Dr Robert Gordon

St John’s Church, Glasgow, emerged from mission work instigated by Thomas Chalmers when he was minister in the Tron Church and in 1819 it was erected as a parish with Chalmers as its first minister (Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae, Vol.3, p.446). At the Disruption, the minister, Thomas Brown, joined the Free Church with a number of his people and a building was opened in 1845, when Chalmers preached. It was a very ornate church building – “unquestionably the finest that has been erected in Glasgow for many years … The general style, as well as the ornamental details of the edifice, are in strict conformity with the architecture of the fourteenth century, denominated the ‘Transition’ or ‘decorated early English’”. Effigies of Thomas Chalmers and Thomas Brown were placed over the large window to the east of the doorway, while higher up, over the doorway, there were Martin Luther, John Knox, John Calvin and Andrew Melville. On the west side were the Marquis of Argyle and John Wickliffe; and on the east side were Patrick Hamilton and George Wishart; while over the large window to the left of the doorway, were Patrick McFarlan and Robert Gordon (Scotsman, Edinburgh, 11 June 1845: 3).

Almost all these names will be familiar to anyone with even a basic knowledge of the Reformation and of Scottish Presbyterian history but the last two may not be so familiar.

Patrick McFarlan was the second minister of St John’s Parish and his place in the pantheon is thus easily explained. That leaves Robert Gordon. He was born in Dumfries-shire, spent years near Perth and served in Kinfauns, Perthshire as his first charge. Thereafter he spent his ministry in Edinburgh. He had no known close connection with this congregation, as Thomas Brown and Patrick McFarlan had. What had he done to win a place alongside the ecclesiastical greats?

His presence there must be attributed to the standing that he had at that time as a great Disruption leader. That that needs to be explained indicates how he has fallen from where he was in the estimation of Free Church people.

When I began to read in some depth about the Disruption and the years leading up to it, I found the name of Robert Gordon cropping up continually. But who was he? There were full length biographies of Cunningham and Candlish, Welsh and Dunlop, whose names also kept appearing, but there seemed to be a relative dearth of information about Robert Gordon. Useful shorter accounts of his life are available, for example, his obituary in The Free Church Magazine, p.544 and an article in A Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen, Vol.2, p. 131. But there is no full length biography.

So, one day, I thought I would dig into him a bit for my own interest. I had mixed motives. I knew he was from Glencairn in Dumfries-shire, a parish in which my great-great grand-father, Robert Bell, had once been an inn-keeper. Robert Gordon surely must have known Robert Bell. Perhaps in studying the former, I might incidentally get information about the latter. I didn’t, but I found enough information about Robert Gordon as a young man to warrant my setting it out in an article: Dr Robert Gordon: Divinity Student – Probationer. This doesn’t give a full account of the man but it does, I hope, show what a talented and remarkable man he was – a man who does not deserve to be forgotten.

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