Portrait of William Anderson

William Anderson


A son of the manse, Anderson was born in Kilsyth in January 1799. He studied at Glasgow College and was elected minister of John Street Relief Church in March 1821, although his ordination was delayed for a year by the first of many disputes with his ecclesiastical superiors.

Anderson acquired a reputation for speaking plainly from the pulpit about everyday issues, for instance issuing condemnations about moneylending. Political matters often engaged him, and he spoke from platforms on the abolition of slavery and the repeal of the corn laws. He was also prominent in Protestant controversies with Roman Catholicism, and wrote books on theological issues. Late in life he learnt Italian so as to read Fra Paolo's "History of the Council of Trent" in its original language.

Twice married, first to the daughter of John Binnie, who had built Glasgow's Jamaica Street Bridge, Anderson died on 15 September 1872.

WILLIAM ANDERSON was longer and more closely identified with Glasgow than most of the ministers who have occupied pulpits in the city. Born in January, 1799, at Kilsyth, where his father, the Rev. John Anderson, was Relief minister, he came to Glasgow College when he was yet a boy. His curriculum of eight years in Arts and Theology was completed and he was licensed to preach before he was twenty-two. To go through these years of study was necessarily a struggle for the son of a village pastor whose stipend was £80; and the hard fight of his youth helped to prepare him for the many battles of his manhood.

These battles began at an exceptionally early stage in his public career. In March, 1821, he was elected minister of John Street Relief Church, but the Presbytery delayed his ordination for twelve months, because he would not promise to preach without "the paper," which he had honestly spread before him when he delivered his trial sermons. His refusal to yield in this matter to his ecclesiastical superiors was characteristic. Throughout his life he was the enemy of all conventional restrictions of liberty, and he had little reverence for tradition. That the fathers of the Relief, from good Gillespie downward, had preached memoriter, was no reason why he should do the same. The sturdy young Protestant was bold enough to ask what right any Presbytery had to lay on him a burden for which they had no warrant in Scripture. If the Presbytery would not ordain him, he would preach without their ordination; and so at last he won the day. When it was proposed to celebrate his jubilee, he asked that they should count the fifty years from the time when he began his work, rather than from the date of his ordination. The hero of a hundred fights would not willingly forget his earliest battle and his earliest victory.

Spite of the hated manuscript, the young preacher soon became a power in Glasgow and beyond it. His reputation at first was that of an eccentric man, to whom everybody attributed every out-of-the-way pulpit saying or clerical doing he had ever heard of. His appearance and manner were certainly unconventional; he spoke with a broad Kilsyth accent, and he had a peculiar way of taking snuff, as if to give emphasis to a pithy sentence. But his reputation for eccentricity was largely due to the freshness of his thought and diction. His mind refused to run in common grooves. He thought out for himself every article of his belief, and clothed his doctrine in a language which was all his own. He was more a thinker than a scholar. He had too little reverence for authority to read himself into sympathy with the men who have shaped the theology of the schools. He would call no man master, and was never weary of protesting against such use of the creeds as would fetter the thought of the living Church.

He was one of the first preachers who began to speak of common things from the pulpit plainly and in work-day language. In dealing with the sins of the great city and of the religious world - especially with the master-sins of money-loving and uncharitable judging - he used great plainness of speech. His raciest sayings and best illustrative stories often came in when he was giving a running comment on the passages of Scripture he read.

His late colleague, Dr. MacLeod, has told us that in reading the 15th Psalm he would pause at the words, "He putteth not out his money to usury," and say, "There was once in this church a poor widow and she wanted £20 to begin a small shop. Having no friends, she came to me, her minister. And I happened to know a man, not of the church, who could advance the money to the poor widow. So we went to this man, the widow and I, and the man said he would be happy to help the widow. And he drew out a bill for £20 and the widow signed it and I signed it too. Then he put the signed paper in his desk and took out the money and gave it to the widow. But the widow counting it said, 'Sir, there is only £15 here.' 'It is all right,' said the man, 'that is the interest I charge.' And as we had no redress we came away. But the widow prospered. And she brought the £20 to me and I took it myself to the office of the man who had lent it and said to him, 'Sir, there is the £20 from the widow.' And he said, 'Here is the paper you signed, and if you know any other poor widow I will be happy to help her in the same way.' I said to him, 'You help the widow! Sir, you have robbed this widow and you will be damned!'"

Politics were under no ban in John Street pulpit. Dr. Anderson did not preach party politics, but dealt out scathing criticism to leaders of all parties whenever he deemed their policy unrighteous. He was wont to say that he had kept his congregation together by indignation.

But he was as much at home on the platform as in the pulpit. The "dear old City Hall," as he called it, was the scene of many a well-fought fight. Catholic Emancipation, Reform, Abolition of Slavery, Voluntaryism, Repeal of the Corn Laws, Oppressed Nationalities, the Cause of the North in the American Civil War, all in turn engaged his sympathies and were helped by his advocacy. He took a prominent part in the Protestant controversy with Roman Catholicism - not in the least after the manner of the Orangemen, or the common No-Popery orators, but as one who was scrupulously careful to be as just in his argument as in his political attitude toward those of the creed he disapproved. When he was an old man he set himself to learn Italian that he might read in the original Fra Paolo's History of the Council of Trent; and those who heard him will not soon forget the enthusiasm with which he spoke of Dante's verse when his newly-acquired knowledge had opened it to him.

After thirty years' labour he passed into comparative retirement, having obtained a colleague to take the larger share of the burden of the John Street pastorate. He had great delight in his garden. His methods of horticulture were, like his theology, all his own; and he was not a little vain of the results in peas of peculiar sweetness and cauliflowers of exceptional size. He never let a weed escape him, and was able to recognize his idiosyncrasy in the fact that his hatred of weeds was even stronger than his love of flowers.

Dr. Anderson's writings consist of a work on the Mass, another on Penance, a third on Regeneration, two volumes of Discourses, a volume of Church Music, and his latest book on Filial Honour of God. His degree was conferred by his own University, and it was by his desire that it was the literary rather than the theological distinction which was given him. He was twice married - the first time to the daughter of a well-known Glasgow man, Mr. John Binnie, who built Jamaica Street Bridge and some other important public works in and around the city. Dr. Anderson's death took place on 15th September, 1872, in his seventy-fourth year.

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