1720-40: The First Secession
For long we have heard little of the Kirk, which between 1720 and 1740 passed through a cycle of internal storms. She had been little vexed, either during her years of triumph or defeat, by heresy or schism. But now the doctrines of Antoinette Bourignon, a French lady mystic, reached Scotland, and won the sympathies of some students of divinity—including the Rev. John Simson, of an old clerical family which had been notorious since the Reformation for the turbulence of its members. In 1714, and again in 1717, Mr Simson was acquitted by the Assembly on the charges of being a Jesuit, a Socinian, and an Arminian, but was warned against “a tendency to attribute too much to natural reason.” In 1726-29 he was accused of minimising the doctrines of the creed of St Athanasius, and tending to the Arian heresy,—“lately raked out of hell,” said the Kirk-session of Portmoak (1725), addressing the sympathetic Presbytery of Kirkcaldy. At the Assembly of 1726 that Presbytery, with others, assailed Mr Simson, who was in bad health, and “could talk of nothing but the Council of Nice.” A committee, including Mar’s brother, Lord Grange (who took such strong measures with his wife, Lady Grange, forcibly translating her to the isle of St Kilda), inquired into the views of Mr Simson’s own Presbytery—that of Glasgow. This Presbytery cross-examined Mr Simson’s pupils, and Mr Simson observed that the proceedings were “an unfruitful work of darkness.” Moreover, Mr Simson was of the party of the Squadrone, while his assailants were Argathelians. A large majority of the Assembly gave the verdict that Mr Simson was a heretic. Finally, though in 1728 his answers to questions would have satisfied good St Athanasius, Mr Simson found himself in the ideal position of being released from his academic duties but confirmed in his salary. The lenient good-nature of this decision, with some other grievances, set fire to a mine which blew the Kirk in twain.
The Presbytery of Auchterarder had set up a kind of “standard” of their own—“The Auchterarder Creed”—which included this formula: “It is not sound or orthodox to teach that we must forsake sin in order to our coming to Christ, and instating us in Covenant with God.” The General Assembly condemned this part of the Creed of Auchterarder. The Rev. Mr Hog, looking for weapons in defence of Auchterarder, republished part of a forgotten book of 1646, ‘The Marrow of Modern Divinity.’ The work appears to have been written by a speculative hairdresser, an Independent. A copy of the Marrow was found by the famous Mr Boston of Ettrick in the cottage of a parishioner. From the Marrow he sucked much advantage: its doctrines were grateful to the sympathisers with Auchterarder, and the republication of the book rent the Kirk.
In 1720 a Committee of the General Assembly condemned a set of propositions in the Marrow as tending to Antinomianism (the doctrine that the saints cannot sin, professed by Trusty Tompkins in ‘Woodstock’). But—as in the case of the five condemned propositions of Jansenius—the Auchterarder party denied that the heresies could be found in the Marrow.
It was the old quarrel between Faith and Works. The clerical petitioners in favour of the Marrow were rebuked by the Assembly (May 21, 1722); they protested: against a merely human majority in the Assembly they appealed to “The Word of God,” to which the majority also appealed; and there was a period of passion, but schism had not yet arrived.
The five or six friends of the Marrow really disliked moral preaching, as opposed to weekly discourses on the legal technicalities of justification, sanctification, and adoption. They were also opposed to the working of the Act which, in 1712, restored lay patronage. If the Assembly enforced the law of the land in this matter (and it did), the Assembly sinned against the divine right of congregations to elect their own preachers. Men of this way of thinking were led by the Rev. Mr Ebenezer Erskine, a poet who, in 1714, addressed an Ode to George I. He therein denounced “subverting patronage” and
“the woful dubious Abjuration
Which gave the clergy ground for speculation.”
But a Jacobite song struck the same note—
“Let not the Abjuration
Impose upon the nation!”
and George was deaf to the muse of Mr Erskine.
In 1732, 1733, Mr Erskine, in sermons concerning patronage, offended the Assembly; would not apologise, appeared (to a lay reader) to claim direct inspiration, and with three other brethren constituted himself and them into a Presbytery. Among their causes of separation (or rather of deciding that the Kirk had separated from them) was the salary of Emeritus Professor Simson. The new Presbytery declared that the Covenants were still and were eternally binding on Scotland; in fact, these preachers were “platonically” for going back to the old ecclesiastical claims, with the old war of Church and State. They naturally denounced the Act of 1736, which abolished the burning of witches. After a period of long-suffering patience and conciliatory efforts, in 1740 the Assembly deposed the Seceders.
In 1747 a party among the Seceders excommunicated Mr Erskine and his brother; one of those who handed Mr Erskine over to Satan (if the old formula were retained) was his son-in-law.
The feuds of Burghers and Antiburghers (persons who were ready to take or refused to take the Burgess oath), New Lights and Old Lights, lasted very long and had evil consequences. As the populace love the headiest doctrines, they preferred preachers in proportion as they leaned towards the Marrow, while lay patrons preferred candidates of the opposite views. The Assembly must either keep the law and back the patrons, or break the law and cease to be a State Church. The corruption of patronage was often notorious on one side; on the other the desirability of burning witches and the belief in the eternity of the Covenants were articles of faith; and such articles were not to the taste of the “Moderates,” educated clergymen of the new school.
Thus arose the war of “High Flyers” and “Moderates” within the Kirk, a war conducing to the great Disruption of 1843, in which gallant little Auchterarder was again in the foremost line.