Wednesday, February 20, 2008

'This One Thing I Do.' John Brown of Broughton Place. - XXV

The Voluntary Controversy of 1835 to 1843 was probably one of the most tragic incidents in the history of Scottish Presbyterianism. It came on the heels of what was one of the most joyful events in John Brown's life. In June 1835, nineteen years after the death of his first wife, Dr. John Brown, pastor of Broughton Place United Secession Church, married Miss Margaret Fisher Crum, a direct descendant of Ebenezer Erskine. Dr. Brown had known Miss Crum for many years, and their marriage was a cause of delight for both them and their friends. He was to need her comfort and care in the controversy that was to arise.
Voluntaryism is the principle acted on and held by practically all churches without a state connection today. Put briefly it is the principle that the Church of Christ is a voluntary society, that men and women join themselves to the Church freely, and that the church ought to be supported purely out of the voluntary gifts of its members. On the other hand the Westminster Confession, in chapter 23 says:
" [The civil magistrate] has authority, and it is his duty, to take order that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordainances of God duly settled, administrated, and observed"

Originally all of the Scottish presbyterian dissenters held to the 'establishment principle', that it was the duty of the Christian magistrate to support the Church. They protested against false doctrine and abuses in the Church of Scotland, not against the very principle of there being such a body. Indeed the old Reformed Presbyterians and Seceders argued that they WERE the true Church of Scotland, and the Seceders appealed to the first free and reforming Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
But decades of being in the position of nonconformists changed the outlook of the Seceders. Contact with English nonconformists led to some becoming convinced that the old position was false and that the voluntary principle was not only expedient, but also Biblical. Practically, all nonconforming churches have to act as voluntary bodies, and decades of experience with this had convinced many of the Seceders that ties to the state were wrong and even sinful.
The actual controversy began in 1829 when Rev. Dr. Marshall of Kirkintilloch preached a sermon in Glasgow in which he urged as the only defence against state endowment of Romanism the complete disendowment of all religion by the state. In 1832 Voluntary Associations, organisations with the aim of bringing about by political means the disestablishment and disendowment of the Church of Scotland, began to be formed all over the country. Congregationalists and Baptists joined in these efforts, and English Nonconformists gave their aid.
Whatever we may think about the state support of churches, this move was unwise in the circumstances. It was inevitably seen by the Church of Scotland as an attack upon IT. The call for disendowment was interpreted as a desire by the nonconformist churches to destroy the Church of Scotland, for the endowments of the Church supported education, evangelism and the day-to-day work of the ministry. The evangelical leaders within the Church of Scotland watched in dismay as those whom they had taken as friends seemed to turn against the Church they loved and served.
John Brown was in favour of disestablishment. Unfortunately many voluntaries, by insisting on disendowment as well as disestablishment (rather than seeking a method of severing the ties between church and state that would secure an adequate starting capital, as it were, for the Church of Scotland), made themselves appear as enemies of the Church of Scotland. John Brown however was free of this ignoble sectarian temper. He found the voluntary principle to be Biblical, and felt that reliance on state support actually weakened the Church of Scotland.
So much for the principles. The way that the dissenters worked these principles was, however, extremely unfortunate as we shall see, God willing, next time.



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