William Bradford Institute
for Study of the
Early Settlement of America

Home
Sermons
 
Back
 
Ralph Erskine's Marvellous Ministry


by G. Ella
The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth
March 1998


When Mr. McMillan of Aberdeen published Ralph Erskine's writings under the title
The Beauties of Ralph Erskine, he was not thinking of the appearance of the man
he admired but of the spiritual gems revealed in his fine sermons and poetry.
Gentle James Hervey gave most of his books away but he kept Erskine's Gospel
Sonnets on his writing desk for constant study throughout his Christian life.
Though too weak to write, one of Hervey's last dying tasks was to dictate a
preface to a new edition of Erskine as he had found during his life no human
works "more evangelical, more comfortable, or more useful."

Ralph Erskine (1685-1752) was born in Monilaws, Northumberland where his
Scottish father, Henry Erskine, ministered. Ralph's early life was full of
disruption as his father refused to renounce the Solemn League and Covenant
which caused his expulsion from the Church of England, and the Scottish Assembly
looked down their noses at him as he "kept conventicles." Thomas Boston, famous
for his Human Nature in its Fourfold State, was one of Henry Erskine's converts.
Ralph experienced marvelous answers to prayer as a small child and penned in his
exercise book, "Lord, put Thy fear in my heart. Let my thoughts be holy, and let
me do for Thy glory, all that I do. Bless me in my lawful work. Give a good
judgment and memory a firm belief in Jesus Christ, and an assured token of Thy
love." With this background, Ralph made excellent progress at school and entered
Edinburgh University at the age of fifteen to study theology. During his
holidays, Ralph stayed with his brother Ebenezer who ministered at Portmoak,
though unconverted. In old age, the more famous Ebenezer spoke of the two
advantages his younger brother had over him. He came to know the Lord earlier
and went to be with the Lord earlier. After qualifying, Ralph worked as a
private chaplain to his relative, Colonel John Erskine. The Colonel wrote to
Ralph, saying, "I beg earnestly, that the Lord may bless your good designs to my
children; and am fully persuaded, that the right impressions that children get
of God and the ways of God, when they are young, is a great help to them in
life."

by 1709 Ralph was old enough to be licensed as a preacher but he felt unworthy
of the task. The Colonel did all in his power to persuade him and after Ebenezer
had secretly heard Ralph practice preaching, he gave his brother every
encouragement to enter the ministry. The Dunfermline Presbytery put Erskine "on
trial" and became convinced that he was a man sent by God to preach the gospel.
It was in Dunfermline that Charles I of England was born and it was in this town
that Ralph pastored his first flock.

Once Erskine was called to the ministry, he was filled with grave doubts as to
his Christian witness and calling, and scoured the works of godly men to find
comfort. On reading Boston on the covenant, he was able to plead the promises of
God and regain peace of heart. He now went through a period of great energy. So
intent was he on studying the Word, praying, and preaching, that he ignored
sleep and could be still found at his desk long after midnight. His motto
became, "In the Lord have I righteousness and strength." Erskine's view of
himself, as shown by his diary at this time, is highly instructive. He writes,
"This morning, after reading, I went to prayer, under a sense of my nothingness
and naughtiness, vileness and corruption, and acknowledged myself 'a beast
before God."' He could nevertheless add, "Yet looking to God as an infinite,
eternal and unchangeable Spirit, who from everlasting to everlasting is God, and
always the same, and who manifests Himself in Christ . . . I think He allowed me
some communion with Him in a way of believing, and I was made to cry with tears,
'Lord I believe, help thou mine unbelief.' I was led, in some suitable manner,
under a view of my nothingness, and of God's all-sufficiency to renounce all
confidence in the flesh, and to betake myself solely to the name of the Lord,
and there to rest and repose myself."

Erskine was united in marriage to Margaret Dewer, a gentleman's daughter, in
1714. Margaret was noted for her kindness and care, and served at Ralph's side
for sixteen years, bearing him ten children, five of whom died in infancy.
Telling a friend how Margaret died, Erskine said, "Her last words expressed the
deepest humiliation, and greatest submission to the sovereign will of God, that
words could manifest, and thereafter, she concluded all with 'O death, where is
thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? Thanks be to God who giveth us the
victory through Jesus Christ our Lord!' which she repeated two or three times
over. And yet even at this time, I knew not that they were her dying words, till
instantly I perceived the evident symptoms of death; in view whereof I was
plunged, as it were, into a sea of confusion, when she, less than an hour after,
in a most soft and easy manner, departed this life."

Some two years later Erskine was married to Margaret Simson of Edinburgh and in
June 1732 we find him writing, "I was made to bless the Lord for His goodness in
providing me a wife whose character was so pleasant and peaceable." Erskine
experienced great blessing as he and his wife taught their children of the
mercies of God in Christ, but their faith was tried many a time as one child
after another died.

Erskine's ministry was so blessed that revival broke out and the worshippers
filled the church and churchyard. After the service, prayer and thanksgiving
went on in small groups, sometimes all night long. One seeker arose at two in
the morning to pray in secret and found the whole town on its knees so that the
entire countryside hummed like a gigantic hive of bees as hundreds of penitent
sinners poured out their petitions to God under the dome of heaven. The seeker
marvels that he could hardly find a place to pray though it was raining
steadily.

Professions were so numerous and the Lord's Table so crowded that Erskine and
his brother pastors began to soundly catechize the people to remove the chaff
from the wheat, only to find the former hardly present. Erskine's sermons are
extant in which he portrayed hell so that his hearers felt they were already
there, and then he portrayed heaven's open doors in Christ and admonished his
hearers to flee from the wrath to come. This method produced genuine
conversions.

All was not plain sailing for Erskine. The error prevailed that all men receive
a common grace to be improved on. This could develop into saving grace which, in
turn, could be neglected and rendered ineffectual. This view was coupled with
Neonomianism, the teaching that faith became savingly effective through keeping
the New Law of "sincere obedience." When Edward Fisher's Marrow of Modern
Divinity was republished, men such as Hog, Boston, Wilson, and the Erskines saw
in it a refutation of these errors. The Scottish Assembly regarded the book as a
plea for Antinomianism and branded those who support its teaching, popularly
called the Marrow Men, as heretics. Then the Assembly legalized the appointment
of ministers via patrons rather than the vote of church members, and as the
Marrow Men protested against this move they were gently but firmly thrust out of
the denomination. Both sides accused the other of acting contrary to the church
confessions. The Assembly genuinely thought the Marrow Men were making
justification the goal of faith rather than Christ, and showing disrespect to
those placed in authority. They, in turn, felt that the Assembly mistook
anti-Baxterism and anti-Neonomianism for Antinomianism and showed too much
respect for "persons of quality." After much inner conflict, Ralph Erskine
believed he ought to identify himself with the Secession and entered into his
diary on Wednesday, 16th February, 1737, "I gave in an adherence to the
Secession, explaining what I meant by it. May the Lord pity and lead." The great
majority of Erskine's congregation wasted no time in leaving the Established
Church with Erskine and erecting a new place of worship.

The next unhappy chapter in the Erskines's lives was the quarrel with George
Whitefield. Most likely because of the difficulties the Erskines had with the
Assembly, they began to develop most rigid views of church government so that
when Whitefield came to preach around 1742, the Seceders refused to support him
because of his supposed laxity in matters of church order. Whitefield's
biographer, Middleton, comments, "Most certainly, he did not care for all the
outward church government in the world, if men were not brought really to the
knowledge of God and themselves. Prelacy and presbytery were indeed matters of
indifference to a man, who wished 'the whole world to be his diocese' and that
men of all denominations might be brought to a real acquaintance with Jesus
Christ." Sadly however, in campaigning for their own right to Dissent, the
Erskines refused Episcopalian Dissenters any right to that same freedom.
Such times of controversy were seldom, as most of Ralph Erskine's life was taken
up with winning souls and training young ministers. His literary works were so
treasured that as late as 1879 they were still the best selling religious books
in London. Typical of Erskine's exposition is that of Luke 14:23 on the
compelling duty of ministers. "Their work is not only driving work, while they
preach the law as the schoolmaster to lead to Christ; but it is also drawing
work, while they preach the Gospel of Christ, who was lifted up to draw men to
Him by His love and grace. Their work is winning work, seeking to win souls to
Christ, compelling them to come in; and their work is filling work, that their
Master's house may be filled; and that every corner, every seat, every chamber,
every storey of His house may be filled. As long as the Gospel is preached, His
house is filling; and as long as there is room in His house, there is work for
the minister; his work is never over, so long as His Master's house is empty;
compel them to come in, that my house may be filled."

In the autumn of 1752 Erskine's wife begged him to slow down his pace of work
and spend more time with the family. He promised to do so and in October
received a strong conviction from God that his work was at an end and he could
prepare himself to depart in peace. That departure came very quickly. Death
struck Erskine in November of the same year while carrying out his duties though
suffering from a heavy fever. His death-bed message was difficult to understand
as it was spoken in great weakness. Those around him caught the words, "I will
be for ever a debtor to free grace." As God called him home, Erskine's last
utterance rang out crystal clear for all to hear, "Victory victory, victory!"

 

Promoting a Greater Understanding of the Discovery of the Americas