Horatius Bonar: A Brief Memoir

One of my heroes is Horatius Bonar (1808-1889), the finest Scottish hymn-writer of the nineteenth century. Bonar was born in Edinburgh on December 19, 1808. His father, James Bonar (1757-1831), was an elder in Lady Glenorchy’s Chapel, a bulwark of Edinburgh Evangelicalism that had been founded in 1774 with money donated by Lady Glenorchy (1741-1786), a wealthy patroness of Evangelical causes. However, James Bonar died when Horatius was but 13, and thus the greatest influence on him during his early years was his godly mother, Marjory Maitland Bonar (d.1854), and his eldest brother James (1801-1867), who, like his father, was an elder at Lady Glenorchy’s Chapel and was deeply involved in numerous Evangelical and philanthropic enterprises. There are no known details, however, of Horatius’ conversion. Three influences

He was educated at Edinburgh High School and Edinburgh University before entering the Divinity Hall, where the Professor of Divinity was Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847), whom the Scottish literary figure Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) pronounced to be “the Chief Scottish man of his time.” Chalmers had an enormous influence upon the young Bonar, who considered Chalmers the greatest Christian he ever knew. Another important influence on the young Bonar was some lectures on the Book of Revelation that were given in Edinburgh over the years 1828 to 1830 by Edward Irving (1792-1834). At the time Irving was one of the most popular Presbyterian preachers. In 1833, though, he would be removed from the ministry of the Church of Scotland for espousing erroneous views regarding the humanity of Christ. Horatius Bonar, though, would have agreed with his friend Robert Murray McCheyne (1813-1843) when the latter described Irving as “a holy man in spite of all his delusions and errors.” The long-lasting influence of Irving’s premillennial convictions on Horatius can be seen, for instance, in The Quarterly Journal of Prophecy, a publication that he edited from 1848 to 1873 and that was designed to promote premillennial eschatology. More than a few of his hymns also sought to press home this prophetic perspective, for instance, “I know not in what watch He comes,” written in mid-March, 1880. A third important influence with regard to Horatius Bonar’s spiritual growth during his days at the Divinity Hall came from a circle of friends that included three of his brothers, Robert Murray McCheyne, Alexander Neil Somerville (1813-1889), John Milne (1807-1868), and a number of other young men. As the biblical proverb puts it, these men shaped each other as iron sharpens iron (Proverbs 27:17).

Leith and Kelso (1833-1866)

After being licensed to preach in 1833, Bonar’s first ministerial appointment was at Leith, the port of Edinburgh, where he worked as an assistant minister to James Lewis in the parish of St. John’s. Word of Bonar’s effective ministry at Leith came to the ears of a newly established congregation in Kelso, the North Parish Church, which sent a deputation to hear Bonar preach and sound him out regarding a call to their church. Unanimously called to this work on November 30, 1837, Bonar would labour in the Scottish Borders for 29 years. It was at Kelso that Bonar’s gifts as an evangelist blossomed. The keynote that he sounded right from the start of his Kelso ministry was “Ye must be born again” (John 3:7). Bonar was rightly convinced that without this emphasis from the pulpit on the vital need for personal regeneration “all religion is hollow and superficial.” One of Bonar’s successors at Kelso was W. Robertson Nicoll (1851-1923), who was minister there from 1877 to 1885 and who later became a well-known author and journalist. Nicoll noted that Bonar’s ministry at Kelso was one of “quenchless zeal and unrelenting labour. He set himself to evangelize the Borderland. His name was fragrant in every little village, and at most of the farms. He conducted many meetings in farm kitchens and village schoolrooms, and often preached in the open air.”

A writing ministry

Bonar was also convinced of the importance of Christian literature as a vital means of evangelism and Christian nurture. To that end he began writing while at Kelso a series of tracts and small booklets that could be printed cheaply and widely distributed. From the titles of those written by Bonar—for example: Believe and Live, The Well of Living Water, Luther’s Conversion, The Lord’s Supper, Do you go to the Prayer-Meeting?—it can be seen that they covered a variety of subjects, but a central theme was evangelistic. Other authors, including his brother Andrew (1810-1892), were also involved and the series became known as “The Kelso Tracts.” These tracts opened the way for larger literary endeavours. In 1845 his first book, The Night of Weeping; or, Words for the Suffering Family of God, appeared. It was followed by a flow of books, sermon collections and biographies. One of his most popular books was Bonar God’s Way of Peace: A Book for the Anxious, which was published in 1862. The book was translated into French, German, and Gaelic, and sold more than 285,000 copies during his lifetime. Bonar was also involved in the editing of a number of periodicals, including The Quarterly Journal of Prophecy mentioned above, and the widely-read Christian Treasury.

The Disruption of 1843

In 1843, there occurred what has been called the most important event in the history of nineteenth-century Scotland, namely the Disruption, which cut the Church of Scotland in two. Two issues were central to this momentous event. First, whether or not a minister could be imposed on a congregation at the wish of a patron even when such a settlement was contrary to the will of the congregation. Second, in connection with their objections to patronage, Evangelicals wished to revitalize the idea of pastoral ministry being a calling. Those who wished to uphold the practice of parish patronage appealed to the civil courts, while Thomas Chalmers led those who wished to honour the sovereignty of Christ over the affairs of his Church and who maintained that the civil courts had no jurisdiction in the spiritual realm. Among those following Chalmers was Bonar. Rather than abandon the Church’s independence from the state, Chalmers, Bonar and those like-minded decided to give up the privileges of establishment, which included such things as a financial security, a manse and a place of worship. All told, slightly more than 450 ministers out of an estimated 1,195 ministers separated from the Church of Scotland in May, 1843, to form the Church of Scotland Free (better known as the Free Church of Scotland). Somewhere between 40 and 50 per cent—estimates vary—of the membership of the Established Church went with the Free Church.

Chalmers Memorial Church, Edinburgh (1866-1889)

Horatius Bonar’s final sphere of ministry was in Edinburgh. He had received several calls to other spheres of ministry during his time at Kelso, but he never seriously considered leaving until called in June, 1866, to become the first minister at the newly established Chalmers’ Memorial Church (now St. Catherine’s Argyle Church). He would be there till his death on July 31, 1889. The congregation grew significantly under his Spirit-filled preaching, increasing from 61 in October 1866 to 805 in July 1888. He preached up until a year or so before his death in Edinburgh on July 31, 1889.

The hymns

Bonar had begun writing hymns in Leith for the children who attended the Sabbath school that he supervised. There were over 280 of them present on any given Sunday. What struck him as he first watched them in 1833 during their times of worship was how fidgety many of them were. He soon came up with the idea of providing them with hymns of their own, set to tunes the children knew well and liked to sing. The experiment worked and he noticed a marked improvement in their paying attention during the times of worship in the Sabbath school. Just as the writing of small tracts had led on to bigger literary projects, so the children’s hymns eventually led, in 1836, to Bonar writing hymns that were for the use of older worshippers. The first of these was the well-known hymn, “Go, labour on; spend, and be spent.” It breathes the evangelistic passion that characterized Bonar’s ministry all of his life and ends, not surprisingly, on an eschatological note. Bonar went on to publish over 600 hymns and poems during the course of his life. Among them are such hymns as “I heard the voice of Jesus say,”—originally entitled by Bonar as “The Voice from Galilee”—his communion hymn, “Here O my Lord, I see Thee face to face,” and “Not what these hands have done”, a rich meditation on the central emphases of Reformed thought.

Bonar’s significance

Bonar’s hymns have rightly led to his being regarded as the finest Scottish hymn-writer of the nineteenth century. His hymns and other literary works, moreover, reveal the rich vitality of nineteenth-century Scottish Presbyterian piety. As such, they are a marvelous resource for contemporary Evangelicals seeking to know something of their spiritual heritage.