omission of publishers in these recent years.
It is said that Bonar's own favourite from among his many hymns was, 'When the weary seeking rest', followed, perhaps, in second place by, 'I heard the voice of Jesus say'. My own favourite verse from among his poems is one from 'A Stranger Here':
Well pleased I find years rolling o'er me,
And hear, each day, time's measured tread;
Far fewer clouds now stretch before me,
Behind me is the darkness spread.