Robert Murray M’Cheyne, John Milne, Alexander Somerville, John Bonar, Andrew Bonar, and Horatius Bonar — Alexander Whyte referred to them as “a school of preachers who had an immense influence upon the religious life of Scotland.” Another summarized their work in these words–“Their ministry produced seekers after God, saints of God, and servants of God to staff the churches and missions of Christ at home and abroad.”
As Iain Murray says–
“This brotherhood looked to Horatius Bonar as a leader, but shared a common union of prayer and visited each other whenever possible. Still closer to Horatius than the friends were his two brothers, Andrew and John. At least once a year they shared in the communion seasons of one another’s churches, times when, according to the older Scottish tradition, there were days of preaching. These were years (1840’s-1880’s) of general reviving in several parts of Scotland . . . . Horatius referred to the general scene at this period as ‘widespread interest, full churches, a fervent ministry, the preaching of the gospel everywhere–in barns, fields, highways, with large and manifest blessing on the word spoken’.”
From the Borders to the World
In the 1840’s, the Bonars brothers and many others left the Established Church of Scotland and became a part of the newly-formed Free Church of Scotland. Horatius discovered, in his own words, “open doors and open ears in the populated districts among all ranks of people.” Murray shows that in this way an itinerant ministry, far and wide, was open to him. William Robertson Nicoll, one of Bonar’s successors at Kelso, remembered it in these words–
“He [Horatius] set himself to evangelize the Borderlands. 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 peached in the open air. The memory of some sermons lingered, with the chief characteristic of his preaching being its strange solemnity. It was full of entreaty and warning. Dr. Bonar exhibited with faithful simplicity and decision the great things of the gospel.”
As the itinerant ministry developed, Bonar found the work too great, so he gathered helpers, two of whom he says were Mr. Stoddart and Alexander Murray. “These two”, he wrote later, “were truly the evangelists of the Borders, and traversed three counties of Roxburgh, Berwick, and Northumberland, with blessed success.”
“The mission work that went on for ten to twelve years was of the most striking kind and the journals of these two men of God [Stoddart and Murray], in that wide Border district, would furnish narratives which the church would rejoice to see. Women also played their part. One of these warrants particular mention. From time to time a Madeleine Ballantyne stayed in Kelso, and in writing to a friend in 1844, she reported, ‘Mr. Bonar has given me a district, and I go nearly every day to speak to the people, to read to them, and give them tracts’. Well educated, widely traveled and thoroughly worldly, she had come under Bonar’s ministry on the first Sunday of her visit there.
Bonar was preaching on the misery of man in sin and the visitor’s verdict on the sermon was ‘too awful for her–she would not go back’. But when individuals become angry under preaching, it can be a good sign, and it was so in her case. There was something hollow about her protest–‘Don’t suppose that I care anything for that man’s words–I am determined not to mind him’. But soon she met the man she intended to ignore and a few weeks later, in her words, ‘She went back to the world no more, but after a little delay, straight to the Cross, there to deposit all her sins and fears’.
The subsequent bright witness of Madeleine Ballantyne was a blessing, not only to the people of Kelso, but to a much larger number after her death, when Bonar wrote an account of her life (A Stranger Here: The Memorial of One to Whom to Live was Christ and to Die is Gain, London: Nisbet, 1853).”
By 1887, Horatius’s health was broken down and his last sermon was on 11 September, on the words, “But as the days of Noah were, so shall also the coming of the Son of Man be. (Mt. 24:37-39) In April, 1888, a meeting was held to celebrate his Jubilee in the Christian ministry. Andrew Bonar noted that “it was a singular gathering. Everyone testified to the hymns which the Master had given him [Horatius] for the church. The Lord helped me to say a few words about the uncommon fact that three brothers had each, for about fifty years, preached the same Gospel.” Three brothers, for fifty years, with the missionary spirit.
At the end of life, from H. Bonar’s own words, his desire and motives expressed–
My name, my place, and my tomb, all forgotten,
The brief race of time well and patiently run;
So let me pass away, peacefully, silently,
Only remembered by what we have done.
Needs there the praise of the love-written record,
The name and epitaph graved on the stone?
The things we have lived for, let them be our story,
We ourselves but remembered by what we have done.
Not myself, but the truth that in life I have spoken,
Not myself, but the seed that in life I have sown,
Shall pass on to ages — all about me forgotten,
Save the truth I have spoken, the things I have done.
Horatius Bonar, a man with the missionary spirit, of whom the world was not worthy.
– Mack Tomlinson (all material taken from Iain Murray’s A Scottish Christian Heritage, published by Banner of Truth Trust)