Erskine, Thomas (1788-1870) (DNB00)

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ERSKINE, THOMAS (1788–1870), of Linlathen, Forfarshire, advocate and theologian, was the youngest son of David and Ann Erskine. His great-grandfather was Colonel John Erskine of Carnock, near Dunfermline, a descendant of John, first or sixth Earl of Mar [q. v.], regent of Scotland. The colonel's son was John Erskine (1695–1768) [q. v.], whose second son, David, was a writer to the signet, and purchased the estate of Linlathen, near Dundee, which, by the death without surviving issue of his elder brothers, came into the possession of Thomas Erskine in 1816.

Owing to his father's death when he was little more than two years old, Erskine was left very much to the care of his maternal grandmother, Mrs. Graham of Airth Castle, a Stirling of Ardoch, a strict episcopalian and a strong Jacobite. Erskine was educated at the Edinburgh High School, a school in Durham, and the university of Edinburgh, and was admitted a member of the Faculty of Advocates in 1810. He was welcomed by the literary society for which Edinburgh was then famous. The religious tendencies implanted in his childhood were confirmed by the death of his cousin, Patrick Stirling of Kippenross, and by the example of his brother James, who was a captain of the 87th regiment, and was once described by his commanding officer as the best soldier and the best man he ever knew. Upon his succeeding, by the death of his brother, to the estate of Linlathen, Erskine retired from the bar, and gave himself up to the study of questions of theology. His means enabled him to travel and to alleviate his strong artistic instincts. His views thus acquired a breadth that gave them acceptance beyond the narrow circle of professional theologians, and he numbered among his friends such men as Thomas Carlyle, Dean Stanley, Bishop Ewing, F. D. Maurice, Prévost-Paradol, Vinet, Adolphe Monod, Madame de Broglie, and others whom he met on his foreign tours. His influence was of a singularly subtle character, due more to his intensely sympathetic nature than to his force of reasoning. His outward life was marked by few stirring events, but he stimulated powerfully, though indirectly, the religious life of his time. In earlier life he busied himself in writing for the press, and in public expositions of his views on contemporary religious controversies. But he was afterwards contented with personal intercourse and correspondence. Prévost-Paradol, on taking leave of him in his eightieth year, described him in reverential tones as ‘that kind of old prophet.’

In 1831 the general assembly of the church of Scotland deposed Mr. J. M'Leod Campbell, minister of Row, for preaching the doctrine of ‘universal atonement and pardon through the death of Christ.’ Erskine warmly espoused the cause of Campbell, and, indeed, went very much beyond Campbell's opinions, for he clung to the belief that ultimately all men would be saved and restored to the image of God by the same atonement of Christ. He regarded life as an education rather than a probation; and founded his belief in inspiration upon the testimony of the conscience, not upon the credence of miracles.

In the exposition of his religious belief Erskine published several works, the most notable of which are ‘Remarks on the Internal Evidence for the Truth of Revealed Religion,’ Edinburgh, 1820; ‘An Essay on Faith,’ 1822; ‘The Unconditional Freeness of the Gospel,’ 1828; ‘The Brazen Serpent, or Life coming through Death,’ 1831; ‘The Doctrine of Election,’ 1837; and ‘The Spiritual Order,’ published after his death in 1871.

One of his most intimate friends was F. D. Maurice, whose views were greatly in accordance with his own. The two maintained a constant interchange of ideas from 1838, when they first met, until Erskine's death. Erskine was nominally a member of the church of Scotland, although he rarely availed himself of its ministrations. He certainly was no Anglican, yet he daily read the lessons and psalms appointed for the day by the Book of Common Prayer. Though not a Calvinist, he always expressed himself as deeply thankful to the ‘Calvinian atmosphere’ in which he had been brought up, for, he said, ‘Calvinism makes God and the thought of Him all in all, and makes the creature almost as nothing before Him.’ He used to say that Calvinism was a sheep in wolf's clothing, while Arminianism was a wolf in sheep's clothing.

Erskine was never married. His sister Christian, Mrs. Stirling, was his constant companion. He called her ‘mother, wife, sister, all in one.’ She managed his household, and stood between him and the outer world, and by her rare skill as a hostess made his home at Linlathen a centre of christian sympathy and refinement. Erskine was an accomplished scholar, but next to the Bible his favourite literature was the plays of Shakespeare and the ‘Dialogues’ of Plato, especially the ‘Gorgias.’ Erskine devoted much attention to the manifestations produced by Irving's preaching, and spent some weeks in the company of those who were said to possess these gifts. At first he maintained the genuine miraculous character of these utterings, but two years later he expressed his mistrust of them.

During the political troubles of 1848 Erskine held it a duty to remain at home in order to relieve the distress of his own neighbourhood. He found employment for a large number of those out of work, but he viewed with great misgiving the democratic tendencies of modern legislation. In later life Erskine was not seen much out of Scotland, his summers being spent at Linlathen, and his winters in Edinburgh. Erskine survived all his own people, his sister Christian dying in 1866, and his younger sister, David, the widow of Captain Paterson, in 1867. At length, on 20 March 1870, he died quietly and peacefully, with his door open, and his friends coming in and out, as had been his often-expressed wish.

[Letters of Thomas Erskine of Linlathen, edited by W. Hanna, D.D.]

W. B.