John Caldwell was born in Dublin on the 26th May, 1839. As a child of five years old he came with his parents to reside in Glasgow. His father being a leader in connection with the Independent Church, John was brought up in ‘the nurture and admonition of the Lord’. Being brought up in a church-attending home and with knowledge of the scriptures, he joined the Church, taught in the Sunday school, was a member of the Young Men’s Christian Association, and passed for a Christian by all who knew him.
It was not until 1860 when Gordon Forlong, a well-known evangelist, was invited by the godly elders of Ewing Place Church to have a series of meetings in the Church, that John Caldwell was saved. He described that event with clarity: ‘I felt I had not experienced the great change, and at the close of one meeting I waited as an anxious one among many, and heard from John 5. 24 that “He that heareth My Word, and believeth on Him that sent Me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation, but is passed from death unto life”. This was indeed good news to me. I heard, I believed, and I had everlasting life. From this time the Bible became a new Book to me, my constant and loved companion. I read it with opened eyes, and beheld in it wondrous things’.1
But apart from being a momentous time in the personal experience of John Caldwell, this was also a time of significant change. The 1859 revival in the North of Ireland was having an effect in Scotland. As laymen occupied more and more pulpits and platforms to preach the gospel, pressure on the existing church systems and government became intense. The Ewing Place Church was no different. In the zeal of a work for the Lord, those that were born-again utilised the basement of the Church for Sunday school work. Then, using the school-room, they launched out into an Evening Service to preach the gospel. This burgeoning work became too much for the minister. He decided it must be stopped at once.
At the same time, the Caldwells, father and son, came into contact with men taking a lead in a meeting emerging from Scottish Baptist lines. Bible readings were held in the home of William Caldwell and various doctrines were discussed, and the scriptures were examined. It was at this point that John Caldwell, and his friend George Young, were baptized by immersion. Over the next few months they severed their links with the Congregational denomination, and began to meet in simplicity, according to the scriptures. He later wrote, ‘I found there those with whom I had true fellowship, to whom the word of the Lord was precious, and the name of Jesus sweet’.
This was the start of a movement that was soon to spread across the city. As David Beattie states, ‘It was decided, after much prayer and exercise of heart, that the meeting-place for worship and the breaking of bread should be at the Marble Hall. From this humble gathering, composed of believers who were at the time feeling the bondage and spiritual dearth in sectarianism, there sprang up in many parts of the city similar companies’.2
Although this article focuses upon the spiritual life of John Caldwell, it is important to appreciate the secular background against which he laboured for the Lord. He had a very successful business life as head of Caldwell, Young and Co., Silk Manufacturers. The demands of that business were significant and yet he remained active in his service, both in oral and written ministry. His business success enabled him to give generously. Although he strictly followed the scriptural injunction, ‘Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth’, Matt. 6. 3, he was a strong advocate of ‘systematic giving’. He was characterized by a liberality considerably above what most would judge appropriate.
In ecclesiastical circles, Caldwell lived in a period of significant turmoil. Apart from those periods of revival that led to the salvation of many and radical change in the way in which believers met together, this was also a time when advocates of the so-called Higher Criticism were gaining adherents. Indeed, in 1860 seven liberal Anglican theologians began the process of incorporating this historical criticism into Christian doctrine in Essays and Reviews. This caused an ongoing controversy, which resulted in two of the authors being indicted for heresy and, ultimately, losing their jobs, although, in 1864, they had the judgement overturned on appeal.3 At the same time the arguments over Darwin’s 1859 publication On the Origin of Species were gaining ground, to the extent that some said, ‘By the 1870s the scientific community
… had accepted evolution as a fact’.4 This was a time for loyal adherents to the truth to become active and, as editor of The Witness, Caldwell stated and defended the fundamentals of the faith. In one of the last magazines for 1910 he wrote, ‘Whilst not claiming infallibility, we rejoice to believe that a steadfast testimony throughout has been maintained concerning the fundamentals of the faith, including the plenary and verbal inspiration of the Scriptures, the perfect humanity, essential Deity, glorious work and worth of the Lord Jesus Christ, the utter ruin of man, necessity and sufficiency of the atonement, present possession of eternal life by the believer, the priesthood of all saints, the oneness of the Body of Christ, the immersion of believers as being the Christian baptism of the New Testament, the weekly ‘breaking of bread’ as the privilege of all the children of God, separation from the world and its associations, gathering together in the Name of the Lord apart from sectarian titles and clerical assumption, the personal and pre-millennial Coming of the Lord as the “blessed hope" for which we wait, the eternal conscious punishment of the impenitent, and the eternal blessing and glory of the saved’. These truths are still under attack today and Caldwell’s statement is every bit as relevant now as it was then.
In the ministry of the word of God, Caldwell travelled widely. He particularly enjoyed the exposition of a book, Leviticus, Corinthians, Thessalonians, and Hebrews being his favourites. However, he was also at home giving addresses on the offerings, Old Testament characters, God’s chosen people, or similar themes. His notes were merely small slips of paper with the headings and, as he kept scant record, he felt quite free in repeating a message if suited to the hearers. Of the value of John Caldwell’s ministry, David Beattie records the comments of an aged brother, ‘Looking back, the writer sees three outstanding men whose personality and ministry were markedly used of God in supplying spiritual food for edifying babes in Christ, as well as those of more mature experience. These were: John R. Caldwell, Alexander Stewart, and Thomas Cochrane. The ministry of these brethren was most edifying and uplifting. But there was a something about their demeanour and movements which impressed one even more than their addresses – a fact which indicates that a man is more than his message’.5
It was Caldwell’s writing that took up the greater part of his time when not occupied with his business. One of his earliest books was Things to Come, regarded at the time as one of the best books on the signs of the times.6 His other books included: The Cross to the Kingdom, God’s Chosen People, Shadows of Christ, Christ in the Levitical Offerings, Earthly Relationships, Because Ye Belong to Christ. His best known work will probably be his volumes of exposition of the first epistle to the Corinthians, which was published under the title of The Charter of the Church.7 Apart from the books, Caldwell was editor of The Witness, an assembly-based periodical, from 1876 to 1914. He used that periodical to demonstrate his adherence to and defence of the fundamentals of the faith. He produced smaller books and pamphlets, gospel tracts, and many magazine articles, and in all of them he manifested ‘care in preparation, [and] moderation in statement’, 8 his desire being the definite spiritual profit of the readers.
It was in 1905 that the first real signs of Caldwell’s declining health became noticed. Before Caldwell left for France, fifty-two brethren met him in a room of the Christian Institute on Monday, 20th November. Thinking they might not have another occasion, they desired to confirm their love and return thanks for the help he had given. His response was: ‘It has pleased the Lord in the most gentle manner possible to hinder my service in the way of public speaking, otherwise I have suffered very little. At the present time there is one thing I would like you to remember in prayer. That is that I might learn the intended lesson in the Lord’s dealing with me in this way. I do not know that I have apprehended it, but I desire that I might know what the Lord’s intended lesson for me is, and I think also that all the brethren should seek to know what His lesson may be for them as well as for me. I have made it my aim so to act that I might be done without, for I believe the more closely we follow God’s lines and methods the more will this be the case. Things will not be dependent upon one or two. For myself, I feel utterly unworthy of this testimony. I feel like the words, “less than the least of all saints”. I feel that the words, “chief of sinners" belong to me, but sovereign grace o'er sin abounded, and surely at this moment a number of us today can praise God for the abundant grace that has borne with us and carried us to hoar hairs and given us the assurance that He will never leave us’.9
Although Caldwell made somewhat of a recovery from this early setback, in the latter part of his life he deteriorated rapidly, losing many of his faculties. After many months of pain and weakness, he died on Lord’s day morning, 14th January, 1917. He had been a liberal giver, a wise counsellor, a devoted servant, and a fearless minister of the truth and defender of the faith. ‘Remember them … who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow’, Heb. 13. 7.
A quote from Henry Pickering’s tribute to the work of John Caldwell. Taken from Assembly Writer’s Library, Volume 8, The writings of J. R. Caldwell. [This is virtually a reprint of a similar article in H. Pickering, Chief men among the brethren, Pickering and Inglis]. The author acknowledges the help of this tribute in the compilation of this article.
David J. Beattie, Brethren. The story of a great recovery, John Ritchie Ltd. 1944, pg. 240.
David J. Beattie, Brethren. The story of a great recovery, John Ritchie Ltd. 1944, pg. 257.
Stated as such by Dr. Torrey, of Los Angeles, California. Cited by Henry Pickering.
Recently re-published by Crimond House Publications, ISBN 978-1-908618-00-9.
See Endnote 1 above.
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