By Simonetta Carr

Ralph Erskine and His Songs of the Bridegroom

           Ralph Erskine (1685-1752) was born ten years after his mother Margaret was pronounced dead. The pronouncement had been mistaken, but she would have indeed been dead if a greedy sexton had not laid his eyes on her precious ring. Under cover of night, the sexton disinterred her body. Finding the ring too tight to pull off, he took out a knife and began to cut off her finger. The sudden feeling of pain woke up Margaret, who sat up in her coffin. The sexton ran away in fright, and she walked home to her astonished husband.

            While this incident was probably the most stunning in the family history and provided a great story for generations to come, life for the Erskines continued to be eventful. Ralph’s father Henry (1624–1696) was one of the many ministers who had been ejected from the Church of England for refusing to comply with the 1662 Act of Uniformity (which made the Book of Common Prayer, as well as certain rites, mandatory). Since then, his life consisted of illegal preaching and repeated arrests, with short periods of imprisonment and long exiles. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, he enjoyed some peace as minister at Chirnside, Berwickshire, where he died at 72 years of age.

            Ralph, who was 11 at that time, held dear the memory of his father’s teachings that had shaped his life. He continued to be close to his brother Ebenezer (1680-1754). He was also influenced by Ebenezer’s wife Alison Turpie, who helped her husband – initially a joyless minister – to understand the gospel.

Controversies

            After graduating from the University of Edinburgh, Ralph worked as a tutor until he was licensed to preach. His ministry began in the heat of several disputes, including the Marrow Controversy (regarding the republished Marrow of Modern Divinity). The book, originally published in 1645, was a strong proclamation of the gospel, with a clear distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, however, considered it antinomian and rebuked Ralph and Ebenezer for defending it.

            Indifferent to their censure, Ralph continued to uphold the book’s doctrine in his writings and sermons. “Let us withal remember,” he said, “there is a vast difference betwixt God’s covenant and our covenant, betwixt his promise and our promise. We may break and change a thousand times, but the covenant of grace is unchangeable, and stands fast in Christ.”[1]

            As a pastor, he believed this distinction to be imperative for the wellbeing of his flock. “Many poor Christians mistake matters sadly, by confounding their covenant and engagement to duty with God’s covenant of grace. They covenant to serve the Lord, and the next day they break it. ‘O,’ says the man, ‘the covenant of grace is broken.’ Gross ignorance! The covenant of grace is quite another thing.”

            Another major controversy had to do with patronage – the habit of allowing patrons to assign pastors to specific churches. To many, this brought back memories of the Covenanters’ days, when the Scots fought for the church’s freedom to regulate its worship. Soon riots broke out in the streets.

            Church officials reproved Ebenezer for preaching a sermon against this practice. When he and three other ministers persisted, they were dismissed from the church, and started their own presbytery. This is known as the First Secession.

            Ralph joined the secession three years later, but maintained good relations with other ministers in the Church of Scotland. There is a famous story of his visit to the dying John Willison (1680-1750), a minister who had opposed the ejection of Ebenezer but had chosen not to secede. A lady who was present caught the occasion to gently rebuke Erskine, “Ah, Sir, there will be no Secession in heaven.” Erskine’s reply was prompt: “O Madam, you are under a mistake, for in heaven there will be a complete secession from all sin and sorrow.” Willison was quick to agree.

            Erskine married twice: in 1714 to Margaret Dewar, and in 1732 (two years after her death), to Margaret Simpson. He had ten children with his first wife and four with the second.

            In the last years of his life, he became affected by heart disease. He preached his last sermon in 1752 on Proverbs 3:17 and Job 19:25. He died a few days later, after eight days of fever. 

Singing of Christ’s Love

            Besides his sermons, he is known for his poetry. Today’s readers might be most familiar with his meditation to the smoker of tobacco, in consideration not of health issues (it was actually considered a medicinal herb) of the greater comforts of heaven (each line ending with “Thus think, and smoke tobacco”[2]).

            This was actually an existing meditation, comparing the burning tobacco to the vanity of this life and the black gunk inside the pipe to indwelling sin. Erksine characteristically completed the law-filled poem by adding gospel comfort. Was the tobacco plant cut down for you? So was Christ. Does it has medicinal powers? Christ is the great healer. The poem ends with the appropriate response to the gospel.

The smoke, like burning incense, tow’rs;

So should a praying heart of yours

With ardent cries

Surmount the skies.

Thus think and smoke tobacco.[3]

            The bulk of Erskine’s poems expound important Christian doctrines such as the difference and harmony between law and gospel and between justification and sanctification. The crowning and encompassing thought, however, is the love of Christ for his church.

            Particularly moving is a long meditation on Isaiah 54:5 (“Thy Maker is Thy Husband”), considered in its reverse (“Thy Husband is Thy Maker) – a constant, rhythmic reminder of what it means to be Christ’s chosen bride.


Of light and life, of grace and glore,

In Christ thou art partaker.

Rejoice in him for ever more,

Thy husband is thy maker.

 

He made thee, yea, made thee his bride,

Nor heeds thine ugly patch.

To what he made he’ll still abide,

Thy husband made the match.[4]

            Throughout the poem, the reader is led to recognize the loving presence of Christ in every facet of life – be it affliction, fear, temptation, success, or even the ordinary, daily duties and comforts – ending each stanza with the same assurance: your Husband is sufficient.

            Erskine highlights Christ’s unconditional and undeserved love for his bride resounds through many of Erskine’s poems, as a motivation to both the incarnation and the cross. Since we are in the Christmas season, I will end with a portion of one of Erskine’s reflections on Christ’s descent to earth in human flesh to bring everlasting peace to a people “who were and ever would have been his foes,” and eternal life to those “whose malice would not let him live,” and to join himself in sacred marriage to “the brat who at his love her spite avows.”[5] If you can recognize yourself in this description, read on.

The burden’s heavy but the back is broad,

The glorious lover is the mighty God.

Kind bowels yearning in the eternal Son,

He left his mighty court, his heavenly throne;

Aside he threw his most divine array

And wrapt his Godhead in a veil of clay.

Angelic armies, who in glory crowned,

With joyful harps his awful throne surround,

Down to the crystal frontier of the sky,

To see the Saviour born, did eagerly fly,

And ever since behold with wonder fresh

Their Sov’reign and our Saviour wrapt in flesh,

Who in this garb did mighty love display,

Restoring what he never took away:

To God his glory, to the law its due,

To heav’n its honor, to the earth its hue,

To man a righteousness divine, complete,

A royal robe, to suit the nuptial rite.

He in her favours, whom he loved so well,

At once did purchase heav’n and vanguish hell.[6]



[1] Ralph Erskine, The Sermons and Other Practical Works, vol. 1, R. Baynes, London, 1821, p. 187

[2] Ralph Erskine, Poetical Works, George & Robert King, London, 1858, p. 305, https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=BS1DAAAAIAAJ&rdid=book-BS....

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, p. 161

[5] Ibid, p. 75

[6] See also Gospel Sonnets of Spiritual Songs, ed. by Mike Renihan, Solid Ground Christian Books, Birmingham, Alabama, 2010

 


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