It was 1856.
Seventeen-year-old William Mackay was about to leave his home in Montrose, Scotland to start his medical studies in Edinburgh. An ambitious and intelligent young man, he was eagerly anticipating his future career, but as his mother helped William pack his belongings, she felt a dart of anxiety.
Would her son remember the faith that his parents had taught him? Carefully she slipped a parting gift into William’s trunk – a Bible, inscribing it with her son’s name and with her own. Underneath she added a verse as a beacon to guide the young man through the maze of temptations which might so easily entangle him.
Despising the Scriptures
Quickly absorbed into his new surroundings and studies, William paid little attention to his mother’s gift. The Bible lay in his room neglected. His new friends had little time for those truths that William had been taught to respect. Unbelieving and cynical, they looked with contempt on anyone who held such long outmoded ideas. Soon William, too, started to spurn the faith he had learnt at home. Like his peers, he began to drink indulgently and would frequently be seen with a tot of whisky in his hand whether he was studying or socialising. Gradually drink became his master, draining his resources.
To the pawnshop
Eventually William had no money left to finance his craving. His mind turned to the nearest pawnshop. What could he pawn to buy himself more whisky? He glanced round his room. His eyes fell on the Bible his mother had given him. He blew off the dust. Little used, it should fetch a good price, and of course he would redeem it one day, he told himself. At least it would meet his present needs. Hardening his conscience the medical student took the Bible to the local pawnshop.
All thoughts of the Bible soon faded from his mind, however, as William became engrossed in his work, his friends and his prospects. The years passed and eventually, despite his whisky-drinking habits, the young man graduated with high honours in his medical studies, and before long gained a prominent position in an Edinburgh hospital. Now he freely and publicly disparaged Christianity. The God in whom his mother trusted was held up for ridicule and mocked in unbelieving jokes. More than this Mackay became a leading member of a society known as the Infidel Club. His rejection of God quickly led to a rejection of moral standards, as William Mackay yielded to a profligate lifestyle.
One aspect of his work, however, gave the young doctor unusual satisfaction. With no belief in God, he delighted to pit his medical skill against humanity’s last enemy: death itself. When he could drag a patient back from the very gates of death he would revel in the conquest, for it proved – or so he thought – that by his own innate ability, he could be master of his own destiny. Whenever he heard the rattle of a cart turning into the hospital gates, bringing in another victim of some tragic accident, the adrenalin began to flow. Dr Mackay gloried in a further opportunity to demonstrate his superior powers over the course of nature. An admiring circle of colleagues would congratulate him on his incredible achievement.
But the day came when, amid a flurry of activity in the hospital, yet another man, critically injured, probably in some industrial accident, was admitted to the ward. The lower half of his body was horribly crushed – he could not have many hours to live. Mackay hastened to the scene – surely the right man to deal with such a situation. The victim was in desperate pain, but one thing startled the doctor. He had seen many wracked with agony from multiple injuries, but there was a strange look on this man’s face – a serenity that defied explanation.
‘What’s the diagnosis, doctor?’ asked the injured man. ‘Oh, I guess we will pull you through,’ replied Mackay cheerily. ‘No, doctor, I don’t want any guess. I want to know if it is life or death.’ Mackay looked at his patient with astonishment.
‘Just lay me down easy. Anywhere, doctor,’ the patient continued. His voice was growing weaker. ‘I am ready. I am not afraid to die. I trust in the precious shed blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. If I have to die, I know I am going to be with him. But I would like to know the truth; just what is my condition?’
Able to cope with most contingencies, William Mackay scarcely knew how to answer this calm-faced man. Then he blurted out the truth: ‘You have at the most three hours to live’.
‘Thank you, doctor,’ replied the dying man quietly. Even the hardened and cynical medic was suddenly touched.
‘Is there anything special you would like us to do for you?’ he asked kindly. ‘In one of my pockets is a two-week’s pay packet,’ replied his patient. ‘Please could someone take it at once to my landlady to pay for my lodgings. And, yes, there is one more thing. Could you ask her to send me the book?’
‘What book is that?’ asked the surprised doctor. ‘Oh, just the book,’ the man replied faintly. ‘She’ll know.’
Ready for death
As he carried on his duties around the hospital, William Mackay could not erase the sight of that calm face. Nor could he shut out those words, ‘I am ready, doctor.’ Ready for death? This was a concept that Mackay had long since rejected. But the doctor felt he must know what had happened to his patient. Did he get his book before he died? Rarely would Mackay return to a ward once he had accepted that his patient was dying. But arriving back at the ward he asked the nurse about the casualty under her care. ‘He died a few minutes ago,’ was her simple reply. ‘And did he get his book?’ enquired the doctor. ‘What was it? A bank book?’
‘Yes, he got his book,’ answered the nurse. ‘It arrived shortly before he died. But no, it wasn’t his bank book. It is still there, under his pillow, if you want to look at it.’
Reaching the dead man’s bedside, the doctor felt under the pillow and pulled out the book. It was a Bible. It looked strangely familiar. He opened it. And there on the flyleaf he was startled to read his own name, and the name of his mother, together with the text she had given him so long ago. This was the very Bible he had pawned for whisky as a student. With shocked shame, Mackay thrust the Bible under his coat and hurried to his private office. Choking with emotion he fell on his knees and begged God to forgive his sins and have mercy upon him.
Dr William Mackay was a man in debt – a debt to the unexpected mercy of God and a debt to the men and women of his generation whose faith he had deluded and mocked. How could he repay such a debt? To his God he could repay nothing, but with a zeal born of gratitude he could give his life in the service of others, seeking to make good the damage he had done and the wasted years. Whenever he had opportunity, he spoke to his friends, his associates, to anyone who would listen, telling them of God’s mercy to a sinner.
William Mackay’s Bible was no longer neglected as he became an earnest student of its pages. When its limp covers wore out, he had the book carefully rebound in hardback covers, doubly precious now because of its associations.