Extended Biography of Hugh Binning
HUGH BINNING was son of John Binning of Dalvennan, and Margaret M'Kell, daughter of Matthew M'Kell, minister of Bothwell, and sister of Hugh M'Kell, one of the ministers of Edinburgh. His father's worldly circumstances were so good (being possessed of no inconsiderable estate in the shire of Ayr) that he was enabled to give his son Hugh a very liberal education, the good effects of which appeared very early upon him; for the greatness of his spirit and capacity of judgment gave his parents good grounds to conceive the pleasing hope of his being a promising child.
While he was at the grammar school, he made so great proficiency in the knowledge of the Latin tongue, and the Roman authors, that he outstripped his fellow-scholars, even such as were by some years older than himself. When they went to their diversions, he declined their society, and chose to employ himself either in secret duty with God, or conference with religious people, thinking time was too precious to be lavished away in these things. He began to have sweet familiarity with God, and to live in near communion with Him, before others of his years began seriously to lay to heart their lost and undone state and condition by nature; so that before he arrived at the thirteenth or fourteenth year of his age, he had even attained to such experience in the ways of God, that the most judicious and exercised Christians in the place confessed they were much edified, strengthened, and comforted by him; nay, he provoked them to diligence in the duties of religion, being abundantly sensible that they were much outrun by such a youth.
Before he was fourteen years of age, he entered upon the study of philosophy in the University of Glasgow, wherein he made very considerable progress, by which means he came to be taken notice of in the college by the professors and students, and at the same time advanced remarkably in religion also. The abstruse depths of philosophy, which are the torture of a slow genius and a weak capacity, he dived into without any pain or trouble; so that, by his ready apprehension of things, he was able to do more in one hour than some others could do in many days by hard study and close application; and yet he was ever humble, and never exalted with self-conceit, the common foible of young men.
As soon as his course of philosophy was finished, he obtained the degree of Master of Arts with great applause; and began the study of divinity with a view to serve God in the holy ministry. At this time there happened to be a vacancy in the chair of Philosophy at the college of Glasgow, by the resignation of Mr. James Dalrymple of Stair, who had for some time been his master; and though Binning was but lately his scholar, yet he determined, after much entreaty, to stand as a candidate for that post. According to the usual laudable custom, the masters of the college emitted a programme, and sent it to all the universities of the kingdom, inviting such as had a mind for a professorship of philosophy, to sist themselves before them, and offer to compete for the preferment; giving assurance, that without partiality the place would be conferred upon him who should be found most worthy and most learned.
The ministers of the city of Glasgow, considering how much it was the interest of the Church that well qualified persons should be put into the profession of philosophy, and knowing that Mr. Binning was eminently pious, and of a bright genius, as well as of solid judgment, requested him to sist himself among the other competitors. They had difficulty to overcome his modesty, but at last prevailed upon him to declare his willingness to undertake the dispute before the masters. Among others, there were two candidates, one of whom had the advantage of having great interest with Dr. Strang, principal of the college at that time; and the other, a scholar of great ability; yet Mr. Binning so managed the dispute, and so acquitted himself in all parts of his trial, that, to the conviction of the judges, he distanced his rivals, and threw them completely into the shade. But the doctor, and some of the faculty who joined him, though they could not pretend that the person they inclined to prefer had an equality, much less a superiority, in the dispute, yet argued, that this person they intended was a citizen's son, of a competency of learning, and a person of more years, and by that means had greater experience than what Mr. Binning, who was in a manner but of yesterday, could be supposed to have. To this it was replied, that Mr. Binning was such a pregnant scholar, so wise and sedate, as to be above all the follies and vanities of youth, and what was wanting in years was made up sufficiently by his more than ordinary and singular endowments. Whereupon, a member of the faculty, perceiving the struggle to be great (as, indeed, there were plausible reasons on both sides), proposed a dispute betwixt the two candidates extempore, upon any subject they should be pleased to prescribe. This being considered, soon put a period to the division amongst them, and those who had opposed him, not being willing to engage their friend with such an able antagonist a second time, Mr. Binning was elected.
Binning was not quite nineteen years of age when he became regent and professor of philosophy; and though he had not time to prepare a system of any part of his profession, as he had instantly to begin his class, yet such was the quickness and fertility of his invention, the tenacity of his memory, and the solidity of his judgment, that his dictates to his scholars had depth of learning, and perspicuity of expression. He was among the first in Scotland who began to reform philosophy from the barbarous terms and unintelligible jargon of the schoolmen.
Binning continued in this profession three years, and discharged his trust so as to gain the general applause of the university for academical exercises; and this was the more remarkable, for, having turned his thoughts towards the ministry, he carried on his theological studies at the same time, and made great improvements therein; his memory being so retentive that he scarcely forgot anything he had read or heard. It was easy and ordinary for him to transcribe any sermon, after he returned to his chamber, at such a length that the intelligent and judicious reader, who had heard it preached, would not find one sentence wanting.
During this period, he gave full proof of his progress and knowledge in divinity, by a composition from 2 Corinthians 5:14, "For the love of Christ constraineth us," which performance he sent to a gentlewoman, who had been some time at Edinburgh, for her private edification. Having perused the same, she judged it to have been a sermon of some eminent minister in the west of Scotland, and put it into the hands of the then provost of Edinburgh, who judged of it in the same manner; but when she returned to Glasgow she found her mistake, by Mr. Binning asking it from her. This was the first discovery he had given of his dexterity and ability in explaining the Scriptures.
At the expiration of three years as a professor of philosophy, the parish of Govan, which lies adjacent to the city of Glasgow, happened to be vacant. Before this time, whoever was Principal of the College of Glasgow, was also minister there; but this being attended with inconveniences, an alteration was made; and the presbytery having a view to supply that vacancy with Mr. Binning, took him upon trials, in order to be licensed a preacher. Having preached there to the great satisfaction of the people, he was some time after called to be minister of Govan; which call the presbytery approved of, and entered him upon trials for ordination about the twenty-second year of his age. These he went through to the unanimous approbation of the presbytery, who gave their testimony to his fitness to be one of the ministers of the city upon the first vacancy, having a view at the same time to bring him back to the university, whenever the professorship of divinity should be vacant.
He was, considering his age, a prodigy of learning, for before he had arrived at the twenty-sixth year of his life, he had such a large stock of useful knowledge, as to be philologus, philosophus, et theologus eximius (philologist, philosopher, and excellent theologian), and might well have been an ornament to the most famous and flourishing university in Europe. This was the more surprising, considering his weakness and infirmity of body, as not being able to read much at a time, nor to undergo the fatigue of continual study; insomuch that his knowledge seemed rather to have been born with him, than to have been acquired by hard and laborious study.
Though he was bookish and much intent upon the fulfilling of his ministry, yet he turned his thoughts to marriage, and did espouse a virtuous and excellent person, Barbara Simpson, daughter of Mr. James Simpson, a minister in Ireland. Upon the day he was to be married, he went, accompanied with his friend and some others (among whom were several worthy ministers), unto an adjacent country congregation, upon the day of the weekly sermon. The minister of the parish delayed sermon till they would come, hoping to put the work upon one of them; but all declining it, he tried next to prevail on the bridegroom, with whom he succeeded, though the invitation was not expected. It was no difficult task to him to preach upon a short warning. Stepping aside a little to premeditate, and implore his Master's presence and assistance (for he was ever afraid to be alone in this work), he entered the pulpit immediately, and preached upon 1 Peter 1:15: "But as He that called you is holy," etc. At which time he was so remarkably helped, that all acknowledged that God was with him of a truth.
When the unhappy differences occurred betwixt the Resolutioners and Protesters, Binning espoused the cause of the latter party.
[This serious division is so often referred to in the present volume, that a few explanatory remarks regarding it may here be introduced with advantage. The origin of the controversy may be traced as far back as the year 1647. In that year, when it became known that King Charles I. was a prisoner in the hands of the English, the tide of feeling, which had run strong against him for a considerable time, began to turn in his favor. A party was formed, headed by the Marquis of Hamilton, and supported by almost all the nobles, except Argyle, for the purpose of delivering the king from his unworthy bondage, and restoring him to his constitutional rights and privileges. The best of the Covenanters foresaw the danger, and sounded the alarm; but nothing could resist the tide of loyalty which had now set in, and already swept with mighty force over the land. The Marquis of Hamilton was soon at the head of an army, consisting not only of the old Royalists, but of many who had signed the Covenant. With this army he entered England, but was soon totally routed by Cromwell at the battle of Preston. This defeat, while it extinguished the hopes of his party, also widened the breach which had already been made between them and those who had stood aloof from their movement, and whom they not unnaturally blamed for their want of success. The once united body of Covenanters was thus split into two great parties: the Engagers, so called from the engagement which the Marquis of Hamilton had entered into with the king, and the strict Covenanters, who were under the leadership of Warriston and Argyle. This breach was still further widened by an Act passed in the Parliament of 1649, called the “Act of Classes," according to which the various classes of Malignants (as they were called) or Engagers, were declared incapable of holding any office of public trust or employment for a longer or shorter period. The immediate result of this Act was to throw the entire management of public affairs into the hands of the strict Covenanters; but these having taken up the cause of King Charles II., and having been defeated by Cromwell at the fatal battle of Dunbar (Sept. 1, 1650), the Engagers returned to power, the "Act of Classes" was repealed, and a new army was levied, which to a great extent was commanded, officered, and filled by Malignants or Anti-Covenanters. Strange to say, this met with the approval of the Church. Forsaking her proper sphere, and forgetful of the spirit by which hitherto she had been animated, the Church now issued Resolutions in favor of these proceedings, against which, however, a large and influential minority boldly and strenuously protested. Such was the origin of the controversy between the Resolutioners and Protesters, a controversy which raged with unabated animosity for many years, and which bred most disastrous results to the Scottish Church and nation.—Ed.]
Binning saw some of the fatal consequences of these divisions in his own time, and being of a catholic and healing spirit, he wrote, with a view to the cementing of differences, an excellent treatise on Christian love, which contains very strong and pathetic passages, most apposite to the subject. He was no fomenter of factions, but was studious of the public tranquility. He was a man of moderate principles and temperate passions, never imposing upon or overbearing others, but willingly hearkened to advice, and always yielded to reason.
The prevailing of the English sectaries under Oliver Cromwell, to the overthrow of the Presbyterian interest in England, and the various attempts which they made in Scotland on the constitution and discipline of the Church, were the greatest difficulties which the ministers had then to struggle with. Upon this he hath many excellent reflections in his sermons, particularly in that from Deuteronomy 32: 4, 5.
It is said that the Presbyterians and Independents, disputing before Cromwell while he was in Scotland, in or about Glasgow, Mr. Binning, being present, so managed the points controverted, that he not only nonplussed Cromwell's ministers, but even put them to shame; which, after the dispute, made Cromwell ask the name of that learned and bold young man; and being told his name was Hugh Binning, he said, "He hath bound well indeed," but, clapping his hand on his sword, said, "This will loose all again."
After he had labored four years in the ministry, serving God with his spirit in the gospel of His Son, he died in 1653, of a consumption, when he was scarcely come to the prime and vigor of his life, being only in the 26th year of his age; leaving behind him a sweet savor, and an epistle of commendation, upon the hearts of those who were his hearers.
He was a person of singular piety, of a humble, meek, and peaceable temper; a judicious and lively preacher; nay, so extraordinary a person, that he was justly accounted a prodigy of human learning and knowledge of divinity. From his childhood he knew the Scriptures, and from a boy had been much under deep and spiritual exercise, until the time, or a little before, that he entered upon the office of the ministry; when he came to a great calm and tranquility of mind, being mercifully relieved from all these doubtings which for a long time he had been exercised with. Though he studied in his discourses to condescend to the capacity of the meaner sort of hearers, yet it must be owned, that his gift of preaching was not so much accommodated to a country congregation, as it was to the judicious and learned. Binning's method was peculiar to himself, much after the haranguing way. He was no stranger to the rules of art, and knew well how to make his matter subservient to the subject he handled. His diction and language were easy and fluent, void of all affectation and bombast, and had a kind of undesigned negligent elegance, which arrested the hearers' attention. Considering the time he lived in, it might be said, that he carried the orator's prize from his contemporaries in Scotland, and was not inferior to the best pulpit orator in England at that time. While he lived he was highly esteemed, having been a successful instrument of saving himself, and them that heard him; of turning sinners unto righteousness, and of perfecting the saints. He died much lamented by all good people who had the opportunity of knowing him. That great divine, Mr. James Durham, gave him this verdict: “That there was no speaking after Mr. Binning;" and truly he had the tongue of the learned, and knew how to speak a word in season.
Besides his “Works," and a paper written upon occasion of the already mentioned dispute between the Resolutioners and the Protesters, some other little pieces of his have been published since. There is also a book in quarto, said to be his, entitled, "A Useful Case of Conscience, learnedly and acutely discussed and resolved, concerning association and confederacies with idolaters, heretics, malignants, etc.," first printed in 1693, which was like to have had some influence at that time upon King William's soldiers while in Flanders, which made him suppress it, and raise a prosecution against Mr. James Kid, for publishing the same at Utrecht, in the Netherlands.
Source: Howe, John. The Scots Worthies, W. H. Carslaw, ed.. Edinburgh and London, 1870.