speaking to the question

In the search for Question Meeting-related anecdotes, of which the oral history of vast swathes of Highland Christianity contains many, I’ve turned up a couple of contenders from Principal John Macleod’s By-paths of Highland Church History, published I think in the 1960s.

One involves a Francis Macbean, who came from Lochaber, but was present at a communion in Stornoway in 1825 or 1826, when, according to Principal Macleod, the island of Lewis saw its first Question Meeting. Also there was John Macrae (Macrath Mor), then working in Uig. The story goes:

“The words on which the Question was based were, ‘The hope of the hypocrite shall perish.’ The brethren were asked to distinguish between the hope of the hypocrite and the hope of the child of God. In opening the Question Mr Macbean handled the hypocrite and his hope, while in closing it Mr Macrae took up the hope of the believer. One of their youthful hearers used to tell in his old age that in opening the question Mr Macbean said: ‘When the hypocrite is in a company and hears something that pleases them, he says to himself, “I’ll put that in my pocket,” and when he hears the next thing that pleases them he will say again, “I’ll put that, too, in my pocket, and when I shall myself be called to take part in a service, I’ll take these fine things out of my pocket, and the people will say, ‘Isn’t that the godly man?'”‘”

The ‘question’ was always based on some text of Scripture which highlighted the difference between the converted and the unconverted, and ‘opening’ and ‘closing’ the question was done by a minister – not ministers but men actually ‘speak’ to the question. Apparently the opening of the question is technically a matter of briefly putting the chosen text in context rather than doing the job of the speakers by drawing any of the distinctions that the question is intended to elicit – but often it would seem that this isn’t adhered to very closely, and Mr Macbean here seems to have said something that would have been at least as appropriate coming from one of the people speaking to the question.

Anyway the anecdote itself illustrates the horror that the old Highlanders had of insincerity in religion – they were unsparing of it, whether they detected it in other people or themselves. (They recognised, in fact, that while there is a categorical distinction between ‘the hypocrite’ and ‘the child of God,’ even the true child of God could indulge in hypocrisy, and vast amounts of energy must have been spent on self-examination of an intense and probing nature that is arguably very alien to contemporary evangelicalism; but that’s just by the by.)


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