Roderick Lawson of Maybole - A remarkable Victorian minister
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Ayrshire Collections  Volume Twelve  Number Two

Roderick Lawson of Maybole

 A remarkable Victorian minister.

Hugh Douglas 


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Biography (below)     Extracts from writings     |   List of Published Writings 

The Reverend Roderick Lawson was parish minister in Maybole from 1863 - 1897: 34 years during which he encouraged, guided and lectured the whole community towards a fuller and better life. More important to us, all his life he suffered from what he called 'an itch for scribbling '- an itch which resulted in a series of pamphlets and books, many on local history, and Monthly Letters which build up into remarkable picture of a community during the latter half of the 19th century.

        Lawson's kirk stands in the south east corner of the town where Whitehall falls away into the Coral Glen, and church and manse are perched on a steep, woody slope on the edge of the country. It is as often known as the Glen Kirk as by its proper name of West Parish Church, and the old minister himself would have approved of the name, for he never really believed in boundaries - parochial or denominational. 'If good is done to anybody,' he once declared, 'I care not what church they belong to, or whether they belong to a church at all.' He went further: from the evangelist Moody he learnt that Christianity was not 'a mere offering of goods for sale, but persuading people to buy them.' Thereafter, he spent the whole of his life persuading the community to 'buy' a better life.

        Roderick Lawson was born at Girvan on March 15th, 1831, the son of a ropespinner. He believed he was born in house in Henrietta Street, but his parents moved soon afterwards to No. 119 Dalrymple Street and it was there that he spent his childhood. There was little money to spare, so he had to augment a simple parish school education by devouring everything readable in the Mechanics' Institute Library, by listening to articulate working men, and by debating issues in the Argumental Society. The combination turned him into confident young man, sure of his opinions, able to write well, and with an ambition to help others.

        Scotland was short of teachers in the late 1840's, so the Church of Scotland's Education Committee offered 20-a-year bursaries and a free training to young men who would become teachers under their auspices. Lawson applied for one of these bursaries, and was accepted as a student at Glasgow Normal School. In due course he passed out top of his class.

        He became a teacher at Bainsford, near Falkirk, and later at Blantyre, and it was during these years that he first turned to writing. He had no grammar or geography textbooks for his pupils so he sat down and wrote them. He loved teaching and many years later admitted that his years as a teacher were the happiest he ever knew.

        The Rector of Glasgow Normal School encouraged him to leave teaching for the ministry and, with that in view, Lawson matriculated at Glasgow University in the early 1850's. His name appears on the Latin class lists for 1853/54 and the Logic class lists for the following session but, although the General Council Register states that he "did four sessions," there is no record of his having graduated. In 1857 he moved to Edinburgh to study Divinity.

        By this time he had too deep a knowledge of worldly things to be a mystic or a scholar immersed in deep theological works. 'As to books,' he wrote, 'I learned my theology chiefly from The Pilgrim's Progress, and nourished my soul on such works as John Howie's Scots Worthies and Thomas A Kempis's Imitation of God. But perhaps I owe most of all to Thomas Carlyle, who, in my student days, kindled a fire of moral enthusiasm in my heart, and taught me to live above conventionalisms.'

        A lifetime in the Kirk didn't change that view: one of the last things he told his parishioners was, 'I have no objection to the man of doctrine, or the ecclesiastical man, or the mystic. These follow their bent, and I follow mine. But my disposition lies towards the practical. I like something to do. And one reason why I prefer this is that it unites me to all good men. Other kinds of minds dwell on points of difference: mine dwells on points of agreement.'

        This unconventional approach is reflected in the comments of the divines of Edinburgh Presbytery who heard his trial discourse at the completion of his studies. Dr John Paul of St. Cuthbert's took exception to Lawson's use of the word 'jocund' in the pulpit, and Dr Maxwell Nicholson of the Tron Kirk gave it as his opinion that the sermon was calculated to do no good whatsoever. Dr Robert Wallace of Trinity College Church, later a good friend to Lawson, saved the day by saying that he supposed what would please the Presbytery might not please the people and vice versa. It was an inauspicious start to his ministry.

        As a student Lawson had been inspired by the great Dr Norman Macleod, and he accepted an invitation to become one of Macleods missionaries. However, Macleod's cousin, the Rev. John Macleod, minister of Newton-on-Ayr, recognised the young minister's quality, too, and asked for him to be released to become his assistant. So Roderick Lawson went to Newton-on-Ayr as assistant minister in 1861. The work at Newton-on-Ayr was arduous and varied, On: average he preached once a week in the church, superintended the Sabbath School, presided over the literary society, lectured occasionally, held kitchen prayer meetings and visited the sick.

        At first he memorised his sermons, and delivered them with diffidence until the Newton minister told him You are far too apologetic Drive at them and never heed apologies! Lawson abandoned his carefully worked out notes and 'drove at them,' evolving his own style, which was to preach from a topic rather than from a text. Roderick Lawson, the lecturer, was finding his own way.

        At Newton-on-Ayr Lawson developed that love for working with children which had helped him as a teacher and which was never to leave him. He contributed an article, How to teach a Sabbath class to the Edinburgh Sabbath School Teachers' Magazine, and he began to write for The Dayspring, a children's magazine, published by J. and R. Parlane of Paisley. Thus in that first year of Roderick Lawson's ministry the pattern was set for his life's work in Maybole.

        At the beginning of 1863 the West Kirk at Maybole, still under the patronage of the Fergussons of Kilkerran, fell vacant, and Sir James Fergusson gave it to the young assistant at Newton-on-Ayr. Lawson was delighted to return to his beloved Carrick, where he was to spend the 34 remaining years of his ministry.

        Dr Wallace from Edinburgh came to the West Parish Church on Thursday, 14th April, 1863, when Lawson was inducted as Parish minister, and at the dinner which Sir James Fergusson gave in the Buck's Head following the ceremony, and in church the following Sunday he spoke highly of the new minister. The luke-warm comments of the trial discourse in Edinburgh were forgotten as he told the congregation 'I am confident that you will find in him a gift of preaching above the usual standard.'

        Although Lawson's first Sunday in Maybole was a pouring wet day crowds came from Ayr, Girvan and the neighbouring parishes to swell the congregation which heard him preach. Unconventional as always, he did not set out his aims and beg his parishioners' help in achieving them. He drove at them from the text, 'Ye are the light of the world,' and made it clear that he expected their lights to shine brightly in Maybole. 'It is true that other congregations will raise far more money for Missions and send forth much more intelligent labourers to the Sabbath School and Prayer Meeting Still all these defects even were they ten times greater will not annihilate the duty which lies upon us to do what we can.' 'Do what we can.' That was his own philosophy, and it was what he expected of others.

        Maybole badly needed Roderick Lawson. In 1863 the town was empty and in decay. Its handloom weaving was all but dead and the shoe trade was only beginning. The poor were in desperate straits and moral values were low. Maybole needed someone who cared about its physical and spiritual welfare, and Lawson was just such a man.

        The Kirk Session's new minute book, begun on 1st June following his appointment, reveals the magnitude of his spiritual task. James Connoway, Robert Cran, Mary Fisher and Margaret Mcllwain all confessed the sin of fornication before the Session, and the minister, 'after a serious rebuke and solomn admonition, did, in the name of the Session, absolve them from the Scandal of their sin, and restore them to the privileges of the Church.' A week later four more sinners confessed, in July another five, and in August Hugh Gray and Mary Thornton confessed the sin a second time and Thomas Malcolm and Mary McCaush a third time. And so it went on month by month.

        It saddened the new minister also to discover that the old Scottish practice of marriage by simple vow without blessing of the Kirk was common in the town, and he tried to seek out such couples and persuade them to go through a marriage ceremony before him. As a result he was able to boast that he had married half of Maybole. He had to admit defeat when he asked one old woman to bring her husband to the Kirk and be' married,' only to be told, ' Na, na, I'd raither get rid o' him.'

        Lawson made his patron and parishioners work for the Kirk. In 1871, with the aid of the farmers, the paths leading to the Church and manse were relaid with gravel, and the following year he paid 6 out of his own pocket towards the painting of the kirk seats and putting up a lamp at the church door. Sir James Fergusson also contributed 6 towards the 32 l0s. needed for the work. By 1873 the whole of the church had been cleaned and painted and new joists inserted in the roof.

        The pattern of Lawson's ministry was very much the same as that which he had established at Newton on-Ayr He preached, held kitchen prayer meetings all over the town, lectured and toured the country accompanied by his faithful little terrier, visiting, baptising, marrying and comforting the dying and the bereaved. He preferred to baptise or marry parishioners in their own homes, although this could lead to problems, as when he arrived once to find an elderly bride-groom so drunk he couldn't stand. Relatives begged the minister not to disgrace them by calling off the wedding, one of them pleading, 'The old man's only drunk in his legs.' Another time the wedding ceremony was in progress in a cothouse when the senior cat of the house without warning leapt on to the minister's dog and sank its claws into the terrified animal's back. The wedding had to be halted while the animals were separated and thrown outside to continue their quarrel.

        Although he never married and had no family of his own, Roderick Lawson was deeply devoted to children. He insisted on taking the last half hour of the Sunday School himself and used surprisingly modern methods, including visual aids. He talked to the children in their own language, with their own images. Ca' canny, but ca' awa' was his subject one week. Ca' canny an' you'll no' coup he told them another, and once he exhorted, Ca' your girr in life just as you do in the street on weekdays.

        In Summer he encouraged the pupils to bring posies of wild flowers for the best of which he gave prizes. The flowers then became the subject of a Sunday School address and a children's talk, and it was one of these lectures, Our Common Wild Flowers, which was Lawson's first Maybole lecture to be published in 1883.

        For the children he produced question and answer booklets, or catechisms, on various subjects - Scripture knowledge, Bible antiquities, the Christian life, the Lord's Supper, Good Manners for Boys and Girls and the Shorter Catechism.

        The Shorter Catechism was a cornerstone of learning for every child in the Church of Scotland in those days, but the name 'shorter' was misleading. 'Although ostensibly only for those who are of weaker capacity,' Lawson wrote, 'the Shorter Catechism has always been found in practice to be a hard book to beginners.' So he was delighted to accept an invitation from Macniven and Cameron, an Edinburgh publisher, to produce a version with commentary and Scripture proofs.

        It sold by the hundred thousand. He estimated that in the first few years of its life his Catechism sold a quarter of a million copies-and it is still alive today When Macniven and Cameron ceased publishing Lawson's Catechism some 40 years ago the Free Church of Scotland took it over and it is still in print selling about 1,500 copies a year throughout the English speaking world where evangelical Presbyterianism is practised. The Rev. Professor G. N. M. Collins, of the Free Church praises it as masterly and with clear definitions.

        Evangelism appealed to Lawson so he took up the cause enthusiastically when a great religious revival swept Scotland in 1874. Lawson led the movement in the town, which a preacher, John Anderson, said was as deeply stirred as any place in Ayrshire. On a single Sunday, Anderson had to address 10 meetings in Maybole. Lawson, with statesmanship, involved the other Maybole ministers in the movement which, he pointed out, 'not only swelled the numbers but disarmed the opposition.' A great conference was held in the barn of Littleton farm at Girvan, when Patrick Riddel, a Border wrestler turned evangelist, spoke, and a publication called The Maybole Evangelist was started up. Like the movement. however, The Maybole Evangelist was short lived, and no copy has been traced today.

        The temperance and anti-tobacco causes were as close to Roderick Lawson's heart as evangelism and he lectured and crusaded against both with very mixed results. Always he used the written word to back the spoken word, and his illustrated temperance tracts sold for years at 10s. 4d. per 100. The titles were lurid - The Water Cure, Temperance Shot, The British Sirens "Whose feet go down to death," A Word of Cheer to all Well Wishers of the Temperance Cause and The Great British Drink Trap into which many fall and out of which few Escape.

        In his first sermon in Maybole Lawson talked of each man's duty to do what he can, and he lived up to it, turning his hand to whatever needed to be done within his Kirk or outside it. In his autobiography he wrote, 'I have sung, recited, lectured and edited, as well as acted the part of Showman, Writing-master, Historian, Poet, Musician and General Improver.' General Improver: what a happy description for the man who undertook so many things for his town.

        When he arrived in Maybole he was disturbed to discover that about half of the people who came to him to be married were unable to sign their name, so he started Monday evening writing classes at Whitehall School. Soon he had 100 pupils, and by the end of the session many of them could write a letter fairly well. It gave him great happiness to receive letters from these people later.

        To help these same people to save he instituted a penny savings bank Soon it was being used by the whole town and was receiving between 20 and 30 every week By 1887 the bank held 1,140 of Minibolers' money. Not all of his efforts succeeded, and it disappointed him that his temperance efforts never brought the results he had hoped for. Strangely, for one who was so close to youth and the working man, his two other failures were in trying to establish a Boys' Brigade and a working men's club. The latter began with a flourish and soon had 323 members but numbers quickly fell off. Although concerts and lectures organised by Lawson paid for two rooms in which members could meet and for periodicals for them to read, the furniture and piano eventually had to be sold off to pay the club's debts.

        Failure did not deter Lawson: it spurred him on to new efforts. When Maybole's best known fresh water spring, the Wee Spout in the Glen, fell into decay, he raised 32 to repair it and put over it the motto: Ye may gang farther and fare waur. That was the start: from then on he lectured, preached and penned pamphlets to save the crumbling ruins of Crossraguel Abbey, to commemorate the great Reformation debate between John Knox and Abbot Quintin Kennedy, and to pepper the district with more than 50 wayside seats. And when money ran short in the summer of 1892 he painted 24 of these benches himself.

        Occasionally, Lawson the minister was overwhelmed by Lawson the showman. Ayrshire was Covenanting country, famed for the Coventicles of the 17th century, and the minister held his own latter-day coventicles on summer Sundays throughout the parish - at Crossraguel, Kildoon, and the old Kirkyard. Hundreds flocked to hear his popular sermons, and Lawson seized the opportunity to take up a special collection for his 'improvements,' not all of which earned Maybole's approval. The townspeople have not forgiven him for persuading the Council to change old street names like Dangartland, New Yards and Kildup to more refined Drummellan Street, Cassillis Road and Welltrees Street.

        As he walked the district, his terrier at his heels, the minister talked, listened, collected ballads and gathered more lore about Carrick than any man had ever done before. It all went into his lectures, pamphlets and, when he came to expand these into little books, into them too. Then he extended his travels to take in all of the Covenanting country the Burns country, Arran, the Highlands, then parts of England, Europe, and even India.

        He often took off his clerical collar on these jaunts and sat round the table with other travellers telling stories. When they asked what he did he told them he was in the 'spirit line.' To his parishioners, most of whom had scarcely strayed over their own parish boundary, it must have seemed as if Roderick Lawson had done everything. He visited the Great Exhibition in London in 1851 (and saw the Queen), he spent a season preaching to the fisherfolk at Lerwick, he sang Rock of Ages as he watched the sunrise over the Taj Mahal, and he preached to thousands in a Culcutta square. He also boasted that he once preached in a lunatic asylum to a very attentive audience.

        Lawson shared his experiences ungrudgingly with Maybole, and devoted the proceeds to his pet projects in the town. Saturday evening penny readings, begun in the Whitehall School, soon had to transfer to the large hall of Alexander Jack's agricultural implement works, and even that was filled to capacity.

        No detail was small enough to be missed, and one can imagine puzzlement on the bland Maybole faces as he described his voyage to India in the liner Golconda in 1888. There are no night-shirts worn on board,' he said, 'but instead, a loose jacket and trousers, called pyjamahs, in which gentlemen passengers are allowed to walk about till breakfast time.' He didn't say whether he walked the deck in pyjamahs or not, and nobody dared ask, but he certainly must have set many minds wondering.

        He also had the knack of reducing things to terms which his local listeners or readers might easily understand. Flying fish he wrote, were about the size of herrings. 'Their flight resembles the semi-circular jerks of a wagtail, although when startled by the ship being close at hand, it resembles a stone skipping on the surface of the water.'

        Writing of the Taj Mahal, he said, 'It is the great sight of Agra, and everybody goes to visit it, as strangers flock to visit Burns' Monument from Ayr. Secunderabad he found not unlike the gardens at Kilkerran.

        James Parlane, the Paisley publisher who had printed some of Lawson's writings in The Dayspring, heard about the minister's lectures and offered to publish his children's talk on wild flowers as a pamphlet in 1883. The same year he persuaded Lawson to expand another of his talks into a small book, and the result was Crossraguel Abbey. From then on a book followed every year until the end of the century.

        Subjects varied - Sacred Places of Scotland, Famous Places of England, Glimpses of Norway, What I saw in India, Places of Interest About Maybole. The Covenanters of Ayrshire (his own favourite), Ailsa Craig (my favourite), and so on and on . They were not enduring literature, and he said so himself, but the novelist S. R. Crockett spoke highly of them and greeted Capital of Carrick as 'capital and Carrickteristic.' Above all, however, Lawson's local books preserved the history and legends of Carrick.

        His talks were often illustrated with songs and these were published with music, often arranged for part-singing, because Roderick Lawson believed in involving as many members of the community as he could in his activities. Subjects of the talks varied and those published included The Homes and Haunts of Burns, National Anthems of the World. The Ballads and Songs of Carrick, and The Romance of Missions.

        In the late 1870's it became the fashion for ministers to publish local supplements to Life and Work, the Church of Scotland magazine, but this idea did not satisfy Roderick Lawson because the supplement would be seen only by the small percentages of the congregation who subscribed to Life and Work. Instead he decided to circulate a monthly letter addressed to all members and adherents of the church. Thus in April 1880 began the West Parish Church Monthly Letter.

        In the first issue he wrote, 'In this Letter I shall speak of matters belonging more especially to the congregation. It is intended as a medium of friendly intercourse between us, and will treat such topics as I might naturally take up if I were actually writing to you with pen and ink.'

        The Monthly Letter was never a parish magazine. Neither was it a letter, nor confined to the Glen Kirk. It gradually expanded into a kind of local magazine giving news of the Church, exhortations to a more Godly life, and of course a wide range of news of Maybole and exiled Minibolers as well as Lawson's own traveller's tales and local history, which he could not resist.

        Distributed by willing Sabbath school teachers and elders, its circulation rose to 1,600: 1,100 copies among the town's 4,400 inhabitants, and 500 posted all over the world. It was financed entirely by voluntary subscription and, although the minister was never out of pocket it did grieve him that distant readers were far more generous than local folk.

        Needless to say he missed no opportunity to remind fellow townsmen of their failings - although he didn't labour these - and sometimes this brought letters of abuse and (on one occasion) a threat of legal action.

        He was generous towards backsliders, though, and once said, 'To my mind there are only two kinds of folk in the world - the good and the bad - and I have a kindly heart towards both of them.' He proved this by devoting a whole page of one Monthly Letter to a generous obituary of John Flynn, a local man who had died soon after being released from jail for the 104th time.

        In 1887 he erected, at his own expense, a memorial stone over the grave of Johnnie Stuffie, a simple eccentric of the town during Lawson's youth. Then he suggested in the Monthly Letter that those who had teased Johnnie in life might make some atonement by contributing to 'improvements' to the town. Lawson's poem on Johnnie does not reveal the minister as much of a poet, but then he never did claim to do things well - in his view it was more important to attempt than to succeed.

A queer wee man, wi' a simple air,
Was Johnnie Stuffie.
Weel-kenn'd alike by rich and puir
Was Johnnie Stuffie. 
The water-carrier o' the town,
The messenger to a' aroun',
An' the butt o' every idle loon,
Was Johnnie Stuffie.
Nae common bonnet crown'd the held

0' Johnnie Stuffie,
But an auld lum-hat was there instead
On Johnnie Stuffie;
A lang great-coat, ance thocht genteel,
Ay wrapped him roun' frae neck to heel,
 Which only did the feet reveal
0' Johnnie Stuffie.

        For 17 years the Monthly Letter continued to appear regularly, reporting Lawson's travels, his work and comments on all of his activities. He sharpened his pen to fight the dragons of authority when they pleaded that the town had no money to replace the old town bell which had rung curfew every night for two centuries. Lawson fought the Council decision and eventually raised the money himself to buy a new bell, which was known for years as 'Mr Lawson's bell,' and which rang the curfew each night until the outbreak of the Second World War. He used the same pen to charm townsfolk into adding to the hundred books he had given to start a library for the Poor House.

        When he attended the General Assembly his report was not altogether approving, but he did have the grace to admit when he was bested at one of the Lord High Commissioner's levees at Holyroodhouse. Smarting from the tact that one of the temperance breakfasts he attended generated 'little heat or light,' Lawson looked on at the pageantry of the levee sourly. At last he commented to a lady beside him, 'these are the pomps and vanities of this wicked world.' She smiled sweetly. 'Yes, and aren't they very nice.' For once the old minister was left without an answer.

        Another month he wrote with timeless accuracy on the modern woman. 'I may honestly say that I like all kinds of women, except two,' he told his readers. 'And those two are the New woman and the Old woman. The New woman according to my description of her, is a woman trying to be a man; while the Old woman is, for the most part, a man trying to be a woman. And for neither of these personages have I much sympathy or respect.'

        His description of the New woman might have been written yesterday. 'The New woman is a female human being who smokes cigarettes, wears tailor-made clothes, uses vehement language, and insists on her rights everywhere.' The Old woman was 'narrow, censorious and desperately afraid of what the public will say. She is good enough in her way, but it is a very small way.'

        The great appeal of the Monthly Letter was its blend of information, local gossip and glances at the district and the wider world through the sharp eyes of the minister. Lawson was under no illusion that he was writing fine prose in either the Monthly Letter or in his books. He was dealing with facts and opinions which were clay to be remoulded and recast time and again to suit his purpose. Dayspring pieces found their way into book form in Sacred Places of Scotland, Famous Places of Scotland and Glimpses of Norway. Then a piece in the Monthly Letter went unchanged into Maybole and Its Historical Associations: from there into Maybole, Past and Present and then into The Capital of Carrick. Changes were made here and there and some stories disappeared for various reasons, but most survived unchanged.

        His writing was for the moment, not for future generations. He once said, 'Some writer has noted that fact that nobody's books except those of geniuses, are either bought or read after their death. But this fact does not in the least distress me. My writings are not meant to be immortal. If they are useful in any degree to the people among whom I have lived I shall be glad; if not. I shall not be too disappointed. A man is not bound to achieve success in this world; he is only bound to aim at it.'

        The Monthly Letter's success must have been gratifying, but time was passing and Lawson began to find it harder to produce it month by month. By the end of 1895 he was wearying and announced that the Monthly Letter was to be discontinued. His readers begged him to reconsider, and the Letter went on without a break. But the minister, now 65, spent much of the year 1896 travelling in search of better health - to the Channel Islands, to France and to Perthshire, which he declared 'a beautiful county, perhaps next after Ayrshire.'

        When rest did not restore his health or vigour he announced his decision to retire at the end of 1897 on the grounds that he could no longer sustain the high standard of his ministry and he feared that to stay might damage the work he had already done. On 14th November he preached his last sermon, and at a great reception in Maybole Town Hall the following day the townsfolk took farewell of him. They presented him with 250 sovereigns, a sum which he accepted with some embarrassment because he knew it was made up of shillings and coppers they could ill afford but had given willingly.

        As in everything else, Roderick Lawson had strong views on retirement, and had explained these in the Monthly Letter years before. Now he repeated them. He would not accept an allowance from the Aged Ministers' Fund and he was determined not to be a financial burden on his successor.

        'I have never during the thirty-four years of my ministry, omitted a chance of preaching on a Sunday wherever I might be, and I mean to continue this practice,' he said, and put forward a plan that he should offer his services to country parishes in the hope that a fresh mind and a fresh voice might stir up their interests a little.'

        He moved to Port Bannatyne and continued to write as busily as ever, but returned to Ayr and settled in Ashgrove Street just after the turn of the century. His health failed rapidly and several shocks left him partially paralysed. He died on Monday, 26th February, 1907, and was buried in Maybole with what amounted to a civic funeral during which Mr Lawson's bell' tolled as a reminder of the debt the townspeople owed to him.

        In his will Roderick Lawson remembered the causes dearest to his heart - 400 to the poor of Maybole for their annual outing, 200 to the West Church Sabbath School and 200 for the upkeep of his wayside seats. Today he is commemorated in the town by a Street name, and a tablet in the West Church records that he was 'a man imbued with the enthusiasm of usefulness who preached the love of God.'

        The words are those of one of his missionary friends in India, and they are an accurate summing-up of the man who said at the end of his career, 'No matter where I began, I could not think of ending there. If I began with preaching, I must go on to doing. If I began with lecturing, I must go on to writing books. If I began with the West Church congregation, I must go on to include the whole town.'

        Roderick Lawson began in Maybole in 1863: he went on as an influence in the town and beyond it long after his ministry was over.


Extracts from writings

List of Published Writings


West Parish Church