In July 2005, the World G8 Summit was held at the prestigious Gleneagles Hotel between Stirling and Perth in Scotland. It is doubtful if any of the world leaders in attendance would have even known the name of Robert Haldane, and yet the estates of Gleneagles and Airthrey in Stirlingshire had been the ancestral home of the Haldane family for several generations.
Their lineage stretched back to Roger de Halden, to whom a charter had been granted by King William the Lyon in the twelfth century.
And even among evangelicals, the names of Robert and James Haldane are little known today. So let’s look briefly at the life and influence of Robert Haldane.
He was born 250 years ago, on 28 February 1764 in London, although into wealthy Scottish nobility. After serving in the Royal Navy from 1780-83, during the wars with France, he settled back home in Stirlingshire.
In 1791 he had Airthrey Castle built on his estate, with the eminent Robert Adam as the architect. The castle now forms part of the University of Stirling.
In 1795 Haldane was converted to Christ. News of the French Revolution had raised questions in his mind and he came to see how incapable man is of solving our deepest problems.
Haldane later described his religion before that time as ‘a common and worthless profession, and that form of godliness which completely denies its power’. He wrote: ‘I endeavoured to be decent and what is called moral, but was ignorant of my lost state by nature as well as of the strictness, purity and extent of the divine law.
‘While I spoke of a Saviour, I was little acquainted with his character, the value of his sufferings and death, or the need I stood in of the atoning efficacy of his pardoning blood’. But, as he studied the Scriptures, God gradually opened his heart so that he was soon able to say, ‘He was found of me who sought him not’.
His younger brother James had also been converted a little earlier than Robert and together they became a means of great spiritual blessing to others.
From the moment of his conversion Robert Haldane had a burning zeal to take the gospel into all the world. Reading reports of the work of William Carey in India, his interest in world missions was stirred up, so that he became one of the first people in Scotland to become a member of the London Missionary Society (founded in the same year that he was converted).
Offering to sell his entire estate, Haldane applied to the British government and the East India Company seeking permission to establish a mission in Bengal. His request was turned down.
Undaunted, he turned his attention to the work of the gospel in Scotland instead, using the proceeds of a large part of his estate in order to establish the ‘Society for Propagating the Gospel at Home’, in 1798.
Over the next twelve years, he personally gave £70,000 towards the spread of the gospel in Scotland — millions of pounds in today’s money. Concerned for the spiritual condition of his homeland, he used that money for the building of churches that would serve as preaching centres in strategic places throughout Scotland. He called these places ‘tabernacles’, based on Whitefield’s two tabernacles in London.
One was built in Edinburgh, where his brother served through most of his remaining life until 1851. Similarly, tabernacles were built in Glasgow, Dundee, Perth, Thurso, Wick and Elgin — all for the spread of the gospel.
Also, he could see the need to train younger men with a passion for the gospel. So, from 1799 to 1807, he set up theological seminaries in Glasgow, then Edinburgh and Dundee. Young men were brought to study in these seminaries for 2-3 years, with their books, study costs and living expenses paid for. Haldane’s aim was to raise up preachers and teachers who would take the gospel not only to Scotland but to the rest of the world. Amazingly, 300 such men were trained and sent out.
Haldane’s desire to go overseas continued, and so, in 1816, now aged a little over 50 years old, Robert and his wife left Scotland, travelling first to Paris and then to Geneva.
He was deeply troubled to find Geneva far removed in its theology from the Geneva of John Calvin. It was more influenced by Socinian error than Reformation truth, including a denial of such truths as the Trinity, the deity of Jesus Christ, the total depravity of human nature, the inerrancy of the Bible, the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ and eternal punishment for those who die without Christ.
In short, Haldane found Geneva to be spiritually desolate. And not only was it lifeless, but many there were actively opposed to his ministry, including professors within the theology faculty.
Reflecting on his four years of study in the faculty of theology, Merle D’Aubigne later wrote: ‘not one hour was consecrated to the study of Holy Scripture’. Instead of studying the Bible, the main sources were Plato, Cicero and Seneca. And so that once glorious city of Calvin had become a spiritually barren wasteland, into which Robert Haldane arrived in 1816.
However, if Haldane found Geneva to be a wasteland, by the time he left and by the grace of God it had become a fruitful field. Such was the influence of this one man of God upon such a city.
But what brought about this transformation? In God’s providence, one day in Geneva he met a young theology student who was studying there for the ministry and invited him to his home.
Through this student, Haldane was then introduced to other theological students, until very soon, all the students in the theology faculty were wanting to attend Haldane’s lectures — a group of 25 students, all coming to his rooms to be taught.
In reality they were spiritually blind, and yet there was something about Haldane that drew them to hear him. Twice a week (on Thursday and Monday evenings) he met with them for five months, as he expounded Paul’s letter to the Romans.
One by one, each were converted and they in turn became mighty in the Scriptures and a means of great spiritual blessing, not only in Geneva but throughout Switzerland and France.
Among them were such men as Louis Gaussen (who wrote an influential book on the inspiration of Scripture called Theopneustia); Cesar Malan; the noted theologian Bonifas; Frederic Monod, who founded the Union of the Free Churches of France; and Merle D’Aubigne, the author of the History of the Reformation, still read today.
At the request of these men, Haldane’s lectures through Romans were published as a commentary, still read widely today. And what followed his ministry in Geneva became known as ‘Haldane’s Revival’ of 1816-17, although he himself would certainly not have wanted this revival to be named after him or after any other man. It was a work of God.
The French minister Dr Reuben Saillens wrote this: ‘The three main characteristics of Haldane’s Revival, as it has sometimes been called, were these: it gave a prominent emphasis to the necessity of a personal knowledge and experience of grace; it maintained the absolute authority and divine inspiration of the Bible; it was a return to Calvinistic doctrine against Pelagianism and Arminianism. Haldane was an orthodox of the first water, but his orthodoxy was blended with love and life’.
To illustrate the impact of Haldane’s exposition of Romans, Merle D’Aubigne later wrote: ‘I met Robert Haldane and heard him read from an English Bible a chapter from Romans about the natural corruption of man, a doctrine of which I had never before heard.
‘In fact I was quite astonished to hear of man being corrupt by nature. I remember saying to Mr Haldane, “Now I see that doctrine in the Bible”. “Yes”, he replied, “but do you see it in your heart?”
‘That was but a simple question, yet it came home to my conscience. It was the sword of the Spirit; and from that time I saw that my heart was corrupted and knew from the Word of God that I can be saved by grace alone.
‘So that, if Geneva gave something to Scotland at the time of the Reformation, if she communicated light to John Knox, Geneva has received something from Scotland in return, in the blessed exertions of Robert Haldane’. Many others could have added similar testimonies.
Interestingly, during his lifetime, Haldane was strongly criticised for his willingness to sell everything for the sake of the gospel and for his seemingly foolish decision to go to the continent with no other plan than to simply teach the Scriptures.
And yet, we ought not to be surprised that it was through this ‘foolishness’ and ‘simplicity’ that God was pleased to bless so many people so mightily, and for eternity.
To be concluded