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Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander Chapter XXV. - On the Edge of the Precipice


IN associations for secular purposes, even whole nations are not incapable of recognising their mistakes and of trying to correct them. But religious associations of all denominations ape at infallibility, and will, as a rule, follow the course they have once set for themselves although it should lead them to the gates of Hades. In this twentieth century those who deplore the deplorable divisions of Scottish Presbyterianism, and who search back for their originating causes, will, I have no doubt, say that the Veto Act was a blunder, albeit a well-intentioned one, which ought to have been repudiated as soon as its inefficiency was discovered, and its illegality declared, in favour of that perfectly proper course by which the abolition of patronage was obtained thirty years after the calamitous disunion of 1843 had taken place. It was not till the edge of the precipice had been reached that the demand for abolition was countenanced by the clerical leaders, who stuck to their own inflated spiritual independence and papal infallibility claims, and who, when they did at last as a great concession to lay-desire for the larger boon, look at the preferable alternative, did not stop the march on the line leading over the precipice. They had given and received provocations not to be forgiven or forgotten readily. Throughout all Scotland, and not only from hot religious zeal, but also, as already noticed, for underlying race defence reasons, more blazingly in the Highlands than any- where else, the national heather was in flames. Dr Cook and his Assembly minority had not as a party any just title to the name of Moderates. They and the Tory lairds, the private patrons, with a few exceptions, and the Peel Government, had committed themselves to a policy of coercive repression which angered the people of Scotland and furnished the heather-firers with fine torches. Enlightened patriotism was compulsorily blind-folded or stricken dumb. By the faults both sides had committed in this contest, they had unconsciously laid broad foundations for the Radicalism which at once took hold of cities and burghs, and came to the top in the counties when household suffrage was extended to them. Sir Robert Peel and his colleagues banished political commonsense to Jericho when, in utter forgetfulness or utter ignorance of the lessons taught by Scottish history, they fell back on the policy of coercion which had been so ruinous to the Stuart dynasty. Their Scotch advisers, lawyers, clericals, Tory patrons, and proprietors who either recommended that policy or meekly endorsed it, were still more culpable because they knew, or ought to know, the fierce nature of the Scottish Presbyterians when called upon by their Church leaders to rally in defence of their religious rights, with which in every blue banner mustering, the cause of civil rights and liberties was dead sure to be inseparably intertwined in some manner. No gleam of second-sight faintly showed to the Church leaders that a generation later on their successors would not only throw away the grand opportunity the abolition of patronage provided for re-union, but bitterly dislike the liberation from the old yoke given to the Church of Scotland, adopt a dis- establishment policy, plunge into unnatural political association with Irish Separatists, English Socialists, and so-called Liberationists, and finally by their 1900 Union with the U.P. Voluntaries, stray widely from the principles of the Claim of Bight and Protest, and thereby cause other separations. But if deficient in foresight and recklessly careless about the future of Presbyterianism in Scotland, they were adepts at stirring up and organising a big national movement which had many of the features of a general trade-union strike. In 1842 this strike was in the name of the crown rights of Christ and His supreme sovereignty, plainly and professedly directed against the unfavourable decisions of the Civil Courts (which decisions were often garnished with deliberate words of offence), and against the repressive, coercive policy of the Peel Government. It passes human comprehension to understand how the Scottish advisers and supporters of that Government failed to take in the extent and the significance of the popular movement, and to impress upon Sir Robert Peel and his colleagues the necessity for resorting to reasonable compromise. Lord Aberdeen's Act, passed after the Disruption had taken place, from its general impracticability and the varying measure in which ever changing Assembly majorities ad- ministered it, proved to be much of a costly sham; but it was a plausible sham containing a modicum concession. Had it been passed in the session of 1842 it would, at least, have greatly strengthened the "Forty Thieves" and added largely to their numbers. It might even have prevented the catastrophe of 1843. Lord Aberdeen in 1841 introduced a similar Bill in the House of Lords which was still more of a sham and came to nothing. The rulers of the Church had in the Presbyterian organisation, with its Kirk Sessions, Presbyteries, Synods, and General Assemblies, splendidly constructed machinery for working up the agitation. As, for example, in the deposition of the Strathbogie ministers, for refusing to run their heads against civil penalties, by obeying ecclesiastical injunction, they used their spiritual power as despotically as their opponents used their civil power. Their opponents made some feeble attempts to hold public meetings to pass counter-resolutions and to make counter-protests. But they had no popular organisation at their command, and as they found that the people would not attend their meetings, and that they were mocked as mere class and caste demonstrations, they discontinued holding them. They tried pamphlet war with no better success. The arguments put forth in those pamphlets, although some of them were good from the legal and customary point of view, caused the tide of popular opinion to rise higher and higher against their side, and to evoke new Radical arguments and threats from hot-headed antagonists. As soon as the Peel Government displaced the Melbourne one, threats of separation began to be muttered by irresponsible individuals on the popular side, but it was not till that threat was taken up by the responsible leaders gathered together in Convocation that Government and country were seriously warned of such an extreme project as separation being really contemplated by the then rulers of the Church of Scotland.

As a matter of fact I know very well that in our Glen the idea of separation, under any circum- stances, was at first most unfavourably received It would not be too much to say that to all but a few thoughtless or reckless individuals it caused consternation. But throughout the whole contest there had been almost perfect unanimity in favour of the abolition of patronage by Act of Parliament. Our people, at the instigation of the Church leaders, had just applied the Veto Act to prevent the settlement of a presentee who was only unacceptable on mere party grounds. They were far from being proud of their tame submission to outside dictation, but they were unitedly convinced that abolition and not the Veto, with its exhaustive process possibilities and indefinite delays of settlement, was the remedy that should be sought for. As a stone rolling down a precipitous hill gains momentum as it rolls on, so did this movement. There were parishes in the north, such as Daviot near Inverness, and Kiltearn in Ross-shire, which had, years before this, resorted to temporary divisive courses; but in December, 1842, so highly and so justly appreciated was the Church of Scotland by the vast majority of the Highland people as the most precious part of "dileab nan athraichean" - the legacy of their fathers that if secession had been put to the vote, it would, I feel sure, have been vetoed as plumply as any unacceptable presentee, and that too in defiance of contrary orders from headquarters.

How was the alarm calmed? By assurances given in good faith by ministers and other trusted leaders that the Church of Scotland was not in the smallest danger of being injured by a threat of secession, which was meant to work in the opposite direction by forcing the Government to change its attitude on the whole matters in dispute. The threat was made in time for the Government to change its attitude in the forthcoming session of Parliament, and if it did so there would be a concordat instead of a secession when the Assembly met in May. But what would happen if the Government refused to make any satisfactory con- cessions? It was said that in that improbable event the majority of the ministers, elders, and people would go out; but it would be only to be quickly called back again on conditions satisfactory to them. Behind Dr Chalmers were whirlwind riders who were so carried away by the ideas of their own importance, and so inflated by the cheers of excited audiences, that they could not now come down to earth and settle there in comfort unless in a brand new Church where they would be rulers, and by which their fame as founders would be kept high forever. But those whirlwind riders were yet held in check by Dr Chalmers through his commanding intellect and conservative proclivities, supported as he then was by all the older, saner, and more reasonable men of his party, who, whether ranked as leaders or as followers in Church courts, were influential in their own parts of the vineyard. The threat of separation placed both Church and State in a very difficult position. But why should peaceful negotiations be yet despaired of? Both sides had become too obstinate and blind to the reasons for expedient mutual concessions, which reasons were as plentiful as blackberries. So nothing was done between the meeting of Parliament in winter and the meeting of the Assembly in May. Sir Robert Peel, who did not understand Presbyterian Church affairs nor the temper of the Scottish people, came to Scotland with the Queen in September, 1842. I saw him for the first and last time at Taymouth. He was singled out for more observation in that large gathering than any other man. A rumour had reached the Highlands that he had been insulted by an Edinburgh mob, and good care was taken that he should be respected as Prime Minister by the children of the Gael. His visit did not enlighten him on the true inwardness of the Scotch ecclesiastical crisis. Perhaps the exuberant loyalty evinced by all classes towards the Queen led him to suppose that the Queen's Minister might with a light heart refuse concession to a noisy set of ecclesiastical agitators. Scotch officials and Scotch supporters of the Conservative Government deceived him, and, what is far more strange, honestly deceived themselves by taking a portentously wrong estimate of the importance of the agitation. When the separation threat was issued a short time after his visit, he might well ask why should an English Prime Minister, incrusted in English ideas and sup- ported by Scotch Tories, pay any attention to the threat, when he was made to believe by those who should know best, that if he firmly put down his foot and kept it down, nothing worse would happen than the secession of a few agitating ministers whose departure would be a gain. It was not necessary on that showing to yield to a threat when yielding would be humiliating to his own credit and the credit of his Government and party. Having, as they asserted, to defend civil and religious liberty, the threateners had voluntarily placed themselves under a necessity either to humble them- selves or to make the State yield. Month after mouth glided by without any practical means being taken to effect compromise and reconciliation, and just in the proportion in which hopeful expectation diminished, the violence of the agitation increased, and so did the popular determination to range up behind those who threatened to throw the unity of the Church of Scotland over the precipice.


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