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Issue 13 - Totally torn in two

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Scotland Magazine Issue 13
March 2004


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Totally torn in two

The 'disruption' saw Scotland's Kirk split for more than 85 years. James Irvine Robertson explains why it happened.

The free kirk, the wee kirk, the kirk without the steeple; the auld kirk,the cauld kirk, the kirk without the people.

In 1603, James VI inherited the English throne. The monarchy left Edinburgh for London for good. Parliament followed in 1707. Scottish national identity coalesced around the two remaining great institutions – the Law and the Church.

Since the reformation the struggle between radicals for a Presbyterian and democratic form of worship against centralised control by bishops and the king had been at the foundation of almost continual conflict.

The former had been triumphant; ministers were elected by the congregation. With the Kirk’s influence over the moral character of the people and its control of schools and poor relief, it cradled the nation in its hand. This pre-eminent position had been enshrined in the Treaty of Union.

But in 1712 the new British Parliament casually restored lay patronage which gave the land owners, the heritors, the power to select ministers for vacant parishes.

In theory the candidate still needed the approval of the congregation – the Call – but in fact the civil courts supported the lairds and soldiers were sometimes needed to enforce the chosen succession in the teeth of parishioners’ opposition. The Kirk had become part of the establishment and the ‘Call’ became increasingly seen as a formality.

Many Presbyterians found this an intolerable interference by secular interests in the church and many thousands seceded to form their own independent congregations during the course of the 18th century.

As the poet and critic Matthew Arnold stated: ‘Presbyterianism is born unto separation as sparks fly upwards’ the established ministers prospered.

In the countryside they became gentlemen with large manses and extensive glebes. The ministry became a standard route by which a poor boy could make a name for himself and haul himself up the social scale.

Some of these clergymen were of deepest conviction and good shepherds to their flocks. Some also contributed to the intellectual life of the nation, becoming prominent figures of the Enlightenment or dabbled in science, antiquarianism or other forms of scholarship.

But others were lax and corrupt and, if protected by the laird, they were unassailable. This was certainly not the church for which John Knox had fought for.

The Kirk polarised between the moderates who supported the status quo and the evangelicals who wished to return to a purer faith untrammelled by political concerns. The latter group produced a regeneration, particularly in the Highlands and the West and many new churches were built to accommodate this fresh religious fervour.

Within the Kirk itself, the evangelicals under the leadership of the charismatic Thomas Chalmers became increasingly powerful and Chalmers was appointed moderator of the General Assembly, the governing body of the Kirk, in 1832.

Patronage was the issue round which the struggle for control of the church became concentrated. After taking the best legal advice, the General Assembly passed a Veto Act in 1834 which gave church courts the power to overturn the selection of a minister if it was against the wishes of the congregation.

In 1838 when Robert Young was appointed by the Earl of Kinnoul to the living of Auchterader only two heads of families supported his Call: 287 protested against it.

The veto was applied but Young appealed, eventually to the House of Lords, the highest court in Great Britain, which upheld his case.

In 1842, when the General Assembly set out its grievances in the Claim of Right, Parliament refused to adopt it, ruling that the church must be obedient ‘to the sentences of the civil tribunal in matters sacred as well as secular.’

In London the controversy was sneered at as a mere ‘parsons’ brawl’. But it wasn’t. Amid great drama, the inevitable break came at the
General Assembly of 1843.

Thousands packed the street outside St Andrews Church as the retiring moderator, an evangelical, Dr David Welsh read out a long statement of protest. The Kirk must be subject to Christ and not the state.

He then walked out into the street followed by his supporters and processed amid cheering crowds quarter of a mile through the New Town to Tanfield Hall in Canonmills where, in front of 3,000 spectators, was founded the Free Protesting Church of Scotland with Chalmers as its first moderator.

Forty per cent of the clergy, the youngest and most dynamic of them, and a third of the congregations joined him. It is scarcely possible to exaggerate the extent and depth of the bitterness that followed, especially in many parts of the Highlands, where defection to the Free Church was almost complete.

With certain notable exceptions, most of the ruling class opposed the evangelicals but the religious revival that resulted from the Free Church stamped itself on national life during the 19th century.

Within four years, 730 Free churches were built, 44,000 children were being educated in Free Church schools, seminaries established and an alternative religious structure to the established church been created, funded entirely by private subscription.

This was the peoples’ church, founded upon the gospel and independent of the authority of the state and the land owners. It marked a sea change in the social and administrative structure of the country and initially kick started the vigour and enterprise of Victorian Scotland.

In 40 years the Free Church raised £17 million. But, in the long run, with the church split down the middle, its remarkable monolithic influence over the lives of the Scottish people was diluted and the importance of the General Assembly in representing the moral will of the nation lost for ever.

By the 1890s and early 1900s the old divisions were closing although several small remnants of purists stood out; prominent among these were congregations, mostly in the Highlands but also elsewhere, including the so-called Wee Frees.

The vast majority of Presbyterians were left in two main blocks. They repaired the old Disruption when the Free Church and the Church of Scotland were reunited in 1929.

1560 Reformation in Scotland
1690 Presbyterianism restored. Congregations choose their own minister
1712 Patronage Act. Parliament restores power of ministerial selection to local land owners
1733 First Secession against patronage
1761 Second Secession against patronage
1834 Veto Act declaring that congregations have power to veto ministers’ appointments
1839 Veto Act declared illegal by House of Lords
1843 Disruption
1929 Reunification