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

Chapter XVIII. — New Knox Church

page 120

Chapter XVIII.
New Knox Church.

In October, 1871, on resigning our charge at Dunstan, which was originally almost co-terminous with Vincent County, with some of the more populous centres of Maniototo County thrown in, we were requested by Knox Church Session to supply their pulpit for a month, in order to give the minister an opportunity to take a holiday. But Dr Stuart, believing he could find the required rest at home, coupled with more enjoyment than could be got abroad, continued among his people, conducted the Sabbath morning Bible-class himself, and took his seat under the pulpit at public worship—excepting on one occasion when he went to a country manse to comfort and help a brother minister, who was plunged in grief by the startlingly sudden decease of his wife.

The poor, crude sermons which were then delivered by his locum tenens, written after exhausting journeys over ridge and valley, in a district where books (excepting of the lighter sort) were rare, and culture rarer, and rarest of all the intellectual stimulus needed to enable him to conquer the depressing environment—the sermons written in such circumstances always found in the Doctor a kindly and graciously indulgent critic, and his hearty hand-page break
Knox Church,

Knox Church,

page 121clasp
, and benevolent smile, and grateful word of cheer were as cold water to a thirsty soul when the ordeal of conducting the service in that great church was past. The bright social talk which sometimes followed, enriched, on the Doctor's part, with flash of wit and droll incident, and keen observations on men and things—all penetrated with a tone of deep, true piety—made that month one of the pleasantest which we remember to have passed.

We make the following quotation from a letter written to us somewhat later on, to show his desire that men should live at peace and avoid everything that would tend to kindle controversial strife. The brochure referred to was published for merely local use, and special circumstances of which he had no knowledge appeared to justify the insertion of the paragraph which he would have had expunged. ".. Thanks for your 'Guiding Thoughts for Young Communicants.' I happened to find it on my table about eleven o'clock last night. I read it, but not with the care that I mean to do. The style is vigorous, and the object you propose is kept steadily in view. I think it is fitted to be of much use to inquirers. I think it had been better if you had excluded the paragraph in which you knock down the—— I don't know that any good is done by side blows. I know that they are pretty skilful to turn such dealings, whether in the tractate or from the pulpit, to account… "With an eye that looked with intelligent enquiry beyond his own parochial bounds—wide as these confessedly were—and with a heart that embraced with sympathetic page 122interest the labours of the remotest ministry of the Church, he wrote, under the same date—"I think you owe me a letter. When you pay your debt, be sure and give me particulars respecting yourself, your family, and your work."

He accounted it a joy to be able to assist churches that were not so financially strong as his own, and we find him about this time moving out in various directions north and south, to conduct opening or anniversary services, for which he was frequently in request, paying out of his own pocket the cost of his pulpit supply and travelling expenses, and, if there happened to be a debt, subscribing over and above all that to the fund for its extinction.

The new, massive, noble church which his congregation had built was now near its completion. A good deal of anxiety and trouble had been caused one way or another, in connection with its erection: but now he began to contemplate, with some sadness, the withdrawal from the old building, which had served so well for upwards of sixteen years. The Doctor wrote under date 4th September, 1876, to his friend, Mrs Ferguson, of Oakleigh, "..Our new church is nearly finished. In the course of six weeks we expect to get possession. Whether I shall ever like it so well as the plain old church is very doubtful. Most certain it is that I had times of joy and gladness in the old building which I cannot expect to find exceeded."

The new church was opened for Divine service on Sabbath, 5th November—about 1500 people being present at each diet of worship. A detailed account page 123of the proceedings is given in Dr Hislop's "History." We will content ourselves with quoting Dr Stuart's speech, delivered at the social meeting which was held in celebration of the event, on the Tuesday following, in the Old Knox Church:—"I need scarcely say that I feel jubilant this evening. I am glad to stand under this noble roof, and I am especially glad to be surrounded on this platform by friends and brethren whom I respect and whom I love. And I am glad to have so many hearers in this place…. I would like to say to you that this Church had its origin in a most Christian intention. From the very outset it was composed of Christians of various nationalities and denominations, and so far have I been from making an apology for this that I have always spoken of it as a large cause of rejoicing, and I believe it will always lead me to do so. It led me to think more of Christianity than of Presbyterianism. Not, indeed, that I have been ashamed of Presbyterianism. You know that the blue banner has been waved again and again over your heads. I have asked you to admire and respect it, and to pass it forward to those coming after you. I remember one occasion, when speaking of the old banner to Mr Justice Richmond, who was sitting beside me, he said, 'I like to see you waving it over me, so long as you keep it waving under the glorious banner of the Gospel.' I replied, 'That is what I will always do.' The Church has been carried on in that spirit. We have envied nobody. We have not spoken evil of anybody, and we glory when in other instances the Gospel has been carried to the regions beyond. I page 124know that in the beginning of the City we had the Wesleyans worshipping with us, and, indeed, I found them better Christians than I at one time thought they were. When they wanted to get a house for themselves, we said 'God be with you.' Mr Archibald Barr and another office-bearer left us. Then the Baptists—they also worshipped with us. Old Dr Purdie used to protest gently against some parts of our service… Mr Dick, and others, also left us. However, Knox Church had the Divine blessing, and our labours continued to prosper. Church after Church was formed around us. The Gospel was preached with warmth, and evermore drew people to its banner. The Gospel without power! Don't believe it! There is nothing in the world that has the power the Gospel has. Its power is increasing, and it will yet be heard from pole to pole. Well, I have so many worthy friends here this evening who will address cheering words to us, and words of counsel, that I will not further occupy your attention. I will only say, that, if I had a spark of the spirit of bigotry and of exclusiveness, I have always had men around me as office-bearers who would speedily exorcise it by their prayers and practice. The Church, composite in its origin, has worked harmoniously. We have had an immense amount of fervour amongst the members. We have had men from the west and south of England, and from various other parts of that country. We found that the result was extremely pleasant. We worked with efficiency. And the Green Isle has always contributed to our membership, and to our prosperity. Knox Church, though it has page 125a thorough Scotch name—a name that speaks of its Scottish origin—contains in itself many nationalities."

He wrote to Mrs Ferguson under date 13th November:—"… During the last fortnight I have been on the tenter-hooks of fear, expectation, and delight. I am glad to say that God favoured us above our hopes in all things connected with the opening. The weather was charming—a Sabbath neither hot nor cold, yet bright to admiration. The people crowded from far and near, necessitating forms in the passages and in every spot where a chair could find standing-room. The preacher of the morning (Dr Salmond) did nobly. Mr Todd, of Oamaru, addressed some 1200 in the afternoon, 800 of whom were children. Mr Will, in the evening, had a crowded house, and from his lips the old Gospel rang out in firm tones. Again and again, during these services, one word more would have broken up the fountains of emotion in my soul. While listening, I was reciting to myself the story ot the Captains who contributed to found and build up the Church, and who from their thrones doubtless regarded the scene with complacency, as fitted to glorify their much-loved God and Saviour."

In 1878, he persuaded the Synod to recommend ministers to give catechetical lectures on Sabbaths and week days, after the custom of the Reformation period, according to which at least one day a week was devoted to the catechetical instruction of the young in Scripture truth. For many years he conducted a service on these lines every fortnight in his own church, with encouraging results. The main body of the building was usually well filled on such page 126occasions with young people, while the seats in aisles and galleries were occupied by adults. He loved that work, and made the service very attractive and profitable for both young and old. "No one need expect," he wrote to his Oakleigh friends, "to find the ministry a bed of roses, yet, with its drawbacks, I would not exchange it for any other profession, save perhaps to teach children. I had, from early years, a liking for the vocation of teacher of the young, and still prefer it to all other work."

It was during this period that his heart was racked and scarred with a hidden sorrow, which found no utterance save in the ear of his most intimate friends. The keenness of his disappointment and grief took, as he himself expressed it, "the soul out of his enjoyments." At congregational festivities, at which he was always welcome, he forced himself to appear bright when dark shadows were clasping his soul. He lost to some extent his elasticity of step, and more wearily than had been his wont he climbed the hills, in fulfilment of pastoral duty, leaning more heavily upon his staff, and pausing more frequently as he laughingly observed, to admire the beauties of hill and vale, and busy harbour, but in reality to rest for a few brief minutes his aching limbs. Slumber, in those days, often forsook his eyelids, and the weary watches of the night were sometimes passed in reciting psalm after psalm, or in repeating, as he used to tell us, question and answer of the entire Shorter Catechism, in his futile efforts to woo the refreshing influences of "tired nature's sweet restorer—balmy sleep." The watchful eyes of love marked these page 127indications of decaying power, and his people presented him with a horse, carriage, and equipments, and the means of maintaining them, and sent thoughtful gifts to the Manse, which conduced to his comfort. "But," he wrote to Mrs Ferguson, "I confess that, while recognising the kindness which prompted them, I feel a sort of shame in receiving them. I feel as if I had come short in important directions, and should not receive what wears the aspect of testimonials to a worth which is scarcely mine." But in spite of the trouble which pressed upon him he cheerfully responded to calls for help, and moved about the Province opening churches at Green Island, Waiareka, and Balclutha, and rendering on all sides of him such aid as he could give to the cause of truth.

He cordially co-operated with all accredited evangelists who aimed to spread the Gospel and to deepen and quicken the spiritual life of God's people. "We are looking forward to a visit," he wrote to his Oakleigh friends, "from Dr Somerville. We have a good deal of infidelity among us. Bright, of Melbourne, has found a compact body of friends who encourage him in his weekly attack on religion. Who knows but Dr Somerville may be useful in breaking up the ice which binds many hearts. I am doing my best, as other ministers are. Still, though souls are influenced and led to Christ, many remain beyond our influence." The evangelist held a successful mission, delivered his message with great earnestness and power, and was the instrument of quickening many souls. But Dr Stuart questioned the wisdom of a recommendation which he made.

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"There is an effort made," he wrote to Mrs Ferguson, "to form a Young Women's Society. The suggestion was made by Dr Somerville. I do not much approve of it, on the ground that we have already more societies than we can rightly maintain. Besides, the societies not only deprive the Churches of their best members, but reduce them to talking institutions, whereas God intended them to bless and heal on every hand. Our fervent evangelists who visit us for a month, and get the cream of the Churches to hang on their lips, forget that institutions like Churches require constant direction and sustentation if they are to sweeten and redeem society."