James Victor Hamilton





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 good.

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 motto:

"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 his message.

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 assurance.

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 for America.

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 Princeton.

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 quite recovered.

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 mention:

(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.



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 lived in.

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 in Scotland.

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 medical practice.