A woman of sound understanding

A woman of sound understanding


The last few days I’ve been trying to catch up on James Fraser of Brae, a 17th century Ross-shire laird who became one of the most revered of the Covenanter field-preachers and suffered two grim periods of imprisonment on the Bass Rock in the late 1670s and early 1680s, as well further periods in Blackness Castle and Newgate Jail, London. For most of his ministry Fraser was an itinerant preacher, but his final years were spent as Minister of Culross (Fife).

Besides his activities as a field preacher, Fraser was also the author of two of the most significant volumes in the history of Scottish theology, though both were published only long after he died in 1698.  One was a Treatise on Justifying Faith; the other was his Memoirs, the closest thing in Scottish literature to Bunyan’s Grace Abounding, and in many ways superior to it.

Fraser had many admirers, among them C. H. Spurgeon and Alexander Whyte, Minister of Free St. George’s, Edinburgh from 1870 to 1916, and the author of an excellent Handbook on the Shorter Catechism.  Whyte published an appreciation entitled James Fraser Laird of Brae and as I flipped through it this morning my eye fell on a couple of lines in which Whyte spoke of ‘the immense importance of intellect in our evangelical preachers’.  But instead of developing this theme himself, he invoked a quotation from Santa Teresa (not the 20th century Mother Teresa, but a 16th century Spanish nun still widely revered for her spirituality: if you live near the Reverend Alasdair I. MacLeod he can tell you all about her ). 

The quotation is as follows:

always had a great respect and affection for intellectual and learned men.  It is my experience that all who intend to be true Christians will do well to treat with men of mind when they are being deeply exercised about their souls.  The more intellect and the more learning our preachers and pastors have, the better.  The devil is exceedingly afraid of learning, especially when it is accompanied with great humility and great virtue.  Let no one be taken into this religious house of ours unless she is a woman of sound understanding.  For if she is without mind, she will neither know herself nor will she understand her best teachers.  And ignorance and self-conceit is a disease that is simply incurable.  And, besides, it usually carries great malice and great malignity along with it.  Commend me to people with good heads.  From all silly devotees may God deliver me! 

Whyte concludes, ‘Had Saint Teresa lived in Scotland in the seventeenth century she would to a certainty have taken a house at Culross in order to sit under Fraser’s ministry.’    Perhaps!  We’ll never know, but what we do know is that, whatever our calling, we can never know too much or think too deeply.