Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Dr. John Watson

Ian Maclaren was a name to conjure with in that day, forty years ago, when he died at the age of fifty-seven in an Iowa town whither he had gone on lecture tour. For a decade his books had been among the best sellers and Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush, his first, had topped a million. A half dozen other titles in short story and fiction had only enhanced his reputation. Scottish dialect often made them a bit difficult, but they sold in spite of it, or was it partly because of it? Queen Victoria and Mr. Gladstone had agreed on one thing at least--the beauty of the "Bonnie Brier Bush."

Ian Maclaren had become famous overnight. That was in the fall of 1894. On both sides of the ocean his new book was having tremendous vogue. One printing after another was exhausted. "Tell us about the author," demanded the public, with repeated insistence. "How is his name pronounced?" "Ian," said some; "Ean," said others; and still others were sure that it ought to be "Yan." (All proved to be right-depending upon whether one was English, Scotch, or Gaelic.)

He could not be long hidden. By Christmas it developed that Ian Maclaren was none other than the Reverend John Watson, M.A., a Presbyterian minister in Liverpool. 

Biographical details were avidly sought. He was forty-five. Though English born, he was a thorough Scot. As a Free Church minister, his first charge had been in a highland parish and in his stories he had skillfully adapted the setting and experiences of his early ministry. 

W. Robertson Nicoll, the best informed literary critic in Britain ('twas he who launched Barrie), had constrained Watson to write, after overhearing some of his engaging reminiscences. Something like the interest created by Dickens in an earlier day followed Maclaren's stories as they came out in quick succession. Nicoll, who had been the death of many an aspiring author, testifies that no adverse criticism of Watson's work appeared--only praise. 

The last chapter in this "wee bookie" is called "A Doctor of the Auld School." It recounts the labours of William MacLure, the beloved physician of the glen and adjacent districts, his fights with death and his final defeat. Mr. Gladstone's judgment is thus recorded: "There has never been anything finer than the sketch of that country doctor." Appearing in various editions "Weelum MacLure" has become the classic symbol of the unselfish devotion of his profession. 

"Drumtochty" became famous along with its chronicler for he had peopled it with friends. The passionate devotion of the people to their countryside endeared them to all readers. The outward life of the Glen people was meagre and bare, a few events such as the ploughing match, the school examination, and the Sacrament season made up their year. 

Maclaren reveals the inner life in its richness; hidden from the uninitiated by the crude setting. His creations live in our minds, they have character, are individuals. There is Mrs. MacFayden, the sermon-taster, who keeps the heads of the discourse in order by setting them in the orderly rows of teacups on her pantry shelves; and gentle Marget Howe, mother of Geordie, the scholar; Domsie, the schoolmaster, elated at his pupils' success and starving himself to send a likely boy to the university; Drumsheugh, the richest man in the Glen, and the life-long lover of Marget Howe, writing his check to pay the great surgeon who comes to operate on the wife of a tenant farmer. Then there is Burnbrae who sacrifices his farm rather than betray his conscience and his Kirk; also Jamie Soutar, the gentle cynic who covers kindness with his nippy tongue; or Doctor Davidson, the Auld Kirk minister with his courtly grace; and MacLure, the doctor who wins through the flood. These are all real as life to us who drank at that fountain, fifty years ago, auld acquaintance unforgot. 

Watson had gone into the ministry largely to please his mother but the problems he found in his first parish nearly caused him to leave it. These difficulties were not in his parishioners so much as in himself. For example, he could not remember his sermons. On one occasion he completely forgot and retired to the vestry in confusion, determined to quit and study law. An old elder came in, told the young minister how much his people loved him, and suggested that in the future he give out a psalm while he collected his thoughts. This kindness, Watson afterward confessed, saved him to the Church.

A dozen books on religious subjects were penned during the same years that created his fiction. Twenty three books in all, every line written in the last twelve years of his life! And all was the by-product of his ministerial activity in a great city parish where he served for twenty-five years.

Three times he visited America, lecturing and preaching, everywhere making friends. He was strong and tall, broad-shouldered and with a high forehead; with a slight Scottish accent to his words as they fell from his mobile lips. Throngs crowded to hear him. Ninety engagements in seventy days! Is it any wonder he fell victim to laryngitis and pneumonia? He died at Mount Pleasant, Iowa, in May, 1907.

At the time of his death, Dr. Watson was slated for the principalship of Westminster College in Cambridge. He had a dozen theological and religious books to his credit; some of them, like the Upper Room, the Potter's Wheel, and Companions of the Sorrowful Way, grew out of addresses preparatory to the Communion. As a sample of their deep spiritual quality, we quote from the first: "If anyone receive Him into his soul, Jesus comes to have a place of His own that has no parallel in life, and which has no proof save in experience. We make Him the confidant of our secrets, but in the end He tells us things about ourselves we have not known. We turn to Him for help, but find that He has promised what we were about to ask. We declare a good intention, only to remember it was His suggestion. His presence is an irresistible condemnation of wrongdoing, a perpetual inspiration to well-doing."

Dr. Watson once told the writer that he thought his best work, and most useful, was in The Potter's Wheel, and he wished that it might have had a larger circulation. Here the trials of faith, the perplexing providences are dealt with in an understanding fashion by a pastor of long experience who knows life. Faith and common sense have joined hands. 

The Mind of the Master represents Watson's most mature theological thought. Jesus' major emphases are examined. Jesus as Supreme Teacher, devotion to a Person, the dynamic of religion, Jesus' teaching of Fatherhood as the final idea of God--such aspects as these are examined and developed with the skill that comes only with thinking through, and living through the Gospel, for one's self and with one's congregation. Is such Christo-centric theology out-moded? "I believe in the clean heart; I believe in the service of love; I believe in the unworldly life; I believe in the Beatitudes; I promise to trust God and follow Christ, to forgive my enemies, and to seek after the righteousness of God."

In his Yale lectures, The Cure of Souls,1896, there is much autobiographical material, slightly disguised. ("If the minister desires to give a personal experience he can say 'one' or 'a certain man,' and if the people suspect the identity, it is no matter. They have been delivered from the perpetual "I" which devastates some men's utterances, and from whose monotonous boom you never escape.")

A warm evangelical, yet a moderate; a mystic, yet a realist; a scholar, and a humanist! There are many in the ministry today who owe such wisdom as may guide the exercise of the pastoral office to Ian Maclaren's other self, John Watson. "All the sparkle and effervescence of his nature never concealed the fact that he was a profoundly religious man."

One final quotation: "From His words let us learn to preach; from His example let us learn to serve; in His communion let us find our strength, comfort, peace, Whom not having seen we love, to Whom we shall one day render our account." 

- THE REV. JESSE HALSEY, D.D., Lane Professor of Pastoral Theology and Liturgics, McCormick Theological Seminary in McCormick Speaking, Vol. IV, No. 5,  February, 1951, pp. 3-6.

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