Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Erskine, Ralph

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1156780Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 17 — Erskine, Ralph1889Alexander Gordon

ERSKINE, RALPH (1685–1752), Scottish seceding divine and poet, born on 15 March 1685 at Monilaws, Northumberland, was the sixth son of Henry Erskine (1624–1696) [q. v.], by his second wife, Margaret Halcro. He entered the Edinburgh University in November 1699, and is said to have graduated M.A. in 1704, but his name is not in the published list of graduates. The date of his entrance is fixed by his narrative of a fire in the Parliament Close, where he lodged; he narrowly escaped being burned to death. After completing his arts course, he was engaged as tutor in the family of Colonel Erskine of Carnok, Fifeshire. Pursuing his theological studies, he was licensed on 18 June 1709 by Dunfermline presbytery. He is said to have early shown ability as a preacher, but did not at once obtain a call. His views were strongly evangelical, at a time when those of his brother Ebenezer [q. v.] were still undecided.

On 1 May 1711 he was called to the second charge at Dunfermline, and on 14 June to the parish of Tulliallan, Perthshire. He chose Dunfermline, where he was ordained on 7 Aug. The charge was collegiate, Erskine and his colleague, Thomas Buchanan, officiating in turns. Erskine, whose preaching was remarkable for its pathos, wrote his sermons closely; his portrait (as engraved in 1821) represents him as preaching with sermon-book in his hand. On 1 May 1716 he was transferred to the first charge, after the death of Buchanan. Erskine took a zealous part in the ecclesiastical controversies which are detailed in the article on his brother Ebenezer. He and James Wardlaw, who had succeeded him in the second charge, were among the ‘twelve apostles’ of 1721. On 28 Sept. 1721 the synod of Fife arraigned him for ‘Marrow doctrine,’ and for non-compliance with the act of 1720 in reference thereto. The synod warned him to be more careful, on pain of censure, and required him to repeat his subscription in a sense adverse to the ‘Marrow.’ This he would not do; but was willing to subscribe the confession anew, in the sense of its original imposers. When, however, Ebenezer Erskine and his immediate followers were placed under sentence of deposition (1733), Ralph Erskine, while protesting against the assembly's course of action, did not immediately join the secession, though he was present at Gairney Bridge when the ‘associate presbytery’ was formed. It was not until 16 Feb. 1737 that he and Mair gave in to the Dunfermline presbytery a ‘declaration of secession from the present judicatories of the church of Scotland,’ not from the church itself. On 18 Feb. they were enrolled in the ‘associate presbytery’ at Orwell, Kinross-shire; and on 15 May 1740 were deposed with its other members.

Erskine conducted the correspondence with Whitefield which led the latter to visit Scotland in 1741. In vain did he impress upon Whitefield the duty of making common cause with the ‘associate presbytery,’ and not seeming ‘equally to countenance’ their ‘persecutors.’ Whitefield's revival (1742) at Cambuslang, Lanarkshire, a parish to which William m'Cullough, the minister, invited him, presented features which Erskine repudiated as enthusiastic. He wrote a special treatise, ‘Faith no Fancy,’ in which he maintains that the ‘mental image’ of ‘Christ as man’ is in no way ‘helpful to the faith of his being Godman.’ When the question of the burgess oath came up, Erskine sided with his brother in thinking that it was a matter to be left to individual consciences; and on the separation (1747) of the party opposed to the oath, he issued an admonition to the separatists under the title ‘Fancy no Faith.’

Erskine was fond of music and a proficient on the violin. His poetic vein was shown, early in his ministry, by the composition of his ‘Gospel Sonnets,’ which reached the 10th edition in 1762, the 25th in 1797. They were followed by a paraphrase of the ‘Song of Solomon’ (1738), a version of the Book of Lamentations (1750), and a posthumous volume of ‘Job's Hymns’ (1753). His ‘Scripture Songs’ were collected in 1754. The preface shows that they were designed for use in public worship. Little can be said of the poetical merit of these pieces, but it is to be remembered that they were for the common people, who received them with avidity. The ‘Gospel Sonnets’ contain nothing in the shape of sonnets, but present a system of theology in verse, with much lively and quaint illustration. Phrases like the description of good works as ‘the cleanest road to hell’ (Gospel Sonnets, pt. i. chap. v. § iv.) readily stick in the reader's memory. It would appear from the preface to the ‘Song of Solomon’ that this paraphrase had been submitted to Watts, who had suggested a few improvements, but had not gone over the whole. One of Erskine's best pieces is ‘Smoking Spiritualised,’ five stanzas in continuation of ‘an old meditation upon smoking tobacco.’

Erskine preached his last sermon on 29 Oct. 1752. Suddenly seized with a nervous fever, he died on 6 Nov. He was buried on 9 Nov. at Dunfermline, where on 27 June 1849 a statue of him, by Handyside Ritchie, was erected in front of the Queen Anne Street Church. He was twice married: first, on 15 July 1714, to Margaret (d. 22 Nov. 1730, aged 32), daughter of John Dewar of Lassodie; by her he had ten children, of whom Henry became the secession minister at Falkirk; John became secession minister at Leslie, and joined the ‘anti-burghers;’ James succeeded his uncle Ebenezer at Stirling: secondly, on 24 Feb. 1732, to Margaret (who survived him), daughter of Daniel Simpson, W.S., Edinburgh; by her he had four sons, of whom Robert became a merchant in London, a fellow of the Royal Society, and ultimately geographer and surveyor-general to the United States army.

In addition to the works already mentioned, Erskine published several single sermons (the earliest in 1738) and volumes of sermons, most of which, as well as the most important of his religious poems, will be found collected in his ‘Practical Works,’ edited by John Newlands, his son-in-law, Glasgow, 1764–6, 2 vols. fol. (portrait). There is an edition in ten volumes, Glasgow, 1777, 8vo; and London, 1821, 8vo.

[Memoir, by James Fisher (dated Glasgow, 16 Jan. 1764), prefixed to Practical Works, 1764; and other authorities enumerated in the article of Ebenezer Erskine.]

A. G.