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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

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Christian Auer

VIII. Religion

50. The Disruption of the Church of Scotland, 18 May 1843

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1Henry Thomas Cockburn (1779-1854) was appointed Solicitor General for Scotland in 1830 and a Lord of Session in 1834. Like other leading Whig advocates he was in favour of the extension of the parliamentary franchise and he was responsible for the drafting of the Scottish Reform Bill in 1832. His Memorials of his Time (1856) and his Journals (1874), which give detailed descriptions of the manners and events of his life, provide a remarkable social history of Scotland in the first half of the nineteenth century. In the following extract Cockburn describes the split in the Established Church of Scotland.

2Henry Cockburn, Journal of Henry Cockburn: Being a Continuation of the Memorials of his Time 1831-1854, vol. 2, Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1874, p. 18-22.

The crash is over.

  • 6 The Evangelicals.
  • 7 See introduction to chapter 8, p. 149.
  • 8 The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland is an honorary role, held for 12 m (...)
  • 9 The Lord High Commissioner is the British Sovereign’s personal representative to the General Assem (...)

The event that has taken place was announced so far back as November, when the Convocation proclaimed that their adhering to the Church would depend entirely on the success of the last appeal they6 meant to waste upon Government and Parliament. These appeals had failed, and all subsequent occurrences flowed towards the announced result. On the two Sundays preceding the Assembly7 hundreds of congregations all over the country had been saddened by farewell sermons from pastors to whom they were attached. The general belief that there would be an extraordinary move, combined with the uncertainty as to its exact time and form and amount, had crowded Edinburgh with clergymen, and had produced an anxiety far beyond what usually preceded the annual Assemblies of the Church […] Dr Welsh, Professor of Church History in the University of Edinburgh, having been Moderator8 last year, began the proceedings by preaching a sermon before his Grace the Commissioner9 in the High Church, in which what was going to happen was announced and defended. The Commissioner then proceeded to St. Andrew’s Church, where the Assembly was to be held. The streets, especially those near the place of meeting, were filled, not so much with the boys who usually gaze at the annual show, as by grave and well-dressed grown people of the middle rank. According to custom, Welsh took the chair of the Assembly. Their first act ought to have been to constitute the Assembly of this year by electing a new Moderator. But before this was done, Welsh rose and announced that he and others who had been returned as members held this not to be a free Assembly – that, therefore, they declined to acknowledge it as a Court of the Church – that they meant to leave the very place, and, as a consequence of this, to abandon the Establishment. In explanation of the grounds of this step he then read a full and clear protest. It was read as impressively as a weak voice would allow, and was listened to in silence by as large an audience as the church could contain. Whether from joy at the prospect of getting rid of their troublesome brethren anyhow – which they professed, or from being alarmed – which to a great degree was the truth, the Moderate party, though they might have objected to any paper being read even from the chair at that time, attempted no interruption, which they now regret. The protest resolved into this, that the civil court had subverted what had ever been understood to be the Church, that its new principles were enforced by ruinous penalties, and that in this situation they were constrained to abandon an Establishment which, as recently explained, they felt repugnant to their vows and to their consciences.

  • 10 The Revolution of 1688-1689.
  • 11 The Covenanters formed an important movement in the religion and politics of Scotland in the seven (...)

As soon as it was read, Dr Welsh handed the paper to the clerk, quitted the chair, and walked away. Instantly, what appeared to be the whole left side of the house rose to follow. Some applause broke from the spectators, but it checked itself in a moment. 193 members moved off, of whom about 123 were ministers, and about 70 elders. Among these were many upon whose figures the public eye had been long accustomed to rest in reverence. They all withdrew slowly and regularly amidst perfect silence, till that side of the house was left nearly empty. They were joined outside by a large body of adherents, among whom were about 300 clergymen. As soon as Welsh, who wore his Moderator’s dress, appeared on the street, and people saw that principle had really triumphed over interest, he and his followers were received with the loudest acclamations. They walked in procession down Hanover Street to Canonmills, where they had secured an excellent hall, through an unbroken mass of cheering people, and beneath innumerable handkerchiefs waving from the windows. But amidst this exultation there was much sadness and many a tear, many a grave face and fearful thought; for no one could doubt that it was with sore hearts that these ministers left the Church, and no thinking man could look on the unexampled scene and behold that the temple was rent, without pain and sad forebodings. No spectacle since the Revolution10 reminded one so forcibly of the Covenanters11.

Notes

6 The Evangelicals.

7 See introduction to chapter 8, p. 149.

8 The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland is an honorary role, held for 12 months.

9 The Lord High Commissioner is the British Sovereign’s personal representative to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

10 The Revolution of 1688-1689.

11 The Covenanters formed an important movement in the religion and politics of Scotland in the seventeenth century. The term refers to those people in Scotland who signed the National Covenant in 1638 to confirm their opposition to the interference by the Stuart kings in the affairs of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

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