No one today could imagine a secular newspaper publishing eight articles, week after week, under the heading: “The Present Cast and Tendency of Religious Thought and Feeling in Scotland”. Yet in 1879 the Perthshire Courier printed a series of articles (1) on exactly that subject, by John Kennedy, the most prominent of those ministers in the Highlands who opposed the tendency in the then Free Church to depart from Scripture.Kennedy focusses exclusively on the Presbyterian churches, which were then by far the most influential in Scotland. First he looks back on what he calls “the distinctive features of Scottish Christianity in the best days of the past”. He considers three points as distinctive of the best of such Christians:
(1.) They “were staunchly orthodox”. He points to their sincere subscription to the whole of the Westminster Confession. But were they not displacing the Bible by placing such emphasis on the Confession? No. Even the children were taught to give Scripture proofs for the Shorter Catechism answers. “Unsound standards alone tend to encroach on the province, just because they collide with the teaching, of Scripture.” And Kennedy shows his foresight in his comments on how, once an unscriptural doctrine is brought into the Church, it will lead to further departures: “Let hymns be introduced into the service of praise, they will in course of time utterly supersede the inspired Psalter which God has given to His Church. Let musical instruments begin to sound in the courts of Zion, the carnality that craved them will soon spread its pollution over the whole range of worship.” But on the other hand, he points out: “The men who least deferred to Scripture were those who showed least respect for the [Westminster] standards”.
(2.) The personal religion also of these Christians of the past was scriptural, and they were concerned about its depth and fruitfulness. “They surely were right”, Kennedy insists, “in thinking that there is a work within the souls of the saved, and a change of mind and feeling resulting from it, on which the light of truth must be brought to bear in order to its being tested.” But, realistically, “they were accustomed to think and to teach that there may be counterfeits of that work.” Further: “They expected fruit and usefulness in proportion to the extent and definiteness of Christian experience. They would not set converts at once to work in a public position. They would have them first to acquire skill in secret conflict with the enemy.”
(3.) Theirs was not a worldly religion. Kennedy refers to “their carefulness to refrain from conformity to the spirit and ways of the unchanging evil world – that world which, in its antagonism to God and to godliness, is ever the same, however varying may be the forms in which it puts forth its power to draw men away from truth and righteousness”. This “nonconformity to the world . . . is the result of communion with God and of the conscientious remembrance of solemn vows”.
Kennedy went on to analyse the religious situation of Scotland at the time when he was writing. First of all, he noted, there was a state of drift – from the old ways summarised above. He pointed out how, earlier in the nineteenth century, God had raised up particularly able men like Andrew Thomson and Thomas Chalmers, whom he used to advance His cause in Scotland. However, a side-effect was that “those who worshipped intellect could now find it among the Evangelicals”. And a set of men arose for whom “it would never do to be unacquainted with the works of the learned thinkers of Germany” – however much such German thinking tended to weaken the authority of Scripture. As a result, Kennedy had to complain, “German Rationalists are teaching, from Scottish chairs of theology and from Scottish pulpits, the rising ministry and the people to forget that the Bible is the Word of God and that the gospel is the only ‘word of salvation'”.
In contrast with the past, there was now “a dense haze” on the subject of personal religion. “They have somehow brought themselves to think that care as to evidences of growth in grace interferes with the life of faith.” And “it would be difficult to tell whither the men . . . with broken hearts could go to find what would meet their cases and remove their fears”. It was a time of increased temptation to worldliness, and the Church was yielding to it. “These are held up as superstitious who claim a hearing for God when, on other days than Sabbath, He calls men away from the vanities of the world to consider things unseen and eternal. Those who attempt to fence the table of the Lord are represented as mystical and straight-laced and, because conservative of what is scriptural, they are said to be ‘behind the age’. . . . To be behind an age that is drifting away from truth and ungodliness is the only safe, the only dutiful, position.”
At this point, Kennedy focussed on the United Presbyterian Church, which was then proposing to add a Declaratory Statement to the Confession of Faith. This Declaratory Statement was almost identical to the Declaratory Act which the General Assembly of the Free Church was to pass in 1892 – the event which led to the formation of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland as a separate body the following year. Kennedy argues that the “distinctive Calvinism” of the United Presbyterian Church was “utterly repudiated in this Statement, and United Presbyterian subscribers of the Confession were allowed liberty to believe as much or as little of it as they are disposed”. It was, he affirms, “utterly inconsistent with the Confession, yea . . . to a considerable extent quite contradictory of its teaching”. And the same statements could have been made about the Free Church of the 1890s, when the drift of several decades came to a head in the effective repudiation of that body’s doctrinal basis.
When Kennedy turned to the Free Church, it was to note that “she started well; she came at once into existence as a full-grown Church of Scotland”. And it is worth adding that, when the Free Presbyterian Church came into existence – if we cannot claim for her, as Kennedy did for the Free Church, that “her ministers and congregations were spread over all the face of the country” – yet she was the true representative of the Church of Scotland in respect of “the genuine spirit and the old standards” of that Church.
Though he believed that the Free Church had started well, Kennedy was concerned that too much was made, in the early stages, of the praise that she attracted from some quarters and, on the other hand, of the difficulties which she had to face in others – presumably the problems of obtaining sites for churches and manses. “The Free Church seemed to feel as if a course of indefinite progress was opened out before her. Due care ceased to be taken to preserve from blight the spiritual life within her pale. In the haste and bustle of rebuilding the outward framework of the Church, the spiritual condition of both ministers and people was to a great extent neglected.” And when it became necessary to bring charges against a minister who held that Scripture contains inaccuracies (presumably Kennedy is referring to Walter C Smith, who, ironically, was to be Moderator of the 1893 General Assembly) “a large majority were of the opinion that this heresy was a pardonable offence”. Even in 1879, it was becoming obvious that the drift in the Free Church was irremediable.
Kennedy’s booklet should be essential reading for Free Presbyterians, as it will help them to understand the background to the events of 1893. But we ought to be clear that only in dependence on the Lord Himself can the Church of God be preserved from drift in any direction.
1. These articles were later reprinted as a booklet and are now republished in an attractive format by the James Begg Society under the title: Signs of the Times (66 pp, £3.00); it is available from the F P Bookroom. One small point: the cover picture is said to show “the Free Church where Dr Kennedy was minister from 1844-1884”. These dates are accurate for Kennedy’s ministry in Dingwall, but he was minister in this building only from 1870.