Angus Finlayson was born of godly parents in Marvig, Isle of Lewis, on the 24th of October 1897. His father, a skilled mason and fisherman earning a substantial livelihood, became a Christian at a comparatively early age, but was advanced in years before he deemed it fitting to profess his faith and partake of the Lord’s Supper.
At the age of seventeen Angus enlisted in the Army, motivated chiefly by his interest in piping. His attitude in this connection was quickly recognised and he became a member of his regimental Pipe band, subsequently winning several individual piping awards.
He served in France from the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 until 1916, when he was posted to India, where he remained until the end of the War. During these years of military service he came to hold his Commanding Officer, Colonel Baird, in high esteem. That this was mutual appears from the fact that when Mr Finlayson began to study for the ministry Colonel Baird offered to meet all his expenses. This offer was graciously declined, but the two men remained in close touch throughout life.
Little is known of the exact circumstances of Mr Finlayson’s conversion. Even during his years as a soldier he seems to have been no stranger to the more sombre aspects of religious experience. This became more and more marked as the years passed. In 1924, on a visit to a relative in Glasgow, he was struck by the words of a hymn played from a gramophone:
Abide with me, fast falls the eventide
The darkness deepens, Lord with me abide
When other helpers fail, and comforts flee
Help of the helpless, o abide with me.
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day
Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away
Change and decay in all around I see
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
These words seem to have spoken home to his soul and to have imparted peace and joy in believing. Shortly afterwards, he became a member in Duke Street Free Church, with whose minister, the late Rev Andrew Sutherland, he formed a life-long friendship.
In 1927 Mr Finlayson was admitted as a candidate for the ministry of the Free Church of Scotland. During the next eight years he studied successively at Skerry’s College, Glasgow University and the Free Church College, Edinburgh. On 23rd of April 1935, he was licensed to preach the Gospel and on the 28th of January 1936, he was ordained to the ministry and inducted to the charge of Struan in the Isle of Skye.
His ministry here lasted only two years – in 1938 he was translated to Scalpay Free Church. He remained in Scalpay until 1948. In April of that year he accepted a call to North Tolsta, in the Island of his birth.
This was a new congregation, recently disjoined (wisely and amicably) from the very large congregation of Back. Here Mr Finlayson faced not only the usual problems of a minister but also those created by the fact that there was no permanent church building and that in those years of post war hardship there was a great scarcity of both money and materials. The large and spacious building, opened free of debt in 1957, stands today as a monument to his resourcefulness, as well as to the sacrificial liberality of the people.
Another event that occurred during his years in North Tolsta was his marriage to Miss Isabella Morrison – a lady who, besides sympathising completely with her husband’s aims and interests, possessed gifts of intellect and personality that rendered her eminently suitable as a helpmeet in the work of the Gospel.
In 1964 Mr Finlayson was appointed Moderator of the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland. This is no sinecure. It entails both a large number and a vast variety of duties, ecclesiastical and social. Yet Mr Finlayson always looked back on it with real pleasure. To experience the kindly helpfulness of former Moderators and of the officers of the Assembly, to be assured of the prayerful goodwill of the Church and to have the privilege of meeting men of eminence and distinction from many walks of life – these were sources of great joy. Above all, however, the Moderatorship was accepted as a further token of the extravagance of His grace who had called him to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ.
Mr Finlayson’s preaching may be described as typically Highland. It was in the tradition of John MacDonald, John Kennedy, John MacRae and the Cook brothers. In his early years, the delivery was vehement and it was not unknown for such furnishings as the pulpit lamps to be sent tumbling by the sweep of his hand. He used to tell with obvious relish the story of one church where the beadle from past experience had deemed it wise to remove them! Latterly, the delivery, though forthright and manly, was calm and dignified.
The message itself, like the best Highland preaching, was marked by three great emphases. First, he was a preacher of the Law, proclaiming the exalted nature of its demands and the inviolability of its sanctions. The unbeliever was left in no doubt as to the certainty and the imminence of retribution, while the Christian had to endure the searching criticism of the Law as applied to his own daily life.
Secondly, there was a strong Christological emphasis. He proclaimed as the things of first importance that Christ was Lord, that He had died for our sins and that He had risen again according to the Scriptures. The glory of the person of Christ and even more the deep mysteries of priesthood and atonement were the joy of his heart and the focal point of his testimony.
But, then, thirdly, Mr Finlayson’s preaching was experimental. This does not mean that he preached his own experience, although he undoubtedly preached from it. But he recognised that the Lord’s people had experiences and that the pulpit must take cognisance of them. This was especially true in two areas – the problem of assurance (or lack of it) and the sufferings of the present time. The concern with these appears clearly in the following sermons.
Mr Finlayson was a man of poetic gifts and temperament. He was keenly sensitive to the beauties of his environment and certain areas of the world seem by their very grandeur to have made a deep and lasting impression upon him. This was true of his native parish, almost idyllically Hebridean. It was true also of the foothills of the Himalayas, familiar to him during his years in India, and also of British Columbia, visited while on deputation to the Free Church in North America.
To him, these were events, almost words, that had spoken to his heart and moulded his character. His output as a bard was considerable. Most, although not all of it, was religious verse.
In his early years, Mr Finlayson’s interests were not academic. Once in the ministry, however, he developed the habit of virtually omnivorous reading and familiarised himself thoroughly with the classics of reformation and Puritan theology. But his interests did not stop there, They included many other things, especially British History and English and Gaelic literature.
Even from pieces published here one may readily gather that he was a great admirer of Lord MacAulay and of Sir Winston Churchill – not only of the men and their philosophy, but also of their styles. It always seemed to me a pity that he did not carry more of this wide reading with him into the pulpit. He followed perhaps too rigidly the advice of the Westminster Directory – ‘Sparingly citing sentences of ecclesiastical or other human authors, ancient or modern, be they never so elegant.’
But it was not only his familiarity with a wide variety of writers that might go unsuspected by those who knew him only as a preacher. In the pulpit, there was about him a grandeur and dignity which might sometimes be mistaken for remoteness and austerity. This was a matter partly of physique, partly of the deep, rich quality of his voice, but above all, of his own attitude to his work. He was an ambassador for Christ.
He was a dying man preaching to dying men. Christ was at his elbow. It was not unfitting, then, that his whole demeanour should speak of the glory of his God and of the grandeur of the Gospel. But Angus Finlayson was not only a minister. He was a human being, exuding a warm and genial kindness. Hospitable, humorous, gentle, quick to praise and encourage, invariably sympathetic – that is the memory which abides with many.
It was always, however, the humanity of a Christian. His Christianity – his beliefs, his fellowship with other believers, the discipline of sufferings patiently borne, his wrestlings with temptation – these had wrought one great effect : Holiness. And holiness, as Rudolf Otto has reminded us, is two fold. It as once attracts and intimidates. Hence, if Mr Finlayson was on occasion intimidating and austere while on others he was gentle and winsome, this was not the result of an inconsistency. He reflected, according to the measure of grace, the image of that Saviour before whom we say at once, ‘Depart from me! and, ‘To be with Christ is far better.’
It was my privilege, along with the Rev Alasdair Montgomery of Scalpay, to assist Mr Finlayson ay his last Communion in North Tolsta, in September 1972. He was then in good health and as solicitous for his guests as ever. But at the same time the thought that his ministry was drawing to a close lay heavily upon him and he was clearly under a great emotional strain. On personal matters his feelings were kept to himself, but they were probably none the less tumultuous for that.
He retired on 31st October 1972. However, his rest from toil was not to be enjoyed in this life. During the five months that followed he preached on every Sabbath but one. He died suddenly and unexpectedly on Friday 30th March 1973. The previous Lord’s Day he preached his last sermon on the text, ‘Father, I will that they also, whom thou has given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou has given me, for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world’ (John 17:24).
It was a message in which many found light and comfort. But even then, on the threshold of eternity, he saw only as through a glass, darkly. Now he sees face to face.