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The Mystery of the Kirks

No historical problem has proved more perplexing to Englishmen than the nature of the differences between the various Kirks in Scotland. The Southron found that, whether he worshipped in a church of the Established Kirk ('The Auld Kirk'), of the Free Church, or of the United Presbyterian Church (the U.P.'s), it was all the same thing. The nature of the service was exactly similar, though sometimes the congregation stood at prayers, and sat when it sang; sometimes stood when it sang and knelt at prayer. Not one of the Kirks used a prescribed liturgy. I have been in a Free Kirk which had no pulpit; the pastor stood on a kind of raised platform, like a lecturer in a lecture-room, but that practice is unessential. The Kirks, if I mistake not, have different collections of hymns, which, till recent years, were contemned as 'things of human invention,' and therefore 'idolatrous.' But hymns are now in use, as also are organs, or harmoniums, or other musical instruments. Thus the faces of the Kirks are similar and sisterly:


                    Facies non omnibus una
    Nec diversa tamen, qualem decet esse sororum.


What, then, the Southron used to ask, is the difference between the Free Church, the Established Church, and the United Presbyterian Church? If the Southron put the question to a Scottish friend, the odds were that the Scottish friend could not answer. He might be a member of the Scottish 'Episcopal' community, and as ignorant as any Anglican. Or he might not have made these profound studies in Scottish history, which throw glimmerings of light on this obscure subject.

Indeed, the whole aspect of the mystery has shifted, of late, like the colours in a kaleidoscope. The more conspicuous hues are no longer 'Auld Kirk,' 'Free Kirk,' and 'U.P.'s,' but 'Auld Kirk,' 'Free Kirk,' and 'United Free Kirk.' The United Free Kirk was composed in 1900 of the old 'United Presbyterians' (as old as 1847), with the overwhelming majority of the old Free Kirk, while the Free Kirk, of the present moment, consists of a tiny minority of the old Free Kirk, which declined to join the recent union. By a judgment (one may well call it a 'judgment') of the House of Lords (August 1, 1904), the Free Kirk, commonly called 'The Wee Frees,' now possesses the wealth that was the old Free Kirk's before, in 1900, it united with the United Presbyterians, and became the United Free Church. It is to be hoped that common sense will discover some 'outgait,' or issue, from this distressing imbroglio. In the words which Mr. R.L. Stevenson, then a sage of twenty-four, penned in 1874, we may say 'Those who are at all open to a feeling of national disgrace look forward eagerly to such a possibility; they have been witnesses already too long to the strife that has divided this small corner of Christendom.' The eternal schisms of the Kirk, said R.L.S., exhibit 'something pitiful for the pitiful man, but bitterly humorous for others.'

The humour of the present situation is only too manifest. Two generations ago about half of the ministers of the Kirk of Scotland left their manses and pleasant glebes for the sake of certain ideas. Of these ideas they abandoned some, or left them in suspense, a few years since, and, as a result, they have lost, if only for the moment, their manses, stipends, colleges, and pleasant glebes.

Why should all these things be so? The answer can only be found in the history--and a history both sad and bitterly humorous it is--of the Reformation in Scotland. When John Knox died, on November 24, 1572, a decent burgess of Edinburgh wrote in his Diary, 'John Knox, minister, deceased, who had, as was alleged, the most part of the blame of all the sorrows of Scotland, since the slaughter of the late Cardinal,' Beaton, murdered at St. Andrews in 1546. 'The sorrows of Scotland' had endured when Knox died for but twenty-six years. Since his death, 332 years have gone by, and the present sorrows of the United Free Kirk are the direct, though distant, result of some of the ideas of John Knox.

The whole trouble springs from his peculiar notions, and the notions of his followers, about the relations between Church and State. In 1843, half the ministers of the Established Kirk in Scotland, or more, left the Kirk, and went into the wilderness for what they believed to be the ideal of Knox. In 1904 they have again a prospect of a similar exodus, because they are no longer rigid adherents of the very same ideal! A tiny minority of some twenty-seven ministers clings to what it considers to be the Knoxian ideal, and is rewarded by all the wealth bestowed on the Free Kirk by pious benefactors during sixty years.

The quarrel, for 344 years (1560-1904), has been, we know, about the relations of Church and State. The disruption of 1843, the departure of the Free Kirk out of the Established Kirk, arose thus, according to Lord Macnaghten, who gave one of the two opinions in favour of the United Free Kirk's claim to the possessions held by the Free Kirk before its union, in 1900, with the United Presbyterians. Before 1843, there were, says the sympathetic judge, two parties in the Established Church--the 'Moderates' and the 'Evangelicals' (also called 'The Wild Men', 'the Highland Host' or the 'High Flyers'). The Evangelicals became the majority and 'they carried matters with a high hand. They passed Acts in the Assembly ... altogether beyond the competence of a Church established by law.... The State refused to admit their claims. The strong arm of the law restrained their extravagancies. Still they maintained that their proceedings were justified, and required by the doctrine of the Headship of Christ ... to which they attached peculiar and extraordinary significance.'

Now the State, in 1838-1843, could not and would not permit these 'extravagancies' in a State-paid Church. The Evangelical party therefore seceded, maintaining, as one of their leaders said, that 'we are still the Church of Scotland, the only Church that deserves the name, the only Church that can be known and recognised by the maintaining of those principles to which the Church of our fathers was true when she was on the mountain and on the field, when she was under persecution, when she was an outcast from the world.'

Thus the Free Kirk was the Kirk, and the Established Kirk was heretical, was what Knox would have called 'ane rottin Laodicean.' Now the fact is that the Church of Scotland had been, since August 1560, a Kirk established by law (or by what was said to be a legal Parliament), yet had never, perhaps, for an hour attained its own full ideal relation to the State; had never been granted its entire claims, but only so much or so little of these as the political situation compelled the State to concede, or enabled it to withdraw. There had always been members of the Kirk who claimed all that the Free Kirk claimed in 1843; but they never got quite as much as they asked; they often got much less than they wanted; and the full sum of their desires could be granted by no State to a State-paid Church. Entire independence could be obtained only by cutting the Church adrift from the State. The Free Kirk, then, did cut themselves adrift, but they kept on maintaining that they were the Church of Scotland, and that the State ought in duty to establish and maintain them, while granting them absolute independence.

The position was stated thus, in 1851, by an Act and Declaration of the Free Kirk's Assembly: 'She holds still, and through God's grace ever will hold, that it is the duty of civil rulers to recognise the truth of God according to His word, and to promote and support the Kingdom of Christ without assuming any jurisdiction in it, or any power over it....'

The State, in fact, if we may speak carnally, ought to pay the piper, but must not presume to call the tune.

Now we touch the skirt of the mystery, what was the difference between the Free Kirk and the United Presbyterians, who, since 1900, have been blended with that body? The difference was that the Free Kirk held it to be the duty of the State to establish her, and leave her perfect independence; while the United Presbyterians maintained the absolutely opposite opinion--namely, that the State cannot, and must not, establish any Church, or pay any Church out of the national resources. When the two Kirks united, in 1900, then, the Free Kirk either abandoned the doctrine of which, in 1851, she said that 'she holds it still, and through God's grace ever will hold it,' or she regarded it as a mere pious opinion, which did not prevent her from coalescing with a Kirk of contradictory ideas. The tiny minority--the Wee Frees, the Free Kirk of to-day--would not accept this compromise, 'hence these tears,' to leave differences in purely metaphysical theology out of view.

Now the root of all the trouble, all the schisms and sufferings of more than three centuries, lies, as we have said, in some of the ideas of John Knox, and one asks, of what Kirk would John Knox be, if he were alive in the present state of affairs? I venture to think that the venerable Reformer would be found in the ranks of the Established Kirk, 'the Auld Kirk.' He would not have gone out into the wilderness in 1843, and he would most certainly have opposed the ideas of the United Presbyterians. This theory may surprise at a first glance, but it has been reached after many hours of earnest consideration.

Knox's ideas, as far as he ever reasoned them out, reposed on this impregnable rock, namely that Calvinism, as held by himself, was an absolutely certain thing in every detail. If the State or 'the civil magistrate,' as he put the case, entirely agreed with Knox, then Knox was delighted that the State should regulate religion. The magistrate was to put down Catholicism, and other aberrations from the truth as it was in John Knox, with every available engine of the law, corporal punishment, prison, exile, and death. If the State was ready and willing to do all this, then the State was to be implicitly obeyed in matters of religion, and the power in its hands was God-given--in fact, the State was the secular aspect of the Church. Looking at the State in this ideal aspect, Knox writes about the obedience due to the magistrate in matters religious, after the manner of what, in this country, would be called the fiercest 'Erastianism.' The State 'rules the roast' in all matters of religion and may do what Laud and Charles I. perished in attempting, may alter forms of worship--always provided that the State absolutely agrees with the Kirk.

Thus, under Edward VI., Knox would have desired the secular power in England, the civil magistrate, to forbid people to kneel at the celebration of the Sacrament. That was entirely within the competence of the State, simply and solely because Knox desired that people should not kneel. But when, long after Knox's death, the civil magistrate insisted, in Scotland, that people should kneel, the upholders of Knox's ideas denied that the magistrate (James VI.) had any right to issue such an order, and they refused to obey while remaining within the Established Church. They did not 'disrupt,' like the Free Church; they simply acted as they pleased, and denounced their obedient brethren as no 'lawful ministers.' The end of it all was that they stirred up the Civil War, in which the first shot was fired by the legendary Jenny Geddes, throwing her stool at the reader in St. Giles's. Thus we see that the State was to be obeyed in matters of religion, when the State did the bidding of the Kirk, and not otherwise. When first employed as a 'licensed preacher,' and agent of the State in England, Knox accepted just as much of the State's liturgy as he pleased; the liturgy ordered the people to kneel, Knox and his Berwick congregation disobeyed. With equal freedom, he and the other royal chaplains, at Easter, preaching before the King, denounced his ministers, Northumberland and the rest. Knox spoke of them in his sermon as Judas, Shebna, and some other scriptural malignants. Later he said that he repented having put things so mildly; he ought to have called the ministers by their names, not veiled things in a hint. Now we cannot easily conceive a chaplain of her late Majesty, in a sermon preached before her, denouncing the Chancellor of the Exchequer, say Mr. Gladstone, as 'Judas.' Yet Knox, a licensed preacher of a State Church, indulged his 'spiritual independence' to that extent, and took shame to himself that he had not gone further.

Obviously, if this is 'Erastianism,' it is of an unusual kind. The idea of Knox is that in a Catholic State the ruler is not to be obeyed in religious matters by the true believers; sometimes Knox wrote that the Catholic ruler ought to be met by 'passive resistance;' sometimes that he ought to be shot at sight. He stated these diverse doctrines in the course of eighteen months. In a Protestant country, the Catholics must obey the Protestant ruler, or take their chances of prison, exile, fire and death. The Protestant ruler, in a Protestant State, is to be obeyed, in spiritual matters, by Protestants, just as far as the Kirk may happen to approve of his proceedings, or even further, in practice, if there is no chance of successful resistance.

We may take it that Knox, if he had been alive and retained his old ideas in 1843, would not have gone out of the Established Church with the Free Church, because, in his time, he actually did submit to many State regulations of which he did not approve. For example, he certainly did not approve of bishops, and had no bishops in the Kirk as established on his model in 1560. But, twelve years later, bishops were reintroduced by the State, in the person of the Regent Morton, a ruffian, and Knox did not retire to 'the mountain and the fields,' but made the most practical efforts to get the best terms possible for the Kirk. He was old and outworn, and he remained in the Established Kirk, and advised no man to leave it. It was his theory, again, as it was that of the Free Kirk, that there should be no 'patronage,' no presentation of ministers to cures by the patron. The congregations were to choose and 'call' any properly qualified person, at their own pleasure, as they do now in all the Kirks, including (since 1874) the Established Church. But the State, in Knox's lifetime, overrode this privilege of the Church. The most infamous villain of the period, Archibald Douglas, was presented to the Kirk of Glasgow, and, indeed, the nobles made many such presentations of unscrupulous and ignorant cadets to important livings. Morton gave a bishopric to one of the murderers of Riccio! Yet Knox did not advise a secession; he merely advised that non-residence, or a scandalous life, or erroneous doctrine, on the part of the person presented, should make his presentation 'null and of no force or effect, and this to have place also in the nomination of the bishops.' Thus Knox was, on occasion, something of an opportunist. If alive in 1843, he would probably have remained in the Establishment, and worked for that abolition of 'patronage' which was secured, from within, in 1874. If this conjecture is right the Free Kirk was more Knoxian than John Knox, and departed from his standard. He was capable of sacrificing a good deal of 'spiritual independence' rather than break with the State. Many times, long after he was dead, the National Church, under stress of circumstances, accepted compromises.

Knox knew the difference between the ideal and the practical. It was the ideal that all non-convertible Catholics 'should die the death.' But the ideal was never made real; the State was not prepared to oblige the Kirk in this matter. It was the ideal that any of 'the brethren,' conscious of a vocation, and seeing a good opportunity, should treat an impenitent Catholic ruler as Jehu treated Jezebel. But if any brother had consulted Knox as to the propriety of assassinating Queen Mary, in 1561-67, he would have found out his mistake, and probably have descended the Reformer's stairs much more rapidly than he mounted them.

Yet Knox, though he could submit to compromise, really had a remarkably mystical idea of what the Kirk was, and of the attributes of her clergy. The editor of The Free Church Union Case, Mr. Taylor Innes (himself author of a biography of the Reformer), writes, in his preface to The Judgment of the House of Lords: 'The Church of Scotland, as a Protestant Church, had its origin in the year 1560, for its first Confession dates from August, and its first Assembly from December in that year.' In fact, the Confession was accepted and passed as law, by a very dubiously legal Convention of the Estates, in August 1560. But Knox certainly conceived that the Protestant Church in, if not of, Scotland existed a year before that date, and before that date it possessed 'the power of the Keys' and even, it would perhaps seem, 'the power of the Sword.' To his mind, as soon as a local set of men of his own opinions met, and chose a pastor and preacher, who also administered the Sacraments, the Protestant Church was 'a Church in being.' The Catholic Church, then by law established, was, Knox held, no Church at all; her priests were not 'lawful ministers,' her Pope was the man of Sin ex officio, and the Church was 'the Kirk of the malignants'--'a lady of pleasure in Babylon bred.'

On the other hand, the real Church--it might be of but 200 men--was confronting the Kirk of the malignants, and alone was genuine. The State did not make and could not unmake 'the Trew Church,' but was bound to establish, foster, and obey it.

It was this last proviso which caused 130 years of bloodshed and 'persecution' and general unrest in Scotland, from 1559 to 1690. Why was the Kirk so often out 'in the heather,' and hunted like a partridge on the field and the mountain? The answer is that when the wilder spirits of the Kirk were not being persecuted they were persecuting the State and bullying the individual subject. All this arose from Knox's idea of the Church. To constitute a Church no more was needed than a local set of Calvinistic Protestants and 'a lawful minister.' To constitute a lawful minister, at first (later far more was required), no more was needed than a 'call' to a preacher from a local set of Calvinistic Protestants. But, when once the 'call' was given and accepted, that 'lawful minister' was, by the theory, as superior to the laws of the State as the celebrated emperor was superior to grammar. A few 'lawful ministers' of this kind possessed 'the power of the Keys;' they could hand anybody over to Satan by excommunicating the man, and (apparently) they could present 'the power of the Sword' to any town council, which could then decree capital punishment against any Catholic priest who celebrated Mass, as, by the law of the State, he was in duty bound to do. Such were the moderate and reasonable claims of Knox's Kirk in May 1559, even before it was accepted by the Convention of Estates in August 1560. It was because, not the Church, but the wilder spirits among the ministers, persevered in these claims, that the State, when it got the chance, drove them into moors and mosses and hanged not a few of them.

I have never found these facts fully stated by any historian or by any biographer of Knox, except by the Reformer himself, partly in his History, partly in his letters to a lady of his acquaintance. The mystery of the Kirks turns on the Knoxian conception of the 'lawful minister,' and his claim to absolutism.

To give examples, Knox himself, about 1540-43, was 'a priest of the altar,' 'one of Baal's shaven sort.' On that score he later claimed nothing. After the murder of Cardinal Beaton, the murderers and their associates, forming a congregation in the Castle of St. Andrews, gave Knox a call to be their preacher. He was now 'a lawful minister.' In May 1559 he, with about four or five equally lawful ministers, two of them converted friars, one of them a baker, and one, Harlow, a tailor, were in company with their Protestant backers, who destroyed the monasteries in Perth, and the altars and ornaments of the church there. They at once claimed 'the power of the Keys,' and threatened to excommunicate such of their allies as did not join them in arms. They, 'the brethren,' also denounced capital punishment against any priest who celebrated Mass at Perth. Now the lawful ministers could not think of hanging the priests themselves. They must therefore have somehow bestowed 'the power of the Sword' on the baillies and town council of Perth, I presume, for the Regent, Mary of Guise, when she entered the town, dismissed these men from office, which was regarded as an unlawful and perfidious act on her part. Again, in the summer of 1560, the baillies of Edinburgh--while Catholicism was still by law established--denounced the death penalty against recalcitrant Catholics. The Kirk also allotted lawful ministers to several of the large towns, and thus established herself before she was established by the Estates in August 1560. Thus nothing could be more free, and more absolute, than the Kirk in her early bloom. On the other hand, as we saw, even in Knox's lifetime, the State, having the upper hand under the Regent Morton, a strong man, introduced prelacy of a modified kind and patronage; did not restore to the Kirk her 'patrimony,'--the lands of the old Church; and only hanged one priest, not improbably for a certain reason of a private character.

There was thus, from the first, a battle between the Protestant Church and State. At various times one preacher is said to have declared that he was the solitary 'lawful minister' in Scotland; and one of these men, Mr. Cargill, excommunicated Charles II.; while another, Mr. Renwick, denounced a war of assassination against the Government. Both gentlemen were hanged.

These were extreme assertions of 'spiritual independence,' and the Kirk, or at least the majority of the preachers, protested against such conduct, which might be the logical development of the doctrine of the 'lawful minister,' but was, in practice, highly inconvenient. The Kirk, as a whole, was loyal.

Sometimes the State, under a strong man like Morton, or James Stewart, Earl of Arran (a thoroughpaced ruffian), put down these pretensions of the Church. At other times, as when Andrew Melville led the Kirk, under James VI., she maintained that there was but one king in Scotland, Christ, and that the actual King, the lad, James VI., was but 'Christ's silly vassal.' He was supreme in temporal matters, but the judicature of the Church was supreme in spiritual matters.

This sounds perfectly fair, but who was to decide what matters were spiritual and what were temporal? The Kirk assumed the right to decide that question; consequently it could give a spiritual colour to any problem of statesmanship: for example, a royal marriage, trade with Catholic Spain, which the Kirk forbade, or the expulsion of the Catholic peers. 'There is a judgment above yours,' said the Rev. Mr. Pont to James VI., 'and that is God's; put in the hand of the ministers, for "we shall judge the angels," saith the apostle.' Again, '"Ye shall sit upon twelve thrones and judge"' (quoted Mr. Pont), 'which is chiefly referred to the apostles, and consequently to ministers.'

Things came to a head in 1596. The King asked the representatives of the Kirk whether he might call home certain earls, banished for being Catholics, if they 'satisfied the Kirk.' The answer was that he might not. Knox had long before maintained that 'a prophet' might preach treason (he is quite explicit), and that the prophet, and whoever carried his preaching into practical effect, would be blameless. A minister was accused, at this moment, of preaching libellously, and he declined to be judged except by men of his own cloth. If they acquitted him, as they were morally certain to do, what Court of Appeal could reverse the decision of men who claimed to 'judge angels'? A riot arose in Edinburgh, the King seized his opportunity, he grasped his nettle, the municipal authorities backed him, and, in effect, the claims of true ministers thenceforth gave little trouble till the folly of Charles I. led to the rise of the Covenant. The Sovereign had overshot his limits of power as wildly as ever the Kirk had tried to do, and the result was that the Kirk, having now the nobles and the people in arms on her side, was absolutely despotic for about twelve years. Her final triumph was to resist the Estates in Parliament, with success, and to lay Scotland open to the Cromwellian conquest. What Plantagenets and Tudors could never do Noll effected, he conquered Scotland, the Kirk having paralysed the State. The preachers found that Cromwell was a perfect 'Malignant,' that he would not suffer prophets to preach treason, nor even allow the General Assembly to meet. Angels they might judge if they pleased, but not Ironsides; excommunication and 'Kirk discipline' were discountenanced; even witches were less frequently burned. The preachers, Cromwell said, 'had done their do,' had shot their bolt.

At this time they split into two parties: the Extremists, calling themselves 'the godly,' and the men of milder mood.

Charles II., at the Restoration, ought probably to have sided with the milder party, some of whom were anxious to see their fierce brethren banished to Orkney, out of the way. But Charles's motto was 'Never again,' and by a pettifogging fraud he reintroduced bishops without the hated liturgy. After years of risings and suppressions the ministers were brought to submission, accepting an 'indulgence' from the State, while but a few upholders of the old pretensions of the clergy stood out in the wildernesses of South-western Scotland. There might be three or four such ministers, there might be only one, but they, or he, to the mind of 'the Remnant,' were the only 'lawful ministers.' At the Revolution of 1688-89 the Remnant did not accept the compromise under which the Presbyterian Kirk was re-established. They stood out, breaking into many sects; the spiritual descendants of most of these blended into one body as 'The United Presbyterian Kirk' in 1847. In the Established Kirk the Moderates were in the majority till about 1837, when the inheritors of those extreme views which Knox compromised about, and which the majority of ministers disclaimed before the Revolution of 1688, obtained the upper hand. They had planted the remotest parishes of the Highlands with their own kind of ministers, who swamped, in 1838, the votes of the Lowland Moderates, exactly as, under James VI., Highland 'Moderates' had swamped the votes of the Lowland Extremists. The majority of Extremists, or most of it, left the Kirk in 1843, and made the Free Kirk. In 1900, when the Free Kirk joined the United Presbyterians, it was Highland ministers, mainly, who formed the minority of twenty-seven, or so, who would not accept the new union, and now constitute the actual Free Kirk, or Wee Frees, and possess the endowments of the old Free Kirk of 1843. We can scarcely say Beati possidentes.

It has been shown, or I have tried, erroneously or not, to show that, wild and impossible as were the ideal claims of Knox, of Andrew Melville, of Mr. Pont, and others, the old Scottish Kirk of 1560, by law established, was capable of giving up or suppressing these claims, even under Knox, and even while the Covenant remained in being. The mass of the ministers, after the return of Charles II. before Worcester fight, before bloody Dunbar, were not irreconcilables. The Auld Kirk, the Kirk Established, has some right to call herself the Church of Scotland by historical continuity, while the opposite claimants, the men of 1843, may seem rather to descend from people like young Renwick, the last hero who died for their ideas, but not, in himself, the only 'lawful minister' between Tweed and Cape Wrath. 'Other times, other manners.' All the Kirks are perfectly loyal; now none persecutes; interference with private life, 'Kirk discipline,' is a vanishing minimum; and, but for this recent 'garboil' (as our old writers put it) we might have said that, under differences of nomenclature, all the Kirks are united at last, in the only union worth having, that of peace and goodwill. That union may be restored, let us hope, by good temper and common sense, qualities that have not hitherto been conspicuous in the ecclesiastical history of Scotland, or of England.


Andrew Lang