The Second Disruption
The UOS Church welcomed the Disruption of 1843. A lengthy document had been prepared even before the Disruption had taken place – an address to the, as yet, non-existent Free Church, vindicating the steps they had taken in refusing subjection to the civil courts and approving of their withdrawal from the Establishment. Time, however, did not allow the then existing UOS Synod to officially approve such a lengthy document so it was never issued. But the Synod had a delegation ready to attend the Free Church Assembly. This delegation was received by the Free Assembly on 24th May, 1843 (The Leeds Mercury, Yorkshire, England, 27th May, 1843).
It was well known that the UOS Church stood for a “covenanted reformation”. Their Formula, an undertaking signed by all office-bearers on admission to office, asked: “And do you own and acknowledge the perpetual obligation of the National Covenant, frequently sworn by persons of all ranks in Scotland, and, particularly, as explained by the General Assembly, 1638, to abjure the hierarchy and five articles of Perth; and, also, the perpetual obligation of the Solemn League aud Covenant, for maintaining and carrying on a work of reformation in the three kingdoms, sworn and subscribed by all ranks in Scotland and England in the year 1648, and, particularly, as renewed in Scotland in the year 1648: And do you promise, through grace, to adhere to these Covenants, and, according to your station and opportunities, to prosecute the ends of them.”
The subject of the covenants was mentioned on this occasion. Replying to the delegation’s address, Robert S. Candlish, minister of (Free) St George’s, Edinburgh, and, what we might call, the business manager of the Free Church, acknowledged that the Free Church had contended for the rights of Christ’s Crown – but not yet for his Covenant. “Let them bide their time”, he said. “If the work goes on. we may go further than we have done.”
Perhaps encouraged by these remarks, the UOS Synod took the initiative in opening up discussions with the Free Church on the subject of union. Another General Assembly of the Free Church was held in Glasgow in October, 1843. On 18th October a Special Committee was set up to consider an address from the UOS Church in which “the propriety of a union between the two bodies was suggested for their mutual deliberation” (The Belfast News-Letter, Ireland, 24th October, 1843).
Meanwhile, the question of the Free Church’s stance in regard to historical issues faced by the Scottish Church had been raised by Presbyteries and Candlish reported on 25th May, 1847, as Convener of the Committee “on the Overtures anent the principles and testimony of the Free Church”. He produced a long account of the Church of Scotland from the Reformation and made references to the Second Reformation and to the short-comings of the Revolution Settlement: “that the Revolution Settlement … was in all respects satisfactory has never been maintained by this church. … It did not thoroughly undo the mischief of an age of misrule.” These sentiments were dear to the heart of original seceders and must have stimulated their interest in Union.
This production of Candlish’s was published in full in the Original Secession Magazine – which shows the importance of such a historical testimony to the UOS Church. It was followed by remarks on it from the UOS stand-point (see here).
Their sympathy with the Free Church is described in fulsome terms, but then there is the clear statement that the UOS are looking for something more than what Candlish was willing to give at this stage: “We consider that the greatest benefit of the Disruption is this, that it has placed the Church in a position in which she has the power to expel the last residue of the Erastian virus, to harmonize her constitution with the Word of God, and to raise a faithful testimony for all the great things which the Lord has done in behalf of the land. To do so is a duty which she owes to God.”
So what does raising this faithful testimony require? “The Disruption proceeded wholly on the principles of the Revolution settlement; and while the Free Church adheres to these alone, she disowns, or at least does not own, the Covenanted Church of the preceding period, which would be to deprive herself, to a great extent, of the mighty influence which the deeds, and writings, and sufferings of that famous era must ever continue to exercise on Scotchmen.”
They therefore welcomed Candlish’s account of their connection with the church of the Reformations: “We rejoice that God has put it into the heart of the leading men in the Free Church to desire substantially to act on these principles, as is evident from the remarkable and important document which we have given above, that our readers may have it permanently beside them for reference. It is written with very great ability, in a style singularly appropriate and felicitous, and there runs through it a fine moral, religious, and patriotic spirit, slightly shaded, occasionally, by apparent strokes of dexterity, but so prominent and sustained, as to impart a charm to the composition above the reach of mere art. The document is, confessedly, vague, and general on certain points; but it embraces a variety of principles, which we consider of the greatest importance. It assumes the duty of bearing testimony for God’s gracious appearances in behalf of his Church; it admits the great doctrine of the permanent moral identity of nations, and the warrantableness and seasonableness of our national covenants, with their obligation on posterity; it acknowledges that the Revolution settlement neither reached the attainments, nor owned the obligations of the second Reformation; and confesses, with humiliation, the backsliding of the Scottish Church in last century.”
Yet though there is a welcome for this document, there is caution as well: “We would not presume to say, whether the adoption of this testimony would remove all grounds of difference between the Free Church and the Original Secession; but every friend of the covenanted cause in Scotland must rejoice in his heart to see such a document brought forward in the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland.”
This testimony, however, proposed by Candlish, was not at that time adopted by the Free Church, but that this was proposed “by the foremost men in that Church is an evidence of the position to which the carrying out of Free Church principles would naturally lead; and it will be to after ages a testimony against the faithfulness of that Church, if ultimately rejected.”
However, from this point on the “Remarks” take on a more negative tone. There is an accolade for Dr Candlish: he “proved himself to be an upright, and courageous, and disinterested friend of truth. … We do not think that he ever gave a higher pledge of his love to the Free Church of Scotland, and a more signal proof of his profound and far-seeing sagacity, than when he endeavoured to have that Church identified with all that was good, and great, and glorious, in the times of old.”
On the other hand, William Cunningham, the leading theologian of the Free Church, who seconded Candlish’s motion, is not displayed in such a favourable light.
“I have always felt,” said Cunningham, “in giving my attention to this subject, and to the discussions which have taken place in regard to the Covenants, more especially as to the nature and degree of what is commonly called the ‘descending obligation,’ that I could not follow them.”
The reply to Cunningham offered in the Remarks is lengthy but what they thought about him in the UOS for these comments is summed up in brief: “We think, that in making these statements, Dr Cunningham has failed to shew his usual accuracy both as a logician and a student of opinions. He has certainly misrepresented the sentiments of the friends of the Covenants, and obviously given the impressions that had been made upon his mind at some former period respecting them, rather than the mature result of a recent study. … Dr Cunningham has, therefore, been strangely unjust to his own sagacity.” We suspect that this criticism did not endear the Original Seceders to Cunningham.
But damage to the Candlish/Cunningham proposal came from another quarter. Alexander Keith, St Cyrus, spoke vehemently against the proposal in the Assembly. What he said was not to the taste of the UOS: “If the extraordinary speech which Dr Keith delivered in the Assembly was not an unadvised ebullition, but a mature and deliberate expression of his opinions, it may be safely said that it displayed an amount of ignorance respecting the principles and history of the Church of Scotland to which one would not easily find a parallel unless among Englishmen.”
A motion for delay, therefore, carried. However this did not seem to deter the UOS Church unduly: “We should have been delighted,” said the Editor in his Remarks, “had the testimony proposed by Dr Candlish been transmitted at once to Presbyteries, provided the Free Church in general had been prepared for such a step; but at the same time, we feel that there was much both of justice and wisdom in the arguments for delay brought forward by Sheriff [Alexander Earle] Monteith. A measure so important ought not to be adopted without patient deliberation. Time will be necessary before the minds of many who have adopted Free Church principles can be expected to open to all the consequences which these principles legitimately imply, and in a large body this process must be gradual. We are therefore nothing disappointed by the delay of this matter.”
In 1848 Cunningham, who had been given responsibility for the matter, reported to the Free Church General Assembly that he had no report to give and proposed that the Committee for conferring with the UOS Church should be discharged. This was done. It meant that not only were these first negotiations for a possible union broken off, but that a certain legacy of bitterness and mistrust was to taint the relationship between the two churches for the future.
A Second Attempt
Candlish, however, got his historical testimony in by another door.
A preface was required for the publication of the Free Church’s Subordinate Standards, that is, the Westminster Confesssion etc. In 1851 the Free Church adopted an Act and Declaration for that purpose. This was Candlish’s original “historical testimony” with minor modifications. It was hoped that this would satisfy the UOS Church who were strong on the continuing validity of the National Covenant and the Solemn League and Covenant. However, Thomas E. Robertson, a UOS minister in Kirkcaldy, in a little book entitled, The UOS Church, 1842-1923, gave their view of this document: “It endeavours to prove the identity of the Free Church with the historic Church of Scotland during the Reformation period.” But, in his opinion, it contained nothing committing the Free Church to any position regarding the continued or descending obligation of Covenants. Nonetheless, it satisfied a good number of UOS ministers and awakened their former desire for union with the Free Church.
A number of ministers requested a special meeting of Synod to discuss the possibility of union with the Free Church. This was held in Davie Street Church, Edinburgh, towards the end of January, 1852. It was an informal meeting for discussion rather than decision and was held in private. The Scottish Guardian reported: “Though considerable diversity of sentiment is understood to have existed as to the course which it would be proper for the Seceders to adopt in existing circumstances, the prevailing position is said to have been that union with the Free Church is both right and proper. … The various speeches delivered were characterised throughout by the extreme of good feeling” (quoted in the Dundee Courier, 4th February, 1852).
The outcome of this informal meeting was that at the next regular meeting of the UOS Synod on Tuesday, 27th April, an overture was presented, signed by 19 ministers, asking for steps to be taken towards union with the Free Church. This was received at the afternoon session; it was agreed to print it and circulate it, but before that was done, they discussed it at the evening session that same day.
Our account of this rests mainly on a report in the Glasgow Herald, 30th April, 1852. Thomas McCrie spoke first and then proposed that the Synod now agree “to present to the ensuing Assembly of the Free Church a representation and appeal, in pursuance of the overture, signed by the moderator and clerk, in the name of the Synod”. The representation, which was an embodiment of the views expressed by McCrie and the principles of the overture, was then read, and laid on the table of the house.
James Anderson, Carluke, presented a motion against this proposal.
The matter was continued on Wednesday, 28th April, at 10.30 in the morning. When put to a vote, McCrie’s motion carried by 32 votes to 31. John Aitken, Aberdeen, led the opposition to the Union at this stage. He read the following protest and laid it on the table of the Synod. It was signed by thirteen ministers and seventeen elders – one elder who voted with the minority did not sign the Protest.
We do hereby Protest, and claim for ourselves, and for those adhering to us, to be constitutionally the Synod of United Original Seceders; resolved, in the strength of Divine grace, to fulfil our vows in abiding by, and maintaining, that Testimony in behalf of the principles and attainments of the Reformed and Covenanted Church of Scotland which the Original Secession has from the beginning accounted it both its duty and honour to uphold;
And we do hereby also Protest, and claim all the powers, rights, and privileges of said Synod, and resolve to meet, as a Synod, in Mains Street Church, Glasgow, this forenoon, at half-past Ten o’clock A.M.. being Thursday, the 29th day of April 1852 years.
James Anderson, Minister, Carluke.
Thomas Manson, Minister, Perth.
Matthew Murray, Min., Glasgow.
Archd. Brown, Minister, Edinburgh.
David A. Sturrock, Min., Midholm.
A[lexander] Brown, Minister, Coupar-Angus.
James M. Smith, Min., Pollokshaws.
George Roger, Minister, Auchinleck.
John Blakely, Min., Kirkintilloch.
Geo. Stevenson, Min., Kilwinning.
John Robertson, Minister, Ayr.
John Graham, Minister, Kilmarnock.
James Buyers, Elder, Aberdeen.
John Spence, Elder, Birsay.
John Barr, Elder, Kilmarnock.
James Thomas, Elder, Ireland.
John Reid, Elder, Ayr.
John Knox, Elder, Kilwinning.
Thomas E. Craigie, Elder, Perth.
James Callan, Elder, Carluke.
John Mitchell, Elder, Coupar-Angus.
John Robertson, Elder, Stranraer.
David Anderson, Elder, Kirkcaldy.
William McGavin, Elder, Auchinleck.
William Howie, Elder, Glasgow.
John Nicol, Elder, Edinburgh.
John M’Kay, Elder. Kirkintilloch.
Robert Moodie, Elder, Midholm.
Thos. Brownlie, Elder, Pollokshaws.
The Parting of the Ways
The next day the majority met and appointed a committee to make amicable arrangements with the protesting brethren in regard to the division of certain of the Synod funds, on the understanding, however, that this concession was made ex gratia. The minority also appointed a similar committee for a similar purpose – so clearly there was some desire to make the division as painless as possible. A committee was also appointed to make arrangements for presenting the representation and appeal to the Free Church and it was agreed to hold the next Synod at the time of the Free Church General Assembly in order to facilitate negotiations with that body (Caledonian Mercury, Edinburgh, 3rd May, 1852).
On 21st May, 1852, the Memorial from the majority UOS Church was presented by Thomas McCrie. It was received by the Free Church Assembly and remitted to a large committee to report to a later diet. The memorial, which was lengthy, contained a statement of the principles which the UOS Church held and the terms on which they sought admission to the Free Church. They sought this union because they recognised the Free Church as the constitutional Church of Scotland. The Committee which was appointed was at liberty to consult with the UOS men for the exact wording of the motion and the details of the union. If this union were consummated then, it was said, there would not be a secession church remaining (The Belfast News-Letter, Belfast, Ireland, 24th May, 1852). So the existence of the minority is to be ignored.
On Tuesday, 1st June, 1852, in the evening, Candlish moved the Act of Reunion.
The committee recommended that the Assembly “fully and unreservedly acknowledge the obligations to prosecute the ends of the covenants, in the reformation which these covenants were designed to advance and perpetuate, and in particular to oppose Popery … and to aim at a scriptural union and uniformity in doctrine, worship and discipline, among the churches of these lands; in the use of all means consistent with the Word of God and the functions and spirit of a Church of Christ.”
In practical terms, the Act provided that all ministers who had or would subscribe the Memorial that the UOS Church had presented, together with their congregations and Kirk Sessions, would be received into the Free Church. Ministers without charge and probationers who signed the Memorial would also be received. The congregations were to retain their financial arrangements for the present. The Sustentation Fund Committee, which regulated the payment of Free Church ministers, was to study the situation and report to a future Assembly in order to bring the uniting congregation into the Free Church system (Dundee Courier, 9th June, 1852).
The Points at Issue
What were the points at issue here, between the minority section of the UOS and the Free Church?
Under the pressure of court cases, where extreme claims were made, the differences between the Free Church and the UOS became enormous. Matthew Murray, the minister of Mains Street, Glasgow, drew up the following document which was used in the court case regarding the ownership of the Toberdoney church building.
1st, The Free Church differs from the Original Secession, because she stands on the ground, not of the Second Reformation, but of the revolution settlement.
2nd, Because she does not acknowledge the perpetual obligation of the National Covenants.
3rd, Because she does not acknowledge as of equal authority the five Westminster Standards, but only one, the Confession, as a test.
4th, Because she does not recognise even the Confession as part of the covenanted uniformity between the churches of the three kingdoms.
5th, Because she does not explicitly assert the divine right of presbytery.
6th, Because she does not condemn lay-patronage as anti-scriptural, and inconsistent with the supreme headship of Christ, and the spiritual liberties of the church.
7th, Because she does not require from her members an approval of her creed at their admission to full communion, but only from her office-bearers on admission to office.
8th, Because she does not testify against free or open communion, but, on the contrary, holds communion, both ministerial and christian, with other churches.
9th, Because she does not condemn private baptism, but, on the contrary, administers this ordinance privately.
10th, Because she does not condemn, but, on the contrary, practices private church censure in cases of public scandal.
And lastly, Because she does not condemn, but, on the contrary, practices the singing of uninspired hymns and paraphrases in the public worship of God.
An examination of the court cases fought over the properties brings to light much, much more of this type of argument. But the fact of the matter is that in the first issue of the Original Secession Magazine after the failed union – the New Series of the magazine – there are only two main grounds that are raised against the union. One refers to doctrine – the Free Church’s attitude to the covenants; and the second refers to the procedure that was adopted by the majority of the UOS Church in the run up to the union.
Regarding the former matter, there are two facts that were made absolutely clear: firstly, that the Seceders on joining the Free Church remained under the terms on which they had originally become ministers. They could go into the Free Church, holding their beliefs in regard to the continuing obligation to uphold the covenants. Secondly, that the Free Church did not commit themselves to that view of the covenants.
So it was written into the UOS Representation, which formed the basis of the union: It is to be “distinctly understood that we (that is, the acceding Original Seceders) hold by the Standards and Constitution of the Church of Scotland, not as these may have been explained in any Act or Acts of the Free Church, but as they are stated in our Testimony.” The UOS men therefore ask “whether [the Free Church] are prepared to receive a body holding themselves bound, by their ordination vows, to these principles.” Then in the Deed of Union, the nature of the union is described thus: “The General Assembly cordially agree to the proposal of re-union contained in the Representation and Appeal, and fully consent that their brethren continue free to hold the views therein set forth, and to enjoy the liberty therein claimed, in subordination to the discipline and government of this Church.” Dr Candlish, in speaking for the union in a similar way made the position clear: “Let it be distinctly understood, that the principle upon which this document (the Act of Union), has been framed, is that of conceding to our brethren all the liberty they crave in regard to the holding of their peculiar views as to the descending obligation of the Covenants.”
But that this did not involve any commitment of the Free Church to that principle is made equally clear. In his speech, Candlish also said this clearly: the Act of Union “has also been framed upon the principle of not committing this Church, directly or indirectly, in any way, either to a positive or negative opinion upon this subject. The principle upon which this document has been carefully framed, is that of frankly conceding to our brethren what was conceded to the brethren that joined us in 1839” (those of the Original Burger Synod), “full liberty to maintain their own opinions upon the subject of the descending obligation of the Covenants; but the document has been framed also upon the principle of carefully excluding the idea of committing this Church to any opinion in any way on this subject.”
“Thus,” says the editor of the UOS Magazine, “all idea of implicit, as well as explicit, owning of the continued obligation of Covenants is excluded; and if so, it is vain to assert, as has been done, that the Free Church receives the Standards, as the Church of the Second Reformation did, as the Standards of uniformity which this Church and land were bound, and are bound by Covenant, to receive and hold fast.”
The minority, who remained outside the union, may be criticised for clinging tenaciously to an interpretation of a historical event, which was then two hundred years in the past and which was considered to be increasingly irrelevant; but their contention that the Free Church had a different “testimony” was a valid one. Indeed, in general, the courts of the land recognised that that was so, and most of the disputed properties remained in the UOS Church. The courts concluded that the theological stance of the Free Church was not the same as that of the UOS Church.
The situation was very similar to that which the Free Church faced in 1900, in regard to the union with the United Presbyterian Church. The majority of the Free Church, who entered into the union with the United Presbyterian Church to form the United Free Church, maintained that in the United Free Church they were free to uphold the Establishment principle if they so wished; the minority of the Free Church, who declined to enter the union, held that the Establishment principle was part of their constitution and could not be allowed to become an open question. (They also held that a Declaratory Act, designed to facilitate the union, involved the watering down of the strong doctrine of the Westminster Confession of Faith). As with the continuing UOS Church, the civil courts declared in favour of the “wee” Free Church: it was a breech of trust to make a constitutional matter into an open question.
There were also major objections to the procedures followed by the majority in the UOS. These are enumerated by the Editor of the New Series of the denominational magazine:
“Firstly, this movement was almost exclusively clerical.
“Secondly, the Overture, involving principles affecting the constitution, and even the existence, of the body, was introduced in an irregular, we might almost say, an unconstitutional way.” This was then enlarged on: “The majority of the ministers were committed to it by subscription, ere it was taken up for discussion, and therefore could not enter on the consideration of its merits as independent members of court; so that the Synod was swamped by a private agreement of the ministers, in adopting a measure concocted in secret, before the public discussion of the matter was entered on.
“Again, no warning had been given to the Synod, as such, nor to any court in the body, that such an Overture was to be introduced.
“Further, it is the law of the Church, that in ordinary cases, subjects of interest are to be brought before the highest judicatory, by overture.
“The discussion, also, of this Overture, in itself of extraordinary length, is hurried on with unreasonable precipitation on the very first day of the Synod’s meeting, after the formalities connected with the opening of the Synod the previous evening. It was even refused to postpone the discussion for a single sederunt, till the Overture should be printed and put into the hands of members of court.”
Then, the procedural objection is summed up: “An Overture framed in secret, and discussed in no inferior judicatory of the body, the purport of which is known to no member of Court, except to the members of a self-constituted committee, is urged on for discussion with reckless precipitation, after a majority of the ministers had forestalled an independent judgment in the case, by appending their signatures to the Overture.”
Was this criticism fair?
An important aspect of the dispute over procedure was the question whether this proposal for union was rushed through with undue haste. That in turn rests upon the question: to what depth was the issue discussed at the informal meeting held in Davie Street Church, as mentioned above.
The newspaper reports do give the impression that there was a general feeling in favour of union, though they also do state that there was diversity of opinion. There is no word that a draft Memorial was circulated or drawn up. There appears no reason to think that the details of the proposal were known beforehand to anyone except those sympathetic to the union movement.
On the other hand, we do have to recognise that the Thurso congregation did know sufficient about the union proposal as to send up to Synod a petition against the union proposal. According to the Glasgow Herald of 30th April, 1852, three elders and ten managers from Thurso petitioned that the union proposal be not received. However, this does not necessarily mean that they knew anything but that some overture was going to be presented: it does not imply that they knew the details of the proposal.
Moreover, it seems clear that no definite proposals were formulated by the informal discussion that was held early in 1852. The Glasgow Herald of 6th February, 1852, reproduced a report from the Scottish Guardian saying that Thomas McCrie gave a report to his congregation on the Sunday following the discussion. A majority, he said, were of the opinion that it was their duty to renew negotiations with the Free Church in regard to union. “He could not tell when the proposed union might be consummated – perhaps not for many years; at the same time it was their duty to make the attempt.” That does not sound as if detailed proposals were already formulated.
All knew that the subject of union would be on the agenda at the Synod in April. But there is no reason to think that members of Synod knew in detail what was going to be discussed – except those who were parties to the Overture. It was all the more necessary then that ample time should have been provided for discussion of the matter by the whole church. But this was not done. At Synod, there was an undue rush to push the matter through.
An overture is a way of opening up a matter, as the word “overture” itself suggests. Anyone wishing to present an overture generally brings the matter to his Presbytery for a preliminary discussion and to ensure that it is a matter worth bringing to the Synod. If the matter is passed in to the Synod, then the opportunity is given to the promoter of the overture to present his case to the Synod. The Synod then decides if the matter is deserving of consideration; and if so appoints the means of maturing the matter. This might often be done through a committee which reports to a later diet of the Synod. And if the matter was of great importance – one which affected the constitution of the Church, for example – then, when a finding had been come to by the Synod, it would be remitted to Presbyteries and Kirk Sessions to give their opinion on the matter before a final decision would be made by the Synod at a later date. Even when the final accession of the UOS Church to the Church of Scotland was under discussion, the matter was submitted to a vote by each congregation, before a final decision was made. If that was necessary in 1956, why was it not necessary in 1852?
None of that extensive discussion was done on this occasion. The overture did not come to a Presbytery for prior discussion; men came with their minds made up – they signed the overture; the man who presented the overture at the same time presented detailed proposals for the resolution of the matter which he brought to the Synod for guidance. They had it all sown up beforehand. Nothing was going to stop them from doing what a strong party of ministers had previously decided in private should be done.
It might be thought that all they had done was cut through red tape whose only function was to impede progress. Not so, such procedures are designed to promote freedom of information and open government. With such measures in operation, a small group of powerful individuals is prevented from forcing through some agenda without due discussion by the whole church.
This neglect of due procedures has every appearance of being deliberate. The matter was decided without anyone opposed to the measure actually seeing the proposal in black and white. It was agreed that the papers should be printed; and then the discussion proceeded, immediately, without benefit of the printed papers. Justice is only done when people have a motion in front of them in printed form and have time to reflect on it. In this case, justice was not done.
The vote was a very close one. And at least two Kirk Sessions – Dundee and Thurso – felt that they were unfairly deprived of having their views properly represented at Synod. I don’t think that there can be much doubt that in more favourable circumstances, the majority would not have been on the side of union. This is surely why the man who told his congregation that the union perhaps might not happen for many years took all the short-cuts necessary to accomplish a union of sorts in double quick time.