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White, Rev. Thomas, 92, 123
J. Arnot, Esq., 391
Proposed Union between the English
and United Presbyterian Churches, 199
THE GLASGOW FREE CHURCH COLLEGE CASE.*
As the pamphlet we intend to notice briefly makes "special reference to the Glasgow College case,” it is necessary, in the outset, to state that case. Though it agitated a whole college for well-nigh eighteen months, wasted much of the precious time and energies due to other interests, gave rise to some strange and most unedifying scenes in a large and important Presbytery, and in divers ways drew to itself the anxious attention of Christian men of all denominations, it was in reality short and simple. Rescued from the complications in which it was involved, and disentangled from the irrelevancies which were more than once attached to it, in its main substance and distinguishing element it was as follows:
At an early period in the session of 1857-8, Professor Gibson prescribed to his class of Systematic Theology an essay on the Unity of God. According to his usual practice, he privately examined the essays given in, commented upon them publicly in the class, and gave their authors an opportunity of reading in the presence of their fellow-students the passages he saw fit to select. It so happened that, with respect to two or three of the essays written on the subject named, he did not feel at liberty to speak in terms of | unmingled commendation, but was constrained to find fault, chiefly on the ground of rashness of expression, incorrectness of sentiment, and tendency to dangerous consequences. No one likes to be unfavourably criticised, and the young men whose productions were thus animadverted upon would have been different from the general order to which they belonged, if they had taken it pleasantly. They not only smarted under it, but conceived that great injustice had been done them, and that steps must be taken against the Professor for the purpose of obtaining redress. Accordingly, they went almost at once to the Principal (Dr. Fairbairn), laid their supposed grievance before him, and by his advice put their complaint into a written form, got it signed by three or four students whose essays had not been criticised at all
, had it laid before the senators, and their Professor summoned to meet it, all within six or seven days of the criticism. The complaint assumed a most serious aspect, inasmuch as it alleged that the Professor had “misunderstood and misstated their views;" that they had all “directly or by implication been
* A Vindication of Natural Theology, on Grounds of Reason, Scripture, and Orthodoxy; with special reference to the Glasgow College Case, and the recent Publications of Professor Gibson. By the Rev. James Macgregor, Free Church, Barry. 2nd edition, Edinburgh, 1859. No. 145.-New Series.
charged by the Professor with holding opinions from which he could deduce heretical conclusions;" and that “offensive motives had been imputed" to them. But the issue of an investigation by the Senatus into these and other grounds of offence, carried on in presence of the class, was, that the “students withdrew the complaint, and expressed regret for having presented it.” This was, of course, a complete vindication of the Professor from charges which, if otherwise disposed of, were fitted—and it may, therefore, be said, were intended to make him out one of the most ungenerous and incompetent of
It might have been supposed that such a conclusion would have exercised a salutary influence on the disaffected portion of the class, especially in the way of leading them to a respectful attention to the prelections of their teacher, and to a sacred watchfulness over their own sentiments and language in the business of the class-room. For awhile the work went on without any occurrence calling for serious notice. But, whether they were irritated by the abortiveness of their complaint, or conceived themselves more ingenious and philosophical than their fellow-students, or fancied that they were wiser than their teacher, four of them handed in essays towards the close of the session on “The Scripture Doctrine of Human Depravity,"containing numerous and elaborate passages which the Professor felt he could not overlook, and be faithful to his class, to the doctrinal standards of his Church, and to the claims of the Word of God. As if he knew the temper of their authors, as if he had taken a careful observation of the line on which they were running, as if he feared that an improper construction might be put upon his own comments, and as if he was anxious to bring the greatest possible amount of moral influence to bear on those whom he thought occupying an untenable and perilous position, Professor Gibson submitted their papers to his colleagues. They expressed their deliberate opinion that the essayists had proceeded on a misconception of the meaning of the Westminster Confession; that they had employed respecting that Confession terms both “undeserved and unwarrantable;' and that two of them had employed a principle of interpretation to proof-texts, of which they thought“ erroneous in itself, and erroneously used” in the instances to which they referred. Again, it might have been expected that correction would have its proper effect, and that the way of truth and peace would be readily followed. But, no. One interview after another was held in vain. Rumour with its hundred tongues took up the theme. Select circles in Glasgow and the West of Scotland were busied with it. And in the summer of 1858, the College Committee of the Free Church took it up in the shape of unpleasant misunderstandings between Professor Gibson and some of the students attending his class; held sundry meetings of a grave and mysterious character in connection with it; ripened it for the Commission and the General Assembly, where it was finally disposed of in May last, as one of the most momentous matters with which that body had to deal.
Now, as to this entire case, we venture to make the following remarks:
1. It should not have arisen at all. If the students had acted as students during their university course are in the habit of acting when their papers are sharply handled and their views come into collision with the chair, we are even inclined to think, if they had not some pressure from without, they would not have been so hasty in their application to the Principal for inquiry into charges against their Professor's treatment of them. Moreover, we cannot refrain from afbrming, although it may be said that it is easy to judge after the event, that if the original coinplainants had been exhorted to confer with their Professor, and to submit in an orderly way to the teaching and discipline of his class, and if the members of the College Committee had exercised a little more patience and firmness with the statements that reached them, it is more than likely it would never have been heard of far beyond the precincts of the college. And when we think on the singularly unsatisfactory course through which it was dragged; in the opinion of the Committee that "no case had been made out requiring them to institute formal or judicial proceedings;" and on the decision of the Assembly, that "it was not for edification, and unnecessary to take further action in the matter," it seems clear that there must be a very general conviction that it would have been better if the elements out of which it sprung had been left to work alone in their proper sphere.
2. We have a deep and thorough conviction that, from the beginning to the close of the whole business, Professor Gibson was subjected to unbrotherly, vexatious, and harassing treatment. To be summoned to a meeting of Senatus on a charge preferred by his own students without a moment's notice ; to have a committee with undefined powers stepping in between him and students whom he had occasion to correct, without a single hint of their intention; to witness the proceedings of that committee carried on by more than one of its members in a way which seemed to indicate a ruling desire to convict him of severity, rather than to ascertain the truth; to have them denying him access to documents to which he was fairly entitled; to find them coming to judgment on a doctrinal question that involved his character and position in his absence; to hear them publish their decision in Commission at a time when he could not be expected to meet it ; and to have the interval between that and the Assembly filled up with Presbyterial altercations of the most humiliating description, was to be subjected to a series of annoyances and persecutions against which every tender and upright soul must rebel. Many men of less gentle mould and of stronger will would have sunk beneath them, or recoiled from a post against which they were directed. And it will be well if they pass away, and leave nothing more hurtful than the bitter griefs and the weary toils which they have already evidently cost him.
3. The issue of the whole matter--first, in the minute of the Committee, and secondly, in the resolution of the Assembly-affords a complete justification of the conduct of Professor Gibson in the things complained of. These were chiefly three. One was, that his criticism was a lash; that he was severe and intolerable both in the matter and manner of his comments. That was dissipated by a mass of testimony establishing the very opposite. Another was, that he had led some of the students to a misconception of the meaning of the Confession of Faith on the subject of Depravity. That also fell away before the power of testimony, and the calumny raised upon it vanished with it. And another was, that he had not rightly understood, and had put a false construction on, the essays which he reckoned in some important respects unsound and dangerous. That also disappeared before the fact, that the misinterpretation has never yet been pointed out; that his colleagues, and even the committee, went along with him so far in opinion respecting the essays; and that the Assembly felt that it was not needful to proceed further than he and they had done. Whether the Supreme Court could have wisely gone further, or whether the Committee, with their knowledge of the students' sentiments at the time their Report was drawn up, could have gone further, is fair matter of opinion; but we are persuaded that the entire progress and nltimate issue of the business have placed it beyond a doubt that Professor Gibson stands perfectly free from everything that can be fairly spoken of as oppressing, misleading, or misrepresenting the members of his class; and that he is towards them the same generous, candid, and any other,
upright man which a now somewhat lengthened public life has always proved him.
4. The cause of academic order and discipline has been rescued from peril. In the Scottish colleges mental culture and the interests of learning have been greatly promoted by professional inspection and criticism of students' essays. The manner in which these duties of the chair have been discharged has been remarkable for its fairness and generosity. With these facts in view, it would be difficult to suggest anything more likely to rob the class-room of one of its greatest charms, to deny to its occupants one of their most healthful intellectual exercises, and to cut off one of the most powerful means of communicating that tone of respectful thought and subdued feeling which is so important to young men, than to fetter professors in such a work. It is as essential that a theological professor be free in this respect as
If his hands are to be tied; if he is to substitute private for what he thinks ought to be public criticism; if he is to be deterred from noticing the literary merits, the philosophical principles, or the doctrinal statements of the productions for which he calls, by the fear of rumours out of doors, or hasty complaints to a Principal, or the capricious intervention of a committee, or the officious questionings of men who do not like him, he is put in a position which few men who seek to stimulate and guide the ardour of inquiring ininds, and to advance the interests of sacred learning, with a view to the rising Christian ministry, would care to fill. Yet this is the result to which many of the proceedings in this case tended, and to which some of the suggestions of the Committee directly pointed. But inasmuch as the Assembly has not seen fit to adopt them, it has been averted, and Professor Gibson is left at perfect liberty to prosecute his work as heretofore. With such a conclusion, after such a process, it is not likely that he will be disturbed in the same way for a long time to come.
5. Important service has been rendered to the cause of divine truth. Whatever be the impression under which a few of the students wrote, whatever be the misconception of the orthodox faith on which they proceeded in their treatinent of the subjects assigned them, whatever be the explanations of which many of their statements admit, and whatever be the theories framed for the purpose of showing that they are harmless, one thing stands out with prominence,—that no one, not even the author of the pamphlet before us, has come forward to justify the passages which the Professor deemed it his duty to censure. It may, therefore, be concluded, with the consent of the whole Free Church, and of other religious communities looking on, that Professor Gibson did simply what he was bound to do: refusing to pass them over in silence and with consent. If he had not done this, their authors might not have been led to acknowledge that they held views different from what they had written. If he had not done it, and, through evil report and good report, vindicated the completeness of his reasons for doing it, and shut up the Assembly to a decision which virtually proclaimed that all had been done which it was necessary in the circumstances to do for the correction of error, other Churches might have been left to infer that the Free Church of Scotland was indifferent to more than one of the great doctrines of the Word of God. But as no such influence can be fairly drawn,-as the evil has been nipped in the bud,—as what might have become the seed-plot of a future harvest of ills has not been allowed to form,-as many powerful voices have been lifted in defence of the old paths in which the Church of Christ has been accustomed to walk, there are ample grounds for concluding that, in spite of many things which must ever be deplored in the history of this affair, it has not been without a beneficial influence on the side of the truth as it is in Jesus.