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May 18th 1843

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The Free Church of Scotland is born

The Church in Scotland always enjoyed a turbulent and complicated history, In the early days after the Reformation there was a period when the Church demanded, and was granted, almost complete spiritual independence. Knox could tell Queen Mary, “Religion comes not from Princes, but from the eternal God alone.”  Later, Andrew Melville could refer to James 6th as “God’s silly vassal.” 

But with the passing of time the relationship between Church and state underwent a change. When at last in 1688 Presbyterianism became the official form of doctrine in Scotland it was ratified by an Act of Parliament. This was in effect an admission of the State’s responsibility for establishing a Church. The carefree days of complete spiritual independence and the early dreams of establishing a theocracy in Scotland had passed and were not to return.

The new relationship was demonstrated in the most practical way by the Act by which Parliament in 1712 restored Patronage in the appointment of ministers. The Patrons or landowners of the districts had from early times been responsible for the building of churches and the paying of the clergy. Inevitably, they also played a part in selecting a new minister, but it was the Act of 1712 which gave them the legal right to appoint ministers without necessarily consulting the congregation.

The Act of 1712 was passed without any pretence at consultation and indeed the Church made an official protest that the Act was “contrary to our Christian constitution”  and designed “to weaken and undermine the Presbyterian establishment.”  These protests had little effect though they continued to be made. For some fifty years the Assembly passed resolutions aimed at “the redress of the grievance of Patronage.”  But as the years went by, the protests became more and more of a formality rather than an active attempt to remedy the situation.

There were those within the Church who were not prepared to accept the ultimate authority of the State, and all through the 18th Century there were bodies of churchmen who seceded from the Church of Scotland to form new congregations. In Perth, for instance, there were at one time seven dissenting churches in addition to three Church of Scotland congregations. But notwithstanding these periodic eruptions, the dominant characteristic of the Church was conformity, the tendency to place particular emphasis on the sanctity of law and authority. The supreme virtue was moderation, which meant in effect, the acceptance of the status quo.

It was the advent of the French Revolution, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and later the struggle for, and eventually the passing of, the Reform Bill of 1832 that brought with it profound changes in Scotland. The long period of political stagnation was brought to an end and with it new thinking emerged within the Church. The dominant characteristic was no longer moderation but zeal, and the General Assembly began to be controlled by the ‘Evangelicals’.

There was intense public interest in religion and well known preachers could command large audiences. Lectures on Foreign, Jewish and Colonial missions abounded and on Sundays the streets “are as deserted and still during the hours of divine service as if they belonged to a city of the dead.”  The question of Patronage once more took centre stage. In 1834 the General Assembly introduced the Veto Act. This Act declared that no person should be forced upon a congregation contrary to the wishes of a majority of the members. It was not directed against Patronage as such, but merely against the foisting of an unpopular minister on an unwilling congregation. Trouble soon followed.

In October of that year, Robert Young was presented to the parish of Auchterarder by the Patron, the Earl of Kinnoull. He had, it was said, “none of the gifts of the popular preacher. He was, moreover, slightly lame in one leg, and slightly contorted in one hand.”  He was also the nephew of a very unpopular factor and 187 heads of families recorded their Veto against him with only the two heads of families and the factor signing the ‘call’. The Presbytery therefore rejected his nomination.

Robert Young and his patron immediately took the case to the Court of Session where by eight votes to five it was decided that it was illegal to reject him before making trial of his qualifications. This, in effect, made the Veto Act illegal and demonstrated once again the authority of the State over the affairs of the Church. The affair rumbled on and it was 1839 before the final appeal was made to the House of Lords. Once again the judgement of the Court of Session was upheld. By this time there were already voices calling not only for the reintroduction of the Veto Act but also for the complete abolition of Patronage.

Attempts were made to resolve the crisis; a deputation met Lord Melbourne, the Tory Prime Minister, but found him “feckless and fushionless.”  The Whig Government of 1840 proved no more sympathetic and though private Bills by the Duke of Argyll and Sir George Sinclair gathered a certain amount of support, the position of the Moderates and the Evangelicals became more entrenched. There was even the emergence of a Middle Party, a group broadly in favour of reform but upset by the increasingly extreme attitudes taken up by the Evangelicals.

At the General Assembly of 1842 there was produced the so called ‘Claim of Right’. This was a long closely argued document that concluded with a number of assertion of fundamental importance. It insisted that Christ was the only head of the Church; that the Church should have complete spiritual freedom; that the Church’s privileges were guaranteed by the Union of 1707; that the Patronage Act of 1712 was a violation of the Act of Security, which was a condition of the Union and that Parliament was now encroaching upon the sphere of jurisdiction of the Church. The document was accepted with acclamation by the Evangelicals and by the Moderates with foreboding. Though the Claim of Right was sent to the Government it was inevitable that it would be rejected and the leaders of the Evangelicals began organising for the Disruption to come.

When at last the Assembly met in 1843, Dr Welsh, the retiring Moderator read a protest declaring that a free Assembly of the Church of Scotland “in accordance with the laws and constitution of the said Church,”  was impossible. After the protest was read, Dr Welsh laid the document on the table and left the building followed by a long line of supporters, including 474 ministers. The gathering made their way to Tanfold Hall in Canonmills which had already been made ready for them. There they formally seceded from the Church of Scotland and formed the Free Church of Scotland.

It could fairly be stated that the conclusions of the Claim of Right became the abiding principles of the new Church, almost in fact the constitution of the Church. In particular, there was the insistence upon complete spiritual freedom. Patronage was of course removed and the Free Church ministers were paid by the generosity and devotion of their own members. In the early years, “the peculiar glow, the moral elevation and exhilaration”  resulted in some 500 churches being built. One writer described the events, “It was the most honourable fact for Scotland that its whole history provides.”  This sweeping generalisation might well be questioned but there is no doubt that the Disruption of 1843 was a magnificent demonstration of religious faith by the common people of Scotland.

Thirty one years later, Patronage was also abolished in the Church of Scotland.

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