He was son to John Binning of Dalvennan, and Margaret M'Kell daughter of Mr. Matthew M'Kell minister at Bothwel, and sister to Mr. Hugh M'Kell one of the ministers of Edinburgh, His father's worldly circumstances were so good (being possest of no inconsiderable estate in the shire of Ayr), that he was enabled to give his son Hugh a very liberal education, the good effects of which appeared very early upon him; -- for the greatness of his spirit and capacity of judgment, gave his parents good grounds to conceive the pleasing hopes of his being a promising child.
When he was at the grammar-school, he made so great proficiency in the knowledge of the Latin tongue, and the Roman authors, that he out-stripped his fellow-scholars, even such as were by some years older than himself. When they went to their diversions he declined their society, and choosed to employ himself either in secret duty with God, or conference with religious people, thinking time was too precious to be lavished away in these things. He began to have sweet familiarity with God, and to live in near communion with him, before others began seriously to lay to heart their lost and undone state and condition by nature, &c. so that before he arrived at the 13th or 14th year of his age, he had even attained to such experience in the way of God, that the most judicious and exercised Christians in the place confessed they were much edified, strengthened and comforted by him, nay that he provoked them to diligence in the duties of religion, being abundantly sensible that they were much out-run by such a youth.
Before he was fourteen years of age, he entered upon the study of philosophy in the university of Glasgow, wherein he made a very considerable progress, by which means he came to be taken notice of in the college by the professors and students, and at the same time he advanced remarkably in religion also. The abstruse depths of philosophy, which are the torture of a slow genius and a weak capacity, he dived into without any pain or trouble, so that by his ready apprehension of things, he was able to do more in one hour than others could do in many days by hard study and close application; and yet he was ever humble, and never exalted with self-conceit, the common foible of young men.
As soon as his course of philosophy was finished, he commenced master of arts with great applause. He began the study of divinity with a view to serve God in the holy ministry, at which time there happened to be a vacancy in the college of Glasgow, by the resignation of Mr. James Dalrymple of Stair, who had some time been his master. And though Mr. Binning was but lately his scholar, yet he was determined, after much intreaty, to stand as a candidate for that post.
According to the usual laudable custom, the masters of the college emitted a program, and sent it to all the universities of the kingdom, inviting such as had a mind for a profession of philosophy, to sift themselves before them, and offer themselves to compete for that preferment, giving assurance that without partiality the place should be conferred upon him who should be found dignior et doctior.
The ministers of the city of Glasgow, considering how much it was the interest of the church that well-qualified persons be put into the profession of philosophy, &c. and knowing that Mr. Binning was eminently pious, and of a bright genius, as well as solid judgment, let upon him to sift himself among the other competitors; but they had difficulty to overcome his modesty. They at last prevailed upon him to declare his willingness to undertake the dispute before the masters. Among others, there were other two candidates, one of whom had the advantage of great interest with Dr. Strang principal of the college at that time, and the other a scholar of great abilities, yet Mr. Binning so managed the dispute, and acquitted himself in all parts of his trial, that to the conviction of the judges, he darkened his rivals. But the doctor and some of the faculty who joined him, though they could not pretend the person they inclined to prefer, had an equality, much less a superiority in the dispute, yet they argued, caeteris paribus, that this person they intended was a citizen's son, of a competency of learning, and a person of more years, and by that means had greater experience than what Mr. Binning, who was in a manner but of yesterday, could be supposed to have. -- -- But to this it was replied, That Mr. Binning was such a pregnant scholar, so wise and sedate, as to be above all the follies and vanities of youth, and what was wanting in years was made up sufficiently by his more than ordinary and singular endowments. Whereupon a member of the faculty, perceiving the struggle to be great, (as indeed there were plausible reasons on both sides), proposed a dispute between the two candidates ex tempore, upon any subject they should be pleased to prescribe. This being considered, soon put a period to the division amongst them, and those who had opposed him not being willing to engage their friend with such an able antagonist a second time, Mr. Binning was elected.
Mr. Binning was not quite 19 years of age when he commenced regent and professor of philosophy, and, though he had not time to prepare a system of any part of his profession, as he had instantly to begin his class, yet such was the quickness and fertility of his invention, the tenaciousness of his memory and the solidity of his judgment, that his dictates to his scholars had a depth of learning and perspicuity of expression, and was among the first in Scotland, that began to reform philosophy from the barbarous terms and unintelligible jargon of the school-men.
He continued in this profession three years, and discharged his trust so as to gain the general applause of the university for academical exercises: -- And this was the more remarkable, that having turned his thoughts towards the ministry, he carried on his theological studies at the same time, and made great improvements therein, for his memory was so retentive, that he scarcely forgot any thing had heard or read. It was easy and ordinary for him to inscribe any sermon, after he returned to his chamber, at such a length, that the intelligent and judicious reader, who had heard it preached, would not find one sentence wanting.
During this period, he gave full proof of his progress and knowledge in divinity, by a composition from 2 Cor. v.14 For the love of Christ constraineth us, &c. Which performance he sent to a gentlewoman who had been some time at Edinburgh, for her private edification, who having perused the same, judged it to have been a sermon of some eminent minister in the west of Scotland, and put it into the hands of the then provost of Edinburgh, who judged of it in the same manner. But when she returned to Glasgow, she found her mistake by Mr. Binning's asking it at her: -- -- This was the first discovery he had given of his dexterity and abilities in explaining the scripture.
At the expiration of three years as a professor of philosophy, the parish of Govan, which lies adjacent to the city of Glasgow, happened to be vacant, and before this whoever was principal of the college of Glasgow was also minister there; but this being attended with inconveniencies, an alteration was made, and the presbytery having a view to supply that vacancy with Mr. Binning, they took him upon trials, in order to be licensed a preacher; -- and preaching there to the great satisfaction of that people, he was some time after called to be minister of that parish, which call the presbytery approved of, and entered him upon trials for ordination about the 22d year of his age, and went through them to the unanimous approbation of the presbytery, giving their testimony of his fitness to be one of the ministers of the city upon the first vacancy, -- -- having a view at the same time to bring him back to the university, whenever the profession of divinity should be vacant.
He was, considering his age, a prodigy of learning. For before he had arrived at the 26th year of his life, he had such a large stock of useful knowledge, as to be philologus, philosophus et theologus eximius, and might well have been an ornament to the most famous and flourishing university in Europe. This was the more surprising, considering his weakness and infirmity of body, as not being able to read much at a time, or to undergo the fatigue of continual study, in so much that his knowledge seemed rather to have been born with him, than to have been acquired by hard and laborious study.
Though he was bookish, and much intent upon the fulfilling his ministry, yet he turned his thoughts to marriage, and did espouse a virtuous and excellent person Mrs. Barbara Simpson, daughter to Mr. James Simpson a minister in Ireland. Upon the day he was to be married, he went accompanied with his friend (and some others, among whom were several worthy ministers) unto an adjacent country congregation, upon the day of their weekly sermon. The minister of the parish delayed sermon till they would come, hoping to put the work upon one of the ministers whom he expected to be there, but all declining it, he tried next to prevail on the bridegroom, with whom he succeeded, though the invitation was not expected. It was no difficult task to him to preach upon a short warning; he stepped aside a little to pre-meditate and implore his Master's presence and assistance (for he was ever afraid to be alone in this work), and entered the pulpit immediately, and preached upon 1 Pet. i.15. But as he that hath called you is holy, &c. At which time he was so remarkably helped, that all acknowledged that God was with him of a truth, &c.
When the unhappy differences betwixt the resolutioners and protesters fell out, among whom Mr. Binning was of the last denomination, this distinction proved to be of fatal consequence. He saw some of the evils of it in his own time, and being of a catholic and healing spirit, with a view to the cementing of differences, he wrote an excellent treatise of Christian love, which contains very strong and pathetic passages most apposite to this subject. He was no fomenter of factions, but studious of the public tranquillity. He was a man of moderate principles and temperate passions, never imposing or overbearing upon others but willingly hearkened to advice, and always yielded to reason.
The prevailing of the English sectarians under Oliver Cromwel to the overthrow of the presbyterian interest in England, and the various attempts which they made in Scotland on the constitution and discipline of this church was one of the greatest difficulties, which the ministers had then to struggle with. Upon this he hath many excellent reflections in his sermons, particularly in that sermon from Deut. xxxii.4, 5. See his works, page 502, 557, &c.
After he had laboured four years in the ministry, serving God with his spirit in the gospel of his Son, he died in the year 1653, of a consumption, when he was scarce come to the prime and vigour of his life, being only in the 26th year of his age, leaving behind him a sweet favour and an epistle of commendation upon the hearts of those who were his hearers.
He was a person of singular piety, of a humble, meek, and peaceable temper, a judicious and lively preacher, nay so extraordinary a person, that he was justly accounted a prodigy of human learning and knowledge of divinity. From his childhood he knew the scriptures, and from a boy had been much under deep and spiritual exercise, until the time (or a little before) that he entered upon the office of the ministry, when he came to a great calm and tranquillity of mind, being mercifully relieved from all these doubtings, which for a long time he had been exercised with, and though he studied in his discourses to condescend to the capacity of the meaner sort of hearers, yet it must be owned that his gift of preaching was not so much accommodated to a country congregation, as it was to the judicious and learned. Mr. Binning's method was peculiar to himself, much after the haranguing way; he was no stranger to the rules of art, and knew well how to make his matter subservient to the subject he handled. His diction and language was easy and fluent, void of all affectation and bombast, and has a kind of undesigned negligent elegance which arrests the reader's attention. Considering the time he lived in, it might be said, that he carried the orator's prize from his contemporaries in Scotland, and was not at that time inferior to the best pulpit orator in England. While he lived he was highly esteemed, having been a successful instrument of saving himself, and them that heard him, of turning sinners unto righteousness and of perfecting the saints. He died much lamented by all good people who had the opportunity of knowing him. That great divine Mr. James Durham gave him this verdict, |That there was no speaking after Mr. Binning;| and truly he had the tongue of the learned, and knew how to speak a word in season.
Besides his works which are bound up in one quarto volume, and that wrote upon occasion of the public resolutioners, which has been already mentioned, some other little pieces of his have been published since. There is also a book in quarto said to be his, intitled, An useful case of conscience learnedly and acutely discussed and resolved, concerning association and confederacies with idolators, heretics, malignants, &c. first printed anno 1693, which was like to have had some influence at that time upon king William's soldiers while in Flanders, which made him suppress it. And raise a persecution against Mr. James Kid for publishing the same at Utrecht in the Netherlands.