[This paper was delivered by Rev Neil Macintyre (Edinburgh) at the 1943 Synod, when the Free Presbyterian Church had existed for 50 years.]
The Free Presbyterian Church has had a wonderful history. She might be compared to the vine brought from Egypt which took root and filled the land and the boughs extended over the sea. Such is the history of the Free Presbyterian Church. She began in a very small way. Two ministers and one elder formed her first Presbytery. Today we have twenty-five ministers with many lay missionaries. We are represented in England and South Africa, where we have two ordained European missionaries and a female teacher. We also have Mission Stations in America, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. At the beginning of our history enemies predicted we could only exist for a year or two owing to want of funds and leaders. But these prophets proved to be false, for we are now fifty years in existence, which is our Jubilee, and no appearance of us coming to an end notwithstanding the wishful thinking of some who do not wish us well. This should humble us and make us give the glory to Him who hitherto has helped us.
Let me give a brief sketch of the history of the Free Presbyterian Church. In 1843 the Free Church made an noble stand in defence of the crown rights of the Lord Jesus Christ as King and Head of His own Church. The Disruption Fathers contended, especially during the “Ten Years’ Conflict,” against the intrusion of the Civil Court to rule in the House of God. On account of this unscriptural interference the Constitutional party were compelled to separate not from the Church of Scotland as to her creed and constitution, but from the Erastian party, as was clearly stated by Dr. Chalmers: “We have left,” he said, “a vitiated Establishment but we would gladly return to a pure one and we are not Voluntaries.”
In 1843 the Free Church firmly maintained the absolute inerrancy of God’s Word and the purity of worship. In 1863 a Committee was appointed to consider whether difficulties which stood in the way of Union between the U.P. Church and the Free Church could be removed. This question caused a bitter controversy between the Constitutionalists and the Rainy party. In 1873 Dr. Rainy, afraid of a serious split in the Church, called a halt and for the time dropped the subject.
The Free Church which made such a noble stand in defence of truth and principle and which the Lord so abundantly acknowledged did not proceed far on her ecclesiastical journey when boars from the forest appeared to devour her, and break down her hedges. The first to be noticed of these heretics who publicly expressed their pernicious opinions regarding the infallibility of God’s Word was Professor Robertson Smith of Aberdeen. He publicly denied the authenticity and inspiration of several parts of the Bible.” After much wrangling over his case in the courts of the Church he was finally suspended from his professorial chair by a majority vote. That his suspension was by a majority showed clearly that he had many supporters and sympathisers behind him.
The decision no doubt encouraged other sceptics regarding the infallibility of the Word of God. Professors Dods, Bruce, Denney, Drummond and others publicly stated that there were errors and immoralities in the Bible. These heretical teachers instilled their false doctrines into the minds of their students and when they were licensed they went over the land like a plague of locusts spreading their pernicious views among the people. While these men were preaching their unscriptural doctrines they felt they had no legal authority in doing so.
In 1889 an Overture was presented to the General Assembly craving that a Committee be appointed to enquire as to how the difficulties and scruples that some professed to have regarding certain doctrines of the Confession of Faith might be removed. A Committee was appointed and gave in their report. In 1891 the Assembly by a large majority approved of the report and on the motion of Dr. Rainy it was sent down to Presbyteries under the “Barrier Act” for their approval or disapproval. Presbyteries were not allowed to make any changes, but simply to say “yes” or “no.” In 1892 the Act came up at the Assembly and as it was approved by a great majority of Presbyteries, Dr. Rainy moved that it be passed as a Declaratory Act. The Constitutionalists moved a counter motion. There voted for Dr. Rainy’s motion 428, and for the counter motion by Rev. Murdo MacAskill, Dingwall, 66.
So the Act was passed by a large majority as “a binding law and constitution of the Church.” Some maintained that because the Questions and Formula were not changed the Act was not binding. That argument is vain for the Act would have to be passed into law before any one could be asked to subscribe it. Some Presbyteries and Synods entered Protests in their minutes against the Act, but all these when they came up to the Assembly were ordered to be deleted and declared null and void.
In 1893 several Overtures were sent up from Presbyteries and Synods to the Assembly to have the Act repealed, but it was moved by Dr. Rainy that the Assembly pass from these Overtures, which was carried by a large majority. Twenty-one ministers and twenty-one elders dissented from that finding. It was then the Rev. Donald Macfarlane (Mr. Macfarlane was not a member in 1892) stepped forward and tabled his Protest in which he stated that the General Assembly in passing the Declaratory Act into a law of the Church in 1892 ceased to be the true representative of the Free Church of Scotland and declared that he claimed all his sacred and civil rights according to the terms of contract agreed upon between him and the Free Church at his ordination.
Dr. Rainy said if the document Mr. Macfarlane had laid on their table, were it merely a dissent, they would have no hesitation in allowing it, but it was much more, it was an express repudiation of the authority and validity of the Act of the General Assembly. He then moved that they do not receive the Protest. The Free Church adopted the Declaratory Act as part of its constitution, and all who remained in connection with it were under its jurisdiction whether they agreed with the Act or not.
It is rather strange to find some among us now who hold that it was when Messrs. Macfarlane and Macdonald, with Mr. Macfarlane, elder, Raasay, constituted themselves as the Free Church Presbytery of Scotland that they separated from the Free Church. That certainly was not Mr. Macfarlane’s view when he tabled his Protest. Besides, if that view is correct, which we hold is not, then the history of the Free Presbyterian Church will have to be re-written.
After Mr. Macfarlane protested he agreed to come to Millhouse, Kames, for Sabbath, and hold a meeting of the congregation on Monday. On his way there he stayed with me on Friday night at 147 Albert Street, Glasgow, where he met a number of students, including the late Messrs. Cameron and Macrae and others. After some discussion it was agreed that Mr. Macfarlane should call a meeting of the Millhouse congregation on Monday. The meeting was called and the whole congregation attended. After Mr. Macfarlane and others had explained the ecclesiastical position the whole congregation except six decided to separate from the Declaratory Act Church. That was the first congregation to cast in their lot with Mr. Macfarlane. The late Mr. Archibald Crawford who was present was asked to express his mind. He rose and said:
I saw this bastard child being formed in the womb of the Free Church when Drs. Dods and Bruce were appointed professors, but as the constitution was not changed I did not actually leave the Church, but now that this bastard child is born in the Declaratory Act, whatever others will do, I am done with the Declaratory Act Church forever.
Mr. Macfarlane, greatly encouraged by the noble stand made by the Millhouse congregation returned home to Raasay where he was then minister. On Monday after the Communion (2nd Sabbath of June) he explained his own position and asked those who adhered to the Word of God and the Confession of Faith to stand. All stood except very few. Soon after a public meeting was convened at Inverness. The Rev. Donald Macdonald, Sheildaig, who had not yet publicly declared his mind was present. He rose and intimated that he refused to acknowledge the Declaratory Act Church as the Free Church of Scotland, and that he was taking his stand with Mr. Macfarlane. At this meeting it was agreed that immediate steps be taken to form a Presbytery.
On 27th July the Revs. D. Macfarlane, D. Macdonald, with Mr. Alexander Macfarlane, elder, Raasay, met in conference at Raasay and resolved to meet in the name of the Head of the Church and constitute themselves a separate Presbytery, not owning the jurisdiction of the courts of the Church calling herself the Free Church of Scotland. By this action they placed themselves beyond the power of the Declaratory Act Church. It was said that Dr. Rainy admitted that that was the cleverest Act known in the history of the Church in Scotland. The Presbytery was first called “The Free Church Presbytery of Scotland.” It was afterwards discovered that the above name might cause it to clash, especially in financial matters, with the Free Church, so in July 1894, after due deliberation, it was unanimously agreed that the Church be called the “Free Presbyterian Church.” This, we were told, was a great disappointment to the Rainy party, for that was the name they had in view to give to the United Free Church.
A Committee was appointed by the Declaratory Act Free Church to take legal proceedings against the Free Presbyterian Church to claim the property, but as Messrs. Macfarlane and Macdonald did not contest the case in the Civil Courts they were evicted from their churches and manses. But the Lord whom they served and whose cause they defended soon provided them with churches and manses.
The Free Presbyterian Church did not proceed far on her ecclesiastical journey when serious and trying troubles assailed her especially with some of her ministers and students. As was said by a certain writer in our Church magazine, “Some of the officers and crew, dissatisfied with the discipline of the smaller ship have left her for a vessel of larger dimensions and wider liberality.” While we lamented the departure of these men, and especially some of them, yet that did not change or cause the Church from faithfully adhering to the position she took up in 1893 in defence of truth and principle.
I am not going to refer to many other troubles we have had during these fifty years. If we, however, hold fast by the infallible Word of God and the testimony of the Free Presbyterian Church we may expect trials and opposition. Christ said to His disciples, “In this world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” While we have much reason to mourn over our short-comings and failings, yet on the other hand we have many reasons to take courage and hold fast the position we took up in 1893, and set up our Ebenezer that “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.”
We had and have our differences at times regarding Church procedure and discipline, yet we maintain that these differences do not change the attitude of the Free Presbyterian Church regarding the absolute integrity of God’s infallible Word which all our ministers, office-bearers and people are pledged to uphold and defend. While we greatly deplore the many divisions in the professing churches in the land we would rejoice to see the people turning to the Word of God and to a scriptural form of worship of which, alas! there are no signs at present. It is, therefore, our duty as a Church to hold fast by God’s Word and to purity of worship as He has commanded us. May the Lord in infinite mercy grant us an outpouring of His Spirit that we turn to Him in repentance and godly sorrow. He is removing from our midst one by one to their eternal rest many who were faithful witnesses in our Church, but His command to us is “Hold fast that which thou hast that no man take thy crown.”
We would earnestly appeal to our young people to adhere steadfastly to the testimony raised by their godly fathers in 1893, and to shun countenancing churches who have openly and defiantly departed from the Word of God and from the purity of His worship. We would earnestly pray that this, our Jubilee year, would be one in which many would “be delivered from the power of darkness and translated into the Kingdom of His dear Son.”