Page images
PDF
EPUB

in deference to the popular will, waived the right of presentation. What is more to be wondered at, presentees themselves, when unacceptable to the people, were known, in some in. stances, to withdraw their claims. In cases in which lay patrons declined to nominate, the right of presentation feil (jure devoluto) into the hands of presbyteries, who exercised the power thus devolved upon

them with more or less tenderness to the feelings of the people, according as liberal or arbitrary sentiments prevailed in the church courts themselves. A diversity of practice thus obtained in the settlement of parishes. This the General Assembly--the supreme court of the church of Scotland-wished to remove. To reduce the mode of admission to uniformity, the Assembly, in 1732, enacted that the election of ministers should belong to elders and heritors; and that parishioners, if dissatisfied, should be allowed to state their reasons of dissent to the presbytery, whose judgment should be final. The purpose and the effect of this were sufficiently apparent. Opportunity was indeed given, as before the reimposition of the law of patronage, to object to the presentee; but the church courts held in their hands the power of ultimate decision ; and, as judges in their own cause, it was not to be expected that they would look with indulgence on the scruples of the people. The regulation, in short, was viewed by a portion of the Assembly, and by numbers of the laity, as tantamount to the Assembly's deciding on an annihilation of the people's claim to exercise an efficient voice in the election of their pastors.

Prepared to enter on an arbitrary course, the Assembly soon displayed a determination to pursue it unchecked and unmolested, if possible. To prevent the annoyance of dissents being entered on the records by members of the Assembly who felt aggrieved by its decisions, that venerable body had, in 1730, prohibited the admission of dissents in future. Thus, by a stretch of authority, as despotic as it was unwise, did the supreme court deprive individuals of the accustomed constitutional resource for exempting themselves from responsibility for such procecdings of the Assembly as they could not approve. This imperious and most absurd regulation was rigorously put in force. The two-edged weapon of which the ruling party in the Assembly had thus possessed themselves, they soon proceeded to wield with determined purpose against the popular cause, and the faithful few of their own number who still adhered to it.

One of the most active and intrepid of this faithful band Mr. Ebenezer Erskine, minister at Stirling, in a sermon which he preached at the opening of the synod of Perth and Stirling, October, 1732-testified in plain, but not unguarded terms,

[blocks in formation]

against the spirit of encroachment, and the course of defection which marked the proceedings of the ruling party. In this sermon Mr. Erskine avowed and vindicated the broad principle that: "The call of the church lies in the free call and election of the christian people;' and that, “As it is the natural privilege of every house or society of men to have the choice of their servants or officers, so it is the privilege of the house of God in a particular manner. In the exposition and enforcement of his views, the preacher characterized the opposite measures of the Assembly in language such as an honest and pious zeal might be supposed to dictate.

The sentiments of the speaker, consonant as they were to the natural feelings of equity, and sanctioned by the authority of scripture, derived weight from his own reputation. In the language of Lord-President Hope, Ebenezer Erskine was a great and a good man.' His talents were respectable, and his character, for probity and public spirit, high. As a pulpit orator, he had few rivals in the church to which he belonged. His sermons, a large collection of which is in the hands of the public, show him to have been a person accurately skilled in points of divinity, and capable, from the piety and warmth of his zeal, of imbuing didactic theology with that unction of feeling and that vivid ness of appeal which speak to the conscience and the heart. Aided by the personal advantages of a portly bearing, an aspect of intrepidity, an easy elocution, and a noble voice, his public appearances in the pulpit have been described by one of his admirers as 'the gospel in its majesty.'

Such was the man who, on the 10th of October, 1732, confronted the synod of Perth and Stirling with a message from his Master, witnessing for the liberties of the church and the rights of God's heritage.

With the air of an Elijah, he put the trumpet to his mouth, and blew an alarm. The synodical fathers were indignant; investigation took place ; Mr. Erskine was called on to retract. This he refused to do. The thunder of rebuke was launched against him. He protested against the synod's deed, and appealed to the General Assembly. In this step he was joined by several of his brethren, three of whom became distinguished in the sequel of these transactions, viz.: Messrs. William Wilson, minister at Perth ; Alexander Moncrief, minister at Abernethy; and James Fisher, minister at Kinclaven.

The meetings of Assembly, as our Scottish readers must be aware, are quite a scene. As the ultimate court of appellate jurisdiction in causes ecclesiastical, questions of difficulty which the provincial courts are incompetent to take up or unable to conclude satisfactorily, are transferred to the Assembly for de.

It was

cision. The importance of many of the causes in dependence -the throng of interested parties—the eclat of a royal commissioner with a feather in his hat and an escort of dragoons —the gentlemen of the Parliament House, with their briefs and mouthfuls of canon law-the intent visages of expectant probationers—the reporters for the press—the crushing in the public gallery, all conspire to mark the annual convocation of the Scottish national church as a period of stir and talk and general sensation.

on such an arena Ebenezer Erskine was called in May 1733, to plead the cause of religious freedom, and to suffer for its sake. Amidst the scoffs and frowns of his brethren, the champion of popular privilege stood unshaken and unabashed. Prejudged already through the keen feelings of party which actuated the great majority of the court, the cause was soon brought to a conclusion. The other protesters were not allowed so much as a hearing; while the synod's sentence against Mr. Erskine was confirmed, and he was appointed 'to be rebuked and admonished at their own bar in order to terminate the process. Unable to yield even a tacit acquiescence in the Assembly's decision, Mr. Erskine presented a paper in which he, along with the three brethren who adhered to him, protested against the censure, and claimed the right to testify, as formerly, against the defections of the church on all proper occasions. This protest the Assembly refused to hear; Mr. Erskine therefore laid it on the table and with his three brethren withdrew from the house.

This was the turning point of the affair-the crisis of Erskine's fate. Had the protest remained on the table, and at the close of the sitting been thrust into the clerk's basket of old papers, it is probable the Secession might not have been heard of—at least as the issue of that day's transactions. But happily the paper was allowed to drop on the floor, where it caught the eye of a fiery zealot, who picked it up and perused it. It was the touch of spark and tinder. Starting to his feet he announced to the court the audacious contempt of their authority of which, in his view, the protesting brethren had been guilty. In an evil hour for the church's honour, the Assembly kindled at the appeal thus made to their dignity-ordained the protesters to appear before the commission* in August, and there to shew their sorrow for their conduct, and to retract the obnoxious paper, with instructions to the commission to suspend them from the ministry in the event of their non-compli

A body of the Assembly who sit betweeen the annual meetings of the supreme court to transact such business as that court may commit to them.

B B B 2

ancc; and, at their subsequent meeting in November, to proceed to a higher censure, if the protesters should refuse submission to their deed. On the following day the protesters attempted to read a declaration of their scntiments, but the venerable body, with their wonted regard to justice and decorum, refused them permission to proceed.

With such undignified haste, with such passionate zcal, sucli cxcess of severity, such extravagance of censure, did the Assembly proceed to display its power and set itself to crush the rising spirit of liberty and dissent. The hcad and front of Ebenezer Erskinc's offending was, the use of language not so strong in condemnation of the measures of the church, as in our own day has been employed with perfect impunity by some of the most zealous of her sons. Dragged before the tribunal of the Assembly, he was addressed in the language of rebuke; but he had the boldness to declare that his sentiments were unchanged, and to seek, under the protection of a protest, the liberty of speaking his mind on public measures, and of vindicating, on proper occasions, tho rights and interests of the people. The tendering of such protest was his crime; and, withdrawing the protest was the prescribed atonement. To this, as an honest man, he could not submit: his voice was silence, when he attempted to speak in explanation; and, along with his brethren, he was handed over to the tender merçics of the commission, whose course was chalked out to them in terms at once summary and unjust.

At the meeting of commission, in August, Erskine and his protesting brethren disclaimed all feelings of disrespect to the judicatories of the church in the steps they had taken, but not being sensible of having given any just ground of offence by their conduct before the Assembly, they could not declare their sorrow for it, nor retract their protestations. Armed with the powers which the Assembly had delegated to them, the commission went stoutly and straightforward to their work, and suspended the four brethren from the exercise of the ministry. Against the justice of this deed the brethren entered their protest, that this sentence is in itself null and void, and that it shall be lawful and warrantable for us to exercise our ministry, as hitherto we have done, as if no such censure had been inflicted.'

The commission of Assembly, at their meeting in November, finding that the brethren had, under cover of their protest, continued to exercise the office of the ministry, resolved, by the casting vote of the moderator, to proceed without delay to the higher censure of depriving them of their status as ministers of the established church. Previous to the passing of the sentence,

a proposal was made to the four brethren to withdraw their protest, if the next General Assembly should declare that the acts complained of were not meant to annul the privi. lege of ministers to testify against defections in the church.

This proposal, like all reluctant and niggard ways of dispensing justice, was unsatisfactory. They rejected it on the ground that, "an actor declaration of the following Assembly, though agreeable to the word of God, could never take away the ground of protesting against a wrong decision of a preceding Assembly.' Such being the unyielding firmness of the protesters, the commission, by a large majority, decided to 'Loose the relation of the said four ministers to their several charges, and declare them no longer ministers of this church, and prohibit all ministers of this church to employ them in any ministerial function. Against the justice and validity of this deed the brethren again protested and declared their Secession from the prevailing party in the church till they should see their sins and mistakes and amend them.'

Such was the origin of the SECESSION ;-it was a struggle, by a few pious and public spirited men, to secure to the people the sacred franchise of choosing their pastors, and to preserve that freedom of speech in church courts, which, like the freedom of the press in things political, is indispensable as a barrier against degeneracy-a check on the spirit of intrigue and corruption. To save their right to plead for and maintain these important privileges, the seceders recorded their protest against the arbitrary doings of the Assembly; and because they refused to withdraw it, and thus surrender the liberties that were dear to them, they were stripped of oliice as an offence and scandal to the church-reproached as aspiring demagogucs, and as the guilty abettors of contumacy and of schism.

Undismayed by the thunders of the preshyterian vatican, Erskine and his coadjutors maintained their position, that patron"age is an innovation on the rights of the christian peopl, (lis. allowed by scripture, and repugnant to reason. To suffer in such a cause was honourable. If the church courts persecuted, the people blessed them. In some parts of the country immense was the excitement produced by the sentence of exclusion passed by the commission. The effect of this was seen in the change of temper towards the sccclcrs evinced by the Assembly of 1734. The obnoxious acts of 1730, and 1732, relative to the suppression of dissents and the settlement of vacant parishes were repealed; and the synod of Perth and Stirling was empowered to take proper steps for restoring the four brethren to their respective charges. This last instruction was accompanied with an express mandate that the synod

« PreviousContinue »