Those with an interest in Scottish church history are likely to be very familiar with Thomas Chalmers and the role he played in the Disruption of 1843 but how many know much of his West Port experiment? Continue reading
A guest post for Black History Month by Eleanor Rideout, IS Helpdesk Assistant
Noted African-American anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass had embarked on a tour of Ireland and Great Britain, reaching Scotland in 1846. He was speaking against the evils of slavery generally, but a decision made by the Free Church of Scotland became the focus of his work here.
The separation of the Free Church from the Church of Scotland meant that funding needed to be found. One source was fellow Presbyterian Churches, including those in the American South. Money was accepted from slaveholders, which did not go unnoticed by abolitionists.
Douglass’s reputation as a powerful speaker is confirmed by two anonymous letters from a woman living in Dundee, addressed to Free Church leader Thomas Chalmers, which are held at New College Library, Edinburgh.
The writer’s style is impassioned, swerving between criticism of slaveholders, concern for her own soul, and description of events recently witnessed:
“They would not give the churches and few comparatively speaking gave their ears. Because it was said that the strangers witnessed too hard things against your Church. If the Men tell the Truth you should not be angry.”
“Dear Dr C. What are you going to do in the matter of taking money from the slaveholders in the America about which I heard a great deal last week & meetings – two of which I attended – as I used to be very much interested in the Slave question…”
“Part of my ordinary as Rev. T Boston would say, or rather my extraordinary for in thought word and deed I am of late a Backslidder [Backslider], ah for Grace to grow in grace. You see how I wander –It is the Poor Captive slave I wish now to speak for. I would you would be a tongue to such dumb ones. Then soon soon the Lord will look down and deliver. For to them belongeth Power, Dominion, Strength, Mercy. And then will their tongues become glories to praise, to bless to laud the King of Glory – and they too shall not forget you –as we all have too long forgotten them. Neglect is infliction.
O how much I know of my Masters will yet do it not I wish whiles the Lord would set me and take me.”
She also uses rhetorical flourish herself to try and persuade Chalmers:
“It was sins of ignorance I was reading today 4 Lev. I see there the Lord will not let such pass. It was for such the blessed Jesus prayed when on the cross Father forgive them. Now I believe firmly you did not see at the time that taking money from slaveholders was the price of blood – verily your Church hath been guilty. Do not think I am glad to set aught against you because you have far outstript us in the way of voluntary giving. No I was glad and I myself made crape [crêpe] the year of the disruption that I might give what I had for ribbon, to your Free Church, Free Church what have you to do with the House of Bondage. Hath the Truth made you Free – then Freely give.”
It is interesting to be able to read her words along with the published transcripts of the speeches made by Frederick Douglass, also held at New College Library :
“All was going on gloriously – triumphantly; the moral and religious sentiment of the country was becoming concentrated against slavery, slaveholders, and the abetters of slaveholders, when, at this period, the Free Church of Scotland sent a deputation to the United States with a doctrine diametrically opposed to the abolitionists, taking up the ground that, instead of no fellowship, they should fellowship the slaveholders. According to them the slaveholding system is a sin, but not the slaveholder a sinner.”
“The deputation had an excellent opportunity of aiming an effectual blow at slavery, but they turned a deaf ear and refused to listen to the friends of freedom. They turned a deaf ear to the groans of the oppressed slave – they neglected the entreaties of his friends- and they went into the slave states, not for the purpose of imparting knowledge to the slave, but to go and strike hands with the slaveholders, in order to get money to build Free Churches and pay Free Church ministers in Scotland. [Cries of “shame” and applause.]”
“I verily believe, that, had I been at the South, and had I been a slave, as I have been a slave – and I am a slave still by the laws of the United States- had I been there, and that deputation had come into my neighbourhood, and my master had sold me on the auction block, and given the produce of my body and soul to them, they would have pocketed it and brought it to Scotland to build their churches and pay their ministers.”
While the Free Church money was not returned the strong impression made on listeners by Frederick Douglass’s words can be seen clearly in these letters. With the 200th anniversary of his birth in 2018 his great contribution to the abolitionist cause is likely to be celebrated more and more.
With thanks to Alasdair Pettinger whose article ‘The Bloody Gold’ drew attention to this letter: http://www.bulldozia.com/projects/index.php?id=616
A guest post from Eleanor Rideout, New College Library Helpdesk Assistant
The grisly find of a letter written in William Burke’s blood, on show as part of this weekend’s Festival of Museums, reminded me of one of my favourite items in the New College Library manuscript collections.
CHA 4.243.5 is a letter dated 19 August 1835 containing a contemporary use of the verb ‘burking’ and lurid descriptions of the most deprived areas of Edinburgh:
“Only to look down many of your closes and courts and alleys, is enough to satisfy anyone that more suitable places, for robbery, uncleanness, murder, or Burkings of any kind, cannot be found in the world”.
- The letter is titled ‘Edinburgh’s Guilty Avenues’ and was sent to Thomas Chalmers, the first Principal of New College. His papers are one of the most significant collections held by New College Library. Chalmers had a wide range of interests and a considerable number of correspondents but as a public figure he also attracted much unsolicited mail from those seeking support for their own ideas.
The sender, George Charles Smith, was not a regular correspondent, but was clearly a very zealous evangelist. According to his DNB entry, he was known as Boatswain Smith due to his involvement with maritime missions and he was also passionate about improving the morals of port cities.
Interestingly, the DNB does not mention his time in Edinburgh but this letter shows he spent some time here.He writes to Chalmers to:
“entreat that you will kindly devote your attention to the state of the poorest, the meanest, and vilest of the population of Edinburgh…I have considered that their Habitations are disgusting, unhealthy, and horrible. Your national custom of so many Families occupying one House cut up into Floors or “Flats”, as you term them, is to an Englishman surpassing strange.”
Sadly no response is recorded. Given Chalmers’ evangelical beliefs and published schemes for poor relief, perhaps he would not have been pleased to have it suggested that he had not gone nearly far enough. However, in his last years he did establish a campaign for social reform and religious instruction in the West Port area of Edinburgh. Hopefully Smith was pleased to hear of it.
Eleanor Rideout, New College Library Helpdesk Assistant
A guest post from Liz Louis, student on the MLitt in Museum and Gallery Studies at the University of St Andrews and volunteer at New College Library Object Strongroom. Liz presented on a selection of New College objects as part of the Behind the Scenes at New College Library Innovative Learning Week event.
I want to show you some of the highlights of the collection and also how the resources which New College Library can provide us with are invaluable to my research.
New College Library’s impressive holdings on Thomas Chalmers, chair of theology at Edinburgh University and first Principal of New College include many portraits of Chalmers in the form of paintings, photos and prints. As an art historian, the Wax Relief Portrait of Thomas Chalmers is interesting because it is intensely sculptural and ‘photorealistic’: with wax best suited to imitate human skin and most eerily similar to the moment of arrested life. No paper trail for the original paper has been discovered as of yet, although I have found a label which suggests that the portrait was made by Mme Tussaud’s. We do know that it was given to Prof Hugh Watt (Principal 1946-50) by Margaret Macphail, who was given the object by her friend who inherited it from Chalmers’s goddaughter.
Many objects in the strong room reflect the nineteenth century interest in sciences. The album with dried plants has a handwritten inscription on first page: In Memoriam / A Flower, a Plant, or a Weed, / gathered from every place/ mentioned in the Bible / which I visited in Palestine / 1852 / W.D. (William Dickson) 1852. This makes it particularly interesting for us: we’re not often lucky to have name and date of objects ON an object. We know that it was donated by his sons to complete New College’s Dickson collection of objects related to Middle East. It was addressed to John Duns (Professor of Natural Science at New College, 1864-1909). To a modern eye one thing that stands out is that the names written in pencil next to the plant never refer to the plant itself, but always to the place where it was found, e.g. ‘Place where they stoned Stephen’; ‘Gethsemane’.
New College Library’s objects collection contains other objects collected by travellers to the East, and the written accounts of their experiences are equally marked by the influence of their reading & knowledge of the Bible. One of these is Bonar’s Bible, a Bible dropped in (and subsequently retrieved from) Jacob’s Wellin Samaria near the city of Sychar (north of Jerusalem). We know about this because the owner, Andrew Alexander Bonar, documented the event in his Narrative of a Visit to the Holy Land, and Mission of Inquiry to the Jews This trip to Middle East in April 1839 was the first mission sent by Church of Scotland to Palestine, making Bonar’s Bible part of the story of the Church of Scotland’s efforts to convert the Jews. 
And finally one of our favourite objects, a casket presented to the Rev. John Sinclair McPhail. It contains an illuminated letter from the Members of the United Free Presbytery of Skye congratulating McPhail on his 50th anniversary of being ordained, praising his devotion and adherence to the Church’s Principles as well as his personal qualities and ‘sound wisdom’.
It’s one of the few objects in the collection that we know when and where it was made thanks to the marks. We know where because of the Assay mark is applied by the Assay Office as a guarantee for the purity of the precious metal (here: silver) according to national and international standards. The casket’s mark has three towers with one at front and two at back, the symbol of the Edinburgh Assay Office. We know when from the assay mark, indicated by a single letter and font – here, sans serif Y: probably 1880-1. And we know who made it from the maker’s mark MC&Co = Mackay,Cunningham and Company, Edinburgh, in the second half of the nineteenth century. In addition, the sovereign’s head, (in this case profile of Queen Victoria) aka duty mark certifies payment of tax to the Crown; Scottish thistle=silver standard mark: Sterling .925 for Edinburgh.
All of this shows how objects can begin to tell us stories if we know how to read them. So why are we doing all of this?
Firstly, to establish and record the collection that New College Library holds. This should enable collaboration with other institutions through shared knowledge and resources, and also enable preservation of sensitive objects and information about them as ethical obligation towards future generations (so nobody has to do my job all over again). Revealing the hidden stories should enable the University student and staff community to access basic information on objects as part of their own research, and make objects available to researchers for exploring new topics.
 Rev. Andrew A. Bonar, D.D., & Rev. R. M. M’Cheyne, Narrative of a Visit to the Holy Land, and Mission of Inquiry to the Jews (Edinburgh: William Oliphant & Co., 1878), pp.211.2
 Michael Marten, Attempting to Bring the Gospel Home. Scottish Missions to Palestine, 1839-1917 (London & New York: Tauris Academic Studies, 2006), pp.9-26.12.
Did you know that New College Library holds significant collections of archives and manuscripts?
These collections include the papers of Thomas Chalmers, J.H. Oldham, James S. Stewart and Norman W. Porteous. Hidden among the older archives are gems such as the last speech and testimony of the covenanter James Renwick (1662-1688). The Archives also include a New College Archive which includes group photographs of students and staff, and of the New College buildings.
Recently added to our collections are the papers of Rev Tom Allan (1916-1965), Rev. Professor Alec Campbell Cheyne (1924-2006), Rev. Professor John McIntyre (1916-2005), and the Very Rev Professor James Whyte (1920-2005). The listing of these papers was funded by a generous bequest from the estate of Rev. Professor Alec Campbell Cheyne .
See the New College Archives web page to find out more.