Life is full of surprises, it is often said. That is certainly true of the life story of Robert Haldane.
Very few, one imagines, would have been able to claim that the path to their conversion to Christ began with the French Revolution! Yet Robert Haldane made precisely that claim.
This momentous event ‘aroused [him] from the sleep of spiritual death’, according to his nephew-biographer. How? Not, perhaps, as we might have expected. For to begin with, he viewed the political convulsion on the continent favourably, believing that it opened the door to the betterment of mankind.
His vision for social justice, which took little account of man’s native depravity, was deeply stirred by the upheavals across the Channel. But thanks to the influence of discerning evangelical ministers in the area, his ardent political convictions were skilfully re-directed towards higher goals and this process ultimately led to his salvation.
Describing the transition, he pithily remarked that, ‘missing the shadow, I caught the substance’. However, it was to take quite some time before he lived down his perceived pro-revolutionary stance, and even his later missionary endeavours at home and abroad were construed as politically subversive in some quarters.
Robert Haldane, a wealthy Scottish landowner, was destined to make a profound impact on the Christian world in more ways than one. He himself regarded the greatest achievement of his life as having the Apocrypha removed from Bibles circulated in the Continent.
This success came in the late 1820s, only after a long and bitter dispute with the British and Foreign Bible Society, which, at the time, was receiving many demands for Apocrypha-containing Bibles, even from Lutheran and Reformed Protestant churches.
Surprisingly, Haldane’s many opponents in the controversy included several members of the Clapham Sect, such as Charles Simeon, who employed the ‘becoming all things to all men’ argument. An important by-product of Haldane’s campaign on the Apocrypha was his publication of a major work on the plenary inspiration of Scripture, which restored the evangelical faith of a significant number of ministers.
Other analysts of Haldane’s life might judge, with some justification, that his finest achievements stemmed from his missionary work in Geneva in 1816–17. Burdened by the low spiritual state of Europe generally, his ambition to visit that famous city was finally realised after the Napoleonic wars had ended.
Sadly, Calvin would not have recognised the Geneva of that time. The last embers of the Reformation had all but died. The theological academies and churches were thoroughly permeated by pernicious heresies. Ignorance of the Bible was lamentable in professors, pastors and students alike. But, through his masterly exposition of Paul’s letter to the Romans (subsequently transcribed into his classic commentary on Romans) to a small group of interested students, Haldane was instrumental in God’s hands in fanning the flame of a fresh revival in Europe.
Notable men in this 19th-century, second Reformation — men like Frederic Monod, César Malan and Merle D’Aubigné — all owed their conversion to the opening-up of the whole counsel of God by this dedicated missionary.
Aware no doubt of the nature of his audience, D’Aubigné included this tribute in a speech he gave in Edinburgh in 1845, some three years after Haldane’s death: ‘If Geneva gave something to Scotland at the time of the Reformation … Geneva has received something from Scotland in return, in the blessed exertions of Robert Haldane’.
A zealous missionary spirit had characterised the life of Robert Haldane ever since his conversion in 1794. Inspired by Carey’s work in India, he planned a mission to Bengal, taking with him several hand-picked men.
Among these was Dr Bogue of Gosport, to whom he owed much for his conversion after his brief naval career. The whole venture was to be financed by the sale of Haldane’s large estate at Gleneagles. However, the aim was ultimately thwarted by the opposition of the East India Company.
Haldane then turned to mission work in Scotland. Along with his younger brother James, he established the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel at Home. Other developments quickly followed. Bibles and religious tracts were printed for public distribution; Bible seminaries were established for the training of men for itinerant preaching; and places of worship, modelled on Whitefield’s tabernacles, were built in several major cities. All these projects were financed solely by Haldane from the proceeds of his estate.
Meanwhile, some 12 men, including the Haldane brothers, ‘resolved to form themselves into a Congregational Church’ in 1799. What they termed ‘impure communion’ in the Established Church was the key factor in this far-reaching move.
Robert subsequently recorded that this had never been the original intention, but came to ‘rejoice in the Institution’. The teaching at his seminaries contributed to the rapid growth of Congregationalism in Scotland at this time.
Students came from various Presbyterian backgrounds, but according to one under Dr Ewing’s tuition at Glasgow, ‘they found [themselves] decided and intelligent Congregationalists’ by the end of the course.
The Congregational cause continued to flourish until around 1808, when Robert, followed by his brother, sought to promote forms of worship in the churches which they regarded as most in line with apostolic practice.
This included adopting a Baptistic position, a move which precipitated a huge upheaval in the new churches, resulting in a permanent rupture between them and the Haldanes. Congregational churches then pursued an independent line, becoming self-supporting financially and continuing to advance the gospel in Scotland through itinerant evangelism.
Despite this sad division, nothing can take away from the pivotal role played by Robert Haldane in promoting the cause of Congregationalism in Scotland. But it does come rather as a shock that a well-motivated decision on his part should have such unhappy fallout. Life is indeed full of surprises!
Dr Fraser was pastor of Latimer Memorial Congregational Church, Beverley, and lives in active retirement in Drumnadrochit, near Loch Ness. This article was first published in the Spring 2010 edition (195) of Congregational Concern, magazine of the Evangelical Fellowship of Congregational Churches (EFCC), and is here used with kind permission.