Horatius Bonar (1808-1889)
The bicentenary of Horatius Bonar’s birth has slipped by with little notice being given to a great man of God. We might ask ‘Why?’ Probably because he made it clear that he did not want anyone to write about his life.
It is not surprising, therefore, that relatively little information is available. The best source is a tantalisingly brief autobiographical piece prepared in 1888 for his 50th year in the ministry. But it was never completed and never delivered.
Born in 1808, Bonar was one of eleven children. His father was a Solicitor of Excise for Scotland and an elder in Lady Glenorchy’s Chapel. Two of his four brothers – John and Andrew – also became ministers in the Church of Scotland.
Horatius was probably converted as a teenager. At Edinburgh University he studied under Thomas Chalmers, whom he thought the greatest man he had ever met. He was licensed to preach in the Church of Scotland in 1833, and began ministering as assistant at St John’s Church, south Leith. He was called to a Borders congregation in Kelso in 1837, where he ministered for 29 years.
W. Robertson Nicoll, minister at Kelso from 1877-1885, said that Bonar’s ministry was one of ‘quenchless zeal and unrelenting labour. He set himself to evangelise the Borderland. His name was fragrant in every little village, and at most of the farms. He conducted many meetings in farm kitchens and village schoolrooms, and often preached in the open air’.
Bonar recounts how he was helped by two lay missionaries, Mr Stoddart and Alexander Murray. Together they worked in the counties of ‘Roxburgh, Berwick and Northumberland with blessed success, and the fruit of their labours remains to this day all over these Borders …
‘Whole villages [were] awakened, besides many stray souls, both young and old gathered into the church of God, from various quarters … Many rebuffs we got, many angry letters, many threats of ecclesiastical censure … but, in spite of all this, the work went on’.
The 1830s and 40s were indeed seasons of revival blessing but storm clouds were gathering in the Church of Scotland. The majority were deeply unsympathetic to Evangelicals and had compromised on church government, allowing wealthy lay patrons to appoint ministers without regard to spiritual qualification.
So in May 1843 a ‘disruption’ occurred. Over 450 of the Church’s 1195 ministers seceded, the Bonar brothers among them, along with nearly half the church membership. Led by Thomas Chalmers, these Evangelicals formed the Free Church of Scotland.
In 1843, Horatius married Jane Lundie. It was a happy marriage, although they were bereft of five of their children. In 1882 their son-in-law, then a missionary in France, died suddenly, and their daughter returned to the Bonar home along with her five small children. Horatius said, ‘God took five [of my] children from [this life] some years ago; and he has given me other five to bring up for him in my old age’.
From 1866-88 he ministered in Chalmers Memorial Church, Edinburgh, and in 1883 was appointed Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland. His wife died in 1884 and Bonar followed her five years later after a painful illness.
What of his theology? It was robustly Calvinistic and Christ-centred. He delighted in justification by faith alone and the love of God to sinners, as displayed in the death of Christ. He also propagated premillennial teaching and longed intensely for Christ’s second coming.
Horatius was a voluminous writer, penning more than 600 poems and hymns, and many books of Scripture exposition. He began to write hymns early in his ministry, because ‘it seemed to him that the children of the congregation … did not in these days enjoy very much, or altogether intelligently understand, the Psalms which were alone sung in the Sunday school at that time’ (Memories, p.15). There were over 280 children present on any one Sunday in the Kelso church.
For much of Horatius’ ministry, out of respect for his psalm-singing denomination, he read his hymns aloud during church services rather than use them for congregational singing.
His best-known hymns include: ‘Rejoice and be glad’; ‘Come Lord and tarry not’; ‘No blood no altar now’; ‘Fill thou my life, O Lord my God’; ‘Go labour on, spend and be spent’; ‘Thy works, not mine O Christ’; ‘Here O my Lord I see Thee face to face;’ and – most loved of all – ‘I heard the voice of Jesus say “Come unto me and rest”’.
The hymns characteristically major on central gospel themes like justification by faith, imputed righteousness, Christ’s atoning death, and the open door for sinners through the blood of Jesus.
Bonar wrote 36 evangelistic pamphlets called the Kelso Tracts. These included God’s way of peace, God’s way of holiness and Believe and live. God’s way of peace was translated into French, German and Gaelic, selling more than 285,000 copies during his lifetime. Believe and live sold one million copies and was said to have been a favourite with Queen Victoria.
In God’s way of holiness Bonar shows that the Christian life is a way of holiness. It is not neonomian (the idea that Christianity is merely obedience to a new, higher law like the Sermon on the Mount) nor is it antinomian (without regard to God’s moral law). It is genuinely holy.
But it is a holiness that does not find its motivation in legalism – ‘It is to a new life that God is calling us; not some new steps in life, some new habits or ways or motives or prospects, but to a new life’.
The veracity of Scripture
There is not space to examine all the important features of Bonar’s ministry, so we will note just one – his emphasis on the veracity of Scripture.
Horatius Bonar’s autobiographical fragment closed with these rather ominous words: ‘The changes that have taken place in public opinion, in theological speculation, in ecclesiastical discipline, in religious sentiment; in spiritual thought, in conjectural criticism, in the value attached to belief and non-belief, in the new codes of hermeneutical law and in the rejection of creeds, and in the refusal of any guidance or control save those of science and philosophy, the adoption of culture, and the like, have been immense over these fifty years since my ministry began …’ There the manuscript breaks off.
His concern was almost certainly the serious theological downgrade taking place within the Free Church of Scotland and other Protestant denominations towards the end of the nineteenth century – under Higher Criticism teaching emanating from Germany.
This teaching professed a high view of the Bible, but had in reality capitulated to a Bible full of supposed historical and scientific inaccuracies. A. B. Davidson was influential in introducing it into the Free Church, while other teachers like William Robertson Smith, A. B. Bruce, Marcus Dods and Henry Drummond embraced it – yet declared themselves Evangelicals still.
Robertson Smith, for example, taught that the Book of Deuteronomy was ‘put in the mouth of Moses’ by unknown authors many centuries after the period to which it was supposed to belong, and contained much that Moses could not have known. Such teaching amounted to a rejection of the Bible’s testimony to itself as ‘God-breathed’ (2 Timothy 3:16) and incapable of teaching error. It was a denial of scriptural inerrancy.
Horatius Bonar deplored this heterodoxy. Commenting on Revelation 22:18-19 (adding to or subtracting from the Word of God), he said: ‘This is especially the sin of our age. We sit in judgement upon its verities; we tamper with its certainty; we trifle with its words. We take from it; we render it null and void; we deny its authority; we object to its inspiration; we cut off what books we please! But let us not be deceived. God is not mocked’.
The baneful influence of Higher Criticism and its theological offspring has been the greatest catastrophe to hit Protestant churches for two centuries. It continues to blight Christendom and confuse billions of people across the world. It is a scholastically based heresy that has opened a Pandora’s Box of other heresies and robbed most churches of the gospel.
Scriptural inerrancy is a truth we must earnestly contend for today. Horatius Bonar, by his life and ministry, reminds us that to be an ‘Evangelical’ is to accept without question or caveat the full authority of the Bible, and to proclaim Jesus Christ alone for salvation.
He also reminds us by his glorious hymns that when we do experience saving grace it will make us want to ‘Rejoice and be glad’!
A Scottish Christian heritage, Iain H. Murray; Banner of Truth; 2006.
Horatius Bonar: a brief memoir, Michael Haykin (online).
Memories of Dr Horatius Bonar, Relatives and public men; Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier, 1909.
Memoir and remains of the Rev. Robert Murray M’Cheyne, Andrew A. Bonar; Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier, 1892.
The Banner of Truth, April 1990;’Fifty years of blessing’, Horatius Bonar.
The Banner of Truth, November 1989;’Horatius Bonar (1808-1889) and his writings’, Iain Murray.