Lessons from the Secession of 1733
One of the great mysteries in the history of the Christian Church is that Presbyterianism, with it’s high regard for the unity and oneness of the Church, should over the centuries have become a byword for division and secession. Many of us here, from all over the world, are painfully aware of this fact.
The Secession of 1733 in Scotland is an affair which, from small beginnings, came to have profound implications for the Scottish Church. Without it, perhaps the whole series of secessions and fragmentations which afflicted the Scottish Church in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries may not have occurred, the Disruption may not have been deemed necessary, the Union of 1900 would not have occurred. The whole church history of Scotland, even in our own time, would probably have been unrecognisable.
The Main Events of the Secession of 1733
In brief, the main events of the 1733 Secession commence with the sermon which Ebenezer Erskine, who by this time was the minister of the Third Charge of Stirling, preached as Moderator of the 1733 meeting of the Synod of Perth and Stirling. In the sermon, entitled ‘The Stone rejected by the Builders, exalted as the Headstone in the Corner’, he denounced patronage as unscriptural in forthright language, comparing the members of the preceding General Assembly to the Jewish priests who had rejected Christ. (Patronage was the right of the ‘patron’, usually the largest local landowner, to nominate a man to be the minister of the congregation.) The language, as much as the sentiments, outraged the overwhelming majority of the Synod which rebuked him. Erskine was cited to appear at the General Assembly of 1733 where he was again rebuked and admonished. Erskine and three other ministers gave in a protest, but the Assembly ordered the four to ‘show their sorrow for their conduct and misbehaviour in offering to protest’, and authorised the Commission of Assembly to pass a higher censure if Erskine and the others did not comply.
In November the four refused to comply and rejected the authority of the Commission, and consequently were suspended on the casting vote of the Moderator. Erskine was joined in his secession by three other ministers at a meeting at Gairney Bridge near Kinross. Four years later, they were joined by Erskine’s brother Ralph, the minister of Dunfermline and another local minister. In 1734, Erskine’s sympathisers persuaded the General Assembly to revoke the 1733 deposition, but their overtures were spurned by Erskine and the others, and in 1740 the General Assembly proceeded to their final deposition. Initial progress by the Secession was slow although by 1737 they had fifteen congregations, but the increased rate of enforced settlements in the Established Church after the early 1750s dramatically increased the numbers who joined the Secession. By the 1760s, the opponents of patronage within the Established Church estimated Secession strength at over 100,000, though the Secession itself claimed less. Such are the main events of the Secession of 1733, known in Scottish Church history as the Original Secession.
But what I wish to do, is first, to probe a little more deeply than has been done hitherto into the personal background of Ebenezer Erskine; secondly, to attempt to throw some light into why it was that so few of his fellow ministers decided to join Erskine when so many of them shared his attitude to patronage; and thirdly, to draw some lessons which may be of use to us, and our part in the life of the Church in the twenty-first century.
The Life of Ebenezer Erskine to 1733
Prior to accepting the call to Stirling in 1730, Ebenezer Erskine had a somewhat chequered experience as a minister of the Established Church. On the one hand, he has a deserved reputation as the colleague of Thomas Boston and a small group of ministers in their defence of evangelical doctrine in what is known as the Marrow controversy in 1718-23, but on the other hand, because of this role he was ostracized by many ministers, and twice prevented from receiving calls to larger congregations. I would suggest, therefore, that his opposition to patronage might not have been entirely a straightforward matter of principle.
Patronage had been introduced in 1712 in flagrant violation of the Revolution Settlement of 1688 and of the 1707 Act of Security which secured the position of the Church of Scotland as Presbyterian and its doctrine based on the Westminster Confession. For the following twenty years, however, there were no clear-cut cases of enforced settlements of unwanted ministers until the Kinross case of 1732. The Muckhart case of the same period concerned the charge to the west of Kinross. Now, disputed presentation cases of the period after 1740 for the rest of the eighteenth century reveal an almost unvarying pattern of Moderate members of presbyteries voting alongside Popular (Evangelical) colleagues against unpopular presentations, and being prepared to defend their actions at the bar of the General Assembly. There is no reason to assume that such presbytery solidarity did not exist before 1733. There is substantial evidence, therefore, for arguing that a major reason for the 1733 Secession was an individual and local response to one patronage case, that of Kinross, with the possible influence of a similar one at Muckhart.
But that is not all. It is very interesting that three of the original four ministers of the Secession all came from the Presbytery of Kinross or immediately neighbouring charges. Erskine’s own charge, prior to his induction at Stirling in 1730, had been at Portmoak, the neighbouring charge on the east to that of Kinross. And just before 1733 Kinross and its neighbouring charge to the west, Muckhart, were the scenes of the first two really significant cases of enforced settlement in the eighteenth century. Of the four original Seceders, not only were three of them from the parishes around Erskine’s Portmoak, the fourth was Erskine’s own son-in-law. When Ebenezer Erskine’s brother Ralph, the minister of Dunfermline, adhered to the Secession in 1737, it meant that of the six ministers, three were from one family, and two of the others were ministers from either the same presbytery or from nearby congregations. One of these local men had been licensed by Ralph Erskine in his role as Moderator of the Presbytery of Dunfermline.
May I draw one conclusion at this point: the Secession of 1733 was initially a local and a family affair. And from that may I draw two applications also. First, we all should consider carefully how our own experiences may lead us to follow ill-advised, and possibly spiritually catastrophic actions in our lives in the Church. It is a solemn thought that in 1747-8, both
Ebenezer and Ralph Erskine were deposed and excommunicated by some of their brethren in the Secession over their acceptance of the Burgess Oath required to hold local government office in Scotland at the time. Secondly, we should beware of the influence of family loyalty when issues of principle are at stake. ‘My family right or wrong’ is not a scriptural principle, though sometimes in the life of the Church it has been treated as if it were.
Why Did so Few Ministers Join the Secession?
Erskine’s 1733 Synod sermon was an attack on patronage as a principle. Why did many others, who shared Erskine’s opposition to patronage, not accept the need to secede? The revered John Willison of Dundee, for example, after whose preaching the Kilsyth Revival occurred, shared Erskine’s fears about patronage and his rejection of it as unscriptural, but in his 1733 work entitled The Church’s Danger and Ministers’ Duty explicitly rejected secession. Partly this was so because they saw patronage as part of a much larger problem. Willison and others were mounting a much more comprehensive opposition to defections from truth within the Church than Erskine and the Seceders with their preoccupation with the one issue of patronage did, initially at any rate. Certainly in their initial works the Seceders argued that patronage was the key issue, although they soon extended the reasons for secession more globally than they seemed to do at first.
There is, however, another work of Willison’s which, so far as I am aware, has never been used by church historians to throw light on the origins of the Original Secession. In 1744 he published a work entitled A Fair and Impartial Testimony, essayed in the Name of a Number of Ministers, Elders and Christian People of the Church of Scotland, unto the Laudable Principles, Wrestlings, and Attainments of that Church, and prevailing evils, both of former and present times, and namely, the Defections of the Established Church, of the Nobility, Gentry, Commons, Seceders, Episcopalians, etc. Amongst the reasons Willison gave for his publication were the prevalence of infidelity and error, the toleration of heretical doctrines, the ‘looseness’, immorality and doctrinal laxness of ministers, some of whom were allowed to hold divinity posts in the universities, the decline of evangelical preaching and the spread of ‘legal doctrine’, the acceptance and implementation of patronage by some in the ministry, the divisions and separations which existed among Presbyterians contrary to Scripture injunctions, the criticism of revivals, and the spread of Popish doctrines and practices amongst the Episcopalian clergy. In other words, Willison’s analysis of the spiritual state of Scotland was pretty much the same as Ebenezer Erskine’s had been shortly after the secession a decade earlier.
In the course of the work, however, Willison dealt extensively with the Secession and in particular to Ebenezer Erskine’s role in it. After stating categorically that ‘it was very unwise in the synod to proceed against Mr. Erskine for his sermon in such a judicial manner, so it was in the Assembly to resent the protestation as they did’, and after giving a critique of Assembly procedure in the case of Erskine, he turned to analyse what Erskine and the Seceders had done. Willison’s critique may be summarised as highlighting four failings on the part of the ministers of the Secession:
failure to recognise the worth and achievements of others in the Church,
refusal of fellowship with other Christians and its consequences, and
low regard for the significance of vowed submission to the courts of the Church.
First, he identifies the pride and stubbornness of the original four seceders in opposing the authority of the Assembly and despising its sentences, refusing to listen to their friends who urged them to respect the authority of the judicatories even though at the time the latter were abusing their power in an arbitrary way. He highlights Erskine’s use of ‘asperity and tartness of expression about the ministers and judicatories of the church’, and his refusal to make any acknowledgement or submission of any sort in relation to that matter, even though two of his colleagues in the Secession in their reasons for dissent did not ‘pretend to justify his modes of expression’. In the interests of giving ‘a fair and impartial testimony’ against the evils of the time, as he put it, Willison enumerated ‘some of our seceding brethren’s defections and strayings from the good old paths; which they have been led into, partly by their own precipitancy and misguided zeal, and partly by the headstrong humours of their followers’. He complained of their ‘heat and uncharitableness’ to their former brethren. Examination of the records of the Presbytery of Stirling in the year or two before the Secession show Erskine at loggerheads with the Burgh Council over seating in his Stirling Church and not being supported by his evangelical brethren in the Presbytery. Erskine’s own personality, therefore, would appear to have been a factor in the origins of the Secession. Subsequent events in the Secession Church suggest that others of their ministers may have been of similar dispositions.
Secondly, Willison enumerated the steps which the 1734 and subsequent Assemblies took to deal with the evils of which the Seceders complained but all to no avail. He acknowledged that in the period between 1734 and 1739 the Church did not do everything it could have done and should have done to redress the wrongs and evils of which the Seceders complained, but their refusal to return to assist faithful brethren in the work of reform of abuses, led to the discouragement of those faithful brethren and the continuance of the abuses which might have been advanced, and the consequences of schism prevented. In the past worthy ministers had submitted themselves to unjust sentences of this sort, to show their regard to the authority of lawful judicatories of a church which they regarded as a true church. Furthermore, they were wrong not to have delayed taking extreme action until the following Assembly had had the chance to reverse the decision of the Commission. In fact, by a large majority the 1734 Assembly voted for restoring them to their charges and to the communion of the Church. Rather than waiting for this, the Seceders constituted themselves as a separate church and began licensing preachers and ordaining ministers wherever they found any encouragement.
Thirdly, the Seceders had promised to have fellowship with all true Presbyterians, and those who opposed the evils of which they were complaining, but they soon departed from this intention. Erskine had acknowledged that there was ‘still a body of faithful ministers in the Church of Scotland, with whom he did not reckon himself worthy to be compared’, but he failed to discuss with them before taking the steps of secession and establishment of a new church which had the inevitable consequence of dividing and rending them asunder from the faithful body of believers who did not have light to go all the way with the four. They failed to consult with their brethren, whom they acknowledged to be faithful ministers, even though it was obvious that those ministers and their congregations would be ‘much affected, nay, distressed, shaken, perplexed, and rent, by such singular and extraordinary steps as they were taking’. The Seceders seceded, not only from the church, but from ‘their old Christian temper and disposition, and from that royal law of love and charity which they once preached up’.
Fourthly, Willison highlighted the irreverent and disrespectful attitude towards their mother-church to whom they had solemnly vowed submission. This appeared in their Declinature in which they disowned all the Church’s authority and jurisdiction over them, and seemed to imply no less than the unchurching of the whole Church of Scotland, ‘and unministering her whole ministry, faithful body and all, as if they were all given up to some dreadful apostasy or fundamental errors’. Willison could not ‘approve of their marking so narrowly the failings, mistakes, and wrong steps of their godly brethren, as they do; and instead of covering and forgiving their weaknesses, as Christ enjoins, aggravating and magnifying them so as to make every mistake a dangerous error and defection’; and not only doing this in private conversation but from the pulpit, to the great harm of many precious souls. He deplored their ‘flock-scattering doctrines and practices’ which deliberately stirred up people to leave their godly pastors, by whom many had been brought to Christ, even as they were profiting spiritually under their ministries. Willison concluded: ‘There are indeed many evils in the national church; but it is sinful to calumniate her, and make her defections greater than they are.’
The Lessons from the Secession of 1733
So much, then, for the events and analysis of the Secession of 1733. What applications can we make for our own time? There are more, I am sure, but I would suggest the following:
First, we should all make a point of considering prayerfully our own characters and personalities. We should especially strive to be aware of our weaknesses, because these weaknesses, or even predispositions, may have dire consequences in the life and witness of the Church. Pride is a sin, temper we must hold in check, speaking before thinking is to be avoided; and stubbornness or inability to see the point of others require sanctified self-perception and perseverance to overcome.
Secondly, failure to give due recognition to the worth and achievements of others in the Church can lead to a short-term perspective and an over-emphasis on the significance of our own perceptions. As we all know, Christians are to be people who build each other up, not pull them down. We must recognise the value of what has been achieved by our brethren who do not necessarily share our perceptions.
Thirdly, it is crucially important that we have fellowship in the Church with those with whom we disagree. It is easy to talk to those who agree with us, but more necessary to talk with those with whom we may disagree. Failure to recognise this, I would suggest, is a factor in all secessions in the history of the Christian Church. Was it not Bucer, the great but often underesteemed Reformer who said: ‘I will have fellowship with anyone in whom I see something of the Lord Jesus’?
Fourthly, we should have and show respect for the Church and its institutions. This is especially true for those who have vowed to do so. As we all know, no part of the Christian Church is perfect, and it is easy to identify flaws. But we must be careful how we speak about them. It is wrong for officebearers to speak unguardedly about the part of the Body of Christ in which they hold office. As a denomination, we in the Free Church are preoccupied with the loss of so many of our young people. But for believing parents openly to criticize the Church, its ministers, and its ministry in the presence of their covenant children is, may I suggest, a breach of covenant responsibility which has had dire consequences for us as a denomination.
Such then, are some lessons from the Secession of 1733.
But let Willison and Ralph Erskine have the last words:
At the end of his analysis of the faults of the Seceders, Willison added a most thought-provoking qualification to everything he had said:
But notwithstanding of all these extravagant steps and accusations of our seceding brethren, occasioned through their intemperate party zeal; we still have regard to several of them, as good men upon the main, and useful preachers of a crucified Jesus; and upon that account we wish well to them; not doubting but that they have as good title to our charity as various separatists of previous ages. And we pray God to incline their hearts with other godly ministers.
And after he had been excommunicated by part of the Church he had helped to found, Ralph Erskine reflected on those he had left behind in the Church of Scotland.
He admitted ‘untenderness to those we left in the judicatories, when we made secession from them, without dealing more kindly with them, praying more for them, and bearing more with them, especially such as were friends to the same Reformation cause, though not enlightened in the same manner of witnessing for it.’
When Willison was dying, Ralph Erskine went to visit him. A woman tried to revive the old disagreements by saying that there would be no Secession in heaven. Erskine replied: ‘Madam, in heaven there will be a complete Secession — from sin and sorrow’. And Willison nodded agreement.