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The Haldane brothers and the quest for evangelical unity (1)

July 2018 | by Ken Brownell

Airthrey Castle
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The remarkable Scottish brothers Robert and James Haldane lived at a time of significant spiritual awakening in Protestant churches in Britain.

Born in the 1760s and converted in the 1790s, they ministered at a time when Protestant evangelicalism was expanding rapidly in the wake of the Great Awakening of the mid-eighteenth century. Both were actively involved in many of the evangelical enterprises that emerged in this period and characterised it.

By any standard, the brothers are remarkable for what they were able to achieve in the course of their full and active lives. They were born (Robert in 1764, James in 1768) into a wealthy family with aristocratic connections. The family estate, Airthrey, was what is today the location of Gleneagles Hotel in Perthshire.


After being privately educated, both entered naval service, Robert with the Royal Navy and James with the East India Company, in which he became a captain. After leaving the navy in 1783, Robert studied at Edinburgh University and then spent the next ten years attending to the family estate as a country gentleman.

After a short flirtation with scepticism and radical politics (inspired by the French Revolution), Robert was converted, as was James shortly afterwards. David Bogue, the well-known Independent minister in Gosport in Hampshire, was instrumental in James’s conversion and had a profound influence on both brothers. The robust, experimental Calvinistic evangelicalism that characterised Bogue came also to characterise the Haldanes.

After their conversions, the brothers sought to go to Bengal as missionaries, along with several other like-minded men. Robert was particularly inspired by the example of William Carey and was willing to sell his estate and devote his life and fortune to this enterprise. Unfortunately, the East India Company was unwilling to grant them permission to enter India, in spite of the pulling of many strings in high places.

The Haldanes saw this disappointment as a providential indication that they were to focus their evangelistic concern on Scotland. From 1796-1800 the brothers undertook six evangelistic tours of the Highlands, Orkney, west coast and Borders. On several of these trips they were accompanied by such prominent English evangelicals as Charles Simeon and Rowland Hill.

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They preached in the open air and in whatever churches would welcome them. Wherever they went they had a significant impact, with many people being converted and Sunday schools being established.

They also met considerable opposition from moderate ministers in the Church of Scotland. They did not help themselves in this by occasionally criticising the non-evangelical preaching they often heard, and, not surprisingly, were the object of a pastoral admonition passed by that Church’s general assembly, in 1799.

In order to facilitate home evangelism, the Haldane brothers established the Society for Propagating the Gospel at Home (SPGH) in 1797. Soon afterwards, they were establishing new churches where there were significant numbers of converts and they began to train evangelists.

The principal church was at the Circus in Edinburgh, where James became pastor. Founded in 1798, this church moved in 1801 to a purpose-built tabernacle on Leith Walk that seated 3,000 people.

Until the founding of the Circus church, the Haldanes remained loyal, if somewhat critical, members of the Church of Scotland. Even afterwards they did not see themselves as opposed to the Established Church, but only as supplementing its ministry and trying to reach people without Christ. Nevertheless, the founding of the SPGH and what became known as ‘tabernacle’ churches was effectively the beginning of the Congregational denomination in Scotland.

The Haldanes themselves also began to develop a number of distinctive views of their own, culminating in their conversion to what was then called the anti-paedobaptist position. This split their movement and was a boost to the emerging Baptist denomination in Scotland.


Beyond Scotland, Robert Haldane was particularly active. He sat on the committees of some key evangelical societies and, like his brother, was a prolific author and did not shy from controversy. He had a sharp theological mind that was put to good use when he visited Geneva in 1816-17, during an extended tour of the Continent.

There he lectured privately on Romans to a number of theological students, who were wonderfully converted, to the chagrin of their rationalistic professors. Among these students were men who would subsequently become leaders in a revival of the Reformed churches in Switzerland and France — men such as Merle D’ Aubigne, Frederic Monod, Cesar Malan, Henri Pictet, and others.

James Alexander Haldane
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Robert was particularly involved in the Apocrypha controversy that wracked the Bible Society in the 1820s. James also was involved in controversy, especially about his views on church government and, towards the end of his life, on the atonement. Robert died in 1842 and James in 1851.

By the end of the 18th century the ideal of evangelical unity was widespread. In the wake of the Great Awakening, earlier in the century, there was a desire for evangelicals to unite together to advance the gospel.

In many ways George Whitefield had epitomised this ideal. He said: ‘I truly love all that love the glorious Emmanuel and, though I cannot depart from the principles which I believe are clearly revealed in the book of God, yet I can cheerfully associate with those that differ from me, if I have reason to think they are united to our common Head’.


In large measure, Robert and James Haldane were committed to this ideal. They had a wide network of evangelical friends and acquaintances with whom they cordially worked. They went on preaching tours with Charles Simeon and Rowland Hill, corresponding with William Wilberforce and other members of the Clapham Sect, and fraternising with evangelicals in the Church of Scotland and in the Secession and Relief Churches.

Andrew Fuller and other English Baptists were welcome guests at Airthrey, when on deputation in Scotland for the Baptist Missionary Society. In 1805, James stated that his aim in writing a book was ‘to promote love and union amongst Christians and consequently the success of the gospel in the world’. He went on to say that, ‘We ought to love the image of Christ wherever we see it; and if we confine our love to our own party, we deceive ourselves. If we love the Lord Jesus we must love those who are guided by his Spirit’.

The Haldanes fostered evangelical unity in foreign missions too. For example, they were associated with the London Missionary Society (LMS), founded in 1795. Robert served as one of its directors from 1796 to 1804.

When James Haldane founded the SPGH with John Aikman and Joseph Rate, he was clear as to its nondenominational character, and when it came to establishing churches in Britain, SPGH evangelists did so on a non-sectarian basis.

There were in England at the time a number of what R. H. Martin calls ‘borderland churches’, inhabiting the ‘border’ between the Church of England and Dissent. Examples are Rowland Hill’s Surrey Chapel, Union Chapel in Islington, the two Whitefield tabernacles at Spa Fields and Tottenham Court Road, and those churches in the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion (a number of these eventually became Congregational). In Edinburgh, Lady Glenorchy’s Chapel had a similar broad Calvinistic evangelical ethos, even though it was attached to the Church of Scotland.

Such churches were intended to be preaching centres, from which evangelism would be done in a town or district. There was no thought, initially at least, of competing with the established churches.

Nevertheless, the Haldane movement was not looked upon favourably by the ‘moderates’ in the Church of Scotland. The rise of itinerancy and lay-preaching threatened the tradition of an educated ministry, as well as impugning the spiritual condition of the national church. Their fears seemed confirmed when the Haldanes established a seminary for training itinerant evangelists and when James was ordained as minister of the Circus church in Edinburgh.

Bible Society

The Haldanes were concerned about the publication and distribution of Christian literature. Their itinerant tours of Scotland had revealed the desperate need for the distribution of cheap Christian literature, and not least of Bibles.

Initially they published their own literature, but with the establishment of the Religious Tract Society in 1799 and the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1804, they could join forces with other evangelicals in making Christian literature widely available.

In many ways the Bible Society was the pan-evangelical society par excellence. The simplicity of its aim of circulating the Bible to as many as possible commended itself to a wide range of people.

Whereas denominational concerns prevented some Anglican evangelicals and Baptists from involvement in the LMS, the Bible Society was supported by people from all denominations. Robert Haldane sat on the committee of the Bible Society until the split over the Apocrypha, and thereafter on the committee of the Edinburgh Bible Society.

Yet, noble as the ideal of evangelical union was, and hard as the Haldanes worked to see it realised, in the end they failed. (This failure will be examined in August ET).

To be continued

Dr Kenneth Brownell is minister of ELT Baptist Church, Mile End. This article is edited and used with permission from Foundations, the journal of Affinity (

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