William Chambers.

The Scottish church from the earliest times to 1881 to which is prefixed an historical sketch of St. Giles' Cathedral online

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272 Sf Giles^ Lectures.

as tlieir 'Judicial Testimony,' in the end of 1736 — still
further widening the breach between them and the Church.
Finally, in 1738, the Church took the matter once more in
hand, and summoned the seceding ministers, now eight in
number, to her bar. They appeared — but as a corporate
body or Associate Presbytery, with their Moderator at their
head — declined the jurisdiction of an ' unfaithful Church,' and
departed. In the Assembly of 1740 — but not before — they
were deposed ; and from the side of the Church, the act of
separation was completed, which had already long since taken
effect on the side of the seceders themselves.

It is of no use, at this time of day, trying to judge the merits
of this memorable quarrel on either side. If the Church was
precipitate and high-handed, to begin with, in dealing with the
scruples of the brethren, it certainly shewed a real wish to
welcome their return. But ruptures which are easily made are
not easily healed, and especially as in this case, where there
are not merely ostensible causes of opposition, but alien
principles in movement. The leaders of the first secession
from the Church of Scotland were really the representatives of
principles, partly popular and partly traditionary, which the
Church of tlie Revolution embodied. But then the Church
embodied other principles and tendencies as well of a more
moderate and flexible character ; and a struggle between the
two lines of thought and policy was inevitable. Nothing could
have prevented the collision. Whether a higher statesmanship,
and a more Christian forbearance on both sides, might not have
averted the catastrophe, it is needless now to speculate. But
one thing may be said, that the action of the Church in reference
to the first seceders, was of a far more generous and con-
ciliatory character than in the case of the subsequent Relief
secession twelve years later.

From this time onwards the two parties known as popular
or evajigelical and moderate rapidly developed themselves, and
the history of the Church becomes largely the history of their

The Church of the Eighteenth Century. 273

rival relations. We can only in the most general way glance
at these relations and the leaders on either side.

What is known as Moderatism may be said to divide itself
into two epochs, during the first of which, extending to 175 1, Dr
Patrick Cuming, who was Professor of Church History in the
University of Edinburgh, was ' the chief ostensible leader of the
Church.' Had space sufficed, it would have been interesting to
sketch not only Cuming, but the two Wisharts, along with Pro-
fessor Leechman of Glasgow, who may be said to be representa-
tive of this earlier period, although Leechman survived long into
a later time. He and Principal Wishart^ are not only remark-
able figures in themselves, but, as both having been subjects
of prosecution for heresy, their names gather around them the
events in the history of the Church then most deserving of
notice. It is with reluctance that we must omit sketches
of these men, with the exception of Leechman, whose position
as an accused heretic is significant in the decade following the
secession of the Erskines. The accusation against Leechman
was founded on a sermon on Prayer, which he had preached
while minister of Beith. The sermon deals with the general
idea of prayer as a natural impulse of the human heart, rather
than with prayer as an act of Christian devotion. On his
appointment as Professor of Divinity in Glasgow, in 1744,
it was objected to him that he had failed in his exposition to
recognise the relation which all prayer ought to have to Jesus
Christ, and an inquiry was instituted as to his orthodoxy by the
Presbytery of Glasgow. There was plainly something invidious
in the movement from the first, as Leechman had no sooner
an opportunity of explaining his true object in the sermon,
than the charge against him fell to the ground. Before the
case was fully considered by the Presbytery, he carried it by
complaint to the Synod, which almost unanimously found that
the answers he had given to his accusers were satisfactory.

^ He was Principal of Edinburgh University, as Leechman was ultimately
Principal of Glasgow.


274 »5'/ Giles^ Lectures.

The General Assembly confirmed the decision of the Synod
without hesitation, and the Moderator in ,his closing address
signalised the felicity with which the Church had met a case of
more than ordinary delicacy. ' Have we not seen,' he said,
' the beauty of Christian charity in condescension on the one
hand to remove offence, and readiness on the other to embrace
satisfaction?' There is no doubt that the Church exercised a
wise discretion in this case, as well as that of Principal Wishart,
which had been decided six years before, and that while due
explanations were demanded, there was no disposition to bear
hard upon the accused.

Dr Leechman was evidently a man of very high, if somewhat
abstract and philosophical turn of mind, of the most devout
religious feeling, and earnestness of purpose. Lord Woodhouse-
lee says that his style, * with equal purity, had more elegance
than Hutcheson's,' and that his theological lectures were * the
fruit of great knowledge, and of a liberal and candid spirit'
' He was a distinguished preacher,' according to Dr Carlyle.
' His appearance was that of an ascetic, reduced by fasting and
prayer ; but in aid of fine composition he delivered his sermons
with such fervent spirit, and in so persuasive a manner,
as captivated every audience.' And to crown these other
testimonies, Sir Henry INIoncrieff Wellwood says of him, that
he was 'a man of primitive and Apostolic manners, equally
distinguished by his love of literature and his liberal opinions.'
He was a warm friend and ally of Hutcheson, the first and
not the least distinguished of our race of eighteenth-century
philosophers. Hutcheson took a zealous interest in his ap-
pointment to the Chair of Divinity in Glasgow, and at this
time made use of the expression which has been often quoted,
that Leechman would 'put a new face upon theology in
Scotland.' He represented, undoubtedly, a new type of theo-
logical thought to that which had been conspicuous in the
seventeenth century and was still exhibited by many in the
Church. But this is merely to say that he was the product of

The Church of the Eighteenth Cent my. 275

his own century. No one can read the account of his Hfe, and
especially of the touching close of it, given by Dr James
Wodrow, who edited his sermons after his death, without recog-
nising at once his Christian sincerity and his large-mindedness.
It is told that a young Oxford student was brought to see
him in his last illness. He was only able to speak in a feeble
voice, and had not many days to live, he said. * But you
see how I am. It is not tranquillity or confidence alone — it is
joy and triumph that inspires me.' His features kindled, his
voice rose. 'And whence,' he continued, 'does all this spring
from ? — from that book ; ' pointing to the Bible that lay on a little
table by the bedside. Then he added to his young listener :
' You have chosen the Church for your profession. You are of
the Church of England ; I am a Presbyterian. The difference
between us is not great. If you are faithful in the discharge of
your duties, you will find your work a source of the highest
enjoyment. Your father was my friend. I have been always
interested in your welfare, and I am happy on my death-bed to
give you an old man's blessing.'

The epoch itself during which the Church obeyed the
leadership of Cuming, was distinguished by a clear acknowledg-
ment of the evil of Patronage. The consciousness that the
Act of Queen Anne had been unjustly imposed upon the
Church was, if no longer universal, still general. Cuming himself
made no attempt to defend it, while feeling it to be his duty to
accept it, and so far to work it, as the law of the Church.
In one of his addresses to the General Assembly as Moderator
in 1749 — he was three times Moderator — he says expressly,
'the law of Patronage is a hard law;' and according to Sir
Henry Moncrieff Wellwood, ' the party under his management
did not pretend to attempt the abolition of calls in the settle-
ment of ministers ; and always professed to require the call of
heritors and elders before they gave effect to a presentation."

* Appendix to Life of Erskine, p. 457,

276 S^ Giles' Lectures.

It was i^art of his system also to appoint committees of the
Assembly — 'riding committees,' as they were called — to carry
out the decisions of the Supreme Court when the local Presby-
teries were disinclined to do so. The cessation of these com-
mittees, which were plainly ' neither sanctioned by constitutional
law, nor justified by any expression of expediency,' marks the
close of the earlier Moderatism.

With the turn of the century we emerge upon a new era.
Moderatism takes a new and decisive shape in the hands
of Robertson, Carlyle, and others. Literature finds a familiar
home in the Church. It is, as Dean Stanley has said, the era
of literary Churchmen. There had been in the previous part
of the century some Churchmen of intellectual distinction like
John Maclaurin — audior of the famous sermon Glorymg in
the Cross of Christ — and Leechman and Wishart, of whom
we have spoken. But it is only from about the middle of
the century that literature can be said to have become
a feature of the Church of Scotland. Every one is familiar
with Dr Carlyle's somewhat glowing description : ' We have
men who have successfully enlightened the world on almost
every branch of knowledge and of Christian doctrine and
morals. Who have written the best histories, ancient and
modern? It has been clergymen of this Church. Who has
written the clearest delineation of the human understanding
and all its powers ? A clergyman of this Church. Who wrote
a tragedy that has been deemed perfect ? A clergyman of this
Church ? Who was the most profound mathematician of the
age he lived in? A clergyman of this Church. Let us
not complain of poverty. It is a splendid poverty indeed.
It '\% paupertas fecunda virorum.''^

This is very high-sounding; but it is not without warrant.

^ This speech of Carlyle is found in the supplementary chapter to his
Aiitobiop-aphy, and was made near the close of the century — in 1 789 — when
the proposal for augmenting the livings of the ministers of the Church was
under discussion.

The Church of the Eighteenth Century. 277

Beginning with Dr Robert Wallace, author of a Dissertation on
the Numbers of Mankind in Ancient and Moderii Times, which
anticipated Hume's essay on the same subject, and led the
way to later Malthusian speculations, there is a perfect galaxy
of distinguished authors to be found in the Scottish Church
during the next forty years, ' Robert Watson, the historian of
Philip II. ; Adam Ferguson, the historian of Rome -^ John
Home, the author of the tragedy of Douglas ; Hugh Blair,
the author of the celebrated Sermons and of the Lectures on
Rhetoric ; Robert Henry, the philosophic author of the Histo?y
of Great Britain ; and lastly and chiefly, William Robertson,
the historian of Scotland, of America, and of Charles V. — were
all ministers of the Church of Scotland.'- Add to these Dr
Thomas Reid, the well-known head of the Scottish philosophy ;
and Dr George Campbell, author of the Treatise on Miracles,
in reply to Hume, and the Elements of Rhetoric, and the
intellectual picture is still more striking. It is only, as Dean
Stanley says, within 'our own generation that poetry, philo-
sophy, and history have found so natural a home in the clergy
of England, as they then did in the clergy of Scotland.' Nor
should it be forgotten that there were many clergy of remark-
able powers, although they do not stand out prominently in
the general field of literature — men like Dr Alexander Webster ;
Dr Witherspoon, author of the Ecclesiastical Characteristics, and
finally President of the New College, Jersey ; and Dr Robert-
son's well-known colleague, Dr Erskine, whose life has been
amply described to us by Sir Henry Moncrieff Wellwood. Dr
Webster was a man of great mental and social vigour, to whom
the Church is especially indebted for the institution of the
Widows' Fund. Whatever may be true as to his failings,

^ Adam Ferguson never occupied a parish ; but he was hcensed as
preacher by the General Assembly in special circumstances, and authorised
to act as an army chaplain, in which capacity he officiated for many years —
from 1744 to 1757.

2 Dean Stanley's Lectures, p. 124.

278 Sf Giles' Lectures.

Webster was evidently a man of organising and ruling brain,
as well as of unusual popular and administrative gifts. Wither-
spoon's literary power, as displayed in the Characteristics, is
considerable. His irony is forcible and dramatic, if not very
varied or delicate. He was evidently a man of great mental
keenness and activity — a force in the General Assembly, as well
as in controversial literature, on the popular side. A story is
told of Robertson saying to him on one occasion : ' I think
you have your men better disciplined than formerly;' to
which Witherspoon replied : ' Yes, by urging your politics too
far, you have compelled us to beat you with your own weapons.'^
Erskine is a stainless and noble name, in no respect more
so than in the honest and manly tribute of worth which he paid
to the character of Robertson after his death — a eulogy without
stint and yet without flattery^ — alike happily conceived and
expressed. There were still others, such as Principal Tulli-
delph of St Andrews, of whose eloquence as a speaker Dr
Carlyle gives the most flattering account, comparing it to that
of Lord Chatham in all his glory ; and Carlyle, who has
made himself so familiarly — some are inclined to think too
familiarly — known to us in his Autobiography.

Much might be said of the deficiencies of Christian character
in men like Carlyle and his associates. No one can say
that the pictures he has given us of social life and personal
manners are in some respects elevating, or in any respects
saint-like. They are of the ' earth, earthy ; ' and we shall not
attempt to vindicate for them a character that they do not bear.
Carlyle must be judged by his self-drawn portrait ; and Home
and Webster — whom he has drawn with a specially unfriendly
pencil — and others must be estimated in some degree by his
statements. The effect is all the more telling that it is
off-hand, like the touches which occur in rapid conversation,
rather than like any attempt at elaborate or formal description.

1 Account ofWitherspoon's Life, introductory to his Works, l8lS-
'Stewart's Life 0/ Robertson, p. 123.

The Church of the Eighteenth Century. 279

But just as rapid conversation lends itself easily to exaggeration,
and points are thrown in for effect which were never intended
to bear all the meaning that may be attributed to them, so
Carlyle's sketches must be taken with reserve ; and when
allowance is made for the comparative coarseness of manners,
it may be found that the level of Christian principle and
character is not really so low as it sometimes appears. There
was possibly much even in a man like Carlyle — strong and free
a child of Nature as he was — allied to the higher life of which
he says so little. And in men like Dr Robertson, Dr Blair,
Dr George Campbell, and others, the religious vision must
be very distorted which can see anything but good. Dr
Johnson spoke of the former two as both 'wise and good
men,' and surely his verdict, in all the circumstances, may be
allowed to stand. Lives spent in laborious and fruitful
application to higher studies — in the cultivation of literature,
the amenities of social intercourse, and the diffusion of a
spirit of courtesy, charity, and mutual understanding in the
midst of deep-seated intellectual differences — are lives which
claim not only honour but Christian respect. Of their special
labours as Christian divines, Blair's sermons remain a monument
which it is the fashion now to depreciate, but which many
would find it hard to emulate ; while Campbell's philosophical
and theological writings have by no means yet lost their value
and significance. A higher specimen of the Christian minister
can hardly be conceived than Principal Campbell ; or a more
noble example of a luminous, thoughtful, and candid intellect,
consecrated to the highest objects, without any idea of
reward beyond the consciousness of devotion to truth and

But while we desire, upon the whole, to vindicate the
character of our Moderate clergy in the latter half of the
eighteenth century, we hold no brief for the vindication of
their policy. It was a high-handed policy, conceived by
Robertson in a statesman-like but eminently arbitrary spirit,

28o Sf Giles' Lectures.

That Robertson possessed many of the powers of a real
statesman, it is impossible to deny. All the attributes by
which his colleague describes him are more or less of a
political order. There can be no doubt also of Robertson's
honest intentions to serve the Church and the country. The
authority of the supreme judicatory of the Church appeared
to him to be in real danger. If the voice of the Assembly
was to be disobeyed at will by Presbyteries, and temporary
substitutes formed for carrying out its decisions, the whole
government of the Church tended to lapse into a chaos fatal
to any order or efficiency. And so the idea of a bold and
authoritative policy seemed to a mind like his — sagacious yet
cold, commanding and firm yet unsympathetic — to be the
only means of rescuing the Church from perilous confusion.
Younger men, like Carlyle and Home and others, entered into
his ideas from a sheer wish to shew their power, and put down
what they considered as disorder and fanaticism. The policy
was so far successful ; but the success was of that nature which
is almost worse than defeat. It introduced order within the
Church. It crushed the revolt of Presbyteries. It silenced in
many cases popular clamour. But it quietly and gradually alien-
ated masses of people from the Establishment.

The deposition of Gillespie in 1752 initiated the new policy,
and began a second secession known as the Relief^ The Act
which led to this disastrous result was far less justifiable than
the ultimate deposition of the Erskines and their associates ; for
Gillespie was chosen as the victim of the General Assembly
— when it determined to exercise its authority against the
Presbytery of Dunfermline — in a purely arbitrary manner. Out
of six recalcitrant presbyters, it was agreed that one should
be deposed, and the lot, so to speak, fell upon the minister at
Carnock — a sincerely pious and meek-minded man, who would
gladly have lived and died a minister of the Church, and who

' Relief {xoxn the burden of Patronage,

The Church of the Eighteenth Century. 281

advised his people to return to it after his death, and when
the secession, which his deposition originated, had fairly
taken root and grown into definite shape. But there was no
relenting on the part of the Church, notwithstanding Gillespie's
conciliatory attitude, and his almost touching willingness to
return to its communion. The Assembly took no steps to
undo what it had done. The day had gone by for mild
expostulations and deference to conscientious scruples; and
the new schism, strengthened by the adhesion of Thomas
Boston at Jedburgh, a son of Boston at Ettrick, grew
and multiplied as the earlier one had done. In the course
of a short time, dissent had increased with such rapidity
as to attract the notice of the General Assembly. An over-
ture brought, before it in the year 1765, states that 'there
are now one hundred'and twenty meeting-houses erected, to
which more than a hundred thousand persons resort, who were
formerly of our communion, but have separated themselves
from the Church of Scotland ; ' and that this progress of
dissent is most evident 'in the greatest and most populous

What has grown into the large mass of Presbyterian dissent,
was in short now fairly in progress ; and it is unnecessary, as it
would indeed be impossible, to say how far this unhappy result
is to be traced to inevitable causes, such as the love of religi-
ous independence and restlessness, so essentially characteristic of
the Scottish people ; and how far it is to be directly attributed
to the Moderate policy which henceforth for about eighty years
held the Church within its grip. The historian may indicate
lines of influence which have led to great results, but not even
the most acute and comprehensive capacity can disentangle all
the causes which have produced these results, and assign to
each their definite share.

After the triumph of Robertson's policy in the Church, its
annals become comparatively unexciting. The weight of
Moderate authority lay upon its councils, and the spirit of

282 Sf Giles' Lectures.

Moderation extended throughout its borders. And yet the old
spirit of Puritan earnestness was for a long time powerful
and active. This is strikingly shewn by the proceedings in
connection with the famous performance of the tragedy of
Douglas in 1756. This tragedy, now so much forgotten, made
a great excitement in Edinburgh in the winter of that year.
The fact that a minister of the Church should write a tragedy
at all — especially ' of the first-rate/ as Carlyle says — was a
startling novelty to many ; but the performance of the piece at
the theatre in Carrubber's Close, and the attendance of Home
himself and many of his clerical friends to see the performance,
was something still more startling. It was not many years
since the strength of Puritan feeling had compelled Allan
Ramsay to close this very theatre. A great change, there-
fore, is represented by the fact that this feeling should have
so completely vanished in the minds of ministers of the
Church ; nothing could more shew the advance of new modes
of thought. But, on the other hand, the fact that the Pres-
bytery of Edinburgh and other Presbyteries should not only
have prosecuted the offenders, but done this successfully, proves
that the old feeling survived in strength, and was backed by a
vigorous tide of public opinion. Carlyle's description of the
affair is enough to shew this. There appears to have been
no hesitation on the part of the Church courts in dealing with
theatre-going as an ecclesiastical offence. One of the ministers
of the Edinburgh Presbytery was compelled to acknowledge
his fault and submit to discipline ; Home was eventually driven
from his parish ; and Carlyle was charged with a libel which,
however, only ended in a rebuke. In the face of such facts as
these, it cannot be said that the Church had lost its Puritan
earnestness in the beginning of the second half of the eighteenth

And so throughout the century it is to be borne in mind
that much of this earnestness, or at least of the Evangelical
enthusiasm associated with it, survived. A great deal no doubt

The Chtirch of the Eighteenth Century. 283

passed away, or passed into the ranks of dissent, and helped
to swell its growing mass ; but Evangelicalism continued living
here and there in the Church also. The old and the new
were both active ; while there were those like Principal Hill,
who were strong supporters of a Moderate policy, and yet
Evangelical in the substance of their theology. Hill, it is well
known, became the chief exponent of this poUcy and leader of
the party after Robertson's retirement in 1780; but his Theo-
logical Lectures remain a monument of candid orthodoxy, which
has commended them to many who have no sympathy with
Moderatism. Even at the very end of the centuiy, the old Evan-
gelical life had not died out of the Church, darkened as is the
picture drawn by Rowland Hill in the Journal of his tour in
Scotland in 1798, of the state of religion from an Evangelical
point of view. The mere fact that the pulpits of the Establish-
ment were not shut against him or Simeon of Cambridge, any
more than they had been against Whitefield at an earlier date,
shewed that there were still those within its pale who sym-
pathised with their views. The Church itself certainly gave
these Evangelical teachers no countenance ; and an Act passed
by the General Assembly in the year of Rowland Hill's first
visit, effectually closed its pulpits for many a year to ministers

Online LibraryWilliam ChambersThe Scottish church from the earliest times to 1881 to which is prefixed an historical sketch of St. Giles' Cathedral → online text (page 28 of 37)