While I loved the business life, and was succeeding specially well in
it, looking forward indeed to setting up for myself, I became in the
winter of 1870-71 deeply impressed with the seriousness and the
responsibility of life. I cannot tell all the influences brought to bear
upon me. I may say that during all these early days, when I heard earnest
preaching of the Gospel, I seemed to feel that I would like to be a
minister of the Gospel. I found myself enjoying in these later days
serious literature. There was a weekly paper in New York "The New York
Ledger"; the proprietor was Robert Bonner, who came from Ramelton, Co.
Donegal. I always thought that he was probably a relation, as my Aunt
Catherine was married to a Bonner who went to the United States.
Robert Bonner was a prominent member of Dr. Hall's Church in 5th
Avenue, 19th Street. At the same time he was famous as the owner of the
fastest trotting horse of his day; for a long time, Dexter, a son of his,
was in my class at Princeton University and we were great friends.
While the Ledger was chiefly a high-class and popular literary journal,
with a high moral tone, Dr. Hall contributed a weekly paper to it which I
always read with avidity. The Ledger stimulated thought and did me much
A book published about that time greatly impressed me and influenced me
much: Tupper's Proverbial Philosophy. It has been often severely
criticised, but I believe it had a salutary influence in helping me
towards high and purposeful ideals.
It was about this time that, in one of my poetic moods, I wrote this
|"Fit sustenance I e'er can find,
And if by energetic mind
A trace of good I leave behind,
Care not I though the world seem blind."
But I expect the strongest factor in stimulating me towards the higher
purpose of life was the earnest, eloquent preaching of Dr. John Hall, a
man of great pulpit power, of burning ardour for the Kingdom of God, of
practical wisdom, and of single-minded sincerity. He was the popular
preacher in New York at the time, crowds gathering at morning and
afternoon services in his church, crowds gathering wherever he went. And
yet his preaching was a comparatively new thing in America in that day, in
that it was the evangelical doctrine of God's grace that was the burden of
My father died early in 1871, and this accentuated the seriousness of
life, and the desire to know Christ as my Saviour and Lord. I attended
Church regularly and many meetings, and increasingly was possessed and
sometimes overpowered with a sense of my utter unworthiness. This
continued for months. I was yearning to be right with God, to know His
salvation, that I might proclaim it. I had many conversations with friends
that helped me. Finally, one Sunday morning Dr. Hall was preaching from
John 4, v.10, "If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith
to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would
have given thee living water." I still think I see the big man swinging
round, as if he would swing the pulpit round, and with great earnestness
urging - "Salvation for the asking and men won't ask."
I began to ask and I soon received. I would like to emphasise that I
believe I possessed the new life in Christ, everlasting life, before I
knew what is called the plan of salvation. I knew I was a sinner and I
soon possessed - it came to me one day at business - a great peace, a
peace of God which passeth all understanding.
For some months, I who was as enthusiastic about business as ever any
young man was, began to lose interest in business, and to long to be a
minister. But I became very critical as to my fitness for the high
vocation. I was anxious to make sure of the Divine call to the holy work.
Many things seemed to point that way, but I wished for something like
In this mood, in the early summer of 1871, I went to the dear friends
in Montreal and spent the summer with them. Intercourse with them, for
they were all fine types of Christian people, was very helpful, and
various experiences, most of them too personal to be of interest to
others, contributed to the final decision.
One experience I may put on record: while on the fishing expedition,
referred to above, on Lake Saint Simon, when sleeping one night in the
quite humble cottage which constituted our hostelry, I had a dream in
which I found myself preaching the gospel with great joy. When I awoke,
the joy continued, and I felt assured that God wished me to give my life
to the ministry of His Gospel. That day, the final decision was made. I
returned soon to New York, saw Dr. Hall and told him of the new purpose of
my life. He encouraged me, recommended me to employ the tutor, N.A.
McBride, who had prepared his boys for Princeton, and this I did. I found
that if I did not enter Princeton in ten months, I would have to wait
another year. I determined to do it in the ten months, and did it, but
sowed the seeds of indifferent health for most of my life. My tutor, N.A.
McBride, who was studying law and subsequently became a wealthy man, was a
splendid teacher and became a great friend for many years.
I studied often fourteen hours a day, and being in excellent health
after my summer in Canada, could sleep like a top when I went to bed.
Besides the studying, I was constantly attending meetings in the evenings,
and on Sundays, besides usually attending three services in the church, I
taught in the Sunday School. Add to all this that often instead of a
proper dinner I would take coffee because I could study better on it. That
is how, through pure ignorance of the laws of health, and with no-one to
advise me, I laid the foundation for an enfeebled manhood and ministry.
I was then over twenty years of age, very deficient in elementary
educational attainments and I felt I must work hard and lose no time. So,
with the best motives in life, we will be allowed to suffer for our
ignorance. Hence the force of Sir James Paget's dictum: "There is nothing
so cruel as ignorance."
Princeton, founded as the College of New Jersey in 1746 at
Elizabethtown, moved to Princeton in 1756. It was founded as a training
college for students for the ministry of the Presbyterian Church. The main
building was called Nassau Hall in honour of William III, whose colours
(orange and black) are still the Princeton colours.
In September 1872, I was enrolled in the Freshman Class. At this time,
the fame of the college was extending through the great influence and
efforts of the Rev. Dr. James McCosh, who became President in 1868. He had
been seventeen years Professor of Ethics and Mental Science in the Queen's
College, Belfast, and a most popular professor. At Princeton, he soon gave
proof, not only of great ability as a professor, but of great
administrative ability, so that during his time as President, the college
advanced by leaps and bounds in students and professors and in buildings
and became indeed one of the leading Universities of the country - it is
ranked today with Yale and Harvard. Besides being a great scholar and
teacher and administrator, Dr. McCosh was a great Christian man, and in
his long day the moral and religious tone of the college stood very high.
In the midst of his multitudinous duties, he sought to know the students
personally and to influence them for Christ. The other professors of that
day were deeply religious men, while most of them were distinguished as
scholars - notably Dr. Guyot, Dr. Duffield, Dr. Packard, Atwater,
Alexander and others. The professors being then decidedly Christian men,
the religious tone of the college was good.
The students had a society called the Philadelphian Society, which held
a weekly prayer meeting, had a reading room and library and furthered
social intercourse - I was librarian for a year.
My class numbered over 150. By reason of my deficient preparation, I
stood low down for some time, but by hard work gradually crept up to the
twenties. But, as indicated already, my unwise energy in preparation
greatly impaired my health, and about the middle of the college year it
broke down pretty seriously. However, I held on till the closing of the
college in June and while I missed no examinations, I had not the
satisfaction in studying that better health would have ensured
About Easter in that year (1873), I was asked if during the summer
vacation I would go to do mission work in a part of Canada where there was
no church, no religious services of any kind. I agreed to go, and about
the middle of June went to a place called Kinburn, about 30 miles from
Ottawa. I was directed to go to the Rev. James Stewart, who would direct
my way - a kind, able, good man. My district was away from any town, among
a lot of farmers that I discovered had come from near Strabane, most of
them 57 years before this time. They came out with their families and
settled in the woods, and many of them told me that could they have got
back home they would have gladly gone.
The Government saw they were not allowed to starve, providing food for
them, and they gradually but tediously cut down the trees, clearing small
patches and cropping these year by year. However, by my time with them,
they had, most of them, large farms and splendid crops.
The house in which I lodged had attached to it 350 acres and I had
never before seen so large a field of oats - up to 50 acres - as I saw
there, and excellent quality.
But where members of the old generation survived, they were broken down
with rheumatism or other afflictions.
After farewell meetings at Kinburn, I went to my cousins in Montreal
for a few restful, happy weeks, and then back to Princeton again.
This was the sophomore or 2nd year, and I entered on its higher studies
with reasonable ardour, and worked fairly hard. But my health gave way
more seriously than at any previous time. Fellows in the class told me
afterwards that when I left Princeton for the Christmas holidays they
never expected to see me back again.
I went to Montreal for the holidays and stayed with Fred Gault and his
wife Louey. I was about eight stones weight when I went to them. I think
all my cousins were distressed at my appearance. My trouble all these
years was dyspepsia. Fred Gault took me at once to his doctor, Dr.
Campbell, who gave me medicine. Louey Gault - they had no family then - I
was almost saying poured her life into me, took any amount of pains about
my food and all the conditions that could promote restoration of health
and strength. Her loving ministry at that time I could never forget.
It soon became evident that it would be unwise for me to return to
Princeton at the end of the normal holidays. I therefore wrote to the
President and had a kind reply from him intimating that I should stay away
as long as was thought needful in the interests of my health.
I must have remained in Montreal six or seven weeks, and returned to
Princeton greatly benefited.
At the end of that college year, about the middle of June and in very
hot weather, I was again very much rundown, so much so indeed that with
the advice of professors and friends, I decided to return home to Ireland
for some time and when there I was induced or advised to remain at home
for the ensuing winter.
My health improved much in the loving and salubrious atmosphere of
home, and I decided to take some classes in Magee College during the
winter. Professor J.J. Shaw, afterwards Professor of Law in Trinity
College and later still Recorder of Belfast, conducted the classes of
Logic, Ethics and Metaphysics in Magee, and I attended and greatly enjoyed
his classes. He was a splendid teacher and a most genial and attractive
personality. In later years I saw him often in Dublin, and when he became
Recorder of Belfast, the first time he came to Lisburn Quarter Sessions, I
met him at the train. Alas, he died when only a few months in Belfast.
[JVH NOTE: The foregoing account of Shaw's career is not 100% accurate.
See Trinity College Record Volume (Dublin 1951), p.77, including footnote:
from this it is clear that James Johnston Shaw, M.A. became Professor of
Political Economy at Dublin University in 1877. He had been Professor of
Metaphysics, Magee College, Londonderry, 1869-78. Later, in 1891, became
County Court Judge of Kerry. In 1909 County Court Judge of Antrim (at
which time he would have presided at Lisburn Quarter Sessions). Finally,
Recorder of Belfast 1909-10. See also D.N.B.]
It was about this time that Moody and Sankey were conducting their
wonderful evangelistic campaign in England, Scotland and Ireland. They had
been in Londonderry, and much interest and blessing followed.
At St. Johnston there was only one service on Sunday in the
Presbyterian Church where my family worshipped, and there were no other
services or meetings in the districts round about: I am not now sure
whether I suggested or it was suggested to me that we should try to
arrange to have services in Castletown National School on Sunday evenings.
This was a centre far from any church, and there would be no difficulty in
getting the school. Accordingly, I started a service there, conducting and
addressing it mostly myself, but at times getting the surrounding
ministers to address it. From the first, the attendance was good and the
interest keen. People came from long distances, and there soon began to be
evidence that God was blessing the meetings. Old and young professed
conversion and gave proof of changed lives.
These meetings continued during the winter and on beyond the middle of
the summer of 1875, when I was bound to return to America. Some men who
lived very godless lives had got blessing.
A number of friends were interested in certain individuals, prayed for
them and perhaps spoke to them, with most gratifying results. It was a
quiet movement, nothing hysterical about it, but very real. There was one
man, John Kilday, who was a sort of terror in the neighbourhood, a godless
man, who scoffed at the meetings and did not come for long. There was much
prayer for him; I fear few would have cared to speak to him - I think I
did. Finally, he began to come to the meetings. One day I met him on the
road and he pulled out of his pocket a much soiled tract with the heading
"None but a Father would have thought of it" or something like this. He
said "that had done it". The fatherly love of God, as expressed in the
tract, under the power of the Divine Spirit, moved and melted the hard
heart and he became a changed man. A number of neighbours helped these
meetings greatly - Oliver Roulston of Trentamucklagh, Alex Cunningham of
Castletown, Solomon Chambers of Buckagh, Alex Porter of Legnathraw and
many others. The people kindly gave me an illuminated address as I left
I returned to Princeton in September 1875 in greatly improved health.
Dr. McCosh examined me in the various subjects of the previous year, and
in view, I think of a fairly respectable knowledge of the subjects taught
by Professor Shaw, dealt leniently with me in other subjects and allowed
me to go on with my class of '76. But I always deplored having missed
specially two subjects of that 3rd year, namely History and English
Literature. The teaching in the latter was specially good at that time in
I worked hard that last year at Princeton, too hard for my strength. I
think the food conditions were defective; at any rate, the old trouble
asserted itself acutely towards the spring. I spent the Christmas holidays
at Montreal and benefited much from the loving care: My room in College
this year was next door to a Japanese student of our class. He took
typhoid fever, and I gave him a good deal of attention until some of
the professors told me that in my own low state of health, it was unwise
for me to do so. Other effective arrangements were made for him and he
However, as we neared the Easter holidays the President and professors
- several of whom were very kind to me - thought that it would be perilous
for me to remain for the final examinations in June, owing to the intense
heat of that time. So they gave me special examinations in May and allowed
me to go free. [JVH NOTE: It was in that final year 1876 that he was
awarded his M.A. Degree].
There are two things about my experiences in Princeton that I should
(1) There were two Literary Societies in connection with the College,
both secret societies, Whig Hall and Cliosophic Hall. I belonged to the
latter. There was considerable rivalry between the two, particularly in
their efforts to get distinguished visitors to Princeton to join them. Two
world-famous theologians came one time; they had, I think, been attending
the meetings of the Evangelical Alliance in New York, Whig secured Dr.
Domer of Bonn, famous for his book on the Person of Christ, and Clio
secured Dr. Christlieb, Court Preacher and theologian. We gave him a great
reception in our Hall and he gave us a great address. He was a tall,
stout, big man, a very impressive personality. From our name, Clio, the
goddess of history, he assumed that we were addicted specially to historic
research, and he said one thing which influenced me all my life. He said
he sympathised greatly with us in the difficulties of the day, "but young
gentlemen, one thing I wish to emphasise: Never be afraid of truth."
(2) The other experience I wish to refer to is: the Sunday afternoon
conferences at the Seminary (the Theological College, as distinct from the
Arts College). At these the theological professors discussed some subject,
text or doctrine prescribed by the students the previous Sunday. Each
professor gave his view or exposition and Dr. Charles Hodge, who preached,
summed up and gave his view at the close. They were all able, scholarly,
good men, but Dr. Hodge was outstanding; he always spoke profoundly, but
one seldom heard him that he was not moved to tears as he spoke of the
redeeming love of God in Christ. We think today he was too conservative,
but he was a great Christian man, greater perhaps than his theology would
warrant. I attended these conferences every Sunday - they were free to all
Princeton students - and derived much profit from them. They were less
formal than the class-room, somewhat conversational, and it was invaluable
to hear five or six scholarly Christian men sympathetically and earnestly
expounding Christian truth.
I was determined to go home for the summer. But that was the year of
the great Centenary Exhibition (1776-1876) in Philadelphia, which was to
open in June, and I decided to wait to see it. I went to Cornell on the
Hudson for a few weeks, got lodgings with most kind people and in the
genial springtime I benefited a good deal. One of the pleasant memories of
that place is that the Rev. Lyman Abbott, afterwards Beecher's successor
in Brooklyn, was minister there at that time, and was most kind to me. He
was a scholarly, genial, good man, much in demand then and afterwards at
religious public gatherings. He invited me to his house and helped to
stimulate my ardour for the things of the Kingdom of Christ.
I returned home at the end of June, and on considering the position
seriously came to the conclusion that as this was the third time in eight
years that I came .home on account of my health, I should remain at home.
This was perhaps the most trying experience, the severest wrench of my
life, for I loved America and all my aspirations and ambitions in
connection with the ministry were centred on life in that country.
Subsequently, I came to see that, after all, it did not matter where we
spent our lives if we were in harmony with our Heavenly Father's will. It
must be the wisest, kindest thing that men know anything about.
I came home about the end of June, 1876, and was so much benefited in
health by the month or two on the banks of the beautiful Hudson River; and
by the voyage home, which took eleven days, that I think my family found
it difficult to show sympathy on account of bad health.
MAGEE AND EDINBURGH
In the autumn I went to Magee College, Londonderry, travelling daily by
the train for some time, but, finding much time wasted in travelling, I
took lodgings in Derry for most of the first year. During the second year
I took lodgings with very kind ladies, the Misses Mason of Kildrum, beyond
Ballinacross, got a very fine pony and drove in and out every day - this
was thought to be more conducive to good health, and I think it was. Miss
Mason was not only a very kind person, but exceedingly wise and
intelligent and of strong convictions. I greatly enjoyed her company.
Three of the Professors in Magee were the Revs. Dr. Richard Smyth, Dr.
Thomas Witherow and Dr. Given. Dr Smyth was a very popular man and became
a Member of Parliament. He was a good teacher, more remarkable for his
clear and forceful presentation of truth than for the profundity of his
thought. [JVH NOTE: Dr. Smyth was Liberal M.P. for Londonderry County
1874-78]. Dr. Witherow was an admirable teacher, and his several books
give evidence of his historical ability. Dr. Given was Professor of
Hebrew, a thoroughly good teacher and well read, but not heavily weighted
with the critical faculty. They were all genial, kindly, good men.
I remained at Magee for two years, gained a number of book prizes and
the Denham Scholarship.
For the third theological year, I went to Edinburgh in 1878. I took an
eclectic course between the Church of Scotland Hall, the University and
the Free Church College.
I had Principal Rainey in Church History and owe a great deal to him,
not merely for what I learned of Church History but also for the
unconscious influence of the man. I have always regarded him as the
greatest man I have had anything to do with. A masterly knowledge of his
subject, not merely of the letter of it, a singularly fair and
well-balanced judgement, a profound insight into the movements and motives
of men, a
most independent mind. He was a deeply spiritual man and in his home
genial, kindly and unpretentious. You could only think of him as being
without any presumption or ambition, master of any situation that he might
be called upon to fill. Rainey was a Free Churchman.
I took Dr. Flint in the University, a man who got a hold of students
from the first and held us all the time. Flint gave evidence of wide
reading and profound thinking; he was masterly in his exposition of truth
and possessed of intense and strong convictions. In full sympathy with and
understanding of the atmosphere his students breathed in that day, he
seemed to meet every man's need, impelling him to feel that the last word
had been said on any subject Flint dealt with. His books were among the
finest and foremost of the theological literature of his day.
I had also Dr. Smeaton of the Free College, a most kindly, able,
guileless, good man, but not an impressive teacher.
I enjoyed Edinburgh College life greatly and experienced great
kindness, as did the other Irish or American students, from some of the
foremost families in the city. Mrs Barbour, mother of R.W. Barbour, an
outstandingly able, brilliant student in my class, Sir Alex Simpson and
many others. For myself, I can never forget the great and constant
kindness of Mr and Mrs Smith, with whom I dined frequently on Sundays. I
had met Mr Smith on board the steamer coming from New York in `76. He had
an exhibit at the Philadelphia Exhibition. He was one of the foremost
chemists in Edinburgh. I also experienced great kindness from the
Whitticks of George's Street. I had a letter of introduction from Mrs
Leslie of Cookstown to her brother Mr Whittick, and frequently dined with
them on Sundays.
Edinburgh's historic position and interest, its wonderful citadel and
gardens beneath, its magnificent and ancient buildings and Presbyterian
atmosphere make it for me the most attractive of all the cities I have
I cannot come away from the experiences of my student days in Edinburgh
without saying something about my preaching experiences. Two reasons
impelled me to seek engagements to preach on Sundays:
(1) The fees received to meet the expense's of my college life there.
(2) The desire to see as much of "bonny Scotland" as I could.
I was very fortunate in getting the kindly interest and friendship of
Mr Sinclair, whose duty it was to send supplies to churches throughout the
country, where they were required. He soon learned that I wished to see as
many historic places in Scotland as possible, and when I went to him on
Wednesday or Thursday he would give me my choice of place and I would
arrange to spend much of the Saturday in seeing specially interesting
places and sights and then get on to the Manse in the evening. In this
way, in that winter and spring, I saw much that was specially interesting
I stayed in Edinburgh part of that summer 1879, and visited also my
sister in San day, Orkney, where her husband James McConaghy was still in