A guest review by John Stenhouse
Kate Malcolm has written a superb historical novel about one of her Scottish Presbyterian ancestors, the Revd. James Begg. The author trained in history at the University of Otago; it showed. One of the book’s many strengths is how well the author placed it in the historical contexts necessary to understand the life and times of James Begg and his family, church and nation. Historians are trained to avoid anachronism – language, ideas, objects and practices chronologically out of place in the period about which the author is writing. It is a tribute to Kate Malcolm that she avoided anachronism almost entirely.
Chapter one depicts young James Begg growing up the son of a Church of Scotland minister in New Monkland. The author’s account of a Scottish communion gathering conveyed a sense of the drama and excitement of occasions that caught up entire communities. Here, as elsewhere, Malcolm combined impeccable historical research with a novelist’s eye for her subjects’ inner worlds of thought and feeling.
After making a name for himself as a powerful preacher, James Begg joined the Free Church exodus out of the Church of Scotland during the Disruption. Here the author nicely captured the volatile mix of social, intellectual, political and theological tensions between the Moderate party and the Evangelicals, led by Thomas Chalmers, who reluctantly led the latter out of the established church in 1843. Academic historians who have difficulty understanding how deeply past generations felt about theology, politics and their interconnections have sometimes written accounts of such controversies that are too dry, dispassionate and cerebral. In Malcolm’s telling, by contrast, we can feel the anger of the Begg family when well-heeled Moderates and their supporters imposed a minister on an unwilling congregation. The author brings to life the Disruption – probably the most important event in nineteenth-century Scottish history – by refusing to confine theology to the private sphere of heart, home and house of worship. Weaving together theology with politics, law and social history, Malcolm brings our Presbyterian past to life just a few years before Free Church folk founded the Otago settlement. It is worth remembering that the Evangelical party left the Church of Scotland because they did not believe that the dominant Moderate party was keeping the church in vital contact with the mass of the Scottish people. Free Church visions of society as a godly commonwealth did not suddenly disappear; this tradition significantly shaped Otago, Southland and New Zealand history well into the twentieth century.
While the author writes about her subjects with empathy and understanding, she avoids hagiography. She depicts James Begg as a gifted and passionate preacher and dedicated pastor but not as a plaster saint. I found myself cringing at how harshly this Presbyterian patriarch sometimes treated his eldest son, Jamie. Sensitive and uncertain, Jamie responded to his father’s disapproval by withdrawing. It is a painful story that illuminates a shadow side of Scottish Presbyterian culture.
One of James Begg’s sons, Alexander Campbell, emigrated to Dunedin, where he played a lively and sometimes controversial role in Presbyterian church life as a staunch defender of tradition. Strongly attached to the Westminster Confession, A. C. Begg encouraged southern Presbyterians to try the Revd. Professor William Salmond and the Revd. James Gibb for heresy in 1888 and 1890 respectively. Begg’s support for prohibition, Bible-in-Schools and strict Sabbath observance annoyed working class radicals such as Sam Lister, whose Otago Workman newspaper regularly attacked ‘Ace’ Begg as a domineering old bigot.
Modern New Zealand historians have tended to side with Lister. In a famous article appearing in Landfall in 1953, Auckland poet-historian Robert M. Chapman, who later became professor of political science at the University of Auckland, identified Scottish Presbyterians and English Evangelicals as the main carriers of ‘puritanism’ to New Zealand. And puritanism, claimed Chapman, was the root of almost evil, plaguing society with interpersonal violence, marital discord, family dysfunction, female frigidity, latent homosexuality, patriarchy, self-hatred, and the ‘dominant mother.’ During the 1950s, with his friend and fellow poet-historian Keith Sinclair, Chapman translated into history and the social sciences the anti-puritanism burgeoning in literary circles since the 1930s. During the 1960s and 1970s, as the universities expanded, antipuritanism grew into a powerful new orthodoxy. Many of our writers, artists, historians and social scientists sought to save us from puritanism (or Calvinism, as they sometimes called it) and the churches that brought it here. Just how far this antipuritan crusade transformed attitudes to our Scottish Presbyterian forebears may be illustrated simply. In The Land of the Long White Cloud (1898), William Pember Reeves, our most influential nineteenth-century historian, praised the Revd. Thomas Burns, spiritual leader of Otago’s Free Church pioneers, as ‘a minister of sterling worth.’ In 1959, by contrast, Keith Sinclair’s Pelican History of New Zealand described Burns as a ‘censorious old bigot.’ Had Burns changed so much in sixty years?
‘Amor ipse intellectus est,’ wrote Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, a saying we might translate into English as ‘love itself is the knowing faculty.’ In a labour of love, Kate Malcolm has rescued one of her Scottish Presbyterian forebears – and ours – from the condescension of posterity. This beautifully written book deserves a wide readership.