Prefatory Note

This article is the second of two articles on Rev Robert Finlayson which first appeared in the Bulwark, the magazine of the Scottish Reformation Society. It appears here with minor changes.

Preaching

Rev Robert Finlayson was, perhaps, pre-eminently a preacher. In the previous article, we saw the effect of his preaching in Aberdeen and in Knock – it was no less effective in Lochs. His preaching, says Norman C. Macfarlane, ‘abounded with parable, allegory and dialogue, and in pictures of the spiritual life.’ It was characterised by clarity and sincerity and it brought weighty and eternal doctrines to bear upon the consciences of the Lochs people. John Macleod explains that ‘His sermons, rich in illustration and pithy saying, were as entertaining as they were arresting, and as captivating as they were solemn.’

Finlayson’s statistical account of the parish in 1833 tells us that, at this time, the people in Lochs were largely illiterate. Half of those between 12 and 24 years of age could read in Gaelic because of the influence of the Gaelic schools; however, only 12 in the whole parish could write. A few of the men could speak broken English but the common tongue was Gaelic.

And so Finlayson, without compromising his message, explained the gospel to them in picturesque and illustrative language. So much so that one of his co-presbyters in Lewis, the Rev. Duncan MacGregor, minister in Stornoway Free Church from 1849 to 1854, recalls that they used to call him ‘the Bunyan of the Highlands.’ Indeed, it is said that he carried Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress always in his pocket and in his heart. And so, in bringing the message to the people, he brought it to them using terms, concepts and pictures that they could understand. Macfarlane explains that

He made the men of old spring into life before the eyes of his congregation, and his hearers were fascinated as he clothed those ancients in the Lewis tweeds and made them speak in the Lewis accent. The scenery of his picture was invariably local and vividly painted.

By way of illustration, he was once preaching on the prodigal’s return to his father and, particularly, the ‘best robe’ with which he was clothed:

The Father calls his servants to bring forth the best robe and the servants come and he asks them, ‘What robe is this?’ ‘It is the robe of unfallen man’s righteousness,’ the servants answer. ‘Ah, it’s very beautiful, but that is not the best. In that garb Adam fell.’ Another, white and more shining, was brought. ‘What,’ asked the Father, ‘is this?’ ‘This is the robe of the Angels that surround the Throne and adore their Lord.’ ‘Ah, it’s very fine, but there is a better.’ At length one of exquisite loveliness was brought, and the Father asked, ‘What is this?’ ‘This was woven amid the awful splendours of Calvary. Its every thread was a pang. It is the choice robe of Thy Son’s sufferings. It is the righteousness of Christ.’ ‘Yes,’ said the Father, ‘that is the best robe. Put it on this, my lost son, who has come home again.’

His sermon on the completion of Noah’s Ark is also striking in its illustration and application:

When the Ark was finished a group of the carpenters called in for their wages. They knocked and Mrs Noah came to the door. ‘Is Noah in?’ ‘No, he’s away at the stormy Butt of Lewis far a bull for the Ark.’ A few days later they called again. ‘Is Noah at home?’ ‘No, he’s away to hilly Uig for a ram.’ They came again and found Noah at home. They asked for their wages, and he paid them. Then they went to Stornoway and called for whisky and brandy, and they drank themselves into wild revelry. They were shouting and singing their songs and dancing their drunken dance when – lo! – a thunderbolt crashed and the rains began. What peal of thunders! The like was never heard before. The heavens poured in torrents. The public house was flooded and a river rushed through it and rose with appalling rapidity. Then did the mocking carpenters cry. But the Ark was closed and Mercy’s day was gone. O people of Lochs, God’s Ark stands open for you today. But the day of the closed door is coming.

This was preaching that the people could understand, that they could relate to, and that cut to their very hearts. It brought home to them the message of the Bible, a message which had been so obscured under the ministry of Rev Alexander Simson – a message which was now blessed to countless souls in Lochs. And the message was bolstered by the holiness of the man who preached it, so much so that MacGregor could say ‘Never did we feel the power of personal holiness in re-enforcing the truth spoken from the pulpit more than when hearing him.’ Macfarlane recalls how his mother, who was a member in Lochs during Finlayson’s ministry, would speak to him in later years of how the tears would fall freely down the minister’s face as he leaned over the pulpit to plead with unsaved sinners to come to Christ.

Pastoral Work

As well as preaching, Finlayson would catechise the people. Twice a year, he would turn up in every village and the people would gather to be questioned on the Shorter Catechism and general Scriptural knowledge. Rather than this being a dreary affair, the people loved it and even looked forward to it. Through these meetings the people, young and old, were taught in a more interactive atmosphere and the minister became more acquainted with his people and their spiritual state.

Pastoral visitation was an important part of his work. He literally crossed land and sea in order to be with his people, in order to question them about their souls, and in order to personally seek to apply to them the balm of Gilead. He was always about the work of the gospel; he seemed to have an interest in little else. That was his passion – his own physical safety and comfort were nothing, as was evidenced by the numerous times that he went out to the other side of the parish against his wife’s wishes, saying:

Macedonia was no further from Paul when he saw the vision in Troas as Eisgean was from Crossbost. O, my wife, souls at Gravir are calling me today and I cannot stay. It’s easier to battle with the elements than to silence the cries that ring though me.

The salvation of his people was his ruling thought and his chief desire.

As another said of Samuel Rutherford, it was just as true of Finlayson, that he prayed all day long as if he did nothing but pray; he preached all day long as if every hour was filled with preaching; and he visited so persistently as if the whole time was occupied with visiting.

And yet, although Finlayson was a gentle and kind-hearted man, he was not afraid speak directly and issue rebukes where that was required. There was not an ounce of fear in him while he carried out his Lord’s work. A few examples can be given.

When he first came to Lochs, one of the elders in the congregation asked if the new minister wanted to hear him pray. ‘Certainly,’ replied Finlayson. The man began with the Lord’s Prayer, added his own medley in the middle, and then finished with the Lord’s Prayer again. He then asked the minister how he enjoyed his prayer. Finlayson replied,

It had a beautiful beginning and a beautiful ending that shone like the splendid marbles of the Temple, but in between there was a heap of wood, hay and stubble!

The mission house at Eisgean had a leaky roof and it wasn’t really fit for its purpose. Finlayson addressed the situation by saying to them that, as he walked in the Eisgean road, he met the Bible and he said to it,

Oh Bible why are you so sad and where are you going?’ ‘Oh, I’m leaving Eisgean meeting house. The big drops of sooty rain that fall on me there blacken my pages and waste me badly.

That very week, the mission house roof was repaired.

On another occasion he was preaching in the village school in Balallan; Balallan, at that time, was a spiritually hard and careless spot. He addressed the people:

O Balallan, you are the Devil’s kitchen where he cooks his meals. He may dine elsewhere, at Keose, or Cromore or Crossbost, but it is here he cooks. O Balallan, throw water on those cooking fires.

After revival had swept through the village, however, he could say, ‘O Balallan, the Devil’s former kitchen, you are now become a Bethel, a house of God.’ He was not afraid to chastise them for their sins in order to bring them to a realisation of their need of a Saviour.

Revival

Certainly, there seem to have been some converts in Lochs before Finlayson’s arrival. The village of Aline, which was part of the parish, had experienced revival in the early 1820s through the ministry of a school teacher. But the revival was not widespread in Lochs and the people remained, largely, in spiritual ignorance until Robert Finlayson came.

When Finlayson arrived in Lochs, he did so with the specific intention of evangelising the people, of bringing them to the knowledge of the truth; of leading them out of darkness and into Christ’s marvellous light. And the effect of Finlayson’s ministry was as he had intended and as he had prayed for; to put it simply, the effect was large-scale awakening. ‘Under the blessing of God,’ says Donald Beaton, ‘the wilderness soon showed signs of becoming a fruitful field. Prayer meetings were set up in every township.’ A desire was ignited in the hearts of the people do ‘hear what God the Lord will speak’ (Psalm 85:8) to them. Macfarlane argues that

Not more passionately did the devout in Israel regard their Sion than the men of this parish the church and manse at Keose. Their very dust became precious. Stormy seas were crossed, and dreary miles of bog-land were traversed by souls eager for regaling. They wished Sabbath came round more quickly.

There was a thirst for the Word of God, to know more of it in their minds and to feel more of it in their hearts. Lives were changed; indeed, the focus of the whole community was changed. Soon, family worship was conducted in every home and, as in many places in Lewis at that time, you couldn’t walk through a village from 7pm onwards without hearing God’s praises being sung or His name being called upon in prayer. Jesus had said concerning Zacchaeus that ‘This day is salvation come to this house.’ (Luke 19:9) When Robert Finlayson came to Lochs, salvation came to the district. Murdo Macaulay writes that:

The good pastor of Lochs had been, perhaps, made the happy instrument of more numerous conversions, and more extensive quickening within his own sphere of labour, and throughout the whole Island of Lewis than any other minister of his time. His record at Lochs was a bright one. By his pastoral oversight, his earnest faithful preaching and prayers, and his unique catechising, the whole parish became so transformed as to cause “the desert to blossom as the rose”. He exercised a powerful and lasting influence upon the religious thought, and spiritual life of the island.

Superstition, which was largely prevalent throughout the island before the revival, was also dispelled. Dr Charles MacRae, minister in Stornoway, once jokingly asked a boy from Lochs if there were still fairies in his home district. ‘No,’ came the solemn reply, ‘they all left when Mr Finlayson came.’ The revival was as deep as it was wide and left no stone unturned. It affected the outward as well as the inward, the mind as well as the heart, a man’s morals as well as a man’s prayers. The sons and daughters of the revival were recognised by their works; they were known for godliness, for prayerfulness, for zeal, for kindness, for evangelism. That was the effect that Finlayson’s God-owned ministry had upon the people of Lochs for 25 years and that district is still benefiting from its fruit today.

Relevance for Today

In conclusion, we have to ask, what does it all matter? History is, of course, empty, unless we apply it and learn from it. What do we learn from Robert Finlayson and his ministry?

Darkness Precedes Light

We learn that darkness in a community, as was the case in Lochs before Finlayson’s ministry, is often the precursor to light. Revival often comes when things are at their most spiritually dark. That is something that we must consider as we observe the spiritual darkness in our country today and, indeed, in many of the churches of the land.

A Godly Ministry

We see also the effect that a godly ministry can have. Finlayson was, undoubtedly, a gifted preacher. However, what marked him out was not great preaching but the fact that he was holy, prayerful, zealous and sincere, having a love for his people which compelled him to spend all of his energy in seeking to bring them to the knowledge of Christ. Oh how we need this today; godly ministers who will dedicate themselves to God and to their people; men who will choose

rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season,’ who will esteem ‘the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt. (Hebrews 11:25-26)

What a challenge to ministers in 21st century Scotland! Do they love God above all else? Do they love their people more than themselves? Or do they seek popularity, power, wealth and an easy life? It is also a challenge to congregations in 21st century Scotland – what do we look for in a minister? Is it great gifts or great likeness to Christ?

A Pattern for Ministry

We see also in Robert Finlayson a pattern for ministry. He was a man of prayer and this spirit of grace and supplications immersed his every effort in gospel ministry. He believed in preaching; that was his preeminent outward work – to preach from the pulpit ‘the unsearchable riches of Christ’. He believed also in pastoral visitation; he was amongst his people – he knew their physical state and he knew their spiritual state and so he was more qualified to preach to them and to pray for them.

This is the tried and tested pattern of ministry and is, generally speaking, the pattern that God blesses with true, deep, spiritual revival. It is the pattern that brought awakening to Lochs in the 19th century and it is the pattern that will bring awakening to Scotland in the 21st century. Let us, then, prayerfully stick to it and pray that God will visit us again in grace.

Reliance upon the Holy Spirit

Finally, we learn from Robert Finlayson’s ministry that the Church is always dependent on the Holy Spirit to bring quickening, revival and awakening. Nobody in Lochs was more aware of this than Finlayson himself. Robert Finlayson was no more sincere or faithful than Isaiah, who himself saw little to no outward blessing. But, in God’s gracious providence, He saw fit to bless Lochs with the outpouring of His Spirit in a way which, for a time, was withheld even from Judah. The awakening was the Spirit’s work – Finlayson was but an instrument in God’s hands, whose preaching and pastoral ministry was blessed by the Spirit to the souls of many men, women, boy and girls.

Let us then pray for that same Spirit who blessed Lochs in the 19th century to bless our districts in like manner. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. He is no less powerful or able today than He was then. Let us, therefore, pray the Lord of the harvest with humility and confidence, with the words of the Psalmist: ‘The Lord of us hath mindful been, and he will bless us still; He will the house of Israel bless, bless Aaron’s house he will.’ (Psalm 115:12)