The Church in Scotland 1840-1940: An Overview

The dates which mark the boundaries of this study have been chosen to make it roughly contemporaneous with the life of George Adam Smith [1] (1856-1942). Part of the significance of Smith's life is that he ministered in three denominations: the Free Church of Scotland (from 1882-1900), the United Free Church of Scotland (1900-1929) and the Church of Scotland (1929-1935 [2]). The changes that occurred during the century from 1840-1940 were momentous, and this paper will attempt to mark the significance of these changes on the Scottish ecclesiastical scene.

Change was, indeed, a characteristic of society during this period in Scotland and the United Kingdom generally. In 1814 Sir Walter Scott could write that "There is no European nation which, within the course of half-a-century or a little more, has undergone so complete a change as the Kingdom of Scotland" [3]. To which Fitzroy Maclean adds the comment: "And as the nineteenth century progressed, this became truer than ever" [4]. One marked change which affected society and social conditions throughout Britain was a steadily growing population; despite emigration to America and Australasia, the population of Great Britain rose to some 37 million at the end of the nineteenth century. Thus J.F.C. Harrison comments that "In this primary sense late Victorian Britain continued to be an expanding society" [5].

The late nineteenth century also saw the development of industry, with production of coal, iron, steel, textiles and shipbuilding continuing to expand as a result of the Industrial Revolution. In Britain as a whole, "The years 1875-1900 were, overall, a period of economic progress, with rising productivity and national income" [6]. Despite the fact, however, that Britain had been a leader in industrial expansion in the mid-nineteenth century, she found herself in a competitive world market towards its end. From the 1870s onwards, agriculture began to suffer "the full force of foreign competition" [7], and industrial methods and efforts which had served Britain well in the mid-nineteenth century "were now no longer entirely relevant to the requirements of a new industrial environment" [8]. This in turn led to growing social inequality, the rise of the socialist movement and movements towards democracy.

The population expansion led in time to the availability of an increasing workforce, while the development of industry led to the rapid urbanisation of life, and the rise of the town and city, which "assumed an importance quite unprecedented in Scotland's earlier history" [9]. Between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, the tenement city emerged, with a host of new problems: social deprivation, poverty, ill-health, over-crowding. T.C. Smout suggests that only "with the housing legislation of the 1920s and 1930s was any considerable inroad made into the problem" [10]. The vast majority of Scotland's population lived in urbanised environments, and the consequent problems of the city became a marked feature of Scottish life. The churches had to respond to a changing society, and these responses were to shape Scottish church life well into the twentieth century. In a recent study, Callum Brown has commented that "Industrial urbanisation brought immediate changes to the nature of the churches' role - changes not merely in terms of the need for more churches and clergy for rising city populations, but qualitative changes in how organised religion operated" [11].

After the Disruption

The Disruption of 1843 - in which 450 ministers seceded from the Church of Scotland to form a new denomination - itself brought massive changes into the life of Scotland. Whereas before the Established Church of Scotland had been the main religious denomination, it was now rivalled by the Church of Scotland, Free. . Indeed, as the church historian Prof. J.H.S. Burleigh surmises, the rivalry was deliberate: the task the Free Church Assembly set itself was "nothing less than that of producing a complete and exact replica of the Establishment they had left, relying on the resources which their faithful people would supply. As the 'true' Church of Scotland they would accept a national responsibility" [12]. The result was a phenomenal growth in a short period of time, with Thomas Brown, the Disruption historian declaring that "The result proved a signal rebuke to many whose faith had been weak" [13]. So that by the time we enter the second half of the nineteenth century, the Free Church of Scotland, entering upon a second decade of labour, had already made momumental gains throughout Scotland, establishing churches in almost every parish, as well as building schools and theological Halls. "The new Church," wrote John Buchan, "advanced from strength to strength, its missionary enterprise brought it the admiration of the world, and soon its scholarship was not less famous than its evangelical zeal" [14]. The 752 ministers who remained in the Established Church had a mammoth task to perform, in terms of filling the vacancies caused by the Disruption while continuing to engage in Church extension and home mission work. It was certainly true that "The Disruption marked the end of the religious Establishment in Scotland" [15], and recovery in the Kirk was slow. Without adequate vision or leadership, and with popular support largely on the side of the Free Church of Scotland, the Established Church stumbled along, until a new generation of men - including Archibald H. Charteris and Norman Macleod - inspired the Kirk with new vision and leadership.

A third major religious denomination in Scotland was the United Presbyterian Church, which opposed any connection with the State. It had come into being in 1847 as the result of a union between the United Secession church of 1820 and the Relief Church of Thomas Gillespie, which had seceded from the Church of Scotland in 1761 in protest against patronage. J.R. Fleming gives the membership figures for the three main denominations in Scotland in 1875 as: Church of Scotland 460,464; Free Church of Scotland 256,554; United Presbyterian Church 187,761 [16] .

The remainder of this essay will survey and summarise the main themes and issues that confronted the Scottish churches in the century after the Disruption.

The Churches and the Bible

Although it is true that the Scottish churches had accepted the Westminster Confession of Faith, it is hardly true that "Theological issues had little or nothing to do with the Disruption" [17]. Thomas McCrie, one of the Free Church's elder statesmen declared at the first Free Church Assembly that "We have not separated from the Word of God, which we regard as the only infallible rule of faith and manners...But we have separated from the civil power - separated because, while connected with it, we could no longer maintain our position except at the expense of trampling under foot what we regard as the immutable principles of truth" [18]. Alexander Stewart and J.Kennedy Cameron, in their apologetic for the Free Church witness in the second half of the nineteenth century, put it otherwise when they say of their Free Church forefathers that "They lost the endowments, but they kept the faith" [19]. It is beyond argument that the Disruption, despite Burleigh's assertions to the contrary, was occasioned by a theology of the Church which regarded her spiritual independence and the Headship of Christ - as well as the Establishment principle - as fundamental to a biblical ecclesiology.

It is little wonder, then, that aspects of biblical authority in the Church were interwoven in the affairs of church life from 1850 onwards. The Free Church was only thirty years old when she was thrown into a battle over the authority of Scripture, a battle which focussed particularly on William Robertson Smith. Not surprisingly, the experience of the man described as "an investigator and pioneer" [20] in the realm of biblical studies, and who paid the price for his own originality, has commanded the attention of theological commentators and scholars over the past hundred years. Don Carswell echoed the sentiments of many over the handling of the Robertson Smith affair when he said cynically that "The allegation of broken faith, flimsy and false as it was to the knowledge of those who used it, served as a screen behind which every abomination of policy, cunning, malice and untruth could be, and were, wrought with impunity ad majorem Dei gloriam" [21].

Robertson Smith was, by any standards, a brilliant scholar. He was a favourite of his teacher at New College, A.B. Davidson. Davidson's biographer records that when he took up tutorial duties alongside John Duncan of New College in 1858 "He knew that in the Free Church and all the other Scottish Churches Semitic studies were at the lowest ebb, and that he had by his own efforts to turn the tide" [22]. Davidson's own observation that in terms of Orientalists Germany had "a crowd, Scotland none" [23], led to a drive for scholarly theological education on the continent. In terms of Old Testament studies, it was generally recognised that "the contribution of Germany has been very great" [24], and many of the leading Scottish churchmen in the second half of the nineteenth century completed their education in Germany. It is easy for later Free Churchmen to attribute the changing face of the nineteenth century Free Church to " a worship of scholarship" which "tended to lead her away from the simplicity of the Gospel and to replace the wooing note of the old evangelical message with the frigid periods of literary culture" [25]. This assessment appears unduly obscurantist, but there is no doubt that change was occurring, and that the change was fundamental. Robertson Smith's article "Bible" in the Encyclopedia Britannica appeared in 1875, and, as Fleming observes, "Before this there had been little in the Church to disturb the traditional view of Holy Scripture" [26]. With the disturbing of the traditional view of Scripture came the disturbing of the Church, and Norman Walker's more sober comment from within the Free Church is a precise statement of the issue: "As long as [Robertson Smith] remained in the College of the Free Church, he was hampered and burdened and embarrassed. He was the new wine seeking to be received into the old bottles. In the effort to reconcile the two there was a constant risk of explosions" [27].

The debates raged from 1877 to 1881, when Smith was finally deposed from his office as Professor. It was undoubtedly through the machinations of Robert Rainy, who sought to distinguish between the man and his teaching, anxious as he was both "to avoid an outright condemnation of Biblical Criticism and at the same time to maintain the unity of the Free Church" [28] that Smith was deposed while his views were simultaneously accommodated. Rainy himself has been accused of being a "shrewd but very inconsistent ecclesiastic" [29], who followed a middle-of-the-road policy, more anxious to prevent the break-up of the church than to defend the interests of truth. That may be so; what is certain is that his action influenced the Assembly to the extent that the pursuit of theological scholarship remained a primary function of Free Church Professors. As Prof. Cheyne puts it, the deposition of Smith actually hastened "the ultimate triumph of his approach in the Free Church and its sister Churches of the Presbyterian order in Scotland" [30]. The later trials of Marcus Dods (1890) and George Adam Smith (1902) were far less likely to succeed in view of the fact that the Scottish Churches had accommodated modern critical scholarship into their agenda.

The Churches and the Creed

Not unrelated to the biblical issue was the confessional issue. The deposition of John Macleod Campbell in 1831 was a clear signal to the church that the winds of change were blowing through the Westminster Confessional standards. His proclamation of a more liberal and more 'loving' Gospel were allegedly incompatible with the teaching of Westminster; he himself recognised, following his deposition, that "The Assembly was right: our doctrine and the Confession are incompatible" [31].

The Disruption church pledged itself to upholding the doctrines of the Westminster Confession of Faith, separating from the Establishment, but "maintaining with us the Confession of Faith and standards of the Church of Scotland as heretofore understood" [32]. Within fifty years, however, the Free Church of Scotland found it necessary to frame a Declaratory Act in order to soften credal subscription and relax an ordinand's commitment to the letter of the Westminster documents.

The change was slow, but discernible; in 1866, William Wilson, Moderator of the Free Church that year, noted that "It is open to the Church at any time to say, We have obtained clearer light over one or other or all of the propositions contained in this Conefession, we must review it ... If this freedom do not belong to us, then indeed we are in bondage to our Confession, and renounce the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free" [33]. The United Presbyterian Church had taken advantage of this freedom to relax subscription, and by 1879 had passed Declaratory Acts for this purpose. The mood within Scottish Presbyterianism as the nineteenth century ran its course swung decidedly away from the earlier dogmatic theology to a more apologetic and broad theology.

A contributory factor was, without a doubt, the evangelistic campaigns of Moody and Sankey from 1873 onwards. Enthusiasm and power attended the evangelistic campaigns, and Scotland seemed to be on fire. It may be true that "most of the ministers of the Free Church gave [D.L. Moody] their cordial support" [34], but not all did; and Prof. G.N.M. Collins is fair in his assessment that "The Evangelicals in the ministry were divided over the movement" [35]. The division was precisely over the extent to which the new American evangelism compromised the dogmatic Calvinism of Westminster; or, more precisely, the extent to which these very dogmas themselves compromised the Gospel. Principal Macleod of the Free Church College pronounced the Moody-Sankey phenomenon as "the day of the ebb-tide", in which "the definite out-and-out Calvinism of another day was going out of fashion" [36]. At the same time, George Adam Smith could criticise Moody's theology for being stiff, but, he hastens to add, "it was never abstract. To use a good old word, it was thoroughly experimental and busied with the actual life of men" [37]. For the more liberal thinkers in the church, this was the nature of the revolt against the Confession: it was a revolt against abstraction, against the non-experiential use of theology. Dr Kenneth Ross is, therefore, exactly correct to surmise that "When they [i.e. the modern, new evangelists] turned their guns on the old orthodoxy, it was holy warfare in which they were engaged" [38].

The drawing up of the Declaratory Act in the Free Church in 1892 was the natural result of this holy war. The dogmatic statements of the Calvinism of Westminster had already been compromised de facto by a new outlook on man and his place in the world [39]. They were modified de iure by the Declaratory Act in 1892, in a church whose leaders regarded it as inevitable that the 'hard' doctrine of predestination which dominates the Westminster Confession was "growingly felt foreign and even alien, by, not the rationalistic, but, on the contrary, the evangelical and missionary sentiment of the Church" [40]. For the drafting and introducing of it, Rainy paid the price, first, of the Free Presbyterian secession of 1893, and, again, of the charge of betrayal levelled against him by the constitutionalists who remained within the Free Church. To his biographer, this was sacrifice for principle's sake; in reality, Rainy had succeeded in changing the face of the Free Church: "The old exclusiveness (and no doubt the old definiteness and consistency) of Reformed theology was at an end, and the confessional revolution had reached its goal" [41].

One final word on this. To most commentators, this revolution was a good thing, long overdue. Burleigh, for example, enthuses that "the liberty secured by the Declaratory Act enabled the Free Church colleges to make an outstanding contribution to theological scholarship, and to Scotland's reputation for Christian learning" [42]. On the other hand, the practical effect of the Declaratory Act, relaxing subscription to the Creed, was a sacrifice of definiteness, and it is arguable that in the past hundred years, the substance of the Reformed Faith has still to be defined. And T.C. Smout is probably nearer the truth when he reminds us that "men began to notice the faltering tones of the Church, wavering between the old dogmas of the conservatives, which became increasingly unbelievable in the light of science and scholarship, and the new doubts and silences of the liberals, which lacked all compulsive power" [43]. The Declaratory Act may have signalled the death of Hell and an unevangelical predestinarianism; but the Church never found a solution to the problem engendered by its new uncertainties. It was precisely to counter this problem that the continuing Free Church post-1900 immediately set about repealing the Declaratory Act, a movement effected in 1905. Their argument was that the pre-Declaratory Act Free Church of Scotland and the post Declaratory Act Free Church of Scotland were not the same church. In a famous law case, the House of Lords in 1905 agreed, and the properties of the pre-1900 Free Church were apportioned to the continuing remnant, much to the chagrin of the United Free Church of Scotland.

The Churches and the State

In commenting on the Free Church jubilee Assembly of 1893, The British Weekly stated that "To be as in 1843 would be to be totally unfit for the work of 1893" [44]. Nowhere had a more discernible change in the attitudes and outlooks of the Disruption church taken place over these fifty years than in the views held regarding Church and State.

The Free Church of Scotland regarded herself as the Church of Scotland in every aspect. This included the aspect of Establishment; the principles of Establishment were clearly embodied in the new denomination's foundational and constitutional documents. The Protest of 1843, for example, clearly asserted "the right and duty of the civil magistrate to maintain and support an establishment of religion in accordance with God's Word" and reserved to the Church the obligation "to strive by all lawful means .. to secure the performance of this duty" [45]. The Disruption, in the view of the Free Church founding fathers, "was not a secession; it was a severing of the true Church of Scotland from its connection with an Erastian state, which had broken its compact to preserve and protect the Church as a spiritual institution for the religious benefit of the Scottish people. The outgoing members continued to hold to the principle of a national establishment, and they proposed to create a territorial Church that would provide Christian instruction and ordinances for the whole population of Scotland" [46]. This ideal was the child of a particular view of the relation between Church and State, a view which held that both ecclesiastical and civil courts have independence in their own spheres of jurisdiction; and that both ought to be co-ordinated in a manner that will be conducive to the good of both, and ultimately serve the interests of the Kingdom of God. Chalmers' ideal was that of a godly commonwealth in Scotland.

The aspect of Scottish Church life which appeared to throw these ideals to the ground was the abuse of patronage, by which patrons of the Crown could in effect force a minister upon a congregation irrespective of their wishes. The Veto Act of 1834 - passed in an Evangelical-dominated Assembly - was a compromise between those who were pro-patronage and those who were all too aware of its abuses, and who wished the mind of a Christian congregation to be a factor in the settlement of a minister over them. Such 'non-intrusionists' were the main power group in the Church of Scotland in the years leading up to the Disruption [47]. And when their philosophy of non-intrusion carried the day, it was on the clear understanding that Establishment as a principle remained constitutional and fundamental. The Disruption represented, indeed, "a church disestablishing herself" [48], but a church, nonetheless which "though separated from a corrupt Establishment ... continued to believe in a pure one" [49]. Indeed, wrote Stewart and Cameron, not without justification, "It is here especially that the nobility of the Disruption testimony comes to light. The Free Church adhered to the Establishent principle when she no longer enjoyed the advantages of State support" [50]. This position is evident in Acts of the Free Church Assembly in 1846 (regarding the Formula), in 1851 (regarding the Subordinate Standards) and in 1853 (regarding the Principles of the Church).

In 1874 the Patronage Act was passed, and a new question arose. That was whether, if at all, the end of patronage was sufficient to deal with the root cause of the Disruption, and effect a re-union of the great Scottish churches. Some of those who campaigned strenuously for the abolition of patronage - such as Charteris and Norman Macleod - professed that the reunification of the Scottish churches was their ultimate goal. It was a pity, however, that other churches were not consulted, and there were deep divisions and suspicions within the Free Church over the effect and consequences of the Act. James Begg considered it 'a most marvellous Act', but Rainy and others viewed it otherwise. "If a boy breaks a window with a stone," said Rainy to the 1874 Assembly, "and afterwards removed the stone, it would not by any means mend the pane of glass" [51]. The illustration was designed to show that the abolition of patronage by itself was insufficient to repair the damage. The window of spiritual independence still remained broken, although the stone of patronage had been removed.

The majority view in the Free Church following the abolition of patronage was that the connection between Church and State which resulted was itself erastian and unbiblical, and the demand for disestablishment in the interests of spiritual independence gathered increasing momentum. There were complex theological and political issues involved, and these became interwined to the point that as early as 1870 George Smeaton could complain that "Politics has much to do with it - I fear much more than religion" [52].

By 1885, leading figures of the Free Church - including George Adam Smith - were demanding immediate disestablishment. This was forwarded to Gladstone in the form of a manifesto bearing the signatures of 1475 Scottish ministers. Agitation in Ireland, however, and the defeat of the first Home Rule Bill in 1886 dominated Gladstone's Parliamentary interests at this time. Gladstone's government was toppled, and the disestablishment campaign was marginalised.

The Established Church of Scotland made overtures to the Free Church, inviting her to unrestricted conference and mutual co-operation. Largely at Rainy's suggestion, this invitation was declined, chiefly on the basis that on subjects such as establishment and endowment "the Churches have no common ground for discussion" [53]. Indeed, Rainy's view was that "Politically the only alternatives worth looking at are simple Disestablishment (and Disendowment) or concurrent endowment of all sects ... there is no solution in the end of the day, politically possible, simple and honest, but Disestablishment ... " [54].

By the time the 1900 Union was achieved, Establishment had ceased to be an issue, although spiritual independence remained an issue. The basis of the Union effected in 1900 between the Free Church and the United Presbyterian Church - the former holding at its constitution to the principle of Establishment, the latter to the principle of voluntaryism - was that the Church was "a private society unrelated to the secular community around her" [55]. Although the claim of the minority in 1900 to continue as the Free Church Assembly was greeted by laughter, their claim, recognised by at least one United Free Church commentator was "that the Disruption leaders had bound the Church to the Establishment principle so that [the constitutionalists] could not unite with a voluntary Church" [56]. On the other hand, Rainy, in his moderatorial speech in the first United Free Assembly stated that "The only authentic Free Church tradition on the subject is the right of the Church to determine its own constitution" [57]. On such grounds anything is possible; and in terms of establishment, Rainy's claim shows how far the Free Church in 1893 had departed from what she was in 1843. History has done scant justice to the claim of the Free Church constitutionalists, who held that "Union on the basis which had found acceptance with their brethren involved the abandonment of a distinctive principle of the Disruption testimony" [58]. Nothing could be clearer than that "The Union brought into existence a new Church with a new Constitution" [59]. In 1906 that new Church made a Declaration of Spiritual Liberty, claiming "independent and exclusive jurisdiction and power of legislating in all matters of doctrine, worship, discipline and Government of the Church, including therein the right, from time to time, to alter, change, add to, or modify her constitution and laws, subordinate standards, and Church formulae and to determine and declare what these are" [60]. This was hardly an echo of the Disruption Free Church, which, by this time, had "travelled far from the stand which had been taken up in the years after the Disruption" [61].

The celebrated Free Church case which occupied the attention of the churches between 1904-5 shed its own light on this. The House of Lords declared in favour of the remnant, Lord Alverstone stating "I am unable to support a judgement which would deprive the persons forming a minority of their rights simply on the ground that they are unwilling to become members of a body which has not only abandoned the fundamental principles of the Church to which they belong, but support a principle essentially different from that on which the Church was founded" [62]. To be told that all the property of the Free Church was legally that of the minority was, as far as Free Church commentators were concerned, " a magnificent display of that upright and unflinching administration of justice which is one of the crowning glories of our British rule" [63]. To the disgruntled United Free Church majority, however, "that judgement has had the serious result of bringing into disrepute the law of the land, as it appears clearly from that judgement that law and equity do not march hand in hand" [64]. In the event, a Parliamentary Commission was appointed to distribute the properties in the most equitable and practicable ways.

The new denomination was approached by the Church of Scotland in 1908 "with a view to a closer fellowship and co-operation, and preparing the way for that closer union for which many now eagerly longed and prayed" [65]. John White, the architect of the 1929 union, was not content with the stated aim of "fellowship and co-operation", preferring to aim for complete re-union. White knew that the Established church would require to modify her constitution if such a union was realised, but believed that a loose agreement to co-operate was hardly practicable. A committee made up of representatives from both denominations was formed, and met frequently over the course of the next two decades. Buchan summarises: "It is important to remember the magnitude of the task which confronted the negotiators. The field had indeed been largely cleared, but, when they began their work in 1929, the difficulties still seemed almost insuperable. One Church had been formally pledged by annual resolutions for nearly half a century to disestablishment and disendowment as a policy not only of expediency but of justice, while the other clung to the historic association with the state" [66]. By the time the Church of Scotland Act was passed in 1921, the ground had been considerably narrowed, the Great War had made co-operation vital, and the changes of Government had made Establishment, to all intents and purposes, meaningless. The Church of Scotland went into the 1929 Union stating that "The Church and the State owe mutual duties to each other, and acting within their separate spheres may signally promote each other's welfare. The Church and the State have the right to determine each for itself all questions concerning the extent or the continuance of their mutual relations in the discharge of their duties and the obligations arising therefrom" [67]. John Buchan, a shrewd commentator on Scottish church history as well as a foremost literary and political figure of the twentieth century [68], is probably correct to state that "The Church of Scotland was now, as to creed, status and property, on the same basis as the sister Church" [69]. There was an irony, however, in the use of the Disruption quill pen - with which the deed of separation had been signed in 1843 - by Principal Martin and Dr. Joseph Mitchell, Moderators of the United Free Church and Church of Scotland respectively in signing the Declaration of Union. For it is questionable whether Chalmers would have recognised the Church that emerged in 1929. What J.R. Fleming describes as the emergence of "a truly national Church ... constituted and equipped on a basis of broadly evangelical truth and entire spiritual independence" [70] seems far removed from Chalmers' idealism, encapsulated in his oft-quoted words: "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. We are advocates for a national recognition and national support of religion - and we are not voluntaries" [71]. It was somewhat of an irony that whereas in 1850 there were three main denominations in Scotland, in 1950, following two major unions, there were at least four!

The Churches and Social Welfare

Chalmers' vision had included not only an Established church in which the claims of Christ would be honoured, but one which would serve well the societies and neighbourhoods in which she was placed. This involved, among other things (such as education) a commitment to the poor and the tenement dwellers. There have been various assessments of Chalmers' experiments both in Glasgow and Edinburgh to deal with poverty [72]. It was clearly the concern of the Church not to pass by on the other side.

There is clear evidence to suggest, however, that in the mid-nineteenth century the concern of the Church was more to preach a Gospel of humble submission than to tackle the root causes of the discontent. There was, to use Donald Smith's phrase, a philosophy of "official passivity" [73] offered by the churches to the working poor, the teaching "not only that the existing pyrammidical social structure was socially and politically desirable, but that it was rooted in the divinely ordained structure of the universe" [74]. Or, in A.C. Cheyne's words, "Churchmen, it is clear, still accepted the existing order with almost unquestioning complacency, still taught submission as the prime virtue of the disadvantaged. The greater part of Scotland's poverty and misery was still ascribed to human failings, moral and spiritual, and the role of the environment minimised or ignored" [75]. This can be demonstrated with reference to Chalmers' description of "the charm of an act of intercourse with a Christian among the poor", one who "lives in a cottage - and yet he is a king and priest unto God. He is fixed for life to the ignoble drudgery of a workman, and yet he is on the full march to a blissful immortality ... out of the most loathsome and unseemly abodes, a glory can be extracted which will weather all storms ... in the filth and raggedness of a hovel, that is to be found on which all the worth of heaven, as well as all the endurance of heaven, can be imprinted..." [76].

Signs of a change are discernible in James Begg, especially in his pastoral work as Free Church minister in Newington. Decried by his opponents because of his dogmatic stand on various theological issues, he was instrumental in setting up the Scottish Social Reform Association in the 1850s, campaigning for better homes for the poor, reform of land laws and parliamentary justice for Scotland. He was, to use Ronald Blakey's words, "a devoted parish minister of real vision" [77]. Cheyne notes the success not only of Begg's parish work, but the influences it carried in the Free Church in the 1850s and 1860s. Primarily under Begg's influence, the Free Church set up a Committee on Social Evils (1859), a Committee on the State of Religion and Morals (1860) and a Committee on Working-Class Housing (1858). Begg's was the moving force in a recovery of genuine social concern, in which the perceived gap between sacred and secular was considerably narrowed [78]. In Smith's words, "the Church had to become interested in the well-being of society, and not just the well-being of the Church" [79].

G.A. Smith notes that an increased interest in social welfare was one result of the Moody and Sankey campaigns of the 1870s. There were, he said, spiritual results, such as a revival of interest in Bible-classes, but, he continues, "the power spread beyond the congregations, and one of the most striking features of the movement was the social and philanthropic work which it stimulated" [80]. Smith noted that temperance work was organised, breakfast was served to the poor on Sabbath mornings, and other activities were engaged in "to promote the spiritual instincts and look after the temporal wants of young men" [81]. Even at this, it is clear that social welfare and reform was still not regarded as a worthwhile object in its own right; that the spiritual aspect was the more important, and the social aspect only instrumental and ancilliary to it.

Smith himself, however, is representative of a growing awareness of the importance of social concern, and was at the forefront of social action in the name of Christianity. The change, described by D.C. Smith as 'prophetic protest', represented the legitimate Christian work of the Church, raising a prophetic voice against the abuses of society and the needs of the poor. Queen's Cross Church, Aberdeen, in 1885, while G.A. Smith was minister there, was the setting for a series of lectures subsequently published as Christianity and Social Life. In these lectures A.B. Bruce argued that every minister needs to have "a love of men, not merely of church members" [82]; David Ross argued that the work of Christianity "is not merely to save individuals, but to regenerate society"; if Christianity is to be true to itself it must, he argued, "work for a greater social perfection" [83]. G.A. Smith himself gave a lecture on "Christianity and Labour"; D.C. Smith comments on him that he was "a prominent example of one whose concern for social righteousness was derived from the rediscovery of the contemporary relevance of the message of the Old Testament prophets" [84].

The interest in social issues continued into the twentieth century. At the United Free Church Assembly of 1902 (at which G.A. Smith was pursued for heresy), a Saturday night meeting was held for working men, with various churchmen delivering lectures "dealing frankly with religious and social questions" [85]. Following the war, which itself threw up various social and moral issues, John White, in 1919, bequeathed one of his greatest legacies to the Church of Scotland: her Church and Nation Committee, whose remit, he explained to the General Assembly, would be "to watch over those developments of the nation's life in which moral and spiritual considerations especially arise [and to] consider what action the Church, from time to time, should take to further the highest interests of the people" [86]. Although it was true that the Scottish Churches "shared in the post-war exhaustion, disillusionment and anxiety" [87], the Churches had come, more and more, to raise a voice of prophetic protest in analysis and study of social issues and problems. D.C. Smith is probably right to say that the Church, however, rarely became a pioneer in the area of social improvement.

There is, however, a charge which must be addressed. T.C. Smout levels against the Church the charge that the new social conscience of the Church at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries was born out of a theological vacuum; that the churches "were spurred to their new sensitivity towards social questions by fear of agnostic socialism: and they found respite from their own theological uncertainties in a gospel of action" [88]. George Adam Smith and others would probably argue to the contrary: that it was the new view of the Bible, particularly a new view of prophetic ministry and of the emphasis of Christ's own teaching, that gave impetus and birth to the new social conscience of the Church. Far from turning to social action as an alternative to orthodoxy, the new orthodoxy gave the Church a social concern which grew out of the Bible itself, laying less stress on the primacy of individual piety, and more on the need for a general Christian conscience.

The Churches and the Great War

Not unrelated to this was the Great War of 1914-19 and its aftermath, which raised social questions of its own and, in Callum Brown's words, caused the Church's social gospel to become "unstuck" [89]. The prophetic criticism which had characterised pre-war Church life failed to give meaningful leadership during the war years.

That is not to say that the Churches were silent. All the major Presbyterian denominations publicly supported the war effort and condemned pacificism. Despite the fact that war sermons depicted the conflict as "the red harvest of sin" and the "recrudescence of barbarism" [90], the war was regarded as righteous, and the conflict necessary. Moreover, there were benefits: churches were filled, there was unity and co-operation unprecedented in the history of the Churches. Part of the reason for this is, as Stewart Brown, argues, that "The war promised to bring religious revival and to restore the moral authority of the Churches within Scottish society" [91].

But in the disillusionment that followed the years of conflict, the dream faded, and with it, the position of the Church in the lives of men and women. The war had produced no national revival of religion. Instead, it had left the Church exposed and vulnerable; Smout's scathing indictment is all too accurate, as he describes "the shock many people experienced on the discovery of the incompetence of the generals and politicians: religious leaders, who blessed the guns and criticised pacifism in the name of Christ, rightly shared in the general odium" [92].


The foregoing has dealt in a general way with several aspects of Scottish Church life and witness during the hundred years from 1850-1950. It was a century which saw the face of the Church changing dramatically, and which also saw the place of the Church in Scottish life diminish significantly. Aspects of theology, liturgy, creed, as well as attitudes to society and the nature of the Gospel itself, were all subject to alteration under influences of Scottish life and culture. It may be, as Cheyne suggests, that the Church still owes a debt to "the revolutionaries of the Victorian age" [93]. But it is also true that the national Churches, a century on, "never did find a solution to the ... fundamental problems posed by the death of hell, the rise of class, and the spread of other entertainment" [94].


[1] Whose life and work is the subject of my current research at Edinburgh University. I am grateful to my supervisor, Prof. S.J. Brown, for his comments on this study.

[2] Smith was Principal of Aberdeen University from 1910-1935, but retained his status as minister in both the U.F Church and the C.of S. while in that work.

[3] Quoted in Fitzroy Maclean, A Concise History of Scotland, 1974, p207

[4] Ibid., pp207-9

[5] J.F. C. Harrison, Late Victorian Britain 1875-1901, Fontana Press, 1990, p14.

[6] Ibid., p17.

[7] A. Wood, Nineteenth Century Britain 1815-1914, London: Longman 1996, p273

[8] Ibid., pp279-80

[9] T.C. Smout, A Century of the Scottish People 1830-1950, Fontana Press, 1987, p32.

[10] Ibid., pp34-5

[11] C.G. Brown, Religion and Society in Scotland since 1707, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1997, p96

[12] J.H.S. Burleigh, A Church History of Scotland, Edinburgh: The Hope Trust, 1983, p354

[13] Brown, Annals of the Disruption, Edinburgh: Macniven and Wallace, 1884, p248

[14] J.Buchan and G.A. Smith, The Kirk in Scotland 1560-1929, London: Hodder and Stoughton, p82

[15] S.J. Brown "The Ten years' Conflict", in Scotland in the Age of the Disruption, (eds. S.J. Brown and M. Fry), Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993, p24

[16] J.R. Fleming, A History of the Church in Scotland 1875-1929, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1933, p4. Fleming comments: "The State Church thus claimed a decided preponderance in numbers over all the other Presbyterian bodies taken together, a slight majority among Protestants, but not an absolute majority of the population" (idem).

[17] Burleigh, op.cit., p384.

[18] Quoted in G.N.M. Collins, The Heritage of our Fathers, Edinburgh: Knox Press, p60

[19] A. Stewart and J.K. Cameron, The Free Church of Scotland 1843-1910: A Vindication, Edinburgh: William Hodge, p12

[20] Article "William Robertson Smith" in the National Dictionary of Biography.

[21] Don Carswell, Brother Scots, London: Constable and Co., 1927, p109. Italics his.

[22] J. Strahan, Andrew Bruce Davidson, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1917, p119

[23] Idem.

[24] A.S. Peake "The History of Theology" in Germany in the Nineteenth Century (eds. Peake, Bosanquet and Bonavia), Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1915, p158

[25] Stewart and Kennedy, op.cit., pp60-61

[26] Fleming, op.cit., p9

[27] N.M.L. Walker, Chapters in the History of the Free Church of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1895, p296

[28] A.L. Drummond and J. Bulloch, The Church in Late Victorian Scotland, 1874-1900, Edinburgh: The St Andrew Press, p78. Contrast Drummond and Bulloch's conclusion - "So Robertson Smith was thrown to the wolves" (idem) with Walker's - "The truth is, in fact, is that, if he was to prosecute to a conclusion the inquiries he had entered on, it was absolutely necessary that he should have a perfectly free hand" (op.cit., p296)

[29] R.A. Finlayson, Reformed Theological Writings, Christian Focus Publications, 1996, p197

[30] A.C. Cheyne, The Transforming of the Kirk, Edinburgh: The St Andrew Press, 1983, p51

[31] Quoted in Cheyne, op.cit., p62

[32] From the Protest of the Free Church of Scotland, quoted in A.Taylor Innes, The Law of Creeds in Scotland, Edinburgh: William Blackwood, 1867, p171

[33] Quoted in Cheyne, op.cit., p69

[34] W.G. Blaikie, After Fifty Years, London: Thomas Nelson, 1893, p81

[35] Collins, op.cit., p78

[36] J. Macleod, Scottish Theology in Relation to Church History since the Reformation, Edinburgh: Free Church of Scotland, 1943, p328

[37] G.A. Smith, The Life of Henry Drummond, London:Hodder and Stoughton, 1899, p58

[38] K.D. Ross, Church and Creed in Scotland: the Free Church Case 1900-1904 and its Origins, Edinburgh: Rutherford House Books, 1988, p191

[39] A.C. Cheyne (op.cit., pp73ff) seeks to analyses the "more pervasive influences" in the thinking of Victorian churchmen which led to a reconstruction of the Scottish church's creedal base. He notes the following: i) a new sense of history; ii) a new moral sensitivity; iii) a new picture of the natural world; iv)a new estimate of human nature; v) a new tolerance and tentativeness; vi) a new preference for the apologetic, as opposed to the dogmatic spirit; vii) a new awareness of other religions; viii) a new approach to evangelism.

[40] P.Carnegie Simpson, The Life of Prncipal Rainy, Vol 2, London: Hodder and Stoughton, p120

[41] Cheyne, op.cit., p85

[42] Burleigh, op.cit., p361

[43] Smout, op.cit., p195

[44] The British Weekly June 1st 1893, p83

[45] Quoted in Taylor Innes, op.cit., p171

[46] S.J. Brown, art.cit., p21

[47] The vital period was the Ten Years' Conflict, from 1833-1843. Iain Hamilton suggests that this period "was not about the democritization of the Church. It was about the desire of the Church to be the Church, sovereign within its own domain" (Article "Disruption" in the Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology, T&T Clark, 1993, p247).

[48] T. Brown, op.cit., p97

[49] Stewart and Cameron, op.cit., p13

[50] Idem.

[51] Quoted in Carnegie Simpson, op.cit., p272

[52] Quoted in Collins, op.cit., p71

[53] Comment of Assembly of 1887, quoted in Carnegie Simpson, op.cit., p58

[54] Correspondence of Principal Rainy, quoted in Carnegie Simpson, op.cit., p77

[55] Drummond and Bulloch, op.cit., p319

[56] J. Barr, The United Free Church of Scotland, London: Allenson and Co., 1934, p96. Barr, in a subsequent chapter, in discussing "Guiding Principles on Union", states that "Union is everywhere impeded by the continuance of State Establishment and State Endowment" (ibid., p247). Accepting, as they did, the Establishment Principle as fundamental and constitutional, it was little wonder that the continuing Free Church found an impediment with Union in the very constitution of the Church itself; to them the desire for union did not overtake their desire to be faithful to their principles.

[57] Quoted in Carnegie Simpson, vol ii, p253

[58] Stewart and Cameron,op.cit., p119

[59] Ibid., p121

[60] Quoted in Augustus Muir, John White, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1958, p121

[61] Ibid., p99

[62] Quoted in Stewart and Cameron, op.cit., p232

[63] Ibid., p240

[64] Speech of Lord Overtoun, reported in The Convocation of 1904: A Record and Report, Edinburgh: Macniven and Wallace, 1905, p67

[65] G.M. Reith, Reminiscences of the United Free Church General Assembly (1900-1929), Edinburgh: The Moray Press, 1933, p97.

[66] Buchan and Smith, op.cit., pp97-98

[67] Articles of the Church of Scotland (1925), quoted in Buchan and Smith op.cit., p102-3

[68] George Adam Smith's daughter, Janet Adam Smith, was a biographer of Buchan.

[69] Buchan and Smith, op.cit., p104

[70] Fleming, op.cit., p134

[71] Quoted in Burleigh, op.cit., p354

[72] One has to do justice to Donald Macleod's view that "poverty is probably the wrong word. Chalmers repeatedly conveys the impression that what he was really concerned with was pauperism, and he distinguished sharply between the two" ("Thomas Chalmers and Pauperism", Brown and Stewart, op.cit., p64). Macleod suggests that Chalmers had little hope of eradicating poverty, it was something that would always exist; pauperism, on the other hand, was a 'moral nuisance', for as long as men were supported by legally awarded relief, the system bred discontentment and the loss of moral virtue.

[73] D.C. Smith, Passive Obedience and Prophetic Protest: Social Criticism in the Scottish Church 1830-1945, New York: Peter Lang, 1981, p47

[74] Ibid., p54

[75] Cheyne, op.cit., p118

[76] T. Chalmers "Sermon on the advantages of Christian knowledge to the lower orders of society" in Sermons Preached in St John's Church, Glasgow, Glasgow, 1823, pp374-5

[77] R.S. Blakey, The Man in the Manse, Edinburgh: The Handsel Press Ltd, 1978, p97

[78] D.C. Smith accuses federal theology of separating creation from redemption (op.cit., chapter 2), and he makes this the grounds upon which he claims that the church's social teaching in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries degenerated into moralism and legalism. One is tempted to suggest that this assessment hardly does justice to the federal theology, say of the Westminster Confession, where creation is discussed prior to redemption. What is peculiar is the separation, in the mind of the Free Church founding fathers, of the state's responsibility and the church's responsibility towards the poor.

[79] D.C. Smith, op.cit., p242

[80] The Life of Henry Drummond, op.cit., pp60-61

[81] Ibid., p62

[82] Quoted in D.C. Smith, op.cit., p270

[83] Ibid., p271

[84] Ibid., p272, note 66

[85] Reith, op.cit., p33

[86] Muir, op.cit., p188

[87] S.J. Brown, "The Social Vision of Scottish Presbyterianism and the Union of 1929", Records of the Scottish Church History Society, Vol XXIV (1992), p87

[88] Smout, op.cit., p205

[89] C.G. Brown, op.cit., p139

[90] P.C. Matheson, "Scottish War Sermons", Records of the Scottish Church History Society, Vol XVII (1972), p207

[91] S.J. Brown, "'A Solemn Purification by Fire': Responses to the Great War in the Scottish Presbyterian Churches, 1914-19), Records of the Scottish Church History Society, Vol XLV (1994), p91

[92] Smout, op.cit., p207

[93] Cheyne, op.cit., p218

[94] Smout, op.cit., p208

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