Robert Haldane (1764-1842)
Philanthropist, Theologian, Preacher
Robert was born on Queen Ann Street, London on February 28th, 1764. His parents were both of the same ancient family line, as they were first cousins. He had one sister who died in childhood and a brother, James Alexander Haldane. His father, James, was a sea captain who had a reputation for enforcing moral discipline on his ships. He was about to be elected an East India Company director when in 1768 he got a sore throat, which was incorrectly treated, and died. He died a professing Christian. Robert’s mother was shocked by events, giving birth two months early to her son James, just two weeks after her husband’s death. Mrs Haldane was from a decidedly Christian family. The two brothers were blessed in having a mother who was gentle, maternal and an ardent Christian who prayed fervently for her children, often at their bedside while they were sleeping, and who taught them the ways of God. Unfortunately, she died when Robert was only ten. Both her sons were conscious of her part in their walking in the ways of God. She died from something like flu. Her Christian doctor was so affected by how she behaved during her last days, that he said her attitude was enough to make one in love with death.
Their maternal grandmother, a former great society beauty, looked after the children following their mother’s death. The boys’ two uncles were experienced military men; one a retired Colonel (who later became their guardian), the other a Captain (soon to be Admiral) in the navy. As experienced men of the world, they understood the importance of a good education more than most of the Scottish gentry, so they ensured that their nephews received the best they could provide. They were both sent to the grammar school in Dundee. When their grandmother died in 1777, their uncle, Admiral, Viscount Duncan, sent them to board at the highly reputed High School in Edinburgh. Two of their classmates were John Campbell, the African missionary, and Greville Ewing, the minister of the Independent congregation in Glasgow — men with whom the Haldanes were to be later intimately connected. The boys missed a stable home life, but otherwise they lived an exceedingly privileged one, like the wealthy gentlemen they were.
For a time in his childhood, Robert wanted to become a minister, sometimes dressing up and preaching to the servants at Lundie House, the home of their grandmother where they would stay in the summer holidays. Robert said towards the end of his life that he had serious convictions about God from the age of nine. It would have been impossible in those days for someone of his wealth and position to become a minister; but anyway, he soon wanted to go to sea to follow his famous uncle, and also his father who was an East India captain. The navy was a good choice, even though there was the obvious risk their great family influence insured a rapid promotion, whether in the royal service or that of the East India Company. Robert accordingly was destined to the former, and James to the latter. In 1780 the family separation commenced by Robert's joining his uncle’s ship, the ‘Monarch’ at Portsmouth, after about a year at Edinburgh College.
On entering the naval service under such a commander as the future hero of Camperdown, Robert Haldane, now at the age of sixteen, was not likely to remain idle. After being a year in the ‘Monarch’ he was transferred to the ‘Foudroyant’, 80 guns, commanded by Captain Jervis, afterwards Earl St. Vincent, and was present at the memorable night engagement with the ‘Pegase’, a French ship of a similar size. In this battle, which was hotly maintained for three-quarters of an hour, Robert Haldane served his guns with the skill and coolness of a veteran, pointing them in the dark using a lantern, although by doing so he made himself a mark for the enemy’s snipers. His gallantry on this occasion obtained the approbation of his brave commander, who sent him on board the ‘Pegase’ to receive its surrender. On writing to Admiral Duncan, he congratulated him on the conduct of his nephew, and predicted that Robert would become an ornament to his country. On the return of the ‘Foudroyant’ to Spithead Robert Haldane spent much of his time at Gosport, where he was attracted by the ministry of the Rev. David Bogue, originally a Scottish Presbyterian, but afterwards the pastor of an Independent congregation at Gosport. Through Bogue’s teaching Robert not only had his religious impressions revived, but he began to favour Independency over the Established Church.
An expedition was sent out in 1782 to relieve Gibraltar, under the command of Lord Howe. Robert once more saw action. The garrison was relieved, and at the entrance of the British fleet into Gibraltar the ‘Foudroyant’ was the leading ship. On the return from the Straits an indecisive engagement with the enemy took place, after which the fleet reached Spithead unmolested. An incident occurred on the way that showed Haldane's courage and devotion. A Spanish 60-gun ship was chased by some of the British vessels, in which the fast-sailing ‘Foudroyant’ was in the lead as usual, with all her canvas spread; while Haldane was ordered to the fore-topgallant-mast to remain on the look-out until he was recalled. In the meantime, in consequence of an order from Lord Howe, the chase was abandoned, but Haldane was forgotten in the excitement, and the overstrained mast had sprung with the force of the canvas. Every moment he expected to be swept into the sea; but still, faithful to the letter of his orders, he would not abandon his post. His only chance of safety, which an old seaman who was stationed beside him suggested, was to keep hold of the lower part of the ropes, so that when carried into the sea they might still retain their hold of the mast, with their heads above water. While in this precarious situation there was a sudden cry of 'A man overboard!" which resulted in a rapid shortening of sail. The critical situation of Haldane and the sailor was then discovered, and an instant order to shorten sail relieved them from their danger.
On the ‘Foudroyant’ being paid off at Spithead, Haldane was transferred to the ‘Salisbury’ of 50 guns, commanded by Sir John Jervis, who was commanding a squadron intending to do a voyage of discovery around the world and attack the Spanish settlements of South America. However, the peace between Great Britain, France and Spain in 1783 meant that she only made a short voyage to Newfoundland. On her return to England Robert Haldane, finding no prospect either of active service or immediate promotion, decided to give up the sea. He resigned his commission and decided to complete the education which had been interrupted three years before, when he went to sea. After a few months in Gosport, sitting under the ministry of Brogue, he once more became a student at the University of Edinburgh. After two years he made the grand tour, comprising the principal countries of Europe. After his return in 1786 he married the seventeen year old Katherine Cochrane Oswald, daughter of George Oswald of Scotstown, and settled down on his father’s beautiful estate of Airthrey, resolving to devote himself to the life and occupations of a country gentleman. For about eight years he threw all his energies and taste into improving his estates and landscaping his gardens; soon becoming conspicuous among his peers who came to him for advice.
Robert Haldane seemed to excel in everything he did. Admiral Duncan and Admiral Jervis, the nation’s two foremost sailors, both thought very highly of Haldane, expecting him to be very successful. He was very knowledgeable, had great originality of thought, a lively personality, force of character and leadership abilities; all these marked him out amongst his peers. Sir Ralph Abercromby, soon to be the brilliant Commander-in-Chief of the army in the West Indies, Ireland and Scotland, was often to be heard saying that he was never in Robert Haldane’s company without hearing something worth remembering. Because of the high esteem in which he was held by influential men in the county, he was expected to be their Member of Parliament. Robert never allowed a portrait of himself to be painted. The ‘Witness’ described him after his death. “His eye was little, black, and signally penetrating. The general expression of his countenance was thoughtful, but bland, good-humoured, and not unfrequently humorous; for he was not only a profound and most acute man, but was a kind-hearted man, and could both make and relish a joke. Of his liberality it is needless to speak.”
Robert Haldane was suddenly awakened by an event that shook the world, the French Revolution. As the laird of Airthrey he did not support any political party, but saw in this event the annihilation of the rights of heritage. However, his generous heart did not the less sympathise in the sufferings of a great nation and its battle for deliverance. He did not at the time take into account the heathen principles upon which that revolution was based, and the utter insufficiency of such principles to produce the results he anticipated. His views were often misrepresented, so as a result he was much criticised for his opinions. He would spend a lot of time with ministers from around the Stirling area, discussing the situation. Up until that time he had acted in a moral and decent way; but he spoke of a Saviour he did not know. He had a form of godliness, but denied its power. He wrote, “Conversing with these gentlemen, and reading a good deal upon the subject of religion, I was brought gradually to perceive in some measure the glory of the doctrines held out in Scripture, and the consistency of the truth as it is in Jesus. I became anxious to be better informed, and daily gave myself more and more to the investigation of it. I happened to be at a friend’s house two winters, in a situation where I had much leisure for such enquiries. I enjoyed great comfort in pursuing them, and think I can truly say, that under a deep sense of my own ignorance in the things that related to God, and considerable perplexity, amidst opposite opinions on the subject, I earnestly besought the Lord that he would enable me to distinguish between truth and falsehood.”
Having become a true follower of Christ, Robert Haldane looked for a field of Christian enterprise, and soon found it in India. The Baptist mission had just recently been established there, and the account of its proceedings published. Haldane, after reading the first of its periodical reports, was impatient to enter such a field, and co-operate with the efforts of William Carey and others. He too wanted to become a missionary, and devote himself to a life of danger and toil in India. It was a strange plan, but it was not adopted rashly nor unwisely implemented. It was on a grand and comprehensive scale, with himself, Dr Innes, minister at Stirling, David Bogue of Gosport, and Greville Ewing, to go out as missionaries. These were to be accompanied by an efficient staff of catechists, city missionaries and schoolmasters; and a printing-press, with printers and bookbinders. The whole mission was to be transported to India, and when there, to be supported entirely at the expense of Haldane. To provide a fund for the purpose, he was prepared to bring to sell his rich and beautiful estate of Airthrey. Haldane commented, "Christianity is everything or nothing. If it be true, it warrants and commands every sacrifice to promote its influence. If it be not, then let us lay aside the hypocrisy of professing to believe it."
Everything was ready, it appeared as if nothing more was necessary than that the mission should hoist sail and go. It was a great national undertaking, from which the government should gain great benefits with the advantage of having to pay nothing in return. Still, however, permission had to be obtained from the directors of the East India Company and the Board of Control, without which the mission would have been treated as unauthorised. It was not forgotten that Carey had been obliged to start his mission, not in British India, from which he would have been excluded, but in the Danish settlement of Serampore. However, it was thought that the Indian legislators would have had a different view by this time, as they had more experience, and also this was a really extensive and well put together enterprise, led by someone of Haldane’s rank, character and high connections. Much to Robert Haldane’s disappointment his application was refused. Politicians believed that the best way to maintain their conquest of India was to keep the Indians in profound ignorance. It was alleged also, that an attack upon Brahmanism, like that which a Christian mission implied, would raise up such resentment throughout the whole of Hindustan that an instant revolt would ensue, and end in the expulsion of the British from the country. It was asserted that Brahmanism was a religion best suited for India; that it was a mild, innocent and virtuous system; and that, by disturbing the faith of its worshippers, we could at best only translate them from good, pious Hindus, into very questionable Christians.
Haldane wrote, "For some time after this (1797) I did not lay aside my endeavours to go out to Bengal; and, in the meanwhile, was busied in selling my estate, that there might be no delay on my part, if obstructions from without should be removed. I accordingly at length found a purchaser, and with great satisfaction left a place, in the beautifying and improving of which my mind had once been much engrossed. In that transaction I sincerely rejoice to this hour, although disappointed in not getting out to India. I gave up a place and a situation which continually presented objects calculated to excite and gratify 'the lust of the eye and the pride of life.' Instead of being engaged in such poor matters, my time is now more at my command; and I find my power of usefully applying property very considerably increased.” Haldane was soon to be involved in many enterprises, exhibiting his usual force and energy
One of the first of these was the plan of Christianising Africa through the agency of its own children. This continent was extremely inhospitable to Europeans at this time; its climate was so difficult to all but its natives, that it presented insuperable obstacles to the zealous missionary, as well as the enterprising explorer.
The idea had occurred to John Campbell, himself afterwards a successful explorer of Africa, that native children could be brought to Britain, where they would be educated in Christianity and the arts of civilization, and afterwards returned to their homes. They would prove the fittest missionaries and teachers of their countrymen. In l798 he met with Robert Haldane, to whom he mentioned his scheme; and the latter, struck with its promising character, at once offered to provide the finance which was calculated at from £6,000 to £7,000. Therefore, twenty-four African children, belonging to the families of different chiefs, were shipped from Sierra Leone, and brought safely to Edinburgh via London. They were placed in the care of Haldane, who had leased a large old tenement building in King's Park. However, Haldane, though he defrayed the whole expense of the experiment, was not to be entrusted with the management and education of the children; this was to be placed under a London committee. Haldane could not agree to such unexpected proposals, so he decided to withdraw from the enterprise. Fortunately however, the children were not abandoned. After having received a religious education, and been taught several handicraft professions, these youthful missionaries were in due time restored to their homes.
The disappointments Haldane experienced, both in his Indian and African efforts, seemed only to spur him on with redoubled vigour into the field. The state of Christianity in Scotland was very dire, the influence of Moderatism having pervaded many areas. The members of the Moderate party were more interested in teaching people to be moral than to teach about Jesus; many ministers knew little about Jesus themselves. Haldane wanted to stem the tide of ignorance that pervaded Scotland. At his own expense he had religious tracts printed and distributed all over the country in their thousands. In this way slim broad-sheets found their way through every opening, and the attention of all classes was awakened to doctrines which they were too seldom accustomed to hear from the pulpit. At the close of the eighteenth century this was a new form of evangelism, the Tract Society did not yet exist. In December 1797 the Haldane brothers set up a society, consisting of Christians from all denominations, under the name of ‘The Society for Propagating the Gospel at Home.’ Their sole intention was to make known the Evangelical Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. While he anticipated the work of the Tract Society, he also forestalled that of the British and Foreign Bible Society, by distributing the Scriptures at his own expense. He also formed, and helped in the formation of Sabbath-schools, at that time sorely needed in Scotland. The nature of Scotland was changing with the Industrial Revolution, through which children became sons and daughters of the loom and the spinning-jenny, instead of the legitimate offspring of Christian men and women. Moreover, Haldane helped to finance the Serampore translations of the Scriptures for India at the same time that he was labouring for the circulation of the Gospel among the huts and cottages of his own native country. All this he did before the summer of 1800.
The need for a faithfully preached Gospel was at that time particularly urgent in Scotland, and here it was that Haldane directed his main work. While the population had doubled, the number of churches had largely remained the same; and even if additional churches should be built, the difficulty of supplying them with a proper minister still remained. There was little hope at the time that government would supply what was needed, so the issue was allowed to drift. To build or hire churches was Haldane's first target. First, he built the Tabernacle or Circus Church, in Edinburgh in 1798. John Aikman, who was later co-pastor of the church, writes, “The chief principle which influenced the minds of the brethren…..was the indispensable necessity of the people of God being separated in religious fellowship from all such societies as permitted visible unbelievers to continue in their communion. This was a yoke under which we had long groaned.” The form of Church Government was Congregational, the first such church to be built in Scotland. The new pastor of this church was to be Robert’s brother, James.
Ever since the tour of Simeon in 1796 the Moderate party had been seething at the success of the itinerant preachers, particularly James Haldane, Aikman and Rowland Hill. The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland met in May 1799 and passed an act that “prohibited all persons from preaching in any place under their juris,diction, who were not licensed; and also, those who are from England, or any other place, and who had not first been educated and licensed in Scotland.” This appalling act which was passed by a Body that one person described as ‘more favourable to Deism than any other religion,’ was aimed specifically at itinerant preachers and Sunday-school teachers. To the shame of Scotland, this act remained until 1842 when it was unanimously rescinded; everyone recognizing its discreditable nature. Every parish was to read out to their congregations a warning against the Society for Propagating the Gospel at Home. It is good to note that some ministers disobeyed the Assembly ruling.
Before the sale of Airthrey it was the centre of attraction to Christians of all denominations from Scotland and England. A temporary chapel was set up at the stables in a wood, where men like Brogue and Ewing preached mid-week. Many aspects of Christianity were discussed all through the night. Haldane only had one daughter, who married in 1805. His wife helped him in his work by copying his manuscripts, abridging his letters and doing research. Airthrey was sold in 1798, and all the funds were used for Gospel purposes, but he retained some of the grounds and still had another estate to rely on for income.
Despite being involved with everything mentioned above, he also assisted in field preaching. Having become a Christian, he wanted to share what he had discovered with others. His first sermon was in April 1798. He was with Dr Innes in Weem, near Taymouth. After the church service Innes asked people to remain to hear Haldane speak. His hearers found the experience strange because Haldane was wearing normal coloured clothes as opposed to the normal black of preachers. Innes commented on how well he was qualified to public speaking.
In the same year he was returning to Scotland from London on the Great North Road. Arriving in Stilton, Huntingdonshire, on Saturday afternoon, he decided to stay there for the Sunday. He found that the Gospel was not preached in the church, so he arranged with the landlord of the inn to preach in the evening in the yard of the hotel. The landlord cleared out the carriages and gave notice of the meeting. Haldane addressed a large congregation, who asked him to speak again after he had finished. He spoke again for nearly an hour; the people were deeply moved and thanked him profusely. A few years later, probably in 1802, he again spent a Sunday at the same inn, but, hearing that there was then a Methodist or Wesleyan Chapel, he went there to worship. At the end of the service an old woman noticed him, and cried out ‘Here’s the beginning of it all!’ He learned from the minister and others, that several had been converted under his sermon, so they built a chapel to enable them to hear more of the Gospel preached.
The church in Edinburgh was followed in the summer of 1800, by others in Glasgow, Dundee, Perth, Thurso, Wick, and Elgin. Robert Haldane often had words spoken against him, probably through envy, or because the people concerned could not believe that anyone would give away so much of his money. Haldane paid for all the churches, and all money collected through pew rents etc, were ploughed back into the work of spreading the Gospel. However, gossip still went around that he was lining his pockets with income from the churches.
An even more important work of Haldane’s was the provision, at his expense, of theological colleges. He first had the idea in 1798 when he was in England. The first class was in Edinburgh in 1799. There were 24 in the first class; all of them Presbyterians. The only qualifications for admission were genuine piety, talents that could be cultivated and a desire to preach the Gospel. The idea was to train preachers to go out into the highways and byways to preach the Gospel. It was made clear to the students that the idea was not to elevate their social status, but to make catechists and preachers out of them; and although Haldane was paying for their upkeep, once they had graduated they were on their own. The course was for two years. A second class of forty was started in Dundee, but they were transferred later to Glasgow. The Glasgow and Edinburgh classes were later combined. By the end of 1808, when the Seminary was closed, nearly 300 preachers had graduated. In addition, Haldane also paid for other seminaries in Elgin, Granton, Armagh, and a smaller one in Paris. These Seminaries were vital to the Church in Scotland. As already mentioned, Moderatism held sway and had done so for about fifty years. The Established Church’s theological colleges were spewing out more Moderates; somebody had to stem the flow so that the true Gospel could be preached in Scotland. These new preachers were to help change the atmosphere in the country. As early as 1802, one of the students, Farquharson, left the Seminary. It was considered that his intellect was not good enough for him to become a preacher, so he went to Breadalbane as a catechist. Farquharson lit the fires of revival there, and then did the same in Skye, before going to America. Haldane stopped the Seminaries when the Established Church began to produce good evangelical preachers again.
It is calculated that, from 1798 to 1810, Robert Haldane spent the enormous sum of £70,000 in his labours to propagate the Gospel at home He did this deliberately as a solemn call of duty; toiling, calculating, and foreseeing at every step. Never, perhaps, were Christian liberality and Scottish canniness so admirably combined, or so nobly illustrated; and it is upon this principle that we are to estimate the true worth and the sacrifices of Robert Haldane.
The effects produced by these tabernacles were very soon apparent throughout Scotland. They aroused attention; and even when the feeling was nothing more than that of concern, it led to discussion, which was very much needed at a time of crisis. The most neglected districts, the most secluded nooks, were soon pervaded with an itinerant or settled mission; and communities that had slumbered in hundreds of parishes under the drowsy influence of Moderatism were shaken from their torpor. Some worried that Scotland would turn away from Presbyterianism towards Independency, but once the public mind was awakened, they turned again towards Presbyterianism. In this way, Independency fulfilled its mission in Scotland, and having accomplished this, it silently declined. At first, Haldane, in the introduction of these chapels, had no idea of leaving the church — they were only intended as auxiliaries; and both ministers and members were in the practice of taking Communion in the Established churches.
However, this harmony could not last long; and as was the case of Methodism in England, the alliance was soon broken, and the new congregations were organised into a body of Dissenters. There then followed a disagreement over the question of paedobaptism that split the body in two. Haldane and his brother favoured the doctrine of the Baptists, and were followed by a large portion of the Congregationalists; the rest took a more decided stand upon the principles of Independency which had long been recognised in England. Congregationalism continued in Scotland and by 1897 had about 100 congregations.
In 1809 Robert Haldane sold his remaining estates and purchased the estate of Auchingray, in Lanarkshire — a desolate moor of 2000 acres on which grew only a single tree; but through his vision and work it soon had forests of larch, fir, birch, ash and coppice. This, however, was not his chief occupation, for a large portion of his time was spent in the study, where his preparations for the pulpit equalled those of the most ambitious or painstaking minister. Another important purpose to which he addressed himself was the preparation of a literary work on the Evidences of Christianity, because he was dissatisfied with the acknowledged works on this important subject. The established authors seemed to be more interested with the outward workings of Christianity rather than its inner life and spirit. The result was his ‘Evidence and Authority of Divine Evolution’, of which the first edition was published in 1816. The work, which later was considerably extended and improved, was not only favourably received by the Christian public, but highly approved by influential judges.
The end of the war with France opened up an important epoch in the life of Haldane. This was his memorable journey to Geneva and Montauban. After twenty years of work and sacrifice, he had witnessed such a change in the religious state of Scotland that it left him little cause to regret that Congregationalism should at last be found unnecessary. Still as passionate for the great work of his life, and as keen for missionary enterprise as when he began, he now decided to make a tour of the Continent. Accompanied by his wife, he left Edinburgh on the October 9th, 1816. His first destination was Paris, but finding no opening there for missionary work, and hearing of the dreadful state of Geneva, he went to that city and took up residence there. This city was the home of Calvin and the refuge of John Knox and therefore very important to every true Scotsman — alas! how it had fallen from its ancient supremacy! Those doctrines, of which Geneva was once the nursing mother and promoter, had been so utterly forgotten, that when the new visitor spoke of them, he was met with the Athenian cry, “Thou bringst certain strange things to our ears!” Not merely the Calvinistic form of Christianity, but even Christianity itself, had been reduced to Socinianism, Neology, Deism — anything, in short, but what it originally was. Each man was allowed to modify the doctrine however he wished, provided he did not disturb society, either with warnings of its apostasy or a summons to repentance. This was especially true of the pastors of the canton, the theological schools, and the students in training for the ministry. Although a very few suspected occasionally that they were in the wrong, and that there was some better way which they had missed, there was neither friend to encourage, nor teacher to direct them in their inquiries.
However, on the arrival of Robert Haldane, a change began in Geneva. He explained the Scriptures to a few of the students, whom he invited to his hotel. The numbers of inquirers grew and multiplied and the light of the Gospel began to shine in their hearts and minds. These students, however; numerous as they ultimately became, did not constitute the whole of his audience. Haldane himself writes, "Besides those who attended regularly, some, who did not wish to appear with the students, came at different hours; and in conversing with them at those times, or after finishing the public course at eight o'clock, I was often engaged till near midnight. Others of the inhabitants of Geneva, unconnected with the schools of learning, and of both sexes, occasionally visited me in the afternoon respecting the Gospel." No such movement has ever occurred without opposition; and the Genevese pastors, after vainly attempting to refute the new preacher, endeavoured to get him banished from the canton. On their request being turned down by their free republican government, they proposed to cite him before their spiritual court as someone who taught error and perverted their students. But all that they could do was to frame new acts, which every student was required to sign before being licensed to preach; acts particularly framed against the doctrines of the Godhead of the Saviour, original sin, grace and effectual calling, and predestination. It was the blundering policy of persecutors, who endeavour to silence without having power and authority to destroy. The sword, wielded by such feeble hands was in fact a spur to accelerate the movement. One writer commented that, “…in a very short time, a striking revival, affected by his means, was manifested in the school of theology. Around the venerable Haldane, their true professor, there gathered habitually more than twenty pupils of that school, converted by the instructions of that blessed Word, which they (the students) began immediately to distribute in Geneva, or at a later period, to carry to neighbouring countries…. He knew the Scriptures like a Christian who has had for his Teacher the same Holy Spirit by whom they were dictated.” The knock on effect of Haldane’s work in Geneva was huge.
Having finished the good work at Geneva, and kindled a flame that was not to go out, Haldane wisely resolved to leave, and work elsewhere. Montauban was selected as his next field, which he reached in July 1817. Here he published his lectures to the students of Geneva in French, in two volumes; under the title of ‘A Commentary on the Romans’. Although the centre of education for the Protestants of the Reformed Church in France, Montauban was too like the parent city of Geneva; it had lapsed from the faith, and was overrun with Arianism and infidelity. Here he lived more than two years, proceeding in the same way he had done in Geneva, but without the persecution. Happily, it was with similar results. Several ministers and many young students who had been trained in Rationalism were converted to the faith under his apostolic ministry. Unfortunately, he had to return to Scotland because his father-in-law was dying. He hoped to return, but never did. An eminent minister wrote in 1842 of Haldane’s time in France: “But thanks be to God, now in this Church, as in a great number of others in our France, the truth of God is preached with power, and without ostensible contradiction. The great majority of pastors are approaching nearer and nearer to the orthodoxy of our fathers, and many among them are truly examples of zeal for the house of God. I am often touched even to tears in seeing pastors, at whose ordination I did not wish to take part, preach Christ, and Christ crucified, with liberty of heart, full of force and blessing. I tell you these things, dear Sir, because it is most certainly the fruit of the good seed sown here and elsewhere by your venerable uncle.”
On his return to Scotland Mr. Haldane, always tireless in the good work to which he had devoted himself, was employed with the state of religion at home and upon the Continent, intermingled with occasional preaching and a missionary visit to Ireland. In this way he occupied himself till 1821, when he was involved with a difficult controversy. This was the Apocryphal Controversy, which originated in the following way: — On the establishment of the British and Foreign Bible Society, it was agreed that the Scriptures should be circulated without note and comment, and that the Apocrypha should be excluded. It was easy to keep an eye on this at home and in Protestant countries abroad, where the canon of Scripture had been established, but it was very different in Catholic countries, where the prevalent errors are mainly based on passages from the Apocryphal writings, and where the books of Tobit, the Maccabees, and Bel and the Dragon, are of equal authority with those of the apostles and prophets. Those Catholic countries would not receive the Bible, therefore, unless it included the Apocrypha, and in error the society gave in to their demand. They not only gave money in aid to the foreign societies that published these adulterated Scriptures, but actually printed Bibles with the Apocrypha intermingled or appended, to further the circulation of the Word among Catholic, Greek, and semi-Protestant communities. In this way, a pious fraud was begun that went on step by step. And still the unsuspecting public increased their donations from year to year and believed all was well. At length it fell to Robert Haldane, by the merest accident, to detect this fraud.
In 1821, being in London, he had visited the offices of the Bible Society. Having left his umbrella there, he went back the following day to get it. While there he was asked to join a sub-committee then in progress. He complied; but as the business went on, he was astonished to discover how much the Apocrypha had been circulated among the foreign translations of the Bible. He made his objections very clear, and the society agreed to discontinue the practice. Everything was quiet until 1824, when it was found out the practice was still going on. Finding his objections ineffectual, Haldane now appealed to the Edinburgh Society, which had up until now acted in connection with the British and Foreign Bible Society. As there were no Apocryphal sympathies held in Scotland, the Edinburgh branch withdrew from the coalition, and formed an organisation of its own for the circulation of an unmixed, unadulterated Gospel. Such an action could not be accomplished without a controversy, for the parent society felt itself rebuked, and therefore endeavoured to justify itself to the Christian public. The two parties entered into a conflict that lasted for years. On the one side, the British and Foreign Bible Society enlisted men of the highest reputation for learning, orthodoxy and piety, and the chief religious periodicals of the day. On the other side, Dr. Andrew Thomson, the most formidable of controversialists, and Robert Haldane were the principal champions.
This was an important dispute, Revelation itself was at stake. The Apocryphal party in desperation endeavoured to justify themselves by calling into question the canon of Scripture itself, as if it were a matter on which everyone might think as he pleased. To justify themselves they explored the works of the old heretical writers to show how much of the Bible was interpolated or uninspired, and how much might safely be called into question. On went the conflict till 1830, when Dr. Thomson, exhausted by his almost superhuman efforts, fell dead at his post and Robert Haldane took up the fight. In the end truth prevailed; the canon of inspiration was more securely settled than ever, and the Bible Society recovered from its errors and was restored to health and efficiency. During this long controversy, Haldane's exertions, both on the platform and in the press, were immense.
Haldane’s latter days were characterised by the same high sense of duty and devoted activity that had distinguished his whole career. Before the Apocryphal controversy had ended, he published a ‘Refutation of the Heretical Doctrine promulgated by the Rev. Edward Irving respecting the Person and Atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ.’ In 1834 he published a new edition of his ‘Evidences of Christianity,’ to which many valuable chapters were added that had not appeared in the original work of 1816. After this he worked on the revision of his greatest work, the ‘Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans,’ on which he had been more or less employed for thirty years; and published it, greatly improved and enlarged, in 1835. Its’ popularity can be seen by the fact that it had five editions in seven years. It might have been hoped that his days of fighting controversy had now ended, but in 1838, a generous love of fair play and sympathy for the oppressed obliged him once more to buckle on his armour. The clergy of the Established church in Edinburgh were paid, as they had long been, by an annuity-tax levied upon every householder within the city. However, the Dissenters and Seceders had now refused to pay the tax, and many were willing to incur the risk of fine or even imprisonment rather than support any longer what they called “the State church.” It was then that Haldane, himself a dissenter, hastened to the rescue. He boldly attacked the coalition that had been formed for the non-payment of the annuity-tax; grounding his argument upon the first seven verses of the thirteenth chapter of St. Paul's epistle to the Romans. He startled the recusants by proving from this authority that they were guilty of rebellion against Christ himself. His appeal was addressed through one of the Edinburgh newspapers, and eleven letters followed in which he pursued the same line of argument. So successful were these addresses that the tide of popular feeling was turned, the coalition broken and its leader silenced.
Old age was taking its toll on Robert Haldane, and by 1840, at the age of 76, he was obliged to stop preaching in the chapel which he had erected at Auchingray. But to the last he continued to interest himself in religious and missionary movements, and to revise and improve his ‘Exposition of the Romans,’ which he justly regarded as the most important of all his writings.
At the end of August 1842 he became unwell, he asked the doctor his chances of recovery. The doctor replied, “Mr Haldane, you are a man of firm mind and not afraid of death. I have, therefore, no fear of alarming you when I say that it looks like a last illness.”His body was giving out after so much had been asked of it in a lifetime of service. In his last weeks he did not allow many visitors except his brother, preferring to be alone. His mind continued to be sharp until the very end. He died quietly on December 12th, 1842, rejoicing in the faith he had preached, and the love and Christian charity which his whole life had so beautifully exemplified. His remains lie interred in one of the aisles of Glasgow Cathedral. His wife died just six months later, and her body was buried in the same vault with her husband. Their only child, Margaret, left one son and three daughters, the grandchildren of Robert Haldane.
The ‘Witness’ remarked on his death: “Mr Haldane was one of those eminent men who leave an impress of their character on the age in which they live; and devoted, as his whole energies from an early period were, to the cause of the Redeemer, and with an efficacy rarely in any age equalled, his is a name which will be remembered among the worthies of the Church when merely worldly fame is gone.”
After his brother’s death the ‘Witness’ again testifies: “Viewed in his capacity of theologian, we have long regarded Robert Haldane, with all the disadvantages of non-professional education, as one of the GREATEST THEOLOGIANS of whom Scotland can boast, and in one important point of view, --in his uncompromising advocacy of sound doctrine, -- the very type of the man of the age.”
This essay is taken from “Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen" by Robert Chambers. This can be seen on http://www.archive.org/stream/abiographicaldi00thomgoog. This in turn was taken from “The Lives of Robert and James Haldane” by Alexander Haldane, published in 1853. This can be seen on http://www.archive.org/details/memoirslivesrob01haldgoog.
Photo of Robert Haldane of Airthrey, 1764 - 1842, with thanks to the National Galleries of Scotland.