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The Haldane brothers and the quest for evangelical unity (3)

September 2018 | by Ken Brownell

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Both James and Robert Haldane said that they didn’t intend to divide their own church or movement by their distinctive ecclesiological views (see ET, August 2018). Perhaps because he was a pastor, James was seemingly the more flexible of the two in the application of his convictions.

But division is what happened. Both brothers had moved from a paedobaptist to a Baptist position. Somewhat naively, both believed they should be able to state their views plainly and then work through their application in the life of the church.

Ecclesiastical tensions

Writing to John Campbell, James said: ‘If we are all acting on conviction, and both desiring to know the will of Jesus in this and in all other respects, I have no apprehension of disunion’. But this ideal did not work out in the life of the Tabernacle or in the wider Haldane movement.

Perhaps the reason for this was, in part, the inability of both brothers to see that in churches there will always be loose ends. In his book A view on social worship, in which he propounded some of his convictions on the nature of the church, James made these revealing comments: ‘The religion of Jesus in its doctrines, precepts and institutions, is one connected whole; in proportion as one part is overlooked, the force of all is weakened … The genuine and sincere union is absolutely impracticable while professors neglect to inquire, to understand and to practise the directions of God’s Word respecting social worship.’

For the Haldanes the issues were black and white and had to be accepted in total or not at all. Such an approach to changing the church is not calculated to maintain harmony and keep people on board.

That said, it is interesting to note that there were limits to the Haldanes’ innovations. For example, they opposed the novel ideas about the restoration of the miraculous charismata propounded by Edward Irving, as well as the premillennialism that was gaining acceptance in some circles.

Theological tensions

However much the Tabernacle was divided on church practices, it was united in its essential evangelical doctrine. This was not the case in the wider evangelical movement in Great Britain. And, within the Haldane movement itself, two other doctrinal issues strained the unity of the whole movement.

In the 1820s, Robert Haldane was at the centre of a massive controversy within the British and Foreign Bible Society concerning the Apocrypha. This involved objections by Robert and other Scottish members of the society to the inclusion of the Apocrypha in continental editions of the society’s Bibles. Robert had discovered this, when in France, in copies of the French Bible, of which he had actually underwritten the costs of publication. The argument of the London committee was that the society’s Bibles would only be acceptable in predominantly Roman Catholic countries if they included the Apocrypha.

Robert and others thought that this was an unwarranted compromise that God could not bless. Moreover, it contravened the fundamental principle of the society that said it existed for the circulation of the Scriptures alone. Since the Bible Society was the evangelical society par excellence, Robert’s protests were seen by some as unnecessarily dividing evangelicals, but by others as defending a fundamental pillar of evangelicalism.

Robert himself saw his stand as a necessary one against a false liberality that tolerated departures from the truth in the name of love. As he put it: ‘Bigotry has had a long and gloomy reign, and over the greatest part of the world is still enthroned, but among Protestants it has in most cases lost its sway, and is daily declining in influence.

‘Its rival has mounted the throne and in the opposite direction threatens to do equal mischief. A spurious liberality has succeeded to intolerance, and aims at promoting to propagation of divine truth by compromising its distinguishing attributes’.

It seems to me that Robert Haldane was justified in his behaviour and, as John Macleod pointed out, it is largely because of him that the Apocrypha is not in our English Bibles.

The other theological issue that attracted the attention of the Haldanes was the doctrine of the atonement. Towards the end of his life James Haldane was involved in a controversy over the doctrine of limited or definite atonement.

Like his brother, James was a thorough going Calvinist all his life. By the 1830s, there was a considerable shift taking place in British evangelicalism, away from the Calvinism that had characterised non-Wesleyan evangelicalism to a highly modified Calvinism.

Among other things, the traditional understanding of limited atonement was being challenged, not least within the Congregational churches that had emerged from the Haldane movement. In a series of pamphlets and books James locked horns with a number of antagonists, including the eminent Glasgow Congregationalist Ralph Wardlaw.

While he rejoiced that true Christians united in evangelistic efforts and missions, James regretted that sometimes the ‘promoting of union among believers’ was ‘at the expense of zeal for the truth’. While no doubt many saw James as a troubler in Israel, he saw himself as a defender of the historic doctrine of the atonement against theological innovators.

Personal tensions

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the positions the Haldanes took, it must be said that there were personal tensions between them and those around them that did nothing to help the maintenance of unity.

James was warmly liked by many, but Robert seems not to have been the easiest person to work with. Certainly, some of his associates were pretty bitter after falling out with him. After the split in the Tabernacle over baptism, Robert closed the Glasgow seminary and withdrew his financial support from many of the churches he had built.

Greville Ewing — the seminary tutor, an early associate and later a leading Congregational minister in Glasgow — fell out with the brothers and was never again on good terms with them.

Even more to the point, his daughter, Janet Matheson, mentioned the way her father had been treated, in her biography of him, which drew a response from James. William Orme, later an eminent Congregational minister in London, likewise complained about the high-handed way the Haldanes had treated him.

The problem seems, in part, due to Robert’s authoritarian personality, and in part, due to the way he financed and controlled what happened in many of the tabernacles. This abrasive tendency can also be seen in the way in which, in controversy Robert would get personal in his criticisms.

For example, in the Apocrypha controversy, he attacked the integrity of Daniel Wilson, a leading evangelical Anglican who later became the first Bishop of Calcutta. Needless to say, this approach to personal relationships did not help to build evangelical unity.

Imperfect instruments

There is always something inspiring about the story of a movement of God, however imperfect the instruments he uses. It is a reminder that God can move today in different circumstances and yet accomplish the same purpose of extending his kingdom.

The story of the Haldanes is one such story that is largely forgotten today, but is worthy of being retold. It has some important lessons to teach us — particularly that evangelical union is a noble ideal which every Christian should strive to see realised.

When God is at work advancing his kingdom, many of our differences seem relatively minor. Within churches and between churches Christians should accept one another as Christ has accepted them and so bring praise to God. While on many issues we must have our convictions, on the big issues of the gospel — ‘righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ — we can be one as we strive together for the faith of the gospel.

But the story of the Haldanes also teaches us that there are many pitfalls to avoid. We must guard against an obsession with the relatively minor issues of church order. We must not expect complete agreement on everything in the life of the church. We must maintain good relationships with brothers and sisters who disagree with us. We must beware of a love of controversy for its own sake.

We must remember that Christians are at different levels of understanding and maturity. We must discern on what issues it is worth taking a stand and then contend for the faith in love and with a generosity of spirit. Like Robert and James Haldane, we are very fallible human beings, but, also like them, we can be used by God to advance the kingdom of his Son.

Kenneth Brownell is minister of ELT Baptist Church, Mile End. This article — with permission — is edited from a longer version, published in Foundations, the journal of Affinity: ( uk/downloads/foundations/Foundations%20 Archive/46_03.pdf).

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