Besides his sermons, he is known for his poetry. Today’s readers might be most familiar with his meditation to the smoker of tobacco, in consideration not of health issues (it was actually considered a medicinal herb) of the greater comforts of heaven (each line ending with “Thus think, and smoke tobacco”).
Ralph Erskine (1685-1752) was born ten years after his mother Margaret was pronounced dead. The pronouncement had been mistaken, but she would have indeed been dead if a greedy sexton had not laid his eyes on her precious ring. Under cover of night, the sexton disinterred her body. Finding the ring too tight to pull off, he took out a knife and began to cut off her finger. The sudden feeling of pain woke up Margaret, who sat up in her coffin. The sexton ran away in fright, and she walked home to her astonished husband.
While this incident was probably the most stunning in the family history and provided a great story for generations to come, life for the Erskines continued to be eventful. Ralph’s father Henry (1624–1696) was one of the many ministers who had been ejected from the Church of England for refusing to comply with the 1662 Act of Uniformity (which made the Book of Common Prayer, as well as certain rites, mandatory). Since then, his life consisted of illegal preaching and repeated arrests, with short periods of imprisonment and long exiles. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, he enjoyed some peace as minister at Chirnside, Berwickshire, where he died at 72 years of age.
Ralph, who was 11 at that time, held dear the memory of his father’s teachings that had shaped his life. He continued to be close to his brother Ebenezer (1680-1754). He was also influenced by Ebenezer’s wife Alison Turpie, who helped her husband – initially a joyless minister – to understand the gospel.
After graduating from the University of Edinburgh, Ralph worked as a tutor until he was licensed to preach. His ministry began in the heat of several disputes, including the Marrow Controversy (regarding the republished Marrow of Modern Divinity).