Ebenezer harbored serious doubts about religion. When, after graduating from the University of Edinburgh, he was licensed to preach and ordained to the small rural parish of Portmoak, he could only do so mechanically and without passion, fixing his eyes on a stone on the wall in front of him. He found mentions of Christ “nauseous” and the gospels “the most wearisome part of the Bible … since they came over the same things.”
The name Ebenezer Erskine is rarely remembered outside of Scotland. And yet, it was a well-known name in his day. Founder of the Secession Church and a strong voice in the Marrow Controversy, he was involved in many of the tosses and turns of the Scottish Kirk of his time and left a mark in those that followed.
Child of Religious Persecution
Ebenezer’s family had a long-standing reputation as faithful promoters of the gospel since the days of George Wishart and John Knox. Ebenezer’s father Henry was a Presbyterian minister in Cornhill, Northumberland – one of the 2000 who had been ejected in 1662 by the Act of Uniformity. Due to his persistence on preaching, Henry was imprisoned three times, tortured, and exiled.
It was in this context of poverty and persecution that Ebenezer was born on 22 June 1680 in Dryburgh, Berwickshire. For two years, he was raised single-handedly by his mother while his father was in exile. After that, the family moved around frequently, while Henry continued to preach when and where it was possible.
After the Declaration of Toleration of 1687, Henry was free to accept a call to minister at Whitsome, a small village on the Scottish border. One year later, he moved to the nearby parish of Chimside, where he ministered until his death in 1696.
Ebenezer – then sixteen – was one of the five children who were present at Henry’s deathbed. His younger brother Ralph explained how seeing his father die evoked in him a greater love for the Lord Henry had served all his life.
Things were different for Ebenezer, who harbored serious doubts about religion. When, after graduating from the University of Edinburgh, he was licensed to preach and ordained to the small rural parish of Portmoak, he could only do so mechanically and without passion, fixing his eyes on a stone on the wall in front of him. He found mentions of Christ “nauseous” and the gospels “the most wearisome part of the Bible … since they came over the same things.”
One of the greatest religious influences on his life was his wife Alison Turpie, a lady about his age, whom he had met while tutoring at the home of a distant relative. He was particularly intrigued by the conversations she had with his brother Ralph, who visited them when on vacation from the university. Ralph and Alison spoke of Christ and His kingdom with a sincerity Ebenezer had never experienced. Alison enjoyed these visits, because she could never enjoy the same type of discussions with Ebenezer.
The catalyst in Ebenezer’s conversion was apparently a crisis in Alison’s life after she gave birth to her second child. The strain of pregnancy and childbirth and the changes a new child brought to her life were compounded by spiritual anxieties. She feared she had lost faith in God, who seemed ready to pour out his wrath against her. Ebenezer watched as neighboring pastors came to pray for her and to encourage her. At the end of their prayers, she prayed with a confidence that moved everyone to tears.
“Within some days after this,” Ebenezer wrote in his diary, “though clouds were still around her, the Lord quieted the storm.”
From then on, she was able to talk to Ebenezer heart-to-heart, and her faith strengthened his. The change became obvious as soon as he mounted the pulpit, as he preached with passion and zeal, looking at his listeners instead of the wall. Soon, his sermons attracted so many listeners – even from distant areas – that he had to preach in a nearby field in order to accommodate them all.
Alison died in 1720. She had been ill for almost a year, but her health failed completely after a bout of fever affected all of her children. Three of them died before her, and one after. Erskine described his wife as “a person of the greatest candor, equity, and ingenuity” with “a great reach of judgment in religion.”