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Friday, 21 January, 2000, 12:40 GMT
A church born out of division

Church window Exodus of ministers from Church of Scotland in 1843

Johnston McKay, BBC Scotland's Editor of Religious Broadcasting, charts the history of the Free Church of Scotland.

In 1843 the biggest split in the Church of Scotland took place, when 451 ministers walked out of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland to form, with a large number of elders, the Free Church of Scotland.

The division arose when the House of Lords ruled that a decision of the Church of Scotland's General Assembly was illegal.

In those days, ministers were put into churches by "the patron", usually the local laird, and up until 1832 the patron's right went unchallenged.

Johnston McKay Johnston McKay: Theology at root of division
But in 1832, the General Assembly decided that if a majority of "the male heads of families" objected to the patron's choice then they had the right of veto.

After 10 years of legal controversy, the House of Lords decided that the Assembly's decision was illegal.

Those who accepted the House of Lords' decision stayed in the Church of Scotland and those who did not accept the decision left to form the Free Church.

In 1847, two other churches, the Secession Church and the Relief Church (which had broken away from the Church of Scotland in the 18th century), joined to form the United Presbyterian Church.

So, for the second half of the nineteenth century, Scotland had three large presbyterian denominations: the Church of Scotland, the Free Church of Scoltland and the United Presbyterian Church.

Three spires

This accounts for the sight of at least three church spires in most of the towns of Scotland.

In 1900, the Free Church of Scotland and the United Presbyterian Church came together to form The United Free Church of Scotland.

Church door The "wee Frees" fought their case
But 25 ministers and their congregations (mainly from the west highlands and the islands but with support in Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh) refused to go into the United Free Church. They were called "the Free Church (continuing) or, more popularly, "the wee Frees".

The Free Church claimed then (just as those who have recently left the Free Church have claimed) that they were the true Free Church and that the property and funds of the Free Church should belong to them and not go into the United Free Church.

The Free Church claimed that the United Free Church had:

  • Given up the important principle of the State Establishment of religion. Even though in 1843 the original Free Church had been created because of the House of Lords decision, the founders of the Free Church always said that they were leaving a vitiated establishment of religion but they believed there should be a pure one (for example, one where the connection with the state was maintained but the state did not interfere in the spiritual jurisdiction of the church).

  • That the United Presbyterian Church was too liberal in theology and that by uniting with the United Presbyterian Church, those from the Free Church who entered the united church were betraying their principles.

When the Free Church continuing, "the wee Frees" went to court and argued their case, they won.

When the case reached the House of Lords, by five to two the Lords decided in favour of the tiny Free Church.

Equitable basis

Subsequent negotiations between the two churches divided the property on a more equitable basis.

In 1929, the United Free Church and the Church of Scotland came together in the Church of Scotland as it exists today, although inevitably a group refused to go into that union and is called, today, "the United Free Church of Scotland".

So the Free Church which split on 20 January is the church which refused to go into the United Free Church in 1900 and which was held legally to be the successor of the Free Church which left the Church of Scotland in 1843.

Professor Donald Macleod Professor Donald Macleod leaves court
The split this year is, on the surface, about Professor Donald Macleod but in reality it is about theology.

Professor Macleod and those who support him are known to be "liberal" (relatively speaking) and the Free Church Defence Association is composed of people who adhere much more firmly to the Westminster Confession of Faith.

This is a 17th century document on which ministers and elders of the Church of Scotland today are allowed "liberty of opinion on such points of doctrine as do not enter into the substance of the faith".

To the Free Church Defence Association this amounts to people being able to make up their own minds about what they want to believe and they would fear that the more "modernising" wing of the Free Church, led by Professor Macleod, might take the Free Church in that direction.

Geographical split

There is a geographical split within the Free Church between Free Church ministers and congregations on the island of Lewis and those on Skye.

And there is also the issue of obedience to the General Assembly.

The majority of the Free Church believes that the issue of Professor Macleod was dropped by the Free Church Assembly and the decision of the majority must be accepted.

The Free Church Defence Association believes that it was wrong not to put Professor Macleod on trial in the General Assembly and that the majority has therefore departed from the principle that allegations of misconduct must be investigated not by a Committee of the General Assembly but by the whole General Assembly.

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See also:
19 Jan 00 |  Scotland
Rebel ministers face eviction
19 Aug 99 |  Scotland
Controversy and the minister

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