Andrew Bonar (1810-1892)
John W. Keddie
It was typical of the man: when the Free Church congregation at Finnieston in Glasgow opened a new building at the end of 1878, its minister Andrew Bonar had inscribed above the main door in Hebrew the words of Proverbs 11:30 – ‘He that winneth souls is wise’.
For those who knew him, then in his 69th year, this was what most characterised Bonar’s ministry. A staunch Calvinist, he demonstrated passion for Christ, the gospel and souls, all fuelled by profound prayer. His life was a ‘sweet savour of Christ’.
This month marks the 200th anniversary of Andrew Bonar’s birth. Today, Bonar is perhaps best known for three enduring classics of evangelical literature. Most notable was Memoir and remains of the Rev. Robert Murray M’Cheyne, first published in 1844 and often in print since then.
This lovely book has kept alive the remembrance of a short life, yet a ministry so fruitful for Christ. Another classic was Bonar’s edition of the Letters of Samuel Rutherford (1862), the seventeenth-century Scottish divine who exemplified such closeness to Christ.
Then there was Bonar’s own Diary and life, edited by his daughter Marjory and produced in 1893. This too has become a classic of Scottish Calvinistic experiential literature, providing deep insight into the heart and faith of a gracious soul.
Together with his commentary on Leviticus (1846) and his Christ and his church in the Book of Psalms (1859), these volumes have remained heart-warming sources of spiritual challenge and blessing.
Andrew Alexander was born on 29 May 1810, in Edinburgh, to James and Marjory Bonar. James was a ‘search solicitor of excise’ and ‘a man of varied and extensive literature, and Christian excellency’. Andrew was their seventh son.
Three Bonar sons went into the Church of Scotland ministry – becoming attached, after the 1843 Disruption, to the Free Church of Scotland. In their long ministries John James (1803-1891), Horatius (1808-1889) and Andrew Alexander (1810-1892) consistently maintained the Reformed faith.
Andrew Bonar traced the first dealings of the Lord with him in 1828. He began his Diary then, his motive for writing it being ‘the indistinct hope and belief that thereby I should be more likely to find salvation’.
It was not until October 1830 that he came to assurance of faith in Christ. In reading William Guthrie’s Saving interest of Christ he was led to hope that he might be in Christ. In his diary’s margin he writes, ‘Assurance begun’. This was his ‘first beam of joy’.
Andrew became a communicant in December 1830 and after that there was no turning back from a life dedicated to the Saviour’s service. In 1831 he entered the Divinity hall in Edinburgh and in 1835 was licensed to preach.
After assistantships in Jedburgh and Edinburgh, he received a call to the Collace congregation, in Perthshire. There he was ordained and inducted on 20 September 1838.
From the beginning, it is clear he had a burden for preaching and prayer: ‘(It is) our duty to preach in faith, as well as prepare for preaching in faith. And then that in prayer the speaker ought to try to move the heart of God and not the feelings of man, and that I should be much more fervent in private prayer’.
His eighteen-year pastorate in Collace, first in a Church of Scotland and after 1843 in a Free Church congregation, was blessed and fruitful. He frequently saw men, women and children converted to Christ. The years 1839-40 were a period of spiritual awakening in Scotland, when the Lord raised up many men of outstanding preaching gifts and biblical orthodoxy.
In 1848 Andrew married Isabella Dickson in Edinburgh. Over the years they were blessed with six children. Sadly, shortly after the birth of their fourth daughter in 1864, Isabella went to be with the Lord.
A new phase of ministry began with Bonar’s translation to a new charge at Finnieston, in Glasgow’s dockland, on 4 December 1856. There is no doubt that his ministry there was remarkable.
It was not long before there was powerful evidence in his congregation, as well as throughout much of Glasgow and Scotland, of a moving of the Holy Spirit in reviving power. In his diary entry for Sabbath, 3 July 1859, Bonar bemoaned the deadness he faced in Glasgow.
He wrote: ‘I have come to this again and again these two years: that unless the Lord pour out his Spirit upon the district, nothing will bring them out to hear and attend; and now we hear that this is the very thing which God is doing in the towns of Ireland.
‘O my God, come over to Scotland and help us! O my Lord and Saviour, do like things among us in this city!’
God did just that over the next few years. When he began his ministry at Finnieston attendances numbered around 250. By the time he handed over the work in 1891 there were over 1000 members. Even the enlarged church opened in 1878 was usually filled to capacity.
As to Bonar’s preaching, there is a telling comment by Alexander Moody Stuart: ‘His preaching is singularly like the Bible. It abounds in the clearest enunciations of the doctrines of grace… Full of the Bible truth in both its Testaments, it much resembles the Bible in its simple and altogether natural cast, and partakes not a little of its richness and fullness’.
Many were brought to a saving knowledge of Christ through his preaching. Christ was always exalted and the eternal realities in focus. For Bonar, belief in divine election and particular redemption were no contradiction of a full and free offer of the gospel to all.
In his last 30 years the Free Church was beset by controversies and doctrinal declension. Andrew consistently took a conservative position, not least over the rise of the higher critical movement within the Free Church.
This was highlighted in the case of the Old Testament scholar, William Robertson Smith (1877-1881). Andrew was actively involved in seeking to deal decisively with Robertson Smith and his teaching.
It was to be of no avail, for Robertson Smith’s theologically liberal views prevailed and became a feature of the ‘downgrade’ affecting mainline churches in Britain during the latter part of the nineteenth century. They left a terrible legacy of diminished credibility and doctrinal weakness. Bonar was to write later (1887): ‘Many things have made earth to me more than ever a wilderness or a land of broken cisterns. But the Lord Jesus is more than ever a full heaven to me’.
Dwight L. Moody and Ira D. Sankey began their campaign-style missions in Scotland towards the end of 1873. Andrew Bonar was enthusiastic for their work. Not all the conservative men of the Free Church were, but Andrew and Horatius Bonar (and many others) endorsed it. Andrew Bonar spoke of that period in terms of revival and awakening.
No doubt there were many souls touched by the work of these evangelists. Rightly the Bonars were thrilled by the undeniable fact that many souls were saved. But, ironically, one cannot disagree with the historian who stated that, ‘the move away from the Calvinistic orthodoxy was seen in particular in the impact made by the American evangelists, Moody and Sankey in 1874’.
Andrew Bonar held faithful to the end, as his Diary makes clear. His last Sabbath on earth was 25 December 1892, when he preached in Finnieston from Luke 2.
He was none too well that week, and on Saturday evening, New Year’s Eve, had family worship with his family around his bed. Shortly afterwards, he ‘fell asleep in Jesus’.
Andrew Bonar had lived by the biblical maxim, ‘For to me to live is Christ’. Just as surely he then came to know, ‘And to die is gain’. So ended the course of a faithful servant of God and a precious gift to the church in Scotland.
Like his great friend, Robert M’Cheyne, Andrew was convinced that ‘it is not great talents God blesses, so much as great likeness to Jesus’. The character of his life and ministry were established in private communion with his Saviour, and this left an indelible mark on his life and ministry.
At the same time, he believed passionately in the authority of the Word of God. He held constantly to the doctrines of free and sovereign grace. But to him it was not just a case of doctrine; they were truths that touched the heart and moulded the life. Constantly he invoked the work of the Holy Spirit to give the spiritual blessing so greatly needed, to himself and to the church.
He has much to teach us about the kind of experiential Christianity that is vital today for a recovery of spiritual power in the church. As he, himself, put it: ‘I am more than ever convinced that unholiness lies at the root of our little success’. In Andrew Bonar we realise afresh that: ‘The memory of the just is blessed’ (Proverbs 10:7).