Project Canterbury

Alexander Heriot Mackonochie: A Memoir

By E.A. Towle

Edited by Edward Francis Russell.

London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, & Co., 1890.

Chapter I. 1825-1845.

Birth and Parentage.--Early associations.--Family characteristics.--A student at Edinburgh University--Religious thought in Scotland--Matriculation at Wadham College, Oxford

Alexander Heriot was the third son of Colonel Mackonochie, of the East India Company's service, by his marriage with Miss Isabella Alison, of Scotch extraction, whose family had removed to Fareham in Hampshire.

There were three children of the marriage; the eldest, George, who died in India when a little more than a year old; the second and sole surviving brother, James, born August 19, 1823; and Alexander Heriot, born at Fareham soon after his parents' return from India, on August 11, 1825.

Fareham is a small prosperous country town of about 7,000 inhabitants, situated at the head of a deep inlet of the sea forming the western branch of Portsmouth harbour. Ships of 300 tons come up to the quays, and it is busy enough with its local industries of brickmaking, tanning and pottery, and yet sufficiently far removed from the noise and bustle of the city, for life to wear a pleasant, leisurely aspect. There is nothing especially venerable about the place, except the Early English chancel of the parish church, dating from the thirteenth century; but the old-fashioned substantial houses, built in the days when people had no objection to see their neighbours passing along the pavement before their windows, have a comfortable appearance of respectable middle-age, whilst the large gardens behind, with their smooth lawns and flowerbeds, constitute the chief beauty of the place. To one of these houses on the left-hand side of West Street--a house with an old-fashioned portico and clustering creepers--Colonel Mackonochie after his long wanderings brought home his wife; and the quiet, sober little town, with its local interests, its conservative instincts, and its air of respectability, became the home of his sons' childhood. For a short time, indeed, the family removed to the village of Wickham in the near neighbourhood, and there, when his youngest son was two years old, Colonel Mackonochie died; but his widow returned to Fareham to bring up her two little boys.

It is somewhat singular that under the circumstances there should be no traces of injudicious fondness. Mrs. Mackonochie's care for her children was naturally the chief occupation, and the engrossing interest of her life. She put her own troubles aside to brighten their lives, and took care for all their little pleasures; yet they were early taught to submit to parental discipline; not to look for indulgence even where affection was strongest; and to the little Alexander, with frequent ill-health and subdued spirits, life was, even thus early, rather a task to be learnt than a gift to be enjoyed. He was in these days much with older people. Mrs. Mackonochie's mother and two maiden sisters lived at Fareham, and to them also the two children were objects of grave solicitude and almost parental care. And this care, with all its feminine tenderness, was chiefly for the boy's higher interests. Bereavement had already cast a shadow upon the home where self-restraint had grown from a duty into a habit. There was a deep sense of the presence of God, a constant reference to His Will as the only guide either in the great decisions or the practical details of life, which could not have been without its influence upon the children. Very early there awoke within the youngest boy the desire to devote himself to God in the Ministry of the Church, which later on earned for him amongst his companions the nickname of ' the boy-bishop.'

It was a young life with few illusions, quiet, self-controlled, unemotional; an apparently unhesitating obedience to lawful authority, a no less ready submission to the higher dictates of conscience; and yet a life of natural boyish interests and pursuits and failings; unforced, un-imaginative.

But perhaps the boy is happiest who is more or less commonplace; whose growth is gradual and whose conceptions of right and wrong are unexaggerated; who fights his battles, as boys do, without counting up his victories; who is somewhat shamefaced as to his virtues and not apt to dwell upon his sins.

In this small household the piety was of a somewhat severe order--a habit and a principle rather than a sentiment. We may be quite sure that no morbid tendencies would have been encouraged in the young boy, whose impulse towards a devout life came from within, not from without; assisted, doubtless, by a mother's prayers, but not fostered by any artificial means. It was a healthy plant which would thrive in any soil.

The whole tone of mind of the household was sober, disciplined, and restrained; even affection kept within the bounds of a systematic self-control. There are but few early letters, for the boys rarely went from home, but those few are singularly destitute of feeling, more noticeable perhaps on the side of friends and relations than on the part of the boy himself. There are few of those trivialities, those family jests which awaken unreasoning and yet salutary laughter, and do much to lighten the sense of growing responsibility at the outset of life. Even joy in this Scotch household seems to have been 'a solemn and a severe thing.' There is only one trace of an early enthusiasm, when his mother writes after a journey: 'We passed through Strathfieldsaye and saw at full length Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, not in propria persona, but on a timber waggon. I thought you would have liked much even to look on that name.'

Ten or twelve years before, we read of another remote and secluded home where there were few events to disturb the even course of existence and few personal interests to interfere with those which clustered round public personages--the home of the Bronte's on the Yorkshire moor--of whom we are told that the Duke of Wellington was 'their demi-god.' But in Mrs. Mackonochie's small family circle such strong predilections seem to have been somewhat rare, and politics had apparently less interest than those religious questions which were afterwards to occupy so large a portion of the thoughts of the second son.

Within this home circle he remained for an unusual length of time; his delicate health making it unadvisable, if not impossible, to send him to a public school. When schooling became a necessity, his mother removed first to Bath and then to Exeter, where he attended private schools; and his education was continued later on by his studying for a short period at the Edinburgh University whilst living in Edinburgh with his mother and brother. As to his religious life before this time, we have nothing but the brief record of Confirmation and first Communion when a schoolboy at Exeter. The whole temper of the family mind was not only reserved, but averse to the manifestation of religious feeling. 'Hast thou faith, have it to thyself,' was a precept carried out with willing exactitude.

Yet, though the records are but scanty, already in these early years we see signs of that fixity of purpose, that deliberate counting of the cost, which was so far removed from unwillingness to pay, that high standard of right uplifted which was never to be lowered cither for friend or foe.

At Edinburgh, under some manifest disadvantages (to which he refers when he writes to a friend, 'that he is not sufficiently advanced to profit by the lectures he attends'), he was evidently sincere in his wish not so much to excel as to make the best use of his advantages. The bent of his mind, both serious and practical, was favourable to the acquisition of knowledge, and we can well believe it was with sincere impartiality that he reports himself as having been 'very diligent.' The habit of application had already been acquired which, when every quarter of an hour had its allotted task, was to stand him in such good stead. And it would seem as if study was at this time almost his sole occupation. We find his chief adviser in these matters counselling him for the present to 'leave Natural Philosophy, Moral Philosophy, and Rhetoric alone, and devote all his time to classical studies; to consider history light reading, whilst divinity and church history are to occupy some hours on Sunday.' Apparently all his time and energies were to be absorbed in the painful and conscientious acquisition of knowledge; success was to be the result of unremitting effort; if a boyish distaste for so strict a division of time, and especially for 'divinity and church history' on his one free day, arose, it was to be sternly disregarded. The business of life already left no room for recreation.

The sacrifices made were probably, as they were throughout life, unconscious. He had no reason to be dissatisfied with the result. There are no brilliant successes to be recorded, but he acquitted himself with credit, and though his mother had wished him to go to Durham, there must have been a feeling in the family that he deserved to have some regard paid to his own strong predilections, and he had his name entered for Wadham College, Oxford.

He was there to find himself in an atmosphere so different from that in which he had hitherto lived, that we must cast our eyes backward in order to understand something of the temper of mind (especially in regard to matters of religion) with which he entered upon his Oxford life.

Already there had been evidence that he was occupied with subjects which have usually little interest for one who was hardly more than a schoolboy. Whilst he was at Edinburgh we find a friend writing to him as follows: 'I will not engage to answer any questions your curiosity may suggest as to our present constitution in Church and State,' whilst, in evident reference to detailed questionings, he goes on to explain the constitution of the Church of England, the authority of the Ecclesiastical Courts, the questions of appeals, &c.

Yet the family traditions were altogether antagonistic to the revival within the bounds of the English Church, of which various rumours had reached them. In February 1843 we find his mother writing to him:

Sir Henry Thompson was here to-day and we mentioned your being nominated for Wadham. He said it was a very good college, the head of it (Simmons) as well as Mr. Walker 'anti-Pusey.' He thinks this wild doctrine is on the decline, which I was very glad to hear him say. Ultra views both in religion and politics lead to evil. The High Church party, as far as I have learnt their views, have not learnt humility. As far as I can see, the moderate Low Churchman who lets his moderation be known unto all men is the closest follower of Christ.

Several members of the family seem to have been much scandalised by the 'Drummondite schism.' 'All this disturbance,' as they say, with evident distaste, 'in the name of religion.' Clearly they favour order and submission to authority as well as moderation. They are very sure of their ground; that to which they have been accustomed must be right. They have no wish to join in the battle-cry on either side; and religious polemics are the worst of all. One of the maiden aunts, Miss Alison, writes in 1842 of

a friend who was at Margaret's Chapel and saw and heard your old master, Mr. Hutchings, who turned his back upon the congregation at the Relief, and showed by other marks independent of his sermon (which would have decided the hearers of his bias to Puseyism) that he had got the new light. From what I heard he never acted like a very wise man, and this confirms it. I hope it has not crept into the Edinburgh chapels. It is not countenanced in those quarters, they say, which will, it is to be hoped, give it a check.

Again his grandmother writes from Fareham in indignant distress at the innovations in church:

We have had quite a new service, and the Communion on Ascension Day. We none of us approved of it, and did not go to church.

There is a severe piety unconsciously arrogant in the tone of the letters. They do not expect that he will differ from them, perhaps they had no reason to do so. Novelty, especially in religious matters, is a dangerous thing, to be firmly but temperately resisted.

Professor Tulloch, in writing of this time in Scotland, has declared that there has seldom been in our national history a more fruitful epoch of religious thought. The theological mind is seen opening in all directions. Religion claims a wider sovereignty--a more powerful and extended hold of humanity; in short, a more real Catholicism than any Church had yet assigned it.

The Anglo-Catholic, or Oxford movement, had had an influence widening and spreading even into the antagonistic lines of Scottish Calvinism. For to its adherents also, dogma was (as Cardinal Newman says it was to the Evangelicals amongst whom he had been brought up) the fundamental principle of religion. 'I know no other religion,' he declares in his 'Apologia'; 'I cannot enter into the idea of any other religion'; and to the Scotch Episcopalian, who stood necessarily more or less upon the defensive, orthodoxy was not merely the groundwork but the bulwark of his faith.

It would seem, therefore, that in spite of the family sentiments and the traditions in which he had been brought up, there was need for no sudden or fundamental change in the character of Alexander Mackonochie's mind when, in a sincere and persevering search for truth, he fell back upon old beliefs. A new light was to be flashed upon the long-obscured history of the past. 'What is most remarkable to a student nowadays,' says Professor Tulloch, again in speaking of the leaders of religious thought at this time in Scotland, 'is the lack of historical knowledge in dealing with Christian dogma;' but henceforth he was to have new guides and new teachers. The principle had been there all along, it was but to be applied to the convictions which during the last year of his student life had been gathering strength within him. 'My own Bishop was my Pope,' as Cardinal Newman asserted of himself in his Anglican days, in a sentence which surely foreshadowed the allegiance he was afterwards to pay to the Bishop of Rome; and in the same way in the case of the Edinburgh student there had been the anxious search for truth's credentials, which he was to find amongst the dusty, long-forgotten records of antiquity; the feeling after some definite rule of faith as well as of life; and an ever-increasing desire to submit his strong young will to an authority whose decrees he could not question.

His unimaginative boyhood of strenuous effort and conscientious work, affectionate but unimpassioned, had left little leisure for dreams. Yet he, too, had had his visions of a Church of which the tokens should be 'simple, obvious, and intelligible. . . . God's ordained teacher in the way to Heaven.' [British Critic, Oct. 1838.] He had no revolutionary tendencies. The Church in which he believed should be no new thing; it should have its basis in antiquity. It should not be the creation of an excited imagination, nor the product of a mind supplying its own needs, but an unchangeable fact and an historical reality.

It was with these preconceived ideas, with this half-formulated creed, that, in January 1845, Mackonochie went up to Oxford.

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