This worthy man succeeded in life, and was for many years minister in the Dumfriesshire parish of Kirkmahoe. His biography, the Life and Times of the Rev. John Wightman, D.D. by David Hogg, 1873, was written by his successor there and is available on the Internet. Reproduced here is the first chapter and a link to the full book is at the foot of the page.

Rev. John Wightman, born 1762 in Glaisters, Kirkgunzeon.

The Rev. John Wightman, D.D., minister of Kirkmahoe, was the son of a Galloway farmer, and from his early boyhood was trained to agricultural pursuits, so far as these were compatible with his education at school and college. He frequently "looked the hill" in the morning to see that all was well with the sheep, at seed-time he followed the harrows, and in autumn he wrought in the harvest-field. He was born at Glaisters, in the parish of Kirkgunzeon, on the 12th of August, 1762, the same day, he delighted to remark in after years, on which George IV. first saw the light.

His father, William Wightman, occupant of the farm, was in comfortable circumstances for his position in life, and was esteemed in the district as a shrewd, intelligent, pious man, whose word was as good as his bond, and whose judgment was always respected in matters of important reference. His mother, Agnes Thomson, was a woman in her own sphere a fitting equal for her husband, and who, while devotedly attached to her children, had still the good sense and the firmness not to spoil them for want of correction. John was early destined by his parents for the ministry, and this object was kept constantly in view; not that he indicated any special aptitude for the profession, but rather from a feeling then prevalent, even among the lowest peasantry, of what was considered "honouring God with their substance," by dedicating one of their sons to the service of the Church, though the prospect was oftentimes long and dreary, and the privations undergone severe, before the ardently cherished desire was realized. The eldest son was usually selected for the purpose, unless he had a delicate brother who was not likely to be able for much manual labour, and then all the energies of the household were called into requisition to foster and mature the tender plant. Young Wightman, however, did not come under either of these categories, as he was neither the eldest son, nor was he a sickly child, but still he was the one fixed upon to be an honour to the family, and an ornament to the Church.

In former times a large proportion of the ministers of the Church of Scotland belonged to the lower classes of society, and many of the ablest and most eloquent of them had their origin from this source. An interesting volume, though perhaps a painful one, might be written, descriptive of the difficulties and hardships encountered, the faintings and despondencies experienced, the hopes now high, and again extinguished, which lay in the way to the attainment of this position. Nor was the struggle confined to the twofold energies of wedded life in pushing the aspiring herald onwards to the pulpit, for even the mother who was never honoured with the name of wife braced herself for the contest, and made a noble effort, despite a prejudice which lay in the way. She laboured at field-work by day, earning but a scanty wage, and at night she sewed or spun, to procure the means for educating and supporting her son at college. A popular belief prevailed that illegitimacy was a barrier to entering the Divinity Hall, that every student was strictly examined on this point, and should any one happen to be passed over by mistake at this stage, he could not by any possibility obtain license, or be admitted into the ministry. In short, the Presbytery neither could nor would allow such a thing. This opinion was founded on a passage in Deuteronomy, which says, "A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord." Notwithstanding this, however, the attempt was sometimes made, and not without success, though popular prejudice was still firm in holding that the real state of the case had not been known, and no blessing could possibly follow the ministrations of such a man.

Having finished his elementary education at the parish school, and being now fully eighteen years of age, our young friend was sent to the University of Edinburgh to undergo the usual training for the sacred office to which he was designed. Here he commenced and continued his curriculum till its termination. Students then often made the tour of all the universities, for the purpose, it was said, of taking the cream of these institutions, though to the detriment, we fear, of their studies, by breaking the continuity of the course of training upon which they had entered; but he had no such roving disposition, and Edinburgh was his Alma mater throughout. His appearance in all the classes of Arts and Divinity was highly creditable to his diligence and abilities, and attracted the special notice of several of the Professors. Under Professor Hill he acquired a proficiency in the Latin language which was very marked, even in those days when it was common to intersperse conversation with phrases from the Roman poets. He had also a tenacious memory, and remembered almost everything he read or wrote, a striking instance of which we shall give anon. While attending the classes in the University, he engaged also to a considerable extent in private teaching as a means of helping his finances, and he had under his care in this way two lads who afterwards became eminent in their country's annals Lord Mackenzie, son of the author of "The Man of Feeling," and Henry Lord Brougham, whom all the world knows, but who was one day so mischievous and disobedient, if not worse, that Mr. Wightman took him by the collar and thrust him out of the room, with the anathema, " Begone, you firebrand, you will plague the nation yet !"

In 1785 he was appointed assistant or usher to Mr. Wait in the grammar-school of Dumfries, with whom he continued for three years, becoming by the exercise of teaching still more proficient in his classical attainments. From this circumstance he ever afterwards took the warmest interest in the prosperity of the Academy, the name it afterwards obtained, and till the close of his life he had a delight in privately visiting the class-rooms, when the scholars were allowed by their masters to give him a ringing round of welcome. One of his highest gratifications, and which he could not conceal, was his being appointed by the Presbytery, which was constantly done, to preside at the annual examination of the institution, for which he always prepared a highly complimentary address to the masters, pupils, parents, and others interested in the cause of education. These addresses were always learnedly, ornately, and poetically composed, and from an expression in them which he almost invariably used, some of the more thoughtless of the boys, when they saw him taking the desk in the New Church (now Greyfriars) at the distribution of the prizes, called it "Wightman's officiating at the Sabaean altars." We shall afterwards have an opportunity of giving our readers a specimen of these addresses. In 1787 Mr. Wait having been requested to recommend a properly qualified tutor to take charge of a family going out to Virginia, and to reside with them there for three years, at once suggested the name of Mr. Wightman as eminently qualified for the situation, and he was immediately communicated with; but the terms were not the most tempting for such an undertaking namely, £30 a-year, with the promise of a present of ten guineas at the expiration of the agreement, should the poor tutor's conduct give satisfaction. Certain expressions in the communication as to what was necessary on his part he considered derogatory in tone to his feelings, and unnecessary. During the interval before his departure he was "to acquire as much knowledge of the French language as possible" he was "to endeavour to write a steady good hand, which it was thought in six months he might do exceedingly well" he was "to be a master of grammar in general, and perfectly accurate in the English tongue; and the more he could acquire of the elegance of pronunciation both in English and French, so much the better." All this was required for a short engagement, in a distant land, at an annual salary of £30 with board, and ten guineas more looming in the distance unless a squall arose. Mr. Wightman felt himself insulted, as well as his master who had recommended him, so, suppressing his feelings, he replied that he could not accept the proposals made, as even with the early intimation given, he would be unable to acquire some of the qualifications which seemed indispensable for the situation.

He now left Dumfries, and became assistant in the grammar-school of Leith, presided over by Mr. James Cririe, afterwards Dr. Cririe, minister of Dalton. Still he always cherished the warmest affection for Mr. Wait, and on the death of that gentleman in June, 1804, he inserted the following tribute to his memory in the local newspaper: "Died at Moat, after a lingering illness, on the 16th instant, James Wait, Esq., late Rector of the grammar-school in this place. He was a man of great integrity, and of a remarkably independent tone of mind. His desire of knowledge was insatiable, his application in pursuit of it unwearied, and his attainments in it truly uncommon. His acquirements in classic literature, and particularly in Greek and Roman antiquities have been long and justly admired; but his knowledge was by no means confined to ancient learning; his acquaintance with the history, philosophy, and politics of modern times was very extensive. He read French and Italian with ease, and was acquainted with most of the best writers in these languages, both in prose and verse. He applied himself sedulously of late to the study of German, and without any assistance but his grammar and dictionary, and his own ardent mind, obtained a very considerable knowledge of that language. In the course of a year he read Puffendorf's Introduction twice over, and almost all Luther's Bible. The Idyls of Gessner, and some other lighter productions of the German Muse, were quite familiar to him. He was well acquainted with the history of the families of the great men in Europe, and especially of the nobility and gentry of this kingdom. Though his habits of life were retired to a fault, yet with a few select friends he was a very hearty and agreeable companion."

While he was assistant in Leith the grammar-school of Kelso became vacant, when he offered himself as a candidate for the situation, and being strongly supported by some of the most eminent teachers of the day, he was very sanguine of success. Mr. Cririe said "In recommending him as a teacher, I think I do the public the most essential service in my power." Mr. Wait certified that "he was very well qualified as an instructor of youth, particularly in communicating the principles of classical literature;" and Professor Dalzel of Edinburgh College wrote, "I think he would make an excellent teacher. He has had considerable experience, from having acted in the capacity of usher to Mr. Wait, at Dumfries, who appears to me to be one of the best masters of a school in this country." He further characterized him as "a very deserving young man." He was doomed, however, to disappointment, a Mr. Taylor being preferred, to whom, with his natural generosity of feeling, though an unsuccessful rival, he offered his congratulations with best wishes for his success. Some few years afterwards the school became once more vacant by the translation of the teacher to Musselburgh, and Mr. Wightman was asked by one in authority, and having a desire to befriend him, to make application again, with a hint that he was almost certain to be appointed. He agreed to consider the proposal, but former defeat had not lost its impression, and he went no further in the matter. His college curriculum was now running to a close, for while he had been engaged in educational pursuits, he had never for a moment taken his eye off the Church. Accordingly, in 1791 he passed his probationary trials before the Presbytery of Edinburgh, and was licensed to preach the Gospel. There were present on the occasion Principal Robertson, Dr. Henry, the historian of Britain, Dr. Erskine, Sir Harry Moncreiff, Dr. Paul, and other members of lesser note. The subject of his Exegesis, or Latin discourse, was, An anima humana sit immortalis? which he delivered from memory, without a single note before him, to the great wonderment of the reverend Court, who declared with reference to the feat, that "they had never so seen it done in Israel!"

After receiving license he had many applications made to him, near and distant, for his "valuable services," even from parties whom he scarcely knew, and whom he certainly never reckoned among his friends. A forenoon, or an afternoon, or a whole day, would be esteemed the greatest favour, with the hint that perhaps something might come out of it, as some influential personage was likely to be present. But, to the reproach of the Church, these "services" were asked, and expected, and received, without fee or reward, as if a poor student, after struggling hard with poverty for eight years, and oftentimes many more, and perhaps paying his last half-guinea as the Presbytery clerk's fee, on becoming a probationer, turned into a sort of clerical chameleon, subsisting solely on air, and the good wishes of those he served for a speedy introduction to some benevolent patron. It was then as now on the licensing of a student, "wherever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together." No doubt, getting license was a great event in the student's career. It was the climax of his efforts in that direction, and henceforth he should be designated by another name. It was to him crossing the Rubicon, and if, with Caesar, on approaching the bank, he felt that "if he did not cross that river he was undone," so like him also, the joy was great when the passage was safely accomplished. In those days the term Probationer had a very significant meaning, much more than now. It implied long years of preaching, travelling, soliciting, and introducing, before the final stage was reached, the presentation to a parish. One of the earliest of these applications for aid was from the Rev. Dr. Hugh Blair, one of the ministers of Edinburgh, and Professor of Belles Lettres in the University. The note was very formal and polite, addressed to "Mr. Wightman, Preacher of the Gospel," stating that "he was suffering from a cold, that his diet was in the afternoon, and that if Mr. Wightman would take it for him it would be a seasonable relief and favour." Of course the request was complied with, and after the service was over the "preacher" was allowed to return to his own lodgings for dinner. "No, no!" was the rebuke we once got from the mistress of a manse, when in our ignorance we confounded terms, "he's nae minister, he's only a preacher."

But though dignified with the title of Probationer, or Preacher, he was still practically nothing else than what he had been before, an instructor of youth, depending entirely for subsistence upon private tuition. His preaching put nothing in his pocket, and as little he thought in the way of promotion in the Church, however complimentary the phrases he received on bidding "Good-bye" to the clerical friend he had been assisting. He was constantly employed in teaching; his abilities as a scholar being so well known that he had more work offered him than he could undertake to perform. He taught in the families of Mr. Henry Mackenzie, of the Exchequer, author of "The Man of
Feeling," Mr. Davidson of Ravelrig, Captain Swinton, Professor John Robertson, Professor Tytler, Dr. Craigie, and others, whose sons were attending the High School or the College. His emoluments were at the rate of five guineas a quarter for two hours a day. He was upwards of two years in the family of Mr. Mackenzie, of whom he always spoke in the kindest of terms, such as "Drank tea with Mr. Mackenzie of the Exchequer, who always makes me happy in his company, and is remarkable for being the great sublime he draws, The “Man of Feeling."

His time being thus fully occupied, he had little leisure for private study, but he rose early and sat late, a course of procedure which began to tell upon his constitution. In December, 1791, he makes this note on the subject "This is a very severe winter of frost, and is compared to the year '40. The thermometer is 14º below the freezing point, my hands are covered with chilblains by rising in the morning at 6 o'clock; but it is difficult to say whether it is better to rise so early or not, for one is not so active during the day on that account. However, it is still doing more like a rational being, than lying till 9 or 10 in the forenoon, as will sometimes happen; and therefore I resolve never to be in bed, if in health, after 6 o'clock, summer and winter, except on some Sundays when I am to preach, as I find my memory is affected by the state of my body, and that it is always most faithful to me when I sleep neither too much nor too little." This resolution he followed out till he was far beyond the allotted boundary of life, threescore and ten.

His lodgings were neither aristocratic, commodious, nor costly. They were first in Candlemaker Row for about a year and a half, but he thought it necessary to change them, and took up his abode in Potter Row, in the house of a tailor, at three shillings per week. The air was freer, and the room larger, than where he was before, and he hoped his health might thereby be maintained, if not improved. It was one of the difficulties that private tutors and probationers had then to struggle with, that of being obliged from circumstances to live in small, confined, and badly ventilated rooms, by which their constitution was enervated and disease engendered, which often terminated in death. He began to be dissatisfied with his position as a mere private teacher, and the more so that there was not the slightest prospect of a church. His divinity study seemed to have been in vain, his time wasted, and his means thrown away. He imagined himself to be a neglected man, not sufficiently appreciated, and doomed to a life of inglorious obscurity.

What he so much dreaded, too assuredly came to pass, notwithstanding the effort he had made to ward it off. He was necessitated to relinquish for a time his avocation of teaching, and to rusticate among his native hills in Galloway, for the benefit of his health. Still, though off duty on what may be called the "sick list," he was by no means idle in so far as preaching was concerned. He frequently officiated in neighbouring parishes, in Newabbey, Lochrutton, Irongray, Terregles, Urr, Colvend, and Dumfries. We find the following entry, under date 1st December, 1792. "Have returned to town after six months' stay in the country, where I was re-establishing my health, which had been much impaired by sitting late, studying too closely, and living too abstemiously. Had a sort of nervous fever, together with an extraordinary dejection of spirits, to which the above causes contributed, with some of those disappointments and marks of ingratitude and neglect to which a life of dependence is subjected. But, by the goodness of God, and the vigorous exercise of my best resolutions to suffer no worldly circumstance to disturb the essentials of my peace, and to expect no more from man than what is consistent with his own advantage or humour, I resolved to repose my trust in Providence, and to render myself independent of the smiles or the favours of fortune. By these resolutions, the air and exercise of the country, and the blessing of God, I have recovered from my fever and my melancholy, and have returned to the theatre of life, my former business of teaching, and preaching sometimes as usual." On returning to town he changed his former mode of living as a lodger, and boarded with a Miss Hunter, in Milne's Court, at the rate of £30 a year. This was in every respect a judicious doing, as he was better fed, better accommodated, and better cared for, so that his health, now re-established, was the more likely to be maintained.

Not long after his return from rustication, he was asked by Dr. Blair to preach and to dine with him afterwards, both of which were done to their mutual satisfaction. After dinner, the conversation assumed a literary character, in which the religious merits of the Romans and the Greeks were freely discussed. The Doctor was greatly pleased with his young friend, and commended him for his success in studying a portion of the history of mankind at once so agreeable and instructive. He advised him to prepare a few good popular sermons on some of the peculiar doctrines of Christianity, such as the Death of Christ, Faith, and similar subjects, which might be suitable for sacramental occasions, or for preaching in vacant parishes. Mr. Wightman left in the evening highly gratified with the whole day's proceedings. A day or two afterwards he called upon Principal Robertson, who had requested him to preach, and he makes the following note of the interview:

"Dec. 26th, 1792. Called on Dr. Robertson, who is now old and infirm, but who yet displays the glories of the setting sun. He is a very gentlemanlike man, of easy manners, obliging and condescending. He has a wonderful stock of local anecdote, and particular information concerning the whole kingdom, the living history, as well as the transactions of past ages, which makes him a very interesting character, and his conversation very agreeable. Dr. Blair and he are two great friends, and cordially interested in each other's welfare. They will likely live to nearly the same age, and die almost together. Indeed, Dr. Blair is already seventy-five, and is more healthy than his aged compeer, though he is at the same time a few years older. Dr. Robertson has had an attack of black jaundice, but is now much better, and out walking every morning before breakfast, in order to protract his useful and respectable life. He says he always preaches himself when he is able, as it is agreeable to perform what one should do. He is happy to see the preachers so willing to give him assistance. He has much less of the monk about him than Dr. Blair sometimes appears to have, as well as less preciseness and pettiness. Both are good men."

Again the old feeling of dissatisfaction with his position as an outdoor tutor came in the ascendant, and he was unwilling to suppress it. Since he received license he had made little addition to his stock of ideas, or improvement in literature, owing to his close attention to teaching, and to the few opportunities afforded him for enlarging his acquaintance with the world, or with books. He had been obliged to trudge from one door to another so many hours a day, and to travel over the beaten tracks of school elementary lessons, except when reading the higher classics with those pupils who attended college, so that the very monotony of his daily life rendered it irksome and even distasteful. Had his aim in life been no higher than a teacher, the matter would have been altogether different; but when he studied and strove for a church, and yet no church appeared, he felt disappointed and chagrined. Not only did he feel his health giving way, by protracting his studies far into the night, on account of the interruptions he met with throughout the day from the desultory nature of his employment, but he found his habits of application considerably relaxed, and a kind of apathy induced, very unfavourable to progress in any branch of learning. When such a day's business as he engaged in was over, one had little disposition to do much by himself, and was often deceived by appearances of having done something when in reality there was almost nothing. It therefore became a question with him whether he would not have been happier with his old father on his farm at home, and enjoying the sweets of social affection with his brother and sisters, where his consequence was felt as a member of society, than he was at present, not only detached from them, but also from the world, though in the midst of the great metropolis, without any prospect of success in the Church, as he was too proud to submit to some of the terms by which advancement in that direction was secured. Still, in the midst of such reveries, he determined to do the best in his power to make his way creditably through the world, never to stoop to a mean or ungenerous action, so as to forego the pleasure arising from a good conscience; to be industrious, prudent, and contented with the condition in which Providence placed his lot. Thus he should be happy independently of the smiles of fortune. The great object of all his studies, kept constantly in view, was that he might be a virtuous man, a good scholar, and a persuasive preacher. In the midst of his ruminations and resolutions, a new phase appeared in his life which put an end to his murmurings against peripatetic tuition.


External Links