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Life and Times of D. M. Stuart, D.D.

Chapter XI. — A Popular Ministry

page 76

Chapter XI.
A Popular Ministry.

The new church was not yet completed, and in order that advantage might be taken of the additional ministerial supply now available to extend Church interests at Invercargill, Dr Burns, by appointment of Presbytery, proceeded to the Southern settlement to organize a congregation and dispense the sacraments, while Mr Stuart occupied his pulpit for a period of seven weeks.

It was, properly speaking, the original school-house (but enlarged at various times) in which the congregation still assembled, and which was intended to serve as a place of public worship only until the way opened for the erection of their permanent Memorial Church.* That a wide-spread interest in Mr Stuart had been excited in the community was apparent enough from the early stir on the roads on the Sabbath on which it was announced that he would preach. From hill and glen they gathered with Bible in hand and reverent look, to the slope on which the school-house was built; and when the preacher lifted his eyes to survey the congregation which filled the building from door to desk, a sense of his own weakness and insufficiency oppressed his page 77heart, and down all the laborious years of his work in Dunedin, he never forgot the profound impression that the grave, intelligent, thoughtful faces of the fathers and founders of Otago then made upon him. "When I took in the personnel of the congregation," he said, "and recalled the solid ability and experience of their minister, I felt strongly my need of God's blessing, lest the glorious Gospel they loved, and which they had covenanted to propagate and perpetuate in the land of their adoption, should suffer at my hands."

Time passed on. Hammer and saw were kept as busy as human hands could wield them, and at last the new church was completed—Knox Church as it was named—and opened for Divine service on 6th May, 1860. The Revs. Messrs Burns and Will preached respectively in the morning and evening, and Mr Stuart himself conducted the service in the afternoon—his sermon being based on John xi. 26-27 verses, "Whosoever liveth and believeth in Me shall never die. Believest thou this? She saith unto Him, yea, Lord; I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world." The public sympathy and interest in these services were very marked, and the collections aggregated a sum of nearly £170.

The induction, at which Dr Burns presided, took place on the 16th May, and shortly after that the ladies presented their minister with a Bible, Communion service, and pulpit robes. The next few weeks were occupied with a house to house visitation, and in preparation for Holy Communion, which was page 78observed on the 17th of the following month. The organisation of the Church was completed in July with the election of six elders and six deacons, who included among them some of the foremost fathers and founders of the settlement—men of established Christian character and enlarged experience, of shrewd judgment, and good business capacity, who were greatly helpful to the minister in his work.

His ardent interest in young people, and anxiety to bind them to Christ, were manifest from the outset in the establishment of the Sabbath Morning Bible Class, which he viewed as a connecting link between the Sabbath school and Church membership. He gave his strength to that, and found in it unfailing delight. "It was," he used to say, "the one work of the congregation which I never found to be burden-some to me." One of the ministers of Otago, who passed through that class, testified to the earnestness and thoroughness which marked Dr Stuart in his conduct, of it. "I can speak from experience," he said, "of his work among the young. He was never tiresome, always fresh and stimulating. He got most of us to write short essays on prescribed themes. There was clear proof when these were handed back that they had been carefully read. There was always a footnote with some word of cheer. He marked the tiniest bud of promise, and flooded it with the sunshine of his approval."

A Sabbath school was opened on 13th May, under the superintendence of Mr John Gillies. A staff of teachers, generally of good education and force of character, who found their way to the con-page 79fidence and affection of their pupils, devoted themselves to this department of Christian labour, and cheered the minister by their fidelity to duty and by the efficiency by which they performed their work.

The minister took a special interest in the Young Men's Literary Society, which was early formed in connection with the congregation. He was seldom absent from its meetings, and never failed to encourage the efforts of the younger members by a few words of commendation and generous praise; and whatever the subject of the evening might be, his rich stores of information and his ripe experience enabled him in a sentence or two to invest it with a new charm, which largely contributed to the attractiveness and profit of the meetings.

A congregational prayer meeting was established from the beginning, and all the agencies of a thoroughly organised and vigorous church were speedily in active operation, radiating out into the peoples' homes influences that were always whole-some and more or less potent for spiritual good.

The popularity of Mr Stuart's ministry was evidenced by the fact that barely four months had passed since the celebration of the opening services when the necessity for enlargement of the church forced itself upon the attention of the Deacon's Court, and with a remarkable energy of faith they applied themselves to meet the urgent demand made upon them for increased accommodation. In June, 1861, the enlarged church was opened with 900 sittings available; and a commodious class-room was erected later on.

page 80

The population of Dunedin at the time of Mr Stuart's arrival, though predominately Scotch, yet embraced many types of national character; and there were some who viewed with sullen resentment the discipline and rules and rigorous forms of the older Presbyterianism, which, to some extent, gave hue and character to the social life of the early settlement. Mr Stuart won those people over to at least kindly views, and more generous conceptions of the Church of his fathers. He was utterly free from all taint or affectation of sacerdotalism. His ordination, so far from separating him by any imagined odour of sanctity or exaltation of office from his fellow men, drew him near and down to them in the self-abasing love and service of the Gospel. His large endowments of mind and heart, his early struggles for bread and education, his personal intercourse with some of the great, trusted, and enthusiastic leaders of men, at whose feet he had studied arts and theology, and from whom he had learned other lessons which pushed his horizon indefinitely further back, and gave a width to his views, and a breadth to his charity, and an intenseness to the energies of his spiritual life; his intimate knowledge of young people, and of the avenues that lead to their inmost heart, which he owed to his enlarged experience as a teacher of youth, and the long period of his ministry in the uplands of robust Northumberland—all formed such training and preparation as were needed for the important position which he was called to fill. His practical shrewdness and tact took him clear of difficulties which might have embarrassed him; and his love to page 81men of all sorts and conditions made him adapt himself to all their circumstances, and, in the sense of the apostolic words, "become all things to all men that he might gain some." This was, we believe, the secret of the popularity which he achieved almost at a bound, and which enabled him to gather and hold together in unbroken harmony so large a congregation, composed of many different elements originally connected with other sections of the Christian Church.

* "Story of the Otago Church and Settlement," by C. Stuart Ross.