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Biographical Sketch
of Thomas M'Crie

Kevin Reed

Thomas M'Crie was born at Dunse in November 1772. His father was a merchant; his mother came from a farming family. His parents were Presbyterians, members of the Antiburgher Seceders. Thomas's early religious impressions may be traced to the pious example of his mother.

In his youth, Thomas proved himself a diligent student. By the age of 15, he had taught at two country schools. At age 16, he was enrolled as a student at the University of Edinburgh. He seems to have spent much of his spare time in research.

In 1791, M'Crie began theological studies under the direction of Archibald Bruce. He was licensed to preach in 1795 by the Associate Presbytery of Kelso; and he was ordained as the minister of the Potterrow congregation (Edinburgh) on 26 May 1796. Soon after his settlement in Edinburgh, M'Crie married Janet Dickson, the daughter of a farmer. During the early years of his ministry, he developed a respectable reputation as a preacher.

At the time M'Crie entered the ministry, the ecclesiastical scene in Scotland was one of disarray. The Established Church was controlled by the Moderate Party, which preached dry philosophical morality, instead of proclaiming the saving gospel of Christ crucified.

About sixty years earlier, the Seceders had withdrawn from the Established Church, taking a stand against patronage and declaring a firm commitment to the Westminster Standards and the National Covenants of Scotland. But the Secession Church was itself divided in 1747 "by a dispute as to whether or no Seceders could consistently swear a certain clause in the oath taken by the free burgesses of a few Scottish towns."[1] When he began his pastorate, M'Crie was still affiliated with the Antiburgher section of the Secession. But it was becoming apparent that both sections of the Seceders were waning in their commitment to the valiant theological heritage of their ancestors.

About the turn of the century, M'Crie's Synod became embroiled in a controversy over Church and State. Specifically, some Presbyterians had softened their public testimony on the role of the civil magistrate:

[Many] have given countenance to what have been usually accounted Anabaptistical, Sectarian, or Independent tenets, ... [and] they have in so far befriended the principles and designs of some modern infidels and politicians which tend to make a total separation of civil government and religion, as if the interests of the latter in no shape pertained to the former, farther than to grant and secure equal liberty and privileges to all religious systems ....[2]

Such opinions not only repudiated confessional teachings; these views also reflected negatively on the National Cov enants of Scotland.

The precepts, examples, predictions and promises in the Old Testament scriptures, which have hitherto been adduced as warrants for such things [national covenants], are held to be inapplicable, and in this view inconsistent with the nature of the New Testament dispensation: by which, countenance has been given to the error which represents the Church of God under the Old Testament to have been essentially different from that under the New.[3]

In the midst of the controversy, M'Crie made this subject an object of special study. He became fully persuaded that it is the magistrate's duty "to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire; that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed; all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed; and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed" (Westminster Confession 23:3; original wording).

As the dispute heated up, the Synod drew up a New Testimony which, in effect, repudiated the theological heritage of the Secession Church respecting the civil government and National Covenants. At this point M'Crie witnessed the drama of denominational politics being rehearsed before his own eyes. For a while, he (and several others) registered protests against the actions of the Synod. But the protesting brethren received no relief. A variety of additional maneuvers were employed for the purpose of quieting the unrest in the church. Of one political ploy, M'Crie wryly comments: "others who expressed themselves decidedly against it will fall in for peace' sake and the necessity of the times." Elsewhere, he observed:

Many have both a capacity to understand and a desire to acquire some knowledge about subjects that come into controversy; they will read, converse, and dispute; having some conviction of right and wrong, they will frequently express their approbation of the one and their condemnation of the other: but this is all the length they will go. Their judgment may be convinced, but their sentiments have no proper influence upon their hearts or conduct. They make no open or consistent appearance for the truth when injured or opposed, they will not disarrange their connections, or risk their ease, convenience, interest, or reputation in its support. They will sometimes pay a just compliment to it in speech, while in practice they desert and dishonour it; like those mentioned by the poet, who are loud in the praises of virtue, while they suffer it to starve. They will sometimes condemn and lament many evils which yet they support, or concur with those who do so.

This is even something worse than sinful ignorance; it is plain dishonesty. It flows not from defect of light, but from want of conscience and religion. To him that knoweth to do good, and doth it not, to him it is sin. Many persons of this description have been found in all corrupt churches, and in degenerate times. Those churches must be far gone in degeneracy, whatever their avowed system may be, when their teachers can say and unsay, pretend to dissent and yet conform, can assent to whatever is demanded of them, and acquiesce silently in changes made from time to time by a majority, though opposite to what they formerly professed, and without or contrary to conviction. Such a disposition, though manifesting itself in smaller matters, is an alarming symptom, as it indicates a want of conscience and integrity, which would operate in things of the greatest magnitude.[4]

In consequence of the Synod's New Testimony and newly-imposed terms of communion, M'Crie an three other ministers (Archibald Bruce, James Aitken, and James Hog) joined together, on 28 August 1806, to form the Constitutional Associate Presbytery. In so doing, they declared themselves "not to be responsible to the Synod, or inferior judicatories, as presently constituted," saying they "would hold any censures as null and void that might be pronounced against them."[5]

In response, the Synod immediately (on September 2), without ordinary process, passed a sentence of deposition on all four men, and excommunicated M'Crie. Thus, the division between the two groups was sealed.[6]

Although the division was regrettable, separation is sometimes necessary, as M'Crie explains:

All who are acquainted with the sacred laws of religion must know, that amiable and valuable as peace is, there are some things that ought to be preferred unto it: truth and duty to God have still superior claims. Peace, though earnestly pursued, cannot always be obtained; and the friendship of men may be purchased, and the external fellowship of a church cultivated, at too great an expense.[7]

M'Crie continued in the ministry, pastoring that portion of his congregation which, with him, adhered to the Confessional Standards and the original Testimony of the Secession Church. "The newly formed Presbytery entrusted to M'Crie, who was the youngest of its members, the task of writing a Statement of the Differences between the new Testimony . . . and the old Testimony, which was set aside" by the Synod. The work was published in 1807 under the title of The Statement of the Difference Between the Profession of the Reformed Church of Scotland, as Adopted by Seceders, and the Profession Contained in the New Testimony and Other Acts, Lately Adopted by the General Associate Synod; Particularly, on the Power of Civil Magistrates Respecting Religion, National Reformation, National Churches, and National Covenants, etc. The book "is perhaps the ablest work extant that deals with the Confessional teaching on the subject of National Religion."[8]

In the years which followed, M'Crie's literary output took a different form. In November 1811, M'Crie released the first edition of his Life of John Knox. The work painted an arresting portrait of Knox, while providing a forum to review the vital issues which gave shape to the Scottish Reformation. Prior to the Life of Knox, the Reformer's reputation had suffered greatly from misrepresentations of religious adversaries and the bigotry of infidel historians. Further, "the authentic records of the period, hid in manuscripts, or detailed in the antiquated and ungainly style of a past age, had become utterly unavailable for the purposes of general instruction and excitement."[9]

Shortly after the Life of Knox was published, the Editor of the Edinburgh Review wrote that the book "has afforded us more amusement and more instruction, than any thing we ever read upon the subject; and which, independent of its theological merits, we do not hesitate to pronounce by far the best piece of history which has appeared since the commencement of our critical career."[10] The work subsequently elicited praise from men of various denominations, from the Established Church and Dissenters alike. Thus, the volume "not only placed M'Crie in the front rank of the authors of his day, but also produced a great change of popular sentiment in regard to Knox."[11]

Most important, however, the biography promoted a revival of true religion within the hearts of many readers. 'All over Scotland this work was used to revive the memory of the great Reformer and nothing could have been a more telling protest against the stifling influence of Moderatism. It brought many a student and minister into the experience once described by James Fraser of Brea in his Memoirs: "When I read Knox, I thought I saw another scheme of divinity, much more agreeable to the Scriptures and to my experience than the modern." '[12]

In 1813, the University of Edinburgh awarded to M'Crie the degree of Doctor of Divinity. "This was the first instance in which they ever conferred such a degree on any dissenting minister in Scotland."[13]

About this time, there was a growing movement for the formation of interdenominational mission societies. Many Christians were convinced that interdenominational agencies would become an effective vehicle in fulfilling the Great Commission. M'Crie's convictions were otherwise.

With regard to the subject of missions, his views tended to the conclusion that the Church, in her judicial capacity, is the true Missionary Society; that to her alone belongs the duty of examining the qualifications of the Gospel missionaries, appointing them their respective spheres, sending them forth on their mission, superintending their personal and ministerial conduct; and that every other plan of operation differing from this was in so far an encroachment on the proper business of the court of Christ's house, tendingto perpetuate division, and carrying in the very principle of their association, the seeds of their own dissolution.[14]

M'Crie's great pastoral friend, Professor Bruce, died in 1816. As a result, M'Crie acquired added responsibilities teaching theology in the seminary of his denomination in 1817 and 1818.

Throughout his life, M'Crie maintained regular correspondence with his ministerial colleagues, and also frequently contributed reviews and articles to various periodicals, such as the Christian Instructor. In June 1816, the Instructor ran an article by an Establishment minister in defense of the doctrinal standards of the Scottish Church. M'Crie responded with delight, in a letter to the magazine's editor, Andrew Thomson. Tell the author, said M'Crie, "that if all the General Assembly were like-minded with him, I would willingly become their door-keeper; and that if I could be assured that there were fifty as true staunch thorough out-and-in Calvinists and Presbyterians in the Auld Kirk, as I think him to be, I would not be much afraid to enter its walls tomorrow, convinced that we would soon be able to rout the whole phalanx of the moderates and religious mongrels."[15]

In 1819, M'Crie published the Life of Andrew Melville. It was designed as a sequel to the biography of Knox. The work continued the account of Scottish church history begun in the previous volume, and vindicated the cause of Reformation as it grew into manly Presbyterianism of the era of Melville. The Life of Melville did not gain the same critical acclaim as the Life of Knox, probably because it reflected more negatively upon popular prejudices of the time.[16]

Meanwhile, M'Crie's former denomination, the Antiburgher Seceders, had continued to drift since the time M'Crie and his fellow ministers withdrew. Further, the other section of the Secession, the Burghers, joined with the Antiburghers to form the United Associate Synod. This ecclesiastical merger served to illustrate just how far both groups had departed from the theological heritage of the covenanted Church of Scotland.

In the basis of union adopted by the united body, the subordinate standards of that Church were no longer recognized, as they had been by the first Seceders, as parts of "the covenanted uniformity;" the Confession of Faith and Catechisms were received under limitations, which attached to them, in vague terms, the stigma of teaching intolerance and persecution; a general declaration, informing the world that they were Presbyterians, was substituted in place of the Directory for Public Worship and the Form of Presbyterial Church Government, which were discarded; the decided assertion of the binding obligation of our solemn covenants on posterity, so long distinctive of Seceders, was exchanged for a compliment to "our reforming ancestors," and the ambiguous acknowledgement "that we are under high obligations to maintain and prosecute the work of reformation begun, and to a great extent carried on by them;" as the cementing principle of the union, the doctrine of "forbearance" was laid down in such a way as to admit of almost indefinite extension to every point on which the uniting parties might be supposed or expected to disagree.[17]

In other words, the mutual disdain to the truths which once united them, along with a growing laxity toward the matters which previously divided them, combined to form a latitudinarian basis for organic union.

In this climate, M'Crie published Two Discourses on the Unity of the Church, Her Divisions, and Their Removal (1821). The book is written with a strong pastoral outlook. M'Crie wrestles with questions often posed by Christians troubled over dissension in the Church: Why does God allow divisions in the Church? What are the real causes of disunity in the Church? What measures can be taken to promote genuine unity? In what ways does God promise, in the Scriptures, to restore harmony in the Church? How are revival and reformation related to ecclesiastical unity? What characteristics must mark all our attempts to form acceptable ecclesiastical mergers?

The author surveys the biblical landscape to provide a helpful discussion of these questions. He yearns for true scriptural unity: a yearning which should characterize every pious church member. He deplores schism. Yet, he also asserts our duty to preserve the truth, and exposes "the fallacies and unscriptural character of modern plans of union."[18]

In the appendix of The Unity of the Church, M'Crie addresses different opinions on the relationship between Church and State. He gives an explanation of the actual teaching of the Westminster Confession (chapter 23) respecting the role of the civil magistrate. He defends the confession against its detractors, and exposes several misrepresentations often attributed to the Westminster Standards. Moreover, he vindicates the National Covenants of Scotland and the cause of the original Secession.

Personal burdens soon began to take their toll on M'Crie's literary endeavors. His wife died in June 1821. When his health began to suffer from his intense studies, he had to scale back his research. Further, his father died in March 1823. These changes did produce a salutary effect on his pastoral labors; his sermons began to display "a deeper unction" than before.[19]

In 1824, M'Crie received a letter from George Sinclair, urging him to take a leading role in formulating a plan to unite various Presbyterian denominations in Scotland. In his reply, M'Crie describes his own desire to see greater ecclesiastical unity. But he makes it clear that there can be no meaningful organizational union, so long as there is no underlying adherence to scriptural doctrine and purity. What we need, says M'Crie, are not new plans of union or contemporary statements of common principles; what we need is a more rigorous employment of the old established standards. He states:

Nor does it strike me that there would be required any "synopsis of principles," while the Confession of Faith and other Standards of the Church of Scotland remain. The great desideratum is not a declared or authorized system of principles, but a real and practical adherence to it, and an administration which would promise to secure this.[20]

Although M'Crie opposed specious ecclesiastical mergers, he was a friend to genuine church unity. He always regarded his denominational commitments as a stewardship of the Scottish Reformation. He maintained cordial relations with men of other denominations. Further, he was willing to consider any overture to union, provided it promised to preserve intact the Reformation heritage and the covenant obligations of the Church of Scotland.

Consequently, M'Crie was a prime mover in the formation of the Associate Synod of Original Seceders. The union was composed of the Constitutional Presbytery (M'Crie's denomination) and the Associate Synod of Protesters, a body which had withdrawn from the unsatisfactory United Associate Synod. This union was based upon a mutual adherence to the Westminster Standards and the National Covenants of the Church of Scotland. The new Associate Synod was formed in 1827.

By 1827, M'Crie's health was somewhat improved. He took a second wife, Mary, the daughter of a minister, Robert Chalmers of Haddington.

Throughout his career, M'Crie's outspokenness often made him "more plain than pleasant."[21] In this respect, he possessed one of the prominent qualities of mentor John Knox. Like Knox, M'Crie was moved by a passionate regard for his sacred calling as a minister of Christ Jesus. He was noted for "the determination with which he adhered to his impressions of truth and convictionsof duty ­ the sternness with which he could reprobate lax opinions or vicious practices."[22] Among Christ's faithful undershepherds, there is no place for dissimulation, or the "fear of man," which is a snare (Prov. 29:25). Said M'Crie:

If ministers of the Gospel would preserve their usefulness and respectability, they must guard their independence on the side of the people as well as of civil rulers. Provided they become "servants of men," it matters not much whether their masters wear a crown or a bonnet; and if, instead of going before the people to point out to them the path of duty, and checking them when they are ready to run into extremes, they wait to receive directions from them, and suffer themselves to be borne along by the popular stream, the consequences cannot fail to be fatal to both. Firm and tenacious of his purpose, the servant of the Lord, while gentle to all, ought to hold on the even tenor of his way, unmoved equally by the frown of the tyrant, the cry of the multitude, and dictates of forward individuals, good and well-meaning men it may be, but who "cannot see afar off," and just need the more to be led that they think themselves capable of being leaders.[23]

Among his later works, M'Crie produced a History of the Progress and Suppression of the Reformation in Italy (1827) and a History of the Progress and Suppression of the Reformation in Spain (1829).

As a student of history, M'Crie possessed a keen ability to analyze contemporary public issues in the light of Scripture and Christian history. He supported a society which promoted public recognition of the Lord's Day. He criticized the practice of patronage in the Established Church. He often delivered statements on social and political issues which had a bearing on the interests of religion.

At one public meeting, in April 1832, he testified against a government strategy for education in Ireland. The government program included plans to issue a cheap school book composed of extracts from the Bible; and it was obvious that these extracts were to be edited in a manner as to make the selection inoffensive to Roman Catholics. In correspondence, writing on this matter, M'Crie notes:

The question, "Who are, or who shall be,the ministry?" important as it may be, is inferior to the question, "What shall henceforth be the religion of this country? and shall our children serve Christ or Antichrist?" But the very terms of this question involve treason against the goddess of the present generation ­ Charity, which all are now summoned to fall down and worship. It has been my opinion, fixedly, for some time, that any administration to be formed at present, Whig or Tory, would sacrifice religion on the shrine of political expediency; and "my people," provided their temporary and worldly views were gratified, would "love to have it so." This is my political creed.[24]

M'Crie had begun work on a new project, a biography on John Calvin. Yet, he did not live to complete this effort. On 4 August 1835, he was seized with sharp pains in the bowels. He quickly slipped into unconsciousness. Shortly after noon on August 5, he died, having attained the age of sixty-three.

After M'Crie's death, his son (Thomas) released a selection of Sermons by the Late Thomas M'Crie, D. D. (1836) and wrote the Life of Thomas M'Crie, D.D. Further, the son also edited a four-volume selection of the Works of Thomas M'Crie (1855-57).

M'Crie's influence continued many years beyond his death. His writings provided momentum for the fight against Moderatism in the Established Church. Especially with reference to the Life of Knox, "there is reason to believe that the impulse given by it to the study of the history of the Scottish Reformation, and the principles involved in the subsequent conflicts of the Scottish Church, did much to bring about that movement which resulted in the disruption of 1843."[25]

M'Crie's life is proof that conscientious dissent, in the cause of truth, can make a difference. By maintaining the high ground of principle, M'Crie was a faithful pastor, and he became a catalyst for reform well beyond the bounds of his own small denomination. May God give us more pastors of this sort. Such men promote both the true peace and the purity of the Church.

Footnotes for Biographical Sketch

1. John Macleod, Scottish Theology in Relation to Church History Since the Reformation (1943; rpt. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), p. 172.

2. Cited from the "Substance of the Paper Given in by the Protesting Ministers," etc. in Thomas M'Crie, Statement of the Difference, etc. (1807; rpt. Edinburgh: C. F. Lyon, 1871), p. 234.

3. "Substance of the Paper," pp. 235-36.

4. Cited in Thomas M'Crie [the younger], The Life of Thomas M'Crie, D. D. (Philadelphia: William S. Young, 1842), p. 91; Thomas M'Crie, Statement of the Difference, pp. 6-7.

5. Life of M'Crie, p. 106.

6. In one place, M'Crie's biographer comments on the sad spectacle of ecclesiastical politics: ' "When it is determined to sacrifice the victim," says the old proverb, "it is not difficult to find a stick in the forest to despatch it with." And when a church is bent on introducing a change into its profession, it will go hard if they do not find something in the conduct of the protesting minority which shall afford a plausible pretext for condemning them, and resting their condemnation, not on the cause in dispute, but on some informalities or disorderly tactics in their mode of prosecuting it.' (Life of M'Crie, p. 104.)

7. M'Crie, Statement of the Difference, pp. 1-2.

8. Macleod, Scottish Theology, p. 236.

9. Life of M'Crie, p. 159.

10. Life of M'Crie, p. 153.

11. The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge [Edited by Samuel Macauley Jackson] (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1910), Vol. VII, p. 109.

12. Iain Murray, "Biographical Introduction," prefixed to Historical Theology by William Cunningham (1862; rpt. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1960), Vol. I, p. vi.

13. Life of M'Crie, p. 173.

14. Life of M'Crie, pp. 176-77.

15. Life of M'Crie, p. 192.

16. M'Crie was always a careful and thorough historian. For this reason, he despised shallow literature and abridged treatments of history. He once wrote: "The fact is, I am a declared enemy to Encyclopedias, and I cannot endure that any person should write for them, who possesses talents above those of a common copyist or abridger. They are popular with the present age (just as tracts, magazines, and reviews are,) because they give the superficial reader a smattering of every thing, without making him thoroughly acquainted with any thing." (Life of M'Crie, p. 353.)

17. Life of M'Crie, pp. 219-20.

18. Life of M'Crie, p. 228.

19. Life of M'Crie, p. 247.

20. Life of M'Crie, p. 258.

21. Life of M'Crie, p. 305. 'Sometimes, when people sought M'Crie's advice, he sent them away with "a dry admonition" to examine the subject for themselves. This was invariably his practice through life, in those cases where he perceived that the application proceeded rather from culpable inattention to the means of information which lay open to all, than from real inability to form a judgement on the question.' (Life of M'Crie, pp. 119-20.)

22. Life of M'Crie, p. 354.

23. Life of M'Crie, pp. 263-64.

24. Life of M'Crie, p. 298.

25. Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia, Vol. VII, pp. 109-110.

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