The Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland

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The Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland (Beginnings: the Revolution Settlement of 1690)*

(Rev Kenneth Stewart)


The primary purpose of this paper is to explain the reasons behind the formation of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

Partly because of her size, and her descent into obscurity and near oblivion, her reasons for separate existence are less well known and understood than those of other churches. For example, it has become fairly common, in recent years, to assert that the refusal of many covenanters to enter the renewed Church of Scotland in 1690 had to do with the covenants and with the covenants alone. This, as we shall see, was decidedly not the case. In fact, if anything, this focus on the covenants has led to a complete failure to see the more glaring defects of the Revolution Settlement – defects which should have led all faithful Presbyterians in Scotland to reject it outright.

When the facts are examined fully, it should become plain that it is far easier, on Biblical and Confessional grounds, to justify those covenanters who dissented from the Revolution Settlement of 1690 than it is to justify any other group of dissenters in the history of Scottish Presbyterianism – with the possible exception of the founding fathers of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

Certainly, the issues at stake in the Disruption of 1843 – which led to the formation of the Free Church – were relatively minor in comparison with those involved in 1690. And it is utterly impossible, with consistency, to defend the Disruption of 1843 while simultaneously condemning as schismatic those who refused the terms of the Revolution Settlement of 1690. This will become plain as we proceed.

Origins (Summary)

Perhaps we should begin with a point which is all too easily overlooked: the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland is the only Presbyterian Church in Scotland which didn’t begin her existence by separating from the Church of Scotland – or indeed by separating from any another church claiming to be the Church of Scotland!

Her origins, as a distinct grouping, go way back to 1690 and to the decision of the King to re-establish the national Church of Scotland as a Presbyterian church again. The Church of Scotland had already been established (that is, recognised as the official church of the land) in 1560 by an Act of the Scottish Parliament. At that time, significantly, it was established as a Presbyterian church – that is, a church governed by Ministers and Elders.

However, the Stewart Kings were not favourable to this kind of church government: they believed that the King should be sovereign over the church and, accordingly, their preference was for another form of church government which would make it easier to exert their Kingly influence. Accordingly, the King used (abused) his power and, after some years, the established church became Episcopalian in character – that is, she was governed by bishops.

While many Presbyterian ministers simply conformed to this arrangement, others – around 400 in number – refused to conform, resigned their charges and began to hold worship services in open air gatherings. In these gatherings, known as ‘Conventicles’, they would preach to those who chose to continue under their ministry rather than hear their new Episcopalian pastors.

However, after years of suffering and persecution during which those who preached at these gatherings and those who worshipped with them were put to death, the last Stewart King was deposed by a nation which had endured enough. In this so called ‘Glorious Revolution’, the new King (King William) recognised that, in order to attain peace in Scotland, the church would need to be re-established along Presbyterian lines again. However, he was determined that it would only be done on his terms. The result was that a ‘Settlement’ was presented to the church for her acceptance: if the Presbyterian Ministers and Elders accepted this ‘Settlement’, she would once again become the established church – with all the power and prestige which that involved. If she did not, then her trial would continue, although not as severely as before.

This way of arranging establishment should not have been acceptable to the Presbyterian Ministers – especially, as we shall see, on the particular terms offered in the arrangement – but, sadly, the Ministers of the day, just over 60 in number, found the terms acceptable and were willing to accept establishment on the King’s terms. Accordingly, in 1690, the State recognised them, and the people who followed them, as being the established Church of Scotland and authorised them to meet later that year in what was (supposedly at any rate) the first Church of Scotland General Assembly to meet freely for many years.

However, a significant number of Scottish Presbyterians – numbering around 7,000 men and their families – refused to accept the terms of the re-establishment imposed by the State and decided to continue meeting in their conventicles.

Note, however, that these people did not leave the Church of Scotland. They didn’t walk out of an Assembly or secede. They were simply a significant number within the Presbyterian Church of Scotland at the time which didn’t want to enter into a certain kind of relationship with the State on terms dictated by the State. Understandably, they were aggrieved that the Ministers of the Church were willing to enter into this relationship – because they believed that, in doing so, they were compromising their Biblical and Presbyterian beliefs and that they were in clear breach of their solemn vows.

It is easy to see how, under those circumstances, the 7000 men and their families would feel they had the right to continue as the Church of Scotland themselves. However, they were reluctant to do so for two reasons.

First, they had no ordained ministers at their head. The three Ministers who were most identified with their outlook and principles had agreed, rather reluctantly, to enter the new relationship with the State – which was something of a shock to their people in the United Societies and, it was said, a matter of later regret to one of the Ministers too.

Second, although these men and women in the Societies were used to years of persecution during which they were unable to worship in their former churches (mostly now filled with Episcopalian curates), they longed earnestly for a single re-established Presbyterian Church faithful to the oaths it had made previously to God. Accordingly, they made the most earnest pleas to their former brethren to reconsider their position and make the necessary modifications to the terms of the new Presbyterian re-settlement which would allow everyone to continue together.

The strength of their desire to remain united with the rest of the Presbyterians, and their utter lack of schismatic spirit, can be clearly seen from the passionate manner in which they addressed them in a letter sent to the first General Assembly of the new Revolution Church of Scotland in 1690:

We must cry for the removing of these stumbling blocks and for condemning these courses that have done our Lord Jesus Christ so much hurt, in their standing in the way of their comfortable communion with the church. Let the famishing case of our souls and our hungering to hear it preached by you prevail with you to consider our complaints, and let the wounds of our bleeding mother, panting to be healed by the hand of the tender physician, have weight with you not to slight or despise our desires. But, if you shall shut your eyes and ears at them, then we know no other remedy left us, but to complain and protest unto judicatories, and cry and sigh and groan to the father of mercies, who is tender to all his little ones and is the hearer of prayer, that he may see to it and heal our breaches in his own time and way’.

Consequently, they were waiting and hoping that their former brethren in the cause would come to see the error of their ways and renounce their new found connection with the state – and remain in the societies with them until the conditions of that state connection would be more honourable to Christ and to their obligations to God under their vows (see further below).

Eventually, separated by a period of a few years, two of the Ministers who had accepted the Revolution Settlement came to the conviction that the majority had been wrong to enter the relationship with the state on the terms in which they did in 1690. These two men tried, without success, to get their fellow Ministers to change their position and, when this course of action failed, they then applied to the Presbyterians still meeting in Conventicles – or ‘United Societies’ as they were then called– with a view to being received as their Ministers. Their application was on the basis that the people of these United Societies were just as much the children of the Reformation as their former colleagues were. Indeed, because they adhered absolutely to the position of the Scottish Reformation without compromising – as the majority had failed to do when they agreed to the terms of re-establishment as imposed by the State – the two Ministers felt that these Societies were very much the more faithful part of the Church of Scotland.

After application, the two Ministers were received by the Societies and so in 1743, 53 years after the re-establishment of the Presbyterian Church in 1690, a Presbytery was formed and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland was set up.

The Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland, then, became the first organised Presbyterian Church in Scotland to exist alongside the Church of Scotland –but, because of the circumstances of its birth, it was not, and still is not, a Secession Church and, in this respect, it is quite unique as a Presbyterian church in Scotland.

Also, and again because of the circumstances of its origin, in which it never broke off from an organised constituted church, its claim to be the true heir of the Reformed Church of Scotland has always been considered to be very strong.

Of course, many have tended to dismiss this claim merely on the ground of the size of the church. However, aside from the fact that the size of a church is really irrelevant to its spiritual identity, it is worth noting that the established church itself was not particularly large then either. Indeed, the entire population of Scotland barely exceeded one million and, of these, a good number were either Roman Catholic or Episcopalian and so the proportion of Presbyterians represented by the Societies was far from small.

Most Presbyterians have dismissed the claim, however, on the ground that those brethren who chose to remain outside the newly re-established Church of Scotland were wrong to do so. And they have held this position even while acknowledging that the Revolution Settlement was a defective settlement and one which was responsible for the Secessions of 1733 and 1761 as well as the Disruption of 1843. (Incidentally, for a supposedly acceptable Revolution Settlement, this is a fairly lamentable legacy!)

In opposition to this, the Reformed Presbyterian Church has constantly asserted that the Revolution Settlement of 1690, by which the Presbyterian Church was re-established on the State’s terms, was not only a defective settlement producing centuries of strife but a fundamentally flawed settlementto the extent that it was sinful for the Presbyterian Ministers involved to accept its terms.

Their reasons for coming to this conclusion need to be heard again – especially in the light of the current ecclesiastical confusions as well as the constitutional conversation around the issue of Scottish independence.

To understand these reasons, a little more background needs to be sketched in first.

Historical Context

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