Free Church of Scotland

From Academic Kids

In one sense the Free Church of Scotland dated its existence from the Disruption of 1843, in another it claimed to be the rightful representative of the national Church of Scotland as it was reformed in 1560. In the ecclesiastical history of Scotland the Free Churchman sees three great reforming periods. In his view these deserve to be called reforming on many accounts, but most especially because in them the independence of the church, her inherent scriptural right to exercise a spiritual jurisdiction in which she is responsible to her Divine Head alone, was both earnestly asserted and practically maintained. The first reformation extended from 1560, when the church freely held her first General Assembly, and of her own authority acted on the First Book of Discipline, to 1592, when her Presbyterian order was finally and fully ratified by the parliament. The second period began in 1638, when, after 20 years of suspended animation, the Assembly once more shook off Episcopacy, and terminated in 1649, when the parliament of Scotland confirmed the church in her liberties in a larger and ampler sense than before. The third period began in 1834, when the Assembly made use of what the church believed to be her rights in passing the Veto and Chapel Acts. It culminated in the Disruption of 1843.


Church of Scotland

The fact that the Church, as led first by John Knox and afterwards by Andrew Melville, claimed an inherent right to exercise a spiritual jurisdiction is notorious. More apt to be overlooked is the comparative freedom with which that right was actually used by the church irrespective of state recognition. That recognition was not given until after the queen's resignation in 1567; but, for several years before it came, the church had been holding her Assemblies and settling all questions of discipline, worship, and administration as they arose, in accordance with the first book of polity or discipline which had been drawn up in 1560. Further, in 1581 she, of her own motion, adopted a second book of a similar character, in which she expressly claimed an independent and exclusive jurisdiction or power in all matters ecclesiastical, which flows directly from God and the Mediator Jesus Christ, and is spiritual, not having a temporal head on earth, but only Christ, the only king and governor of his church ; and this claim, though directly negatived in 1584 by the Black Acts, which included an Act of Supremacy over estates spiritual and temporal, continued to be asserted by the Assemblies, until at last it also was practically allowed in the act of 1592.

An act of parliament in 1606, which reponed, restored and reintegrated the estate of bishops to their ancient dignities, prerogatives and privileges, was followed by several acts of various subservient assemblies, which, culminating in that of 1618, practically amounted to a complete surrender of jurisdiction by the church itself. For twenty years no Assemblies whatever were held. This interval must necessarily be regarded from the Presbyterian point of view as having been one of very deep depression. But a second reformation, characterized by great energy and vigour, began in 1638. The proceedings of the Assembly of that year, afterwards tardily and reluctantly acquiesced in by the state, finally issued in the acts of parliament of 1649, by which the Westminster standards were ratified, lay-patronage was abolished, and the coronation oath itself framed in accordance with the principles of Presbyterian church government.

Another period of intense reaction soon set in. No Assemblies were permitted by Cromwell after 1653; and, soon. after the Restoration, Presbytery was temporarily overthrown by a series of rescissory acts. Nor was the Revolution Settlement of 1690 so entirely favorable to the freedom of the church as the legislation of 1649 had been. Prelacy was abolished, and various obnoxious statutes were repealed, but the acts rescissory were not cancelled; presbyterianism was re-established, but the statutory recognition of the Confession of Faith took no notice of certain qualifications under which that document had originally been approved by the Assembly of 1647; the old rights of patrons were again discontinued, but the large powers which had been conferred on congregations by the act of 1649 were not wholly restored. Nevertheless the great principle of a distinct ecclesiastical jurisdiction, embodied in the Confession of Faith, was accepted without reservation, and a Presbyterian polity effectively confirmed both then and at the ratification of the treaty of Union. This settlement, however, did not long subsist unimpaired. In 1712 the act of Queen Anne, restoring patronage to its ancient footing, was passed in spite of the earnest remonstrances of the Scottish people. For many years afterwards (until 1784) the Assembly continued to instruct each succeeding commission to make application to the king and the parliament for redress of the grievance. But meanwhile a new phase of Scottish ecclesiastical politics commonly known as Moderatism had been inaugurated, during the prevalence of which the church became even more indifferent than the lay patrons themselves to the rights of her congregations with regard to the calling of ministers.


From the Free Church point of view, the period from which the secessions under Ebenezer Erskine and Thomas Gillespie are dated was also characterized by numerous other abuses on the Church's part which amounted to a practical surrender of the most important and distinctive principles of her ancient Presbyterian polity. Towards the beginning of the present century there were many circumstances, both within and without the church, which conspired to bring about an. evangelical and popular reaction. against this reign of Moderatism. The result was a protracted struggle, which is commonly referred to as the Ten Years Conflict, and which has been aptly described as the last battle in the long war which 101 nearly 300 years had been waged within the church itself, between the friends and the foes of the doctrine of an exclusive ecclesiastical jurisdiction. That final struggle may be said to have begun with the passing in 1834 of the Veto Act, by which it was declared to be a fundamental law of the church that no pastor should be intruded on a congregation contrary to the will of the people, and by which it was provided that the simple dissent of a majority of heads of families in a parish should be enough to warrant a presbytery in rejecting a presentee. The question of the legality of this measure soon came to be tried in the civil courts; and it was ultimately answered in a sense unfavorable to the church by the decision (1838) of the Court of Session in the Auchterarder case, to the effect that a presbytery had no right to reject a presentee simply because the parishioners protested against his settlement, but was bound to disregard the veto (see Thomas Chalmers). This decision elicited from the Assembly of that year a new declaration of the doctrine of the spiritual independence of the church. The exclusive jurisdiction of the civil courts in regard to the civil rights and emoluments secured by law to the church and the ministers thereof was acknowledged without qualification; and continued implicit obedience to their decisions with reference to these rights and emoluments was pledged. At the same time it was insisted on that, as is declared "in the Confession of Faith of "this National Established Church, the Lord Jesus Christ, as King and Head of the church, hath therein appointed a government in the hand of church officers distinct from the civil magistrate; and that in all matters touching the doctrine, discipline and government of the church her judicatories possess an exclusive jurisdiction, founded on the Word of God, which power ecclesiastical" (in the words of the Second Book of Discipline) "flows immediately from God and the Mediator the Lord Jesus Christ, and is spiritual, not having a temporal head on earth, but only Christ, the only spiritual King and Governor of His Kirk." And it was resolved to assert, and at all hazards defend, this spiritual jurisdiction, and firmly to enforce obedience to the same upon the office-bearers and members of the church.

The decision of the court of session having been confirmed by the House of Lords early in 1839, it was decided in the Assembly of that year that the church, while acquiescing in the loss of the temporalities at Auchterarder, should reaffirm the principle of non-intrusion as an integral part of the constitution of the Reformed Church of Scotland, and that a committee should be appointed to confer with the government with a view to the prevention, if possible, of any further collision between the civil and ecclesiastical authorities. While the conference with the government had no better result than an unsuccessful attempt at compromise by means of Lord Aberdeen's Bill, which embodied the principle of a dissent with reasons, still graver complications were arising out of the Marnoch and other cases. In the circumstances it was resolved by the Assembly of 2842 to transmit to the queen, by the hands of the lord high commissioner, a claim, declaration, and protest, complaining of the encroachments of the court of session, and also an address praying for the abolition of patronage. The home secretary's answer (received in January 1843) gave no hope of redress. Meanwhile the position of the evangelical party had been further hampered by the decision of the court of session declaring the ministers of chapels of ease to be unqualified to sit in any church court. A final appeal to parliament by petition was made in March 1843, when, by a majority of 235 (211 against 76), the House of Commons declined to attempt any redress of the grievances of the Scottish Church.


At the first session of the following General Assembly (May 18, 1843) the reply of the non-intrusion party was made in a protest, signed by upwards of 200 commissioners, to the effect that since, in their opinion, the recent decisions of the civil courts, and the still more recent sanction of these decisions by the legislature, had made it impossible at that time to hold a free Assembly of the church as by law established, they therefore protest that it shall be lawful for us, and such other commissioners as may concur with us, to withdraw to a separate place of meeting, for the purpose of taking steps for ourselves and all who adhere to us maintaining with us the Confession of Faith and standards of the Church of Scotland as heretofore understood--for separating in an orderly way from the Establishment, and thereupon adopting such measures as may be competent to us, in humble dependence on Gods grace and the aid of His Holy Spirit, for the advancement of His glory, the extension of the gospel of our Lord and Saviour, and the administration of the affairs of Christ's house according to His holy word. The reading of this document was followed by the withdrawal of the entire non-intrusion party to another place of meeting, where the first Assembly of the Free Church was constituted, with Dr Thomas Chalmers as moderator. This Assembly sat from the 18th to the 30th of May, and transacted a large amount of important business. On Tuesday the 23rd, 396 ministers and professors publicly admitted their names to the Act of Separation and deed of demission by which they renounced all claim to the benefices they had held in connection with the Establishment, declaring them to be vacant, and consenting to their being dealt with as such. By this impressive proceeding the signatories voluntarily surrendered an annual income amounting to fully 100,000.

The first care of the voluntarily disestablished church was to provide incomes for her clergy and places of worship for her people. As early as 1841 indeed the leading principle of a sustentation fund for the support of the ministry had been announced by Dr Robert Smith Candlish; and at Convocation, a private unofficial meeting of the members of the evangelical or non-intrusion party held in November 1842, Dr Chalmers was prepared with a carefully matured scheme according to which each congregation should do its part in sustaining the whole, and the whole should sustain each congregation. Between November 1842 and May 1843, 647 associations had been formed; and at the first Assembly it was announced that upwards of 17,000 had already been contributed. At the close of the first financial year (1843-1844) it was reported that the fund had exceeded 61,000. It was participated in by 583 ministers; and 470 drew the full equal dividend of 105. Each successive year showed a steady increase in the gross amount of the fund; but owing to an almost equally rapid increase of the number of new ministerial charges participating in its benefits, the stipend payable to each minister did not for many years reach the sum of 150 which had been aimed at as a minimum. Thus in 1844-1845 the fund had risen to 76,180, but the ministers had also increased to 627, and the equal dividend therefore was only 122. During the first ten years the annual income averaged 84,057; during the next decade 108,643; and during the third 130,246. The minimum of 150 was reached at last in 1868; and subsequently the balance remaining after that minimum had been provided was treated as a surplus fund, and distributed among those ministers whose congregations have contributed at certain specified rates per member. In 1878 the total amount received for this fund was upwards of 177,000; in this 1075 ministers participated. The full equal dividend of 157 was paid to 766 ministers; and additional grants of 36 and 18.

In 1863 a motion was made and unanimously carried in the Free Church Assembly for the appointment of a committee to confer with a corresponding committee of the United Presbyterian Synod, and with the representatives of such other disestablished churches as might be willing to meet and deliberate with a view to an incorporating union. Formal negotiations between the representatives of these two churches were begun shortly afterwards, which resulted in a report laid before the following Assembly. From this document it appeared that the committees of the two churches were not at one on the question as to the relation of the civil magistrate to the church. While on the part of the Free Church it was maintained that he may lawfully acknowledge, as being in accordance with the Word of God, the creed and jurisdiction of the church, and that it is his duty, when necessary and expedient, to employ the national resources in aid of the church, provided always that in doing so, while reserving to himself full control over the temporalities which are his own gift, he abstain from all authoritative interference in the internal government of the church, it was declared by the committee of the United Presbyterian Church that, inasmuch as the civil magistrate has no authority in spiritual things, and as the employment of force in such matters is opposed to the spirit and precepts of Christianity, it is not within his province to legislate as to what is true in religion, to prescribe a creed or form of worship to his subjects, or to endow the church from national resources In other words, while the Free Church maintained that in certain circumstances it was lawful and even incumbent on the magistrate to endow the church and on the church to accept his endowment, the United Presbyterians maintained that in no case was this lawful either for the one party or for the other. Thus in a very short time it had been made perfectly evident that a union between the two bodies, if accomplished at all, could only be brought about on the understanding that the question as to the lawfulness of state endowments should be an open one. The Free Church Assembly, by increasing majorities, manifested a readiness for union, even although unanimity had not been attained on that theoretical point. But there was a minority which did not sympathize in this readiness, and after ten years of fruitless effort it was in 1873 found to be expedient that the idea of union with the United Presbyterians should for the time be abandoned. Other negotiations, however, which had been entered upon with the Reformed Presbyterian Church at a somewhat later date proved more successful; and a majority of the ministers of that church with their congregations were united with the Free Church in 1876.

In the last quarter of the 19th century the Free Church continued to be the most active, theologically, of the Scottish Churches. The College chairs were almost uniformly filled by advanced critics or theologians, inspired more or less by Professor AB Davidson. Dr AB Bruce, author of The Training of the Twelve, etc., was appointed to the chair of apologetics and New Testament exegesis in the Glasgow College in 1875; Henry Drummond (author of Natural Law in the Spiritual World, etc.) was made lecturer in natural science in the same college in 1877 and became professor in 1884; and Dr George Adam Smith (author of The Twelve Prophets, etc.) was called to the Hebrew chair in 1892. Attempts were made between 1890 and 1895 to bring all these professors except Davidson (similar attacks were also made on Dr Marcus Dods, afterwards principal of the New College, Edinburgh) to the bar of the Assembly for unsound teaching or writing; but in every case these were abortive, the Assembly never taking any step beyond warning the accused that their primary duty was to teach and defend the church's faith as embodied in the confession. In 1892 the Free Church, following the example Of the United Presbyterian Church and the Church of Scotland (1889), passed a Declaratory Act relaxing the stringency of subscription to the confession, with the result that a small number of ministers and congregations, mostly in the Highlands, severed their connection with the church and formed the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, on strictly and straitly orthodox lines. In 1907 this body had twenty congregations and twelve ministers.

The Free Church always regarded herself as a National Church, and during this period she sought actively to be true to that character by providing church ordinances for the increasing population of Scotland and applying herself to the new problems of non-church-going, and of the changing habits of the people. Her Assembly's committee on religion and morals worked toward the same ends as the similar organization of the Established Church, and in her, as in the other churches, the standard of parochial and congregational activity was raised and new methods of operation devised. She passed legislation on the difficult problem of ridding the church of inefficient ministers. The use of instrumental music was sanctioned in Free Churches during this period. An association was formed in 1891 to promote the ends of edification, order and reverence in the public services of the church, and published in 1898 A New Directory for Public Worship which does not provide set forms of prayer, but directions as to the matter of prayer in the various services. The Free Church took a large share in the study of hymnology and church music, which led to the production of The Church Hymnary. From 1885 to 1895 much of the energy of all the Presbyterian churches was absorbed by the disestablishment agitation. In the former year the Free Church, having almost entirely shed the establishment principle on which it was founded, began to rival the United Presbyterian Church in its resolutions calling for the disestablishment of the Church of Scotland. In spite of the offers of the Establishment Assembly to confer with the dissenting churches about union, the assaults upon its status waxed in vigour, till in 1893 the Free Church hailed the result of the general election as a verdict of the constituencies in favor of disestablishment, and insisted upon the government of the day taking up Sir Charles Cameron's bill.

United Free Church of Scotland

During the last four or five years of the century the Free and United Presbyterian churches, which after the failure of their union negotiations in 1873 had been connected together by a Mutual Eligibility Act enabling a congregation of one church to call a minister from the other, devoted their energy to the arrangement of an incorporating union. The Synod of the United Presbyterian Church resolved in 1896 to take steps towards union, and in the following year the Free Assembly responded by appointing a committee to confer with a committee of the other church. The joint committee discovered a remarkable and happy agreement between the doctrinal standards, rules and methods of the two bodies, and with very little concessions, on either side a common constitution and common questions and formula for the admission of ministers and office-bearers were arranged. A minority, always growing smaller, of the Free Church Assembly, protested against the proposed union, and threatened if it were carried through to test its legality in the courts. To meet this opposition, the suggestion is understood to have been made that an act of parliament should be applied for to legalize the union; but this was not done, and the union was carried through on the understanding that the question of the lawfulness of church establishments should be an open one.

The supreme courts of the churches met for the last time in their respective places of meeting on October 30, 1900, and on the following day the joint meeting took place at which the union was completed, and the United Free Church of Scotland entered on its career.

Continuing Free Church

The protesting and dissenting minority at once claimed to be the Free Church. They met outside the Free Assembly Hall on October 31, and, failing to gain admission to it, withdrew to another hall, where they elected Mr John Bannatyne their moderator and held the remaining sittings of the Assembly. It was reported that between 16,000 and 17,000 names had been received of persons adhering to the anti-unionist principle. At the Assembly of 1901 it was stated that the Free Church had twenty-five ministers and at least sixty-three congregations. The character of the church is indicated by the fact that its office-bearers were the faithful survivors of the decreasing minority of the Old Free Church, which had protested against the disestablishment resolutions, against the relaxation of subscription, against toleration of the teaching of the Glasgow professors, and against the use in worship of organs or of human hymns. Her congregations were mostly in the Gaelic-speaking districts of Scotland. She was confronted with a very arduous undertaking; her congregations grew in number, but were far from each other and there were not nearly enough ministers. The Highlands were filled, by the Union, with exasperation and dispeace which could not soon subside. The church met with no sympathy or assistance at the hands of the United Free Church, and her work was conducted at first under considerable hardships, nor was her position one to appeal to the general popular sentiment of Scotland. But the little church continued her course with indomitable courage and without any compromise of principle. The Declaratory Act of 1892 was repealed after a consultation of presbyteries, and the old principles as to worship were declared. A professor was obliged to withdraw a book he had written, in which the results of criticism, with regard to the Synoptic Gospels, had been accepted and applied. The desire of the Church of Scotland to obtain relaxation of her formula was declared to make union with her impossible. Along with this unbending attitude, signs of material growth were not wanting. The revenue of the church increased; the grant from the sustentation fund was in 1901 only 75, but from 1903 onwards it was 167.

The decision of the House of Lords in 1904 did not bring the trials of the Free Church to an end. In the absence of any arrangement with the United Free Church, she could only gain possession of the property declared to belong to her by an application in each particular case to the Court of Session, and a series of law-suits began which were trying to all parties. In the year 1905 the Free Church Assembly met in the historic Free Church Assembly Hall, but it did not meet there again. Having been left by the awards of the commission without any station in the foreign mission field, the Free Church resolved to start a foreign mission of her own. The urgent task confronting the church was that of supplying ordinances to her congregations. The latter numbered 200 in 1907, and the church had as yet only 7 ordained ministers, so that many of the manses allocated to her by the commissioners were not yet occupied, and catechists and elders were called to conduct services where possible. The gallant stand this little church had made for principles which were no longer represented by any Presbyterian church outside the establishment attracted to her much interest and many hopes that she might be successful in her endeavours to do something for the religious life of Scotland.

The Free Church of Scotland belongs to the International Conference of Reformed Churches.

See also

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In January 2000, there was a division in the Free Church of Scotland, which resulted in the formation of the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing).


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