James Begg

(1808—1883) Free Church of Scotland minister

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Thomas Chalmers (1780—1847) Church of Scotland minister and social reformer



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(1808–83), prominent member of the Free Church of Scotland and one of Thomas Chalmers's principal lieutenants at the time of the Disruption of 1843. Begg came from a Church of Scotland family which had strong associations with the Evangelical or ‘Popular Party’ within the 18th-century church which had been opposed to the Moderates led by Principal William Robertson (see religious life: 5–6). Begg grew up in an environment which denounced patronage and the right of the state to interfere in matters of church government. In spite of this, Begg remained resolutely opposed to the voluntary principle of church government and believed that the Church of Scotland should remain a ‘national’ or established church which had the endorsement and support of the state. He held this conviction to the end of his life. Begg was called to the parish church of Liberton in Edinburgh in 1835, where he remained until the Disruption of 1843. Thereafter he moved the short distance to Newington, where he stayed for the last 40 years of his life. Begg was a vociferous campaigner against what he called ‘the evils of popery’. His book, A Handbook of Popery, was a best-seller in the 1850s and Begg was especially keen to invite former priests into his parish to expose the supposed corruption inherent in Roman Catholicism (see Roman Catholic community). Unfortunately for Begg, not all his former priests were genuine and one, after being made an elder, absconded with the parish collection. His obsession with Catholicism led him to press the government for inspections into nunneries. Begg was also a devoted disciple of the ethics of ‘Self-Help’ and he campaigned among the Edinburgh working class to promote a workers co-operative housing scheme (see respectable culture). He was always identified with the ‘diehard’ section of the Free Church and remained opposed to innovations such as singing hymns. His stern, unbending approach to worship was supported by the ‘Highland Host’, a group of Highland fundamentalists, with whom Begg was frequently identified (see religious life: 8). His opposition to the voluntary principle and church disestablishment surfaced in his latter years as he opposed nay attempt to unite the Free Church with the United Presbyterian Church.

From The Oxford Companion to Scottish History in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: British History.

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