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Torchbearers of the Truth: Robert Haldane (1764 – 1842) and James Haldane (1768 – 1851)

J Brown, Peterhead


Robert Haldane

A brief review of the labours of these remarkable brothers brings us some years forward from the mid eighteenth century and the evangelical awakening in England, to a time of revival in Scotland.

The Haldane family of Gleneagles was of ancient lineage descended from one Roger de Halden who was been granted a charter by King William the Lyon in the twelfth century. A number of the family became seafarers among whom Robert Haldane became the first Scotsman to command an East India Company ship. When Captain Haldane died without surviving issue his estate was divided, with Airthrey near Stirling bequeathed to his nephew Captain James Haldane, and Gleneagles to another nephew. This James Haldane had married a first cousin, Katherine, daughter of Alexander Duncan and Helen Haldane. There were three children: Robert born in 1764 in London, Helen born in 1765, and James born in 1768 in Dundee, a fortnight after his father’s death. Their mother was a sister of Admiral Lord Duncan who won fame in a crushing victory over the Dutch fleet at the battle of Camperdown in October, 1797. She instilled into her children’s minds a sense of the importance of eternity, and of prayer, and taught them to memorise Psalms, other portions of Scripture, and the Shorter Catechism. On her death in 1774 the children were left in the care of their grandmother and their uncle. Both sons later testified to the spiritual value of their saintly mother’s training which bore fruit in their lives many years after her passing.

The boys had a good education at Edinburgh High School before going to sea. Robert entered Royal Naval service in 1780 on board HMS Monarch a 74 gun ship of the line commanded by his uncle. The following year he joined the 80 gun ship Foudroyant which, according to the custom of the time, had retained her French name after being captured. His captain was Sir John Jervis who later became Earl St.Vincent after his famous victory over the French off the Cape of that name in February, 1797. Robert saw action in Foudroyant where as a midshipman he had charge of a number of guns, but the end of the American Revolutionary wars in 1783 brought his short naval career to a close. After a period of study at Edinburgh University, Robert married in 1786 and settled into the estate of Airthrey inherited from his father.

James’ sea career was with the Honourable East India Company, and began in his seventeenth year when he sailed as a midshipman on the Duke of Montrose bound for Bombay and China. In those days the Company enjoyed a monopoly of the trade to India and the East. The ships were heavily manned and run man o’ war fashion, making slow passages with calls at various ports en-route. For three generations the Haldane family had held substantial interests in ships chartered by the Company so that a very lucrative career beckoned to young Haldane. He quickly adapted to shipboard life becoming a smart and energetic seaman while studying to master the skills of navigation. Further voyages were on different ships but for his fourth voyage to India James sailed as second officer of his old ship Duke of Montrose. The voyage ended in June, 1793 and James returned to his brother’s house at Airthrey where he met and married in September, 1793 a young lady, Mary Joass the only daughter of Major Alexander Joass from Banffshire. Shortly afterwards James was appointed captain of the Melville Castle which was to sail in convoy from Portsmouth in December. A very lengthy delay ensued, however, and while the ship lay at anchor at Spithead Haldane began to read his Bible with greater earnestness than for many years. God began a work of grace in his soul and he resigned his post on the Melville Castle, and returned to Scotland. Talking to various ministers he found many had embraced Socinian1 views and were rationalists denying much of the truth of Divine revelation. However, the knowledge of Scripture, acquired in early life, preserved him from their evil influence and at length he gained the assurance of salvation.

Robert had been enjoying the life of a country gentleman, developing his estate, with little interest in the wider world. Like many others his insularity was disturbed by the excitement aroused by the French Revolution. He became interested in philosophical and political debate, but God was dealing with him and he discovered that the speculations and ideas of men could not secure a better order for mankind. In his religious life he had been contenting himself with "a common and worthless profession, and that form of godliness which completely denies its power". He records, "I endeavoured to be decent, and what is called moral, but was ignorant of my lost state by nature as well as of the strictness, purity and extent of the Divine law. While I spoke of a Saviour I was little acquainted with His character, the value of His sufferings and death, or the need I stood in of the atoning efficacy of His pardoning blood". Referring to the period of his interest in politics Robert wrote, "I eagerly snatched at them as a pleasing speculation. As a fleeting phantom they eluded my grasp; but missing the shadow I caught the substance, and while obliged to abandon these confessedly empty and unsatisfactory pursuits, I obtained in some measure the solid consolations of the gospel; so that I may say as Paul, concerning the Gentiles of old, ‘He was found of me who sought him not’". His conversion a little after his brother’s, was "neither sudden nor violent but it was the act of God and as such, mysterious in its origin, decisive in its character, and effectual in its results".

With characteristic energy and zeal Robert Haldane applied himself to the study of the Bible, and quickly became committed to the spread of the gospel. Reading the first number of the periodical accounts of the Baptist Mission founded by Dr William Carey at Serampore on the River Hooghly stimulated his interest in Christian Missions in India and he was one of the first in Scotland to become a member of the London Missionary Society founded in 1795. Following prayerful consideration he and others sought the permission of the British Government, and of the Court of Directors of the East India Company, which then governed its possessions in India, to establish a mission to "convey the knowledge of Christianity to the Hindoos and Mohammedans". The plan was opposed by the Company, one of the directors stating that "he would rather see a band of devils in India than a band of missionaries". A large part of the estate at Airthrey was sold in 1798 and funds intended to finance the proposed Bengal Mission were devoted to Home Missions, and the formation in 1798 of the "Society for Propagating the Gospel at Home". It was an example of leaving house and lands (in a restricted sense) for the gospel’s sake. He was closely involved with the purchase of buildings in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee to become Tabernacles after the model of Whitefield’s in London. Many were saved and great blessing attended the preaching in these places.

Robert Haldane had cherished a desire to visit the Continent with the gospel and this he was able to do in 1816 when he and his wife left Scotland to travel, first to Paris, and then to Geneva. He found nothing to encourage in that place which had been a citadel of the Reformation. He continued on through Switzerland, but after some hesitation resolved to return to Geneva, where, providentially, he met a young student of theology who was instrumental in introducing fellow students to Mr Haldane. Soon over twenty were being instructed in gospel truth. M. Monod later recalled, "We were most of us thoughtless, deeply tainted with worldliness, and immersed in gaiety. Though students of theology, true theology was one of the things of which we knew the least. I still see in my mind’s eye his tall and manly figure, his English Bible in his hand, wielding as his only weapon that Word which is the sword of the Spirit; satisfying every objection, removing every difficulty, answering every question by a prompt reference to various passages". The studies were in the Epistle to the Romans and led to a recovery of the truth amongst the Protestants of Switzerland and France. A notable convert was Dr Merle D’ Aubigné the celebrated historian of the Reformation. In a speech in Edinburgh in 1845 he declared, "If Geneva gave something to Scotland at the time of the Reformation, if she communicated light to John Knox, Geneva has received something from Scotland in return, in the blessed exertions of Robert Haldane".

To be continued.

1 Socinians denied the truth of the Trinity and the Deity of the Lord Jesus.

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