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Only a Servant

David Campbell
04 March 2024 09:00

The story of Mary Hamilton

You have a book in your hand, one of the volumes of the Banner of Truth edition of John Owen’s Works, and you open it at the title page. You see how it reads: The Works of John Owen Edited by William H. Goold. How many readers of Owen, I wonder, have paused to ask who his editor was? A word or two of introduction, then, for those to whom he is only a name.

William Henry Goold was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on December 20th, 1815. His father, also William, was minister of the Edinburgh congregation of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland. William Henry was ordained as colleague and successor to his father in 1840 and remained minister till his death in 1897. By that time Martyrs’ Church, as it was called, was a congregation of the Free Church of Scotland. In 1876 the majority of Reformed Presbyterians united with the Free Church and William Henry Goold featured prominently in the union negotiations. It was he, in fact, as the last Moderator of the Reformed Presbyterian Synod, who led that body to the Free Church Assembly Hall for the formal enactment of the union. Besides his pastoral duties, Dr. Goold served the Reformed Presbyterian Church as Professor of Biblical Criticism and Church History from 1854-1876. He edited The Works of John Maclaurin as well as Owen’s works and contributed regularly to some of the periodicals of his day.

Our interest in this article, however, is not in Goold himself but in a young woman who for several months was a servant in his household, for many years a member of his congregation, and to whose brief memoir, Only a Servant, he contributed an introduction. Her name was Mary Hamilton and she lived from 1840 to 1869. The world of domestic service in which she spent more than half her short life is for most of us, of course, a bygone world, familiar to us only through period dramas and living history museums. Mary’s experience of God’s grace in Christ, however, both in her final days and in the years that preceded, can speak as powerfully to us today as it did to her contemporaries (her memoir went through at least eight printings) and make the effort to enter her world worthwhile.

Some family members

For the last five years of her life Mary was a nursery-maid in the home of the man who afterwards wrote her memoir, John B. Bishop[1], caring for his three youngest children. What Bishop writes of her, therefore, he does from personal knowledge and observation. Mary also kept a diary, the four volumes of which were entrusted to a close friend before her death. There are extensive quotations from these diaries in the memoir. So too from many of the letters she wrote to the friend just mentioned. Bishop admits, however, that “beyond what could be gathered from a five years’ experience of her walk and conversation, during the term of her service in our family, we have little knowledge of her personal history. We know that she was early left an orphan, – both father and mother dying while she was yet in her childhood, – and, though for a time kindly cared for by more distant relatives, she had soon to shift for herself; and had, we believe, but barely entered on her ‘teens’ when she took her place as a domestic servant in that station of life where the Almighty was pleased to cast her lot, and in which He gave her grace to enable her to adorn the doctrine of her God and Saviour”.

Some diary entries make reference to the relatives mentioned above and to Mary’s felt loss of her parents, her mother especially. On the 14th of February 1860, for example, she writes, “This day five years my dear grandfather died. I never missed my parents till then. But I would rely on Thy promise, for when my father and my mother have been taken, Thou hast taken me up. Lord keep me, I am thine”. Later, that same year, she exclaims, “Oh! I wish I had a mother! That wish is often in my heart”. And later still, “I wish I had a mother’s ear to pour all my troubles into”. She reminds herself, however, “I have a Heavenly Father to whom I can go at all times, whose ear is ever open to my cry”. And again, “my Heavenly Father’s ear is ever ready to [hear] the cry of the humble”.

There was an aunt to whom Mary was especially close. Writing on the 27th of May 1862 she notes, “At the prayer-meeting tonight. The Doctor’s prayer” – the reference is to Dr. Goold, her pastor – “was chiefly intercession for the suffering members of the church, and, while I thought of my poor aunt, who is suffering severely, I could not help being sad; for oh, I may in Thy providence, lose my aunt, I may even say – my mother! O Lord, if it is Thy holy will, restore her yet again to life and health!” But it was not to be. On the 19th of June she records the following: “On the road to see my aunt today, and heard that she was gone to be with Jesus. O Lord, I would thank Thee for the good hope through grace which she was enabled to cherish! O Father, comfort my bereaved uncle! Lord, Thou hast done it; oh, give us grace to be dumb before Thee, and to submit to Thy all-wise doings!”

Mary had a brother by the name of Peter. Her great concern was for his salvation. When Dr. Goold visited her in the closing days of her life and asked if there was anything she would like him to pray for her reply was, “That I may have patience, and for Peter”. Mary’s biographer tells us that her brother was “unwearied in his attendance on her” but had been absent when Dr. Goold called and “had not, therefore, an opportunity of hearing and joining in the supplications then offered on his behalf. Later in the day”, however, “when the Rev. Dr. Bonar called, he was with her; and Mary’s heart was doubtless cheered, when the servant of God not only repeated the same supplications, but had an opportunity of preaching and pressing on his acceptance, that Jesus whom she had found so precious, and who, she had so often prayed, might be precious also to him she so much loved”.

“Tossed from place to place”

In his introduction to the narrative of Mary’s life Dr. Goold touches on a number of things that, in his own words, “invest the narrative with interest”. Here is the first: “It supplies an instance in which, through the blessing of God, one of His own was enabled to surmount the most adverse circumstances”.  He elaborates: “An orphan in her early years, she had to fight single-handed, if we may use the common phrase, the battle of life. Struggling at times with feeble health and severe pain…she felt that the burden of providing for her own support lay with herself; and it was affecting to witness, how, under failing strength she kept her resolution to make her own hands minister to her necessities. She was tossed from place to place, from city to city; led at every step by an unseen Hand, and in a way which she had not known”.

A diary entry – apparently her first one – makes mention of one of those moves. It is dated 11th November 1859. “This day left Rosemount House” – the home of Dr. and Mrs. Goold – “with very much regret, as I never was happier all my life than the six months spent in this house. It seems as yesterday since I came here. I hope I shall never forget the kindness I have received at the hand of Dr. and Mrs. Goold. Parents could not have been kinder; and the dear children, – truly they are a happy family. But I have to leave them”. She offers no explanation for this herself. Bishop informs us, however, that it had all to do with the poor state of her health. He goes on to speak of her “supporting herself by her needle, and living among her friends, now with one and now with another, until so far recovered as to be able to venture on resuming her place as a domestic servant”.

The information available to us from the diaries and letters is too fragmented to give any clear picture of where Mary lived and worked for the next five years. We do know that for a time she was in London. It was a difficult experience for her. On the 29th of June 1860, for example, she writes, “Very unwell today with my chest and throat. Wishing I was in Edinburgh again. I do not like London”. We get a glimpse of one of the reasons in an entry for the 10th of July: “No prayer-meeting to go to here, as in Scotland”. Another factor was unsympathetic and unfriendly fellow-servants. She writes on July 12th of being “sorely tried” by them and on August 4th of being “ridiculed at all hands”. Again, on August 9th, “Have had to bear a great deal of ridicule today”. “O Father, give me grace to enable me to bear it all for my Saviour’s sake”, she prays. And again, “Oh, do Thou change the hearts of my fellow-servants; lead them to the blessed Jesus, that they may find peace”. Eventually she had had enough. This is from the entry for August 17th: “Have made up my mind to return to Scotland, my dear native land, the land of so many privileges, where the holy Sabbath is kept, and where the Saviour is often talked of; but he is never talked of here”, she adds, “but in swearing”. On September 28th she writes, “O Father, I would thank Thee for bringing me safe to my dear native country!”

Mary highly valued the ministry of her pastor, Dr. Goold. She “ever looked up to him”, says her biographer, “as her spiritual father, and the loved and honoured instrument of her conversion. The delight which she experienced in sitting under his ministry is witnessed by the fact of her having filled several volumes with the notes of his sermons, taken down as they were delivered in church, and written out more at large when she got home”. She took especial pleasure in the Communion seasons. In April 1866, for example, she writes, “Another season of holy privilege has come round to us…Oh, that they came oftener – they are such sweet awakening times! Oh, that the Master of the feast may Himself prepare us for His own Table!”

Mary had a heart for the lost, both in Edinburgh and beyond. In connection with her own congregation, for instance, she had an area assigned to her for tract distribution. She took a deep interest as well in the mission-work from Dr. Horatius Bonar’s congregation in the Causewayside district of the city. So, too, in the missions of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the South Seas. On New Year’s Day, 1865, she writes, “On this the first Sabbath of the first month, I would solemnly dedicate myself, soul and body, to Thee and to Thy service: and oh, do Thou give me strength and grace to perform my vow! One thing, O my Father, I wish more than anything else, – if it is Thy will, let me be the instrument of saving souls; if it is only one soul! Oh, grant me my request, Thine shall be all the glory!” Her last audible prayer, as she drew near to death, expressed the same yearning for sinners to be saved: “O Lord, bless Thy servant who is trying to evangelise in this city” – a reference to the evangelist Richard Weaver who was in Edinburgh at the time – “Give a message to the heart and conscience of many. May many be brought to the Saviour…” From her deathbed, too, we have the following tender appeal to one of John Bishop’s sons: “Farewell, Thomas, I am going home. But you’ll follow me, won’t you? You’ll follow me? And you won’t take it amiss that I say this to you, though I am only a servant”. Repeating these last words, “only a servant”, a friend said to Bishop, “she might be the envied of crowned heads!” Bishop adds, “The reader will see where I have got the title for my little book; and that it is far from being in disparagement that I have used” them.

Her final years and days

“In the spring of 1864”, her biographer writes, “we were in search of a nursery-maid, who might take charge of our three little ones, the youngest being then an infant under the care of a nurse”. Mary was given the position and was to remain with this family until her death in early 1869. She was very happy there. “My master and mistress” – this is from a letter to a friend – “are such dear Christian people, and I have three dear children, three precious souls to care for. Oh, pray”, she pleads, “that Jesus may be formed in each of their young hearts the hope of glory!”

The end came suddenly. She was seized one evening with severe stomach pains and recovery proved impossible. When her doctor told her plainly how serious her condition was she exclaimed, “Oh, Doctor! won’t it be grand if I’m to get away!” “She spoke of it as a mark of the Lord’s kindness to her”, says her biographer, “that he was taking her away by a short, and not a protracted illness”. She thanked her master and mistress for all their kindness to her, and spoke of the five years she had spent in their household as being the happiest years of her life. Dr. Goold writes, “In spite of the fears and forebodings which had agitated her mind occasionally in regard to the future, she died amid the comforts of a Christian home, and the sympathies of Christian friends, who recognised in her, not a servant in their household merely, but a sister in Christ”.

From a young man by the name of David, whom Mary would likely have married had she lived, we learn how she felt during her last opportunity to sit at the Lord’s Table: “Oh, it was so grand, I wish it had lasted forever!” Commenting on this, her biographer says, “Her much-prized communion seasons on earth are now exchanged for the blessed and never-ending communion of the upper sanctuary; and, in the fullness of that joy which she now possesses, is more than realised her wish, that her delight in sitting under the His shadow and feasting on His fat things ‘might have lasted forever!’”.


[1] In the memoir itself the author is simply identified as An Elder of the Church. From other sources, however, we learn that his name was John B. Bishop, that he was a banker with the Royal Bank of Scotland, that he lived from 1817-1892, and that he was the author of a later book entitled, Heart Melodies of an Aged Pilgrim.