W.R. Nicoll's Church Relationships



 This section contains further contemporaries with whom Nicoll had some significant relationship, some were an important factor in understanding the success of Nicoll’s periodicals, which included various book publishing projects he undertook. These relationships are also important for showing Nicoll’s concerns and emphases that came out in his papers. Included are some fuller entries of two individuals that are in the book, valuable material was cut for reasons of space and economy.


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 (11865-1942)

15. George H. Morrison (1866-1928)

16. Professor David Smith (d. 1937)

1. Alexander Maclaren

Nicoll invited another proven and well-known preacher Alexander Maclaren[1] to write the weekly section known as ‘International Sunday School Lesson’. This assignment began in June 1888 and together with Whyte’s weekly sermon, became a British Weekly regular feature. Of course these two ‘tried and trusted’ preachers were very helpful ballast for the young paper in the ‘choppy seas’ through which Nonconformity was passing, following immediately on the years of the Downgrade Controversy. Maclaren never said anything controversial, he believed his task was simply to expound and teach the Scriptures. He fulfilled his task for many years, but Maclaren came to know another side of Nicoll as an exacting taskmaster. In 1892 there was some concern about Maclaren’s second volume on Psalms in the Expositor’s Bible Series. From his summer holiday at Aviemore, Maclaren complained, “I wonder editors can sleep at night, depriving us of our holiday. It is worse than ‘robbing a poor man of his beer,’ which has long been regarded as nearly heading the count of official crimes. I hope that you are not having any holiday this autumn! It would be some alleviation to think of you as stewing in Paternoster Row.”[2] On a later occasion when engaged on another task for Nicoll, Maclaren could quip, “We are having brilliant but somewhat cold weather, which I could utilize for walking if it were not for the menacing shadow of W.R.N.”[3]

On Maclaren’s retirement it was at Nicoll’s suggestion that he brought out his Expositions of Holy Scripture, which he almost completed before he died in 1910. Nicoll reflected: “He was always saying no[4]. Every visitor whom he suspected of a new proposal was received at first with a certain gruffness and suspicion, soon disarmed into a smiling gentleness. His first book of sermons[5] was simply dragged out of him. It was printed from reporter’s notes, and he was got to agree to a private publication. Then he had to give it to the public, and others followed. But if he had been left to himself he would never have published any sermons. I take pride in having suggested to him the preparation of his Expositions of Holy Scripture, which has been so widely read in this country, in the colonies, and in America. I cannot say that he received the suggestion too graciously, but in the end I believe it gave him much pleasure to be working to the last, and the latter volumes contain much more new matter than the earlier volumes did.”[6] Nicoll always appreciated Maclaren as having “a keener insight into the New Testament than anyone else I know”[7] and, more importantly, he was competent, Scripturally devotional and safe.

2. Andrew Bruce Davidson

A number of historians seem to make the slip of regarding Nicoll as a ‘pupil’ who had been taught by A.B. Davidson[8] at New College, Edinburgh.[9] The slip is a reminder of the importance of the influence of Davidson on Nicoll’s views and particularly over the Old Testament. Nicoll’s admiration was derived from Davidson’s brilliant pupil W.R. Smith. It should be remembered that, in 1870, Smith had not long left New College, Edinburgh and would teach in a ‘Davidsonian’ way, both in style and especially in content. That mediated influence remained, though, as it has been shown, there was a certain coolness and distance in Smith’s attitude to Nicoll. In fact that coolness made Nicoll go to Davidson direct, and obtain contributions to the Expositor, whereas the ‘brilliant’ pupil refused all Nicoll’s attempts to obtain articles from him.

Davidson is an enigmatic figure that worked quietly, conscientiously and influencing a whole generation of ministers and scholars at New College, Edinburgh, from 1858 to 1902.[10] He wrote comparatively little in the way of books in his lifetime, but “he kept going from about the mid-seventies a constant flow of articles and reviews. The Expositor got the greatest percentage of the articles.”[11] Davidson had made contributions for Samuel Cox and continued to write for Nicoll.

Nicoll drew round him, both as friends and working colleagues a number of ‘Davidson’ men; W.G. Elmslie, John Watson, Henry Drummond, G. Adam Smith, Principal Andrew Harper of Sydney, Professor John Skinner of Cambridge, etc. They were all progressive liberals and took a believing critical view of the Old Testament.

Nicoll had an affinity, with Davidson’s approach to criticism and the older orthodoxy. For Davidson not only believed in a patient approach to change, rather than the ‘revolutionary’ approach of his ‘brilliant’ pupil, but he also had a deference and real respect to those who maintained the older orthodoxy, with a pastoral insight and sympathy, which Smith lacked. Nicoll discerned this and this approach appealed to him, and confirmed him in his approach as editor.

Nicoll used Davidson in the Expositor, but he also kept Davidson before the readers of the British Weekly. An occasional sermon, but mostly extracts of articles that Davidson had made,[12] and typically when Davidson was reviewing a book on Old Testament criticism: “Professor A.B. Davidson, in his incisive manner, gives some cautions to the more reckless among the critics. He warns them that the argument from language is in danger of being carried to excess … the sober practitioners of the higher criticism are finding their chief enemies now not among the traditionalists, but among those on whom the critical spirit has acted like wine.”[13] This served Nicoll in helping to keep the British Weekly’s traditionalist readers on board. Nicoll was one of those who showed eager anticipation of Davidson becoming Moderator of the Free Church in 1897. He wrote personally to Davidson: “I am sure the business will not be congenial to you; but, if you pardon so great a liberty, I venture to hope that you will see your way to accept. You have it in you to render a most essential service to the Church. Nothing could encourage and vitalize the whole body more than your presidency … You have an influence which you little realise, and it is all wanted just now, for there is no denying the times are critical and the outlook not free from signs of gloom. I am writing against myself, for I have small chance of getting anything from you while this is pending, but still I am a Free Churchman with my whole heart, and I cannot but deeply wish to see you where you are so much needed.”[14] In fact Davidson eventually withdrew his name on the grounds of his doctor’s advice because of his delicate heart condition.


Nicoll was on holiday at the end of January 1902 when Davidson died. The British Weekly in his absence pulled out the stops and produced a memorial issue, which might have been considered excessive by many, but it was fitting, as Nicoll acknowledged, and also reflects A.B. Davidson’s place of influence in Nicoll’s outlook as one of the members of the second generation after the disruption, as well as editor. The following week Nicoll wrote in his ‘Claudius Clear Column’: “He was kind to editors who pestered him, and would send, as I used to calculate, one article after the twelfth request; everything he wrote had his stamp … Dr. Davidson’s conversation was singularly memorable and pointed, but it would not be fair to print it. I never understood on what principle he made his intellectual estimates. It was plain enough that he put character far above intellect, and he would dwell with delight on fine traits of devotion or gentleness. Authority daunted him not at all. He loved men, and so it seemed, for some quality of the heart rather than of the mind. He was a man of true and deep humility – evangelical humility.”[15]

James Strachan wrote an article[16] for the Expository Times, in which he challenged the editing of A.B. Davison’s posthumously published works, in particular Old Testament Prophecy edited by J.A. Paterson. This was riposted by J.A. Paterson in a subsequent article;[17] however Nicoll, who persuaded Strachan to write a biography of Davidson, saw the potential in this area of discussion, in drawing necessary attention to understand that there was a development in Davidson’s mind as he sought to come to terms with the challenges of higher criticism. Hodder & Stoughton published the book, Andrew Bruce Davidson in1917. It would appear that Strachan had some contractual obligation to T. & T. Clark, the publishers of his original article in the Expository Times, but Nicoll persuaded him to publish with Hodder and Stoughton.[18] The book restated Strachan’s old arguments, but interestingly he is conspicuous in his quoting from Nicoll and the British Weekly.[19] The pity is that Strachan produced, what is considered as an interesting but not a particularly good biography.[20]

3. Alexander Whyte

When Nicoll was at college in Aberdeen formed many valuable friendships, “not only with his classmates but with the most rising men in the University.”[21] In 1872 Nicoll, as the president of the Student’s Missionary Association invited Alexander Whyte[22] to preach. Whyte would always be associated with Free St. George’s, Edinburgh, but at that time was considering another ‘call’. The student’s bill announcing the meeting was certainly unique: “The minister’s name was given in small capitals, and under it in immense letters followed the words, ‘Under Call to Regent’s Square, London.’ The bill did its work, and on the evening of the sermon the Church was crowded, and Dr. Whyte’s eloquence drew forth a substantial collection.”[23] Later Nicoll remembered an address by Whyte in the General Assembly in 1875 as “...the finest piece of pure, true, genuine eloquence I have ever heard; the effect produced was electric and eternal.”[24] Whyte played a useful role for Nicoll and his papers and Whyte’s reputation was to be boosted by his exposure in Nicoll’s British Weekly. Nicoll introduced Whyte to the readers of the British Weekly by an article entitled, ‘The Rev. Dr. Whyte, by an Outsider,’[25] and from August 1887 he began his contribution of sermons, lectures and talks, an arrangement that lasted for over twenty years. These contributions were mainly Whyte’s “evening sermons in Free St. George’s … and [they] afterwards appeared in book form”.[26] Nicoll appreciated Whyte’s ability and was perfectly happy to serialise his contributions over the years, as it tuned in with his own wide-ranging interests and reading. Whyte was able to show a tremendous width and catholicity of interest: not only consecutive Bible characters, but also ‘The Mystics’, ‘Great Autobiographies’[27], which interested Nicoll both personally and as an editor. When Whyte retired from his late-life honour of being Principal of New College, Edinburgh, in 1918, having already retired from Free St George’s in 1916, he moved to 22, Church Row, Hampstead, Middlesex, in order to be near his children. It also made the Whyte family very near neighbours to the Nicolls. There Whyte died on January 6th 1921, but he was buried in Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh.

On the Good Friday of the following March, Nicoll visited Mrs. Whyte for a ‘chat’ and her information and comments were dictated three days later.[28] Nicoll had assumed that Whyte had always been a successful popular preacher. However, Mrs. Whyte said that it had not always been the case and drew attention to the time around 1887, when the work at Free St George’s Edinburgh was discouraging to the point of her husband seriously thinking of resigning. “The afternoon attendances had fallen to a shadow, and the morning attendance was not so good as it should be”[29] Plans made, of which one was to go to Australia and another was to go to St Andrews, as this would help facilitate the education of their children. This was just before the time when Nicoll was able to give Whyte began regular exposure in the British Weekly. The situation improved and Whyte, also, came to have the help from a colleague. Nicoll reflected: “It was rather a disclosure to me that Whyte should have been so discouraged in his work 30 years ago as to think of resigning. I could see with my own eyes that attendance had slackened.”[30] Whyte’s biographer describes his subject’s indebtedness to Nicoll and his exposure in the British Weekly. “It was not through his published volumes alone that Dr. Whyte became the spiritual guide of many thousands who seldom or never heard his voice. Week by week during each winter and spring, the British Weekly took his sermon of the Sunday evening before into an increasing number of homes, not a few of which were almost as humble as that of his own boyhood. If his volumes on the Mystics made him known to scholars in churches far removed from his own, his evening addresses carried his message to readers who made no claim to scholarship but found in it the sustenance of which their souls stood in need. These sermons were to many the choicest part of the journal in which they appeared.”[31] Whyte’s biography contains surviving letters and there was a pronounced display of Whyte’s indebtedness to Nicoll’s support: “My Dear Nicoll – This morning I have sent off my last Bunyan to your printers. I shall never be able to tell you what I owe you for taking me up into your unparalleled pulpit. Your influence is immense, and you have given me some share of it. God bless you and yours.”[32] Also, “I never can be thankful enough for the splendid pulpit your journal has been to me, and for the friends it has secured to me among people whose faces I have never seen.”[33] Again, “What an astonishing man you are! What industry! What versatility! What freshness! And how good of you, among so many friends, to remember me! Only – no friend could value this remembrance more.”[34]

Nicoll knew that the writing of Whyte’s biography would not be easy. Whyte was not an easy person to describe and there were facts of some delicacy about Whyte’s early days. Nicoll did record in his papers some facts that were omitted by G.F. Barbour’s official biography;[35] such as Whyte’s wife feeling that her husband had been hard on her in their early years of marriage[36]. Apparently Whyte expected a great deal from her, although she had been better informed than many women of her times. His concern was with her reading and began to insist, “She should read the Spectator every week”.[37] Apparently this she did “diligently and wearily, and he catechised her about the articles, and [so] she got to hate the Spectator.[38] Nicoll merely noted, “I got on better with Mrs. Whyte than I expected.”

Although by the time of Whyte’s death, Nicoll himself was feeling his frailty, he nevertheless led the appreciations of Whyte in a memorial issue of British Weekly. He acknowledged, “His was not an easy life, and it could not, with his temperament, have been so. He had his hours in that valley of the shadow of death where faith seems to grow weary … but the prevailing temper of his mind was eminently happy and hopeful, and few can have more perfectly fulfilled and realised the dreams and ambitions of youth.”[39]

Nicoll wrote of his personal abiding memory of Whyte: “On thinking over our long association, it becomes clear to me that his main characteristic was his intense humility. He might seem austere, and he was austere at times. The burden of the world lay more heavily upon him than it lies on most, and before men he could at times denounce sin with terrible emphasis … [yet] if he thought he had been carried away in some access of passion he humbled himself to the dust before the man whom he thought he had wronged. Evangelical humility is the note of all he preached and wrote.”[40] Whyte was an essential part of the reason why the British Weekly became so popular and Whyte’s extraordinary breadth of his literary and spiritual enthusiasms.[41] This was just what Nicoll enjoyed expressing in his paper, but was the influence all helpfulness for his readers?




4. Andrew Martin Fairbairn

Andrew Martin Fairbairn[42] – was a leader and a Scotsman whom Nicoll valued in many ways, having known Fairbairn from his own early days in ministry, when Fairbairn was also in Aberdeenshire Ministry. He wrote of his own appreciation of Fairbairn at St Paul’s Street in Aberdeen. Nicoll’s appreciation was not to the ‘massive intellectual performances of his evening lectures, but his Sunday morning services for the ordinary Church members: “The most beautiful thing, as appeared to me, in Fairbairn’s character was the way in which he set himself to succour, to uplift, to inspire the flock committed to his care. To my mind his morning sermons were far superior to his evening lectures. They were simple, but full of pity and sympathy. The preacher knew what his hearers were thinking and needing, and what they experienced.”[43] However, Fairbairn was not the kind of leader that Nicoll fully appreciated. Peake picked up on a certain antipathy in their relationship. “The two Scotsmen were not very sympathetic with each other. The reason was partly rooted in theological difference. Nicoll felt that Fairbairn was far less valuable for edification, and I think, for constructive theology, than Dale. ‘Dale’, he said to me, ‘is worth a million Fairbairns.’ He explained that when he used hear Fairbairn in his Aberdeen days he was very historical in his treatment but unsatisfactory when it came to constructive statement … on the doctrine of redemption he [Fairbairn] was not inclined to acquiesce in the current Evangelical view. At this point Nicoll stood resolutely by a strictly substitutionary doctrine of the Atonement. He was also a Calvinist. Fairbairn had a deep reverence for Calvin and ratted him very high both as expositor and theologian … when Fairbairn died Nicoll asked me to write an article on him for the Expositor … He sent me the following letter on March 12 1912, ‘Very many thanks for the article on Fairbairn. It is a most weighty, valuable, and friendly judgment of his works and character. I cannot help feeling that the absence of high poetical feeling and of signal felicity of phrase, in his books will make them difficult to future generations. But meantime they appear to be selling well.’”[44]

Nicoll paid his own tribute in the British Weekly, acknowledging “The present writer was never on intimate terms with principal Fairbairn, but had opportunities of seeing and hearing him, especially during his ministry in Aberdeen …Fairbairn was one of those who wakened late … I was present at the opening of Mansfield College, and it was delightful to see the profound respect and confidence with which he was regarded by all who had to do with him. The manner in which he encountered difficulties and overcame prejudices and raised the whole estimate of theological knowledge in this land will yet be worthily described … He approached the problems in a devout and reverential spirit, and no one hated flippancy and impertinence more than he did. But he had his limitations. The whole Mystical side of Christianity was hid from his eyes. On the other hand, what he saw, he saw very clearly, and he knew how to expound it. There has been a controversy about his style. His antithetic manner was to some an abomination. Henry Drummond said: ‘Fairbairn first boxed you on one ear, and then boxed you on the other.’ Maclaren of Manchester said once: ‘I have been trying to read a book by Fairbairn. It is not written in any language I know. It is not written in English, or in Scotch, or in German, or in Greek, or in Hebrew.’ But in spite of these judgments, it would be very unjust to deny that Fairbairn had an opulence of expression … perhaps his best writing was in the numerous reviews which he contributed to the Scotsman, the Aberdeen Free Press, the Academy, and the Spectator.”[45]

5. George Matheson

Another writer with a reputation Nicoll used was George Matheson.[46] Matheson was a remarkable scholar. Although blind he could, ‘keep a firm hold of almost every idea and fact that was communicated to him.’[47] However, he combined this skill with ‘an extraordinary power of assimilation’[48] Matheson was by nature and training a speculative theologian. Samuel Cox first engaged Matheson to write for the Expositor and this was in the light of Matheson’s impact with his book Aids to the Study of German Theology (1874). He wrote many articles for Cox, but interestingly Nicoll had to bide his time for contributions, but they eventually came. Possibly Matheson had a loyalty to Cox and disapproved of the way he had been removed from the editorial chair.

Matheson’s book on German theologians was published anonymously at first, but with its success Matheson put his name to the second edition. He had been wary because of the prejudice amongst his contemporaries, but he wrote as one who had found ‘the creative, positive, and illuminating ideas of the great German thinkers [had] enabled him to lay hold afresh of his lost faith, and to body it forth in a new and living form’[49]. Matheson had sought to master his material and so was able to present an historical evolution of ideas, but most of all he presented German theology as positive, creative and constructive – not at all designed to destroy Christianity!

Matheson wrote for the first series of the Expositor (under Cox)[50]: ‘The most important of the articles which he published at this time are apologetic in their nature. His great aim was to commend Christianity to the times, to show that modern science and criticism had in no way impaired, much less destroyed, its foundations; but that, on the contrary, every fresh discovery in the world of mind or of matter, or in the field of history, simply revealed its inherent wealth, its boundless resources and its eternal adaptability to the needs of man’[51]

Also he made contributions to the second series of the Expositor when Nicoll was at the helm.[52] Matheson shared with Nicoll a deep interest in Immortality. He wrote for the Expositor, that for him the future of the soul is in the light of Christ’s life, death and resurrection: ‘he contends that the believer who is mystically united to Christ, who is a member of His Divine body, is bound to be a sharer in that life which Christ brought to light’[53] Nicoll had a warm appreciation of Matheson, which came out in an obituary article for the British Weekly. He praises Matheson as an apologist: “He conceived that he might be still able to do something in harmonising the old faith with the new. At that time the young theological thinkers of Scotland were breaking through the barriers of the old orthodoxy. The broad church party had established itself in the Church of Scotland, and Robertson Smith had begun his revolutionary work in the Free Church. Evolution and the Higher Criticism had come to stay. It was a testing time.”[54] So Matheson “took to the field desiring to welcome the truth from every quarter, and persuaded that no truth could contradict or impair the Christian religion”.[55] This resonated with the optimism of Nicoll’s own approach, but Nicoll noted that Matheson changed. He ‘came to disbelieve in the Higher Criticism and in the doctrine of evolution, at least in its extreme form. He even came to the conclusion that a new revelation would be given to keep the Church alive’.[56] Matheson became more of a devotional writer and wrote books such as Studies in the Portrait of Christ, but he resisted Nicoll’s attempt to get him to write a novel.[57] “He set himself to live more truly the life that is hid with Christ in God. For ourselves, we do not doubt that the harmony of all truth is already to be discerned, though for many reasons the complete reconciliation must be slowly accomplished. Dr Matheson made his choice and contributed his part. He turned his face towards Zion. He proved and proved again the reality of the spiritual light.”[58]


6. William G Elmslie (1848-1889)


W.G. Elmslie was born in the Free Church Manse of Insch, Aberdeenshire and educated at the Parish School of his native village and the Grammar School at Aberdeen. “His father, who survives him, and devoted to his training the utmost care, he derived much of the Christian shrewdness and knowledge of human nature which distinguished his preaching in later years. From his mother, beside whom he rests, and who lighted up the manse at Insch with one of the most highly gifted minds and sweetly chastened spirits that ever guided and comforted our parish life, he gained that keen spiritual vision, that vivid sense of personal religion, and that sharp intellectuality which marked him off as a great teacher of men. Wonderfully plodding as a boy, yet withal possessing qualities that are gifts, Elmslie was easily and everywhere first.”[59]

Elmslie entered Aberdeen University: “His career … was exceedingly brilliant, as his bookcase of prizes attested; and at the close, when he graduated with first class honours in Mathematics, he was adjudged by the ‘Senatus’ to be the best student all over of his year, and received the Town Council gold medal.”[60]

Elmslie entered New College, Edinburgh, where he continued to win prizes and under the influence of A.B. Davidson he gained an enthusiasm for Semitic studies. “Nothing that could possibly fit him the better foe the ministry of Christ was neglected. Germany attracted him in the summers; and, at the end of the statuary curriculum, he was to be found perfecting himself at Berlin and Paris.”[61] At this time he was more interested in Theology than in Biblical Scholarship in the more technical sense.


Elmslie gained practical experience as Dr. Dykes’ assistant at Regents Square Presbyterian Church. From here Elmslie took the pastorate at Willesden and expanded the work there. This Church was to be his first and only charge and there he honed his skill and gifting as a preacher of power and acceptance. Elmslie became a tutor in Hebrew at the English Presbyterian College, London in 1880 and was ranked as a professor by 1883. He became a student of Old Testament criticism, though not an original thinker. Like his professor Davidson, he was reticent about publishing his own conclusions or insights to students and Evangelicals in general. Elmslie concentrated in his lectures on the prophets rather than the Pentateuch. He, “In general, Higher Criticism never caused any alarm as long as it was expressed incidentally to the positive affirmation of Evangelical truth. That is why it was more alarming in cold print then when heard personally from the lips of a man recognised for his Evangelical fervour. Elmslie won and retained the highest respect of men who would have been greatly offended if they had seen in print all the criticism, which he taught in the classroom. The students felt the reality of his religious life. One of them remarked that he was ‘not so much broad as big’. Even in print surprising departures from traditional views could be made with impunity if the context struck a positive religious note; for instance, Elmslie’s article on the ‘First Chapter of Genesis’, in which he argues for the mythical character of creation story, is an excellent example.[62] “Elmslie had a fine political sense in the best meaning of the word; that is he understood people and how to handle them”.


In 1888 Elmslie considered a call to the pastorate of Westminster Chapel, but declined it, although he was urged to accept it by Joseph Parker. Elmslie was more comfortable in his life and work in the college.


Nicoll was always on the lookout for promising writers, who could also become the new generation of leaders.  One such individual was William G. Elmsie. (1848-1889).[63] In 1887, he began to write regularly, both articles and reviews, for the Expositor and the British Weekly.  Nicoll felt at one with him and with Elmsie’s concern over the Old Testament.  Elmsie had been a student of New College, Edinburgh and in particular had sat under A B Davidson.  Nicoll could say of him: “...the advantage of personal intercourse with him was unspeakable.  I have never learned so much from any other human being.”[64]  

W.R. Nicoll had high hopes for Elmsie and his future leadership potential amongst the Nonconformists.  It was, therefore, a bitter blow when, in November 1889, Elmsie suddenly died.  In his appreciation of Elmsie, Nicoll reveals his feelings and his own mind-set: “Our first thought and our last about him is that he was a Christian. He was a true believer. Whatever his doubts may have been, they were long gone. He knew, as few men know them, the difficulties of faith. In Biblical Criticism he was a master, and he was very well abreast of scientific thought.  But the problems thus suggested never threw one shadow on the clearness of his assurance.  He held his faith with a certain large simplicity, but with absolute conviction.  He dwelt in the positive. The truths on which he fed his own life and on which he ministered to others were untouched by scepticism. Though he was a very brilliant and cultured man, with a wide-range of interests, it is not of his gifts or his knowledge one thinks: it is of the deep Christianity which suffused all.”[65]

Nicoll had identified with Elmsie, who like himself, was frail in health and he seemed to have the same vision about educating a new generation: “His views on the structure of the Old Testament were largely those of the newer school of critics; but on important points (as for example, the authorship of certain psalms) he dissented from them.  Construction was more important to his taste than criticism; he drew a sharp line between critical theories and the inferences drawn from them.”[66]

Nicoll saw the possibility of Elmslie as uniquely gifted for educating the next generation about the new critical views concerning the Old Testament. “The intellectual qualities of his preaching were less wonderful than its healing power. He would often earnestly say that his experience of life showed him that people needed comfort, and that it was in this way they were best reached. Scolding in the pulpit he abhorred, although he was accustomed to set forth duty incisively and plainly, especially the duty of making home bright. He not only met, but also anticipated calls for sympathy. He had a quick intuition of pain, and set himself to allay it. With doubters he was especially at home and they with him.”[67] Elmsie, himself and many other leaders could refer to themselves as ‘believing critics’, but the problem was, that the next generation would have more of a taste for their criticism than for their believing.


Elmslie died suddenly in 1889; he had over exerted himself and had just been preaching, in spite of being unwell. He was mourned by many, including WRN, who felt he would have been a significant leader for the next generation.  Elmslie’s replacement in his college post was another New College, graduate John Skinner – who at this early stage had not published any critical views, unlike his colleague George Adam Smith who had!

7. Peter Taylor Forsyth

P.T. Forsyth[68] was another Scot who spent his working life in England, after his educational nurture in Aberdeen. Forsyth was a notable preacher, theologian, Principal and then as a writer. Nicoll got to know him and facilitated for several of Forsyth’s books,[69] which Hodder & Stoughton published. Forsyth had his own a very distinct style of writing, and he made several contributions to the British Weekly, but caused Nicoll the Editor, with his love of a clear open style, some problems. Silvester Horne, a colleague and an admirer of Forsyth, described his literary style as ‘Fireworks in fog’. Even in his memorial tribute Nicoll has to mention it: “This is not the time to discuss the vexed question of his style, but it should be understood that, such as it was, it was deliberately adopted. It was the style that suited him. I have never known a great theological writer who proceeded so much by the way of iteration. Forsyth had a wealth of language, scores of ways in which to express a truth, not adequately, but attempting adequacy. The result is that in page after page of his books we seem to be reading exercises in language; the thought makes no progress … Dr. Forsyth, however, could write grave, dignified and beautiful prose, and there is something to learn no doubt even from his repetitions.”[70] There in lay the problem for Nicoll who had refined his own style to aid and ease comprehension for his readers as much as he could. Was Forsyth going for something more significant? 

In 1916 Forsyth wrote a controversial book The Christian Ethic of War[71] and he, also, submitted the manuscript to Nicoll, possibly for Hodder & Stoughton to publish. Forsyth wrote to Nicoll:

“My Dear Nicoll, Of course you can’t print in a journal what most people don’t understand … As to the gravity of the situation- probably part of the difficulty rises from my gauging but more deeply than your self – certainly more so than the people who complain to you. My estimate of the situation will appear in due course. Your reference of the case of Miss S[toddart] is odd. I like her immensely & admire her interest in history as well as her professional skill. But (Discretion!) she makes queer idols, & I could now hope to get alongside her un-philosophic mind … No doubt some of my sentences could be clarified. But that is not the pinch. The pinch is that the whole moral situation … the popular pulpiteer has no idea of & therefore he cannot find the public who pursue him. Is there one of them who even wants to adjust the gospel to the fundamental principles of society as it is eagerly coming to be. To do that he must get to the moral position of things, & force people to attend, with all the influence his popularity gives him. But he isn’t interested. If I talk any nonsense I deserve no quarter. But if it is the Mission of God in a mystery, an interpreter, if competent, might be doing Him service … But I assure you I do understand. I sent you a cutting up of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which was quite clear and incisive. You would not have it because you despised them too much. I assure you they are not a despicable quantity in the rank & file of the Churches. I sent you another about Passive Resistance. Perhaps the time for it hasn’t come, perhaps my view is wrong. But it is intelligible enough & it certainly gets down, whether it gets home or not … Addio! I’m going to give you a long rest – except perhaps in Expositor. Ever yours impenitently P.T. Forsyth.”[72]

The Christian Ethic of War was published, but not by Hodder & Stoughton,[73] on which a recent writer said: “As Gladstone had skimmed along the edges of intellectual, and therefore moral, catastrophe in politics, and Lloyd George more so later, so did Forsyth in theology. How else do we explain The Christian Ethic of War (1916), that un-put-downable book which we wish he had not written, yet which only he could have written, repetitive, flawed, bad tempered, celebrating all its author’s powers and his limitations, directed, or rather misdirected, at what he was closest to understanding, the pacifism of old friends and one of his Cambridge successors?”[74] Nicoll kept their friendship remained intact, for Forsyth’s book seemed to challenge things that Nicoll had identified with, and, he felt, would strain his work of seeking to keep the Nonconformists united behind the Government’s war effort.


After Forsyth’s death in 1921, Nicoll paid his tribute: “Forsyth’s great quality was loyalty. He was intensely loyal to the Church to which he had committed himself … what Dr Forsyth brought to the Congregationalists was no common gift. Forsyth was one of the ablest students that Aberdeen University ever boasted ... But something like a crisis occurred in his life. We do not suppose he altered anything important of his early teaching, but he seemed to undergo a kind of revolution. He was taken up thenceforth with the expiation of the Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross. When so powerful a man with tendencies so liberal and an outlook so candid, went back to the preaching of the one perfect oblation and satisfaction the result produced was great … his last years were his best. He was at home in academic work. His learning and accomplishment were undeniable, and he put his heart into his lectures, writing constantly on fresh subjects. He was a born teacher, considerate, wise and eminently capable. He grew to be a really eminent preacher. He had always the defect of being lengthy, but he put so much life and fire into his discourses that he carried his hearers with him … of the end we will only say that we have never known a Christian die with a more absolute trust in the all-sufficient Atonement of the Eternal Christ. Before all things Peter Forsyth was a man of God.”[75] Nicoll had a warm appreciation of Forsyth, of both the man and his work, and, as he wrote more intimately to Forsyth’s widow, “How happy he was in your care and keeping. You will be comforted in knowing what a great and strong regard was entertained for him among his own people, and indeed throughout the whole Christian world.”[76] Nicoll was always fulsome in his appreciation of Forsyth and his achievements.

[1] Alexander Maclaren (1826-1910) after a successful pastorate at Portland Chapel, Southampton (1846-1856); he is most remembered for his preaching and his work at Union Chapel, Manchester (1858-1903). Maclaren was President of the Baptist Union in 1875 and again in 1901.

[2] Darlow: op cit 329.

[3] Darlow: ibid.

[4] Maclaren declined possible moves to Regent’s Park Church, London and to the Chair of Hebrew at Regent’s College; he would refuse invitations to preach outside of his own pulpit, so concentrating on his ministry of expounding the Scriptures. Philip, J.: ‘Alexander Maclaren’ Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology, op cit 526.

[5] Sermons Preached in Manchester published in 1860 and 1869.

[6] Nicoll: ‘Alexander Maclaren’, British Weekly: May 12 1910 [The issue that also covered the death of Edward VII]: Also Princes of the Church, op cit 253-254.

[7] Nicoll: cited Philip, J: ‘Alexander Maclaren’ Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology, op cit 526.

[8] Andrew Bruce Davidson (1831-1902) – Hebraist and theologian. Early life in Aberdeenshire graduated from Marischal College, Aberdeen in 1849 and after some teaching experience, entered New College, Edinburgh in 1852. He was asked to assist John Duncan and was appointed professor of Hebrew in 1863. He remained at this post until his death in 1902. “While in some ways enigmatic, Davidson was an important transitional figure in the history of biblical scholarship in Britain. His views on critical matters were sufficiently traditional and orthodox in their account of recent criticism to allay any suspicions about his suitability for the chair at New College … towards the end of his life Davidson became cautiously more critical, especially in articles for James Hastings’s Dictionary of the Bible.” Rogerson J W: New National Dictionary of Biography (Oxford, 2004) 302. 

[9] Riesen, R.A.: Criticism and Faith in Late Victorian Scotland, op cit 252.

[10] Davidson was chosen to assist to John Duncan in 1858, and he was appointed to the Hebrew Professorial Chair in 1863, on the recommendation of Duncan. “Davidson was renowned as a stimulating teacher, one who drew students from overseas to Edinburgh … yet despite his renown, his position was debated within the free Church Presbytery of Edinburgh, though not in the General Assembly, after the William Robertson Smith case; and pamphlets were written against him and his New Testament colleague, Marcus Dods. He always voted for Smith, but – to the puzzlement of many – never spoke for him in public.” Wright, D.F. & Badcock, G.D. (Editors): Disruption to Diversity: Edinburgh Divinity 1846-1996, (T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh 1996) 58-9.

[11] Riesen, R.A.: Criticism and Faith, op cit 261.

[12] ‘A B Davidson in the pulpit’ (Aug 19 1887); ‘Professor Davidson on the Second Advent’ (Feb 22 1889); ‘Great sinners making great saints’ (Oct 4 1889); Review of John Skinner’s Ezekiel by A B Davidson (April 11 1895); ‘Dr. A.B. Davidson, Moderator-Elect of the free Church of Scotland’ By the late Professor Elmslie (Nov 26 1996); etc – all in the British Weekly.  

[13] ‘Notes of the Week – Professor A.B. Davidson on the Higher Criticism’, British Weekly, Jan 19 1893.

[14] Nicoll: Letter to Davison (N/D 1897) cited in James Strachan’s Andrew Bruce Davidson (Hodder & Stoughton, London 1917) 302-3.

[15] ‘The Late Professor A.B. Davidson’ [The Correspondence of Claudius Clear], British Weekly, Feb 6 1902.

[16] Strachan, James: ‘The Writings of the late Professor A.B. Davidson’, Expository Times, Volume 15, No.10.

[17] Paterson, J A: ‘The Writings of Professor A.B. Davidson’, Expository Times, Volume 15, No.12. 

[18] Publisher’s letter to Nicoll: The Nicoll Papers, MS 3518, Box 9. Very likely this was concerning the extensive bibliography to A.B. Davidson’s writing, which was a main part of Strachan’s Expository Times article, and is conspicuously missing from the biography. Besides Strachan was seen as also criticising T. & T. Clark books!

[19] Nicoll is footnoted by name on 5 occasions, [pp. 48, 79,205, 281, 302-3] the last being an unpublished letter to Davidson from Nicoll. Strachan twice cites ‘Claudius Clear’ [pp. 209,269], as well as various British Weekly articles by Professor Elmslie and R.A. Watson

[20] “Strachan wrote an exceptionally bad biography of his hero”: Drummond & Bulloch: The Church in late Victorian Scotland, op cit 42

[21] Stoddart: Nicoll, op cit, 35-36

[22] Alexander Whyte (1836-1921) became colleague and then successor to R S Candlish at Free St. George’s, Edinburgh (1873-1916). Most known as a preacher but from 1909-1918 he was Principal of New College, Edinburgh. “A traditionalist himself, Whyte championed the cause of liberty in biblical criticism; a Calvinist in theology, he was catholic in his sympathies with exponents of the devotional life”: Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: 2003).

[23] Stoddart: Nicoll, op cit 37-38

[24] Stoddart: ibid. 38

[25] British Weekly: July 1 1887. The writer was a youthful James M. Barrie, making his first contribution to Nicoll’s paper. This was the first of a series on Scottish worthies and treated in a ‘light-hearted’ manner. Nicoll was surprised that the articles were not successful. The style was humorous, even familiar but only appreciated to those who had already some knowledge of Whyte

[26] Barbour, G F: The Life of Alexander Whyte DD (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1923) 392f. Among these were, Bible Characters (6 vols. 1896-1902), Bunyan Characters (4 vols. 1893-1908), as well as many profiles and appreciations of Church worthies

[27] This included such figures as Thomas Goodwin, John Henry Newman, Samuel Rutherford, Santa Teresa, etc.

[28] Nicoll: ‘Notes of a personal interview after a visit to Mrs Alexander Whyte’, dated March 25, dictated on March 28 (1921?): Nicoll Papers: MS3518, Box 26, file 7

[29] Nicoll: ‘Notes’, ibid

[30] Nicoll: ‘Notes’, ibid

[31] Barbour: op cit 394

[32] Barbour: ibid 394

[33] Barbour: ibid, 533

[34] Whyte to Nicoll: ‘Letter’, “Sat. night”, no further dating: Nicoll Letters Collection (National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh)

[35] Nicoll: ‘Notes’ (Nicoll Papers: MS3518, Box 26, file 7). Nicoll wrote:  “Barbour will do the biography to the family’s wishes – a difficult job – Whyte was more many sided than some people thought but unfortunately he didn’t keep letters.” [Nicoll did, hence the use of those to himself]

[36] Whyte married Jane Elizabeth Barbour (Birth: 1857 Edinburgh, Death: 1944) in 1881, at that time Whyte would have been 45 and his wife 24, also, it should be remembered that Whyte had some considerable standing, and was 11 years into his ministry at St George’s Free Church, seven of them as senior minister.

[37] Nicoll: ‘Notes’, op cit

[38] Nicoll: ‘Notes’, ibid

[39] Nicoll: ‘Dr. Alexander Whyte’, British Weekly, Jan 13 1921: also Princes, op cit 314.

[40] Nicoll: ibid.

[41] Whyte lectured and wrote about his enthusiasms. He had a very high esteem for the sermons of John Henry Newman, often he read from the Dream of Gerontius, in his younger days. Newman figured in his lectures, as did St Teresa, Sir Thomas Browne, and Bishop Lancelot Andrews, which caused raised eyebrows in his Free Church, Protestant circles. “The author of the Apologia, in particular, cast a lifelong spell upon him: he paid a visit of homage to the Oratory in 1876, and the two men engaged in desultory correspondence thereafter … Whyte also praised the writings of Lord Acton, paid a friendly visit to the agnostic John Morley, and corresponded amicably with the sceptical Leslie Stephen. He was indeed possessed of unusually catholic sympathies.” Cheyne: A C: Transforming the Kirk, op cit 173.

[42] Andrew Martin Fairbairn (1838-1912) –Ministered in the Evangelical Union Church in Aberdeen (1872), but he joined the English Congregationalist and became the Principal of Airedale College (1877-1886). He is best known for his time as Principal of Mansfield College, Oxford (1886-1909).

[43] Nicoll: quoted Selbie, W.B.: The Life of Andrew Martin Fairbairn (Hodder & Stoughton, London 1914) 81.

[44] Peake, A.S.: Recollections, op cit 15-7.

[45] Nicoll: ‘The Late Principal Fairbairn’, British Weekly, Feb 15 1912.

[46] George Matheson (1842 – 1906), blind scholar of the Church of Scotland, who in his early career as a writer sought to reconcile the Church with the scholarship coming from Germany.

[47] Macmillan, D.: The life of George Matheson (Hodder & Stoughton: London 1907) 131.

[48] Macmillan, D.: ibid. 131

[49] Macmillan: ibid 134-5

[50] Matheson’s first articles for the Expositor:

·         Science and the Christian Doctrine of Prayer (Vol.9)

·         The Pauline Argument for a Future State (Vol.9)

·         The Paradox of Christian Ethics (Vol.10)

·         Christianity and Judaism (Vol.10)

·         Christianity’s First Invitation to the World (Vol.11).

·         The Outer and the Inner Glory (Vol.12).

[51] Macmillan: ibid 152-3.

[52] Matheson’s second set of articles for the Expositor:

·         The Historical Christ of St. Paul (11 studies in Vols. 13-14).

·         Studies in the Minor Prophets (5 studies in Vols. 15-16).

·         Psalm 139 (Vol.16).

·         Scripture Studies of the Heavenly State (6 studies in Vols. 17-18).

·         No-Resurrection Impossible (Vol.20).

·         Spiritual Sacrifices (Vol.20).

[53] Macmillan: ibid 158.

[54] Nicoll: Princes, op cit 187.

[55] Nicoll: ibid. 189.

[56] Nicoll: ibid 190.

[57] Letter from Mr M’Kensie Bell, quoted in Macmillan, op cit 310

[58] Nicoll: Princes, op cit 190.

[59] Troup, Rev G Elmslie: ‘Professor W G Elmslie DD’, Expository Times 1890 Vol 1 No 4 77-79.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Nicoll, W.R. & Macnicoll A.C.: Professor William G Elmslie (Hodder & Stoughton, London 1890) et al

[63] Ibid

[64] Darlow: op. cit., 84

[65] Nicoll: Princes, op cit 5

[66] Ibid, 7

[67] Ibid, 6

[68] P.T. Forsyth (1848-1921) – a Scottish Congregational minister who labour all his life in England, although he was born and brought up in Aberdeen. When he began to write exceptional books seemed to flow from his pen, and 1901 he was appointed Principal of Hackney College, which became part of London University. “His writings reflect what came to be the main elements of his theology: the inadequacy of human reason, the infinite distinction between God and humanity, the reality of human sinfulness, the primacy of the objective over the subjective, the authority of Christ, the power and finality of the cross, the transcendent and prevenient grace of God.” Anderson, A F: ‘Peter Taylor Forsyth’, Dictionary of Scottish Church History & Theology, op cit 331-2.

[69] Some of these books included: The Holy Father and the Living Christ, Hodder & Stoughton, London 1897, which began as one of Nicoll’s ‘Little Books on Religion’; Positive Preaching and Modern Mind  [The Lyman Beecher Lecture on Preaching, Yale University, 1907] Hodder & Stoughton, London 1907;Missions in State and Church: Sermons and Addresses, Hodder & Stoughton, London 1908; The Cruciality of the Cross, Hodder & Stoughton, London 1910; The Person and Place of Jesus Christ [The Congregational Union Lecture for 1909] Hodder & Stoughton, London 1909. The Power of Prayer [With Dora Greenwell] Hodder & Stoughton, London 1910, another of Nicoll’s ‘Little Books on Religion’, and it was Nicoll who suggested that Forsyth’s study should be bound together with Dora Greenwell’s essay on Prayer. The Work of Christ, Hodder & Stoughton, London 1910; Christ on Parnassus: Lectures on Art, Ethic, and Theology, Hodder & Stoughton, London 1911;  Faith, Freedom and the Future, Hodder & Stoughton, London 1912;  Marriage: Its Ethic and Religion, Hodder & Stoughton, 1912; Theology In Church and State,  Hodder & Stoughton, London 1915

[70] Nicoll: ‘Principal Forsyth’, British Weekly, Nov 17 1921

[71] Forsyth, P.T.: The Christian Ethic of War, (Longmans, Green, and Co, London 1916)

[72] Forsyth, P.T.: letter to Nicoll, April 12 1916: The Nicoll Papers, MS 3518/36

[73] Hodder & Stoughton did not publish The Christian Ethic of War and in fact did not publish anything of Forsyth’s subsequently from 1916.

[74] Binfield, Clyde: ‘Peter Taylor Forsyth: Pastor as Principal’, P.T. Forsyth: Theologian for a New Millennium, edited by A P F Sell (The United Reformed Church, London 1999) 30-1

[75] Nicoll: ‘Principal Forsyth’, British Weekly, op cit

[76] Nicoll: Letter to Mrs Forsyth, cited Darlow: op cit 429

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