William Bradford Institute
for Study of the
Early Settlement of America

Some Sidelights on Ralph Erskine

by Alasdair B. Gordon
Puritan Sermons
September , 1969

Ralph Erskine [1685-1752] perhaps lacked some of the impressiveness of his
brother, [Ebenezer,] yet Robert Mackenzie rightly says of him in his book John
Brown of Haddington [Banner of Truth, 1964] that he was '. . . gentler, more
ideal, more mystical than his brother, fond of music and proficient on the
violin' [p. 70]. Ralph was not one of the original Seceders of 1733 although he
had been closely associated with his brother's stand on the 'Marrow'
controversy, patronage and the Simson case. However in 1740 when he was finally
deposed by the General Assembly, he threw in his lot with his brother and the
Associate Presbytery. In 1711 he had been appointed as Minister of the Second
Charge at the famous Dunfermline Abbey and in 1716 he became Minister of the
First Charge of that Church. That he was a scholar and a theologian of
considerable ability can be shown by the fact that his collected Works in ten
volumes passed through many editions. Gospel Sonnets, his best known work, was
first published in 1734.

Ralph Erskine was the son of Rev. Henry Erskine of Cornhill, Northumberland and
later of Chirnside, Berwickshire. Henry Erskine was a Puritan and, as such, was
forced to vacate his living at Cornhill under the Act of Uniformity, 1662. One
of the greatest successes of Henry Erskine's preaching was the conversion of
Thomas Boston. In his turn, Ralph had made considerable study of many of the
great commentators, preferring above all Matthew Henry. Among his favourite
writers were Owen, Manton, Flavel and Boston. But above all books the one he
studied most was, of course, his Bible. His biographer, Fraser of Kennoway could
say 'His delight in study was cordial and persevering.'

Ralph was an emphatic believer in the Sovereignty of God as may be seen from the
following extract from his diary: 'After I had remembered the public abroad and
at home, particularly in beseeching the Lord to bless my ministry at Dunfermline
and toremember His word, "Lo, I am with you," and to bless what I was preaching
on, even all things being in the hand of Christ, that He would give evidence of
it by His working powerfully upon many. I was then helped to beg the Spirit
constantly to water and watch me. Under a sense of absolute weakness and
inability to stand of myself, I was helped, with a heart poured out before God,
to declare to Him that, though He was calling me to wait upon Him, yet I could
not wait on Him a moment, unless He would water me "every moment." I was made to
seek assistance, success, strength and courage for my work in the congregation,
while the Lord called me to the Ministry therein, being conscious that my
fainting spirit was unfit for any work, if the Lord would not be with me.'

Ralph Erskine's sermons were always written out in full and, for the most part
he kept fairly close to his script during delivery. It is said of him that he
had an excellent pulpit appearance, a pleasing voice and a pleasant manner. In
particular he was in the habit of making many full and free offers of Christ to
his hearers in a persuasive, attractive manner in which he urged them to accept
the offer which was graciously made to them on the authority of the Divine Word.
Above all, he was a true pastor who knew his people and, as such, he was able-to
speak to their particular needs, hopes and aspirations. Like all true preachers,
both then and now, he considered his exposition of the Scriptures on Sunday to
be the central part of his whole ministry. In the early years of his ministry he
expounded the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, the Acts of the Apostles and, later,
the themes of the Epistles. Of Ralph Erskine we could certainly say that he was
a preacher and a pastor and that, for him, these were not two unconnected

His journals give us ample evidence of his care of and anxiety for his people in
sickness, death or any kind of trouble. In matters of discipline too he was
dutiful - a minister of such a large flock in Dunfermline could not be otherwise
- yet never was he harsh nor vindictive.

Prior to his deposition from Dunfermline Abbey, his followers had begun to build
a new church for him. This building was replaced by a larger church in 1800
which is still in use. It is an impressive structure formerly known as 'Queen
Street Church' [which is how it is cited by Mackenzie supra cit.] and now as
'Erskine Church'. A very fine memorial statue of Ralph Erskine was placed and
dedicated outside the church in 1849 and still holds pride of place.


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