Biography From "Scottish Divines"
EBENEZER ERSKINE was born on the 22nd of June 168o. Until
lately the place of his birth has been a matter either of assertion or
conjecture. Most of his biographers, blindly following Chalmers, have asserted
not only that he was born in the prison of the Bass, but that from the Bass
Rock he got the name of Ebenezer, which signifies a stone of help or
remembrance. This assertion long passed unchallenged, from the fact that his
father, the Rev. Henry Erskine (a man of singular piety who had been for some
time a Presbyterian minister in the north of England, and who had with the
other Puritans been ejected by the Act of Conformity) had after his retirement
to Dryburgh, been subjected to various persecutions, and sentenced to
imprisonment in the Bass. In the best
life of Erskine, published by the Rev. D. Fraser in 1831, it was clearly
proved, not only that this sentence was not passed until two years after
Ebenezers birth, but that it was never carried into effect, - he being
reprieved, on promising to leave the kingdom. Mr. Fraser, from a comparison of
dates, conjectured that he was born at Dryburgh, although he could not speak
with certainty. The matter has, within the last few years, been put beyond a
doubt, by the discovery of a small MS. notebook by Henry Erskine, in which
there occurs the following entry: Ebenezer, was born June 22nd, being
Tuesday, at one oclock in the morning, and was baptised by Mr. Gab.
Semple, July 24th, being Saturday, in my dwelling-house in Dryburgh 1680.
His earlier years were spent at Chirnside, of which parish his father became minister, soon after the Revolution in 1688. He does not seem to have distinguished himself at school or college. At the age of fourteen he entered the University of Edinburgh, taking his degree of M.A. in 1697. He was licensed to preach the Gospel by the presbytery of Kirkcaldy in February 1702. On the 22d of September 1703 he was ordained minister of Portmoak on a call given him by the heritors and elders of that parish, as the minute of his ordination bears, no objection being brought against his life or doctrine. At first he was by no means attractive as a preacher; for, as he committed his sermons to memory, he was in such dread of forgetting what he had learned, that he kept his eyes constantly fixed on one spot of the church wall, and this occasioned an embarrassment in manner and a frequent hesitation in speech.
About two years after his settlement at Portmoak, however, he got clearer and more enlarged views of the Gospel, as well as an experimental acquaintance with its power in his own soul; and from that moment all constraint in manner and all hesitation in speech departed - he spoke out of the abundance of his heart; Christ crucified became the sum and substance of his teaching, - he became in the best sense an attractive preacher, - attracting men to that Saviour, whom he regarded it as his greatest glory to proclaim. Not merely did his own parishioners attend diligently on his ministrations, and crowd his little church, whenever it was open, either for Thursday lecture or Sunday sermon; but many came from other parishes to enjoy his pulpit services. At communion seasons especially, Portmoak became one of the great centres of religious attraction. They came from all quarters, in thousands, - some travelling a distance even of sixty miles; and an entry in one of his note-books, while he was minister at Portmoak, refers to ordering wine for 2067 communicants.
During the whole period of his ministry there, his labours were abundant, and discharged not only with most exemplary diligence and fidelity, but with most encouraging success. There are few biographies from the study of which ministers may learn more ; - for none of us can peruse the record of his parochial duties, without feeling how far short we come, both of what we may, and what we ought to do. During his ministry at Portmoak, five invitations were given him to remove to other parishes; yet it is scarcely correct to say that he remained there for eight-and-twenty years notwithstanding several strong attempts to remove him to larger spheres. One of these calls he declined, but two at least he would have gladly accepted, although they came only from heritors and elders, had not the Presbytery, Synod, and Assembly interposed. At last in the year 1731 he accepted a call to Stirling, where he continued to labour with undiminished zeal, acceptance, and success almost to the very close of his life. His last sermon was preached from his bed to a company assembled in his room, where he baptized a child, after discoursing on a text with which he had particularly wished to finish his ministry, viz. Ps. xlviii. 14, This God is our God for ever and ever, he will be our guide even unto death. He died at Stirling on the 2d of June 1754, in the seventy-fourth year of his age and in the fifty-first year of his ministry.
It would be a far more congenial task to devote this entire lecture to his Christian life and ministerial labours, than to follow him into the thorny paths of controversy; but as it is only in these paths that he can be regarded as one of the Scottish Divines, I must now contemplate him as a controversialist. While the embers of some of these controversies have died out, those of others are merely smouldering, and ready to be fanned into a flame by the slightest breath. I shall therefore endeavour as far as possible to avoid expressing opinions, and shall content myself with being a narrator, - claiming only this qualification, that I have carefully investigated the original sources of information, have taken nothing merely at secondhand or from hostile quarters, and have confined myself strictly to ascertained facts.
I shall now consider Ebenezer Erskine -
(i.) as a Marrow man;
(2.) as an advocate of popular claims; and
(3.) as the Father of the Secession.
1. AS A MARROW MAN. The Marrow men received their names, from the prominence which they gave in their preaching to the doctrines contained in a book called The Marrow of Modern Divinity. Its author, Edward Fisher, was neither a Puritan soldier in the time of the Commonwealth, as some have asserted, nor a poor illiterate barber, as others have alleged, but a Master of Arts of Oxford; and distinguished among the learned of his time for his great reading in ecclesiastical history, and in the Fathers, and for his admirable skill in the Greek and Hebrew languages. The first part was originally published in England in the year 1646, and the second part (of which Caryl says, the marrow of the second bone is like that of the first, sweet and good) in 1648. It was utterly unknown in Scotland until Boston, the well-known author of the Fourfold State and The Crook in the Lot, came upon a copy of it, which had been brought from England in his knapsack by an old soldier of the Commonwealth. Having purchased it from the owner, he digested its doctrine and began to preach it.
Some years afterwards, when the doctrines of grace were obscured by a decision of the General Assembly, Boston mentioned The Marrow to one of the ministers, as a book which stated clearly,and defended strongly, the doctrines which had been condemned. A copy was with difficulty procured, and soon republished, with a recommendatory preface by Mr. Hog, the minister of Carnock. It was eagerly read by all, but heartily denounced by many who were very influential in the Church. A host of polemical treatises appeared on both sides. In 1720, a Committee who had examined The Marrow gave in a report to the Assembly, in which, from a collection of passages taken here and there, and apart from the context, they accused the book of containing the following unscriptural doctrines: (i) that assurance is of the essence of faith; (2) that the atonement of Christ is universal ; (3) that holiness is not necessary to salvation; (4) that the fear of punishment and the hope of reward are not allowed to be proper motives of a believers obedience ; that the believer is not under the law as a rule of life. It will be evident to any one who carefully examines the book, that unguarded and incautious though many of its statements are, these five doctrines are not taught in it.
Nevertheless the Assembly Passed the following act : - The General Assembly do hereby strictly prohibit and discharge all the ministers of this Church, either by preaching, writing, or printing, to recommend the said book, or in discourse to say anything in favour of it; but, on the contrary, they are hereby enjoined and required to warn and exhort their people, into whose hands the said book is or may come, not to read, or use the same. The result of this decision, as might have been expected, was a much more extensive circulation of the Marrow; and when men contrasted the severity of this sentence with the leniency with which ministers and professors had been treated, who held Arian, Socinian, and Pelagian opinions, there was cause for fear lest the distinctive doctrines of the gospel should be utterly ignored.
A draft by Boston was intrusted to Erskine, who was authorised to prepare a representation on the subject, which was signed by twelve ministers (who in consequence received the names of the Representers or the Marrow men) and laid before the Assembly. In it the representers express their sorrow that the Assembly by their condemnatory act had condemned, or greatly obscured, the following precious truths: That the gospel, strictly viewed, contains neither precepts nor threatenings, but is merely a declaration of the glad tidings of salvation that in it God makes a gift of Christ as a Saviour, to sinners of mankind as such, warranting every one who hears the gospel to believe on Him for salvation; that saving faith includes personal appropriation and assurance; that believers are entirely freed from the law as a covenant of works, though not as the law of Christ; and that the servile fear of hell, and hope of heaven as a reward, something due to our works, are not the proper motives to Evangelical and acceptable obedience.
Their representation was referred to the Commission, who recommended the Assembly to adhere to their former Act, and to censure the representers for their conduct. The Assembly accordingly reaffirmed the Act of 1720 in a very lengthy document, and ordered the twelve brethren to be rebuked and admonished. They submitted to this rebuke, merely protesting by the hands of a notary. The doctrines of the Marrow, however, were neither refuted nor destroyed; but spread throughout Scotland, and became the source of spiritual life to many a soul; and, unguarded and exaggerated though many of its statements are, and by no means to be received without qualification, there are few books so worthy of republication even now, or which would be more likely, under God, to counterract the negative theology which is at present so prevalent. We owe, in this nineteenth century, a deep debt of gratitude to those twelve brave men who contended so earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints.
Scarcely was this controversy ended, when he was called on to engage in another, which, though more protracted, was less important; and we have now to consider him,
II. AS THE ADVOCATE OF POPULAR CLAIMS. The treatment which Erskine and his friends had experienced at the hands of the dominant party did not predispose them to look with favour on its procedure generally, and it merely required an occasion, to make a rupture inevitable. This occasion was furnished by an overture of the Assembly of 1731 regarding the election of ministers. As in the course of this controversy Erskine asserted, in unqualified terms, the divine right of the people at large to elect their own ministers, it is necessary before entering on its consideration to give a brief summary of the history of patronage in the Church of Scotland. The First Book of Discipline, drawn up hastily, when the government of the Church was confessedly semi-episcopal, distinctly says that it appertaineth to the people and to every several congregation to elect their own ministers.
This Book never was sanctioned by law, and was superseded in 1578 by the Second Book of Discipline. In it the election of a minister is declared to be by the judgment of the -eldership (Presbytery) and consent of the congregation. In 1592, in the Act which established the Presbyterian form of church-government - an Act which was hailed by Melville and others as securing beyond expectation the liberties of the true kirk - patronage was distinctly recognised; for Presbyteries were bound and astricted to receive and admit whatsomever qualified minister, presented by his Majesty or other laic patron. It is a long time before we find the people complaining of this Act as a grievance, although there are various indications of the clergy desiring to secure the right of patronage for their own order. That patronage existed during the period which followed, and when Episcopacy was for a time in the ascendant, needs no proof; but when Episcopacy was overturned in 1638, and when the Church was not only established but supreme, so far from the famous covenanted Assembly of Glasgow proposing the abolition of patronage, it merely renewed the Act of Assembly 1595, to the effect that none seek presentations to benefices without advice of the Presbytery within the bounds of which the benefice is.
Patronage continued to be exercised during the years that followed, and often without much regard to the wishes of the people; and in 1649 an Act was passed by the Scottish Estates abolishing patronage, enacting that, in the election of ministers, presbyteries were to proceed upon the suit and calling, or with the consent of the congregation, on whom none is to be obtruded against their will; and it was recommended to the next Assembly to determine what is the congregation having interest, and to condescend upon a certain standing way for being a settled rule in all time coming. The Church, so far from conferring the right of election upon the people at large, merely transferred the choice from the patron to the kirk-session, giving indeed to the people a full liberty of objecting ; but reserving to the presbytery a power to settle the person elected, even though the congregation were dissatisfied, if they determined that the opposition resulted from causeless prejudice, and enjoining moreover that in the event of the Church courts considering a congregation disaffected or malignant, the Presbytery should provide them with a minister.
Troublous times succeeded, and this Act, during the twelve years it was in force previous to the Restoration, did not render them more tranquil. Episcopacy was again established, and Presbyterianism was thoroughly disorganised. At the Revolution of 1688, Presbytery was re-established, and almost immediately thereafter patronage reappeared. The terms of the Revolution Settlement in 1690, a Settlement to which the Church has ever since referred as the charter of her rights and liberties, admit of no dispute: Their Majesties, with the consent of the Estates of Parliament, do statute and declare that in case of the vacancy of any particular Church, and for supplying the same with a minister, the heritors of the said parish (being Protestants) and the elders, are to name and propose the person to the whole congregation, to be either approven or disapproven by them; and if they disapprove, that the disapprovers give their reasons, to the effect that the affair may be cognosced upon by the Presbytery of the bounds, at whose judgment, and by whose determination the calling and entry of a particular minister is to be ordered and concluded.
It was further provided that the heritors and life-renters of each parish, and the town-councils for burghs, should pay to the patron, on or before Martinmas 1690, the sum of 6oo merks (6s. 8d.) as a compensation for his being deprived of the right of presentation. To enforce the mutual rights of parties under the Act, diligence was competent after the said term, at the instance of the patron against the heritors for payment of the 6oo merks, and at the instance of such of their number as were ready to pay, against recusants, as well as against patrons who were unwilling to accept of the said sum. Seeing that the right of patronage was originally acquired by the building of a church, or granting money to endow a church, or giving ground for a church, on which one was afterwards built, it was only just that a small sum should be paid to patrons when they were deprived of this right. Had the money been paid, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to impose the yoke of patronage again upon the neck of the Church; for pith the sum of 6oo merks each congregation in Scotland would have purchased its freedom. So far, however, from this being the case, notwithstanding the anti-patronage clamour, only three parishes, during the twenty-one years that this Act was in operation, availed themselves of its provisions to secure the full and formal renunciation of the patronage of the patrons. There were during the same period upwards of a hundred cases of disputed settlements, arising chiefly from the scarcity of Presbyterian ministers to fill the numerous vacancies, occasioned by the removal of their Episcopal Incumbents.
These cases, however, were made the most of, and used as an argument for the Act of Queen Anne 1711, whereby the British Parliament by large majorities repealed the Act 1690, and expressly restored to patrons the right of patronage, and required Presbyteries to receive and admit such qualified persons as the patrons might present, in the same manner as such presentee ought to have been admitted before 1690. For several years this Act remained almost inoperative on the statute-book; patrons for the most part had little inclination to incur the odium which would have been incurred by exercising their rights, and settlements of ministers were generally effected on a call from the people, under the superintendence of the presbytery. Ministers and probationers were unwilling to accept presentations which might bring them into collision with the courts of the Church, for the Assembly year after year continued to protest against patronage. Nevertheless several of the Jacobite patroics availed themselves of this Act to keep parishes vacant, and to reap the fruits of the benefice, by presenting within the six months allowed them by the law, some one who would not accept the presentation, as, on his declining, a fresh period of six months was allowed them.
In 1719, in accordance with the wishes of the Church, an Act of Parliament was passed, by which it was enacted that the currency of the six months within which the patron had the right of presentation, was not interrupted by the acceptance of a presentation which was afterwards declined, and that at the end of six months from the date of the actual vacancy, the right of presentation fell to the presbytery. As ministers and probationers were unwilling to accept presentations, the Church thus practically got the appointment of ministers into her own hands; but so diverse was her practice in different presbyteries, and so conflicting the decisions of her different courts and of the same courts at different times, that with the laudable object of securing a uniform practice and to get rid of the numerous disturbances which arose in cases of disputed settlements, the General Assembly, unfortunately for the peace of the Church, in 1731, resolved to transmit an overture to the several presbyteries to the effect that in all cases where the filling up of vacant parishes devolved upon presbyteries, they should appoint one or more of their number to meet with the heritors and elders that they might elect and call one to be their minister.
No sooner was this overture and interim Act sent down to presbyteries for their opinion, than a strong feeling of discontent was excited through the country; and when the Assembly met in 1732, a representation of grievances, with a petition for redress, signed by forty-two ministers, was presented. It was not allowed to be read. Ebenezer Erskine was not only one of those who had signed the representation, but, being a member of Assembly, he was one of fifteen members who protested against its rejection. When the returns from presbyteries were examined, it was found that eighteen presbyteries approved of the overture as it stood; twelve were in favour of it with certain alterations; thirty-one were against it; while eighteen had given no expression of opinion. It had thus not received the sanction of a majority of presbyteries, without which, according to the Barrier Act, no overture could be enacted into a standing law of the Church. Nevertheless the ruling party in that Assembly contrived to procure its enactment, on the ground that the presbyteries which had made no return were to be regarded as in its favour, seeing that the overture of 1731 had contained the intimation that in case presbyteries shall neglect to send up their opinion on it, the next Assembly would pass it into a standing Act or not, as they saw cause. Ebenezer Erskine with others dissented from the overture being passed into an Act.
On the following day, on the minutes being read, he said: Moderator, I find by the reading of the minutes, that the dissent that was entered yesterday by some members of Assembly is not marked, and I crave that it may be marked, it being a privilege common in every free country. The reason why I insist that it may be marked is, that I consider this Act of Assembly to be without warrant from the Word of God, and inconsistent with the Acts and constitution of this Church since our Reformation, particularly in our Books of Discipline. . . . I am so far from thinking this Act, conferring the power upon heritors, beyond other men, to come and choose ministers of the gospel, to be founded on the Word, that I consider it diametrically contrary to it. What difference does a piece of land make between man and man in the affairs of Christs kingdom, which is not of this world? It is not said, God hath chosen the heritors of this world, as we have done; but He hath chosen the poor of this world, rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom. And if they be heirs of the kingdom, I wish to know by what warrant they are stript of the privileges of the kingdom. I consider that by this Act, the Assembly have sunk one of the principal branches of our Reformation inserted in our books of discipline; I mean the right of the Church and members thereof to choose their own pastors - a privilege with the custody of which we are intrusted. Our worthy forefathers handed down this at the expense of their blood and treasure, and that I may not be accessory to the betraying of a trust, which we are obliged to hand down in safety to our posterity and the generation following, I insist that my dissent may be marked in the records of this Assembly.
With this request he was entitled to expect compliance; and had the demand been granted, he would in all probability have been satisfied with recording his protest, as he had already been in the much more important question of false doctrine. But his request was refused, in accordance with an illegal Act of the Assembly of the former year, which was passed without being previously submitted to presbyteries, and prohibited the recording of reasons of dissent against the determinations of church judicatories. By this refusal to record his dissent, the safety-valve was shut; and it was no cause for wonder that Erskine exploded against the Act of Assembly a few days after, in a sermon in his own pulpit on the evening of his Communion Sunday; when, without much regard to the special occasion, he dealt what destruction he could, to the Act so recently passed.
Selecting as his text, The government shall be upon His shoulder, Isaiah ix. 6, and speaking of those who attempt to jostle Christ out of His government and take it upon their own shoulders, he describes them as those professed Presbyterians, who, under that disguise, exercise a lordly prelacy, and dominion, over the church of Christ, in thrusting in men upon congregations without, and contrary to, the free choice, their King has allowed them. He immediately thereafter published the sermon, with a preface, in which he avows that he had reference to the Act of Assembly which had been passed a few days before. Not content with this, however, he availed himself of the opportunity presented to him, as retiring Moderator of the Synod of Perth and Stirling, when preaching the opening sermon on the 10th of October of the same year (1731) to make some very offensive references to those by whose instrumentality the obnoxious Act had been passed. His text was Psalm cxviii. 22, The stone which the builders rejected is become the head stone of the corner. It seemed to those who heard the sermon, as it seems still to many who read it, that he compared the ministers of the Church to those Jewish priests and teachers who crucified Jesus Christ, and that he more than hinted, that all who had not been chosen by popular election were thieves and robbers, and could not have Gods call; while he expressly affirmed his belief that if Christ were personally present, as he (Mr. Erskine) was that day, by appointment of the Synod, in His stead, He would say with reference to that Act of the Assembly just passed, Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these, ye did it unto Me.
It has often been said that he was fully justified in selecting that time and place, inasmuch as the pulpit was the only sphere left open to him for faithful and intrepid witness-bearing. But it is no mark of intrepidity or fearlessness to make such charges in the pulpit, where there is no opportunity of reply - it is rather a mark of cowardice; and besides, there remained to him the proper judicatories of the Church, where he could have taken the regular steps to secure the repeal of the Act complained of. Acts of Assembly have never been like the laws of the Medes and Persians, which alter not; and it was then, as it is now, a very usual occurrence, for one Assembly to unsay, what a former Assembly has said.
He had also the press, of which he extensively availed himself, to circulate his opinions throughout the length and breadth of the land. It is, therefore, no matter of surprise, however much it may be of regret, that there were brought under the notice of the Synod several expressions in the sermon that day, which had given offence. A committee was appointed to consider the several expressions complained of, and to get Erskine to acknowledge that he was wrong in uttering them, and to promise that in future he would not express himself in that manner. The interview was fruitless; and though they proposed that he should give them another opportunity of conversing with him on the subject, he said to them it was in vain, for he was fixed; and if it were to do, he would do it again.
His friends have claimed for him, as a distinguishing feature of his character, a readiness to retract any rash expression that had escaped him; and to change his sentiments, when sufficient evidence was presented, of his having entertained a misapprehension; and his own words are quoted in proof of this, for on one occasion he said, I am so far from pretending to infallibility, that I hope I shall never be ashamed publicly to retract what upon conviction shall be found to be amiss. In opposition to this view of his character I hold that its great defect was, that he never seems to have believed that he was mistaken. I have read through all his published works, have examined carefully his speeches, and with great interest perused his diary, but I have not been able to find one single case in which he honestly and frankly confesses that he was wrong, or that he had uttered a single expression which he ought to retract. The ecclesiastical condition of Scotland would have been very different this day, could Erskine ever have been brought to admit that he was mistaken. The impression left on my mind by a minute examination of his whole writings, and a careful study of his whole character, is, that he never knew, or saw, any other view than his own, which could possibly be taken of any matter, either by intellect, or heart, or conscience.
In the special case before us this doggedness led to lamentable results. The committee had no alternative but to lay the objectionable passages before the Synod; and, time having been allowed him to prepare a written defence, he was found censurable on account of the said expressions. Against this sentence twelve ministers and two elders (several of whom had not heard the sermon) protested. The Synod thereafter unanimously resolved to rebuke him, and to admonish him to behave orderly for the future. He was not present, and he was ordered to be rebuked and admonished at the April meeting. At that meeting various Committees were appointed, one after another, to deal with him, and he was assured again and again, that he was by no means blamed for holding different sentiments from the Church with respect to the Act 1732; that he might not only enjoy his own opinions, but reason decently against the Act on all proper occasions; and that what he was to be rebuked for was, that instead of taking the regular steps, to have redressed what he reckoned grievous, he had declaimed against the Church in a. manner which savoured more of self-conceit and passion, than of the spirit of meekness and humility.
It was to no purpose. He took an appeal to the Assembly, who remitted to a Committee to deal with him; but they, making no progress, gave it as their opinion that the Assembly must determine the cause themselves. The Assembly found that the expressions used in his Synod sermon were offensive, and tended to disturb the peace and good order of the Church, and appointed him to be rebuked and admonished by the Moderator, in order to end the process, which was done accordingly; that is, - the rebuke was administered, but the process was not ended; for he immediately gave in his protest, declaring that he adhered to the testimony which he had already borne against the Act of Assembly in his Synod sermon. In this protest, he was joined by his three ministerial friends, William Wilson, of Perth, Alexander Moncrieff of Abernethy, and James Fisher of Kinclaven,his son-in-law. TheAssembly regarded this protest as a defiance of their authority, and therefore the four were again summoned to appear.
There was another Committee, and another conference, with the usual, no result. To give time for reflection, and to do nothing rashly, the Assembly remitted the case to the Commission, with power at the Meeting in August, to suspend the four from the exercise of their ministry, if they did not withdraw their protest, and express their regret for their conduct: and at the November meeting, to proceed to a higher censure if they had not obeyed the sentence of suspension. When the Committee met in August the four brethren, so far from withdrawing their protest and expressing their regret, adhered to their protest and vindicated their conduct. They were then suspended from all exercise of their ministerial functions.
On being summoned to the bar of the Commission in November, they were asked if they had obeyed this sentence. They all replied that they had not, but that they had exercised all the parts of their ministerial office, as if they had been under no such censure. Several Presbyteries and nearly one-half of the Synods had sent up representations, pleading for delay in proceeding to a higher censure; and so nearly were parties balanced in the Commission, that when the vote was taken, whether to proceed immediately to inflict a higher censure or delay the same till March, the votes were equal; and it was only by the casting vote of the Moderator that the decision was given against Erskine and his party.
Sentence however was not passed immediately, as so many popular narratives would lead readers to infer. A Committee was appointed to confer with them; who, after some time spent in conference, reported that the suspended ministers had empowered them to desire the indulgence of the Commission, to allow them till the following day to consider what had been laid before them. To this the Commission agreed, and it is necessary, to a right understanding of the case, to have before us the actual proposals made by the Committee to secure the peace and unity of the Church. One of these proposals was - If the next General Assembly shall declare that it was not meant by the Act of last Assembly to deny or take away the privilege and duty of ministers to testify against defections; then we shall be at liberty, and willing to withdraw our protest against the said Act of Assembly; and particularly we reserve to ourselves the liberty of testifying against the Act of Assembly 1732, on all proper occasions. Even this proposal shows that the Church was willing to make concessions; and that it needed only the manifestation of a similar spirit on the part of Erskine and his friends to secure a complete reconciliation.
Another and still more important proposal made by the Committee has strangely enough found no place in any modern account which has been given of these proceedings. It is contained in A Narrative and State of the Proceedings against Messrs. Ebenezer Erskine, etc., and published in 1734. Of this narrative these ministers in the same year published a review for their own vindication. In it they admit that the Committee made two different proposals to them; the second proposal which we have given above, they quote at length; but, they add, some objections being made against the first, it was not insisted on, therefore there is no need to insert it here. As they have subjected the narrative to a most minute and searching analysis, allowing no jot or tittle, on which adverse criticism can be made, to pass unchallenged, we are fully entitled to regard the Narrative as correct,when it states: Here it is proper to subjoin a copy of an overture proposed by the Committee to the suspended brethren, as it was drawn up in presence and by the assistance of Mr. Erskine and his adherents, and which, after finishing, they took under consideration till next Meeting, viz. The Committee of the Commission having sustained a Conference with the four suspended brethren concerning the grounds of the last Assemblys sentence, do find that they are under apprehensions, that the Assembly did condemn Mr. Erskine for uttering his sentiments against the Act of Assembly 1732, and that thereby ministers are precluded from speaking against any Act of the Assembly, whatsoever it may happen to be, which they think inconsistent with their Christian liberty, and the power they have received from the Lord Jesus Christ. Whereas the Committee, after reading the Act of last Assembly, find that the sentence proceeded only against Mr. Erskine for offensive expressions, tending to disturb the peace and good order of this Church. Whence they concluded, that they did not doubt but the reverend Commission would distinguish between the matter and the manner of Mr. Erskines sermon, and declare to the brethren that they judge nothing else to be intended by the late Assembly. In which case the said brethren are willing to retire their protest, and to resolve, in the strength of God, to behave with all regard to the peace and authority of the Church, exercised in the Lord.
From this proposal, as well as from that already given, it is evident that what was objected to throughout, was more the manner in which Erskine had expressed himself in his Synod sermon, than his actual condemnation of the Act; and that provided he would have admitted that the language employed was indiscreet, and unbecoming (as it appears to most dispassionate people now), the matter might at any time have taken end.
We are now able, with these proposals before us, to judge with how little reason it has been frequently asserted, that no proposal was made to them which did not involve a dangerous concession, and even a sinful compromise. We may also see, how baseless is the further assertion, that the concessions made by subsequent Assemblies were wrung from them by the mere dread of the multitudes who were found to sympathise with these ministers, after the sentence of this Assembly had been pronounced; for here we find proposals, made in the secrecy of a Committee, and without any external pressure, which contained the principles of all that the Church afterwards conceded. As regards these proposals themselves, Erskine and his friends, having taken a night to consider them, told the Committee, that after mature deliberation, they had no freedom to go into them. When the Committee gave in their report to that effect, the Commission, after full reasoning and mature deliberation, by a great plurality of votes resolved to loose the relations of these ministers to their respective parishes, and to declare them no longer ministers of the Church. But the Commission further agreed to declare that in case they should behave themselves dutifully and submissively to this sentence, and should make application to the meeting of the Commission in March, and give satisfaction to them, the Commission would then recommend them for favour to the next General Assembly. The four ministers being called in, had this sentence intimated; on which Mr. Erskine read a protest in his own name, and in that of the three brethren adhering to him, that notwithstanding of this sentence passed against them, their pastoral relation be held and repute firm and valid; that notwithstanding of their being cast out from ministerial communion with the Established Church of Scotland, they still hold communion with all and every one who desired, with them, to adhere to the principles of the true Covenanted Church of Scotland, in her doctrine, worship, government and discipline; and that as the prevailing party of the Established Church, who had now cast them out from ministerial communion with them, were carrying on a course of defection from the reformed and covenanted principles, they protested that they were obliged to make a secession from them, and that they could have no ministerial communion with them, till they saw their sins and mistakes and amended them. And they appealed to the first free, faithful, and reforming General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
We must therefore from this time regard Ebenezer Erskine -
III. AS THE FATHER OF THE SECESSION. Although the Church had left the door open for their return, yet so far as he and his followers were concerned, the Secession had virtually taken place, about three weeks after the decision of the Commission. On the 3d of December 1742, the four brethren met at Gairney Bridge, a small village about three miles from Kinross, and there after solemn prayer, they constituted themselves into the Associate Presbytery, of which Ebenezer Erskine was chosen the first Moderator. Shortly after this they published their First Testimony, as it was afterwards called, in which the Church of Scotland, or the prevailing party, was accused at great length of breaking down the beautiful Presbyterian Constitution, of pressing such measures as did actually corrupt, or had the most direct tendency to corrupt, the doctrines of the Confession of Faith; of imposing sinful and unwarrantable terms of ministerial communion, and of carrying on all these corrupt courses with a high hand. In short, all public evils, as well of former as of present times, were mentioned as grounds of their secession.
Notwithstanding the provocation given to the Church by such a Testimony, the Assembly, in 1734, did all they could reasonably be expected to do, to secure if possible the peace of the Church. They repealed the first Act complained of,viz., that of 1730, which had forbidden reasons of dissent to be recorded,and also the Act of 1732, by which the call was to be given by the elders and Protestant heritors; on the ground that they were not in accordance with former Acts and that they were found to be hurtful to the Church. They sent a deputation to London to procure if possible the repeal of the Patronage Act, and they also passed an Act in behalf of due and regular ministerial freedom, permitting ministers to declaim against the alleged backslidings and defections of the Church. These steps were not taken with the exclusive view of conciliating Erskine and his brethren. There were in the Church many ministers who were as loyal to the truth, both in Ebenezer Erskine. doctrine and discipline as he, and who felt as much aggrieved by the conduct of former General Assemblies although they believed that they would be more likely to accomplish their object by remaining in the Church than by separating from it; and in deference to them, and by their votes, were these decisions arrived at.
By the same Assembly, however, a special Act was passed concerning Ebenezer Erskine and his adherents, whereby they empowered the Synod of Perth and Stirling to restore these brethren to their respective ministerial charges, uniting them to the Communion of the Church. Accordingly, in July following, the said Synod, as in the place of the Assembly, did take off the sentence pronounced by the Commission of the Assembly 1733. One, at least, of his colleagues would have re-entered immediately by this open door, but Erskine stood firm, and over-persuaded him. The Presbytery of Stirling, to show how sincere was the spirit of reconciliation, elected him Moderator, and sent two of their number, who waited on him with great courtesy, to invite him to take the chair, - which was actually kept vacant for him till 1735. He then, in a somewhat haughty spirit of righteous isolation, declined the honour; assigning, among other reasons, that the Act which restored them, did not proceed upon the consideration of the sinfulness, and injustice of the sentences which had been passed against them. Notwithstanding this, the Church, under the influence of those within her pale, who were like-minded with those who had seceded, still continued to remove every obstacle which seemed to stand in the way of an honourable return; and the Assembly of 1736 passed one Act, declaring that it was, and had been, a fundamental principle of the Church since the Reformation, that no minister should be intruded into any parish contrary to the will of the congregation; and another Act, enjoining all her ministers to insist continually, on the fundamental doctrines of the Gospel.
But the more the Church endeavoured to conciliate the secessionists, the more embittered they became against her, - the fewer the points of difference, the greater became their enmity; and the overtures of reconciliation by the Assembly were met by the publication of a Judicial Testimony, in which the seceders laid at the door of the Church all the real and imaginary sins and shortcomings of the country.
So minute and exhaustive is the catalogue of sins, which the Church has either committed, or connived at, that among the defections of the Church, and as one of the causes of the Lords departure from her, they mention that of late the penal statute against witches has been repealed, contrary to the express letter of the law of God, Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live? It is worthy of notice that in this lengthened enumeration of national sins, the connection of Church and State is never once referred to. It will scarcely be believed, except by those who have read carefully some impartial history of the period, that the seceders, notwithstanding their separate presbytery, and separate professor of divinity, had up to this time, kept, and been allowed to keep possession of, manses, glebes, and stipends, as well as the churches of the Establishment. From these they had never proposed to secede; but at last becoming bolder through impunity Erskine brought matters to a crisis. Continuing as he did, to officiate in the church at Stirling, notwithstanding the sentence of suspension, there were five of the elders, who differed from him in regard to his secession from the Church, and who declared that all the deeds of the session were null and void, so long as he sat there, as moderator, or member.
On the 25th of February 1739, Erskine, in presence of the congregation, summoned the five pretended and intruded elders by name and surname to appear before the judgment-seat of Christ, on the day determined in Gods secret decree, to answer for their conduct, and warned all the congregation under his inspection, to beware of countenancing any of these five men, as lawful officers in the Church of Christ, as they would not partake of their sin and punishment. Irregularities such as these were complained of from various quarters, and could no longer be tolerated. As they would not be grafted into the Church, they must be cut off.
Further attempts to reclaim them, were as ineffectual as those which had preceded. At the meeting of the Commission in March 1739, a libel was served upon them, accusing them of constituting themselves into an independent Presbytery, licensing a young man to preach, etc., and otherwise following divisive courses from the Church established by law, and contrary to their ordination vows. With this libel, when the Assembly met in May, it was, by a small majority, resolved to proceed. The seceders appeared at the bar, but as a fully constituted Presbytery. A last attempt was made to win them back, by declaring that if they would return they would be heartily welcomed. Not only was the invitation declined, but a declinature of the Assemblys authority was read, in which a torrent of indignant abuse was poured upon the Assembly. After this they were ordered to withdraw; but instead of being immediately deposed from the office of the ministry, a whole year was allowed to elapse; and only on the 15th of May 1740, were they solemnly deposed; and thus by the act of the Church, that secession was completed, which by the act of the seceders themselves had been virtually accomplished eight years before.
The necessity of this course was bitterly lamented by many ministers of the Church who held the same views as Erskine and his followers, but who were not so intemperate in their expression of them ; and these men felt that the doctrines, and principles, for which they were contending, would have made far more rapid progress within the Church, had Erskine and his friends remained within her pale. The secessionists were supported, as was natural, by large multitudes of people throughout Scotland; while some licentiates of the Church soon afterwards cast in their lot with them. For a time they were fully occupied in making provision for the supply of gospel ordinances among those who became their followers. That the Gospel was fully, and faithfully, preached in their churches, ought to be thankfully acknowledged; but unfortunately, from the first, they seem to have looked upon themselves as the only pure and undefiled Church in the world, and as being more holy than all the other Churches of Christ. Their sympathies were too much confined to the members of their own sect; while the fact that others differed from them, prevented them from judging impartially of their actions.
A lamentable instance of this soon occurred. The fame of George Whitefield as a preacher, at that time filled the religious world; and the Erskines, naturally desirous that he should pay a visit to Scotland, entered into correspondence with him for this purpose. While they desired doubtless that he might be instrumental in promoting a revival of religion in Scotland, they at the same time desired that he should identify himself and his ministrations with the Associate Presbytery. In answer to this suggestion Whitefield wrote that he could not altogether come into this proposal, and that instead of connecting himself with any particular party, he meant to preach the simple Gospel to all, of whatever denomination, who were willing to hear him. To this Ebenezer replied, giving an account of the treatment which they had received from the Assembly, and saying, If you could find freedom to company with us, to preach with us and for us, and to accept of our advice in your work while in this country, it might contribute much to weaken the enemys hand and to strengthen ours, in the work of the Lord, when the strength of the battle is against us.
When Whitefield arrived in Scotland, he went at once to Dunfermline, where he preached his first sermon in Ralph Erskines pulpit. A few days afterwards a conference was held in Dunfermline attended by five ministers and two elders of the Associate Presbytery. Ebenezer opened the meeting with prayer. The question proposed for consideration was, What is the form of church-government which Christ has laid down in His Word? The articles relative to Presbytery were read to him, along with passages of Scripture in support of them ; and one of the brethren addressed him at considerable length for the purpose of showing him that neither Episcopacy nor Independency was agreeable to the Word of God. He did not attempt to argue with them, but professed to regard church-government as a matter of no great importance. He thought, as many think still, that in the New Testament there is sea- room for various theories of ecclesiastical government.
When, however, he was informed that he must at least confine his preaching entirely to them, this was more than he could stand. Why confine my preaching to you? asked Whitefield. Because we are the Lords people, said Ralph Erskine. Are there no other Lords people but you? said he, and supposing all others are the devils people, certainly they have the more need to be preached to. And he wound up by informing them, that if the Pope himself would lend him his pulpit, he would gladly proclaim the righteousness of Christ therein. The result of the conference was a resolution, that until his views on church-government underwent a change, they would neither hear him, nor employ him, in any part of ministerial work. From that time all intercourse between him and the seceders was broken off.
Soon after this interview Whitefield visited Stirling, and having entered the tent where Ebenezer Erskine was preaching to the people on a week-day, he sat and heard him. Whitefield was to follow him with an address, but Erskine would not remain to hear him, because he would not break off his connection with the Church of England. When Whitefield afterwards occupied several of the pulpits of the Established Church, the sentiments of esteem with which the seceders had formerly regarded him were changed into a spirit of bitter hostility; and he was stigmatised by them as a wild enthusiast, who was engaged in doing the work of the devil.
The narrowing, blinding influences of sectarianism were never so unmistakeably manifested as in the following year, in connection with the Great Revival at Cambuslang, and Whitefields second visit to Scotland. Mr. Macculloch, the minister of that parish, a man of piety as well as learning, had for nearly twelve months been preaching a course of sermons explaining the nature and necessity of regeneration according to the different lights in which that important subject is represented in Scripture. The result was that a more than ordinary concern about religion appeared among the people; and soon a petition for a week-day service, got up by some who had heard Whitefield in Glasgow, was presented to the minister, who gladly complied with its request. Societies for prayer had existed in the parish for several years, and on Monday the 15th of February their members met for prayer in the manse ; they held a second meeting on Tuesday, and a third on the Wednesday; and after the Thursday sermon on the 18th of February about fifty people came to the manse, under deep convictions of sin, and alarming apprehensions about the state of their souls, desiring to speak with him. He spent the most of that night with them, and with many others on many successive nights. The week-day services required to be increased; for the number of persons, who were brought to a deep concern about salvation, amounted by the end of April to upwards of three hundred.
Many ministers of high standing in the Church, most of them men of calm dispassionate judgment and not given to enthusiasm, - including such men as John Maclaurin of Glasgow, still known by his sermon on Glorying in the Cross of Christ, and well described as being as spiritual as Leighton, and scarcely less intellectual than Butler, - visited the parish, and conversed with many of the converts. They testified that in their judgment the state in which they found them was such as agreed with the Scripture accounts of conviction and conversion, and with none of the marks of delusion or imposture. They observed nothing about them visionary or enthusiastic; their speech was sober and their experiences Scriptural. In the beginning of May, similar religious awakenings took place at Kilsyth and elsewhere, and Whitefield, hearing of this great work, returned to Scotland and hastened to Cambuslang, where he preached with all his usual eloquence, and more than his usual impressiveness. He took part in the open-air services at the Communion in August, preaching on Saturday, Sunday evening, and Monday.
Upwards of 30,000 were gathered together,and about 3000 communicated, twelve ministers taking part in the services. It would have occasioned no surprise if merely irreligious men had calumniated the Cambuslang revival, or if even the so-called Moderates had looked upon the whole as the delusion of enthusiastic fanatics; but it was scarcely to have been expected that the fathers of the secession should have been the foremost to denounce it and to attempt to arrest its progress. They had come to the conclusion that the Church of Scotland was so thoroughly corrupt that it would be derogatory to the Holy Spirit to imagine that He would manifest His presence, and revive His work, in a Church so fearfully polluted; and so, though the doctrines preached were those for which they had contended in the Marrow Controversy, and to which they professed still to adhere, they denounced the revival, and all who were instrumental in promoting it, in epithets of abuse, which were limited only by the inability of the language, to supply worse, or more. Whitefleld was one of the great objects of their calumny and resentment.
As a specimen of the manner in which he was assailed, I shall quote from a sermon preached by the Rev. Adam Gib, in Bristo Church, on 6th June 1742. This Mr. Gib was the author of the Display of the Secession Testimony, and which is still a standard work among the secessionists. It was he who after Erskines death said to one who had never heard him preach, Well then, sir, you never heard the gospel in its majesty. The title-page of the sermon to which I have referred is bad enough, viz., wherein are shown that Mr. Whitefleld is no minister of Jesus Christ; that his call and coming to Scotland are scandalous; that his practice is disorderly, and fertile of disorder; that his whole doctrine is, and his success must be, diabolical, so that people ought to avoid him from duty to God, to the Church, to themselves, to their fellow-men, to posterity, and to him. Yet this titlepage gives only a faint idea of the coarseness of the language employed in the sermon itself. There are some expressions in it which I would be ashamed to quote; but let the following suffice. Gods blessing cannot rest upon Whitefields work, but only a blasting curse; to countenance his ministry is to countenance a lie; he is blasting and deluding souls, and that as to their eternal interests ; he comes hither with a most wicked and scandalous design; the noise of his ministrations introduces the awful profanation of the Lords day, while the fact that his public ministrations are of enormous frequency, ordinarily every day, and oftener than once, cannot be seen to be reconcilable with the Fourth Commandment, which, as it enjoins the proper exercise of a seventh day, so it not only permits, but enjoins the proper work of the intervening six; he discredits and condemns part of the counsel of God, declaring and promoting the opposite counsel of Satan, unto the ruin of souls and the subversion of the kingdom of Christ; and all this in the name of Jesus Christ.
That these were no mere solitary utterances is evident from the fact that the Associate Presbytery proceeded so far as in the following month to pass an Act, appointing the 4th of August 1742 to be observed as a fast, chiefly, because (i) the Lord hath in His righteous displeasure left this Church and land to give such an open discovery of their apostasy from him, in the fond reception that Mr. George Whitefield hath met with, and (2) because the people are so much imposed upon by several ministers who, notwithstanding all the ordinary symptoms of delusion attending the present awful work upon the bodies and spirits of men, yet cry it up as a great work of God. It was not without good reason that Mr. Robe of Kilsyth, who had been one of the most honoured instruments in promoting the revival there, characterised this Act of the Associate Presbytery as the most heaven-daring paper that hath been published by any set of men in Britain these three hundred years past. Even in the judgment of charity, only one inference can be drawn from their conduct, viz.: that they did not believe that the ministry of any other persons than the members of the Associate Presbytery, and those whom they had licensed to preach, could be countenanced by the Holy Spirit.
Our space allows but a brief reference to the subsequent history of the Secession even during Ebenezer Erskines life. By the end of 1742, the number of ministers in the Associate Presbytery had increased to twenty, including those whom they had licensed and ordained; and in 1744 they formed their three Presbyteries of Dunfermline, Glasgow, and Edinburgh into a Synod, which met for the first time as the Associate Synod at Stirling on -the 6th of March 1745, having then about thirty settled congregations under its charge, in addition to sixteen vacant in Scotland, besides several in Ireland.
The first meeting of the Synod was by no means harmonious. The atmosphere of protests and dissents in which its members had so long lived, and the spirit of controversy which they had so long breathed, were not without their influence; and they soon began to turn against each other the weapon which they had often turned against their opponents. An overture came up from the Presbytery of Dunfermline to consider whether or not the Burgess Oath be agreeable to the Word of God, and to the received principles of this Church founded thereon. The Burgess Oath was that imposed upon burgesses, in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Perth, and contained the following clause: Here I protest before Ebenezer Ersk Inc. 185 God and your lordships, that I profess, and allow with my heart, the true religion presently professed within this realm, and authorised by the laws thereof: I shall abide thereat, and defend the same, to my lifes end; renouncing the Roman religion, called Papistry.
The question of taking or not taking the oath, might fairly have been left to the individual conscience, and been a matter of mutualforbearance; but the Synod resolved to give a deliverance on the subject, and immediately plunged into a controversy which lasted for nearly two years. To give a detailed account of the arguments advanced either for, or against, the taking of the oath, would neither be interesting nor profitable, for according to their description of each other, they employed such methods of reasoning as may well be reckoned a disgrace to the reasoning faculty of human nature. Countless public, and private, sederunts were spent upon this affair; besides two public fasts throughout the whole Secession body, three fasts publicly observed by the members of Synod, and five private diets of prayer, for light and direction. The result was, that at the meeting of Synod on the 1st of April 1746, the decision was arrived at by thirteen to nine, that those of the Secession cannot, with safety of conscience and without sin, swear any burgess oath, with the said religious clause, while matters with reference to the profession and settlement of religion continue as at present. A protest was, of course, lodged against this decision.
At the September meeting Ebenezer Erskine, who had been absent on the former occasion, after asking in vain whether the Synod would reverse their decision, adhered to the protest. The time between this and the meeting of Synod in Ebenezer Erskine. April 1748 was spent, according to the description which the members give of each other, in circulating and industriously propagating gross misrepresentations of what had actually occurred, publishing pamphlets tending to sink the readers into confusion and error on the subject; while the same writer, who speaks of Erskine and his friends in their conflict with the General Assembly, as men of great natural talents, great eloquence, and unquestionable piety, now describes them as behaving in a manner disgraceful not only to the Christian, but to the human character; violating, in their rage to carry a favourite point, the very fundamental principles of order, without preserving which, it is impossible rationally to carry on the affairs of society. When the Synod met on the 7th of April, the proceedings were characterised by still greater bitterness; but it was finally moved that the decision condemning the oath should not now or afterwards be a term of ministerial or Christian communion, until the question of its being so shall be referred to presbyteries and kirk-sessions. Repeated protests were taken against the putting of this motion as disorderly; notwithstanding which, it was put; and (as those who had protested against it did not vote) carried.
Of the fifty-five members who were present, only twenty (nine ministers and eleven elders) voted on this question, and all of them gave their vote in favour of the decision that was carried twenty-three (thirteen ministers and ten elders) did not consider themselves at liberty to vote, having previously protested -against putting the question; while a few took no part, as they were anxious that the Court should delay coming toa final decision. The twenty-three protesters left the house, claiming to be the Associate Synod; the twenty who had given the vote objected to, remained, and they also claimed to be the Associate Synod; but the names by which the rival camps were popularly and generally known were the Burghers (of whom Erskine was one), who held that the oath might be taken ; and the Antiburghers, who held that it ought not. Each accused the other of making false charges in plain matters of fact, and in a style most indecent and undutiful. The Burghers passed an Act nullifying the Synod of the Antiburghers; while the Antiburghers prepared and served a libel on Ebenezer Erskine and other eight brethren, and on the 14th of February 1750, after a sermon suitable to the occasion, the Moderator solemnly pronounced the sentence of greater excommunication, in these words: The Synod did, and hereby do (in the name, and by authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, the only King and head of His Church, and according to the powers committed by Him to them as a court constitute in His name), actually excomunicate the said Ebenezer Erskine, etc., and with the greater excommunication, casting them out from the Communion of the Church of Christ, declaring them to be of those whom the Lord Christ commandeth to be holden by all and every one of the faithful as heathen men and publicans, and delivering them unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that their spirits may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.
He died only four years afterwards. Though he disregarded the sentence, yet he felt it bitterly, and from that time his health gave way. His illness was increased not only by the Breach, as it was termed, between the Burghers and Antiburghers, but breach after breach was made in his own family. In the following year he lost his wife, and a year later, his brother Ralph died. Well might he say in a letter to a friend, Many of Gods billows are going over me, yet still I hope the Lord will command His loving-kindness in the day-time, and in the night His song shall be with me. While we admire his honesty and courage, the great lesson to be learned from his life, is not to endanger peace and to wound charity, by making the implicit reception of our peculiar statement of truth the test of orthodoxy; but while we hold fast the truth ourselves, to make allowance for the different aspects which the same truth may present to the minds of others who hold it as firmly. Alas, how few are there, of whom it can in any measure be said, as of the great champion of the Churchs truth, against the Arian heresy, only in Athanasius there was nothing observed throughout the course of that long tragedy, other than such as very well became a wise man to do, and a righteous man to suffer!
From "Scottish Divines" - The St. Giles' Lectures.
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