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Dr Duncan of Ruthwell
Chapter VII

In 1836 Dr Duncan contracted a second marriage with the widow of the Reverend Robert Lundie of Kelso. Her daughter, before this, had been united to Dr Duncan's second son; the marriage was thus a double union of affection and family ties. Sir David Brewster speaks of Mrs Lundie as being "one of the most charming and intelligent women I ever knew." She was a well-educated, clever woman, and remarkable for her determination of character. Dr Chalmers tells a characteristic story about her in his diary. On visiting the manse at Kelso, in her first husband's lifetime, he found her Httle daughter of nine years old suffering from a spinal complaint. The mother was sitting with the child in her arms and had remained in that same position for nearly seven months, except for one hour out of the twenty-four. "The position," he adds, "was one which nobody understood but her mother, or which she would only maintain in her mother's arms. ... I certainly was much impressed by her Christian feeling and fortitude."

At the time of their marriage the Church of Scotland was going through that fight for spiritual freedom which culminated in the Disruption of '43. Dr Duncan had attached himself with zeal to the reforming party, and was to be found standing in the front rank of those who defended the independence of their Church. It is a long and complicated story, but, before proceeding with the part he took, it will be necessary to point out briefly the reason which impelled so large a portion of the ministers of the Church of Scotland to leave the Establishment. The real question at issue was the right of the people to elect their own ministers. The Ten Years' Conflict was simply a new phase of an old question—should the Church be compelled to ask the State for leave to pass measures involving her spiritual well-being, or should she be free and untrammelled to obey her Divine Head? Briefly the whole dispute was one of resistance to State interference. Mrs Oliphant, in her Life of Dr Chalmers, the leader of the Evangelical and Reforming party, explains the matter so shortly and concisely that I cannot do better than to quote her words: "In England the secular authority is the final judge in ecclesiastical matters, and the Anglican hierarchy has never claimed to rule its own sphere with the independence of the Presbyterians, but that independence has always been one of the most precious possessions of the Church of Scotland, sealed and secured by jealous stipulations ever since the union of the two Crowns."

Lay patronage had been done away with at the Revolution Settlement. In the reign of Queen Anne, an Act was passed restoring patronage, an Act which was unanimously objected to by the Church. Political reasons were supposed to have had much to do with it; were the aristocracy to be rendered more powerful and the ministers more dependent, Jacobite interests would be advanced. This retrograde step soon became the cause of strife and trouble in the Church, and dissent made rapid progress. In the religious revival, which marked the closing years of the eighteenth century, the Evangelical party, as it was called, once again took the lead in the General Assembly, the ecclesiastical Parliament, so to speak, of Scotland. The Moderate party, which had long been in the majority, became in 1834 the minority. The Evangelical party, now in the ascendant, passed what was- known as the Veto Act, or the Act on Calls, which laid down that, "It is a fundamental law of this Church that no pastor shall be intruded on any congregation contrary to the will of the people." The non-intrusion party consisted of those who supported the veto, those in opposition upholding the rights of the patron. A party had at one time prevailed in the Church Courts, which did not trouble much about the Reformation principle, and though they did not go so far as actually to propose to do away with the call, it had been allowed to become, in many instances, almost a dead letter. A call was sustained if signed by an infinitesimal portion of the congregation : in consequence the presentation of the patron generally prevailed'. It was usually possible to find a few persons in favour of the presentee. As early as 1827 Mr Brougham had written to Dr Duncan asking for his views on the subject of patronage. Patronage was not then the burning question of ecclesiastical politics which it was soon to become. Nevertheless, as is evident from Mr Brougham's action, it was already attracting the attention of the Government.

Raby, October 1827.

My Dear Sir,—Yesterday a letter came under cover to me for you and one for Andrew Thomson, which I desired my brother to frank and forward by this dispatch. My great regret at the unlucky accident which prevented our meeting is increased by the reflection that there are some subjects of discussion which it is really very essential we should come to an understanding upon, especially Kirk-patronage, because it is necessary to put the Government in a right train, and I had reckoned upon Dr Andrew Thomson and us having it all talked over at Brougham Hall. I must now beg you to prevail on him to put his ideas in writing, and do the same yourself, as our chance of meeting at Christmas is too small to justify delay.—Yours ever truly,

H. Brougham.

Dr Duncan was very glad of the opportunity of stating his views in so influential a quarter. As I have already given a brief sketch of the differences existing between Church and State it is unnecessary to insert his letter at length. The case for the Evangelical party was stated with clearness and precision. He mentions as an instance of the evils of State interference the case of the late Queen Caroline. "I need only remind you," he says, "of the ferment recently occasioned in Scotland by the political blunder committed during the unhappy dispute about the late Queen Caroline, in the proclamation prescribing to us a particular form of prayer for the Royal Family. This proclamation was universally condemned in Scotland, and almost universally disobeyed, on the high principle that the Throne was assuming a power which did not belong to it, in a matter which was justly held to be purely ecclesiastical. . . . Government could not do anything more grateful' to our Scottish population—so far as the Church is concerned—than by showing a scrupulous regard to this principle." He goes on to criticize the Crown's right of presentation in Scotland, and says, "The manner, however, in which that right has hitherto been exercised, I must be permitted to say, has had a tendency to degrade the clergy, and to alienate the minds of a people peculiarly alive to everything connected with religion."

Mr Brougham forwarded the letter to Lord Lansdowne, then Home Secretary, who, as Lord Henry Petty, had been a friend of Dr Duncan in Edinburgh days, that he might "carefully peruse and study it whilst in the country." Five years later, in 1832, the correspondence re-opened. Lord Brougham, the Lord Chancellor as he then was, wrote to Dr Duncan as follows:—'

Mem., 1832.

"I wish you would draw up your own ideas of the best way to make the Crown Church patronage (in Scotland) available for checking the clamour against the Establishment. Suppose a rule were laid down, and most strictly acted upon, that the Crown nominee should be presented in the first instance to a vestry composed of the existing Kirk-Session (chosen, no doubt, very substantially by the last incumbent), and an equal number of others freely elected by all the male communicants of the parish at a meeting to be called on a month's notice. That this vestry should be allowed to accept, or reject, the nominee. But that, if they rejected, they should appoint two of their number to support their objection, before the next meeting of the presbytery, whose decision should be final, unless they (the presbytery) sustained the objection to more than two successive nominees, and then that an appeal should be to the Synod. Don't omit the conciliation suggested, when we discussed the question at Brougham, in the hardship of sending a rejected nominee out, as it were, stigmatized. Also consider another difficulty, the nominee has either preached before the people or he has not. If he has not, they, and the vestry, have no means of judging, and will object to anyone till a person they have heard is named, which is giving them more than a veto. If he has, then you must run the risk of men bidding against each other in doctrine to suit the taste of those they ought to lead, not follow, and also of making the pulpit a place of canvassing by display and appeals to the passions."

Dr Duncan replied to the Lord Chancellor at length. After tracing the history of the various phases through which the Church had passed he concluded by advocating a return to the Revolution Settlement. The selection of a minister, he contended, must be vested in the heritors and elders of the parish who were to nominate one or, if they preferred it, two candidates to the Crown for presentation. The validity of this presentation would, however, require to be confirmed by the call being subscribed to by a majority of the heads of families, the Crown still retaining the right, should the people reject two successive presentees, of appointing a third whose induction could not be barred by the absence of a call without other sufficient reasons. In answer to this letter Lord Brougham again wrote on November 27th, 1832, saying: " I cannot quite say that I go along with you, and I think the difficulties in the way of so entire an abandonment of Crown patronage are not to be surmounted."

In consequence of Lord Brougham's views Dr Duncan modified his demands and adopted the principle of the Veto in a form very similar to the one embodied in the Act of 1834, which has already been mentioned.

The Assembly of 1834 will long be remembered as having passed this Veto Act— an Act that gave the people the right to veto the appointment to their parish of any minister that was distasteful to them. This Act was passed by the Church in the full assurance that they were acting within their legal right, the right that the Church of Scotland had always cherished to uphold its spiritual independence, and to acknowledge only the Divine Head. The Veto Act, which it was hoped was going to solve all difficulties, was, in effect, the first of a series of events which culminated in the Disruption of '43. The principal provisions were as follows: The General Assembly ... do declare that it is a fundamental law of this Church, that no pastor shall be intruded on any congregation contrary to the will of the people . . . that if the major part of the male heads of families, members of the vacant congregation shall disapprove of the person in whose favour the call is proposed to be moderated in, such disapproval shall be deemed sufficient ground for the presbytery rejecting such person, and that he shall be rejected accordingly." . . . From the legal lips of Lord Brougham came the following approval: " The late proceedings in the General Assembly (viz., by passing the Veto Law) have done more to facilitate the adoption of measures which shall set that important question at rest upon a footing advantageous to the community, and that shall be safe and beneficial, than any other course that could have been taken." The formal contest began in the month of August 1834, when the parish of Auchterarder in Perthshire became vacant. The patron, Lord KinnouU, presented the living to a certain Mr Robert Young. Very little appears to have been known about him, except that for some reason his appointment was distasteful to the people. In a parish containing three thousand inhabitants, only two persons were found to be in favour of Mr Young, whilst two hundred and eighty-seven qualified persons were against his presentation. The Church, thereupon, decided that the Ordination could not be proceeded with, and they requested Lord Kinnoull to make another appointment. The patron and Mr Young resolved to take the case to the Civil Courts; the verdict was adverse to the Church; the legality of the Veto Law was denied, and the decision was upheld by the House of Lords.

It was while these events were taking place that Dr Duncan was elected Moderator of the Church, the highest Ecclesiastical position in Scotland. This took place in the highly critical year 1839, the year in which the famous Strathbogie case was impending, " the most flagrant and astounding act of intrusion that Scotland ever witnessed." Dr Duncan made it clear that there would be no turning back from the position taken up by the Church—the nonintrusion principle was to be upheld—no decision of the Court of Session, nor of even a higher power, should make the Church subordinate to the civil powers. Dr Chalmers said in 1840: "The Church of Scotland can never give way and will sooner give up the Establishment." The Evangelical party were naturally reluctant to take such a serious step as to sever themselves completely from the State. Whilst negotiations were in progress with the Whig Government, Lord Aberdeen, a member of the opposition in the House of Lords, brought in a Bill which served only to widen the breach, and was in consequence withdrawn. The Duke of Argyll introduced a Bill, which would have satisfied the Church, but failed to meet with the approval of the Peers. What was to be done? Was there no way in which the conflicting powers of Church and State could be reconciled ? The complications and legal proceedings that followed could not be indefinitely prolonged. The Assembly of '42 brought the matter to a final issue by the Claim of Right, that is to say, they determined to uphold those privileges, which they asserted the State had assailed, and which they maintained were part of the Ancient Constitution of Church and State in Scotland. It was obvious that the Church was hastening on to seek, apart from the State, the freedom she desired. The Government seemed to doubt the seriousness of the situation, and evidently did not anticipate the grave events that followed. The final crisis was the decision of the Upper House i in the second Auchterarder Case, and the reply of the Government to the Claim of Right was also given in terms adverse to the position taken up by the Church. Dr Duncan had foreseen that this dead-lock between the Ecclesiastical and Civil powers would come about, and as early as 1841 had felt that some great event was impending. He wrote to his eldest son to say, "My only fear arises from the danger of defection in our own ranks, and I am afraid that the terror of losing their livings would operate on many to induce them, in the hour of trial, to desert their principles. I hope none of my children will show the white feather, indeed I know they will not." The thought seemed to call forth the whole of his fighting strength and to renew his activity. Although his hair had grown white and his figure was bent, the clock seemed to have been put back to his youth as far as his spirit and mental activity went. On 18th of May 1843, between four and five hundred ministers left their manses. Dr Duncan, his two sons, and his son-in-law—all ministers of the Church—joined the Free Church of Scotland.

It was a memorable day; the streets of Edinburgh were crowded and business was suspended; large anxious crowds had assembled in the streets, and there was a feeling of intense excitement manifested everywhere. No sooner were the doors of St Andrew's Church opened than every available space was filled. In the Throne Room at Holyrood, where the Lord High Commissioner was holding his Court, the portrait of King William III. fell to the ground. "There goes the Revolution Settlement," said a voice in the crowd— an ominous incident. At St Andrew's Church the Lord High Commissioner was announced and was received by the entire assemblage standing. Prayers were offered up. Dr Welsh, the Moderator, rose after the first moment, when the excitement of the audience was nearly at breaking point; silence prevailed. " Fathers and brethren, according to the usual form of procedure, this is the time for making up the roll, but in consequence of certain proceedings affecting our rights and privileges— proceedings which have been sanctioned by Her Majesty's Government, and by the Legislature of the Country—and more especially in respect that there has been an infringement on the liberties of our Constitution, so that we could not now constitute this Court without a violation of the terms of the union between Church and State in this land, as now authoritatively declared, I must protest against our proceeding further. The reasons that have led me to come to this conclusion are fully set forth in this document which I hold in my hand, and which, with the permission of the House, I will now proceed to read." The memorable document followed. The wrongs of the Church were clearly explained, and their enumeration concluded with these words. "We are not responsible for any consequences that may follow from this our enforced separation from an Establishment, which we loved and prized, through interference with conscience, the dishonour done to Christ's Crown, and the rejection of His sole and supreme authority as King in His Church." Dr Welsh laid the protest on the table, and, bowing low to the High Commissioner, left the chair and proceeded to the door, followed closely by Dr Chalmers. For one moment a loud cheer broke from the galleries which quickly died away, and amidst an impressive silence man after man left his seat and joined the long procession that poured forth into the crowded street. The great self-sacrificing act was done. Many of the men who left St Andrew's Church that day were homeless. The Church had surrendered voluntarily the advantage of a State Establishment in order to secure spiritual freedom. No flesh pots in the way of endowments of secular privileges stood in the path of these devoted disinterested men. Buchanan says, in his Ten Years' Conflict: "As surely as that Providence is not a game of chance—as certainly as that God is in history—the Disruption of the Church of Scotland carries in it a message from the Eternal."

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