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Alexander Stewart of Moulin

David Campbell
05 February 2023 00:56

From darkness to light

Some very distinguished ministers of the Scottish church began their ministry in spiritual darkness. Alexander Henderson was one. Thomas Chalmers a second. A third was an older contemporary of Chalmers, Alexander Stewart, successively minister in Moulin, Dingwall, and Edinburgh. It is with Stewart’s story that our interest lies.

Alexander Stewart became parish minister of Moulin near Pitlochry, Perthshire, in 1786. He was twenty-two years old. He would later destroy all the sermons preached in the first years of his ministry, one small manuscript volume alone being spared. It dates from 1788 and was preserved ‘as a monument of his former ignorance’. An inscription, added in 1817, and translated by his son from the original Latin, reads as follows:

Youthful Trifles,

produced in the season of ignorance and darkness,

possessing nothing of the savour of the gospel,

abounding in errors,

fit only to be pitied, fit only to be destroyed;

to be pardoned solely by the clemency of a merciful God,    

through the grace of his only-begotten Son.

Reflecting back on these early days Stewart says, ‘Although I was not a “despiser” of what was sacred, yet I felt nothing of the power of religion on my soul. I had no relish for its exercises, nor any enjoyment in the duties of my office, public or private.’ He admits, for example, to being ‘quite well pleased when a diet of catechising was ill attended’ for it meant that his work was sooner over. ‘I well remember’ he adds, ‘that I often hurried over that exercise with a good deal of impatience, that I might get home to join a dancing party, or read a sentimental novel.’

His ‘public addresses and prayers’ were, he acknowledges, ‘for the most part, cold and formal. They were little regarded by the hearers at the time, and as little recollected afterwards. I preached against particular vices, and inculcated particular virtues. But I had no notion of the necessity of a radical change of principle…that “except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God”…The people, however, were satisfied with what they heard, and neither they nor I looked farther.’ He traces the problem to its roots when he confesses, ‘I was in a great measure ignorant of the peculiar doctrines of Christianity, the corruption of the human will, the fullness and freeness of the redemption which is in Christ, justification by faith, and the necessity of the Holy Spirit’s agency on the human soul; and what I knew not myself I could not declare to others.’

The change in Stewart came slowly. Two men in particular were instrumental. The first was his friend David Black, then minister in the Perthshire village of St Madoes; later of Lady Yester’s Church in Edinburgh. In The Pastor of Kilsyth, the memoir by Islay Burns of his father William Hamilton Burns, he is referred to as ‘the saintly and tenderly plaintive David Black – the M’Cheyne of those days’. He had begun his ministry in St Madoes only a year before Stewart settled in Moulin and there was only a small difference in age. Long afterwards Stewart would write, ‘The dear name (of Mr. Black) is always associated with my first perceptions of divine truth and redeeming love’. They were talking together in the garden of the St Madoes manse and David Black was telling him about a sister of his who had died in great faith and spiritual comfort. It made an indelible impression on Stewart. His own beliefs, he knew, could not account for such a death.

It seems to have been sometime in 1791 that this visit was made. Later that year the two friends began a correspondence which only ended with David Black’s death in 1806. Many of the letters are preserved in Stewart’s biography. They chart the progress in Stewart’s understanding of the gospel and the beginnings of a change in his preaching. A personal narrative, drawn up years afterwards, does the same. In regard to justification, for instance, he came to see ‘that righteousness cannot come by the law, – that we cannot be justified in the sight of God by our own works, – that we can be justified only by the righteousness of Christ, imputed to us, and received by faith.’

But how defective, still, his understanding of faith! He conceived it as ‘including many of its effects’, such as ‘ardent gratitude to God…devotedness to his service, good-will to our brethren of mankind; in a word, every pious and benevolent disposition of heart. I thought and taught, that on our possessing this faith, we should, in consideration of it, have an interest in the redemption purchased by Christ, and consequently be accepted by God, and rewarded as righteous persons. Thus, by a short circuit, I arrived at the same point from which I set out, still resting a sinner’s acceptance with God on the conformity of his will to the divine law, or, in other words, on the merit of his good dispositions, and thus endeavouring to establish a human righteousness under the name of faith in Jesus Christ.’

Through the exchange of letters with David Black and the reading of books by men like John Newton and Thomas Scott, the enlightenment grew. Then came the climax in 1796 with the visit to Moulin of Charles Simeon of Cambridge. David Black, by this time in Edinburgh, had given Simeon a letter of introduction to Stewart. It was, he says, by ‘a random thought that occurred to me, I cannot tell why or how’. Equally unplanned was Simeon’s stay in Moulin over a Communion Sunday. In his diary, Simeon records how he preached twice, judging himself to have been ‘barren and dull’. But then in the evening Stewart came up to his room ‘and we had much and useful conversation about the ministry. He complained much of unprofitableness, and was much affected during the conversation. We prayed together and parted very affectionately.’

From a letter to David Black we learn what an impact Simeon’s preaching and conversation had on him. Stewart dismisses the idea that what he had experienced was a mere revival. ‘It was no revival. I never was alive till then. I think, however, I was in a state of preparation. I was gradually acquiring a knowledge of divine truth. It was given me to see that such truths were contained in the Scriptures, but I did not feel them: Indeed, I yet feel them very imperfectly. I know nothing to which I can so fitly compare myself as to Ezekiel’s dry bones, when they were covered with flesh and skin, but were without life or sensation. It was reserved for Mr. Simeon to be the man who should be appointed to prophesy to the wind, and say, “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon this dead body, that it may live.”’

From that time on Stewart began to preach Christ with what he describes as ‘some degree of knowledge and confidence’. The effect on his congregation was immediate. ‘The novelty of the matter’, he says, ‘and some change in the manner of preaching, excited attention. People began to think more, and sometimes to talk together, of religious subjects and of the sermons they heard’. At the time of his settlement in Moulin most were as ignorant of the gospel as he was. As he puts it himself, ‘The opinion of their own works recommending them to the favour of God, and procuring a reward from his bounty, was almost universal.’ Now they began to think as differently about such things as their minister did.

Lives, too, began to be changed. And in growing numbers. From March to July 1799, for example, Stewart preached a series of sermons on Regeneration. ‘These were attended’, he records, ‘with a more general awakening than had yet appeared among us. Seldom a week passed in which we did not see or hear of one, two, or three persons, brought under deep concern about their souls, accompanied with strong convictions of sin, and earnest inquiry after a Saviour’. Coming to see things for himself in August 1800 David Black could write in his diary, ‘My visit to Moulin was peculiarly gratifying. Such a revival I never witnessed before – it is truly the doing of the Lord, and marvellous in our eyes.’

Stewart knew of about seventy in his congregation whom he could reckon ‘truly enlightened with the saving knowledge of Christ’. Among them were two teenagers, James Duff and Jean Rattray, who were later to marry. Their son, Alexander Duff, the great missionary to India, said of his father, ‘the spark of light and life then enkindled in his soul, far from becoming dim…continued ever since to shine more and more with increasing intensity and vividness’. Another convert – also named Alexander Stewart – went on eventually to do pioneer missionary work in Canada.

The rest of Stewart’s story may be briefly told. In 1805 he became parish minister of Dingwall in the north-east of Scotland. Though his ministry there was faithful from beginning to end he did not see the revival and conversions he had seen in Moulin. He was to serve in Dingwall for fifteen years until ill-health necessitated a move to Edinburgh. There he became co-pastor with Walter Buchanan of the Canongate Kirk but his ministry lasted less than a year. He died on the 27th of May 1821 at the age of fifty-seven. Brief as his Edinburgh ministry was it was greatly valued. His biographer says, ‘those hearers who had previously known the grace of the Saviour enjoyed a rich repast, and confessed there was a savour of divine things diffused over his discourses, that was most refreshing to their souls, and mightily animated them in their way to heaven.’

Alexander Stewart was married twice. Two of his sons became ministers also. One of them, Charles Calder Stewart, was minister of a number of Perthshire congregations. Charles’ better known brother, another Alexander, was minister for more than twenty years in the north-east fishing village of Cromarty. Hugh Miller, geologist, stone-mason, and editor of the hugely influential evangelical newspaper, the Witness, regarded Alexander Stewart of Cromarty as one of the two men who had most influenced his thinking (the other being Thomas Chalmers).  

From darkness to light. That is Alexander Stewart’s story. What an encouragement to pray for the conversion of unconverted ministers! So, too, to befriend them if God should grant us that opportunity. We cannot tell what remarkable ministries they may one day exercise if God should be pleased to save them. And how far-reaching those ministries might be.