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Timeline of Scottish History

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The Great Disruption of 1843

Ever since the days of John Knox and the Reformation, the vast majority of the Scottish people had thrown their weight and support behind the Kirk.

However, the unity of the Church of Scotland was finally blown apart by one of the most important and far-reaching events of the nineteenth century - the co-called Disruption of 1843.

This split in the Kirk caused bitter divisions, left ministers without homes and salaries, and meant that whole congregations found themselves without churches to worship in.


It also left Scotland with two national churches - the Church of Scotland and Free Church of Scotland - instead of one.

The Disruption was a spectacular and cataclysmic event, culminating in a mass walk out from the Kirk's General Assembly in Edinburgh. It was the result of tensions in the church going back well over 100 years, to the very beginning of the 18th century.

In the Patronage Act of 1712, local lairds were given the legal power to choose ministers. Thus meant, in effect, that congregations had no say in who preached to them.

This ruling often caused deep unhappiness, as local Kirk members felt they had a right to say who should preside over their worship. Slowly but surely, ministers began to leave the church.

The Original Secession of 1733, involving the resignation of the Stirling minister Ebenezer Erskine, was followed by a Second Secession in 1761 led by the reformer Thomas Gillespie, who formed his own sect, the Relief Church.

However, the real build-up to the Disruption came with the Reform Act of 1832 and the establishment of a group of Evangelicals within the Kirk, who were strict Calvinists advocating more mission work by the church both in Scotland and overseas.

The Evangelicals found themselves in tension with the so-called Moderates who ran the church and accepted its links with the state and the lairds. As the power of the rebel group grew, they insisted that the Kirk allow congregations to have their own ministers and that ties with the government be relaxed.

In 1834, the Kirk's General Assembly passed the Veto Act, which allowed a majority of male heads of families within a congregation to reject a patron's choice of minister.

It should have been a major step forward but John Hope, the Dean of the Faculty of Advocates and one of Scotland's leading legal figures, challenged the ruling and it became bogged down in court test cases.

By this stage, the church was in crisis. The House of Lords eventually ruled that the General Assembly did not have the legal right to amend the Patronage Act, stoking up the tensions even further.

By 1842, relations between Kirk and government had deteriorated even more. The General Assembly drew up a Claim of Right saying it did not want its work interfered with by the state. Jesus Christ, it said, was head of the church, not the government.

As a desperate last measure, ministers met in Edinburgh and attempted to convince the government that they were not being deliberately troublesome, but were acting with integrity and on principle. However, there was another purpose to the gathering: to begin to map out plans for a breakaway church.

Just as the meeting broke up, a reply from the government was received rejecting the Claim of Right. The then Prime Minister was Robert Peel, a Tory, and he believed that the church was trying to manoeuvre itself into a position where it was above the law of the land

It was the final straw. At the opening of the General Assembly in 1843, the retiring Moderator read out a prepared protest, bowed to the Queen's Commissioner, and immediately walked out. He was followed by 200 other ministers and elders.

They immediately processed to the nearby Tanfield Hall, where they declared the establishment of the Free Church of Scotland with the much-respected academic and former minister of the Tron Kirk in Glasgow, Thomas Chalmers, elected as their first Moderator.

In total, 474 ministers quit the Kirk as a result of the Disruption. Each of them willingly signed away their stipends, their manses and their churches, leaving them homeless and in some cases without an income.

The financial problem had to be solved - and quickly. Chalmers came up with a scheme asking each member of the new church to give a penny a week. This Sustenation Fund, as it was known, was enough to provide an income of #150 a year for ministers. Further money was raised by appeals overseas.

All in all, the new church comprised about a third of all the ministers and worshippers who had been members of the Church of Scotland. This made it a formidable force to be reckoned with.

The Free Church set about building an infrastructure for itself with a vengeance. It often faced great difficulties - in the Highlands, for instance, its members were sometimes persecuted by the local lairds and were denied building sites - but its viability was never in question.

Suddenly Scotland had two major national churches instead of one, and the Free Church quickly made its mark in its new role. With a few years, it had built several hundred churches and accompanying manses along with hundreds of schools.

The Free Kirk even created its own teacher training colleges. It believed passionately in education, and was determined to help provide teaching in any way it could.

There were other priorities, too. Mission work was considered critically important, and women's societies were formed to help spread the workload and preach the gospels. Sunday Schools were formed to give children an early education into the Christian message.

Neglected children were cared for in so-called Ragged Schools, and missionaries were recruited overseas. It all cost a lot of money, but the Sustenation Fund worked and met the bills.

Enough ordinary people pledged their money to the church to pay for a second church alongside the Kirk in even some of the smallest villages in Scotland, And in every one, the congregations could choose their own ministers.

It had taken the ordinary worshippers more than a century to win that right, and they were justly proud of it. However, one of the greatest ironies of the Disruption is that its effects did not last terribly long.

The Church of Scotland also continued to flourish. It finally broke its strong links with the state and even the issue of the patronage of the lairds was eventually resolved. In other words, the issues which had first caused the great schism of 1843 gradually diminished.

By 1929, the Free Church - by then united with the United Presbyterian Church to become the United Free Church - felt able to re-unify with the Kirk.

However, a minority of Free Church members protested against the union with the United Presbyterian Church and they continued as the Free Church of Scotland.

The Free Kirk did not rejoin with the Church of Scotland and continues to make a major contribution to Scotland's religious life. Its strength is mainly in the Gaelic-speaking areas of the Highlands and islands, but it continues to maintain its own congregations and manses and is a powerful force in Scottish affairs to this very day.


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Tags: Secession

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