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Horatius Bonar at Borehamwood

June 2006 | by P. D. Johnson

As many of the Lord’s people know, there are Annual Lectures and Annual Lectures! Sometimes we set out for an advertised lecture that promises much, only to be treated to yet another dose of what Dr Lloyd-Jones aptly called ‘barren intellectualism’.

Fortunately there are other occasions, when our hopes are realised and the lecture enlightens our minds, lifts our spirits, fires our hearts and sends us home rejoicing. This was the happy lot of those who gathered at Cowley Hill Evangelical Church, Borehamwood, on 25 March for the sixth annual Church History Lecture organised by Pastor Tom Hill and his flock.

The speaker was Pastor Geoffrey Thomas from Aberystwyth and his subject was ‘Horatius Bonar – pastor, preacher, hymn writer’. The lecture was delivered with warmth, clarity and that occasional touch of humour which enlivens but never mars a public address of this kind.

Good lectures, like good sermons, are easily forgotten, and it is often worthwhile committing to writing their salient points while they are fresh in one’s mind. Here, then, are a few such thoughts, jotted down afterwards by the present writer, which seemed particularly relevant to the situation we face in Britain today.

Time of great need

Firstly, Horatius Bonar was called to the ministry at a time of great need. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Scotland was again in danger of becoming a spiritual wilderness. Both the ministries and the influence of the revival of the previous century had largely gone, and in their place had come the ‘moderate ministry’ with all its baneful effects.

But just as the enemy was coming in as a flood, the Spirit of the Lord raised up a standard against him. During the 1820s and 1830s in particular, the Lord called a number of young Scotsmen – first by grace and then to the great work of the ministry. Many possessed considerable talents and were to be used under God’s blessing to gather in multitudes of precious elect souls.

Surely this fact should encourage us today – as we face a largely unevangelised nation and a marked shortage of capable ministers. The great Head of the Church is able, as ever, to raise up a new generation of gospel ministers among us. Indeed, he bids us pray earnestly for just this: ‘Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest’ (Matthew 9:38).

Sowing and rejoicing

Secondly, Horatius Bonar put evangelism at the forefront of his preaching. Such was Bonar’s appreciation of the spiritual destitution of those around him that he spared neither time, effort, nor personal reputation to bring them under the sound of the gospel.

Hence, during his first pastoral charge in Kelso, we find him addressing people not only from the pulpit of the parish church but in village halls, farmhouses, barns and the open air.

It is an emphasis and method we must recapture in our day if we are to regain lost ground, and see precious souls converted from atheism, materialism and false religion, to a living faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. ‘He that goeth forth and weepeth bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing bringing his sheaves with him’ (Psalm 126:5-6).

Hymns

Thirdly, Horatius Bonar laboured diligently with his pen. Like his younger brother Andrew, author of the priceless Memoir and remains of the Rev. Robert Murray M’Cheyne, Horatius Bonar was born with considerable literary ability, which he diligently employed throughout his long life.

As a young student in Edinburgh, he attended a series of early morning lectures given by Edward Irving, and became convinced of the pre-millennial position. Bonar was to edit the Quarterly Journal of Prophecy for the 25 years of its existence, though it is only fair to add that he became much less dogmatic about prophecy in his later years!

Of greater significance – and far more lasting value to the church of Christ – were his labours as a hymn-writer. His son records that Horatius Bonar wrote over 600 hymns, the best of which still enrich our public worship and private devotions today.

But the real ‘revelation’ came as we learnt of the extensive circulation of Bonar’s tracts, which he never seemed tired of producing. One early title was Believe and live, a 12-page tract setting out clearly the doctrine of sin and the need for conversion.

Influential tract

This was considered by many to be the most influential tract of the century. It was translated into Gaelic, German and probably other languages as well, and over a million copies are said to have circulated in this country and abroad.

At this point in the lecture, I found myself asking the question: Where are our present-day equivalents to the ‘Kelso Tracts’? We spend considerable sums of money reprinting the tomes of bygone days, but where are the well-written, substantial tracts, penned by present-day writers for our own generation?

Churches advertise ‘tape libraries’ of their pastor’s expositions, but where are the printed sermons that our evangelical forefathers were so careful to make available in their day?

Is the absence* of such evangelistic literature simply due to a lack of able Christian writers, or is it just further evidence of that general want of concern for souls, of which the present lack of support for foreign missions is but a symptom?

‘The preacher sought to find out acceptable words; and that which was written was upright, even words of truth. The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd’ (Ecclesiastes 12:10-11).

Testimony to the truth

Fourthly, Horatius Bonar stood for the truth when the real test came. When the Disruption came to the Church of Scotland in 1843, Horatius, along with his godly brothers John and Andrew, did not hesitate to join the more than four hundred Presbyterian ministers who left the established church to form the Free Church of Scotland.

Like so many of his ministerial friends and Christian contemporaries, Bonar saw clearly that behind the disputes over patronage lay the continuance of an evangelical ministry in Scotland. He knew that once you surrender to the local laird a congregation’s right to call a minister of its choice, the loss of a faithful gospel ministry is likely to ensue.

At this point in his lecture, Pastor Thomas drew attention to Steve Chalke’s aberrations on the biblical doctrine of the atonement, and pointed out how they strike at the very heart of the gospel message.

The errors we face today may differ from those against which Horatius Bonar stood – but the same firm public testimony to the truth is necessary if we are to communicate the gospel to our contemporaries and preserve it for posterity. ‘To whom we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour; that the truth of the gospel might continue with you’ (Galatians 2:5).

Last days among his best

Fifthly, Horatius Bonar’s last days were among his best days. It was truly moving to hear how the Lord graciously provided for his aged servant in his declining years. Horatius Bonar had lost his beloved wife and several of his young children. With what gratitude to God, then, did he receive into his home in 1882 his recently widowed daughter and her five children – just as his own need of care and companionship was becoming evident.

And when he preached his last sermon on 11 September 1887, his choice of text (Matthew 24:37-39) showed how much he was still in love with his Saviour, and looking forward to his second coming.

During his remaining months, until his home call on 31 July 1889, he insisted on conducting family worship, and would spend many hours in prayer both for his family and his congregation.

At his funeral on the 5 August 1889 the congregation sang Bonar’s own words based on the family motto Denique Coelum (Heaven at last): ‘What a city, what a glory!’ Horatius Bonar had indeed proved the truth of the psalmist’s words, ‘Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever’ (Psalm 23:8).

Icing on the cake

We trudged home afterwards in the rain, well satisfied with our excursion to the little chapel on Cowley Hill, though not before we had been properly fortified by the delicious tea provided by the ladies of the church.

But for one visitor at least, the ‘icing on the cake’ had been the joy of singing three of Horatius Bonar’s beautiful hymns in the context of a fine lecture on the life and ministry of this eminent Scottish pastor.

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Historical