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Barclay, John (1734-1798) (DNB00)


BARCLAY, JOHN (1734–1798), minister of the church of Scotland and the founder of the sect of the Bereans, otherwise called Barclayites or Barclayans, was born in 1734 at Muthill, in Perthshire, where his father, Ludovic Barclay, was a farmer and miller. From an early age he was destined for the church. He entered the university of St. Andrews, and took the degree of M.A., afterwards passing through the ordinary theological curriculum. He became an ardent supporter of the views of Dr. Archibald Campbell, then professor of church history. On 27 Sept. 1759 Barclay received license to preach the gospel from the presbytery of Auchterarder, and soon after became assistant to the Rev. James Jobson, incumbent of the parish of Errol, with whom he remained nearly four years, when he was dismissed for his inculcation of obnoxious doctrines. In June 1763 he became assistant minister to the Rev. Antony Dow, incumbent of Fettercairn, in Kincardineshire, where he spent nine years. His eloquence filled the church to overflowing. A change in his opinions was indicated by the publication, in 1766, of a ‘Paraphrase of the Book of Psalms,’ to which was prefixed a ‘Dissertation on the Best Means of interpreting that Portion of the Canon of Scripture.’ The presbytery of Fordoun, in which Fettercairn is situated, summoned Barclay to appear before them. He escaped from their bar without censure. The antagonism against him was revived, however, by his reassertion of doctrines obnoxious to the presbytery in a small work entitled ‘Rejoice evermore, or Christ All in All,’ against the dangerous teaching of which the presbytery drew up a libel, or warning, to be read publicly on a specified day in the church of Fettercairn. The libel had little effect upon the people, whom Barclay continued to instruct in his old methods, publishing in 1769 one of the largest of his treatises, entitled ‘Without Faith, without God; or an Appeal to God concerning His own Existence,’ which has been several times reproduced, either alone or as part of the works of the author. He produced also in the same year a polemical letter on the ‘Eternal Generation of the Son of God,’ which was followed in 1771 by a letter on the ‘Assurance of Faith,’ and a ‘Letter on Prayer, addressed to a certain Independent Congregation in Scotland.’ The death of Mr. Dow, minister of Fettercairn, 25 Aug. 1772, left Barclay to the mercy of the presbytery, who not only inhibited him from preaching in the church of Fettercairn, but used all their influence to close his mouth within their bounds, which lie in what is called the Mearns. The clergy of the neighbouring district of Angus were much more friendly, and Barclay was generally admitted to their churches, in which for several months he preached to crowded congregations. The parish of Fettercairn almost unanimously favoured the claims of Barclay to the vacant living, and appealed on his behalf to the synod of Angus and Mearns, and then to the general assembly, to support him against his rival, the Rev. Robert Foote. But it was ordered that Foote should be inducted. The presbytery of Fordoun refused Barclay a certificate of character. The refusal of the presbytery was sustained on appeal successively by the synod and the general assembly, who dismissed the case 24 May 1773. Barclay was thus debarred from holding any benefice in the church of Scotland. Hereupon adherents of his teaching formed themselves into congregations in Edinburgh and at Fettercairn, both of whom invited him to become their minister. He preached at Fettercairn two Sundays in July 1773 in the open air to thousands of hearers, and the people of that and the neighbouring parishes erected a large building for worship at a place called Sauchyburn; to the pastorate of which, in default of Barclay's acceptance, James m'Rae was unanimously called. He was accordingly ‘set aside as their pastor early in spring, 1774, by the assistance of Mr. Barclay, who was present; and from that period till 1779 Mr. m'Rae was minister to from one thousand to twelve hundred communicants, all collected together by the industry of Mr. Barclay during his nine years' labour at Fettercairn’ (Life of Mr. John Barclay). Meanwhile Barclay himself had preferred to accept the call to Edinburgh, in view of which he had repaired to Newcastle for ordination, to which he was admitted 12 Oct. 1773. His followers, sometimes called Barclayans or Barclayites, after their founder, designated themselves Bereans (Acts xvii. 11). Barclay described himself as ‘minister of the Berean assembly in Edinburgh.’ Their doctrines are in the main those of ordinary Calvinism; but they also hold the opinions (1) that natural religion undermines the evidences of christianity; (2) that assurance is of the essence of faith; (3) that unbelief is the unpardonable sin; and (4) that the Psalms refer exclusively to Christ. ‘There are Berean churches in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Crieff, Kirkcaldy, Dundee, Arbroath, Montrose, Brechin, Fettercairn, and a few other places’ in Scotland (Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen), where, however, they are described as a ‘small and diminishing party of religionists’ ({sc|Eadie's}} Ecclesiastical Cyclopædia), and there are, it is believed, a few congregations of them in America (M'Clintock and Strong's Cyclopædia, &c., New York). When Barclay had preached for about three years in Edinburgh, he took a two years' leave of absence, during which he proceeded to London. Here he laid the foundation of a church of Bereans, and also established a debating society. Barclay had made ready his way as a propagandist by the publication of a ‘New Work in three volumes, containing, 1. The Psalms paraphrased according to the New Testament. 2. A select Collection of Spiritual Songs. 3. Essays on various Subjects,’ 12mo, Edinburgh, 1776; including, besides the works already particularised, a treatise on the ‘Sin against the Holy Ghost.’ Other selected works were published, both before and after this date. To some of these are prefixed short narratives of Barclay's life, as in an edition of the ‘Assurance of Faith,’ published at Glasgow in 1825; in an edition of his ‘Essay on the Psalms,’ &c., Edinburgh, 1826; and in an edition of his ‘Works,’ 8vo, Glasgow, 1852. In 1783 Barclay published a small work for the use of the Berean churches, the ‘Epistle to the Hebrews paraphrased,’ with a collection of psalms and songs from his other works, accompanied by ‘A Close Examination into the Truth of several received Principles.’ Barclay died suddenly of apoplexy at Edinburgh, on Sunday, 29 July 1798, whilst kneeling in prayer at the house of a friend, at which he had called on finding himself unwell whilst on his way to preach to his congregation. He was interred in the Calton old burying-ground, where a monument was erected to his memory.

[Foote's Essay appended to a Sermon, &c., Aberdeen, 1775; A Short Account of the Early Life of Mr. John Barclay, prefixed to various works; Thom's Preface to Without Faith, without God, &c., 1836; Biog. Dict. of Eminent Scotsmen, 1868; Scott's Fasti Ecclesiæ Scoticanæ, pt. vi. p. 867; M'Clintock and Strong's Cyclopædia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, 8vo, New York, 1867–81.]

A. H. G.