The world into which John Lawrie was born April 10th, 1810, was a changing world, politically, industrially and religiously. Across the Channel the French Revolution, not long ended, heralded revolutionary change. New ideas were sweeping through Europe: the pace of life, stagnant for centuries, was beginning to quicken - and has never slackened since.
John was born near Newmilns, Ayrshire, Scotland, only a small country town, but a place whose geographical location ensured it was caught up in major historical events. At the end of the eighteenth century cotton weaving was introduced and Newmilns became one of the busiest centres in northern Ayrshire. The Newmilns weavers went on producing superior work even after handloom weaving was being ousted elsewhere; but in the end the power loom won.
From 1830 onwards spinning as a factory industry using steam power expanded in the west of Scotland including Kilmarnock, Galston and Newmilns. The nineteenth century saw Ayrshire grow into one of the chief industrial areas in Scotland. The area became highly industrialised. Roadways and communications were set up. Travel greatly increased assisted by the construction of a net work of railways. Between 1830-50 Scotland was undergoing the second stage of her Industrial Revolution, the expansion and creation of metallurgical industries. Down to 1830 Scotland’s main industries had been textiles, both linen and cotton. The peculiar misery of the 1830-50 period for the working-class produced Chartism. Chartism was a political movement and its chief aim was to secure a measure of political representation for the working-class.
The population of Ayrshire changed and increased, nearly doubling to 200,000 from the time John was born to the time he left for Australia in 1853.
All the industrial change, development of communications, ability to travel and movement of population, played their part in the attitude, the unrest and the searching that went on in John’s soul to find the truth of the Christian faith as he would come to believe it.
Newmilns is one of the three townships nestling in the folds of the Irvine Valley. There at the head of the valley one sees the Irvine waters meandering its way to the western sea; Loudoun’s Bonnie Woods and Braes rising in the north to meet the moors, and on the south Galston Moor where Robert Burns from Mossgeil could see suffused in glory in the light of the rising sun. In the distance stands Loudoun Hill like a sentinel through the centuries guarding the Valley’s eastern approaches. Newmilns was gifted with a measure of surrounding beauty which made it a place of its own.
Search for Meaning
Alexander Lawrie arrived in Riccarton, a County of Ayrshire, Scotland around the turn of the nineteenth century. A son, Alexander, was born to him and Janet Patterson.
On the 7th July 1809, Alexander and Jean Dunlop were married in the Parish of Riccarton. Children born of this marriage were John, James, Nicol Brown, Robert, Marion, Thomas, David, Andrew, Elizabeth, Thomas, David, Jane, Alexander Dunlop and Andrew.
Alexander rose to the position of overseer of Lanfine Estate owned by the Brown family. The properties of Greenholm and Lanfine (near Galston) were purchased by John Brown of the Scottish banking firm of Carrick, Brown & Co. Nicol Brown his son took over the estate and a.1811 planted Lanfine Woods. Lanfine was later rented by Thomas Brown of Waterhaughs, who was Alexander’s employer to the time of his death in 1847.
Until the twentieth century the community of Newmilns (like many other towns), revolved almost entirely around the church and what it provided for its people. The Parish school provided opportunities of learning that weren’t always available to the ordinary person. John was like any other boy facing a world that was challenging and offering the excitement of a world that captured his imagination. He suffered the usual childish illnesses. When John was seven he caught an infectious disease going the rounds of the school. Many of the young people died, among them some of his school mates. This disease was called (putrid sore throat.) John was cured of this disease by taking a spoonful of “barm” every hour, prescribed by the doctor.
Another recollection of his childhood days was of a blind lady who came to stay for a short time in their home. John never forgot her.
...there were some things which she greatly excelled in, praying and telling lies; and I have heard my mother say that she often wondered what God would do with her on the day of judgment, send her to heaven for her prayers, or to hell for telling lies. (2)
John was a good scholar, at times slow and deliberate in learning but possessing a mind that was well able to comprehend and analyse issues. His ability earned him the reputation of being a good Latin student, although as a grown man secular study and the ability to learn languages was of little importance to him. It was his belief that the greatest lessons of life could be learned from people and what happened around one, if one took the trouble to observe.
Walking home past Pate’s Mill, the old castle, Loudoun Hill stirred into John’s mind the battles he knew had both been won and lost in these very places in the desire to preserve the integrity of a proud Scottish people.
The conical peak of Loudoun Hill, east of Newmilns, rose abruptly from the Irvine Valley with history written on every grain of sand. The Romans marched through Avondale to their camp on Loudoun Hill; there Wallace awaited the coming of Fenwick with rich stores for the garrison of Ayr; there Robert the Bruce won his first pitched battle; and there in 1674 the Covenanters made a successful stand against the Royalist troops. Even though these events were many years before his time, the earth beneath John's feet was alive with the idealism of the rights and freedom of the Scottish people, and was infectious in his thinking.
Newmilns was a stronghold of the Covenanters. John Campbell the Lord of the manor, John Nevay the minister of the Parish, and Nisbet born in a cottage on the manse glebe, all have a place in the "Scots Worthies." Nisbet was a leader of the Covenanting troops at Drum-clog and at Bothwell Bridge. The success of the Covenanters at Drumclog in dispersing the Royalist troops raised their hopes that by force of arms they might win their freedom of worship; but wrangling and dissension among the leaders brought a speedy and inevitable failure. Three weeks after Drumclog they were hopelessly routed at Bothwell Bridge.
The Cameronians who refused to enter the "Establishment" ( the official Church of Scotland) in 1689, and continued separately as Reformed Presbyterians, were formerly numerous in the land of the Covenanters. In 1819, when John was nine, the Parish of Loudoun was described as 'almost the headquarters of this zealous and exemplary class of Religionists.' The independent spirit, the zeal of the Covenanters which took such an important place in Loudoun Parish, considerably influenced the thinking of young John.
Initially John accepted his parent's views on life and religious beliefs. He held his parents in high respect.
We were taught to hold in reverence systems of religion which our fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers, lived and were happy. (3)
John was taught the church catechism, with scriptural proof of the responses to hold him to the religious faith and duty of the official church. But the whole atmosphere of Loudoun breathed of the radical independent spirit of the Covenanters that was soon to bring to John his own individualism.
A good student in every way, John learned the discipline of every-day education and the discipline of a religious life. His obedience to his superiors as he had been taught, no doubt was the reason he was overawed in the presence of the minister. To him this man was a superior being who spoke of himself as being an ambassador of Christ, a steward of divine mysteries, and a breaker of the bread of life to his people. But for all his awe of the minister and the continuous religious teaching by his parents, John's searching mind could not be contained within the bounds of Presbyterian thinking. His was a mind that would search, and reason, and discover. Life contained meaning that could be opened up as one searched and found answers to the questions that really mattered. He was one like the Covenanters, who would not bow to the wishes of the "Establishment."
Among John's friends in the years of his youth was a Baptist minister by the name of Barclay. Mr Barclay was a very earnest man who captured John's interest on subjects such as baptism and formal education for the ministry. Barclay had taken a deep interest in the Baptist educational institution only to be disappointed at seeing the effects of knowledge on the attitude of the students towards religious devotions. For John, universities' teaching of theology was of little value. He once read the lectures of Professor Dick, a Presbyterian, that were delivered to his theological students, and could not see their value. Jean Lawrie (John's mother) died when many of the children were still quite young. It was a difficult time for Alexander and so on January 10, 1836 he married Elizabeth Brown.
In his later youthful years, John became restless and critical of his own church. There was no challenge for one to search out and find the truth. He was given no real opportunity for development of his religious experience. The prayer meetings he attended were times when everyone present was given the opportunity to speak on the text, but this he thought was a sharing of ignorance. He had never heard of his minister converting any sinner, Further to his list of grievances, to hear people talking about getting a man to break the bread of life for them seemed absurd; it suggested to John that the Bible was like a bag filled with hard-shelled nuts and that there was little good in it unless some man would come along with a nut-cracker and break some of them up for eating.
John was an industrious young man and very thrifty, but his independent spirit and his father's and his own ambition to become a preacher of the word made it difficult for him to have a permanent job. So he helped the farmers around Darvel and Newmilns, particularly in minding sheep. As time went on John learnt how to make horse harness, an occupation that gave him the independence he wanted and the opportunity to carry out his pursuit of religious learning. Later, when he was to undertake the nurture of congregations for weeks at a time, he would take his work with him enabling him to continue to provide for his family. John's life at this time was not unlike that of St. Paul the ‘tentmaker minister’.
For a period of time, around 1834, John joined with the Dissenters. The Dissenters were those religious groups outside the Church of Scotland. Dissent also within the Church of Scotland came from those who claimed the right of the congregation to call a minister as against a patronage appointment. From 1815 these people were known as belonging to the Evangelical Party whose most eminent leader was Thomas Chalmers.
The Evangelical Party grew rapidly in strength and by 1841 had erected 220 churches. The patronage question continued as a real divisive issue and in 1834 the Evangelical Party secured the passage by the church's General Assembly of a 'veto' rule, by which Presbyterians were forbidden to proceed with the installation of a minister where a majority of the congregation were opposed to the candidate. This rule soon involved legal controversy. The courts held that the General Assembly had exceeded its powers. Parliament was asked for relief, but this was refused. Under Chalmers' leadership therefore, some 451 ministers withdrew from the state church in 1843 and founded the Free Church of Scotland.
But even with the Dissenters in 1834 it wasn't very long before John was convinced voluntary churchism and infant baptism could not by
...any stratagem or logic be made to agree;...and in giving this up our faith was shaken in the whole scheme of religion in which we had been indoctrinated by our parents and teachers, and we found it needful to begin and learn our religion all over again; and in our search found so many things wrong that we first felt no little alarm. (4)
So John concluded that while voluntary churchism freed one from the restraints of the establishment, it did not resolve the persistent theological questions that kept cropping up, particularly the one on infant baptism.
What further truth could there be? What of this immersion that the Scotch Baptists spoke of? The issue of baptism kept exercising his mind. He had Baptist friends who discussed with him often the Bible and the Christian life including the meaning of immersion.
John was not one to keep his thoughts to himself and his views were soon known among the members of the local Presbyterian church. An elder, hoping to convince John otherwise, wrote a long letter giving him a dissertation on the branches of the olive tree in Romans 11, and ingeniously said that every branch had other little branches attached to it, hence he reasoned that believers and their children were to be received into the church . But John s observation was that the elder had no children and therefore if every branch had sprouts attached to it he could not be a branch himself!
When the local minister heard John had finally decided on the question of baptism, he said to a friend of John s, that he (John), was a most inconsistent man and ought to be immersed at once and by so doing would unchurch the whole of the Presbyterians. The belief on immersion was so strong with John that he talked a great deal with his parents, brothers and sister. John was told by his father and stepmother that children ought to follow their parents in the religious ways they had been taught, but his brothers and sister listened to what he said. Being so sincere, sure and convincing of his position, John was able to persuade James, Robert, Marion to follow the new teaching and later his youngest brother Alexander.
This decision of John’s had not come easily nor quickly. He was often heavy in heart at the thought of having to go against his parents’, his minister’s and his fellow church members’ wishes. It was a very painful experience for John to differ with his minister.
I found it really a painful thing to differ from him, and I was strongly tempted to stifle my own convictions, and to trust that the minister was right. Could I have done so with a good conscience it would have brought me ease and saved me from a deal of strife; but light had come into my soul, and I found I could not shut it out. (5)
It was difficult as well in that John had a foot in two camps, the United Presbyterians and the Scotch Baptists, both at Kilmarnock. In Kilmarnock John had fallen in love with a pious Presbyterian girl, Janet Dunlop. She was his cousin and though he had known her most of his life he was in a quandary as to how he could giver respect to the wishes of his future wife and also be true to his religious convictions. If he was to find the truth he must turn to the Scotch Baptists.
After attending the Scotch Baptist Church John says,
that by simply looking at the order, simplicity and solemnity of the service, it required no argument to convince me that they had found the primitive pattern established by the Apostles. (6)
In his early twenties John's skill of reasoning and debate developed considerably.. Opportunities were given him to speak in church meetings. His father thought some books could assist him, and so he gave John two old volumes of Buchanan’s Skeleton Sermons.
And I did find them of little use. I used their covers for many years as a razor strop. (7)
His father who was a very pious Presbyterian intended that John should become a Presbyterian minister and so John at one time trained for awhile at Edinburgh. But John had become sceptical of the trained ministry being greatly influenced by the Baptist minister friend of his youth, and came to despise some of the positions Presbyterian ministers assigned to themselves. So John refers to his
hair-breadth escape from being trained for that calling
I often see reason now for gratitude to the God of providence that he saved me from such a position, which might have proved a sore entanglement and a snare; to be only a second or third-class clergyman is one of the most abject positions any man can fill in any country; to be a ploughman is much preferable . (8)
He could not entertain the idea of a formal education in a university and his views were compounded upon reading the lectures of a Professed Dick. All his life he would follow this view that a man should exercise his mind in seeking the truth from the Bible and not merely accept the views of those who appear to have superior learning. Whatever opportunities John got for public speaking, he believed there were none within the Presbyterian church that allowed him to become any more than a member of the congregation.
On February 20th, 1835, John and his cousin, Janet Dunlop were married in the Parish of Riccarton, and went to live in a house in Ranoldcoup Road on Lanfine Estate. Janet's parents were Robert Dunlop and Jean Muir of Peel Farm, not far from Bowhouse Farm, SE of Kilmarnock. John's mother was Jean Dunlop, sister to Robert. Janet remained a Presbyterian for twenty-five years of their married life, unconvinced of John's position and only accepting the different teaching on baptism at the age of 50. However, early in their married life Janet made up her mind that, if there were to be any failure, it would not be on her side. Thus John was able to continue his religious search the way he did.
In 1836 John made up his mind what he must do. He made a public testimony of faith, was immersed and became a member of the Scotch Baptist Church at Kilmarnock. It was about this time though, that John came across a magazine in which were reprinted articles by Alexander Campbell. In 1835, William Jones M.A., a Scotch Baptist leader of considerable note, commenced the monthly publication of The Millennial Harbinger and Voluntary Church Advocate. The prefatory remarks were taken from the preface to A. Campbell's Millennial Harbinger concerning a vast reformation in progress in America. William Jones, however mistook this reformation for a Scotch Baptist movement. With the second volume Jones closed the Harbinger. He found that the reformer, whom he had lauded to the heavens, paid no respect to Scotch Baptist theology. It was also clear that his reprints of Campbell's articles had shaken the opinions of many of his readers and they were likely to move out of Scotch Baptist circles.
James Wallis joined with the Scotch Baptists in Nottingham in 1834. Soon after that union he and others became constant readers of the Millennial Harbinger, which in the Scotch Baptist interest came to them from William Jones, and for a time the Scotch Baptist church in Nottingham was engaged in a controversy, "which ended in the majority deciding they would not fellowship with those who affirmed faith, repentance and baptism necessary to the full enjoyment of salvation."9
Then on Lord's Day, December 18, 1836, the Lord's Table was refused to the whole church because no minister was present. On the following Lord's Day, fourteen met in an upper room and James Wallis and Jonathan Hine were chosen to preside.
March 1837 saw the first issue by James Wallis of The Christian Messenger and Reformer, a monthly periodical. John Lawrie had read the writings of Alexander Campbell and followed with interest the movements of James Wallis and the church at Nottingham. Again he became disillusioned and critical of the group to which he belonged. The Scotch Baptists of whom he had spoken earlier as a church who
had found out the primitive pattern, established by the Apostles, (10)
now revealed its weaknesses upon closer examination. The founders of the congregation to which he belonged had met together for eighteen years, reading the Scriptures, praying, singing hymns and yet not one of them had reached the degree of competence to instruct the congregation. John disagreed with the Baptists' requirement of a public confession of experience from candidates, as not serving any real purpose, and he was sceptical about public confession of sin.
He cited an example of being present when a Baptist pastor, dealing with an offending member who was to confess his fault and repent publicly, told him the exact words to say in his confession
and this parrot-spoken tale was accepted. (11)
John also rejected the Scotch Baptist Calvinistic doctrine.
Joining the Restoration
By 1837 John was so influenced by Alexander Campbell's writings (as were many other Scotch Baptists) that he decided to withdraw and form a congregation adhering to the principles of restoration. There were numerous groups in Scotland in the early 1800's who adhered to the few given instructions in the New Testament on church government and Christian practice.l2 These congregations were unknown to each other until James Wallis's publication revealed their existence enabling them to communicate with one another and attempt to form practical links. There were those like John who began congregations.
I called meetings together in a schoolroom ( in Newmilns) and did my best to ventilate the new light I had got on religious subjects. I felt conscious I was far from possessing a glib tongue... but I had tried my hand at writing letters and essays on various subjects, and I began to hope I might do something in writing out discourses . . . such a thing as anyone save a college-bred man, preaching was not heard of before in that place . (13)
The Christian Messenger and Reformer kept John informed with the writings of A.Campbell and the restoration movement in Scotland. During 1838 John visited Edinburgh and met with the brethren who held their meetings in South Bridge Hall, opposite to the College. Some young sparks from the College attempted to bamboozle the preachers with Greek and Hebrew; but some of the leaders of the congregation resolutely set to work to acquire a knowledge of the languages and eventually were able to meet the students on their own ground and put an end to their pranks. Meetings were small and there were not many outsiders. On one occasion there were only two strangers among the small congregation and one of these made the good confession. Another time there was only one stranger yet that one person made a confession of faith.
James and Robert Lawrie, brothers of John, worked on Lanfine Estate, belonging to Thomas Brown, south of and adjoining Newmilns and Darvel. Information had reached Scotland that good land was opening up in South Australia and gave opportunity of land ownership which wasn't possible in Ayrshire where they lived. As some of the Lawrie family had been offered work in the new Colony, plans were made for their departure.