At the entrance to Scots Church, on the corner of Russell Street and Collins Street, Melbourne, a plaque displays the following message:
James Forbes was the son of Peter Forbes, farmer, and his wife Margaret, nee Clark. He was born in 1813 at New Braes farm, in the parish of Leochel-Cushnie, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, and was baptised on 4 April 1813. His education was firstly at the local parish school and then at the Aberdeen Grammar School and King's College.
In the early 1830's he spent about three years as a school teacher at Colchester, Essex, England. It was during this time that he came into contact with the evangelical preaching of a Church of England minister that led to his personal assurance of salvation.
On returning to Scotland he did further studies at Aberdeen University and was ordained by the Presbytery of Glasgow on 29 June 1837 for work in Australia. His decision to work in Australia had been indirectly influenced by Dr. John Dunmore Lang with whom he sailed per "Portland" and arrived at Sydney, New South Wales in December 1837.
From Sydney he was sent on to Melbourne, per "James Watt" which arrived on 28 January 1838. At Melbourne he was quite surprised to find a Presbyterian minister already in residence. The Rev. James Clow, (having retired as Senior Minister of the Scottish Church, Bombay, India) had arrived with his family the previous month. Though Rev. Clow did occasionally officiate at services he held no formal position and became a mentor to Rev. Forbes and eventually his father-in-law.
Rev. Forbes became the first minister at the Scots Church, Melbourne. He preached in the rain at the laying of the church's foundation stone on 21 January 1841 and preached at the opening of the church on 3 October 1841.
In 1843 a dispute arose in the church in Scotland. State aid was being linked to attempts to gain influence in church matters. Rather than submit to this interference many ministers left their parishes and formed new congregations that were financially self-supporting. These events are known as the Disruption and the new congregations became the Free Church.
Largely in sympathy with his fellow ministers in Scotland, Rev. Forbes renounced his connectons to the establishment in Scotland on 9 October 1846 and left his position at Scots Church, Melbourne on 17 November 1846. He then preached in the Mechanics Institute Hall for a time before founding the John Knox Free Church in Swanston Street, Melbourne.
On 15 April 1845 at 'Tithatuan', near Melbourne, Port Phillip District, he married Helen Johanna Clow, eldest daughter of the Rev. James Clow and his wife Margaret, nee Morison.
Forbes was the founder and editor of the "Port Phillip Christian Herald" newspaper from 1846. He also issued "The Free Presbyterian Messenger for Australia Felix" from 1847. During his time at Port Phillip he was also instrumental in founding several schools.
Rev. James Forbes died of a respiratory ailment on 12 August 1851 at the Manse of John Knox's Church, Melbourne, Victoria, aged 38 years, leaving left behind his wife, two sons and two daughters. He was buried on 15 August 1851 at the Flagstaff Hill Cemetery, Melbourne. The burial service was conducted by the Rev. John Hume who had been ordained at John Knox's Church on 12 June 1851 and had been assisting there since that time. In August 1855 his remains were transferred to the Melbourne General Cemetery, Carlton.
A well-researched biography on the Rev. James Forbes was published in 2001 by Crossing Press of Sydney, N.S.W. Written by Mairi Harman it is entitled "James Forbes of Melbourne - Pioneer Clergyman and Educator." An article about him also appears in the Australian Dicionary of Biography.
Contributed by Alexander Romanov-Hughes (PPPG Member No. 52)
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