Memoir of Isobel Hood
Elgin Cathedral burying ground, where Isobel Hood's body was laid in 1810.*
Principal John Macleod (1872-1948) has written: "Isobel Hood's manuscript is one of the choice pieces of living experimental divinity. It shows how the powerful preaching of Dr. Ronald Bayne reflected itself in the life of a lowly one among his hearers in the Little Kirk of Elgin. The editor was in full sympathy with his work. John Macdonald [1807-1847] belonged to a race that was highly favored. For generations his ancestors were conspicuous not only for their parts, but even more for their piety. The son of John Macdonald, of Ferintosh, the Apostle of the North, John was surrounded with the kindly influences of godliness from the outset of life. John Macdonald is one of the saints of the Church in Scotland. The old Christians of Ross-shire, who were devoted to his father, could speak of that father's eminence. But those of them that knew the son found that words failed them to set forth his excellence. And this estimate of his Christian character and whole-hearted devotedness to his Lord was one that was shared by those that came within the circle of his acquaintance wherever he went. He must have been a remarkably holy man. It was not without searchings of heart and searching of the Word of God and seeking counsel from the Lord Himself that John Macdonald offered himself for missionary service in India. His "Statement of Reasons" for coming to the conclusion to which he came reveals the deep spirituality and the thorough godliness of the writer. In Calcutta John Macdonald made his mark. He was the outstanding and outspoken witness of his day, and European society felt his presence. He was not afraid to lift up his voice and cry. John Macdonald, at the age of forty, finished his course. Among the many friends who visited the sick room was the veteran Swiss missionary, Lacroix. As he looked at his dying friend, he said, 'There lies the holiest man in India.' "
The following is taken from John Macdonald, Memoirs and Manuscript of Isobel Hood (Edinburgh 1844).
Isobel Hood was born in the parish of Urquhart, Morayshire, in the year 1734, as appears from the baptismal register of that place. Her father was a godly man, who served the Lord faithfully amidst surrounding iniquity. When asked on his deathbed what he had reaped by serving the Lord so long, he replied, "A sure interest in the new covenant for myself and my family!" Of that family we know nothing, save in this one member, Isobel; and in her case her father's confidence was certainly fulfilled. She was separated in her lot from the rest, that God might in her specially be glorified. Happy, indeed, was such a father, who could leave to his orphan family a treasury of prayers on their behalf, heard, accepted, and endorsed for answer by the Supreme Majesty of Heaven. Oh that Christian parents labored more in secret prayer for an inheritance to their children in eternity! Verily the power of prayer is little understood by this generation of professors.
Isobel, when about fifteen years of age, went one day with some young and giddy companions to a neighboring fair - for she was then a "lover of pleasures more than a lover of God." On their return across the rapid stream of the Spey, the boat was caught in its irresistible whirls, and being overloaded, it swamped and sunk. Several of the passengers were drowned, and Isobel was taken out of the water insensible. This almost resurrection of her body was a forerunner of a true resurrection of her soul! That very near approach to judgment and eternity to which she had been subjected, alarmed her exceedingly, and she gradually sunk into a state of deep and anxious concern about salvation. She had long asked that question of the world, "Oh, who will show me any good?" and now must she ask the more important and immediate question, "What must I do to be saved?" She had seen God the Judge in her conscience; she is now to be introduced to God her Savior; - and where is He to be found? In the gospel - and therefore to the gospel she must be led. At that time the Rev. Thomas Gordon was minister of the neighboring parish of Speymouth. He was a good man, and a faithful minister of Christ, of whom there still survive many affectionate remembrances. He was a man of great gentleness and amiableness of spirit - meek and lowly in a high degree. His preaching drew to him many consciences which could find no rest under the merely preceptive legalism held forth by the ministers of the covenant of works. He had but ordinary talent, yet was he much honored of Christ in the winning of souls. Under his ministry Isobel found rest for her soul in the manifested Savior, and she ever afterwards retained an affectionate and fervent remembrance of that good man who first led her to Christ. Her change was gradual and gentle, but it was complete and decided; and a long life of trial proved that she had indeed been "born of God."
After this, it appears, she went to Aberdeen, for some reason unknown, probably to find service in some family, and there she remained for a time, and joined in communion with the Secession, then in all the warmth of its first love. At this period we know nothing of her history in divine things, but the choice she made seemed to indicate, at least in those days, that she preferred the gospel to worldly considerations. She returned after a while to her native country, and sojourned in the town of Elgin, where she remained until death. She lived near the Old Cathedral, in the upper story of a humble earthen-floored house. Here she labored with her own hands for a scanty but sweet subsistence. Her occupation was the spinning of flax, at that time the almost universal occupation of the female poor, and sometimes the amusement of hands gentle and fair. Machinery had not then superseded the use of human fingers, to such an extent as it now has done; and myriads of hands in the north of Scotland were then perpetually busy in wool and flax, in knitting and spinning, that in these days can scarcely find occupation. Bodily activity is for the health of the soul, and the work of the fingers promotes the thinkings of the heart. So Isobel found it to be, for she was ever busy. A few Christian friends, who in course of time became acquainted with her graces and with her wants, occasionally helped her in the most kind and considerate manner; so that in her secret abode she was enabled to pass her time in peace and tranquillity, richly enjoying whatever the Lord did for her or gave to her.
A rich spiritual blessing was now in store for her. About the year 1788, the Rev. Dr. Ronald Bayne, in the good providence of God, was brought to Elgin. He ministered for some time in what was called the Little Kirk, a building designed to be a Chapel of Ease to the Establishment, but refused as such by the dominant Church party of that day. Elgin enjoyed a bright but short day under Mr. Bayne. His knowledge of the truth was large - his experience of grace was deep. He dealt with every man's heart - he cared for no man's face. His discourse was rich, his manner bold, his style original. His was a living ministry, and his was a living life; so his Lord blessed him, and honored him abundantly. Dead souls were quickened, inquiring souls were guided, famishing souls were fed, backsliding souls were brought back, mourning souls were comforted, and holy souls were made strong and happy, under the spiritual ministry of Ronald Bayne. Often has the writer of these lines in his solitary walks found in Elgin and its neighborhood those who spoke of "worthy Maister Bayne" - hidden or humble ones, who had the memory of nature and the memory of grace conjoined, and who will for ever remember him who was their "father in the gospel." These are now passing away after him from earth to heaven; and although not a few of them, after his removal, joined other denominations of the Christian Church, yet on earth they were marked and united by these two things - their hatred of sin, and their love of the Lord Jesus Christ; and now in heaven they are all one in mind and love, even as their Lord prayed, "That they all may be one, as thou Father art in me, and I in Thee, that they also may be one in us!"
Isobel having been led to hear Dr. Bayne preach on one occasion, joined herself to his ministration, and never forsook him until he left Elgin about the year 1800. How much benefit she derived from his instructions will appear from a perusal of the substance of this little book; where will be found a record of how she was quickened, enlightened, comforted, strengthened, and universally edified, under his preaching, and other ministrations of the gospel. When the rain has fallen at even on the thirsty earth, it is pleasant in the morning to go forth and hear the singing of birds, and to see the sweet drops resting like heavenly pearls on the green grass and tender leaves; so, after the gospel has been preached on the Sabbath day with unction from God, it is sweet, during the week, to behold on a few humble souls the spiritual influences of divine grace still resting, - to see the tear, to hear the sigh, to watch the smile, to mark the animated tone and gesture which proclaim the power of the gospel and the life of the ministry. Much of this reflection of the truth did Isobel show, and often was Ronald Bayne's heart made glad by the discovery, not in this manuscript only, but in many other ways.
The manner in which Dr. Bayne was first introduced to her was somewhat peculiar. One day a man called on the Doctor, and, having delivered into his hand some papers, departed. As the handwriting seemed unpromising, and the circumstances were unfavorable, the manuscript was laid aside unread. But some time after this, Dr. Bayne, being indisposed and confined to his room, remembered this document, and, taking it up, began to read it. He was struck by the interesting Scriptural knowledge, spiritual experience, and the many gospel recollections which it contained, and he determined to find out and introduce himself to the writer. For this, however, he had no clue, and he made inquiries in vain. At last, in one of his walks, he met the man who had brought him the manuscript, and having accosted him, ascertained the writer's name and abode. He went to visit her, but such was her timidity of disposition, and her awe for that man of God by whose ministry she joyfully lived, that she would not see him, nor admit him into her secret solitary abode. She could not do what yet she longed to do. But the Lord knows how to deal with his own people, and how to unite them in spite of their imperfections. Isobel was visited by severe illness, and then did she gladly hail the presence of her chosen minister, and welcome his personal ministrations. From that time Dr. Bayne visited his new acquaintance frequently, and had much pleasure in her spiritual converse. He received also occasional letters from her solitary cell; and in order to induce her to give still more permanence to her records of experience, he presented her with a blank paper book, on which to write, from time to time, her spiritual thoughts with leisure and determination. The fruit of that gift is to be found in the following pages of "Isobel Hood's Manuscript." "Cast thy bread on the waters, and after many days shalt thou find it."
"When thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray unto thy Father which is in secret." Such is the canon of secret prayer which Christ hath given to his disciples. There are times when Christians would be and must be alone - when the presence of an angel would not suffice instead of the presence of God on his throne of grace - when even a minister of the gospel cannot be a substitute for intimate communion with the "blood of sprinkling," and with "Jesus, the Mediator of the new covenant." The length of such communion, and other circumstances may vary, but the substance must exist. Isobel so prayed - she prayed often so - she prayed much so. She had but one room, and so but one door; and that one door she shut when she sought communion with her Lord. She had no servant; and therefore, if in these circumstances any one came to see her, she had no one to answer for her but silence; if they knocked, she was silent; if they spoke, she was silent; and so they knew that she communed with God. Men may call this rudeness, but if it be, oh how rare it is! It was a rudeness to which piety gave life, and poverty gave form. When her worthy minister called and found Isobel thus engaged, he sometimes quietly sat down (if his time permitted) on the steps outside her door, and waited until her supplication was finished. Happy the people who have such a minister so to wait! Happy the minister who has such a people so to wait upon! On one occasion, when Dr. Bayne was obliged to depart without seeing her at all, one of her officious neighbors said to the worthy Doctor - "Has not that crabbed creature let you in, Sir? "Ah," said he, "it is a crab; but what fine fruit it produces!" Sometimes, when Isobel had thus suffered her minister to depart, she sent for him again, not to apologize, but to satisfy her own heart, and prevent mistake on his part as to her motives; and he gladly went, for he knew that her love to him was not less, but her love to Christ greater.
From the extent of spiritual knowledge which Isobel manifested, it might be supposed by a stranger that she had read many religious books; but it was not so. Her only books, besides the Bible, were Boston's Fourfold State, and the Assembly's Shorter Catechism, - and what richer mines of divine truth could she have amongst the writings of men? The Shorter Catechism has proved an invaluable gift to Scotland, which seems to have become the land of its adoption. Distinguished as it is by accuracy of definition, closeness of connection, comprehensiveness of doctrine, minuteness of detail, and strict evangelical character, it has laid in many a Scotch breast a lasting foundation for the future work of conviction, conversion, and right understanding of the whole plan of salvation, and has ever proved a most honored means of educating the souls of men into eternal life. How many a false ministry has been tried and rejected by the aid of this little Scriptural guide? and how many times has false doctrine been made manifest, and true doctrine been established, by aid of the proofs contained in its collection of Scripture texts?
Such was one of Isobel's little friends - but her great friend was her Bible. That book was ever within reach of her hand - it was never out of sight. Her knowledge of it was great, so that her pastor, who himself was mighty in the Scriptures, said of her, "She knows it better than we all!" She loved much the prophecies of Isaiah, and a most favorite passage with her was the fourth chapter of Micah, so richly descriptive of the establishment of Christ's kingdom, and of the peace, glory, and victory of his church. In this subject she felt deeply interested, and has been known in the thirst of her soul to say, "O, what would it be to converse with one converted heathen!" Alas, how few of her mind in those days, and how few show such longings of soul even now! Ours is indeed as the missionary morning, of which Isobel's time was but the opening day-break; and we trust, as the dawn hath become morning, so the morning will become noon; but even in this missionary age, how few breathe forth such expressive aspirations as this, "O, what would it be to converse with one converted heathen!" One fervent breath of the Spirit, like this, were worth many of our anniversary platform speeches.
There were times when Isobel felt difficulty in comprehending the meaning of some Scripture passages, and then immediately did she enter into direct communion of prayer with their Divine Author for spiritual understanding. Whilst her mind was in perplexity about a text she was evidently uneasy, and nothing could satisfy her until the particular difficulty was removed; but when it was removed, she became full of joy. On such an occasion she has been seen sitting with her Bible clasped in her hands, and has been heard ejaculating, "Glory, glory to Him for His blessed word, and for the light which he hath given me on it!" Thus did she resemble that saint of old - "My soul breaketh for the longing that it hath unto thy judgments at all times! I rejoice at thy word, as one that findeth great spoil!"
Her spiritual experience was rich, exceedingly rich and pure, but she was shy of divulging it even to her most intimate friends. Modesty was a striking feature in her character; grace in her only perfected the true feminine character, as it ought ever to do. She spoke freely of that which was revealed in the gospel - she spoke sparingly of that which was in her own heart. One of the few quarrels which she was ever known to have had was with one of her dearest friends, to whom she had spoken with more freedom than usual concerning matters of her heart in the work of grace, and whom she suspected of having revealed the secrets of her soul to some other parties for whom she did not intend it. The quarrel was sharp but short. They met with mutual forgiveness and in mutual embrace, whilst our friend Isobel only said, "Covenanted love may cool, but it cannot hate!" Spiritual modesty in a Christian female is one of the loveliest things on earth, and it is the only ground on which every other grace can be illustrated. The zeal, the affection, the boldness, the activity, of a modest woman, are always more influential, attractive, and irresistible, than that unfeminine deportment which, in the present age of the church, so many seem to covet. It is said that a Christian woman's "meek and quiet spirit is in the sight of God of great price" - I Peter 2:4. Doubtless there is a limit to every grace, even where it passes into another grace, and it is possible to be too reserved on subjects of Christian experience; but where this reserve proceeds from a sense of high value set on the things of God, and from a sense of great personal unworthiness, then such reserve is to be admired, even where it may not be closely imitated. How beautiful the character of that woman who wept over Jesus' feet - she did much, she said little!
Yet, Isobel could be bold - not for herself, but for God. On one occasion there came to Elgin a company of players. Isobel's spiritual instinct was not at fault in regard to them and their proposed exhibitions. She abhorred the play, and dreaded its effects on many. She knew that it was bad, and loved by the bad, therefore was she opposed to it. And here we cannot help observing how the most spiritual Christians in all ages and countries have entertained a holy dread of the theater; they have always been unanimous, without any special convention, in deeming the theater a palpable, obvious, undeniable evil. Isobel partook of this holy instinct, and her spirit was stirred within her to attempt, through others, what she could not herself accomplish. She wrote several letters to the provost of the town, beseeching him to use his power, as a magistrate, to prevent such exhibitions of sin and folly, and supported her appeals by such references to the Word of God as tended to prove his duty in the matter, with what success we know not. And when her own minister, Dr. Bayne, with characteristic faithfulness, denounced from his pulpit the wickedness of the stage, and earnestly warned his people to give no countenance to such active seductions, she broke through her usual timidity, and went and thanked him for his zeal against "that mountain of sin," as she termed it. Thus did she remind the negligent, and thank the faithful; and thus did she sacrifice private feeling for the public good; and so, she who was timid as a fellow saint, was bold as a Christian witness.
Thus did Isobel Hood for a time "walk with God," and after that time "God took her." Concerning the circumstances in which she died, we have been enabled to gather but little. Her favorite pastor was no longer in Elgin to visit her in her last hours; and of the few other friends who could have told concerning her departing spirit, there is scarcely one now left; and yet this is no real blank, for we know that she who lived in Christ, must also have died in him - that as her life, so her death. A minister of Christ once was asked concerning a deceased friend, "How died she?" "There is a more important question," said he, "How lived she?" All ministers of the gospel know that the greater part of their flocks seem to die as they have lived, so far as any evidence or hope of salvation is concerned; and that a great many persons who seemed to be dying, and who seemed penitents when in fear of death, have risen only to resume their journey towards hell. Take heed, oh sinner! the probability is, that you will at last die as you now live; your present character is plain, and your future conversion is becoming more uncertain and more improbable, and therefore the chief probability concerning you is, that you will die in your sins, and go into torment for ever! Your only safety is to turn now! Believer, rejoice thou that thy death needs nothing else than thy life; only abide in Christ, having eternal life in Him. Some day (it may be a dark day or a bright day as to thy flesh) thou shalt find thyself suddenly in the personal presence of thy blessed Lord!
Isobel, a few days before her death, was asked what now? she thought of her "Covenant Lord." She replied, "The valley of the shadow of death is called dark, but He is brightening up my way. O, what glory!" And who can conceive, or who can tell, what that glory is which is sometimes manifested to the dying saint in that valley of transit! Death is an event beyond the comprehension of the living - so are its sorrows and joys; we must wait to know them; but in the meanwhile, it is a source of consolation to know how many testimonies have been borne to the actual presence of the Great Shepherd in the transit through the last dark valley.
In the month of August 1810, Isobel's spirit departed. Her body was laid in the Elgin Cathedral burying ground, near to the remains of the pious Miss -, a beloved friend, who died but a short time before her. This was done at Isobel's own request, for she loved even the dust of the saints of God. So, even her grave set its seal on her life!
Happy is the town, parish, village, hamlet, or neighborhood, that possesses within itself such a treasure of active grace and divine influence as was this poor humble woman. Happy, too, is the minister who hath his quiver filled with such men and women - well may he stand unashamed in the gate, unconcerned for the speeches of his foes, whilst he hath testimonies such as these. Who can tell the comfort which the downcast spirit of a faithful but opposed and rejected minister may derive from the fact that his name is daily presented before the throne of God, in many secret prayers, by those who have power given them to prevail with God! How often, on the other hand, has a minister's heart been distressed by the circumstance, that he has known none who pray for him - none who, on the Saturday night and on the Sabbath morning, wrestle for a blessing on their minister - but where all leave him alone to buffet with the wickedness and impenitence of the world! Who can tell how much proud Elgin was indebted, or has been indebted, to poor Isobel Hood! When Elgin was spending her days in idleness, gossiping, and worldliness, and her nights in card playing, dancing and festive drinking - while Ronald Bayne, almost alone, stood forth in the name of God, amidst neglect, opposition, and scorn - whilst the Lord was showing rich mercy to the few humble ones that sought after his name, and was openly rejecting in judicial hardness the many proud ones who were ashamed of his cause - whilst Elgin, in short, had a day of mercy, and knew it not - then did this poor woman, in her hidden dwelling, lift her heart for many a day on behalf of the town of her earthly citizenship; and doubtless her prayers were heard, and in many subsequent blessings have been answered, so that Elgin is a debtor to Isobel Hood.
*Photograph of Elgin Cathedral reproduced by courtesy of Alan Wilson.