In the early years of the nineteenth century there was an ‘evangelical renaissance’ within the Church of Scotland.
Although the Secession Churches had, since the previous century, maintained evangelical principles and produced many fine preachers, there had also been a gradual shift from historic Calvinism among some within their borders.
The Church of Scotland was starting to recover from the clammy hand of ‘Moderatism’, a lifeless, un-evangelical outlook, akin to what we would call nominalism today in religion. It didn’t mean that strict orthodoxy was impeached, necessarily. But it did mean there was a largely gospel-less message.
A change came about, particularly through two men of outstanding abilities, raised up by the Lord to bring new spiritual life into the kirk. One of these was Andrew Thomson (1779-1831) and the other, spared for many years and of even greater influence, Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847).
Though these men, in many ways, were instrumental under God of real revival in the kirk, the context involved on the one hand a transformation in the church by the encouragement of expansion, and the other an agitation which resisted state interference in the strictly church affairs.
On the face of it this was what the ‘Disruption’ in the Church of Scotland was about in 1843. There was a particularly intense conflict in the church (and with the state too), during the previous 10 years, over the application of the Patronage Act of 1712, by which patrons in parishes had a significant, even crucial, say in the appointment of ministers.
The compliance of courts within the church and the intransigence of the state in such things came to a head in 1843, when 474 ministers (a full third of Established Church ministers) ‘walked’ out of the Church of Scotland and formed the ‘Church of Scotland, Free’, with hundreds of thousands of people.
The emergent new church was a distinctly evangelical one. In a real sense, it was born of genuine revival and it maintained that character for the first 20 years of its separate existence. The issue had not been on the principle of an Established Church, or, the duty of the state to uphold the true Christian religion (‘national Christianity’), but the principle of spiritual independence of the church itself from the interference of the state/civil courts.
It was only in the 1880s that the 1712 Act was finally removed from the statute books.
Many influential preachers and theologians graced the Church of Scotland and Free Church, before and after the Disruption of 1843. It was an era of great preachers and unusual enlargement of the church in Scotland.
For those who love the undiluted gospel some of these personalities may be familiar through re-publication of their writings or sermons. It is hard not to see the first half of the nineteenth century as a high-water mark in Christian and spiritual things north of the border, though impacting far and wide through missionary expansion.
Consider for example, Andrew Thomson. He was from Dumfriesshire. Ordained in 1802, he held pastorates in Kelso, Perth and Edinburgh before being called to the newly opened St George’s Church, in the fashionable west end of the new town in Edinburgh.
It was an impressive edifice and a large and influential congregation. The building is still to be seen in Charlotte Square, though sadly it is not now used as a church. That was in 1814 and from there the gospel thundered forth. A great blow was struck for Christ and truth and evangelicalism through Thomson’s initiating the Edinburgh Christian Instructor in 1810, after his first move to Scotland’s capital that year.
Thomson was a powerful and persuasive preacher, speaker and writer. Chalmers called him a man of ‘colossal mind’, wielding the weapons of spiritual warfare vigorously, with ‘an arm of might carrying as if by storm the convictions of his people’.
He was a strong voice against slavery. He championed a Bible free from the Apocrypha, which had been included in editions of the Bible produced by the British and Foreign Bible Society, and in theology he opposed the errors of the likes of John Macleod Campbell, who maintained a universal redemption.
He also started a week-day school for children from the poorer classes. And he was a fine musician, responsible among other tunes, for the admittedly somewhat grandiose psalm tune, ‘St George’s, Edinburgh’.
Andrew Thomson’s sudden death in his early 50s was greatly lamented by evangelicals, who, however, have given thanks to the Lord for every remembrance of him. He did not live to see the Disruption (1843), yet he must be considered a precursor of the movements which led to it, 12 years after his passing.
John W. Keddie is a retired minister of the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing). He is principal, and lecturer in church history and church principles, in the Free Church Seminary.