A memoir of the Rev Dr Peter Hately Waddell Sr
ON Sabbath evening, 3d May, 1891, the above minister died in Glasgow, in his 74th year. He had been in failing health for some time, and retired finally from the ministry in October, 1890. It is some years now since I heard him preach, but his venerable appearance was so different from the slim, active figure I remembered so well when he first came to Girvan, that I hardly recognised him. But the peculiar tone of the voice, and the striking look and gestures, all assured me that he was the same.
He came to Girvan when he was about 27 years of age. It was the year after the Disruption, and the air was electric. Feelings were high strung, and their tension was not lessened when Mr Waddell came among us. He did not, however, settle down as Free Church minister of Girvan. When the time for his ordination came round, he insisted on signing the Confession of Faith with certain reservations as to the duty of the Civil Magistrate, which the Presbytery could not allow, and so he came out with his congregation, and established an independent communion, which was known in Girvan as the "Waddellites." This congregation was never very large (about 200 or so), but they built him a church, which is now used as the Assembly Rooms, and he ministered faithfully to them for 18 years.
He had great fluency of utterance, and an attractive style of elocution, but the subjects he spoke about rarely came home to men's business and bosoms. Even when he went to Glasgow, and advertised his topics weekly in the papers, they were still for the most part of the same unpractical sort. They seemed to be always on knotty points, which it did not matter much which side you took. At last, by some happy thought, the Alloway Burns Club in 1859, asked Mr Waddell to occupy the chair at a Burns Anniversary dinner. The speech he delivered that night made him famous. And certainly there was a rush of eloquence about that oration which surprised us Girvanites. We had been so long accustomed to his finical splitting of hairs that we opened wide our eyes to hear of him standing at the head of a festive board, and giving out these ringing words: – "To your feet, gentlemen, and observe the toast we pledge. To Burns, to Robert Burns, the illustrious, the immortal!" I have heard people who were present that night speak of the thrill that passed over them as they listened to his words. He had fairly caught hold of them, and carried them whither he pleased. One of the company, Mr Peter Connor, started to his feet, pressed a pound note into Mr Waddell's hand, and said: – "God be with you, sir, keep you that! You'll never know me nor my name, but you'll know that I love you." Mr Waddell afterwards framed that pound note as a keepsake.
About the time he left Girvan, he was asked to go to London to lecture there, and be introduced to literary society. Amongst others, he got a note of introduction to Thomas Carlyle. On the night he arrived at Cheyne Row, however, the great writer was in one of his thunderous moods, and was standing leaning against one end of the mantel-piece, while Mrs Carlyle sat patient and expectant at the other. Mr Waddell came in and bowed. Carlyle turned to him and said: – "You're a minister?" A bow followed. "What na kirk d 'ye belang to?" This was an awkward question to answer, so the respondent said nothing. – "Ye'll belang to the Auld Kirk?" – "No." – "Then, ye'll belang to that compendium of a' righteousness, the Free Kirk?" – "No." – "Then, yell be a Dissenter?" – "No." "Then, what in the name o' goodness are ye?" – "My views on religious subjects, Mr Carlyle, are, I presume, much the same as your own." – "The same as mine," said Carlyle, looking up. "And who told you what mine were?" This was too much for the proud spirit, so, stiffening his back a little, Mr Waddell said, "I came here at your invitation, Mr Carlyle, but seeing my company does not seem to be agreeable to you, I shall withdraw." But now it was Carlyle's turn to apologise. "Tut, tut, man, never mind. Sit doon, and my wife will give us some tea, and we'll hae a crack " – which they had till midnight.
Another characteristic incident occurred during the same London visit. He had been invited to meet some literary men at supper; but as they were assembling, one of the party began to tell an improper story. The old Scotch clerical feeling at once asserted itself. "Gentlemen," he said, "I may not be counted orthodox in my theology, but I am quite orthodox in my morals, and I wish you a good evening." Some of them expostulated with him, and promised an apology from the offender, but it was in vain. Mr Waddell left; and Carlyle, when he heard of it afterwards, said – "That was right, now. There's more stuff in that fellow than I thought."
Shortly after writing the above, I received from the Rev. Mr Hately Waddell of Whitekirk, East Lothian, a handsome volume entitled "Selections from the published writings of the Rev. Dr Peter Hately Waddell, with biographical notice and portrait – privately printed." This is evidently meant as a final memorial of our old friend and neighbour, and a very fitting memorial it is.
The portrait is well executed, and shows the striking prophet like face, the rapt, sad-looking eyes, the long flowing locks, with the loose ends of the white tie floating over his breast; for our friend, while spiritually-minded, was always carefully attentive to the appearance of his outer man.
The biographical notice is brief, but partakes more of the character of an Apologia than a memoir. It contains, in fact, no data at all as to his birth, upbringing, or death. Its object is more to portray his spiritual life than his natural one, and to set a misunderstood man right before the eyes of posterity. Viewed in this light, however, the notice is well written, interesting, yet reticent. Sent forth by a son, not for the public, but for friends, it has, of course, its natural limitations; but to those who remember Dr Waddell, and can read between the lines, this little notice is exceedingly valuable and instructive.
I confess that, when Dr Waddell was in Girvan, I could make very little of his preaching. It was neither doctrinal nor practical; which were the only kinds of preaching I was then accustomed to. It was what he called vital, and based not on truths of Scripture so much as on his own spiritual experience. He gave out texts, of course, but he did not expound them as others did. He always spoke as a man who saw the truth, without reasoning about it.
Dr Waddell, in fact, was an idealist; and all idealists are unpractical. What he wanted, perhaps, was right enough in a way, but he forgot the imperfections and limitations of human nature. He wanted to form a church of the good, and of all the good; and this will come by and by, but the time is not yet. He declared for a Christian communion emancipated from all shackles of outward opinion, and held together solely by faith in God, and charity to one's fellow-men, but he never stopped to inquire whether, or how far, such a thing was really practicable in this world.
And yet there was something grand in this man, alone and single-handed, standing up in this little, out-of-the-way town of Girvan, like Edward Irving before him in London, "to make a demonstration for a higher style of Christianity – something more heroical, more magnanimous than this age affects." And the issue in both cases was the same. Indeed, I have seen a private letter of the Doctor's, in which he classed himself with Irving, both in his aim and in his failure. Unhappy he, at this time of the world's history, who is too original, and cannot work in harness with the ordinary mortals around him.
Some touching glimpses into Dr Waddell's private life are given in this memoir. His salary at the beginning was under £100 a year, and never rose to much above £200. He was always particular, as I have said, about his personal appearance, but this had a religious aspect about it. His pulpit Bible, for instance, which, I remember, he used to handle very reverently, was so treated from conscientious reasons. And we are here told that on the Saturday before the Communion he always "prepared the bread" himself, and the way in which he did it made it in the eyes of his children a sacrament in itself. He had a horror, too, of ministers wearing coloured shirts or cuffs in the pulpit, and spoke much more strongly about a well-known minister who had preached in a shooting-jacket under his gown, than he would have done about any doctrinal deviations.
Some facts are here mentioned, too, that will rather surprise outsiders. For instance, we are told that he was very reserved in religious conversation, and that even in his family, religious subjects were almost never touched on. He did not give his children any definite religious instruction, but thought it sufficient to teach them silence and reverence. He found even family worship, after trial, too touching a service, and only on a New Year's morning, or at some family parting, would he almost timidly add an extra petition to the usual morning's "grace." These things are certainly surprising in a man so full of the religious spirit as Dr Waddell undoubtedly was.
In the Selected Writings, we renew our acquaintance with some of his lectures and pamphlets, a chapter or two from his "Sceptic's Sojourn," specimens of his poetry, bits of his estimate of Burns, an extract or two from his Scottish version of Isaiah and the Psalms, with a .portion of what I have always regarded as his ablest work – "The Christ of Revelation and Reality." In all cases, the writing is eloquent, though not always definite or clear. I heartily thank Mr Waddell for sending me this volume, and consider that he has not only discharged a filial duty in printing it, but gratified all who knew his father, as well as given the message he was allotted to deliver a fresh opportunity of asserting itself. He has now gone into the Great Silence, and his body rests in the Necropolis of Glasgow; but in this book we feel his spirit's throbbing eagerness as vividly as ever.