Teaching Theology for 140 Years - VIII.
As the breach of 1847 carried the Secession's Professor into the Anti-Burgher church, the Burghers found themselves without a professor to instruct their future ministers. At first they hoped that the breach would be healed and studiously avoided the appointment of a new professor, as they avoided everything that could prolong the breach. It was all to no avail, and at last they set about rebuilding. At first Ebenezer Erskine undertook instruction of students, though he was sixty-seven and all but worn out by his labours. He adopted the same methods as Mr. Moncrieff had, examining students on a textbook. Erskine broke with the Wilson/Moncrieff tradition, however, by taking as his textbook the Institutio Theologiae Elencticae of Francis Turretin. His lectures were comments on the leading doctrines of Turretin's system. The theology of the champion of Geneva was the standard in the Burgher church, so there was obviously no doctrinal declension in the less strict branch of the Secession. One of the great preachers of Scotland, Ebenezer Erskine was well fitted to teach students homiletics, and his total lack of any affectation made him a safe instructor in an age when many were falling under the spell of Moderatism.
Erskine taught the Burgher students for only two sessions, 'age and feebleness extreme' were pressing on him, and he now insisted that another take the Chair. He resigned in 1749, at the same time requesting a colleague and successor be appointed in the Stirling congregation. Ebenezer Erskine finally died in 1754, aged seventy-four.
The second Burgher Divinity Professor was Rev. James Fisher, then of Glasgow. He is best known for his exposition of the Shorter Catechism, and this study would have prepared him well for the teaching of theology. The last of the Fathers of the Secession to occupy the Chair, he was by no means the least. An educated man, full of zeal for God, he held the Chair for fifteen years, until declining health forced him to resign it in his sixty- seventh year. We know very little about his teaching, not even what text-book he used. Nevertheless, he held the post well.
His successor was Rev. John Swanston of Kinross, but Swanston held the Chair only for three years before his sudden death at the age of forty-six. From the village of Stitchel in the Borders, he had been one of Mr. Wilson's students, and continued his studies as pastor at Kinross. A beloved pastor, he was a genial companion and sympathetic friend as well as an earnest teacher and faithful mentor to his students. He reverted, as might be expected, to the Medulla of Markius, but enriched his prelections on the leading points of the Dutch divine from his own knowledge of the Puritans. Swanston was taken ill suddenly while assisting at a communion at Perth, and he declined rapidly, dying in a few days, in the summer of 1767. He left a son who was a brilliant young man, but one of those men who cannot find on earth a church to his liking. He remained an Evangelical Christian all his life, but could never settle down in any church. When he died, Dr. Lawson of Selkirk remarked: "Now Andrew Swanston has got a Church to his mind!"
The Burgher Synod had then to appoint a successor to Mr. John Swanston. God willing, next time we shall say something about the man of their choice.