This article provides a biography of Robert S. Candlish, a minister in the Free Church of Scotland in the 19th century.

Source: The Monthly Record, 1993. 4 pages.

Robert S. Candlish

A visitor to the Chalmers Hall in the Free Church College in Edinburgh will notice the portrait of a small man with sharp, almost twisted features and a penetrating eye which suggests that nothing will pass before it unnoticed and unassessed.

This is Robert Smith Candlish, D.D., minister of Free St George's, Edin­burgh, and for some years Principal of New College, who with amazing industry and great effectiveness stood at the helm of the Free Church of Scotland for some 30 years.

Candlish was born in Edinburgh in 1806. His father, James Candlish, was a teacher of medicine whose roots lay in Galloway, and an acquaintance of Robert Burns, while his mother, Jane Smith, was one of the "six belles of Mauchline" mentioned in one of Burns' early poems.

James Candlish died while Robert was only five weeks old, but his mother was a woman of strong character who refused to wear crape at her husband's funeral on the grounds that she had no right to take the bread out of the children's mouths. Candlish was brought up in Glasgow, where his mother moved to open a school for young ladies. Either because of his straightened family circumstances or his own poor health, he never went to school. The early educa­tion he received at home, however, was adequate to equip him for Glasgow University, which he entered, according to the practice of the day, at the age of twelve. In spite of his youth he had a distinguished career, winning a number of prizes before going on to study divinity with a view to entering the ministry of the Church of Scotland.

Nothing is known of Candlish's early spiritual experience but it is the testimony of one of his closest friends that from his very early years he "walked with God in the spirit of adoption". Nor are we able to discover what led to his call to the ministry. But it is possible to trace some of the influences that moulded him in early days and made him what he was to become.

Among these, his mother was prominent. While in England, acting as tutor to Sir Hugh Campbell of Marchmont at Eton College, far from the support of his family and friends, he appears to have passed through a time of spiritual darkness which led him to seek her advice. The good woman recognised her in­ability to resolve his difficul­ties but the counsel she gave was worthy of far wider application: "Go to your Bible and pray to the Lord for light, and you will get it".

Candlish's student days in Glasgow coincided with the ministry of Dr Andrew Thomson in St George's Parish Church, Edinburgh. Thomson, perhaps best known today as the composer of the psalm tune St George's, Edinburgh, was the leader of the increasingly influential evangelical party in the Church. Through his writings in The Christian Instructor he did much to establish the credibility of evangelical religion among some of the more prominent classes of society and to awaken a new interest in the Bible as the Word of God, at a time when the young Candlish's opinions were being formulated. At the same time Thomas Chalmers was impressing upon the Church the need for evan­gelism and church extension in a day when changing social conditions were alter­ing the face of Scotland. It was their places both locally and nationally that Robert Candlish was later to fill.

His studies complete, Candlish did not immedi­ately embark upon the work of the ministry. His divinity professors, invited to send the most able young man they could recommend, secured for him the tutorial appointment at Eton, which kept him in the south of England for nearly two years.

On returning to Scotland, Candlish was licensed to preach the gospel and acted as assistant in three congre­gations: St Andrew's, Glas­gow, Bonhill in the Vale of Leven, and St George's, Edinburgh, whose minister, Andrew Thomson's succes­sor, was on sick-leave. A number of factors seemed to combine to prevent his receiving a charge of his own — he read his sermons; the ministers he was assisting belonged to the moderate school and the young proba­tioner was unfairly regarded as sharing their views (even William Cunningham re­garded him with suspicion); and his pulpit mannerisms did him no favours. There came a time when he began to wonder if his future lay abroad in the new world. But the tide turned in his favour after he went to Edinburgh in 1834, for very soon he was invited to suc­ceed Edward Irving in Regent Chapel, London. The parish of St George's however had by this time fallen vacant, and the con­gregation forestalled them by calling him to be their minister, thus ensuring that he remained in Scotland. Thus on 14th August 1834 he was ordained to the ministry and admitted to St George's where he was to serve as minister until his death in 1873, in spite of efforts to call him away to Greenside in Edinburgh, to Glasgow and elsewhere, in future years.

The Pastor🔗

That ministry of almost forty years was exercised faithfully and effectively in three buildings. The first, which he had to leave at the Disruption, was St George's Parish Church in Charlotte Square (the green-domed building which now houses West Register House). In 1843, he and those of his congregation who accom­panied him found their spiritual home in a church designed by David Cousin on the south side of what is now Rutland Street. When this site was acquired by the Caledonian Railway Com­pany for the erection of Princes Street Station, the congregation was rendered homeless and services were held in the Music Hall until the building in Shandwick Place now known as St George's West Church (and still popularly referred to in Edinburgh as Free St George's) was opened for worship in October 1869.

In his ministry Candlish sought to preserve the parochial system that had been the dream of Chalmers. He worked assiduously to build up a network of schools and agencies in the parish both before and after the Disruption. For this reason he resisted the encroachment of another Free Church congregation upon his area. It is one of the tragedies of the Disruption that the location of city churches was so often deter­mined by the availability of ground for building rather than the most strategic site — and thus this ideal, so dear to the hearts of both Chalmers and Candlish, was inadequately realised. To meet the challenge of the mid 19th century urban growth in Edinburgh he was instrumental in founding daughter churches at Foun­tainbridge and Roseburn which supplied the spiritual needs of those who came to live in the new tenements and houses on the west side of the city.

St George's included in its membership many promi­nent and influential citizens of Edinburgh, especially from the legal and medical professions; it had the lar­gest congregation in the Church and made a signifi­cant contribution to the Church's work in terms of human and financial resources. When in later years the strains of a demanding life began to take their toll, a colleague was appointed to share the minis­try — first J. O. Dykes and then Alexander Whyte, the celebrated "Whyte of Free St George's", who suc­ceeded him in the charge.

The Church Leader🔗

From the beginning of his ministry Candlish stood for the ancient right of the Scot­tish people to effective involvement in the appoint­ment of their ministers, and the freedom of the church from state intervention in matters spiritual. It was not long before he nailed his colours to the mast.

In 1839, in the aftermath of the Auchterarder Case he made his maiden speech in the General Assembly, whose deliberations he was to adorn and even dominate for the next thirty and more years. At the Commission of Assembly in November 1839, it was he who moved the suspension from the ministry of the seven ministers from the Pres­bytery of Strathbogie who had inducted the unaccept­able presentee to the parish of Marnoch in Banffshire in deference to the Court of Session and in disregard of the General Assembly. This public declaration of sup­port for the non-intrusionists established Candlish's repu­tation as an ecclesiastical statesman. It also had another and negative effect — it lost him the Chair of Biblical Criticism in the University of Edinburgh, for which his name had been proposed, the government being unprepared to appoint as a professor a man whom they could only see as a troublemaker.

Far from seeking conflict, Candlish was anxious to avoid a split in the church. In the 1841 Assembly he sought to win over the Moderates to common ground which would involve compromise on neither side so that division might be averted. The Duke of Argyll was promoting legislation which would give to male communicants the right of veto in the election of ministers, thus going a long way to satisfying the demands of the non-intrusion party without caus­ing difficulties for the Moderates. In an eloquent speech Candlish attempted to persuade the Moderates in the Assembly and so preserve the peace of the Church without compromis­ing any man's conscience. According to his friend Robert Buchanan "his address shook the house as if it had been a mighty rush­ing wind, and for a brief interval it did seem as if it had swept all opposition before it". But it was not to be — although Candlish won the vote in the Assem­bly, he lost the campaign and Disruption became inevitable.

Throughout this period his life was spent in constant activity, travelling to differ­ent parts of Britain in the interests of the cause here presented, addressing meet­ings, writing letters, lobby­ing politicians. He was involved in 1839 in the for­mation of The Witness newspaper. Indeed it was on his recommendation that Hugh Miller was proposed as its editor, though some years later he quarrelled with Miller over the measure of editorial policy he should be permitted — an indication that one of his weaknesses was a desire to have his own way. Thereafter he was in the front line in the prepara­tion for the event itself. "Next to Chalmers he inspired and more than Chalmers he organised the Disruption."

In the Disruption Assem­bly itself he played a promi­nent part. As Chalmers was called to the Moderatorial chair, the role of leader of the Assembly fell to Cand­lish; the preliminary organi­sation of the new Free Church owed much to his sagacity and organisational acumen. Thereafter he never lost the reins of the Assem­bly until failing health necessitated that Elijah find an Elisha and his mantle fell on Robert Rainy.

Candlish was a man of tremendous energy and remarkable productivity, with a rare ability to gauge the general mood of the gathering so as to direct proceedings towards a con­sensus. In a number of areas his wide range of interests caused him to set in motion steps which in time bore considerable fruit. His con­cern for evangelism not only to home but overseas led to the famous visit to Palestine and Central Europe of Robert Murray McCheyne and his companions in 1839. It was on his motion that the church acquired the premises in North Bank Street to house their offices, premises which they still occupy. Along with Robert Bucha­nan he led the unsuccessful negotiations for union with the United Presbyterian Church which floundered in 1872 as a result of the oppo­sition of James Begg and his colleagues. To this cause he was wholeheartedly committed. Whatever our own view of the controversy, there is no doubt that Candlish saw the end result as desirable for the cause of the Gospel in Scotland and in no way inconsistent with the Disrup­tion Church's constitutional position. The failure of the first phase of negotiations in 1872 was a matter of great disappointment to him and possibly a contributory factor to his death the following year.

In 1861 Candlish was elected Moderator of the General Assembly in succes­sion to Cunningham and Buchanan.

The Theologian🔗

Candlish's flair for con­troversy was not restricted to the floor of the General Assembly or the corridors of the House of Commons. His theology was conservative, and his writings, such as his Contributions to the Exposi­tion of Genesis show little indication of influence by or reaction to the critical scholarship coming to the fore during the period of his ministry with tragic conse­quences to the doctrinal sta­bility of the Free Church. When it fell to him in 1865 to give the first series of Cunningham Lectures, he used the opportunity to explore the whole subject of the Fatherhood of God, a field which Reformed scholarship had rather neglected, thus opening the way for some constructive debate with Thomas J. Crawford, one of his con­temporaries in the Estab­lished Church, on a subject which then and since has been marked by much con­fusion. Recently some of his sermons, long neglected, have been republished: their brisk, nervous style com­pares favourably with the long ponderous periodic sen­tences of other preachers of his day. Although he eventu­ally declined a chair in New College after the death of Chalmers, he was later appointed Principal of the College in a non-teaching capacity, a position which he held until his death.

How are we to assess Candlish today? In the age of subject specialisation it is difficult for us to grasp the magnitude of the stature of one who combined so many of the characteristics of the Victorian era and combined them so well. Candlish is not unique among the Disrup­tion Fathers to be unfor­tunate in his biographer and his role as ecclesiastical statesman does nothing for his popularity among modern historians who tend to be unsympathetic. "Few modern readers will find Candlish attractive" is the dismissive verdict of one. Yet like many figures on the Scottish ecclesiastical scene from John Knox to more recent times he unites in his nature an unquestioning commitment to the historic faith and to the Lord, with the organising drive and power to compel the support of men, which any secular politician might covet. This enigma is best summed up by two reports of the words attributed to him on his deathbed. To Robert Rainy, who filled his shoes as the leader of the Free Church, the ecclesiastical statesman is recorded as saying, "Rainy, I leave the College and the Assembly in your care". But his longstanding friend and contemporary Robert Buchanan, the servant of Jesus Christ, struck a differ­ent note:

I would fain have had a more vivid and realis­ing sense of eternal things — of sin and salvation, and of the great coming change; but I am resting on the Word, which is abiding and sure; I am resting on Christ and him crucified.

Such a tes­timony would be suitable for any of us.

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