Presbyterian Church History
The Church of Scotland
American Presbyterianism has its roots in Scotch Presbyterianism. Presbyterianism never really flourished in England. The Church of England dominated the ecclesiastical landscape in that nation. The Puritan party in that church, with strong Presbyterian convictions, never had the opportunity to establish itself in England. They were suppressed by the Stuart Kings, James I and Charles I. During the interregnum because of their opposition to religious liberty and their determination to force an established Presbyterian Church on the nation they were suppressed by Cromwell and the Independents. After the restoration they were again suppressed by the Stuarts, and they dwindled into a small minority. Those who fled persecution to New England merged with the Pilgrim Separatists and became Congregationalists. It is thus the Scotch who fathered all the Presbyterian denominations across the globe. The roots of all Presbyterians lead back to the Church of Scotland.
The Church of Scotland
The origin of all Presbyterian and Reformed churches can be traced back to Calvin’s Geneva. It was there that John Knox, a former Catholic priest, and the founder of the Church of Scotland, was instructed in “the most perfect school of Christ since the Apostles” as he himself put it. Returning to Scotland in 1555, and continuing in the tradition of those who had gone before such as Patrick Hamilton and George Wishart (both martyred for their attempts at reformation), he launched the reformation of that land, delivering it from Popery and superstition and establishing scriptural Christianity. In 1560 after a brief civil war the Church of Scotland was officially established and the Scotch parliament adopted a Reformed confession of faith written by Knox and forbade the mass. The reformation was still incomplete at his death and was continued by his successor, Andrew Melville, who built a real Presbyterian Church on the foundations laid by Knox. Melville established the educational institutions required for a trained ministry and to lift the population out of ignorance and superstition. He authored the Second Book of Discipline (1577) that established Presbyterian church order in Scotland, eliminating the temporary expedients that Knox had been compelled to resort to because of the lack of qualified ministers. Later at the time of the “Second Reformation” as it was called the Church of Scotland came to maturity adopting the Westminster standards that her commissioners to that assembly had assisted in developing.
Unfortunately, like most churches, her history is somewhat defined by the history of those who separated from her ranks over the years for various causes. There have been about three significant schisms from her communion over the last few centuries. We will examine all three.
The Scotch Presbyterians developed a unique habit of making National Covenants with God. As a New Testament Israel they wanted to be in covenant with God as a nation. The first covenant was made with Knox and the Lords of the Congregation (Protestant nobles opposed to Roman Catholicism) to support the Reformation in Scotland. Over the years almost thirty covenants were transacted by Scotch Presbyterians. The First National Covenant was when the nation subscribed to the Second Scots Confession of 1580. The two most significant ones for church history were the Second National Covenant and the Solemn League and Covenant. The National Covenant of 1638 recommitted the nation to the Reformation and the Presbyterianism that it established and to oppose all innovations in religion since the First National Covenant of 1580. It was signed by over 300,000 Scots and passed by the General Assembly the same year. The Solemn League and Covenant was a Covenant that committed the three nations of England, Scotland, and Ireland (Then ruled by England) to establish Presbyterianism as the true religion. It was entered into to induce the Scots to assist England in their war against Charles I. The Westminster Assembly, already working to revise the 39 Articles of the Church of England was redirected to develop the doctrinal standards for the implementation of this covenant in the three nations.
The latter covenant was never implemented as the Long Parliament, dominated by Presbyterians, was dismissed by Oliver Cromwell, who was backed by the army controlled by the Independents. They wanted religious liberty and opposed an establishment of Presbyterianism and the suppression of all others as required by the Covenant. After the Restoration of the Stuarts in 1661 the Church of England was reestablished in England and Presbyterianism was persecuted in Scotland. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when the Stuarts were driven from the throne for the second time due to their civil and religious tyranny, Presbyterianism was only restored in Scotland and on a somewhat Erastian basis.
The Covenanters considered this settlement of religious affairs after the Revolution to be dissatisfactory and as a breach of both covenants. They separated from those who accepted these compromises and called themselves Reformed Presbyterians. They had suffered terribly during the persecutions leading up to the Revolution and had led in the resistance against the Stuarts. They were not prepared to accept these compromises now that victory had seemingly been won. This was the first significant secession from the Church of Scotland and their heirs continue in their tradition to this day. Even their descendents in North America continue to hold to abiding obligations of both these covenants to Presbyterians of Scotch descent and their adherents in North America.
In 1733 a number of ministers and churches seceded from the established Church of Scotland. The issues were manifold and we will review some of the leading causes that impelled the Seceders to this act.
One issue was the presence of rationalism and heresy in the church. One form of this was Neonomianism. This involved errors with respect to the relationship of faith and works in the life of the believer. Neonomianism is basically a reaction against Antinomianism, against those who deny that the believers are under the moral law and are called to produce good works. The Neonomians, such as Richard Baxter the famous English Presbyterian divine, taught that men were saved by works and that the exercise of faith was particularly that good work by which men were saved. However in thus seeking to guard against Antinomianism they had compromised the gospel of salvation by the free grace of God. The Biblical doctrine of faith and works had been ably defended against the Baxterians decades earlier in a book entitled “The Marrow of Modern Divinity”. It taught that salvation is by faith but, that good works, which are the fruit rather than the cause of our salvation, always accompany saving faith. The “Marrow men” as they were called were involved in the Secession while the General Assembly of the Church condemned the book.
Another issue was lay patronage, which allowed the local lord of the parish to appoint the minister in the parish church without respect to the wishes of the congregation. Issues such as lay patronage, royal prerogatives, and other governmental interference in the life of the church has always been the Achilles heel of the establishment principle. The whole idea is hopelessly impractical and naïve. The church expects that the state will sustain her, maintain her, and defend her to the exclusion of all others. The state is to endow her institutions, subsidize the salary of her ministers, suppress all dissidents from her, and yet grant her complete independence. The church decides her doctrines, educates her own ministers, calls her pastors, and governs herself through her church courts with the general assembly being the final arbiter of the church. The state has no control but only supplies the financial and political support to maintain the church as the exclusive ecclesiastical body of the realm. This has never worked out in practice. Every established church has sooner or later had to deal with the problems of Erastianism, the control of the church by the state. The old adage that “He who pays the piper calls the tune” inevitably applies. The position that he who is empowered to suppress heresy has no say in defining what heresy is has never worked out in practice. In 1761 another secession from the established church took place over the same issue of lay patronage. It was led by Thomas Gillespie and called the Relief body.
The Seceders lead by the brothers Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine formed the Associate Presbytery. We have noted the history of the followers in America in a previous lesson.
The Free Church of Scotland
The creation of the Free Church of Scotland in 1843 was similar to the conflicts between Christianity and liberalism that took place later on in the Netherlands and in the United States resulting in the creation of the Gereformeerde Kerken der Nederlanden (GKN) and the Presbyterian Church of America. The broader issue that impelled this separation was the obvious rationalism and modernism in the established church. The specific issue that precipitated the crisis was again the old issue of lay patronage. There had been a measure of revival in the Church of Scotland and there was strong evangelical faction strongly opposed to any subservience of the church to the state. In 1820 they pushed through the General Assembly an act refusing to recognize the authority of the Privy Council in demanding that the church say prayers for the King. In 1834 they passed the Veto Act which stated that no pastor shall be forced on any congregation contrary to its will. A test case soon arose and was carried all the way to the British House of Lords, which predictably ruled in favor of the right of lay patronage. Several other cases arose where the presbytery either refused to ordain the patron’s candidate or did so against the will of the congregation and in violation of the Veto Act. In 1842 the House of Lords passed an act requiring all presbyteries to ordain the candidate appointed by the patron and setting civil fines for disobedience. The church appealed to the House of Commons and when they lost that appeal the separation occurred. A full third of the ministers of the Church of Scotland walked out and formed the Free Church in 1843. It was a heroic action and they lost their endowments, church properties, foreign missions; everything. They sacrificially rebuilt and maintained their vision of a scriptural Presbyterian Church.
In 1893 the Free Church itself was split again and the seceders formed the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. The issue was doctrinal laxity and lack of effective church discipline. The Free Church and the Free Presbyterians disagree to this day over the split. The Free Presbyterians acknowledge that there were some problems in the church, but contend that the church was overwhelmingly sound, and that the split was caused by a few extremists. The Free Presbyterians take the “few problems” much more seriously and see their actions as a crusade to preserve true Presbyterianism.
In 1847 the Secession Church (Associate Presbytery) and the Relief body joined and formed the United Presbyterian Church. In 1900 the Free Church of Scotland and the United Presbyterian Church joined to form the United Free Church of Scotland. A minority, called the Wee Frees, refused to go along. They continue until the present under the Free Church name and their North American branch is called the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Canada. In 1874 Parliament abolished lay patronage removing the original cause of many of these separations. The United Free Church and the Church of Scotland grew closer together over the years and they finally reunited in 1929.