THE QUESTION IN SCOTLAND FIFTY YEARS AGO.
I. One of my earliest recollections is the rattle of the
muskets when a company of soldiers, marched into Easter Ross to keep down the
excited population in 1843, grounded their arms in the High Street of the old
burgh of Tain. They were drawn up in front of the grey tower on the Castle
hill, which half hid the long blue line of Sutherlandshire hills, while far to
the right our horizon showed the ruined Keep of Lochslin, the birthplace of the
Bloody Mackenzie. It was the centre of a district in which the display of some
military force had become necessary. About a year before, the Church of
Scotland had solemnly undertaken to disestablish itself; and that promise had
now to be fulfilled, but by a very different process from the comfortable
euthanasia of retaining a life-interest in the benefices. Most of the Northern
ministers adhered to their pledge; but each of them still held that the church
of the parish belonged to its congregation, and the congregations (who were
with them almost unanimously) held still more strongly that the manse ought to
be left with the outgoing minister.
That was not to be. It was found not easy to drive the Gaelic congregations from the low grey walls of the Easter Ross churches, each surrounded by the generations of its dead. And though it was easy enough to send out from his home each minister and his family, the actual accomplishment of this, which was now going on, filled every household in the Highlands with a dangerous mixture of anguish and indignation. In this particular district there were special reasons for strong feeling. The people were not under the control of one great proprietor, ducal or otherwise; but still there were attempts to terrorise. A powerful landholder in the neighbourhood announced that no labourer should be permitted to do a stroke of work on his estates, unless on the previous Sunday he had attended the religious service provided by the State. The labourers, backed by their friends in the towns, stood shoulder to shoulder, and escaped the whole evil so threatened. But their spiritual leaders, the ministers in town and country, did not escape from any part of what had hung over them.
Accordingly, a stranger scene than even that which Ross-shire peasants and burghers now gazed upon had been transacted a few days before in the metropolis of Scotland. It was a grey and cloudy afternoon on the ridge of the new town of Edinburgh, where masses of spectators gathered in breathless expectation round the tall spire of St. Andrew's Church. Into its interior, crowded since early dawn with a like eager multitude, the members of Assembly and the glittering cortege of the Queen's Commissioner had just disappeared. The doors were now shut, and all Scotland seemed to wait outside. Suddenly they were broken open, and a roar of acclamation rent the air as the ex-Moderator in his robes, and by his side the venerable face of Chalmers, were seen to appear. For following these two came the leaders of the Evangelical revival in the Church of Scotland from Highlands and Lowlands alike. The crowd surged in emotion around them, so as to make the old men in front the head of an involuntary procession. It took a few steps westward, and then, turning to the right, moved down the steep brow of that long slope which connects northern Edinburgh with the sea. One by one the ministers then in Edinburgh, who had resolved to cast in their lot with the Church, fell into the moving line. But after them marched a train of young men, " licentiates" or candidates, who had looked forward to its benefices, but who (like all its missionaries without exception in foreign lands) chose now to belong to this its forlorn hope. Together they set their faces to the long descent into that valley of humiliation. Before them the waters of the firth gleamed under the blue and bitter north, and beyond it stretched many a moor and strath, with the manses which the old men were in a few weeks to leave and the young men were never to enter.
To one of those manses I had paid an unseasonable morning visit two months before. There was a bright March sunrise, and I had jumped early out of bed, for my head was full of marbles and peg-tops, and a dozen or so of games before breakfast has, at that age, its attractions. To my astonishment, I found my father down before me; indeed, he had evidently been there for some time, for the moment I appeared he folded up the newspaper in which he had been so unseasonably engaged, and - with a break in his voice indicating an emotion that was unaccountable to me - asked me to take it at once over to the manse, with his compliments to his friend the minister. I went very readily, for the hedgerows were full of young birds upon whom legitimate hostilities could be waged in passing. But as I went I reflected on the austere and stately, image of our pastor, - a man everywhere venerated, but whose face inspired awe rather than love in the beholder - (had I not seen the town-boys break and scatter round one corner of the street as he appeared at the other ?) - and I resolved that my interview with him should be short. It was shorter than I expected, for I had scarcely got out of the sunshine into the manse evergreens, when I found him in the porch and when I offered him the newspaper, he showed me that he had already got the Times by some unusual express, and as he spoke he patted my head and smiled - but such a smile, so full of radiant kindliness! I was confounded; and as I went back between the hedges the birds sang unheeded while I thought what could have happened to the minister. Had anybody left him a fortune? or had he met one of the Shining Ones walking among the hollies in that early dawn? And it was not for some weeks that I found out that this was what had happened - the newspaper that morning had brought him the vote of the House of Commons, finally refusing an inquiry into the affairs of the Scottish Church, and so making it certain that within a few weeks he and his aged mother would leave for ever the home, at the door of which I found him.
But the "gentleness and gaiety" of heart with which we are told, in a memorable passage of Lord Cockburn, that the country ministers faced the coming of the crisis, did not free them from having to go through with it afterwards in all its grinding detail. This was the point of one of the most striking reminiscences of Dr. Thomas Guthrie at a later date; "I remember passing a manse on a moonlight night, with'the minister who had left it, for the cause of truth. No light shone from the house, and no smoke arose. Pointing to it in the moonlight, I said, Oh, my friend, it was a noble thing to leave that house.' Ah, yes,' he replied; it was a noble thing, but for all that it was a bitter thing. I shall never forget the night I left that house till I am laid in my grave. When I saw my wife and children go forth in the gloaming; when I saw them for the last time leave our own door; and when in the dark I was left alone, with none but my God in that house; and when I had to take water and quench the fire on my own hearth, and put out the candle in my own house, and turn the key against myself, and my wife, and my little ones that night - God in His mercy grant that such a night I may never again see!"
Those who left their homes at once, as most in Ross-shire were now doing, had perhaps the best of it. But some were gladly allowed to linger on till the early Northern winter. "One minister writes to us that he left the manse with his family in a snow storm, when the mountain was white with snow, and the sky was black with drift; but that he never knew so much of the peace of God as he did that night, when following his wife and children as they were carted over the mountain, without knowing where they were to find a place to dwell in. Some of our ministers write that they live in crofters' houses; some in places as damp as cellars, where a candle will not burn. One says he sits with his great coat on; another that the curtains of his bed shake at night like the sails of a ship in a storm. One minister, a friend of mine, lives in a house which every wind of heaven blows through. On getting up one morning he found the house all comparatively comfortable, and wondered what good genius had been putting it in order, when he discovered that a heavy shower of snow had fallen, and stopped up the crevices of the roof."
It must always be remembered that the country, and especially the Highlands, were different in this respect from the great towns, even after that first winter of 1843. It was some years before the Northern manses were built, and homelessness, added to poverty, pressed heavily on the ejected ministers. I remember how, as a boy, I used to watch one of them, a scholarly, and in his college days a rather distinguished man, who after 1843 was unable to find a home within his own parish, and who besides now laboured under a weak chest and a threatening of heart complaint. Yet week after week, as each Sunday morning came round, he persisted in driving away for miles through those inclement winters to meet his congregation; and I can remember to this day his keen, delicate face set to meet a heavy snow-storm from the northwest, while a hacking cough shook his whole frame as he set out on his journey, four miles of which must pass ore he caught sight of the well-sheltered and well-remembered manse. But those who, like him, found shelter in a town dwelling, however humble, were not worst off. The great difficulty was in the country, even when harbouring the minister was not forbidden by the great landlords. But in many cases, and occasionally over whole districts or counties, it was forbidden. And where a foot of ground was forbidden to the minister, as well as to his congregation, the results, always depressing to him, and cruelly distressing to his family, sometimes reached a pitch of strange and memorable oppression. I have myself often conversed with the minister of " Small Isles " - four inhabited rocks clustering together out in the wild Atlantic - whose ministry, forbidden on those morsels of the land, was carried on in the boat upon the billow which his school friend, Hugh Miller, celebrated as the Floating Manse. (see Intrusion for more, and some pictures)
And I stood as a boy in the mighty cavern near Cape Wrath beside the pure-hearted pastor who, when ejected with his people from their church and manse on the ground of a site-refusing Duke, worshipped throughout the winter under those humid arches, while the only "iife interests" conceded him were in the savage rock and resounding shore.
In the awakening of thought which such scenes stirred in the young, there was a strong moral element, not stimulating only, but animating. "All good things have not kept aloof, nor wandered into other ways," was the irrepressible feeling of lads who had been drifting on towards the dull afternoon of the century, and were suddenly surrounded by this illuminating glow. Apparently then, their country, too, was to have a future as well as a past. For it was plain, oven in 1843, that the great event of that year was essentially transitional. It left Scotland in a state of unstable equilibrium, and confronted it with a problem, political no doubt, but moral as well. And what might a history not call for in the future which revealed such gulfs and altitudes in the present? What might such a country not yet claim of its sons? Above all, what did it not already deserve at their hands? Those of them who are most conscious of having failed in obedience to the early vision, do yet, in looking back, recognise the nobility of its call - a call which they have found most noble and most adequate precisely when they are brought nearest to some crisis of public duty. Those, on the other hand, who "think they pay every debt to virtue when they praise it," have never had a comfortable time in Scotland. The occasions for not merely admiring but imitating return too frequently. And for some time past there has been a well-founded apprehension in all parts of the Scottish Church that its complete freedom or its complete union may involve some of its members in a share - say, one-sixteenth or one- sixtieth part - of the same self-sacrifice as was shown in 1843.
That, of course, is not a plea that can be nakedly stated, nor is it one which many men in their hcarts entertain. The mass of the Scottish people, even when within the establishment, hold the principles which in that year drove their brethren out of it. And the only recent occasions, when illusory legislation in its favour has had even a passing chance of success, were when it was promised as "on the lines of 1843," or as "all that was asked for" in that year. But the contact of the unsatisfied claim of past history with the demand of present duty is far too suggestive to be safe; and from time to time we hear, even in Scotland, unmeaning and gratuitous protests that the Disruption happened a long time ago - that it is now happily forgotten - and that, perhaps, to tell the truth, it never deserved to he remembered. As Free Churchmen born in the Scottish Highlands hear these recurrent clamours, we seem to see rising before us once more those grave suffering faces, most of them by this time gone down into a deeper silence; and the utterance of their stillness is not unlike that of our new Norse poet, -
And the wrong was better than
right, and hate turns into love at the last
And we strove for nothing at all, and the gods have fallen asleep,
For so good the world is growing that the evil good shall reap,'
Then loosen thy sword in the scabbard, and settle the helm on thy head,
For men betrayed are mighty, and great are the wrongfully dead."
Bnt may the dead not have made a heroic mistake? Was there, after all,
any reason why they should sacrifice themselves and go out? The answer must be
given; but readers who find constitutional facts too dry may pass over the next
In Scotland, which, as a whole, has been Presbyterian since the Reformation, the Church party has generally been the popular party. What is more strange to English ears, the Evangelical party has, on the whole, been the Church party, all revival here of religions feeling or individual conviction tending to take shape in public and organised action. Ten years before 1843 the General Assembly, or representative body of the ministers and laity of the Church, had begun to show an "evangelical majority." It at once set about the work of Church reform, and especially of Church expansion, in two directions. The Church, by its own authority, welcomed to a seat in its courts the pastors of the two hundred new congregations, which had been gathered together chiefly through the devotion and eloquence of Dr. Chalmers. At the same time, and in the same way, it admitted a considerable number of Original Secession and other ministers who had returned to the reviving Establishment. Church Extension and Church Union, indeed, were supposed to be the great aggressive duties of the new time; and the fact that ordinary Church administration has always been left in Scotland to the Church itself - the ordinary jurisdiction of its courts has never been intorfered with either before or after 1843 - naturally led to the belief that Church legislation and Church development might also be free. This was found to be a mistake, amid the refusal of places and votes to those who had been admitted by the Ecclesiastical body was in the long run the immediate cause of the Protest and Disruption of 1843. But the third and earliest occasion of the quarrel with the State was the old question of patronage, which has broken out in so many lands, and which, under the name of Investiture, caused, in the eleventh century, the greatest conflict of Church and State which the world has seen.
In Scotland, however, the veto upon arbitrary nomination by a patron was now declared to belong, not to pope, churchman, or chapter, but to the whole "congregation of the faithful people." And this third measure was represented by the Assembly which passed it in 1834, as a defensive rather than aggressive regulation - founded, indeed, on what was at all times a "fundamental law of the Church." Suddenly, in the midst of so much expansive energy and enthusiasm, a crushing blow fell upon them. All three reforms were declared by the Law Courts to be incompetent; but what was far more alarming was the ground on which in each case the conclusion was based. It was, that the Scottish Establishment is absolutely subject, even in matters ecclesiastical, to the State and to its enactments, past and future.
The present constitutional law, that the Church of Scotland is in no sense independent of the State, but is absolutely subject to Parliament and to Statute, was then, for the first time, solemnly laid down. Take the three heads of the Court alone. President Hope put it thus: "That our Saviour is the Head of the Kirk of Scotland in any temporal, or legislative, or judicial sense, is a position which I can signify by no other name than absurdity. The Parliament is the temporal head of the Church, from whose acts, and from whose acts alone, it exists as the National Church, and from which alone it derives all its powers." Again, "Who gave the Church courts any jurisdiction? The law and that alone gave it; and the law defines what it has so given." And as the Church was not independent, they denied the possibility of any original compact, or of any real conflict, between Church and State, as an "indecent supposition." Even the courts of the State were entitled to fix for the Church its separate province granted by the State. So President Boyle: "There exists, in reality, no such thing as a conflict between the civil and ecclesiastical courts of a country, in which a church is established and endowed by the State." And so Lord Justice- Clerk Hope: "I cannot admit that an Establishment can ever possess an independent jurisdiction." And of course, on these principles, the courts made short work of the claim, that the Church was not bound to obey Acts of Parliament which proposed to regulate spiritual or Church actings. Several of the judges put it that the Church is "the creature of Statute;" all of them that it is bound to obey Statutes which regulate, or, in its own view, interfere with, its proper church action.
Take again only two of the utterances, and both from the chair of the court. In the third Auchterarder case, the Presbytery had pleaded that what they were called on to do was strictly ecclesiastical, was against their conscience, and against the commands of the Church. Lord Justice-Clerk Hope answered that although these functions are "strictly ecclesiastical, and to be exercised by them in their ecclesiastical capacity, yet the obligation to perform them is statutory - Statute imposes the duty on the Church courts of the establishment," and the courts must enforce the statute. And when in the still higher sphere of the House of Lords it had been pleaded in addition, that there was a "fundamental law" of the Church of Scotland which forbade such Church action, even in compliance with statute, the Lord Chancellor of Great Britain, sitting as chief of the Jurisprudence of Scotland, enounced the general rule which has ever since been the law, as follows: "Whether that is, or ever was, a law of the Church of Scotland, is perfectly immaterial, if the Statutes contain enactments and confer rights inconsistent with any such principle, or with the execution of any such law." (Chalmers held otherwise, based on an Act of 1600- ish, which he could quote, by which the Church of Scotland was specifically given certain defined rights. These points were never addressed by the Courts. - Webmaster)
It followed that the Church and its office-bearers were bound legally, and if they accepted the law would be bound legally and morally, to obey any statute the State might pass in the future, no matter how inconsistent it might be with the present or past principles of the Church - to obey it not merely passively, but actively, and as ecclesiastical functionaries. The obligation of individuals to obey actively received great prominence at an early stage of the decisions; but before their close it was plain that on the principles now laid down the Church itself was in a worse case. For, in the event of its being thereafter dissatisfied with these or any worse incidents of its connection with the State, it would have no power either to abandon that connection, or to treat for new terms as a party able to accept or to refuse.
This is the present law of establishment in Scotland, unchanged since 1843; and the principles I have quoted were laid down in great leading cases with cumulative emphasis and solemnity. But all of them were in themselves general statements of law, addressed to the constitutional question of Church independence, - a question which did not depend on the special matters of non-intrusion or Church extension, though they depended upon it. They were given as the ground, and they were the ground, of the innumerable decisions and orders of the court enforced against the Church. And they were intended to settle, and they did settle, what both parties knew and confessed to be the great constitutional question then in dependence.
How opposed they are to the ancient theory held by the Church as to its independence I need not here say. But the law laid down long before May 1843 would have abundantly justified it even then in separating from the State, protesting that its constitutional liberties had been authoritatively subverted. Fortunately for the future of the country, it did otherwise. It appealed to the State itself, that is, to the Legislature and the Crown, against the decision of the judicial organs of the State. And it was only upon their neglect - and indeed rejection - of the Claim, Declaration, and Protest of 1842, that the Free Church went out in 1843. But when it did so, it combined the two considerations, of the authority of the Courts on the constitutional question, and the supereminent power of the Legislature, with great felicity, in its Protest, which ran
"Considering that the Legislature, by their rejection, etc., . . . have recognised and fixed the conditions of the Church Establishment, as hence-forward to subsist in Scotland, to be such as these have been pronounced and declared by the said Civil Courts, in their several recent decisions, in regard to matters spiritual and ecclesiastical."
The one matter on which the Civil and Church Courts, otherwise so keenly opposed, were agreed, was this, that the claim of the Church was really one of independence - independence not merely of the Civil Courts, but of the State and Parliament. Therefore it became necessary for the Civil Courts, in enforcing their decrees against it, in matters ecclesiastical, to affirm its dependence upon both in the broad terms we have quoted. And therefore also the Church, in taking up its position in the Act of Assembly 1838, affirming "the independent jurisdiction," put it upon the ground that the "power ecclesiastical flows immediately from God" to the Church, and not through the mediation of the State or Parliament. But what probability was there that the Scottish Church could persuade the Legislature of Great Britain in 1842, to affirm such an abstract proposition as this in regard to one of its Established Churches? None whatever. Its only chance was that the Legislature might so far interfere as to prevent the enforcement of the orders and interdicts already based by the Court upon these general principles. In that case the Church could perhaps have honestly stayed in, as standing npon its own declaration of independence; the denial of which by the Courts they would then have regarded as brutum fulmen, and no longer authoritative, because, at least virtually, disclaimed by the State. Even early in 1842 both parties were thus already agreed that the practical question must decide the constitutional question. Was the Church to obey, or was it not ?
The Church made the most of its last hope in that massive and magnificent state-paper, the Claim, Declaration, and Protest of 1842; in which, while founding its jurisdiction not on law but on Gospel, and protesting that it was for maintaining the Headship of Christ and not of the State over the Church that it was called to sufifer, it laid at the same time great stress on the limited and civil jnrisdiction of the Court of Session, And while it enumerated here, as afterwards in its separating Protest, the long roll of cases in which the Court enforced the State's supremacy even in spiritualibus, - by which, "no one function of the Church," "and no one item mentioned by the laws as belonging peculiarly to its judgment," had been spared, - it passed over in silence the loud denials of Church independence upon which these encroachments were based. But what it did not omit was to affirm its own independence, and solemnly to "declare" to both Houses of Parliament and the Crown, that the Church could not in conscience obey or submit as the Court demanded, and that "at the risk of losing the public advantages of an Establishment" they "must, as by God's grace they will, refuse to do so; for, highly as they estimate these, they cannot put them in competition with the inalienable liberties of a Church of Christ."
The claim was rejected by the other great parties concerned with an equally fatal explicitness. Crown and Legislature declined to interfere; and that not merely tacitly, which would have been abundantly enough. In the answer from the advisers of the Crown,' and in the refusal of the House of Commons to entertain even a motion for enquiry, it was no doubt not concealed that they were zealous for the existence of Patronage, and knew the Church to be pledged against it. But in both of them the refusal was put explicitly upon the constitutional question stated by the Court, by the Assembly, and in the Claim of Rights, as the only one of chief importance; and the legislative interference which all parties looked forward to was delayed in order, as the Prime Minister put it expressly in the House, that the pretensions of the Church to independence and co-ordinate jurisdiction might be first surrendered or crushed. I know not how a constitutional question such as the future relation of Church and State could be more solemnly and conclusively settled, than (first) by the authoritative and repeated utterances of the Supreme Courts, appealed against (secondly) by the National Church as fatal to its very existence, and (lastly) confirmed upon this appeal by the supreme power of the State as before all things necessary and right.
And yet this was not all - not nearly all. It might have been a mere abstract question that was thus solemnly settled. But this abstract question was to be settled, as we have seen, - by the practical method of enforced obedience, and the constitutional disturbance attending it amounted to a long agony. Even before 1842 the Church and its Courts had solemnly protested that it could not obey the State in spiritualibus in the matters already enjoined it. And so during the eighteen months that followed, while it made its vain appeal to the Legislature, the mace of the law fell heavily and cruelly upon every part of the ecclesiastical body. In Perthshire, in Ayrshire, in Aberdeenshire, in every corner of the country, the principle of subjection to a civil statute in ecclesiastical matters was enforced by fines and interdicts, until the Church at last went out bruised in every quivering limb.
But these sufferings - and even tbe fines and expenses which some of the houseless ministers had to pay, after being turned out of their livings - were not felt so much by the Church as the taunts which accompanied them. The Court of Session, in utterance as well as action, refused to tolerate even that interim refusal to obey while the Church was making its appeal to the Legislature. "I wish," said Lord President Hope, speaking as the bead of the Court, "to speak with all respect of the General Assembly, of which body I was for so long a period a member; but if any other body of men, or if any individuals had done what they have done, I should feel constrained to designate their conduct as profligate. The Presbytery of Auchterarder came to this Court and pleaded here. Judgment went against them. The General Assembly sanctioned and directed an appeal to the House of Lords. . . . But the decision of the House of Lords affirmed the decision of this Court, and these same Church Courts absolutely refuse to give obedience to the judgment. To conduct like this I have already given its appropriate designation. In point of candour and fairness it is no better than the old shuffle, Odds I win, evens you lose.'" And this terrible imputatien of dishonesty, flung from the judgment-seat against those who should continue to eat the bread of the State, and yet refuse the legal conditions of establishment, was repeated more decorously again and again as the case went on. "If these gentlemen," said President Hope in the second Auchterarder Case, "wish to maintain the situation of what they call a Christian Church, they would be no better off than the Catholic Church, or the Episcopal Church, or the Burghers or Anti- Burghers; but when they come to call themselves the Established Church, the Church of Scotland, what makes the Church of Scotland but the Law?"
And the House of Lords was equally intolerant of men claiming to be free who remained in this law-made Church. "It is fit," said Lord Brougham in the same case in the House of Lords, "that these men at length learn the lesson of obedience to the tribunals which have been appointed over them; a lesson which all others have long acquired, and which they, on learning it, should also practise." And this obedience, Lord Campbell went on immediately to explain, could not be evaded by those "who continue members of the Establishment" abandoning tbe temporalities to the State or the patron. Disestablishment was the only honest remedy. "While the appellants remain members of the establishment, they are, in addition to their sacred character, public functionaries appointed and paid by the State, and they must perform the duties which the law of the land imposes on them. It is only a voluntary body, such as the Relief or Burgher Church in Scotland, self-founded and self-supported, that can say they will be entirely governed by their own rules." Now all these, whether we call them kindly suggestions or cruel taunts or statements of principle, came from the Supreme Courts as parts of their solemn judgments, and were authoritative. We need not therefore recall the far more violent attacks on the Church in the Legislature, the demand of the Moderate League, that the Government should choose which of the two parties was to remain in the Establishment, and the bitter inculpation of the Whig government by the Conservatives generally, and Lords Aberdeen and Brougham in particular, for its hesitation to enforce the new constitutional law.
For the great strength of these hostile utterances during that last lingering year of the controversy, was that they were true - that the Church knew them to be true, and had made them part of its principles. The right of the State to fix its own conditions of establishment, whether those conditions be right or wrong, had been admitted in the most absolute way in the Church's Claim, Declaration, and Protest of 1842, and is made the foundation of the Free Church Protest in 1843. We, looking back, may be disposed to think that the denial of Church independence and the demand of subjection to Statute, affirmed by the Courts in and before 1842, were final conditions of Establishment oven then, and that they might have come out before. But it is not for us harshly to judge Churchmen, who at the cost of uninterrupted taunts and insults, clung to the State till every method of appeal was exhausted - till, in fact (as comes out so curiously in the Protest of 1843), waiting in for a quarter of an hour longer had become practically and morally impossible. For thus it was that the constitutional question of subjection, now broadly separated from the previous one of patronage, and already decided by the Supreme Courts, was with due solemnity referred by the National Church to the Crown and Legislature, and was deliberately decided by the Legislature and the Crown.
There are countries in which even this accumulation of reasons would not amount to reason f or revolution; for in these lands the original independence of the Christian Church has faded out of the convictions of men. But in a country with such a history as Scotland, the Disruption was a necessity of conscience. It was not the less a memorable self-sacrifice. A quarter of an hour after it happened the news was brought to Lord Jeffrey as he sat in his room, and the old judge, springing from his seat, exclaimed, "I am proud of my country; there is not another upon earth where such a deed could have been done!"
A quarter of a century after it happened Mr. Gladstone, speaking as Prime Minister in his place in Parliament, proclaimed that to the moral attitude of the new-born Church "scarcely any word weaker or lower than that of majesty, is, according to the spirit of historical criticism, justly applicable." But the more that Scotland rocognises the deed of 1843 as flowing from her previous history and ancient convictions, the less will she be disposed to dwell upon it in any mood of transient exultation. Rather she will hear its voice at the close of the half-century as the same great Saga speaks it, -
"Wilt thou do the deed and repent
it? Thou had'st better never been born.
Wilt thou do the deed and exalt it? Then thy praise shall be outworn.
Thou shalt do the deed and abide it, and sit on thy throne on high,
And look on to-day and to-morrow as those that never die!"
(William Morris' Sigurd the Volsung.)
But, in truth, the deed of 18th May, 1843, is one which will never need to be repeated. What must in some form be repeated, and what may in many forms require to be imitated or improved upon - what, therefore, now deserves study not from Churchmen or Scotsmen alone - is the re-construction by which that deed was followed. For the reconstruction was the act of the people. "Contrary to all anticipations, the people had forsaken the establishment in a much higher ratio as to numbers than the ministers; and it would have required more than seven hundred churches to accommodate the congregations who were ready to attach themselves to the Free Church." Around us in the Highlands this side of the thing came out very strongly. Where the minister had resigned his living, the people followed him enthusiastically; where he did not, they left him in a body.
But in the Highlands, as much as in the Lowlands, an almost hopeless problem remained. In some places the people were numerous, but they were poor. In others they were a little better off, but they were few. But neither in the Highlands nor in the Lowlands had they been trained to act for themselves. It was a feudal country, and the natural leaders of the people - the chiefs in the north, like the lairds in the south - had in this matter failed them. Local self-government was not yet thought of. Voluntary parochial union had been evoked by Dr. Chalmers, and was one of the things now being crushed. But mere parochial union could not solve the problem how things were to be carried on upon a national scale, and for all time to come. In previous national efforts Scotsmen had the civil law of the nation behind thorn, obliging all citizens to religious union, and appropriating to the uses of the majority, in the name of their common country, the fruits and possessions of those who should refuse to obey. In the present ease that law was no longer at their back; in so far as it survived, it worked now to enfeeble arid impoverish them.
The experiment, whether a whole people could be banded together to work out by means of individual self-sacrifice one great common and permanent result, was to be tried under new conditions. And some of the conditions were not only new, but hard.
For all over Scotland the congregations called to this problem were left houseless in one day. In one class of cases alone they earnestly attempted to save themselves. The Church Extension edifices had been raised chiefly, in some cases almost wholly, by the money of those who were now members of the Free Church, and the ministers officiating in them had been denied recognition by the Courts on the ground that they and their congregations were wholly a creation of the Church. But even these churches were now taken by the Courts from the Church which had erected them, and that on the paradoxical ground that they had been erected for the Church of the State. In south and north alike the congregations had thus to seek immediate shelter from the elements, as well as sites for more permanent homes of worship.
But in south and north even sites for building were very often denied them. And this brought up, for the second time in this century, that inevitable Land Question which, in the previons generation, had been stirred in our Highlands by the bitterly remembered "clearances." The amazing power which our law entrusts to private landholders, of excluding a whole community from purchasing a foot of ground in their own parish, or even their own county, came ont now for the first time in its intolerable extent. The clearances had sometimes swept out whole bodies or communities. "I stood on the top of that hill when the evictions were going on," an old Sutherlandshire woman said to me, speaking of her youthful days, "and I saw sixty cottages burning in the strath at one time." And I well remember the consternation in the Gaelic congregation to which in her age she belonged, when, one morning after 1843, the announcement of an interdict drove them out from an ancient churchyard - a churchyard, too, distant half a mile from the parish church - amid whose moss-grown stones the people had met for many and many a sacrament before that mournful day.
The preacher, who was that Sabbath to address four or five thousand Gaelic hearers, was Dr. John Macdonald of Ferintosh; and he pointed ont, whother by way of defence or of aggravation, that the ground from which the people of the parish were so driven out was common and parochial property. The more usual case was that which happened, at almost the same time, to Dr. Thomas Guthrie of Edinburgh. In this case the Duke - Janet Fraser's Duke - was proprietor of the parish, and as landlord refused a site. The miserable people quietly withdrew to a waste spot of barren moor, and met there in the open air. The Duke's factor and agent instantly served an interdict on the trespassers, evicting them from even their open-air meeting on the waste. Henceforth they had no place on which to worship except the cross-roads on the public highway, and one Monday morning, after preaching to them there, Dr. Guthrie sat down to tell his experiences. "Well wrapped up, I drove out yesterday morning to Canobie, the hills white with snow, the roads covered ankle deep in many places with slush, the wind high and cold, thick rain lashing on, and the Esk by our side all the way, roaring in the snowflood between bank and brae. We passed Johnnie Armstrong's Tower, yet strong even in its ruins, and after a drive of four miles, a turn of the road brought me in view of a scene which was overpowering, and would have brought the salt tears into the eyes of any man of common humanity." Dr. Guthrie's driver broke into sobs as he explained that the five hundred people waiting under some leafless trees on the turnpike road were the congregation who bad been refused first a site to build, and then a site to stand upon; and who now waited on for hours under the driving rain till they had sung their last psalm on that fierce February day. It was not there only. So late as 1847 there were still thirty-one cases in Scotland in which sites were absolutely refused; besides many others in which very inconvenient and humiliating places were deliberately offered - offered, toe, to tenants who frequently had the threat of eviction held over them if they ventured to build even upon these.
Now what was the problem which the laymen of this Scottish Church, itself universally left houseless, had first of all to face? It was not their own support, but that of their ministers and of many besides. The income of every Free Church minister ceased at Whitsunday, 1843, and at the same date ceased his tenancy of the "manse" or parsonage, with its "glebe" of four acres of parochial ground. But along with them one hundred and thirty "probationers," or preachers waiting for appointments, had, on the same day, thrown up all their prospects. The foreign missionaries sent out to India., with Dr. Duff at their head, had likewise, without exception, sent in their adherence to the disendowed community. An old statute obliged all teachers, within or without the Universities, to be members of the Establishment, and the theological professors who, like Dr. Chalmers, had moved with the Church, were by this enactment obliged to resign their posts.
A more cruel case remained. Every parish schoolmaster throughout Scotland who adhered to the Church going out was ejected from his small house, and deprived of his income. Ministers, missionaries, probationers, schoolmasters, and professors were in a day reduced to beggary. A small army of educated men, with their families, were left destitute and houseless, and thrown upon the congregations whose own necessities we have seen. In the days to come many hard questions will have to be dealt with in our own and other lands. The rights of labour, the claims of the poor, the division of the soil, the education of the young, the home-rule of our young empires, and the self-support of the Church - all these will bring round many a crisis in many a family of Western man. But can any of them ever present a harder problem than our fathers in Scotland had that day to solve? Yet it was done - by Christian enthusiasm, no doubt.
But that enthusiasm found or made fit channels for its flow. And among these we may mention first what is familiar in Scotland, but most strikes the observer outside. "The Kirk," Sir Roundell Palmer told the House of Commons in 1869, "had her Kirk Sessions, her Presbyteries, her Synods, her General Assemblies, each step of self-government rising above the other, so that she had been well exercised in the whole art and power of self-government, self-legislation, and self-expansion, no State power coming in to prevent her Syneds from meeting. There the great men who afterwards became the leaders in the Free Church movement had as much liberty of speech as we have in this place. There they formed their parties; there they organised their system; there they collected together such a power and bond of moral public opinion as enabled them to go forth triumphantly, even when leaving all which in this world they possessed."
It is a lesson for us all. For in Scotland, as elsewhere, there are now men who hate the whole system of Parliamentarism, in Church and State alike; men who would rather shelter under any form of epicurean despotism than take their share of the risks and responsibilities of self-government. But that system has great tasks still to accomplish in the future, and there is no surer omen of its victory in these than that under it, in 1843, the terrible crisis of Disestablishment was carried through. It was carried through, indeed, with scarcely any constitutional change. The Church remained the same, except as now founded on its Protest for freedom. The Presbyteries which had sat the week before as Courts of the Church of Scotland established, sat this week again - with frightful gaps and rents no doubt - but as Courts of the same Church unestablished. Legislation was held now, as before, to belong to its General Assembly, with consent of the Presbyteries; for the refusal of the State to permit this, the Church had met by the last remedy.
And none of these Church Courts are mere "convocations of the clergy;" in all of them the representative layman, elected by the whole members of the congregation, decides upon the most sacred matters, with a vote equal to that of the Churchman at his side. And as with "self government" and "self-legislation," so with the third function assigned to our classic hierarchy by Lord Selborne - " self-expansion." Its rights of creating new congregations, recognising new ministers, and incorporating with itself other religious bodies - all repressed with fines and prohibitions only a few months before - were now exercised freely. It was all within the common law of Presbyterianism - a code of authoritative principles, whose breadth, forgotten so long as our branch of the system flowed in a merely national and statutory channel, was soon to be restored to the view of all in the ecumenical assemblies or Councils of the communion.
But the feature in the new organisation of most interest, not so much in the past as for the future of our own and other lands, was what Dr. Chalmers, with his usual passion for sonorous phraseology, called a Sustentation Fund.' It was, in truth, a new and great experiment in altruism or Christian solidarity. The local enthusiasm which had everywhere arisen of course received fit embodiment. Long before the Disruption Dr. Chalmers had given forth as his watchword, "Organise, organise, organise!" And while in response congregational associations were everywhere instituted, and great numbers of women collectors gathered weekly the contributions of the faithful, the old order of deacons was revived for what was supposed to have been in apostolic times their exclusive function - the receiving and administering of the monies of the local church.
But through all these organisations there passed the breath of one new life, when, in autumn 1842, it was proposed that they should no longer retain their own contributions for their separate benefit, hut should send the mass of them on to one central fund for the Church as a whole, to be again divided equally from that centre among all the ministers. The idea was almost new then, but in that time of common suffering it commended itself irresistibly; and it has ever since been acted on to an extraordinary extent. Some Free Church congregations send to the Sustentation Fund annually from £1,000 to £3,000; others in poorer districts can only send from £10 to £50. But the small and the large contribution go alike into the common purse, and, as the time of annual division comes round, the minister of the poorer congregation receives from it the same amount as the minister of the greater - no less, and no more.
This national voluntaryism, as Dr. Chalmers pointed out, really becomes an establishment of the Church from its own resources, and while it "coincides in principle" with that former method of support, it is free from some of its obvious disadvantages. In particular, it leaves to the Church itself the more complicated adjustment of the remaining question, how the salary from this equal dividend may be locally added to. For, as Dr. Chalmers originally urged, mere equality would not be justice where one minister with city burdens was giving up a stipend of £1,000 a year, and another in the country lost only £200. Besides, it is not even desirable that the minister of a congregation, however he may be protected by the Central Fund from the possibility of being starved out, should be removed from the stimulus which most other workers have in the prospect of a larger income for successful work. How all this was met by the institution of congregational supplements, - a variable accretion of local voluntaryism, added on to the solid nucleus of the Church's own establishment in the Sustentation Fund ; - and how the two combined have, through many years of not yet ended experiment, become a backbone to the Free Church (a back bone whose value seems to be owing nearly equally to its firmness and its flexibility), we need not here inquire.'
What is important to notice is, that the idea which it embodies, which men have new come to speak of as a kind of national altruism, pressed outwards at the same time in many other directions, and beyond all merely patriotic bounds. We have seen the houselessness of the congregations in every county throughout the hard north. But a hundred thousand pounds were subscribed for building even before the Disruption day dawned, and within the first year five hundred churches were erected. Then came the effort necessary to provide manses or pastorages for the ministers. And then it was recollected that the evicted schoolmasters and their children were homeless too. Yet all this concerned no city Scotsman who doubted whether he were his brother's keeper, and who reflected that the raising of such edifices implied a certain obligation in all time coming to those for whom they were built. Almost the only enterprise indeed, in which the centres were not able to sacrifice themselves for those outside, was the raising of the three colleges - two of them soon permanently endowed by private munificence, and the third now, with all its imperfections, the most fully equipped theological institute in theological Scotland.
But the impulse was one which, in its own nature, could not be restricted to self-regarding or self-conserving effort. All the missionaries had joined the Church in its conflict, and, as might be expected, all now fulfilled their pledge. But the disestablished Church, instead of recalling them, commenced to double, and more than double, the sum previously sent out to maintain them. Missions to spread Christianity among the Jews followed, and missions to fan the flame of evangelism in Catholic countries. New missions to colonies, where Scotsmen so abound, could scarcely be called outside enterprises; and these bring us back to the special funds instituted for the Highlands and Islands, and to the new and great enterprise of a Home Mission, partly consisting of Extension Charges throughout the country, and partly of Territorial Charges, "excavated," to use Dr. Chalmers' word, in our great towns.
For instead of gradually abandoning the stations whose support was forced upon it in 1843 by the necessities of its local adherents, the pastoral charges of the Free Church have by this time nearly doubled. In view of the openings which the future is certain to bring to other communities, not necessarily in similar forms, nor, indeed, in religious relations at all, the study of some of these various channels and moulds as they were filled at once by one glowing enthusiasm, will always be important. But for my purposes, and with a view to the suggestion that in the future the Free Church too may hopefully hear itself called to a renewal of self-sacrifice, and that not in one form but in many, it is well to pause upon the results of the half-century.
Three years before its close the Christian givings of this fragment of a poor country, stripped in one day to the very bone, had already amounted to more than twenty millions. Yet during the first half of the half-century they reached only about eight millions. From time to time the figures have varied, as represented by the following, which gives the amount for the opening year of each of its decades
1843 . . . . £363,871
1853 . . . . £289,670
1863 . . . . £343,626
1873 . . . . £511,084
1883 . . . . £628,222
The leap to the higher platform, which is here so visible at one point, happened, strange to say, just about the time when the last of the old Disruption leaders was taken away, and the glory of the separate communion they formed might seem to have departed. But, in truth, it happened in accordance with all the deeper instincts of history - at the very time when that communion announced a resolve to sacrifice its long-prized separation, to refuse the bribe of re-establishment, and to claim henceforward part in the whole burdens of our country's future. And the result was in no respect strange. For the future of a country is to its Church "such a burden as wings are to a bird." The Free Church and its Sustentation Fund embody ideas important for Presbyterianism, and even for Congregationalism, in America and our Colonies and many a distant hand. But their first duty is to their own country. And it seems to me that the time has at last come when the finance and other schemes of the Church of 1843 may frankly assume the aspect of provisional and experimental scaffolding - scaffolding in whose construction those now without should be consulted or considered as much as those within, because the Building which already rises behind it is one in which all Scottish Presbyterians have a right to dwell.
From "Studies in Scottish History" by A.Taylor Innes, Hodder and Stoughton, London 1892.
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