I am reading the biography of Principal James Morison, who was a celebrated character in nineteenth century Scottish theology. Brought up within a Calvinistic denomination, he rejected several of its doctrines. Later he was charged with heresy and founded a new denomination as a consequence. Below are some thoughts that come to mind as I make my way through his book.
James Morison is not a well-known figure in Scottish theology today, but for most of the nineteenth century he was a very influential figure because of his theological ideas and his denominational initiatives. If he is known today, it is because several of his commentaries have been reprinted, although it is likely that most who purchase them have little idea as to who he was.
Morison was born in Bathgate in where his father was the minister of the United Secession Church, the body that traced its origins to the secession from the Church of Scotland led by Ebenezer Erskine. When he finished his schooling, he went to Edinburgh University where he proved himself to be a fine student, although as was common in those days he engaged in far too much studying and brought ill health upon himself.
There is no doubt that Morison possessed great intellectual ability, a fact acknowledged both by his University and his theological teachers. The United Secession Church’s faculty included men like George Lawson (author of The History of Joseph), Robert Balmer and John Brown (author of commentaries on Romans, Galatians, Hebrews and Peter, as well as books on Isaiah 53 and much else); the latter two were later to be accused in church courts of believing in an universal atonement, an issue for which Morison himself came into trouble.
During his theological college days, Morison wrote a paper in which he denied the eternal sonship of Christ (while maintaining his deity), and the author of this biography gives evidence that George Lawson approved of this idea. It is surprising how a theological student was licensed in a Scottish Presbyterian denomination after defending such a notion, yet Morison was. But perhaps it is not surprising if Lawson and others were willing to defend him.
Morison was sent to Morayshire, on the verge of the Highlands, to act as a missionary for the summer. During his few weeks in this locality he became convinced of the universal nature of the atonement and stressed it in his preaching, even although he knew it was not in line with the Westminster Confession. He preached a universal atonement and great crowds flocked to hear him, although he was still only a novice in preaching. It may be that Morison’s preaching in this part of the world prepared for the ultimate disappearance of evangelical Presbyterianism in that area because a couple of decades later several Free Church leaders left the denomination, embraced universal atonement, and formed Plymouth Brethren assemblies.
Morison was driven to clarify the extent of the atonement because he noted that his listeners were troubled by lack of assurance, and his preaching a universal atonement seemed to sort out this pastoral matter. Of course, the issue of assurance cannot really be sorted out by convincing a person that Jesus has died for him because he died for everyone. The only ‘assurance’ that deals with is the concern of someone who is troubled as to whether or not Christ died for him. It does not deal with lack of assurance that is based on whether a sinner has true faith in Christ, or whether he possesses a merely temporary faith.
At that time in the late 1830s, revival fires were stirring in various parts of Scotland and Morison wondered if the growth he experienced in those listening to his preaching was part of this revival. The book that he chose to help him was Charles Finney’s Lectures on Revivals, and he heartily approved of Finney’s methods, recommending them to his father, the minister in Bathgate. So before he has become a pastor, Morison has adopted several theological views that were at variance with Scottish Presbyterian doctrine and practice up till that time: (a) he denied the eternal sonship of Jesus, (b) he stressed that the atonement of Christ was not for specific individuals but was for all people, and (c) he advocated evangelistic methods that had caused spiritual confusion in America in the Second Great Awakening through the methods of Charles Finney.