Andrew Bonar

A Tribute to Thomas Pitcairn


Photo of Thomas Pitcairn

One of the 'Disruption Worthies'

In reading the proceedings of the famous Westminster Assembly, there is one of the scribes (or clerks as we would call them), Adoniram Byfield, to whom our eye turns from time to time, amid all the discussions. His services are much in request, and he has evidently great sagacity and skill in his department of work. Such another clerk was Thomas Pitcairn, in the Convocation and in the early days of our Free Church General Assembly.
He was born at Edinburgh, 6th February 1800. His father, Mr Alexander Pitcairn, was a merchant in Leith and Edinburgh, and was well-known as an elder in Lady Glenorchy's Chapel, where the venerable Dr Jones ministered as pastor for more than fifty years. It was while under the ministrations of Dr Jones that Mr Pitcairn was led to the truth and often in after days did he relate incidents connected with the preaching and labours of that man of God, who so long and so faithfully witnessed for evangelical truth in Edinburgh, in the Moderate era that preceded the times of Dr Andrew Thomson.
After finishing the usual literary curriculum at College, he gave himself for a time to business, with considerable prospects of success in that department opening up to him. But as the work of grace in his soul deepened, his thoughts turned to the ministry, and he abandoned without regret all hopes of worldly advancement. Having passed through the Edinburgh Divinity Hall he was licensed by the Presbytery to preach in 1828. While still a probationer, he assisted successively Dr Stewart of Erskine, and Dr William Thomson of Perth; and thereafter was ordained assistant and successsor to Dr Grierson of Cockpen.
Cockpen is in the Presbytery of Dalkeith — its name chiefly known by old ballad song. Here Mr Pitcairn found work to do for his Master, among a population partly rural and partly connected with the collieries of the neighbourhood. His preaching was solid and scriptural; he handled the truths of the Atonement and divine grace with deep earnestness and power from the pulpit, and in his visitings enforced what preached. His consistent life and godly sincerity gave weight to all he taught; while his pleasant, kindly manner, ensured him access to the people, and won their affection as well as respect. Nor was his labour in vain. The writer of this notice was one day in Glasgow, visiting at the house of an intelligent ship-carpenter, whose wife manifested much interest in the conversation. He at length asked her if she had long known the Saviour as her Saviour. She replied, "Many years ago—more than thirty—I was brought to Christ on a Communion Sabbath, when I was in the parish of Cockpen. Mr Pitcairn preached on 'The Rock that is higher than I,' and that day my heart was opened to receive Christ." And to this hour often does she speak with grateful delight of that sermon, and of Mr Pitcairn.
An incident like this gives a glimpse of the blessing that attends on the work of a true pastor. And Mr Pitcairn was such, during the twenty-two years he laboured there, animated by zeal for his Master's glory, and by the desire to win souls. But his former years of business-life were not without use to him.. A man little knows what he may be preparing for by what he passes through in early days. Divine wisdom has a special view to the future in the secular training of one who is to be a vessel to carry the name of Christ. Mr Pitcairn's experience in business fitted him to be specially useful in after years, and was soon recognised by his brethren. In 1837, he was chosen to be Clerk to the Synod of Lothian and Tweeddale. Then came on the days of trial to the Church of Scotland, when the Government refused to acknowledge her right to spiritual independence. When matters had come to a point, the memorable Convocation was held at Edinburgh, 17th November 1842, at which were present, from all quarters of Scotland, those ministers who saw that now they must look forward to a Disruption, since their liberties were invaded. Above four hundred and fifty were present; they met in Roxburgh Church. Dr Chalmers was called to preside, and after the proceedings had been opened by prayer, the first step was to choose a clerk.Uanimously, Mr Pitcairn was fixed upon. When, next year, the Disruption did take place, with the same unanimity Mr Pitcairn was chosen, along with Dr Clason of Edinburgh, to the Clerkship of the Free Church General Assembly. And all the brethren who remember him will testify to the fidelity, sagacity, and skill, which characterised his discharge of duty. Unobtrusive, yet ready to act, with a remarkable command of temper, always courteous and obliging, he evidently had special qualities for that office. Methodical and correct, possessed of firmness, with great equanimity of spirit, he was able to go through perplexing business unruffled; and often did his brethren remark to each other the masterly manner in which he was able to minute the proceedings of the Assembly. He was thus able to render invaluable service to the Church at that important juncture.
In the year of the Disruption, those of the people of Cockpen who left the Established Church.with him built for him a church at Bonnyrig, in the same parish. There he ministered to the day of his death. He was conscientiously regular in his visits to his flock; took much interest in the young; and was ever ready to attend a call of sickness or distress. At the same time, he gave his labours cheerfully to several stations in the neighbourhood, then in their infancy, and held most brotherly intercourse with his co-presbyters. They used to speak of his coming in among them at a meeting as bringing sunshine, there was so much of radiant benevolence in his broad countenance.
In 1854, near the beginning of the year, he was suddenly seized with what proved a fatal illness. It lasted many months. He had been a man of robust health, accustomed to the activities of life; yet when laid on his sickbed, and called to endure a long and painful illness, was upheld in patience and cheerfulness. Even then he undertook a public duty; for the General Assembly having agreed to send a Pastoral Letter to their people in regard to the calamities of pestilence and war, at that time visiting the nations of Europe, he drew up the letter on his sickbed.
"From week to week," says his brother, "I found him enjoying that true rest that can come only from the Blood of the Cross." One day his friend, Mr James Crawford, had come to see him. Mr Crawford in conversing with him had said that there was a grace of the Spirit which he would be enabled to manifest now in a new manner, viz., that of being "patient in tribulation" (Rom. 12:12.) Mr Pitcairn very pleasantly replied, "But see, Crawford, what is on each side of the 'patience.' On the one side is, 'rejoicing in hope' and on the other, 'continuing instant in prayer.' I must have these also, for 'patience' is between them."
He fell asleep on 21st December 1854. When the Commission of the Free Church Assembly met in March following, in referring to the great loss they had sustained by his death, they record "the affectionate respect entertained for their departed brother ;" and they add their conviction, "that, in no small measure, the Free Church has been indebted to him for much of what is good in the tone and character of the proceedings of her supreme court, and in the general conduct of her ecclesiastical affairs."
In 1836, he was married to Miss Trotter of Broomhouse, Berwickshire. She died in 1862. He left an only son, Alexander Young Pitcairn, W.S., Edinburgh. He is buried in the Grange Cemetery, Edinburgh, in hope of the Resurrection of the Just and the Crown of Life.
A. A. B.

Transcribed from Disruption Worthies, pp. 99 - 102
A Memorial of 1843
EDINBURGH, John Greig & Son
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This article added 11 July 2001