Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The history of a denomination: IV.

1903 saw the General Assembly of the United Free Church meeting in the reconstructed Free Assembly Hall in Edinburgh, which had been enlarged to vastly increase the building's seating capacity. Other improvements had also been made, chief among them the provision of two small lecterns at the front of the Hall for speakers. These lecterns were only ever seen in 1903, subsequently they disappeared mysteriously.
The Moderator, Dr. Gerge Robson of Perth, came from a family that was remarkable for the numbers it had contributed to the United Presbyterian ministry. His father and brother had previously been United Presbyterian moderators, and two other relatives of his had shared the honour.
The 1903 Assembly made a worrying discovery. It had been anticipated (it always is) that the union of the two churches, churches with their own foreign missions and many supporters of missions at home, would lead to an increase in donations for mission. Instead giving had actually DECREASED substantially, and while the missionaries in the field were pressing on and extending the work, it appeared that the people at home were too many of the apathetic. Either that or some people had supposed that there would be some cash infusion to missions from the Union. Perhaps people from both uniting denominations supposed the other's missions would all be given up and the income diverted to THEIR missions (a bizarre leap of logic, but possible). Either way, Union had not brought the revival some had hoped it would. The Assembly was horrified, and none more so than the noble moderator, whose family had supplied many foreign missionaries to the United Presbyterian Church.
Worse followed. Not only was foreign mission giving down, but the Presbyteries had turned down the great home-mission scheme proposed by the Glasgow Assembly.
Dr. George C. Hutton, the great anti-establishment leader of the United Presbyterians, was much in evidence at the Assembly, George Reith thought he was like a terrier - a very United Presbyterian Terrier. Any move that seemed to threaten the United Presbyterian position he opposed - even when it was in the direction of compromise between Free Church and United Presbyterian practice, or when his proposals were just plain silly. When the Committee on Romanism and Ritualism reported, Hutton declared that the advance of Roman Catholicism and the planned Roman Catholic Universit y for Ireland, Hutton laid the whole blame on the 'Established Church'. When James Orr proposed a motion that the Assembly welcomed all moves towards Presbyterian union, Hutton objected. The only body with which such union could seriously have been contemplated was the Church of Scotland.
The Church and State debate once again ended, after rather vicious debate, with a motion in favour of disestablishment.

And there was the matter of the Free Church minority. Since they were not there a great deal of pure vitriol was spoken of them and of Highland religion in general. Much was said that was neither fair nor Christian, and which the present author is unwilling to repeat. Suffice to say that the United Free Church was looking forward to turning the troublesome Highlanders out of their manses and Churches and stripping them of the name of the Free Church of Scotland.

What actually happened we shall see, God willing, in our report of the 1905 Assembly.



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