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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

Christian Auer

III. Religion

III. Religion

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1At the beginning of the eighteenth century the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, which had been confirmed as the only lawful church in the country by the Act of Union of 1707, was still a most powerful institution. It remained the basic frame of reference in the religious sphere but it also played an important function in relation to education, social order, social welfare and morality.

2The minister was supported by a kirk session, a permanent body of elected elders who were usually individuals of social standing in the parish. The kirk session had varied responsibilities. It was in charge of administering relief to the poor. The influence of the Church was also important in the field of education. The clerk of the kirk session was often himself the local schoolmaster. The Bible and the catechism were key elements of the curriculum, which explains why the religious ethos was central to elementary schooling. But the kirk session also had another fundamental function: it supervised the moral behaviour of parishioners and was the local court that judged cases against parishioners accused of ecclesiastical offences as well as of a number of civil offences. Kirk sessions heard cases of fornication, adultery, blasphemy, drunkenness and Sabbath profanation, but they could also deal with cases of assault, theft and wife-beating.

3As the century progressed the Church became subjected to important forces of change. Economic development, the increase in population and the growth of cities created an environment that was less favourable to the Church. Furthermore signs of tension within the Presbyterian Church, both at national and at a local level, started to appear. Two conflicting views about the role of religion and its place in society coexisted. On the one hand there were the Moderates, who were in favour of an evolution of doctrine and who wanted to see the strict discipline of the Kirk alleviated. On a political level the Moderates became associated with government. On the social level they were the party of the landowners. The Moderates controlled the Established Church through its General Assembly until 1833.

4On the other hand there were the Evangelicals who had an austere view of religion, who insisted upon exact morality and the need for family worship and instruction and who regarded most forms of worldly pleasure as sin. They thought that the Moderates were betraying the fundamental tenets of the Church:

  • 1 John Mitchell, quoted in T. C. Smout, A History of the Scottish People, 1560-1830, London: Collins (...)

Declining the active and energetic discharge of the duties of their spiritual and evangelical functions, too many of the pledged servants of the Lord betook themselves to literary study, or the culture of their glebes or to other secular concerns. They cultivated connection with the upper classes of society in their parishes, declining intercourse with those of low degree to whom the Gospel is preached, and set themselves earnestly so to arrange matters connected with the poor as to save expense to the heritors.1

5In 1714 John Simson, Professor of Divinity at Glasgow, was accused of heresy for teaching freewill as against predestination. He was acquitted but the Church authorities reprimanded him for putting nature and reason before revelation and grace. In 1729 John Simson was prohibited from preaching and teaching. In 1718 Thomas Boston, minister of Ettrick, republished an English puritan book of the seventeenth century, The Marrow of Modern Divinity, which emphasized the part played by Grace in conversion. The General Assembly of the Church strongly condemned the book (John Simson was the only member of the General Assembly to support Boston) and instructed all ministers to warn their parishioners against reading the Marrow. The “Marrow men”, as Thomas Boston’s supporters were called, were publicly admonished.

  • 2 Quoted in C. Brown, Religion and Society in Scotland since 1707, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University P (...)

6The Moderates and the Evangelicals also disagreed over the issue of patronage (the right of a hereditary owner or ‘patron’ to select or present the minister in a parish church), which had been re-introduced by the Patronage Act of 1712. The patronage dispute was the defining event in Scottish local history between 1712 and the 1840s. The Moderates accepted lay intervention in the Church whereas the Evangelical party refused it. Sometimes worshippers who did not accept the minister chosen by the patron refused to enter the parish church and would meet on a hillside, in a barn or in a house. In some instances ministers who had been refused by parishioners had to be protected by their patrons. At Bathgate in West Lothian in 1717 the minister selected by the patron had to be “guarded to church upon a Sabbath by files of dragoons, amid the noise of drums, and the flashing of swords.”2

7Real dissent emerged in 1733 when Ebenezer Erskine, minister of Stirling, and three other Church of Scotland ministers denounced patronage and constituted themselves a separate presbytery, which later became the Secession Church. Other sects and denominations were later created as a result of opposition to patronage in the Church.


1 John Mitchell, quoted in T. C. Smout, A History of the Scottish People, 1560-1830, London: Collins, 1969, p. 221.

2 Quoted in C. Brown, Religion and Society in Scotland since 1707, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997, p. 19.

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