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On the 29th June 1832, the subject of this memoir was born in Aberdeen to James and Barbara Elmslie. Their eldest child, a little girl, had been taken from them shortly before his birth, so the mother called William her "son of consolation," and most tenderly did she cherish this first-born son during the early years of his life. The family was in tolerably comfortable circumstances, as the father a boot-closer, was a clever tradesman, and had plenty of work. William's earliest memories were of a home in which his mother's presence was always pre-eminently felt as the source of comfort and love. Mrs. Elmslie was no ordinary woman. She was blessed with a vigorous intellect, a large measure of common sense, much ingenuity and forethought, and a certain combination of qualities that gave her the power to interest, to warm, to comfort, and to command; and all was pervaded by the spirit of an unostentatious Christianity. Her childhood had been spent among the sea-faring people of Cromarty, amidst those scenes now
made familiar to the world by Hugh Miller's sketches of his early home. Her father, William Lawrence, as captain of a vessel which sailed to all parts of the world, had an adventurous history; and the details of his experience, fresh in her own memory, were graphically conveyed to her boy; and it was his delight to sit beside her and listen to these wonderful stories. He thus imbibed much useful information; his imagination was stirred; and the spirit of enterprise unconsciously fostered. The quiet life in Aberdeen was varied by occasional visits to his paternal grandfather at Ballater, and deep and fruitful impressions of the beauties of nature were gained amid the grand mountain scenery of his native land. As William was delicate, when a child, he was not much given to the romps of other boys; but preferred staying beside his mother, who was always to him a treasury of comfort and knowledge.
Having, through industry and economy, succeeded in saving a little money, William's father, with the view of improving his fortune, removed with his family to London; but, as might have been foreseen, the change was not a happy one. A stranger in the mighty crowd of busy men, he soon found that money was not more easily won there than in his native country; and after struggling on for a year, without meeting the hoped for tide of prosperity, his health failed, and he became seriously ill. Worn out with constant watching and care Mrs. Elmslie was seized with typhus fever, of so malignant a type, that their one servant fled from the house in terror. The picture of the little household is most touching. The father is still prostrate through weakness;
the mother raves in the delirium of fever; and the only attendant is a child eight years of age! His sense of responsibility; his distress at witnessing so much suffering; and his alarm, caused by the mysterious mutterings of his much loved mother, broke in rudely upon the sweet dreams of childhood, and set him face to face with stern realities. But matters grew worse. A physician had occasionally dropped in upon them, and now his aid is indispensable; but where is he to be found? The servant, who might have told, is gone; the mother is unconscious; and the father does not know; and so the brave boy sallies forth to seek him in the crowded streets of London! As he wanders along he scans eagerly the face of every one who seems like the friend he so much needs, but in vain; the busy stream of human beings rushes past unheeding, and he feels utterly desolate and in despair. Unable longer to bear up, he stands still, his young heart bursting under its accumulated sorrows, and through his tears sends up to heaven the cry, "God help me!" That is the burden of his prayer. The lessons of his mother bear fruit in the hour of trial. Right speedily comes the answer. A passer by stops, asks what is wrong, and the child explains. He is directed to a house close at hand, where he finds not a doctor merely, but a friend,–a friend whose unwearied care and kindness are never to be forgotten. Soon after, William too was prostrated by the dreadful fever; but this good physician watched over him and never remitted his generous kindnesses–which were administered in every needful form–till he saw the little family safely away from the great city on their return to
Aberdeen. When Dr. Elmslie arrived in London on his return from India in 1870, one of his first visits was to the house of this friend, but he was not there; and he could not discover whether he still lived, or had gone to reap his reward from Him who said, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto me."
Strange to say, William's father seemed to give himself little thought about the education of his boys, and insisted that William should follow his own humble trade; and so the child was fully set apart to the service of St. Crispin when only nine years of age. It was impossible the slender youth could attempt any heavy kind of work, and so of necessity he stood, in his new calling, on a platform a grade higher than that occupied by the venerable Carey, who boasted that he was only a "cobbler." "He excelled," writes Mr. William Martin, "specially in the finer departments of the work, which required great care and attention; and many a weary hour he spent at it, when other boys were fast asleep, that he might earn sufficient to pay his fees and augment the comforts of the mother whom he loved so well." William soon became so expert that he was able to turn out a greater quantity of first-rate work, in a given time, than almost any competitor. This not only sensibly improved the domestic finance, but won for him a little leisure, which he devoted to his much loved books.
It is good to bear the yoke in one's youth; but it was placed on William so early, and pressed so heavily, that
had it not been for the encouragement of his mother, and his own unconquerable energy, he must have remained ignorant of even the rudiments of learning. His mother did all she could to cheer and help him; she often read aloud to him, and got others to read, and in the evenings young friends frequently gave him a share of what they were picking up at school. Thus he struggled on for some six years before he entered the grammar school. Yea, the duties of the trade lay hard upon him all through the time he was at school, and continued even while attending the University; long, indeed, after they ceased to be needful for his own support, for he gained a bursary, and had good private teaching; but as the father's health declined, and his eyesight became weak, the more the work was thrown over on the dutiful son. But his application never flagged. To save time and help himself forward, he used to fix his book in the "clambs" (an instrument employed for holding the leather), and placing them conveniently in front of him, he learned to pick up right quickly a sentence from Zumpt, or a line from Homer, or any other book, and thus he stitched and studied for long weary years; and so successfully, that before he had reached the end of his Art's course, he had gained five prizes in various classes, and a bursary. He used to refer to those days of subjection to his father's will–of hard uncongenial work and repressed desires–as a time of much mental and moral discipline. He learned patience, perseverance, self-control, the value of time, and faithfulness in discharging duty, however irksome. In going through his daily drudgery in
obedience to his father, he learned the invaluable lesson that his life must be ruled, not by what is pleasing, but by what is right.
William Elmslie could not recall a time when he was without thoughts, more or less serious, regarding divine things. From his earliest years, his mother earnestly sought to convey to him some of her store of spiritual knowledge, which was her only riches. Many passages of Scripture she repeated to him, till even when a very little boy he knew them as familiar household words. The Westminster Shorter Catechism was rendered precious to him all through life by her simple loving expositions, and her quaint homely illustrations, drawn largely from her own observation and experience. But it was not till he was fourteen years of age that he came savingly to know Jesus. At that time, the instructions of his mother received impressiveness through the faithful dealing of his Sabbath School Teacher, who, in private personal intercourse, pressed upon him the necessity of a new heart. Two passages were made particularly useful at this time, and these were ever after much prized. The first was, "God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. v. 8). The second, "Ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through His poverty might be rich" (2 Cor. viii. 9). Although at this time, William came in contact with a real living Saviour, his faith was very feeble; but, as it was faith unfeigned, it grew. Religion became more satisfying to him than it had ever been. He got pretty
clear glimpses occasionally of his pardon and acceptance in Immanuel; these multiplied and brightened till the settled conviction of his life became–"My beloved is mine, and I am His." He had been a dutiful son all along, but there was now a new principle infused into his obedience that sweetened all the elements of bitterness. He learned, when serving from love to his Father in heaven, that if called to sacrifice in one direction, he reaped joys in another; and that, after all, the way of right is a way of pleasantness and a path of peace.