Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Who was Thomas Nelson? II.

We have seen that young Thomas Nelson, at the age of sixteen, gave up an ambition to go to the Indies to make his fortune when he reflected that there he would be isolated from Christian fellowship and the means of grace. For by this time he was apparently a converted man, and the instrument of that conversion was his own minister, Rev. John McMillan of the Craigs Reformed Presbyterian church, Stirling. McMillan was one of the old Reformed Presbyterian ministers, a deeply learned and evangelical man. He was not only a pastor, he was a professor of theology, for the Reformed Presbyterian church had its own Theological Hall, and that met in Stirling under Professor McMillan.

While no doubt Thomas Nelson's mother was glad that her son had not gone to sea, there was then the pressing question of what his occupation should be. He found a job in a distillery at Craigend, but that work was, for various reasons, distasteful to him. Not only was the product of his labours a liquor that was widely abused, the distillery wanted him to work on the Lord's Day. He resigned and tried to get a job in a pottery, but that was not to be. Once again, then, he planned to leave the family home at Throsk, and the little Kirk in the Craigs, but this time his destination was London. There he hoped to find work, but like many another young man of his age, he found work more difficult to get in lindon than he had imagined. At last he found his resources worn out, and he adopted the desperate measure of approaching likely-looking gentlemen on the street to ask if they knew of a vacancy for a clean-living Scots lad. Finally he heard of a vacancy in a publishers' office at Paternoster Row, then the centre of London's book trade. He applied and was given the post. We assume that it is this, Thomas Nelson's entry into the book trade, that is memorialized by the slogan 'Since 1798' on the website of Thomas Nelson Ltd. today.

Thomas Nelson had always loved books, especially religious books, and the work was one that he enjoyed. He worked hard, and by industry and care, he was able to save some money and decided to lodge it in the Bank of England for safe-keeping. It was this that led to his change of name. Until this point, though pronounced 'Nelson', the young man had spelled his name 'Neilson'. The Bank of England, however, had his name down as it was pronounced, so that when he came to make a withdrawal his cheque was refused because he spelled his name Neilson. Thus he had to change the spelling of his name to obtain his own savings! In later life he would joke that he and Admiral Nelson had one thing in common - they had both lost an 'i' in the service of their country.

Thomas Nelson did not drift away from God in the metropolis of England. He sought out other REformed Presbyterian immigrants and they established a prayer-meeting, unwilling to attend on the Church of England or on any other church that had compromised the principles of the Covenanted Reformation. Nelson kept in touch with Mr. McMillan in Stirling, and he wrote requesting a ministerial supply to what was effectively a Reformed Presbyterian congregation in London. The Reformed Presbyterian Church agreed, and Rev. James Reid was sent to London for five Lord's Days in 1805 to supply ordinances and preaching to the little society.

In 1808 Thomas Nelson, having obtained a licence for a publishing house of his own, returned to Scotland, making his headquarters in Edinburgh. In July of that year he returned to Throsk, and to the simple meeting-house in the Craigs. In that month he was admitted a full communicant member, and sat down with his fellow Cameronians to the Lord's Supper administered in the open air in the Well Green, Stirling. In 1809 he was admitted to membership in the Edinburgh congregation of the Reformed Presbyterian Church. The publisher and bookseller was chosen as an elder of his church in 1811, and until his death in 1861 he was extremely active in the service of his congregation. As Precentor, Treasurer and Elder, he was known in the congregation, and on more than one occasion he was elected as a Representative Elder to the Presbytery and Synod of the denomination.

The house on the modern Thomas Nelson logo is the old house at the West Bow of Edinburgh in which Thomas Nelson set up his second-hand bookshop at first. A true Christian businessman, he was always fair and just in his pricing policy and soon became popular with university students, who knew that the Cameronian bookseller would never cheat them. As business grew, Nelson was able to begin to publish for himself. At first he reprinted books, including such essentials as the Works of Josephus, Paley, Leighton and William Romaine. His pricing policy, however, made booksellers wary of him at first - the books were so cheap that the booksellers refused to touch them! Instead Nelson's publications were sold at auction in fairs around Scotland! Obviously Nelson was more determined to circulate good religious literature cheaply than other booksellers were!

He obtained the venerable old Palace of Mary of Guise as a publishing works, and until 1843 this was the establishment of Thomas Nelson and Son. With the volume of publications growing, he moved the printing side of the business to a purpose-built printing-works in Hope Park, which stood until its destruction by fire in 1878. It was replaced by a new works at Parkside, which is illustrated on the cover of a book about the company from the Flashbacks series.

Thomas Nelson was a godly man who was deeply concerned for the welfare of his workers. He died as he had lived, a Reformed Presbyterian of the old school. When he was told by his doctor that he was dying, he took up his Bible and said, "Now I must finish my chapter."

Such a man was Thomas Nelson, a man of God who laboured to put the best of Christian literature into the hands of the common man. Let all Christian publishers note him and seek to follow his example.

Classic works issued by Thomas Nelson and Son during Thomas Nelson's lifetime include the Works of Thomas Scott of Aston Sandford, William Arnot's Laws from Heaven for Life on Earth, and a series of Works of the Puritan Divines..

[The source of this information is the official history of what was then Craigs Free Church, Stirling, D.D. Ormond, A Kirk and a College in the Craigs of Stirling (Stirling, 1897), Pp.79-89. Ormond was the fourth pastor of the Craigs congregation, which merged with what is now St. Columba's in 1908 owing to declining numbers. All factual errors are therefore Ormond's, not mine.]

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