Lessons from "The Life of John Milne of Perth"

C.S. Lewis once said, “We read to know we are not alone.” In his book “Surprised by Joy,” Lewis wrote about the importance of reading biographies, saying that they can help us “see how the same ideas have worked themselves out in different lives.” Years ago, I heard a wise older Christian brother say that biographies ought to be a regular part of every Christian’s reading plan. At the time I didn’t understand how I would have time for such optional reading when theology and biblical studies books were “essential” and demanding my attention. Having been in the ministry a number of years now, I’ve changed my tune. I’ve come to realize these stories are every bit as essential to me for my own growth in my faith as any of the doctrinal books on my shelf.

When I read a biography, I read with an eye to what I can learn and put into practice. Thus, if you pull a biography off my shelf, you will see it is as marked up as any other books in my collection. What follows is a brief biographical sketch of a minister who most of us will have never heard of, but who was greatly revered in his day. After the biography are several lessons that I learned from him. These were shared at our men’s gathering on Saturday, October 21, 2023.

John Milne was a Scottish Presbyterian minister who lived from 1807 to 1868. He was a co-laborer and friend to many names that have come to be known as faithful servants of their day: McCheyne, Bonar, Bannerman, all authors of books the church still cherishes to this day- he knew them and they all spoke highly of him and his service to the kingdom.

He entered the pulpit of St. Leonard’s Church in Perth, Scotland in 1839. In 1847 he married Robina Stewart. A year later, she gave birth to Jessie Marie and a year after that to Robert John. Jessie Marie was to live for only 8 months before she was to die from an unnamed illness. This affected him so much that when speaking of the loss 10 years later he could not continue due to the grief. His wife was to, likewise, become ill and, after a long and horrific illness, she died after they had been married only a short 4 and a half years. Lastly, his son was to contract and illness and die a year after his mother. During his son’s illness Milne wrote to a friend, “As I sat amid the emptiness, I felt as if I could enjoy a good hearty cry, but was afraid to begin, as I did not know where I might end.”  John Milne wrote to a friend after the loss of his son: “I am left for a little with empty house and empty heart. Poor Naomi! I know what she felt. I was full and am empty. Yet I love my Lord. He has been unspeakably kind and overwhelmingly gracious. I cannot for a moment think the shadow of a thought that he has dealt hardly. Satan has sometimes tried to make me think it, and been saying, how few there are that suffer as you are doing; but he does not get leave to make me draw any conclusion that can darken the wondrous loving-kindness of the Lord.”

After the loss of his family, he came to learn of the need for missionaries in India and soon felt that he could do no other than travel there. His church loved him so much, however, that they set themselves against the idea. He loved them as well to the point that he referred to the idea of his leaving as a “martyrdom” but, he argued, “it is not the pastor’s will, nor the people’s will, that is to determine the arrangement, but the will of him who walks among the candlesticks” and he was so convinced the Lord was calling him to go that he felt he would be disobedient to not.

He did go and found it to be a very difficult experience. The heat was unlike anything he had experienced before, he found himself ill often, and the Indian people were very resistant to the Gospel. Even those who did respond, their growth in the Lord was very slow and he was often discouraged by the lack of vitality in them and in the churches that did exist. Milne did marry again though the circumstances of his meeting his wife is not shared. She was, apparently from Scotland, and she faced many health issues in India and was forced to return to home several times to recoup until Milne was finally convinced that, for her sake, they must leave India and go back home permanently. His time in India lasted only about 4 years. He returned to Scotland and once again ministered in the church until his death in 1868.  

Some lessons that we might learn from John Milne:

We should always seek to be a blessing to others

Author Horatius Bonar comments of him:

He might meet a mourner in the street; he would go up and speak words of consolation. He might see a sickly person passing; he would go and offer his arm, for the purpose of bringing glad tidings. (305) He would offer his condolences to a person who had met with losses, pointing him to the riches which are never lost; and he would congratulate another on his gains, reminding him at the same time of the world to come, and the better gains. (309)

He was known to purposefully buy things in a shop where the owner was mean and argumentative. When he was asked why he would go back there where the owner didn’t treat him as if he wanted him to be there at all, he replied, “I do it on purpose,” he said; “I’m am trying to soften that man by kindness. He would scarcely speak to me at first; but I’m getting round to him, and hope to come to close quarters some day.” (84)

He wrote in his diary that: “I would seek to remember that every moment we exercise influence.” (164) and later noted, “I must be faithful – to men- to my trust. I know not why God may have been pleased to place me for a single hour in connection with others. Their happiness for eternity may depend on that hour.” (357)

During the cholera he would visit the sick, stayed with them for hours and when urged by the relatives on one occasion, not so to expose himself, he said kindly and earnestly, “I am not afraid to die.” And when death did come, his coin purse was found full of coins which were meant to be given away to the poor.” (364)

Some passages that come to mind:

Galatians 5:22 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness…

2 Corinthians 2:14 14 But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere.

Hebrews 13 Let brotherly love continue. 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. 3 Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.

Luke 31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

Would we not do well to follow in the steps of John Milne who sought to conform his life to that of the Scriptures? Are you more apt to turn a blind eye to a stranger in need or to offer a word of condolence? Do you strike up a conversation with the cashier at the grocery store and offer a word of encouragement? Milnes words that he penned in his diary should be something we take to heart: “I would seek to remember that every moment we exercise influence.” What kind of influence are you exercising?

And for those of you who are married, I appreciate the sentiment of Tom Ascol who writes: “As a husband, it is my responsibility and privilege to reassure my wife that she is more important to me than any other human relationship that I have.” How well are we serving our spouses?

We Should be even-tempered, peacemakers, willing to hear a rebuke

Milne was an evangelist and “sometimes he might get at first a sharp word, but his ‘soft answer’ immediately turned away the wrath; and as he never took offence or lost his temper, he soon gained the advantage.” (306) “He seemed incapable of being provoked or ruffled by any amount of opposition; and the ‘My friend,’ or ‘My dear friend’, with which he prefaced each reply, disarmed and won the opposer.” (307)

How often do we return sharp words for sharp. How often do we allow our pride to gain the upper hand and bring, what could be a profitable conversation, to an unruly and very unhelpful end?

Proverbs 25:15 tells us that “With patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue will break a bone.”

The breaking of a bone surely representing the hardened resistance that you might find in someone else. How often have we escalated things rather than disarming our opposition?  

Bonar tells of how one Sunday Milne had preached on Elijah and someone felt that he had misinterpreted something and could have done better. Bonar is certainly right in noting that many ministers would have become defensive, but Milne grasped his critic’s hand, and exclaimed, “Thank you, thank you; you’re right, I was wrong” (375) and was known to have thanked that gentleman in years to come for his willingness to correct him.

Proverbs 13:1  A wise son hears his father's instruction, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke.

Proverbs 17:10  A rebuke goes deeper into a man of understanding than a hundred blows into a fool.

Ecclesiastes 7:5  It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools.

You’ve heard it said that we were given “two ears and one mouth so we should listen twice as much as we talk.” We should be quick to listen and slow to speak. How many times could we have been spared further headache and hardship if we had only been willing to receive the rebuke of another and gained from it wisdom, rather than ignoring it or even pushing back? Has someone recently been critical of you? Might they have had a point and their words, though they sting for the moment, be the source of your own growth? The biblical expectation is that rebuke and criticism are often instruments for one’s own growth that ought to be appreciated rather than spurned.

We should Constantly look for lessons for our own spiritual growth in the world around us

When Milne arrived in India after a long sea voyage, he observed the deck hands cleaning his room. “The men are busy cleaning the cabin. It is the end of a voyage, and the preparation for a new one. I accept the lesson. O my Lord! Sprinkle me with hyssop; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Give me the peace, the softness, the joy of thy forgiven, gentle, hopeful children…..Oh, how great is they goodness, which thou has laid up for them that fear thee!” (179)

This is a lesson given to us in Scripture:

Matthew 6:25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’

Proverbs 6

6 Go to the ant, O sluggard;

   consider her ways, and be wise.

7 Without having any chief,

   officer, or ruler,

8 she prepares her bread in summer

   and gathers her food in harvest.

9 How long will you lie there, O sluggard?

   When will you arise from your sleep?

10 A little sleep, a little slumber,

   a little folding of the hands to rest,

11 and poverty will come upon you like a robber,

   and want like an armed man.

How observant are you to the lessons that God has embedded in the world around you? One day I was walking down the road and stepped over a bird that had been killed by passing traffic. My mind immediately went to Luke 12:5-7. God knew of that bird. He was aware of its existence, He had provided for its needs, and He knows that it had died. If not one sparrow is forgotten, how much more so does God remember His own children? A meditation on this theme ended up being of great encouragement to me that day. All from observing a dead bird on the road.  

Waiting on God’s purposes

Lastly, a thread that was woven throughout his story was his determination to wait upon the Lord. He sought to be careful, to not be impulsive, trusting his own emotions and feelings, rather than being patient and trusting in the Lord. Here are a several of his diary entries:

I think there should be a constant…holding in and holding back of what is our own. The world likes impulse, - naturalness as it is called, - and you know somebody who likes it too. But I think the Lord is teaching me to distrust it. The world calls those who keep their feelings in check cold and stiff; but the Lord says, ‘Watch and pray.’ In heaven there will be no need for restraint. (282)

“Forgetting to watch and pray, and so gave way to hastiness.” (285)

It seems spiritually to be a low time everywhere; my “strength is to sit still”, to take heed, to turn from self , sin , all my idols , to wait for his Son from heaven. (289)

I find it a great secret of uninterrupted peace and life not to go on working at anything till the soul becomes jaded, and conscious communion is broken. It needs much watchfulness and self-denial to avoid this. I should stop at once, and wait on the Lord. ‘I count all things loss’ This is the secret. I have been thinking of the infinite originality and variousness of God’s contrivances  in his works and ways. How wonderful, how admirable is God!” (328)

How much we feed, or try to feed, upon ourselves, our own works, plans, feelings, fears, trials! But the Lord says, ‘I am the bread of life; come unto me and hunger no more, believe in me and thirst no more.’ God is satisfied with him, why should not we? Let me wait for the Lord, so shall I be ever full. Let me not wait for earthly things, for then I shall have constant disappointment. (330)

The Scriptures tell us:

Psalm 37:7  Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him;

   fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way,

   over the man who carries out evil devices!

No eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him. (Isaiah 64:4)

Do you wait on the Lord? What does this mean? Waiting is looking to God and consulting with Him before making a move. So we pray. And we should encourage our Christian brothers and sisters, and our spouses to join with us. I am so blessed to have a wife who will say to me, “Will you sit next to me and pray over this?” And sometimes the answer does not immediately come, so we wait. When I was at my second church plant things were not going well to the point that I didn’t know how I was going to care for my family financially but I said to the Lord, “I will not move until you tell me I am free to, and I am asking you now, ‘Should I and, if so, ‘where to?’” And it was months before things fell in place, but they did and they did so perfectly – more so than if I would have followed my own instincts and desires.

There were a number of other lessons from Milne’s life that I found helpful, but these are a good start. As Lewis noted, biographies show us how “the same ideas have worked themselves out in different lives.” There were a good number of places where I could relate to Milne’s circumstances but found my own response different than his. At times I felt encouraged but, at other times, convicted. I praise God for men like Milne who were faithful to the end and from whom I can learn to be the same.

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