Rev. K. D. Macleod
A review article on The People of the Great Faith – The Highland Church 1690-1900 by Douglas Ansdell, published by Acair, paperback, 240 pages, £15.99.
THE title of this new book comes from a Journal of a Mission to Part of the Highlands of Scotland, written in 1797 by Neil Douglas, a minister of the Relief Church. In it he says of those who were coming under the influence of the gospel at that time, “The People of the Great Faith was the common epithet by which they were mentioned in scorn. . . . Their fame was spread far and wide as a people that had gone distracted that had committed the most extravagant things and ought to be shunned by every one as a pest to society.” This work is an attempt to take an objective look at the whole ecclesiastical spectrum in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland during a period of just over 300 years. It is the period during which evangelical religion came to the fore, a time when there was considerable gospel blessing, before the inroads of liberalism brought about a time of general backsliding.
The book begins with the revolution settlement of 1689, when the Westminster Confession of Faith regained its place in the Scottish Church and the government of the Church became Presbyterian once more. Yet all was not smooth sailing; in many parts of the Highlands, Presbyterian ministers were decidedly unwelcome. In Gairloch, for instance, John Morrison was to be settled in 1711. The minister of Kilmorack, Thomas Chisholm, was sent to serve the edict, but got no further than Kinlochewe, where he was seized by a group of men and held prisoner. After his release he read the edict to a small group of people in a house. Morrison’s induction service, not surprisingly, was held elsewhere – in Kiltearn, where the Covenanter, Thomas Hog, had once been minister. After taking up residence in his parish, the new minister was subjected to repeated assault and his crops were destroyed on at least one occasion, and on another they were stolen along with his cattle. That he continued for five years in Gairloch seems a tribute to his courage. Even in his next charge in Urray, on the opposite side of Ross-shire, he suffered continual opposition.
Another factor inhibiting the spread of the gospel in the Highlands in the eighteenth century was the size of many parishes. Barvas, then covering the greater part of the west coast of Lewis, was so large that, in those days with no transport of scarcely any kind, it was not only difficult but dangerous for people in the most distant parts of the parish to come to the church. The minister reported that lives had been lost on more than one occasion as parishioners tried to cross swollen rivers in poor weather to attend his services.
The appointment of missionary ministers and godly schoolmasters, by, among others, Scottish Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge (SSPCK), helped to meet the spiritual needs of such large parishes. Yet spiritual progress was also doubtless hampered by the long delay in having the Bible translated into Scottish Gaelic. Not till 1801 was the complete Bible available, although the New Testament had been published in 1767 – its printing having been supervised by Dugald Buchanan, the Gaelic poet, himself a SSPCK teacher.
Yet there were many ministers who did not care for the welfare of their people’s souls. John Kennedy of Dingwall, in his life of John Macdonald, Ferintosh, The Apostle of the North, went so far as to describe the influence of such ministers as deadly. Dr Ansdell quotes Dr Kennedy’s description of the Moderate minister (though Kennedy is speaking of “the parson in one of these parishes”): “the great cattle-dealer at the market, the leading dancer at the wedding, the toast-master at the farmers’ dinner, and if the last to slide off his chair at the drinking bout, it was because he was more seasoned than the rest”. John Macdonald himself did much to counteract the influence of the Moderate ministers by his itinerant preaching; “he preached upwards of 10,000 times in the last 36 years of his life”. Other names mentioned in connection with the Evangelical revival in the Highlands include James Haldane and Donald Munro, the Skye catechist whose work was so much blessed to the good of souls.
After giving an outline of the “Ten Years’ Conflict”, the author emphasises how extensively the Highlands embraced the newly-established Free Church at the time of the Disruption. In the whole county of Sutherland it was reckoned that just over 200 remained in the Church of Scotland out of a population of around 25,000. In Lewis fewer than 500 out of 17,000 were left in the Established Church. In Lochs, one of the Lewis parishes, only one man remained. Even if these figures are not representative of the Highlands as a whole, it should be noted that support among ministers was less strong than among the people.
A chapter headed Secession gives an essentially fair account of the events leading up to the formation of the Free Presbyterian Church. After discussing the passing of the Declaratory Act in 1892 and some of the reactions to it, the author refers to the conventions of Constitutionalists held in Glasgow and Inverness. At Inverness it was decided to confine the meeting to ministers in spite of the fact that many of the elders had travelled long distances to get there. Dr Ansdell comments, “It was a most uncharacteristic step, given the normal composition of presbyterian courts”. Those who were holding the reins of the Constitutionalist movement doubtless realised that without the elders it would be easier to get the decision from the meeting which they wished for: that it was not necessary to separate. The author goes on, “This apparent collapse of opposition was viewed with amazement by those who had listened to the stirring speeches of ministers who had now qualified their position when secession appeared as an imminent possibility.”
Rev Donald Macfarlane’s protest at the 1893 General Assembly of the Free Church is duly recorded, and this is followed by quite a detailed account of developments over the succeeding months and years. The chapter concludes: “Those who seceded held that if they had remained in the Free Church then they would have to accept these objectionable’ changes to worship and doctrine. They quit because, in their view, the church they belonged to was no longer the church they had joined. In order to remain loyal to their beliefs they considered they were now obliged to form a new church to embody the principles that had been contended for successfully in 1843. In a number of Highland villages two churches claimed to have their origins in the Disruption. One was founded in 1843, yet the latter [the Free Presbyterian Church] now claimed to represent more accurately the origins of the former.” And surely these latter were right in their analysis. It was they who could claim to have been the true successors of “the people of the great faith” of earlier generations. And as Dr Ansdell notes, “From the outset they have attracted a measure of scorn.” But they themselves would not have spoken of forming a new church, but rather of being the true successors of the Disruption Free Church. The Free Church had so amended its constitution by passing the Declaratory Act that it moved onto an unscriptural foundation.
A further chapter follows the course of the Free Church until its union with the United Presbyterian Church in 1900. It also discusses the law case in which the remnant Free Church attempted, in the end successfully, to be accounted by the civil courts the true successors of the Free Church as it had existed before the union. But, as indicated above, the true successors of the Disruption Free Church had separated in 1893.
Dr Ansdell, who works in the Scottish Office, has produced a useful survey of religion in the Highlands. He also has chapters on such subjects as Education and Land, which he discusses in a religious context. Those who have already read some of the older books which deal with various aspects of the author’s overall theme may not learn a great deal that is new. The author speaks respectfully of those whom he discusses, but he keeps his distance; there is a lack of involvement with the great men and issues that he passes under review. For a warmer appreciation of the great works of God in the Highlands in previous centuries readers are directed to such books as The Apostle of the North1 and The Days of the Fathers in Ross-shire, also by John Kennedy.
1. The Apostle of the North will be available for a limited period from the Free Presbyterian Bookroom at a special price of £2.95, postage extra (the normal price is £4.50). It is the fascinating account of the life and labours of a man of remarkable preaching gifts, as well as of true godliness, who was prepared to spend and be spent in the service of Christ during a period when the Lord was bestowing a special blessing on the proclamation of the gospel.