The Book and reviews
'Voice of Nonconformity: William Robertson Nicoll and the British Weekly'
About this Book
Extra Pages for Voice of Nonconformity: William Robertson Nicoll and the British Weekly
Appendix 1: ‘Thirty Years of The British Weekly’, part of the leading article from November 2 1916
Appendix 2: The Religious Newspaper world in Britain at the time of the British Weekly
Appendix 3: The ‘decline’ of Nonconformist churches in a time of Evangelical Dominance? A few perspectives examined
Appendix 4: Biographical Sources concerning William Robertson Nicoll
Appendix 5: WRN, his published Preaching and the collections of his Articles
Appendix 6: Nicoll’s relationships with other contemporary church leaders and personalities
1. Alexander Maclaren (1826-1910)
2. Andrew Bruce Davidson (1831-1902)
3. Alexander Whyte (1836-1921)
4. Andrew Martin Fairbairn (1838-1912)
5. George Matheson (1842 – 1906)
6. William G Elmslie (1848-1889)
7. P.T. Forsyth (1848-1921)
8. James Stalker (1848-1927)
9. Robert Foreman Horton (1855-1934)
10. Thomas Herbert Darlow (1858-1927)
11. Dinsdale T. Young (1861-1938)
12. Arthur Samuel Peake (1865-1929)
13. John Henry Jowett (1864-1923)
14. J.D. Jones of Bournemouth (1865-1942)
15. George H. Morrison (1866-1928)
16. Professor David Smith (d. 1937)
Appendix 7: A complete inventory of the Leading Articles of the British Weekly; 1886-1923 (The Nicoll Years)
Reviews and reflections:
I have been encouraged by friends who have read my book and reflected back their impressions - all enjoy the book as a 'good read' and not a few have said that it was an era that they were not well acquainted with - so the book helped them to appreciate the life and times of the subject.
From the Banner of Truth magazine for October 2011
Voice of Nonconformity, William
Cambridge: Lutterworth, 2011
255pp. paperback, £23
ISBN: 978 0 71889 222 7
This engaging and important book is essential reading for an understanding of how once-powerful English Nonconformity and Scottish Presbyterianism became as feeble as they are today. W. Robertson Nicoll, founder and editor of the British Weekly, with its circulation of upwards of 100,000, took a main part in the influence that aided this decline. As we have been reminded in recent days, the print media drives public opinion.
Nicoll was born (1851) in a Free Church of Scotland manse in Aberdeenshire. He lost his mother at the age of eight. A book lover from early years, it is not surprising that he became a distinguished student at Aberdeen Grammar School and University, gaining his MA at the age of eighteen. Four years at the Divinity Hall in that city, led to pastorates at Dufftown (1874-77) and Kelso (1877-86) where he succeeded Horatius Bonar. He combined an earnest evangelical ministry with increasing literary and editorial interests, until a serious breakdown in health in 1886. When medical opinion counselled that he should stop speaking, he removed with his wife to England for his health and took up full-time work with the publishers, Hodder and Stoughton. The rest of his life was to be spent in London where, under the auspices of the same publishers, he launched the British Weekly in November 1886 and continued as its editor to his death in 1923.
Within the context of this biographical framework, Keith Ives centres his narrative on the two formative influences in Nicoll’s life, namely, evangelical belief and the new Higher Critical view of the Old Testament. At Aberdeen, Nicoll was a pupil of Robertson Smith, who (with A. B. Davidson) pioneered unbelief in the accuracy of the Old Testament in the Free Church of Scotland. Many of Nicoll’s closest friends throughout life were fellow Scots who shared the opinion that Higher Criticism represented an advance in scholarship which was not to be resisted. Were gospel belief and Higher Criticism consistent with each other, or did holding to the one necessitate opposing the other? This was the issue that became a turning point in British church history. The majority opinion was that there was nothing incompatible in holding both; and those adopting Higher Criticism led the way in asserting this to be the case. Of course, this entailed a ‘modification’ of belief in the nature of Old Testament Scripture, yet of such a supposedly secondary character that no fundamental evangelical truth was said to be affected. This outlook was named ‘believing criticism’ and whether such a label is legitimate is a main theme of this new biography of Nicoll.
Before he came to London, Nicoll had been working part-time for Hodder and Stoughton. In 1884 the publishers had removed the editor of their publication, the Expositor, and replaced him with Nicoll. They did so because Nicoll ‘was perceived to be a strong supporter of an orthodox view of doctrine, including the Scriptures . . . Being conservatively minded, he was at home with the publisher’s outlook, but his reading and the pressure of circumstances would not allow him to rest there’ (p. 42). The ‘pressure of circumstances’ included an unexpected controversy which arose almost immediately after the start of the British Weekly. It began on account of a challenge which Spurgeon issued in The Sword and the Trowel in 1887, in which he called for a division between, those who held to orthodox belief in the inspiration of Scripture, and those who did not. Nicoll was an admirer of Spurgeon, and both read and heard him, but the ‘Down-Grade’ controversy became an issue which his weekly could not long avoid. Ives writes: ‘WRN was in truth a different breed of Evangelical, far more open to innovation. . . Forced into decisive action by the polarisation of the church, WRN moved towards the position of the believing critical school of his old tutor, William Robertson Smith’ (pp. 114-15). Two things illustrate Nicoll’s distance from Spurgeon. When the latter had Gaussen’s defence of the full inspiration of Scripture, Theopneustia, republished, Nicoll classified the volume as among ‘irrelevant arguments and obsolete books’, and he likened Spurgeon’s stance to ‘a modern general issuing “quantities of bows and arrows” to his troops’ (p. 120). Worse was his decision to publish Joseph Parker’s attack on Spurgeon as an ‘Open Letter’ in the British Weekly.
What affected Nicoll’s judgment? He no doubt believed that the case of the Higher Critics, advanced by a ‘considerable number of books’, was too sure to be denied. But he was not himself an Old Testament scholar and we are inclined to believe that following numbers played a real part in the path he took. The first year of publication for the British Weekly was critical for him; it had to reach a circulation of 20,000in order to be viable, and that meant a right judgment of what would appeal to a contemporary leadership in Nonconformist circles. Achieving success was no small part of Nicoll’s thinking. He took ‘considerable notice as to where the majority of his readers stood; carefully treading the route least likely to impinge on his editorial success . . . Friendship aside, WRN was trying to run a successful periodical, and as Spurgeon grew more adamant, siding with him would have been to commit editorial suicide’ (p. 118). From our present standpoint, which sees the permanent popularity of Spurgeon, these words of Ives may sound strange, but they are an accurate representation of things in the late 1880s. ‘WRN noted that at a Baptist
Union meeting, “not a voice was lifted to echo his [Spurgeon’s] sentiments . . . Mr Hugh Price Hughes [Methodist] in his powerful speech pointed out that Mr Spurgeon had not been supported by a single leader of religious thought in the country’ (p. 118).
It served the interests of ‘believing criticism’ to exaggerate the support for the position which was being popularised; even so, it has to be a sad reflection on the fallibility of Christians that Spurgeon was indeed in a minority in the Down-Grade controversy. To say that Nicoll became an out-and-out liberal would be wrong. He did not. He even affirmed, ‘What Jesus believed about the Old Testament, we must believe.’ Both in public and in private letters he warned against unbelief. But how did he maintain, through more than 30 years of editorship, the thesis that the non-acceptance of traditional Christian belief in Scripture was compatible with evangelical belief and devotion? Ives rightly and clearly points out that the two are not compatible. There was an ‘inherent dissonance’ (p. 34). Why did
Nicoll think otherwise? The question is made the more difficult by the fact that, at times, he was aware that representing ‘believing criticism’ as a spiritual benefit was questioned by leading Higher Critics themselves. When in conversation with one of them, the German Julius Wellhausen, Nicoll expressed the position of his mentor, Robertson
Smith, ‘that Smith held the Bible to be inspired and historically true, along with Wellhausen’s views, and that he held to the truth of miracles. Wellhausen shook his head and said that while he did not deny that miracles were possible, there was no historical proof for them’ (p. 36). Nearer home, Marcus Dods was one of Nicoll’s closest friends and a frequent contributor to the British Weekly. A leader in Higher Criticism, Dods admitted in 1902, at least privately, ‘The churches won’t know themselves fifty years hence. It is to be hoped some little rag of faith may be left when all is done’ (p.126).
All that can be offered, by way of explaining Nicoll’s serious mistake, is that evidence that an evangelicalism founded on Scripture could not co-exist with a disbelief in that foundation did not immediately appear. For a while to many the opposite thesis seemed plausible. From its popularity they judged that spiritual advance rather than decline was the prospect for the churches. Intentionally or unintentionally, writes Ives, those who opposed Spurgeon, ‘merely masked a serious problem, which would only grow worse and worse’ (p. 120). Ives’ book gives us clear information on the way spiritual weakness increased in Nicoll’s editorial work. An outspoken setting out of evangelical doctrines was no part of the British Weekly mission. There was no change in Nicoll’s profession and occasional defence of evangelical belief, but by the opening years of the 20th century it was muted in comparison with his earlier years. Literature and politics began to take centre stage, motivated by the desire that Christianity should be made relevant to every sphere of life, and that religion would continue to be formative in British culture. ‘WRN began to appear more interested in the world of politics than that of theology’ (p. 148).
We are full of admiration for the way Keith Ives has researched all the material relevant to his subject. This was no easy exercise. No biography of Nicoll has been published since T. H. Darlow wrote his in 1925. One hindrance to the understanding of his subject which Ives was not able to remove was the lack of diary or more personal information; Nicoll remains for us the largely private individual that he was. Such letters from him as survive are commonly on professional and literary matters. His dying words, ‘I believe everything that I have written about immortality’, are among the very few personal statements that we hear. This biography rightly grasps ‘believing criticism’ as the key to understanding Nicoll’s public work, and along with a real appreciation of Nicoll as a man, a writer, and an editor, the tragedy of his life is quietly unfolded. With all the ability and opportunity which he had to do the opposite in the most influential weekly of the times, Nicoll gave his support to an understanding that would undermine faith while believing he was doing otherwise. Ives summarises this conclusion: ‘WRN and his fellow leaders did not succeed in halting the decline of church adherents. What he and his generation handed on was, in spite of their best intentions, a flawed and weakened church, which seemed to have lost its way’ (p. 245). This accords with the words of Lloyd-Jones, which he quotes in his Preface: ‘I have always regard W. Robertson Nicoll as one of the worst, because of the most subtle influences in the decline of Nonconformity at the end of the last century and the beginning of the present century’ (p. 13).
There is much in this book which is relevant to evangelicalism today: 1. the quest to gain influence for the gospel by being ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’ is a dangerous one. The saying ‘he who marries the culture will soon be a widow’ was illustrated in the later history of Nicoll and the British Weekly. Recognising the rising public interest in newspapers and in fiction, he tailored his presentation to the mood of the times. Fiction was introduced into his columns in serial form and he ‘puffed’ the reputation of authors whose novels were sympathetic to Christianity. The best known of these—the so-called Kailyard School—‘were narrowly focused on the past, ignoring the present, and did not display the kind of atmosphere that would inspire excitement or even positive feelings about the Church and its future’ (p. 182). Nicoll praised these books as ‘great literature’; an opinion which led to them being ‘often rammed down the throats of the Presbyterian young’. But they gained only a passing attention ‘and would cease to be in demand when the public taste moved on to a new interest or craze’ (p. 169). ‘There seems to have been an unwitting tension between what WRN wanted to achieve— in his own mind, at least—and the popular secularisation of reading culture to which he contributed’ (p. 182). There was more real power in the message of the young minister in Kelso than there was in that of the successful editor in London.
2. Public success brings dangers from which perhaps few escape. Nicoll was knighted in 1909 and received adulation from Prime Ministers such as Lloyd-George. Thomas Hardy, Nicoll noted, ‘used to be a fiery Evangelical’ (p. 157). We are thankful Nicoll did not take the same path as Hardy, yet he suffered by being too close to the world.
3. There can be a short distance between an educated Christian ministry (for which Nicoll rightly laboured) and an ‘inordinate love of books’. The second generation of Free Church of Scotland ministers, to which Nicoll belonged, were much interested in ‘the latest views and discoveries of the world of scholarship’, whereas their fathers consecrated their reading to the needs of the pulpit and the pastorate. As a result the latter are still being read today, whereas the books of so many of their successors are virtually unknown. There is good reason for us to beware of those who think that what happens in the churches is all to be explained in terms of ‘traditionalists’ and ‘modernisers’.
Iain H. Murray
Review from 'Themelios' the magazine of the Gospel coalition
Readers fascinated with late Victorian religious history will find in this book an in-depth account of the gradual unravelling of evangelical orthodoxy in Britain as Protestant faculties of divinity and pulpits demonstrated how the "tide" was receding, drawn by the pull of German criticism. The story is told through the lens of the Scottish minister-cum-literary editor, William Robertson Nicoll (1851-1923); he left the North while still a young pastor in search of a milder climate that would spare him from the pulmonary ailments that had already claimed the life of his mother and brother.
Already an author of popular Christian works while in his pastoral ministries in the North, Nicoll turned to religious editing in England in order to support his growing family. Soon there began the editorial relationship with Hodder (later Hodder & Stoughton) that was to endure as long as he lived. Readers of Themelios will be interested to find that it was Nicoll the entrepreneurial commissioning editor whose hand can be detected when they take up century-old standard volumes such as the Expositors Greek Testament (4 vols.) and the multi-volume blue-bound Expositor's Bible. He commissioned and edited them all.
But the thrust of the Ives volume is not literary antiquarianism that is, tracing out the story behind old books once intended for the minister's library; it highlights Nicoll's role as the literary middle-man for newer "views" of two kinds. One of these (the better known, to be sure) would eventually leach away dogmatic certainty from Britain's broadly evangelical Protestant churches in the space of two generations. In sum, Nicoll is depicted as the one who while of fairly conventional evangelical views himself, was forever casting about to find biblical commentators and theological writers who were only moderately infected by the burgeoning critical views that were flooding Britain after 1870. Given his own Scottish upbringing, education, and ministerial service, it was no surprise that through the agency of Hodder & Stoughton, Nicoll soon drew to the wider attention of British (and American) readers still-honoured names such as Alexander MacLaren, A. B. Davidson, George Adam Smith, and James Denney-the gradual effect of whose literary labours eventually contributed to the diminution of evangelical certainty.
Ives, the researcher and biographer, is not without admiration for Nicoll, yet it is hard to escape the impression that the author believes that Nicoll was a kind of "weak link" who, while maintaining his own evangelical certainty, "bent" rather than withstood the challenges of his time. Nicoll's reliance on the "moderately critical" was, on this understanding, a colossal miscalculation. Such an interpretation, while now almost the conventional wisdom among conservative evangelicals, does beg the question of who were those articulate able theological conservatives in academia, in the age of theological downgrade, on whom Nicoll might have been relying instead. When one reads the treatment of this period in other recent monographs such as Mark Hopkins' Nonconformity's Romantic Generation (Paternoster, 2003) and Alan F. P. Sell's Hinterland Theology (Paternoster, 2008), one instead reaches the conclusion that Nicoll actually did his best with the personnel at hand. A somewhat "liberalized" evangelicalism seemed to him and to many others to be the way the future was unfolding. It was not until an unforeseen conservative theological reaction (which, as for Britain, we might date to the founding of the Cambridge Inter-collegiate Christian Union-the precursor of IVCF) spontaneously arose in 1910, that there was concrete reason to expect otherwise.
But I have spoken of Nicoll as literary middle-man in two senses, and the latter of these-though less well known than the first-may indeed have been the greater of the two. And Ives's drawing our attention to this may be the greater service provided by his biography. Ives makes clear that Nicoll, the expatriate Scot, assisted in marshalling both Scottish and English Nonconformist religious, social and political thought into a formidable political constituency through his editorship of the British Weekly, for almost a century a powerful print organ serving as a literary link for Britain's non-Anglican churches.
The BW, taking its rise in 1886 at a time when Britain's non-Anglican (or "Free Church") Protestants were coalescing, politically, in support for the rising national Liberal party, became a powerful organ under Nicoll's founding editorship. It disseminated both the troubling theological views emerging within this constituency and the socio-political aspirations of these rising middle classes at a time when they were chafing under longstanding inequities (especially in education). In a masterly treatment of the unforeseen bitter fruits of the intermingling of politics and religion, Ives shows that the Nonconformist pursuit of national political voice as the nineteenth century ebbed served, as decidedly as the disseminated critical views of the Bible, to divert Nonconformity away from its traditional values.
The election of the Liberals to form Britain's parliamentary government in 1906 secured for that party and its largely Nonconformist constituency political ascendancy in the decade before the nation was plunged into World War in 1914. Thus, the final decade of Nicoll's life and literary labours was preoccupied more and more with social and political questions, less and less with gospel concerns. This was a doubly bitter development in that the Liberal party (which entered into a wartime coalition with the Conservatives) would both lose credibility by its over-association with the drudgery of World War and political ground to the rising Labour Party. And the latter, which represented the aspirations of the working classes, was a constituency far less oriented to Christianity than the fading Liberal-Nonconformist alliance.
In the end, we are shown that Nicoll was, over time, caught in a double editorial miscalculation: he wrongly calculated that a liberalized evangelicalism would sustain itself (when it would prove incapable of doing so after 1920). He was equally wrong in calculating that Nonconformist Christianity in Britain would reap only benefit by its ever-closer relationship with the Liberal party. The Liberals experienced a precipitous post-war decline lasting more than half a century, leaving Nonconformity "widowed." Modern evangelical readers of this tale will be inclined to pay the greater attention to Nicoll's misreading of the theological tea leaves; Ives' researches suggest that they should instead ponder how, under Nicoll's editorial leadership, Nonconformity paid just as dearly for its injudicious political alliances.