By D. Douglas Gebbie
A Historical Introduction to the Works of William Cunningham
In August 1560 the Scottish Parliament met in Edinburgh and received a petition, signed by all ranks of people, for the abolition of papal jurisdiction over Scotland, and for the legal recognition of the Reformed faith. To that end, Parliament asked the Reformed ministers to draw up a confession defining the country’s new religion. In four days, John Knox and his colleagues submitted a list of twenty five articles which Parliament examined and then approved. From that time on, Scotland has been a Protestant country.
The ministers then proceeded to draw up a Book of Discipline which they presented to the first General Assembly of the Reformed Church in Scotland. The Book of Discipline was in part the constitution of the church, and in part a manifesto for the changes the Reformers wanted to bring about in the land. There was, however, one problem: the success of the venture depended in great measure upon the church receiving the revenues from the property which had been previously held by the bishops and monasteries. Not surprisingly, when the new constitution was put to Parliament, the nobles, who had already annexed these lands, refused to pass it. This set back made life very difficult financially for the ministers. But they used to great effect the freedom from persecution granted in 1560. In the church’s first seven years, the number of ministers grew from a dozen to 252, plus 154 exhorters and 467 readers, all without state aid.
With the approaching arrival of their new queen, the rift between the General Assembly and Parliament widened, and Knox had to struggle against the Secretary of State, Maitland of Lethington, to stop the crown from taking away the Assembly’s right to meet without royal permission. The issue of the freedom of General Assemblies was to color the relationship between church and state in Scotland for the next 150 years.
In August 1561 the newly widowed Mary Queen of Scots returned to Edinburgh from France, intent upon bringing her domain back under the See of Rome. But her plots ended in 1567, when the Protestant Lords who had opposed her mother defeated Mary and forced her to abdicate in favor of her infant son James. With the Earl of Murray, Mary’s half brother, acting as regent, a Protestant Parliament ratified anew the acts abolishing the jurisdiction of the Pope and accepting the Scots Confession, and also settled the terms of a new coronation oath binding future sovereigns to the Protestant religion. It went on to establish the Reformed church by acknowledging it in law as being the Church of Scotland, and endowing it with a portion of the revenues from the lands which the pre Reformation church had held. But the difficulties were not over. With the assassination of Murray in 1570 and the death of Knox two years later, both church and state entered into a period of instability.
The church was helped by the return of Andrew Melville from the European continent. Under his leadership the Church of Scotland approved the Second Book of Discipline in April 1578. This revision of the constitution fully delineated a Presbyterian church order for the Church of Scotland; but its clear distinction between the rights of the church and the power of the state caused Parliament to reject it. As had been the case with the First Book of Discipline, the General Assembly asserted its spiritual independence and carried through the reforms.
When James VI mounted the throne, he did little to stabilize either state or church. Influenced by his corrupt “favorites,” he tried to extend his sovereignty to include the church. He called a Parliament in May 1584 and had all the previous legislation regarding the church rescinded. Acts of Parliament were passed which made rejecting the jurisdiction of the king over the church a treasonable offense, denied the courts of the church the right to meet without the king’s express permission, and abolished Presbyterian order and imposed Episcopacy.
Those who opposed these “Black Acts” were dealt with severely. But by 1592 James had been forced to change his advisers, and a new political climate altered his attitude towards the church. When Parliament met that year, it annulled the Black Acts of 1584 and ratified the leading portions of the Second Book of Discipline. The Church of Scotland was Presbyterian in constitution; but unfortunately the Act of 1592 had two serious defects. First, it retained the pre Reformation system of patronage, which gave the endowers of a parish the right to choose the minister, whereas the law of the church placed that right in the hands of the congregation. Second, James demanded that the General Assembly not meet without his permission, that no law of the church be considered valid without his ratification, and that ministers not refer in their sermons to any public affair or matter of state. It was not much of a compromise, and it did not last long, for in 1600 James felt secure enough to re-impose bishops on the church. And again any who opposed him were punished.
In 1603 Queen Elizabeth died and King James VI of Scotland became also James I of England. As King of England, James was head of the Church of England.
Settled in London, he now set about making himself head of the Church of Scotland. He prorogued the 1605 General Assembly and named no date for its next meeting. The Assembly responded by setting and keeping its own date. James rose to their challenge by sending a messenger at arms who ordered them, on pain of rebellion, to disperse. The ministers agreed to go, but before they went they appointed the last Tuesday of September 1606 as the date of the next assembly. James was furious; of the nineteen ministers who had defied him, eight were imprisoned or sentenced to internal exile, and six were banished to France.
Not satisfied with stamping his authority on the government of the Church of Scotland, James turned to the subject of worship. In 1618 a puppet assembly met in Perth and passed the infamous Five Articles of Perth. The five new practices were: kneeling to receive communion, the observance of the high points of “the Christian calendar,” the participation of bishops in confirmation, private baptism, and private communion. For twenty years afterward there was strife, as many in the church resisted the enforcing of these innovations. The conflict intensified when Charles I succeeded his father in 1625.
Charles was brought up to believe in the divine right of kings. To prove it, he began his reign by demanding that the Perth Articles be obeyed. He followed up by trying to regulate the dress of the clergy, and by imposing the Church of England’s Book of Canons on the Scottish Church. But he went too far when in 1637 he ordered the use of a prayer book, Laud’s Liturgy. There was a riot in Edinburgh. Church and state in Scotland rose up against the king. On the 28th of February 1638 a great crowd gathered in the Greyfriars’ Kirkyard to sign the National Covenant. The Covenanters vowed their allegiance to the king, so long as he acted within his sphere, but bound themselves by oath to resist Popery, and to defend Presbyterianism. Copies of the covenant were sent throughout the country, where support for it was so great that Charles was forced to agree to demands for a free General Assembly and a free Parliament.
The General Assembly met in Glasgow, on the 21st of November 1638. All the previous acts which favored Episcopacy were annulled. The bishops were put on trial for submitting to the king rather than to the laws of the church. When the charges against the bishops were read out, the king’s commissioner attempted to dissolve the Assembly in the name of the king, the claimed head of the church. The moderator of the Assembly, Alexander Henderson, refused to leave the chair, and replied, “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, the only Head and Monarch of his Church, we cannot dissolve this Assembly.” It continued to sit until the 20th of December.
The Glasgow Assembly also addressed the question of patronage. It enacted, “That no person be intruded in any office of the Kirk contrary to the will of the congregation to which they are appointed.” The 1646 Assembly followed up the act by petitioning Parliament to repeal the civil laws referring to patrons. In March 1649, patronage was abolished in Scotland.
In 1643 the Solemn League and Covenant brought Scotland into the English Civil War on the side of the English Parliament, against King Charles I. It also led to participation by Church of Scotland commissioners in the work of the Westminster Assembly, bringing the Church of England into line with “the word of God, and the example of the best reformed churches.” Between 1643 and 1648 the Westminster divines drafted a series of documents intended to institute uniformity in doctrine, worship and church government in the united kingdoms of Scotland, England, and Ireland. The Westminster Confession of Faith was adopted by the 1647 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, in an act which went on to claim the church’s right to hold general assemblies without the permission of the civil magistrate.
When the English Parliament executed Charles I on the 30th of January 1649, Scotland was shocked, and the Parliament of Scotland proclaimed his son King Charles II. The Church of Scotland was divided as to whether the young man could be trusted when he vowed to uphold the covenants; but the matter was taken out of their hands when the English parliamentary army under Oliver Cromwell crossed the border and inflicted a crushing defeat on the Scottish covenanted army at Dunbar, on the 3rd of September 1650. The Scottish Parliament crowned Charles on the 1st of January 1651 and set about raising a new army. This created two parties in the church: the Resolutioners sought to muster the whole of the nation behind the new king, while the Protesters were not satisfied with his assurances, and held that the army should be made up only of those who were not hostile to the covenants. Again the Scots were defeated by Cromwell, and there followed ten years of military occupation, during which the General Assembly was banned from meeting.
The Restoration of Charles II in 1660 to the throne in London did nothing but prove the Protesters to have been right in their distrust of him. Only one year after his return, he annulled the legislation of all the Scottish Parliaments since 1633, and reimposed bishops on the Church of Scotland. The following year he ejected from their parishes all ministers who would not submit to the authority of the bishops. Thus began a period of persecution which would reach its height in the “Killing Times,” and last for twenty six years. Meanwhile Charles II and his Roman Catholic brother James VII sought to win over the Covenanters with Acts of Indulgence. The compliant were allowed to return to their parishes once they had sworn loyalty to the crown. Others, realizing that to accept such an indulgence was an acknowledgment of state sovereignty over the church, refused, even in the face of imprisonment, torture and death.
The Whig Revolution of 1688 brought William of Orange to the throne, and ended the persecution. But as far as the Church of Scotland was concerned, the Revolution Settlement did not remove all the tensions between church and state. From the outset it was clear that William would ignore the Solemn League and Covenant; there would be no uniformity of religion between England and Scotland. The Church of England remained Episcopalian. And there were other issues which were not addressed when Presbyterian church government and the Westminster Confession were restored by the Scottish Parliament at the Revolution. Charles II had wiped all the acts of the covenanted Parliaments off the statute book; thus the 1649 acts granting freedom of general assemblies and abolishing patronage were reversed. In failing to correct this, the defects of the 1592 act were now carried over into the Revolution Settlement. Here were the seeds of the controversies which were to divide the national church in the years to come.
The first breach in the established church came when a number of the persecuted Covenanters stayed out of the Church of Scotland at the Revolution, refusing to be a part of a church which did not continue to use the covenants, and declining to recognize the authority of a civil power which was not covenanted. These hard line folk, who later became the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland, isolated themselves from public life by dissenting from all oaths requiring allegiance to an institution which did not subscribe to the Solemn League and Covenant. Significantly, the three remaining Covenanting ministers who had preached to these people in the fields during the killing times would not join them in their separation, but returned to the national church.
In the established church it soon became clear that William would use his power under the 1592 act to call and prorogue Assemblies. But thanks to the wise diplomacy of churchman William Carstares, there was no major clash; freedom of assemblies was granted in practice if not in statute, and the issue of the church’s spiritual independence dropped from prominence.
The issue which was to shape the next period of Scottish ecclesiastical history was patronage. The Revolution Settlement placed the right to choose a minister in the hands of the kirk session, acting together with the local patron. This interim measure was not to last long. The Parliaments of England and Scotland united in 1707, and in 1712 the Tory advisers of Queen Anne rushed a bill through Parliament which reenacted patronage in the Church of Scotland. The General Assembly protested, but the damage was done.
At first the system seemed to operate without great problems. The patron presented a preacher to the parish; the presbytery approved his qualifications; and if the congregation were willing to call him, the presbytery proceeded to form the pastoral tie. But as time went on, a division appeared in the Church, with the Evangelical party upholding the rights of the congregation to elect their pastor, and the Moderate party favoring the patrons. As the power of the Moderates grew in the church assemblies, so did the power of the patrons, and the rights of the people were increasingly disregarded. There was also a difference between the Evangelicals and the Moderates in the character of their preaching, the Evangelicals preaching experimental Calvinism, and the moderates expatiating on moral virtue.
In 1732 Ebenezer Erskine preached a sermon against the corruptions which had developed in the church through the practice of patronage. The discourse was delivered before the Synod of Perth and Stirling. The Synod rebuked Erskine for the things he had said, and when he appealed to the General Assembly, the Moderate majority there upheld the rebuke given by the Synod. Erskine protested the Assembly’s action, and was joined in his protest by Alexander Moncreiff, William Wilson and James Fisher. The four were ordered to appear before the Commission of Assembly the following November. At that meeting, by the deciding vote of the moderator, all of them were deposed from the ministry of the Church of Scotland. At Gairney Bridge, on the 5th of December 1733, the four men met and constituted the Associate Presbytery. This was the beginning of the so called Secession Church.
Within the established church the General Assembly began to take a tough line with presbyteries which scrupled over settling an unwanted presentee on an unwilling people. Its solution was to create “riding committees” of ministers who would carry out the ordination or induction regardless of presbytery or congregation. Between 1740 and 1750, there were more than fifty such settlements.
The Moderates changed their tactic in 1751. Instead of sending in a riding committee, they passed an act of assembly which forced presbyteries, no matter how unwilling, to obey the instructions of a superior court or be deposed. They wasted little time in implementing their new policy. The people of Inverkeithing, with the support of the majority of the Presbytery of Dunfermline, had resisted for a number of years the presentation of a Mr. Richardson to be their minister. The case came to the Assembly, which ordered the Presbytery to carry out the settlement; by six votes to three, the Presbytery refused to proceed. The Assembly voted to depose one of the six, Thomas Gillespie of Carnock, as a warning to any others who thought to go against the General Assembly. While the system of patronage was victorious in the Church of Scotland, a congregation which was not happy with the presentee would build a meeting house and form a Relief congregation. Gillespie’s Relief Presbytery, with three churches in 1761, had grown into a Synod with over one hundred places of worship in 1800.
The first half of the nineteenth century saw two major controversies regarding church and state. The first centered on the legitimacy of any association between church and state; the second on the separate jurisdictions of the two divinely ordained institutions.
The Voluntary Controversy had its origins in the Secession Church. In 1747 the Seceders split over the Burgess Oath which required those holding civil office in certain burghs to swear that they would uphold “the true Protestant religion presently professed within this realm.” The Burghers, or Associate Presbytery, maintained that it was permissible for their people to take the oath, understanding it as being merely a bar to keep out Papists and Episcopalians. The Anti Burghers, or General Associate Presbytery, read the oath as an endorsement of the established church, whose corruptions they had just left; they therefore barred their people from holding office in the burghs concerned.
Around the turn of the century, both branches of the Secession split again. This time the issue was the “New Light”; the Scots term was “New Licht.” New Light deviated from the orthodoxy of previous generations by teaching that there should be no association between church and state. This took the form of a plea for greater liberty of conscience; the movement was in time accompanied by a tolerance within these church bodies for the preaching of a universal atonement made by Christ.
In 1820 the two “New Licht” Synods joined to form the United Associate Synod of the Secession Church. At the new Synod’s meeting in April 1829, Andrew Marshall preached a sermon entitled Ecclesiastical Establishments Considered, in which he condemned any connection between church and state as being not only unbiblical, but positively detrimental to the cause of Christ. Less than a month later, and before Marshall’s sermon had left the presses, Thomas Chalmers, a prominent figure among the Evangelicals in the Church of Scotland, delivered a sermon On Ecclesiastical Establishments, supporting a friendly association of church and state. This was the beginning of the Voluntary Controversy proper. In the August issue of the Edinburgh Christian Instructor, edited by Andrew Thomson of the Church of Scotland, a review was printed which gave a reasoned critique of Marshall’s sermon. Pamphlet then followed pamphlet. Ralph Wardlaw and John Brown of Edinburgh wrote in favor of Voluntaryism. On the other side, John Inglis published his masterful Ecclesiastical Establishments Vindicated. The controversy reached its climax, but not its conclusion, with Chalmers’ London lectures in the spring of 1838, and Wardlaw’s reply the following year. By then, another and greater controversy overshadowed it.
By the 1830s, the Evangelical party in the Church of Scotland had grown to such an extent that it could muster a slight majority of votes in the General Assembly. The Evangelicals, under the leadership of Thomas Chalmers, began moves to reform the running sore of patronage. In 1834 the General Assembly passed two acts which led to the intervention of the civil courts, and placed the church in conflict with the policy of the government in power.
The intention of the first act was to deal with the problem of presentees being intruded upon unwilling congregations. The Veto Act, as it was called, instructed presbyteries not to proceed with the settlement of a presentee where a majority of the heads of families in the congregation were not in favor of the man. Within a few months, the new act was tested in the Court of Session, and the ensuing struggle was known as the Non Intrusion Controversy.
When the Earl of Kinnoul presented a Mr. Robert Young to the parish of Auchterarder in October 1834, only three people signed the call, and 287 out of the 330 heads of families registered their dissent. Of course the presbytery refused to proceed further, and Young appealed to the Synod and to the 1835 Assembly, which dismissed his appeal. Mr. Young then took his case to the civil courts.
The Court of Session’s decision was pronounced on the 8th of March 1838. By eight votes to five, the judges said that the Church, in passing the Veto Act, had acted contrary to Parliament’s 1712 Patronage Act. The court instructed the presbytery to proceed with the settlement of Mr. Young. When Young appeared before the next meeting of the Presbytery, with the Court of Session’s findings in his hand, the Presbytery referred the case to the General Assembly. The Assembly adopted a resolution affirming the spiritual independence of the church, and stood by the Veto Act.
The situation was further complicated by events in the linked parishes of Lethendy and Kinlock, where a Mr. Clark was presented as colleague and successor to the ailing minister, Rev. Laurence Butter. Clark’s settlement was vetoed, and when both the Presbytery of Dunkeld and the 1836 Assembly refused to induct him, he too turned to the civil courts. While his case was being heard, the old minister died and the patron presented to the parishes a Mr. Kesson, who received the unanimous support of the people. But before the Presbytery could proceed with the ordination, Clark obtained an interim interdict barring the settlement. The 1838 Assembly ordered the Presbytery to ignore the interdict, and ordain and induct Kesson to the parishes.
The same year that the Church and the Court of Session came into conflict over the Auchterarder and Lethendy cases, a third case arose which, more than the others, showed what the years of Moderate control had yielded in the relationship of church and state. In 1837 the parish of Marnoch, in the Presbytery of Strathbogie, fell vacant. The Earl of Fife and Huntly presented a Mr. John Edwards to the charge. At the meeting to moderate the call, only one out of 300 heads of families came forward to sign, and 261 recorded their dissent. The Presbytery was divided. Seven ministers were Moderates and opposed the Veto Act; four were Evangelicals and upheld it. The majority favored taking no action until the result of the Auchterarder case was known. So the minority appealed to the 1838 Assembly. The Presbytery obeyed the Assembly’s order to proceed in terms of the Veto Act, and the patron presented a new man, Mr. Henry. But Edwards, following the precedent of the Lethendy case, claimed that he was the rightful presentee, and obtained an interdict from the Court of Session, halting the settlement of Henry.
Again the Presbytery divided. The Moderate majority complied with the interdict on the basis that the Court of Session was competent to rule on the settling of ministers. Once more the minority appealed. The Synod of Moray found against the seven Moderates, declaring that admission to a pastoral charge was solely the jurisdiction of the courts of the church, and referred the case to the 1839 General Assembly.
In the meantime, the Court of Session had decided in favor of Edwards, and ordered the Presbytery to proceed with his trials for ordination. The Presbytery had to decide whether to obey the civil courts or the church courts. The Moderates obeyed the civil courts, and were then suspended by the church courts. The “Strathbogie Seven” proceeded to take out interdicts barring anyone other than themselves from preaching in their churches. All the prominent Evangelical preachers in the Church of Scotland lined up to breach these interdicts, but they were not enforced by the civil government. When the Seven were cited to appear before the 1840 Assembly, they went back to the Court of Session and interdicted the General Assembly from proceeding against them.
There were now two Presbyteries of Strathbogie, one composed of the Seven ministers recognized by the Court of Session, and the other having the remaining four ministers, who were recognized by the church courts. And both sent commissioners to the 1841 Assembly. After the nominees of the Seven had been rejected, the Assembly proceeded to deal with the Strathbogie case. In defiance of the civil interdict, the Assembly found the charges against the Seven relevant and proven by a vote of 222 to 125; then it deposed them from the ministry.
If the first act which brought the 1834 Assembly into conflict with the state was the Veto Act, the second was the Chapel Act. The growth of the urban population of Scotland in the early nineteenth century made it necessary to begin a work of church extension. In order to reach the masses now resident in the cities, “chapels of ease” had been erected to stand alongside the parish churches. At first these chapels had no kirk sessions of their own, and their ministers had no seats on presbyteries. The Chapel Act made these preaching stations into fully sanctioned charges. A chapel was given a portion of the existing parish from which to draw its congregation; it differed from a parish church only in that it had to be self supporting, and played no part in such social work as education and poor relief, which were then in the hands of the Church of Scotland. In 1839 the Old Light Burghers, heartened by the stand taken by the Evangelical majority against the old grievance of patronage, were reunited with the established church, and their congregations were brought into the Church on the same level as the chapels.
The Chapel Act fell foul of the patrons of existing parishes because they saw it as threatening their interests. One, a Mr. Cuninghame of Lainshaw, went to the Court of Session to stop the Burgher church in Stewarton from being admitted to the Presbytery. The Court decided that the erection of parishes was a civil matter, not an ecclesiastical one, and that the chapel ministers must be expelled from presbyteries, and their kirk sessions and parochial arrangements abolished.
From 1838 on, it was clear that the Court of Session intended to overrule the General Assembly. When the Synod of Stirling and Perth appealed the Auchterarder case to the House of Lords—the highest civil court in the United Kingdom—the Lords Brougham and Cottenham upheld the decision of the Court of Session. Another solution had to be found. In the summer of 1839, a deputation went to London, thinking that there might be some support from Lord Melbourne’s Whig government; they were disappointed. Lord Aberdeen and the Duke of Argyll were sympathetic, but their bills came to nothing on the floor of the House.
Meanwhile the court cases continued back and forth, but things came to a head in 1842. At the 1841 Assembly, William Cunningham, who had been active throughout the Non Intrusion Controversy, moved that the Assembly should petition Parliament for the abolition of patronage. His motion failed by 109 votes to 120. Undeterred, he moved in similar terms the next year, and won by a majority of sixty nine. The General Assembly of 1842 not only passed Cunningham’s motion, but proceeded to set out its grievances in a Claim, Declaration and Protest. Chalmers moved that the Claim be adopted and set formally before Parliament. His motion was carried by 241 votes to 110. All eyes were on London. What would the government do?
On the 17th of November 1842, a Convocation of nearly five hundred ministers met in Edinburgh and passed two series of resolutions. The first committed the signatories to resist any further encroachments by the civil courts upon the jurisdiction of the Church; it was endorsed by 423 ministers attending. The second series of resolutions declared that if the government did not yield, then the signatories would have no alternative but to leave the established church. It was signed by 354 ministers, willing to abandon stipend and manse for “the crown rights of King Jesus.” In March 1843 the Commission of Assembly petitioned the House of Commons for an answer to the Claim. The Tory government of Sir Robert Peel saw no reason why the Church of Scotland should be on a different footing from the Church of England, and neither did the House of Commons. There would be no redress.
The General Assembly met on the 18th of May 1843. After the opening diet of worship, the retiring moderator, Dr. David Welsh, read a protest against the state’s infringements on the spiritual independence of the established Church of Scotland. He left the chair, signed the tabled protest, and walked out of the Assembly. Over two hundred other commissioners followed his example. Together they marched to a hall in the Cannonmills area of Edinburgh, where they constituted the first General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland. Among the multitudes lining the streets was Reformed Presbyterian minister William Symington, whose Messiah the Prince, had played an acknowledged role in rousing many Church of Scotland ministers to an understanding of what was at stake.
Some 480 ministers came out of the established church at the Disruption of 1843. Chalmers defined their position regarding the relationship between church and state thus: “That is to say, though we quit the Establishment, we go out on the Establishment Principle; we quit a vitiated Establishment, but would rejoice in returning to a pure one. To express it otherwise, we are the advocates for a national recognition and national support of religion, and we are not Voluntaries.”