Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Candlish, Robert Smith

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CANDLISH, ROBERT SMITH, D.D. (1806–1873), preacher and theologian, was born in 1806 at Edinburgh, where his father, James Candlish, M.A., was a medical teacher. The family was connected with Ayrshire, and James Candlish, who was born in the same year with Robert Burns, was an intimate friend of the poet. Writing of him to Peter Hill, bookseller, Edinburgh, Burns called him 'Candlish, the earliest friend, except my only brother, whom I have on earth, and one of the worthiest fellows that ever any man called by the name of friend.' The wife of James Candlish was Jane Smith, one of the six belles of Mauchline celebrated in 1784 in one of Burns's earliest poems. Robert Candlish's father died when he was but five weeks old, and the care of the family was thrown on his mother, a woman of great excellence and force of character, who, though in the narrowest circumstances, contrived to give her two sons a university education, and have them trained, the elder for the medical profession and the younger for the ministry. James Candlish, the elder brother, a young man of the highest talent and character, died in 1829, just as he had been appointed to the chair of surgery in Anderson's College, Glasgow. Robert Candlish was never sent to school, receiving all his early instruction from his mother, sister, and brother. At the university of Glasgow he was a distinguished student, and among his intimate friends was known for his general scholarship, his subtlety in argument, and his generosity and straightforwardness of character, he was fond of open-air life, indulging in many rambles with his friends.

His first appointment, as tutor at Eton to Sir Hugh H. Campbell of Marchmont, was the result of an application to some of the professors for 'the most able young man they could recommend.' After nearly two years he returned to Glasgow, was licensed as a probationer, and served for about four or five years as assistant first in a Glasgow church, then in the beautiful parish of Bonhill, near Loch Lomond. About the end of 1833, his great gift as a preacher having become known to a select few, be was appointed assistant to the minister of St. George's, Edinburgh, the most influential congregation in that city. On the death of the former incumbent, within a very short time of his becoming assistant, he was appointed minister, his remarkable ability as a preacher being now most cordially recognised. For four or five years he confined himself to the work of his congregation and parish, with such occasional services as so distinguished a preacher was invited to give.

In 1839 he was led to throw himself into the momentous conflict with the civil courts which had sprung out of the passing of the Veto law by the general assembly in 1834, recognising a right on the part of the people to have an influential voice in the appointment of their ministers, which law of the church the civil courts declared to be ultra vires, Candlish was a member of the general assembly of 1839, and towards the close of a long discussion, when three motions were before the house, rose from an obscure place and delivered a speech of such eloquence placed him at once in the front rank of debaters. A few months later it fell to him, at the request of his friends, to propose a motion in the commission of assembly for suspending seven ministers of the presbytery of Strathbogie, who in the case of Marnoch had disregarded the injunction of the church and obeyed that of the civil courts. The occasion was one of supreme importance; it was throwing down the gauntlet to the court of session, and proclaiming a war in which one or other of the parties must be defeated. Even among those who were most opposed to the policy advocated by Candlish there was no difference of opinion as to the profound ability with which he supported his motion. The majority of the general assembly persistently adhered to the policy thus initiated in all the subsequent stages of the controversy. In 1843 that party, finding itself unable to longer maintain the position of an established church, withdrew from its connection with the state, and formed the Free church of Scotland.

The principles on which Candlish took his stand and which he sought to elucidate and maintain were two — the right of the people of Scotland, confirmed by ancient statutes, to an effective voice in the appointment of their ministers; and the independent jurisdiction of the church in matters spiritual — both of which principles, it was held, the civil courts had set aside. In regard to the latter, it has been pointed out by Sir Henry W. Moncreiff, in his sketch of his friend in 'Disruption Worthies,' that in reply to the common charge against the church that she claimed to be the sole judge of what was civil and what was spiritual, Candlish maintained, first, that whoever should make such a claim would trample under foot all liberties, civil and ecclesiastical; and establish an intolerable despotism; second, if such a claim should be made by a church, that church would necessarily be assuming an authority in all causes, civil and ecclesiastical; third, that the case was the same when the claim was made by the court of session: the claim would extinguish all liberty. The view of what should be done in cases of conflicting jurisdiction, enunciated by Candlish and maintained by his friends during the controversy, was, that in such a case the civil courts should deal exclusively with the civil bearings of the question, and the spiritual courts with the spiritual'; that neither should coerce the other in its own sphere; and that therefore it was utterly wrong for the court of session to attempt, as it was doing, to control the spiritual proceedings of the church; it ought to confine itself wholly to civil effects.

Candlish had just begun to distinguish himself in debate, when, at his suggestion, a very important step was taken, which ultimately had a great effect in consolidating and extending the movement. It had been resolved to establish an Edinburgh newspaper (the 'Witness'), devoted to the interests of the church, and when an editor came to be proposed, Candlish recommended Hugh Miller of Cromarty, of whom he had formed a high opinion from a pamphlet ('Letter to Lord Brougham') on the church question recently published. Miller had but recently ceased to be a working mason, and as he was a highlander, and quite unpractised in newspaper work, his appointment was a somewhat perilous experiment, but with his strong intuitive perception and his usual daring Candlish was willing to commit the paper to his hands. The arrangement was no sooner made than its success appeared. The 'Witness' was for many years one of the most powerful engines the press ever supplied for any cause.

Candlish for the next few years was always more or less engrossed with the great controversy, constantly aiding in counsel at its several stages, expounding and enforcing his views at many public meetings, and contributing in a great degree to the popularity of the cause. He at the same time carried on the work of his congregation and parish, interested himself in church work generally, and sometimes devised new schemes of philanthropy or ways of conducting them. During this period it was agreed by the government to institute a chair of biblical criticism in the university of Edinburgh, and the office was given, by the home secretary, Lord Normanby, to Candlish. His nomination to the chair was commented on with great severity in the House of Lords, chiefly by Lord Aberdeen, who denounced in the bitterest terms the conferring of such an honour on one who was in open opposition to the civil courts and the law of the land. The government yielded; the presentation was cancelled, and, some years after, the appointment was given to Dr. Robert Lee.

Next to Chalmers, Candlish was now the most prominent leader of the 'non-intrusion' party, and though still very young his leadership was accepted with great confidence and admiration by his brethren. He was an influential member of a meeting of clergy called ' the convocation,' in November 1843, when it was virtually agreed, in the event of no relief being procured from parliament, to dissolve connection with the state. This step was actually taken on 18 May 1843, 470 ministers, with a corresponding proportion of lay-elders and of the people, forming themselves into the Free church. In the organisation of this body Candlish had the leading share.

From this time, or at least from the death of Chalmers, till close on his own death in 1873, Candlish may be said to have been the ruling spirit in the Free church. His remarkable activity and versatility enabled him to take a share in every department of work, and his readiness of resource, great power of speech, and ability to influence others, made him facile princeps in conducting the business of the general assembly and other church courts. With a kind of instinct he seemed to perceive very readily, as a discussion went on, in what manner the convictions of the assembly might be most suitably embodied, and his proposals were almost always sustained by very large majorities. Perhaps out of this there sprang the readiness which marked his later years to be guided by the prevailing sentiment rather than to control and direct it. While having his hands full of every kind of church work, he continued to minister to the people of St. George's and build up one of the most influential, earnest, and, in point of contributions, liberal congregations in Scotland.

Candlish took a special interest in education. The old tradition of the Scottish church respecting the connection of church and school had strongly impressed him, as well as the desire to see the work of education elevated and the famous plan of John Knox more thoroughly carried out. For many years he laboured very earnestly to promote an education scheme of the church, and was highly successful in raising the status and improving the equipment of the normal colleges. In other respects, the plan of having a school connected with every congregation did not prove very popular, especially among the laity. And when, by act of parliament, the test which confined the office of parish schoolmaster to members of the established church was abolished, a strong feeling sprang up in favour of a national system of education that should absorb the existing schools. Candlish at first did not look with much favour on this proposal, but gradually he came to support it. He was desirous of seeing some security provided for religious teaching, but was satisfied when it was proposed to leave this matter in the hands of school boards, elected by the people. On the passing of the act to this effect, he advocated the abandonment of the Free church schools as such, and the transference of the buildings as free gifts to the school boards of the parishes where they were situated. The normal schools were retained in their church connection.

On the death of Dr. Chalmers in 1847, and the readjustment of the chairs in the New College (the theological institution of the Free church at Edinburgh), Candlish was appointed to a chair of divinity, but on consideration he declined the appointment. He continued ministerof St. George's Free church to the end of his life. In 1862 he was appointed principal of the New College, withont a professor's chair, the duties being chiefly honorary, and the appointment being conferred partly in consideration of his eminent abilities and partly in the expectation that new life would be thrown into the college by his vigour. In 1841 Candlish received the degree of D.D. from the college of New Jersey, commonly called Princeton College, in the United States, and in 1865 the university of Edinburgh gave him the same degree. In 1861 he was moderator of the general assembly.

Among movements outside his own church in which he took an active share was that for the formation of the Evangelical Alliance in 1845. Another was directed towards the union of four presbyterian churches, the Free, United Presbyterian, and Reformed Presbyterian of Scotland, and the Presbyterian church of England. This scheme was defeated through the opposition of Dr. Begg and his friends. The union of the Free church with the Reformed Presbyterian was subsequently carried into effect.

Candlish made his last appearance in the general assembly in May 1873. Occasional flashes of his former fire could not conceal from his friends his failure of strength. Some weeks spent in England in the autumn produced no favourable result. On returning to Edinburgh he took to his bed, and after a brief illness, in which his mind continued clear and unimpaired, and many tokens were given of his serene trust in God and tender regard for his friends and brethren, he passed away on the evening of Sunday, 19 Oct.

The following is a list of Candlish's publications (many pamphlets, speeches, sermons, &c, being omitted): 1. ‘Contributions towards the Exposition of Genesis,’ 3 vols. 1842. 2. ‘The Atonement,’ 2nd edit. 1845. 3. ‘Letters to Rev. E. B. Elliott on his "Horse Apocalypticse,"’ 1846. 4. ‘Letter to the Marquess of Lansdowne on Schools in Scotland,’ 1846. 5. ‘Scripture Characters and Miscellanies,’ 1850. 6. ‘Examination of Mr. Maurice's Theological Essays,’ 1854. 7. ‘Life in a Risen Saviour,’ 1858, 8. ‘Reason and Revelation,’ 1859. 9. ‘The Two great Commandments,’ 1860. 10. ‘The Fatherhood of God’ (Cunningham Lectures), 1865. 11. ‘Relative Duties of Home Life,’ 1871. 12. ‘John Knox and his Devout Imagination,’ 1872. 13. ‘Discourses on the Sonship and Brotherhood of Believers,’ 1872. 14. ‘The Gospel of Forgiveness.’ 15. ‘Expository Discourses on 1 John.’ 16. Sermons (posthumous), 1874. 17. ‘Discourses on the Epistle to the Ephesians’ (posthumous), 1875. With regard to Candlish's theological views, it has been shown by Principal Rainy, in his very able chapter on ‘Dr. Candlish as a Theologian,’ that while he was thoroughly attached to the theology of the reformers, it was not as a mere theology or logical system that he had regard to it, but as something given from above to meet the exigencies of the human soul. In opposing Mr. Maurice, he found himself called to vindicate the forensic aspect of the gospel, as founded on law, and demanding that that law be maintained, but he delighted to show its application also to the whole sphere of human life, to show that contact with Christ meant not only pardon, but life, joy, strength, and purity. In life and in death he showed how he not only held but was held and moved by his theology, and derived from it the courage and hope with which he seemed to be inspired.

[Memorials of Robert S. Candlish, D.D., by William Wilson, D.D., with concluding chapter by Robert Rainy, D.D.; Buchanan's Ten Years' Conflict; Disruption Worthies; Memoir by James S. Candlish, D.D., prefixed to Posthumous Sermons; Sunday Magazine, December 1873; Scotsman newspaper, 20 Oct. 1873.]

W. G. B.