The Free Church of Scotland was founded by dissenting members of The Auld Kirk – the Presbyterian Church of Scotland – on the 18th of May, 1843, in an event known as ‘The Disruption’.
The formation of the Free Church of Scotland derived from a spat about procedural matters in the Presbyterian Kirk, which escalated into one of interpretation of who held ultimate jurisdiction. Presbyterianism, of course, describes a method of Church Government, derived from the word ‘presbyter’ and meaning government of the Church by Elders. These Elders are divided into two classes; those who rule over the spiritual affairs of the congregation, and those who teach and rule. The latter are the Ministers and the former are the Elders, and together they make up the Kirk Session.
The Disruption of 1843 was a schism between the Elders of the Church of Scotland. However, the quarrel that resulted in a group of 470 Ministers breaking away to form the Free Church began as a result of the Kirk’s relationship with the State. That understanding had been in dispute from the time of the Reformation, when the Presbyterian Church of Scotland was established. The association was essentially a contractual relationship between Kirk and State, which involved certain undertakings in return for subsidies from the State for the maintenance of the Kirk.
That contract had been expressed and embodied in a series of statutes, from 1567 onwards. A statute from 1587 declares, “There is no other face of Kirk, nor other face of Religion, than is presently by the favour of God established within this Realm.” The ‘Claim of Right’, in 1689, ostensibly brought an end to Royal and Parliamentary interference in the order and worship of the Church, and this was ratified by the Act of Union, in 1707.
The result of all those edicts, by the end of the ‘Glorious Revolution’, was that Presbyterian governance was, in theory, guaranteed by law. It wisnae much of a guarantee though. Controversy remained because of the interference of civil courts and the law in Church decisions – goodness me! Perhaps you can sense a parallel with what is happening today. The non-reformed Church believes it has a right to shield its child molesting Priests from civil prosecution. And that’s a monstrous offence and absurdity, however…
The main issue that led to a number of groups seceding from the Kirk, beginning as far back as 1733, with the Secession Church of Ebenezer Erskine and the Relief Church, associated with Thomas Gillespie, in 1761, was the matter of who had the right to appoint Ministers. On the one hand, there was the right of patronage, which is the right of a wealthy patron to install a Minister of (h)is/er own choice into a parish. On the other side, there were those who held that this infringed on the privileges of the Church Elders. This was a bone of contention ever since patronage had been restored in Scotland, in 1712, and it had been simmering to the boil for over a hundred years, and culminated in the Disruption.
The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland had been gently stirring the pot, seeking to redress the balance, for many years. However, there was a dominant, ‘Appeasing’ party within the Church, which sought to avoid any confrontation with the State and kept putting the lid back on the pan. A catalyst for the climactic events leading to the Disruption was the ‘Veto Act’, which was passed by the General Assembly, in 1834. This was forced through by the Evangelical party and gave parishioners the right to reject a patron-nominated Minister.
The trouble was that the Court of Session blew the whistle, ruling that the Assembly was offside and shouldn’t have passed the ‘Veto’. However, it went on to compound the delicate situation by also ruling that the established Church was a creation of the State, which directly contradicted the Church’s Confession of Faith and its notions of its own self-worth. The Evangelicals saw that court ruling as a direct repudiation of the Kirk’s spiritual independence – that it was not sovereign in its own domain – and, all of a sudden, the issue became broader than simply patronage.
In a vainglorious action, the Evangelicals presented a ‘Claim, Declaration and Protest anent the Encroachments of the Court of Session’ to Parliament. There’s none so devout as an Evangelist (or as strident as a convert) when it comes to religious fervour. Nevertheless, the Evangelicals were prepared to compromise and would have exchanged certain privileges granted by the State in exchange for a retraction of the ruling anent spiritual independence. Significantly, the ‘Claim’ was rejected, in January, 1843.
Less than four months later, on the 18th of May, 1843, over a third of the Ministers and perhaps half of the lay population, led by Dr. Thomas Chalmers and Robert Smith Candlish, left the Church of Scotland General Assembly at the Church of St. Andrew, in George Street, Edinburgh, to form the Free Church of Scotland, famously walking out and down the hill to the Tanfield Hall, at Canonmills, where the Disruption Assembly was then held.
The painter, David Octavius Hill, who also pioneered the art of photography in Scotland, was encouraged to produce the now famous painting, which depicts the Ministers of the Disruption “in the very act of their heroic sacrifice.” He had been urged on by Chalmers and others, including Lord Cockburn who said, “Since the days of Knox there has never been an event so well worthy of being transmitted to posterity by the artist’s hands.
Remnants of the Free Church, known as the ‘Wee Frees’ still exist in the Highlands and Islands, organised by those who opposed the major reunification, in 1929.