Thursday, 28 February 2019

The History of the Free Church: The Disruption

The existence of the Free Church of Scotland is a testimony to the Kingship of Christ.  1843 was the year the Free Church was established.  It was not a new beginning: the Reformed Church in Scotland goes back to the Reformation.  But in 1843, the Free Church was forced to withdraw from the Establishment to testify that Christ is King in His Church.

I. The Background
The tragedy was that God had blessed the Church of Scotland.  The number of Evangelical ministers had steadily grown, so that in 1834 the Evangelicals became the majority in the General Assembly.  The Evangelical leader was Thomas Chalmers, who as Professor of Divinity at Edinburgh University was influencing a whole generation of young ministers.  These Evangelicals loved Scripture, preached the Gospel, and upheld the whole doctrine of the Westminster Confession of Faith.

The dominance of the Evangelicals allowed for an upsurge in the planting of new congregations, missionary work in cities, and foreign missionaries sent overseas.  One can read the Memoirs of McCheyne or Diary of Andrew Bonar to get a flavor of the excitement and Gospel urgency of these days.

But there was a problem: the Church of Scotland was established, its property was owned by the State, and Parliament had passed legislation that gave the patronage of vacant parishes to local landowners.  These patrons were not necessarily godly men, or even Presbyterians (many were more English than Scottish, and members of the Church of England).  The right of patronage for a parish was property, which could be advertised for sale in newspapers.

Sometimes it worked well.  For example, the proprietrix of the Isle of Lewis, Mrs Stewart Mackenzie, exercised the right of patronage on behalf of the Crown, and presented Evangelicals to four of the six churches on Lewis.  But in practice, the landlords more often chose nominees of social standing, men to whom they owed favours, and even where the candidates’ actual suitability was considered, they often preferred refined orators to godly evangelists.  All too often, they chose Moderates, men worldly in character, moralistic in emphasis, and to all appearances, spiritually dead.

II. The Doctrine
Christ is King in His Church; not the monarch, Parliament or any arm of the state.  We pray ‘Thy kingdom come’ (Mat 6:10).  It is He that builds His Church.  Consider His ownership: Christ purchased His Kingdom (Act 20:28).  He Reigns because He redeemed this Kingdom with the cost of His own life.  As a result, Christ instituted His Kingdom (Col 1:18).  He Reigns because He began this Kingdom.  As a result, Christ is the only source of authority in His Kingdom (Isa 9:7).  Christ is reigning, by means of His Word.  So, in that Word, Christ has defined the offices by which His Church is ruled, given the qualifications for them, and commanded the appointment of office-bearers on that basis.

The appointment of these office-bearers is thus a spiritual duty of the Church itself, and a function of the Kingship of Christ.  It is not just more fair, or democratic, or even prudent, to leave the appointment of office-bearers in the hands of the Church: it is nothing less than to let Christ reign.

Consider the scene in Acts 1 – the vacancy was identified; two candidates were nominated by the Lord’s people; they offered prayer that the Lord would show who should be elected; and then the choice was made: ‘They gave forth their lots; and the lot fell upon Matthias’ (Act 1:26).  Some think that indicates a random choice, but the word ‘lot’, kleros, just means ‘portion or piece’ as in a piece of wood.  This was rather a vote, each individual making his choice, and the choice falling upon Matthias.  This was a spiritual duty, done spiritually, as unto Christ.

It is not a matter of indifference who chooses the minister of the congregation.  Ultimately, Christ does, and His choice is effected by His faithful people.  Patronage was an intrusion on the Crown Rights of King Jesus.

III. The Battle
The Evangelicals knew this, and patronage had previously caused splits in the Scottish Church in the eighteenth century.  By the 1830s, the issue had become a battleground between the Church and the law of the land as the Evangelical party tried to restrict the powers of patronage.
In 1834, two pieces of legislation were passed by the General Assembly:

Chapels Actthis provided for new churches to be planted in parishes that were too large geographically, or too heavily populated for effective ministry.  The new congregations were granted a full right of participation in church courts, free of patronage;

Veto Act – this gave the membership of congregations [specifically, male heads of households] the right to protest against the patron’s nominee for the vacancy.
These Acts were controversial; they were seen as evidence of the Church opposing the rule of Parliament.  It was w a matter of time before battle would be joined.

In Auchterarder, the patron’s nominee was opposed in protest by five sixths of the male heads of household.  The courts overruled the Church, and in 1839, the House of Lords upheld the rights of the patron, rejecting the Veto Act as unlawful.  In Lethendy, the patron’s nominee was rejected by protest, and the patron agreed to present someone else, but the nominee took legal action in his own name, and was found by the courts to have a legal right to the ‘living’, and to deserve financial compensation.  Worst of all, in Marnoch, the same thing occurred, and the court actually ordered the induction of the rejected nominee, John Edwards.  When the Presbytery, made up of Moderates, did so, the Assembly deposed them for contumacy, and inducted the congregation’s choice of minister, David Henry.  The result was an increasingly unsustainable situation in which two ministers were holding separate services in Marnoch, both claiming to represent the lawful Established Church of Scotland.

Consistently, the courts had upheld patronage as lawful, and the General Assembly’s position as unlawful.  The Veto Act could not function, as it was repeatedly overruled; the Chapels Act was struck down in 1842, removing the right of the chapel ministers to participate in church courts.  If put into effect, this would destroy the Evangelical majority, and leave the General Assembly ruled by Moderates who would accept the rule of the Courts.

What was the Church do? The Evangelicals gathered in the Convocation of 1842 in Edinburgh, and issued the Claim, Declaration and Protest, a demand for redress from the civil authorities.  But the Government refused to act. The Prime Minister, Robert Peel, was advised that only a handful of ministers would act on the Claim.

As the Assembly neared, all wondered what would happen.  Many thought only a few hotheads would actually follow through.  The 1843 General Assembly was constituted by David Welsh, who read a formal protest and deed of separation, and led the withdrawal of the true Church from the Establishment, walking out from St Andrew’s Church, Edinburgh, to Tanfield Hall.

Hundreds of commissioners followed him, and ultimately 474 ministers joined the Free Church.  They left behind manses, churches, and stipends effectively guaranteed for life.  Some were wealthy men: the great portrait of Disruption Assembly shows Patrick MacFarlan of Greenock West signing away the richest living in Scotland.

Some knew worse sufferings: Hugh and William Mackenzie, father and son, the ministers of Tongue, Sutherland, had to send their family away to Thurso, 42 miles away, the nearest place where adequate accommodation could be obtained in the face of the landowner’s hostility to their stand.  They lived together in a room-and-closet in a miserable cottage, to minister to the congregation of 750 people.  In these cramped, damp conditions, both fell ill.  Hugh died in June 1845, William in July.  Like a number of others, they gave their lives as effective martyrs.

The people suffered too.  The landowners often refused to grant sites, or even permission for worship on their property.  Many congregations had to worship for years in the open air: in some parishes there was no other private property at all.  In such cases, services were held on the public road, as thje only lawful place.  In a couple of remote rural parishes there was not even a road – in these cases, worship was held on the shore between the high and low tide marks, which land was lawfully considered as the sea.  In Strontian, a floating church was provided.  Eventually a Parliamentary enquiry was held, and most landlords buckled under the public pressure and gave sites.

The Disruption was a Testimony to Christ the King, but more, it was Actual Submission to His rule.  175 years later – we still confess the same truth.  Christ is King of His Church.

This address was first given in August 2018 at the US FCC Family Conference and reproduced by kind permission of Rev A.J Macleod.