This article is based on a talk I gave some years ago which I hope will clarify some of the misunderstandings about these churches.
If the Scottish parliament had accepted the 1st and 2nd Books of Discipline at the time of the Reformation in 1560, the troubles which beset the Presbyterian church in Scotland in the ensuing centuries would never have happened. These were almost all caused by patronage – the right of a patron to appoint the minister in each parish.
The Books of Discipline had lain down that the minister was to be chosen by the parishioners and that no minister was to be intruded against their will. Unfortunately, the Parliament of the day was made up of men with vested interests – the landowners in those parishes and so while, initially, the Crown had assumed the right of patronage, landowners soon acquired that right.
For a while, after the execution of Charles 1 in 1649 and throughout Cromwell’s Commonwealth, congregations were allowed to choose their ministers, but, after Charles 11 was restored, an act of 1662 re-instated patronage. It also required all ministers who had been appointed since 1649 to acquire a patron. A quarter of the clergy refused to do so and so were deprived of their livings and it was these men who formed the backbone of the Covenanters, out of which movement, the Reformed Presbyterian Church emerged.
The Established Church
Throughout the 17th century the Presbyterian and Episcopal movements had vied with one another to become the established church of Scotland. Then, at the Revolution Settlement in 1690, the Church of Scotland became that church. Patrons were done away with and replaced by a combination of landowners and elders. But then in 1712, parliament passed the Patronage Act restoring the right of landowners solely to appoint ministers. It was this act which led to the first break from the established church.
The First Secession
In 1731, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland ruled that if any patron who neglected or declined to exercise his right of presentation of a minister, the selection would then be restricted to the landowners and elders of the parish to the exclusion of the wishes of the parishioners. This harked back to the Revolution Settlement and led to impassioned protests by many congregations and their ministers. The most outspoken was Ebenezer Erskine, a minister of the newly created third charge in Stirling. In his sermon before the Synod of Perth and Stirling in 1732, he said;
I can find no warrant from the word of God to confer the spiritual privileges of His house upon the rich beyond the poor; whereas by this Act the man with the gold ring and gay clothing is preferred unto the man with the vile raiment and poor attire
He was rebuked by the Synod and thereafter, he and three other ministers were removed from their charges and their churches declared vacant. This led to the formation of the first secession church, the Associate Synod church and by 1742, there were 20 seceding congregations which by 1745 had risen to 45.
Burghers and Antiburghers
The ministers of these secession movements were uncompromising men and so tended to be difficult to work with and it is no surprise that it did not take long for dissension to arise amongst them. A split occurred in 1745. The bone of contention was a religious clause in the oaths that burgesses had to take in the royal burghs of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Perth. In 1744, the more extreme seceders had argued that they could not in all conscience take the oath because this would mean that they approved of the Church of Scotland. The outcome was the establishment of two churches – the General Associate Synod (Antiburghers) and the Associate Synod (Burghers)
The Relief Church
The next secession took place in 1761 which resulted in the Relief Church. The cause was once again patronage. There were three pioneers, Thomas Gillespie, minister at Carnock, Thomas Boston, minister of Jedburgh and Thomas Collier, a native of Fife who had been a dissenting minister in the north of England. At the church’s institution, they recorded that its formation was for the Relief of Christians oppressed in their Christian privileges. They believed strongly in religious freedom and non-sectarianism.
Two minor splits
In 1799, conflict arose among members of the Associate Synod. This involved the role of secular authorities over matters of religion. This led to the formation of the Original Associate Synod who held that it was duty of secular authorities to uphold the true religion and so ironically became known as the Old Lichts. Those who remained in the Burgher church felt that secular authorities had no power of religion and so became known as the New Lichts.
In 1806, conflict over the same issue broke out in the General Associate Synod (Antiburgher). It too split into two, each group confusingly being known as the Old and New Lichts. The Old Lichts who were the majority formed the Constitutional Associate Presbytery while the New Lichts continued as the General Associate congregation.
The United Associate Secession Church
In 1820, union took place between 129 congregations of the Antiburgher Synod and 154 of the Burgher congregations. A small number refused to join and formed a Society of Protestors who then united with the Constitutional Associate Synod which had been formed in the 1806. They later joined the Free Church.
The Free Kirk
In 1843, the final and largest secession known as the Disruption took place. This was caused by the state’s encroachment upon the spiritual independence of the church, but underneath this lay the old and thorny question of patronage. In 1834, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland passed the Veto Act which allowed the majority of male heads of families to reject the presentation of the minister by a patron and that Presbyteries were to accept these objections. There followed questioning of the legality of this act and in 1838, the Court of Session upheld the right of patrons which was confirmed in the House of Lords in 1839. The General Assembly continued to press for the act to be recognised. In 1842, they sent a petition to Queen Victoria praying for the abolition of patronage, but this too failed. Then at the meeting of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1843, one third of the ministers walked out. They were led by Thomas Chalmers, Professor of Divinity at Edinburgh University who was a distinguished social reformer. The outcome was the establishment of the Free Kirk. By 1847, there were 700 congregations.
The United Presbyterian Church
In 1847, the United Associate Secession and the Relief church joined up to form the United Presbyterian Church
Abolition of Patronage
Finally, in 1874, patronage which had caused so much trouble was abolished by act of parliament and at last congregations were granted the right to elect their ministers. So, apart from a short period in the early 17th century, this had taken over 300 years!
In 1876, the Reformed Presbyterian Church which had stayed aloof since 1690 joined up with the Free Kirk.
In 1900, the Free Kirk joined with the United Presbyterian Church to form the United Free Church, apart from 25 ministers and 63 congregations, mostly in the Highlands and Islands who stayed out of the union. Their members became known as the ‘Wee Frees’
In 1929, the last union took place when the United Free Church (apart from a small minority) united with the Church of Scotland.