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Erskine, John (1721?-1803) (DNB00)


ERSKINE, JOHN, D.D. (1721?–1803), theologian, was born at Edinburgh in 1720 or 1721 (his biographer thinks 1721), and educated at the university there. His father, John Erskine of Carnock, a grandson of Henry, first Lord Cardross, was professor of Scots law in the university of Edinburgh and author of a well-known work on the ‘Principles of the Law of Scotland.’ His mother was a daughter of the Hon. James Melvill of Bargarvie. Erskine's friends were most desirous that he should be a lawyer, but his devout and earnest spirit inclined him to the ministry; and his sense of duty becoming very clear, he chose that profession, contrary to the wishes of his family. At the university of Edinburgh he became acquainted with many young men of great ability, and was a member of a club called the Hen Club, along with Principal Robertson, Mr. John Home, and Dr. A. Carlyle. Before being settled in any charge he wrote a pamphlet in 1741, in opposition to certain views published by Dr. Archibald Campbell, professor of church history in the university of St. Andrews, whose strictures on the deistical work, ‘Christianity as Old as the Creation,’ were not deemed satisfactory by the church. Erskine adopted some of the views of Warburton in his ‘Divine Legation of Moses,’ which led to a friendship between the two divines, and to several letters on each side. In 1744 he was ordained minister of Kirkintilloch, near Glasgow, and he devoted himself with great earnestness and assiduity to the spiritual duties of his office. In 1746 he married the Hon. Christian Mackay, daughter of George, third Lord Reay.

While minister of Kirkintilloch, Erskine came into contact with George Whitefield, for whose character and labours he had done battle while a student at the university, Dr. Robertson having taken the opposite side. At Kirkintilloch he invited Whitefield to preach for him. For this it was attempted indirectly to censure him in the synod of Glasgow and Ayr. While warmly befriending Whitefield, Erskine stood in a very different relation to Wesley. He strongly disapproved of his views on predestination, perseverance, and other doctrines. This difference diminished his confidence in Wesley, with whom he never fraternised as he did with Whitefield.

Erskine began at an early period to cultivate relations with other churches and their ministers, especially in the colonies and on the European continent. He was on very intimate terms with many American ministers, and especially with Jonathan Edwards, with whom he had much correspondence, both on the subject of his books and on the remarkable religious awakening which occurred under his ministry at Northampton. Erskine was profoundly grieved when the relations between Britain and her American colonies became strained; and besides using all his influence in more private ways, published several pamphlets, in which he implored both sides to make some concession and avert the horrors of an unnatural war. All such efforts proved in vain, Erskine finding that his appeals for conciliation were simply ignored. He had much intercourse with divines in Holland and Germany, believing that it was for the benefit of his own church and country to be acquainted with the writings and proceedings of other churches. Not knowing any continental language but French, he set himself, when sixty years of age, to study German and Dutch, and with such success that he was very soon able to understand the drift of books in these languages.

In 1753 Erskine was translated to Culross, and in 1758 to the New Greyfriars, Edinburgh. In 1767 he was transferred to the Old Greyfriars, where he became colleague of Principal Robertson, with whom he was associated for six-and-twenty years. The university of Glasgow conferred on him the degree of D.D. in 1766.

Erskine, while most conscientiously devoted to the duties of his pastoral office, was a man of considerable literary activity. The list of his works given by his biographer embraces twenty-five publications, and in addition to these he edited twenty. His chief works were: 1. A volume of ‘Theological Dissertations,’ 1765. 2. Pamphlets on the American question. 3. ‘Considerations on the Spirit of Popery,’ 1778. 4. ‘Sketches and Hints of Church History and Theological Controversy, chiefly translated and abridged from modern foreign writers,’ 2 vols. 1790 and 1797. 5. ‘Letters on Loss of Children and Friends.’ 6. A supplement to Gillies's ‘Historical Collections,’ 1796. 7. ‘Discourses on Several Occasions,’ 2 vols. 1798, 1804. The books which he edited and published in this country were chiefly works of Jonathan Edwards and other American divines.

Erskine was very heartily devoted to the doctrines and aims of the evangelical party in the church, of which his family connections, his stainless character, and his abilities as a preacher and a writer contributed to make him one of the leading champions. It was a testimony to the amiability of both that he and Principal Robertson, the leader of the ‘moderate’ party, should have been friendly colleagues in the same congregation for a quarter of a century. On one occasion, during the discussion of the catholic question, when a mob assembled with the intention of wrecking the house of the principal, who was on the unpopular side, Erskine appeared on the scene, and prevailed on the mob to withdraw. In the general assembly Erskine and Robertson were often opponents. Erskine cordially supported in the assembly a proposal in favour of foreign missions, which was opposed by Hamilton of Gladsmuir and the moderate party generally. The opening words of Erskine, as he rose to reply to Hamilton, became famous in the history of the mission cause. Pointing to a bible which lay on the table, and of which he intended to make use, and using a phrase very expressive in Scottish ears, he said, ‘Rax me the Bible.’

The parents of Sir Walter Scott were members of Old Greyfriars, but it was with Erskine, not Robertson, that their sympathies lay. When in ‘Guy Mannering’ Sir Walter brings the English stranger to the Greyfriars, it is Erskine's preaching that he describes.

Among the learned correspondents of Erskine with whom he interchanged views on public, literary, or theological questions, besides those already named, were Lord Kames, Sir David Dalrymple (Lord Hailes), Bishop Hurd, and Mr. Burke. His correspondence with Kames bore on the question of free will, discussed in one of his lordship's essays, and more fully in the celebrated work of Jonathan Edwards. Lord Hailes (for whom Erskine had a very high respect and affection) corresponded on some points connected with the ‘Sketches and Hints of Church History.’ Bishop Hurd corresponded on other points in the same work. The correspondence with Burke related to the catholic question. Erskine wrote to Burke some of his reasons for dreading popery; Burke replied in a long and elaborate letter, not so much attempting to controvert Erskine's opinions as presenting the grounds on which he based his own.

Erskine enjoyed a hale old age, and continued in the performance of his pastoral duties, though in a constantly decreasing degree, till near the end. The evening before he died he was diligently employed in reading a new Dutch book. He went to bed at eleven, and died three hours after, on 19 Jan. 1803, in the eighty-second year of his age.

[Scott's Fasti; Memoir by Sir Henry Moncreiff Wellwood, Bart., D.D. (Edinburgh, 1818); Chambers's Biog. Dict. of Eminent Scotsmen; M'Crie's Sketches of Scottish Church History; Hugh Miller's Two Parties in the Church of Scotland.]

W. G. B.