Biography and autobiography are, in one sense, similar, yet in another sense they are different. The biographer has no access to his subject's heart and must therefore be careful in that matter. The autobiography, especially the Christian autobiography, is in some sense an outpouring of the heart of ts subject. It is therefore unfair to try to put the two in the same category.
The old 'liberals' and their modern counterparts contend that 'Christianity is life, not doctrine'. We counter that Christianity is a life that springs FROM doctrine. No wonder, then, that Calvinism (which we believe is only a nickname given to Biblical Christianity) has given rise to such TRULY deeper lives. A man who does not suffer in some way and who has only a shallow experience of the goodness of God and his own sin will never have a truly deep Christian life.
As William Taylor notes in his 'Scottish Pulpit', the Scots (especially the lowland Scots) have always had a certain reserve in talking about Christian experience. Yet Scotland has a tradition of Christian autobiography that is extraordinarily rich and full.
As with our last 'books' series, we go in Chronological order. Not all of these books are still in print, but all are worth reading.
1. Memoirs of the Rev. James Fraser, of Brea (1639-1698). Sadly out of print.
This is one of the treasures of the Covenanting period. Fraser of Brea was a genleman by birth, his dates are 1639-1698. In Alexander Whyte's opinion he was "one of the ablest men in a time of able men," (introductory note in 1889 edition). Fraser adhered to Presbyterianism in the period of persecution. His ordination was an illegal act according to the civil law, and he spent several years in prison for preaching the Gospel. Yet this book is, like Augustine's 'Confessions', really an account of God's dealings with its subject. Fraser dwells far more on his own internal struggles than he does about the struggles for liberty in which he was engaged. This is therefore not a book for the superficial 'happy-all-the-day' Christianity popular in some quarters, but it is a book for exercised believers who know that the Christian life is marked by suffering as well as joy. Fraser of Brea improved his afflictions, and he will help us to improve ours. The 19th century reprint of this book was brought about in part by Alexander Whyte of Edinburgh. Of this book Whyte wrote: "Fraser is one of my prime favourites; he stands beside Augustine, Bunyan, Baxter, Edwards, Boston, Shepard and Halyburton, at my elbow."
Our quotation comes from his improvement of his afflictions:
"When the world forsakes, then the Lord takes up; and the world's time of loathing is His time of love. I found shelter in Him when forsaken of all. It is 'in Him the fatherless findeth mercy.' I had no friend but Him, Hosea xiv.8. It is ordinary with the members to be in distress when the body is unwell. Zion the mother was ill now, and in great distress; and no wonder I should have conformity with her. 'Visit me with the gladness of Thy people.' God's way of manifesting His love in trouble is rather by supporting and comforting under trouble, than in delivering out of it." (P. 131)
2. The Memoirs of Thomas Halyburton (1674-1632). Published in Vol. 4 of the Works of Thomas Halyburton (James Begg Society, 2005). £.13.00 (four volume set £45 including postage and packing)James Begg Society
This is one of 'Rabbi' Duncan's three great Christian autobiographies, ranked by him with Augustine and Bunyan. As the quote above shows, Alexander Whyte shared his opinion of the book. Our review of the four-volume set can be found here
. Everything we said then we would repeat. This is a precious volume that has done great good and will keep on doing great good so long as it is read. Halyburton went through deep waters fighting against unbelief in his own soul (and thus was able to fight against it in the Church more effectively).
"Though we may sometimes heal our own wound slightly, yet it is God's prerogative to speak solid peace; yea, and the speaking of it is a work of the greatest power, where the conscience is really exercised: it is a creating peace, and where He creates it, He can make it take effect: 'When He giveth quietness, who can make trouble? and when He hideth His face, who can behold Him? Whether it be done against a nation, or against a man only,' Job 34.29." (P. 129)
3. Memoirs of Thomas Boston (1676-1732) (Banner of Truth Trust) £.11.95 from Free Presbyterian Bookroom
Alexander Whyte called the republication of Boston's Memoirs in 1899 "an event of national importance." It is indeed, as Whyte says, "a book to be always at hand." The early eighteenth century was a time of great declension in the church, and a period in which God raised up men to bear the faith through and to prepare the harvest field for the evangelists of the latter part of the century. Thomas Boston was a Scottish parish minister and one of Scotland's great theologians. The 'Memoirs' show why he was a great theologian - he had a great view of God's glory and his own sinfulness, and he was a man of great exercises.
Our quotation comes from his account of his period of seeking the Lord before he was converted:
"To bind myself to dilligence in seeking the Lird, and to stir me up thereto, I made a vow to pray so many times a day: how many times , I cannot be positive; but it was at least thrice. It was the goodness of God to me, that it was made only for a certain definite space of time; but I found it so far from being a help, that it was really a hinderance to me devotion, making me more heartless in, and averse to, duty, through the corruption of my nature. I got the time of it driven out accordingly: but I never durst make another of that nature since, nor so bind up myself, where God had left me at liberty. And it hath been some good use to me, in the course of my after life."
God willing, we shall continue this series next time.