Friday, 22 February 2013

The John Erskine Letterbook, 1742-45

Last week I received the pdf proofs for my annotated transcription of the John Erskine Letterbook, 1742-45, which will be published in a forthcoming volume of the Miscellany of the Scottish History Society.

The manuscript is housed at the Massachusetts Historical Society and consists of a series of letters most likely sent to the Boston minister Thomas Prince with the intent that all or part of them be published in The Christian History. The final edition of The Christian History, however, came abruptly to an end on February 23, 1745, which predates Erskine's letterbook by a few weeks. Besides an initial letter written presumably to Prince, the manuscript also contains letters addressed to William and Samuel Cooper of Boston, Philip Doddridge of Northampton, and four young divinity students at Edinburgh University.

One of the most interesting aspects of the manuscript is Erskine's description of the Cambuslang and Kilsyth revivals that took place in western Scotland in the summer and fall of 1742. To give you an idea of the significance of these revivals, contemporaries estimated that between 20,000 and 50,000 people gathered at Cambuslang alone during each of its two communion services. Nearby Glasgow, which would have been the largest town in the region, had only about 17,000 residents.

At the time that he witnessed these awakenings, Erskine was a young university student preparing for a career as a barrister. But from witnessing several people who "melted into tears," and hearing the preaching of George Whitefield and the Scottish ministers Thomas Gillespie of Carnock, John Maclaurin of Glasgow, William McCulloch of Cambuslang, James Robe of Kilsyth, and Alexander Webster of Edinburgh, Erskine determined to change career paths and become a clergyman in the Kirk. His sometimes vivid depiction of Cambuslang and Kilsyth offers a fresh perspective on these revivals from a previously unpublished source.

Here is a taste of my transcription:

I went to Cambuslang on Saturday.  The place where there tent was is, the most commodious for hearing ever I saw.  Tis much in the form of an amphitheatre.  It was reckoned there were 20,000 there that day, but I’m certain a voice near as good as Mr Whitfield’s could have reached a greater number had they been there.
Mr Webster preached first from Luke 2:11 and then Mr Whitfield from Zechariah 12:10.  There was little crying but a more attentive audience I never saw, and the bulk of them seemed much affected with both sermons... On the Monday Mr Whitfield preached from Philippians 2:5; and when he was insisting on the devotion, humility, resignation &c. of Christ, and at the end of every head pressing his hearers to examine their own hearts, and try if they felt these dispositions there, about 30 were so much affected that they could not restrain themselves from loud outcries, and I believe there was but a small number amongst all the multitude that were not more or less concerned...  I went in after sermon to Mr McCulloch’s dining room, and ere I was a quarter of an hour there, about 20 were brought in under the deepest distress.  It was impossible for any that saw them to doubt the reality of their concern...

I went to Kilsyth with Mr Webster and [Robert] Trail on Tuesday July 13.  Mr Mclaurin had been preaching there.  They were singing the last Psalms as we came in, but the reader’s voice was almost drowned with the cries of those in distress.  On Wensday Mr Gillespie preached to them from Malachi 4:2 and Mr Webster from Ephesians 1:7.  God was with both ministers and people in a more remarkable way then ever I was witness to before.  Mr Webster put a question to his audience, suppose they could be saved by their own works as they could not, yet if they would not renounce them, and be content to be saved in that way which would most abase themselves, and bring to God the greatest revenue of praise.  There was then an uncommon melting in the congregation, and the looks of numbers testified by their eagerness and joy, how much they had it at heart, that the Lord alone should be exalted, and have all the glory of their salvation.  ‘Tis impossible to any but an eye-witness to frame a notion of what I saw in that blessed place.  The best direction I can give is, that such as cannot go there should read over those prophecies, that relate to the plentiful effusion of the spirit in the latter days, and from them attempt to frame some idea of it.  I can freely say one half was not told me...  

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