Illustration: painting by David Octavius Hill
of the Disruption of 1843
Photo credit: see below
Free Church Fathers and their Heritage for Us (1)
In the early years of the 19th Century there was an ‘Evangelical Renaissance’ within the Church of Scotland. Although the Secession Churches had since the previous century maintained evangelical principles and produced many fine preachers, there had also been a gradual shift from historic Calvinism among some within their borders. The Church of Scotland was starting to recover from the clammy hand of ‘moderatism,’ a lifeless, un-evangelical outlook akin to what we would call nominality today in religion. It didn’t mean that strict orthodoxy was impeached, necessarily. But it did mean there was a largely gospel-less message.
A change came about through men of peculiar ability raised up by the Lord to bring new spiritual life into the Kirk. One of these was Andrew Thomson (1779-1831) and the other, spared for many years and even greater influence, Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847). Bear in mind that though these men in many ways were instrumental under God of real revival in the Kirk, the context involved on the one hand a transformation in the Church by the encouragement of expansion, and on the other an agitation which resisted state interference in the strictly Church affairs. On the face of it this was what the ‘Disruption’ in the Church of Scotland was about in 1843. There was a particularly intense conflict in the Church (and with the state too) in the previous 10 years over the application of the Patronage Act of 1712 by which Patrons in Parishes had a significant, even crucial, say in the appointment of ministers. The compliance of courts within the Church and the intransigence of the state in such things came to a head in 1843 and 474 ministers (a full third of Established Church ministers) ‘walked’ out of the Church of Scotland and formed the ‘Church of Scotland, Free’, with hundreds of thousands of people.
The emergent Church was a distinctly evangelical one. In a real sense it was born of genuine revival and it maintained that character for the first 20 years of its separate existence. The issue had not been on the principle of an Established Church, or the duty of the state to uphold the true Christian religion (‘national Christianity’), but the Spiritual Independence of the Church itself from the interference of the state/civil courts. It was only in the 1880s that the 1712 Act was finally removed from the statute books. We are going to concentrate, however, simply on some of the influential preachers and theologians who graced the Church of Scotland and Free Church, before and after the Disruption in the Kirk of 1843. It was an era of great preachers and unusual enlargement of the Church in Scotland. For those who love the undiluted gospel – as we do – some of the personalities mentioned will be familiar though re-publication of their writings or sermons. It is hard not to see the first half of the 19th century as a high water mark in Christian and spiritual things north of the border (and impacting far and wide through missionary expansion). Let’s look at some of the leading characters:
1. Andrew Thomson (1779-1831) – Evangelical leader extraordinaire
Andrew Thomson was from Dumfriesshire. Ordained in 1802 he held pastorates in Kelso and Perth and Edinburgh before being called to the newly opened St George’s in the fashionable west end of the New Town in Edinburgh. A huge edifice and a huge and influential congregation, still to be seen in Charlotte Square (though not now used as a Church). That was in 1814 and from there the gospel thundered forth. A great blow had been struck for Christ and truth and evangelicalism through his initiating the Edinburgh Christian Instructorin 1810 after his first move to Scotland’s capital that year. He was a powerful and persuasive preacher, speaker and writer. Chalmers called him a man of ‘colossal mind,’ wielding the weapons of spiritual warfare vigorously with ‘an arm of might carrying as if by storm the convictions of his people.’ He was a strong voice against slavery, he championed a Bible free from the Apocrypha, which had been included in editions of the Bible produced by the British and Foreign Bible Society, and in theology he opposed the errors of the likes of John Macleod Campbell who maintained a universal redemption. He had time to start a week-day school for children from the poorer classes. Oh, and he was a fine musician, responsible among other tunes, for the admittedly somewhat grandiose Psalm tune, ‘St George’s, Edinburgh’! His sudden death in his early 50s was greatly lamented by evangelicals who, however, gave thanks to the Lord for every remembrance of him. He did not live to see the Disruption, yet he must be considered a precursor of the movements which led to it twelve years after his passing.