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Old Church Life in Scotland
Appendix A.— The Exercise, the Presbytery, and the Classical Assembly


These phrases are sometimes used interchangeably as if they were of the same import. It is at least certain, however, that they were sometimes used in official records with a distinction of meaning.

The Exercise was the phrase that, during the first twenty years after the Reformation, was applied to the convention of ministers within walking distance of a common centre.

The Presbytery was a term that came into use about 1580, when the Second Book of Discipline was approved by the General Assembly.

The expression Classical Assembly is what the Westminster Divines, in their form of Church government, approved by the Church of Scotland in 1645, applied to the intermediate Court of the Church, or what we now call the Presbytery. "It is lawful and agreeable to the Word of God," they said, " that the Church be governed by several sorts of Assemblies, which are Congregational, Classical, and Synodical."

Wherein, then, it may be asked, did the Exercise and the Classical Assembly differ from the Presbytery, if either differed from the Presbytery at all?

In 1579, an overture was made in the General Assembly that "Presbyteries be erected in places where publick exercise is used unto the tyme the policy of the Kirk be established by law." This looks as if the framers of the overture supposed that the Presbytery was something different from the Exercise. The declaration of the Assembly, however, was that the Exercise may be judged a Presbytery.

Bishop Sage finds fault with this judgment of the Assembly. He says that Presbyteries were never heard of in Scotland till this overture was brought forward in 1579, and that what was formerly called the Exercise was something quite different from a Presbytery. "It was," he says, "nothing like a Court," it had no jurisdiction, and it exercised no discipline. [At page 185 reference is made to the fact that the fundamental Court of the Church described in the Second Book of Discipline was, in respect of its size and membership, more like a modern Kirk Session than a modern Presbytery, but that in respect of its functions it was the reverse. It may be stated here that the scheme of small Presbyteries—comprising "ane or twa," "thrie or four" kirks—was never carried out. The very year in which the Second Book of Discipline was registered (1581) the King submitted to the General Assembly a "forme how elderschips may be constitute of a certain number of parochines lyand together," and in this form all the parishes in Scotland were grouped under fifty Presbyteries, "twenty to every Presbytery, or thereaboitts." This form, with modifications, became the basis on which Presbyteries were erected, and hence, when Presbyteries were so large, it was meet that some jurisdiction should be conceded to Kirk Sessions, as was craved by the Church in 15S6 (Book of Univ. Kirk, and Calderwood, Vol. IV., p. 568), and allowed in the Act of Parliament 1592. The existence of Kirk Sessions as constituent Courts seems to be further recognised in a resolution of Assembly, 1587, which declares that "particular Sessions of Kirks and Congregations are, and should be, subject to their Presbyteries." Book of Kirk, 319.]

The Exercise was a meeting of ministers and readers for the purpose of mutual instruction in Scripture and religion. There were two speakers previously appointed to expound and argue—the first "to exercise or prophesy" and the second "to add"—and in 1576 there were severe punishments ordained by the Assembly to be inflicted on all such as failed to fulfil these appointments. "It either of the two fade, for the first fault, they shall confess their offence upon their knees in presence of the brethren of the Exercise; for the second, they shall make the like submission before the Synodal Assembly; for the third, they shall be summoned before the General Assembly and receive discipline for their offence; and for the fourth they shall be deprived of their offices and functions in the ministry."

After Presbyteries were erected, the Exercise continued to be regarded as something distinct from the Presbytery. In the General Assembly of 1582 there were several "articles" recorded as answers to certain doubts concerning Presbyteries, and from these we learn that ruling elders had seats in the Presbytery, but there is nothing said about their duty to attend the Exercise. Ministers, on the other hand, are declared to be subject to penalties if they do not resort to the Exercise and Presbytery. It was also thought meet that the day appointed for the Exercise be "in like manner the day of ecclesiastical processes," but if the brethren think it necessary they may appoint days" and places for processes "by" or besides the day of the Exercise.

In 1610, the King and the Bishops, with the view of making tha abolition of Presbyterial jurisdiction in the Church more easy, endeavoured to bring about the disuse of the word Presbytery, and for that unpleasant word the substitution of the phrase, "Brethren of the Exercise."

When Presbyterial government was restored in the Church in 1638 and 1639, Exercises and Presbyteries were held together on the same day and in the same place, just as general meetings and special meetings of railway companies are said to be held at present.

In the oldest extant records of the Presbytery of Ayr—those from 1642 to 1650—we find that when there was to be an Exercise as well as a Presbytery held, it was commonly minuted, "The Exercise was established in the person of A. B., the first speaker, and of C. D., the second," or "C. D. to add."

While the Exercise was said to be established in the persons of only two speakers, there was an Act of Assembly, passed in 1598, that from its intrinsic reasonableness might be said to be of perpetual standing, which ordained "that every member of the Presbytery study the text whereupon the exercise is to be made." Another clause in the same Act ordained that "ane common head of religion be intieatit every moneth in ilk Presbyterie, both by way of discourse and disputation," or by way of exercise and addition.

In 1705 an attempt was made to have a complete book of discipline compiled anew, as a directory for the several Church Courts. Such a book was compiled and published, but it never obtained either ecclesiastical or civil sanction. It nevertheless throws light on old usages, and what it says about Presbyterial exercises may be quoted. It declares that part of the work of a Presbytery is to begin every meeting with a sermon by one or two of the brethren on a text appointed at the former meeting of Presbytery, and this piece of business is called a Presbyterial exercise. One half of the time allowed in this work is to be taken up with explication, and this is called exercise; the other half of the time is to be occupied in raising doctrines on the text, and this is called "addition." "After the exercise is over, and the Presbytery met in their own meeting-place, and the meeting constituted, the censure of the exercise they have heard useth always to be the first work of the Presbytery. Besides the above exercise they used in Presbyteries frequently to have common heads in Latin with disputes, but if it be coram popido it should be in the vulgar language."

The Exercise at one time was a laborious business. The Presbytery of Edinburgh in 1597 ordained that "the first speikar sail occupy na langer tyme nor an hour, the second half an hour preciselie . . . and that the prayer before and efter the exercise be short." And the censure of the exercise was no sham. Speakers were plainly told to have a feeling of what they delivered, to "eschew affectat language, and to utter their words with gretar force." Occasionally, however, complimentary language was used, and speakers were informed that they had done "mervellous." M'Crie's Life of Melville, i. 477.

From what is said not only in the Westminster Form of Church Government, but in Baillie's Dissuasive, we might think that a Presbytery and a Classical Assembly are one and the same thing, "A Presbytery, as it is called in Scotland," says Baillie, "or a Classis, as in Holland, or a Collogue, as in France, is an ordinary meeting of the pastors of the churches nearly neighbouring, and of the ruling elders deputed therefrom, for the exercise chiefly of discipline, so far as concerns those neighbouring churches in common." Dissuasive, p. 198.

The word Classis, however, was used in a different sense from this in the Presbytery of Ayr. The Classis was not the whole Presbytery, but a part of the Presbytery. In a minute of date 1697 we read that "the several classes that meet sometimes for prayer are appointed to meet—those of Carrick at Dailie, and those of Kyle at Symington, St. Quivox and Auchinleck." Another minute, of date 1737, states expressly that in the Presbytery there were four classes, those of Cumnock, Galston, Ayr and Maybole. It will be seen, too, that the classes in the Presbytery of Ayr met for prayer, and we may say religious conference, rather than for discipline, as alleged by Baillie.

The Rev. Dr. Chrystal informs me that when he came to Auchinleck, in 1833, the Carrick Class was still in the way of holding meetings. At these meetings an essay or paper was read by one of the members, and criticised by the others, as is done at present at the half-yearly conferences of the Presbytery of Ayr. It is said that it was at these meetings of the Carrick Class that Dr. MacKnight laid the foundation of his well-known work on the New Testament.

In the Mauchline Session Records there is at least one reference to the local Classical meeting. In 1765 Mr. Auld reported "from the Presbytery that P. Q. (a man who denied the truth of a charge made against him) appeared there, and was ordered to appear at a Classical meeting at Cumnock on the 20th November." His appearance before the Classical meeting at Cumnock, however, was not for censure, but for trial, as is shewn by a subsequent minute of Session, which states that the Presbytery, after hearing all the evidence on the case, assoilzied the man from scandal.

The several classes in the Presbytery seem to have formed the first set of Committees of Presbytery for the examination of schools. In 1738 the Presbytery of Ayr appointed " the brethren of the class of Ayr, and with them Messrs. Fisher, Cooper and Younger, to visit the Grammar School of Ayr the Tuesday before next Presbytery. And the Classes of Cumnock, Maybole and Galston are each appointed to visit the Grammar Schools that are in each of their bounds at their first Classical meeting, and an account of their diligence to be carried on in the minutes."


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