His seagoing career over, James Haldane expected to live the quiet and unambitious life of a landed proprietor. The Lord, however, had another and greater plan for him. While residing in Edinburgh he associated with such godly evangelical clergy as Dr John Erskine and Rev David Black, and became acquainted with two active and devoted laymen, Mr John Campbell and Mr John Aikman. Mr Campbell owned a large ironmongers shop in the Grassmarket where his warehouse was, at that time, the only repository in Edinburgh for Christian periodicals and tracts. He was a model city missioner, a Sunday school teacher, Scripture reader and tract distributor. It was in his shop that James Haldane met Mr Aikman who had relinquished a lucrative business in Jamaica after having been brought to Christ through reading John Newtons Cardiphonia; or Utterance of the Heart. Aikmans health had suffered from his residence in a tropical climate but he was then attending divinity lectures with a view to the ministry. Fellowship with such men stimulated James Haldanes rapid spiritual growth and he quickly embraced their fervent desires for the spread of the gospel.
Zealous men with a passion for souls were sorely needed to waken the people of Scotland from their "sleep of death". The notorious General Assembly of the Church of Scotland of 1796 had rejected the Resolution "That it is the duty of Christians to carry the gospel to the heathen world". One so called "Moderate" minister had stated in the debate, "Men must be polished and refined in their manners before they can be properly enlightened in religious truths". Another questioned, "Why send missionaries to foreign parts, when there is so much ignorance, unbelief and immorality at your own doors?" Sadly little was done to address the needs of their own people. One faithful Church of Scotland minister wrote of many parish ministers that "They seemed miserable in the discharge of every ministerial duty. To deliver a gospel sermon or preach to the hearts and consciences of dying sinners was as completely beyond them as to speak in the language of angels".
Some time after the debate a friend of Mr Campbell told him of the need of the people of Gilmerton, a large mining village near Edinburgh, who, he said, "had heard nothing like the gospel in the Parish Church for at least forty years". A preacher named Joseph Rate from Gosport visited Edinburgh at that time and Campbell asked him to preach at Gilmerton, which he consented to do. The following Sunday evening James Haldane and John Aikman walked to Gilmerton with Mr Rate to find a house full of people waiting for them. The second Sunday the number increased, but during that week Mr Rate had to leave Edinburgh and Haldane proposed that if Aikman would preach on the next Sunday then he would do so on the one following, and thus it came to pass that James Haldane preached for the first time on 6th May, 1797. The preaching at Gilmerton was attended by blessing and many came to hear Mr Aikman and the sea captain. The parish minister tried to stop the meetings by contriving to deprive them of the school-house, but a spacious loft, and then a large barn were procured, in which crowds heard plain, pointed gospel preaching. Many, even some evangelical clergy, had misgivings about lay preaching, but the Lord put His seal of approbation upon the work at Gilmerton and then upon the first lengthy itinerary over the North of Scotland later in the same year.
When James Haldane and John Aikman commenced their first tour, they took their commission from the Bible: "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel" (Mk 16.15). Leaving Edinburgh on 12th July, 1797 they travelled north preaching at Perth, Scone, Cupar Angus and Kirriemuir. Then it was on to Forfar and Brechin where the town drummer assisted by announcing the sermon. They preached at Montrose, Inverbervie and Stonehaven, where they saw "the greatest indifference to the concerns of eternity". In Aberdeen a very large crowd listened to Haldanes message in the College Close on Romans 1.16: "I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth". Some may have been attracted by the novelty of the occasion, and to hear a former East India Company Captain, but his powers as a preacher were becoming known. The people of Banff were stirred to hear, "Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish" (Lk 13.3,5), and in Cullen tracts were distributed and the gospel preached. In Elgin the magistrates forbade the bellman from intimating the preaching, yet at the appointed time around 600 persons gathered in the street to hear a message proclaimed from the steps of the church. The journey continued through Forres and Nairn to Inverness where Haldane and Aikman learned that a fair was soon to take place in Kirkwall to which large numbers came from the outlying Orkney Islands. They sailed north to arrive on 12th August when they preached to above 800 persons gathered on open ground adjoining the cathedral church of St Magnus. The next Lords Day Mr Aikman preached to a congregation of 1,200, while Mr Haldane crossed to the island of Shapinsay, on a boat sent for the purpose, to preach standing on the sea shore. The visit was made memorable by the conversion of a man of ninety-two years now confined to his bed. Mr Haldane had gone to his cottage where the old man upon hearing of the Lord Jesus who had come to save, repeatedly exclaimed, "I believe, I believe!". Amid all the excitement of preaching to large numbers in Kirkwall, Stromness and elsewhere, Haldane did not forget the old man, paying him another visit before returning south via Caithness and Sutherland. This tour left solid results from conversions in many places, encouraged scattered believers, and led to the formation of "The Society for Propagating the Gospel at Home".
A second extensive tour was undertaken in 1798 into Ayrshire, Galloway and the Borders. A Mr Watson, later a Congregational Church minister in Dumfries, was saved listening to Haldane preaching from John 3.3, while standing on the steps of the Old Cross of Ayr. Over 50 years afterwards he wrote, "In my imagination I see Mr James Haldanes manly form and commanding attitude, in youthful but dignified zeal, pouring out of the fulness of his soul a free, full, and everlasting salvation to the wondering multitude, who by the expression on their faces seemed to say, We have heard strange things today ".
Nettled by the impact of the lay preaching, the General Assembly of 1799 passed two Declaratory Acts "prohibiting all persons from preaching in any place under their jurisdiction who were not licensed", and forbidding "unauthorised teachers of Sabbath schools". This was aimed against men such as Haldane and Aikman who were contemptuously styled "vagrant teachers". These disgraceful measures were not rescinded until 1842. Undeterred, Haldane decided to re-visit the north and this time the tour extended to the Shetland Islands. On 10th July, 1799 he arrived at Fair Isle where he preached the first sermon heard there for six years. He proceeded to Lerwick on the mainland of Shetland where he and his companion separated so they could cover a wider area. Haldane preached on the islands of Whalsay, Skerries, Fetlar, Yell and Unst as well as the remote Isle of Foula which at the time had 200 inhabitants and no resident minister. Years later Mr Haldanes son met a weather-beaten seaman, who had piloted a Greenland whaler from Lerwick to Leith, who testified, "It was from your father I first heard the gospel in Shetland over thirty years ago". After preaching at Sandwick on the south mainland they embarked on a six-oared open boat hoping to reach Fair Isle before dark. The ocean swell was heavy and they missed Fair Isle in the darkness, but Mr Haldane took the helm of the boat and, steering by the stars, headed for North Ronaldsay which they passed, landing on Sanday after a run of 54 miles. Travelling around the Northern Isles was no easy matter in those days!
James Haldane was pre-eminently a preacher whose itinerant ministry was singularly blessed of God in the awakening of many throughout Scotland. He also ministered to an Edinburgh congregation and, with his brother Robert, sought to recover a form of church life more faithful to the New Testament. Regrettably their efforts in that respect had limited success. Both published a number of books and pamphlets on matters of doctrine and other subjects. Together they achieved much in the service of God remaining in the forefront of evangelical endeavour into good old ages.
Recommended reading: "The lives of Robert & James Haldane", published by Banner of Truth.