Where it all went wrong…

In 1688, the Killing Times were ended at the ‘Glorious Revolution’ as William of Orange became king of England, Ireland and then Scotland. However, the Revolution Settlement of the same year excluded the Covenants, and Presbyterianism was only established because it was what most people wanted, not because of the belief that it was right. The majority of people flocked to the new Church of Scotland with gladness – but the Covenanters (also known as Cameronians) remained outside. My friend Gary McCullough wrote an essay for History last year where he shows that leaving out the covenants led to all the subsequent problems in the Church of Scotland. The quote from Thomas M’Crie (not an RP) that he closes with sums up the essay:

“To the radical defects of the Revolution settlement we can trace all the subsequent corruption and declension of the Church of Scotland”

I will paste the essay below, but I’ve also uploaded the original word document so people can see the footnotes if they’re interested. Gary would also like it to be known that if this hadn’t been an essay for uni (he was in his first year at Queen’s) he would have been even stronger on covenanting. Btw, most his quotes come from secular historians. Here it is:


Apart from the period of the ‘Restoration’, Scottish Presbyterianism had remained a dominant force from 1560 to the 19th century. However, Presbyterianism – most clearly seen in the ‘2nd Reformation’ (1638 – 1649) – underwent numerous changes between the late 17th century and early 19th century. We will consider these changes in turn, before endeavouring to discover the causes of them.

When the ‘Killing times’ were ended by the ‘Glorious Revolution’ in 1688, Presbyterianism was re-established within Scotland, although only as a political expediency. The Presbyterian Church, ‘by law established’, was in reality – as the Cameronians pointed out – a new ecclesiastical body, since its constitution was considerably changed from that of the pre 1660 Kirk. The change may seem a trivial one, but considering that the Covenants, the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, and the Directories were all absent, it does constitute a sizeable change. While the ‘Westminster standards’ as a whole may have been mainly embodied in the Confession of Faith – which was adopted – the Covenants are entirely absent; thus at one foul stroke large amounts of the ‘2nd Reformation’ attainments were in reality abandoned. As we shall see the absence of the Catechisms particularly, indicated a new indifference to doctrinal purity, as understood by the Reformers. Significantly the church had lost its vision for the ‘uniformity of Religion in England, Ireland and Scotland’, for which it had been so zealous in 1643.

Failure to adopt the Covenants, led immediately to the first of a string of divisions within the Scottish Kirk. The remnant of the ‘Hill men’, or Cameronian societies opted to stay out-with the new Kirk for this very reason among others. “Their societies continued a separate existence until, having been joined by two presbyterally ordained ministers; they constituted the ‘Reformed Presbyterian Church’ in 1743” . In 1733 Ebenezer Erskine with three other ministers, succeeded from the Church of Scotland to form the Associate Presbytery, “thereby marking the first succession from the Post-Revolution Church of Scotland” . They too adopted the Covenants, believing that they were now the true heirs of the 2nd Reformation Covenanted Kirk. However, their views of the descending obligations of the Covenants were considerably modified compared to the original Covenanters and indeed the continuing Covenanter societies, thus weakening their claim to being the true heirs. 1751 saw a ‘Relief Presbytery’ formed, “for the relief of Christians oppressed in their Christian principals” ; and finally in 1843 in the ‘Great Disruption’ almost half of the communicants and a third of the ministers succeeded to form the Free Church. Thus, “Scottish Presbyterianism was hopelessly fractured by the 1840’s” affecting the Kirks control on everyday Scottish life. Church discipline was increasingly limited to those inside each of the respective Churches; education and poor relief could no longer be handled by the rival factions, resulting increasingly in state interference in areas that had once been viewed as the church’s role in society.

Erastianism – state control of the Kirk – was the main cause of divisions; and it should be noted, that the destruction of Erastianism was the main aim of the Covenanting movement in the first place. What astonishes is that the Revolution settlement of the Kirk was an Erastian settlement, even if that was nominally condemned by the adoption of the Westminster Confession of Faith. William of Orange, “An Erastian at heart, [who] would fain have claimed a fuller control over church affairs” , knew that for the safe settling of affairs in the Kingdom, both Scottish Presbyterianism and English Episcopalianism had to be placated. Thus from the word go he had to keep a firm hand on the Scottish Kirk and ensure that it wasn’t a reincarnation of the covenanting body that aimed at the destruction of Prelacy in all three Kingdoms. The old Kirk had been acknowledged by the State as ‘jus divinum’ Presbyterian, the new was merely a tolerated body because popular and expedient for Scotland. It was a largely docile body waiting for every crumb from William’s table, even when in the years that came the King limited free Assemblies from meeting. How different this from the Kirk that was willing to go to the scaffold, rather than gave away to an earthly King, one ounce of ‘Christ’s Royal Prerogatives over His own Kingdom’. These interferences in Scotland’s 2nd Kingdom by William were virtually the same as those of the old Stuart Kings in the early 1600’s, and yet even after the Patronage Act of 1712 – which radically altered Presbyterianism itself – the only concerted response was a nominal yearly protest to an unconcerned London Parliament; even this ceased in 1784 . Patronage was the direct cause of every succession from the Post-Revolution Kirk; as the outworking of the Erastianism principle that alarmed the Cameronians in 1689, Patronage and its effects seems to justify the decision of the ‘Societies’ not to join the Revolution Church.

The absence of any real action by the main body of Scottish ministers against state interference in church affairs is indicative of a change in the religious fervour of Post-Revolution Presbyterianism. 17th century Scottish Presbyterianism had been a Puritan movement, but, “some time in the 1720’s Puritanism seems to have lost some of its impetus” , careful investigation shows that it was largely absent from the Settlement itself, though anti-puritan ‘Moderatism’ as a movement only comes to the fore in that period. As a specific party Moderatism, “absorbed rationalism from the Enlightenment and …despised enthusiasm and excess in religion” . They “wished to relate the Christian religion to contempory culture” ; the problem with this was that the culture was one that had less and less time for the mysteries of Christianity and religious zeal. Right from the end of the 17th century there was a general reaction against the zeal that had been responsible – in their eyes – for the century of trouble; anti-dogmatism and anti-fanaticism were the order of the day, and the bulk of the re-established ministers conformed. They wanted peace, to make religion less hostile to the ‘world’, and to find themselves at ease among the cultured elite of the day. We know that this spirit was already present in the church from the late 1600’s from the words of the Theologian Thomas Halyburton, when he complained, “there is a rational sort of religion coming in among us” .

Under the Moderates the church also changed its shape and relation to the state; from an early period they gained control of the church, although probably even at their height they were a minority among the Elders of the church. This reign they managed to maintain until 1833 and again in 1843 to cause the great Disruption. In the words of Bruce Lenman they, “grossly exaggerated the inherent powers of [that] particular body they happened to be able to control” ; thus making Presbyterianism top heavy. The old Presbyterianism of the 2nd Reformation had no higher bodies, only broader ones, so that the General Assembly was simply more representative than a Presbytery for example; by making Ruling Elders effectively a lower level office than the Preaching Elder they turned the Assembly into a kind of ‘Bishops court’ devoid of many of the Ruling Elders, who would have swollen Evangelical ranks. With ‘unpresbyterian’ power in their hands they abused the Church’s commissions to tyrannically suppress rebel Presbyteries throughout the country. By this means they ensured Patronage continued, thus keeping the landed elite happy and on excellent terms with the ‘cultured Clergy’. The church was further affected as, “Their unwritten concordat worked out to the Erastian result of making the Church little more than the pedicle of the life of the state” .

Although in all of the Presbyterian Churches the Westminster Confession of Faith remained in the constitution, departures from it became increasingly widespread and serious. The Moderates may fairly be accused of non-adherence to the Confession; for while they in the main did not openly denounce its teaching, they severely ignored many of its doctrines. Along with their pride in how moderate and unfanatical they were, went a false humility that claimed to leave the doctrines of predestination, imputation, and even the Trinity and Christ’s incarnation to their ‘highflying’ brethren in the ministry i.e. the Evangelicals; we may safely account for the absence of these doctrines by attributing to them either indifference or hostility. During their ascendancy Theology itself was at a great discount, and Scotland failed to produce the large numbers of Theological works, for which she was renown in the 17th century. The actual content of the preaching of the Moderates may also be used to show how they deviated from Westminster Orthodoxy; from a very early stage there was a moral or social Gospel being proclaimed instead of the doctrines of grace, this later developed into outright Pelagianism and later even Socinianism. Not only did they deviate generally themselves, but were soft towards those that did, the Case of John Simson being a prime and early case. Neither was it just doctrinal error that was softly dealt with, but also moral deviancy – though the decline of fines and the stool of shame was universal in Scottish Churches during the 18th century – particularly to the delight of the nobility who were happy, “to think that the severe discipline of the Kirk was part of an old superstition which might well be discarded” . Discipline unsurprisingly was not so rusty when a bold Evangelical needed dealt with; but the laxity in doctrinal adherence generally meant that increasing numbers became, “Estranged …from the faith and traditions of the Scottish Reformation” ; among such traditions to suffer were fasting, visiting and catechising.

Of course deviations were far from limited to the Established Kirk; the dissenting bodies were divided time and again by heresies and differences among themselves. In an over reaction against Erastianism some favoured Volyntarism, which in turn led to cries among some for the Confession to be changed or dropped. What we shouldn’t miss is that such views were tolerated by the state; no longer did all Presbyterians dread the, “Toleration of non-orthodox bodies” , though even those who did could do little about it since the 1712 Toleration Act. Men like Halyburton and latter John Brown of Hadington wrote and preached against toleration, but even by 1712 many were significantly ‘Enlightened’ to agree with at least a limited toleration. Since the Covenants had been dropped few felt under obligation to “Extirpate Popery, Prelacy…superstition, heresy, schism…” That all Presbyterians once hated toleration may be gathered from the words of George Gillespie – one of the Westminster Scottish Commissioners – “if they are gross idolaters or blasphemers, and seducers of others, then [they are] to be put to death…this power the Presbyterians do ascribe to the Magistrate” . Even after the Evangelical Revival, few held to the old position of the Reformers.

The change in Scottish Presbyterianism after the ‘Killing Times’ is understandable since, “of war with the world the Church thought she had had enough” , peace was desired at any cost; many had no will left to endure another 17th century. The compromising of what many had died for was to be the largest cause of all the subsequent changes in the Kirk. Unity and zeal had been in the Covenants, with the latter gone the former two went also; soon schism and heresies reigned. When one Compromise had been made others easily followed and the will to oppose grew weaker until the Moderates and the State called the tunes. John Macleod comments, “The introduction of so many of the Episcopal conformists to the ministry of the restored Kirk meant that there was a decided lowering of the average standard of doctrinal preaching” ; these were men who had already compromised – indeed even some of those who had persecuted the covenanters were included without even repenting – and had long settled for a peaceful life at near any cost. All the Erastianism that caused the divisions, the doctrinal indifference and lack of zeal starts here; the later changes are consequences of these first. The Enlightenment certainly fuelled, and partly directed Moderatism, but the Church had the seeds of change planted in it well before the Enlightenment gathered pace – even regarding toleration.

In the words of Thomas McCrie, “To the radical defects of the Revolution settlement we can trace all the subsequent corruption and declension of the Church of Scotland” .

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