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Looking Back

Friday May 28  2021

Looking Back: Fifty General Assemblies

Sadly, the author of these reminiscences of General Assemblies in the second half of the 19th century is not identified. Published in May 1908.

The Rt Rev Theodore Marshall, Moderator of the General Assembly in 1908. Life and Work comments on his 'strikingly handsome presence and a resonant powerful voice'.




[The writer of the following reminiscences, though not, we trust, to be called “old” for many a year to come, is able to recall persons and things that most of our readers can only know by hearsay. As a child she was kissed by the widow of the poet Wordsworth, was addressed as “an imp” by Lord Jeffrey, and had her skipping-ropes stolen by Dr. John Brown. Others, no doubt, have visited the General Assembly at an earlier date than she, but probably none have attended it with the same regularity.]

THE first year I attended the General Assembly was 1858, when Dr. Matthew Leishman, of Govan, was Moderator – father of the late Dr. Thos. Leishman, who occupied the same Chair forty years later. It is seldom that the moderatorial office descends thus from father to son. Yet during these fifty years two families – the Cooks and the Macleods – have each sent three representatives to the Chair of the Supreme Court.

The officials round the table have changed many times since the day I first visited, and not till long after that date was the now well-worn phrase “circumtabular oligarchy” invented to describe them. The Clerks then were the venerable Principal Lee of the University of Edinburgh, and Dr. Simpson, of Kirknewton. Mr Shank Cook (brother of Dr. John Cook, afterwards Principal Clerk), was Procurator, and Mr. Beatson Bell was Agent – all long since passed away.

Among the laymen one remembers Sheriff Tait (brother of Archibald Campbell Tait, Archbishop of Canterbury); and Sheriff Barclay of Perth, whose speeches were often relieved by witty asides. During a heated debate the one o’clock gun boomed out from the Castle while Mr. Barclay was speaking, and every member simultaneously looked at his watch. “Moderator,” he said, “I rejoice to see the Assembly, for once, all of one mind.”

There was often when we should now call a strange lack of dignity and seemliness in the old days. When the Moderator left the Chair, instead of there being a substitute robed and ready, any ex-Moderator might be called to preside at a moment’s notice. One such I vividly remember, looking neither dignified nor comfortable, in rusty black coat and brown woollen mittens.

And the casual way in which a “diet of prayer” was introduced into the proceedings, apparently when business was slack, contrasts unfavourably with the present practice, where the devotions of each morning are made to bear upon the business of the day.

Only one feature of the Assembly has become less impressive of recent years, and that is its closing night. The body of the hall used always to be reserved for members, and no one who has heard the full chorus of male voices rising in “Pray that Jerusalem” can ever forget it. But these days men and women, members and non-members, are allowed to sit together, and the Assembly becomes much like any ordinary public meeting.

The Assembly did not mind late hours when there was much business to be done. The moderatorial address of Dr. Stevenson (of St. George’s, Edinburgh) did not end till nearly five o’clock in the morning, and the birds were singing as we wended our way home. Another morning one of the numerous wrangles over “disputed settlements” lasted till 3 A.M. My aunt and I, though hot and weary were loth to quit before the bitter end. An obliging divinity student brought us oranges – grateful and comforting. My uncle at home asked where we were, and was told “At the Assembly.” Interpreting the word in another sense, he remarked that he could understand the dancers, but was sorry for the chaperones.

Among other “first impressions” I remember an early speech of Mr. (afterwards Principal) Story in defence of the Sunday opening of the Botanic Gardens. The first time I heard Dr. Norman Macleod speak was on the “organ question.” While defending Dr. Robert Lee’s effort to secure improved means of worship, he added, “For my part, I am quite disinterested. My congregation sing their psalms comfortably with no other aid than that of a precentor.” The Barony Church, like others, has moved since then.

Dr Macleod’s fellow-traveller to India was Dr. Archibald Watson, of Dundee, who was Moderator in 1880. A friend and I once drove with him from the Assembly Hall during his term of office. He entered his carriage before us, remarking “You see I represent the Church, and She must go first.”

Had I known that these stray recollections were ever to furnish copy for Life and Work, I might have taken greater pains to remember and classify any noteworthy incidents. As it is, they are set down as I remember them, with little attempt at arrangement. Perhaps they are not the worse reading on that account. I have spent many happy hours in the Assembly, and learn much from those who are no longer with us, and I shall be glad if any words of mine lead those of a younger generation to a deeper interest in the Church of their Fathers, and a more earnest desire for her “peace and felicity.”

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