Monday, August 04, 2008

Teaching Theology for 140 Years - V.

The 'Breach' in the Associate Presbytery in 1747 resulted in two denominations where there had been one. Neither abandoned the high ideal of an educated ministry, and so two Halls results where there had been one. There had been a Secession Hall for only ten years, henceforth, until the splinters of the Secession reunited, there would be many. Mr. Moncrieff adhered to the Anti-Burgher party, those who held the oaths of office sworn by some Burgesses in some Scots towns and cities, to be unlawful, and so the Anti-Burgher Hall met at Abernethy in 1748 with eight new students. The Burgher Church were therefore forced to find a new Professor, quickly settling on Ebenezer Erskine of Stirling, perhaps the pre-eminent leader of the Secession. The Burgher body hoped that the division would be short-lived, so Ebenezer Erskine did not teach new students, but those existing students who had adhered to their party in the division. With time, however, came the realisation that it was not to be.

Moncrieff continued to teach in Abernethy, and many of the students went from the pews at Abernethy, where they had been brought up, to the Hall. A powerful preacher, he was an excellent theological Professor, and probably no better man could have been found in his day. His death in 1761 left the Anti-Burgher denomination with a great challenge to find a man who was his equal.

The Synod debated the relative merits of a number of ministers, including Rev. Adam Gib of Edinburgh. He was the first choice, but he felt that he would be unable to combine a busy pastorate in the capital of Scotland with the Chair, and so he declined. The choice of the Synod then fell upon William Moncrieff of Alloa, second son of the deceased Professor. He would teach Anti-Burgher students for twenty-four years. Under his Professorship the length of a Hall session was reduced to nine weeks from the original three months. There were concerns that few students were able to stay for all three months, and as a consequence the instruction of all was being affected. As it was, students were positively required to attend for a minimum of six weeks, indicating that even nine weeks was too long a session for some. To ensure regular and punctual attendance, the Synod ordered that those students who were most punctual at the Hall should be first considered in the settlement of vacant congregations. A full course consisted of five sessions.

An increase in the status of the Secession Church during William Moncrieff's Professorship led to the need for the Synod to condemn in students and preachers tendencies to "an affectation of literary and philosophical refinement." In other words, preaching that was too 'academic' in tone and aimed at the intellectual, not the ordinary folk. Preaching of this kind had become all too common in the Church of Scotland as the reign of the 'Moderates' intensified. Preaching, as William Moncrieff must have reminded his students, is directed to the whole congregation, and it is intended to set forth not an exalted system of morality, but Christ crucified for sinners. A style that reeks of affectation can only ever be an impediment to that. What had happened was that some students had been published in the Royal Magazine. That was not the offence. The offence was that their published effusions were shallow, pompous and overblown productions extolling human culture and morality at the expense of the truths of Scripture. Laurence Wotherspoon, the first offender (although having to go around attached to that name may be a mitigation of his faults). Called before the Synod for a ridiculous piece on 'A Liberal and Polite Education', was brought to see the error of his ways through discipline. The second offender, Andrew Marshall, wrote a piece on 'Ambition' that was even worse, and he too was placed under discipline.

It was soon discovered that the root of this scandal was none other than Mr. Alexander Pirie, the student entrusted with the teaching of the Philosophy class. A class that had been established to guard against the dangers of the University Philosophy classes had become far more dangerous to Anti-Burgher students than the universities of that period could have been! Pirie was discovered to be advising his students to read anti-Christian books, to the horror of the Synod. He was swiftly dismissed, and joined the Burgher denomination. From THAT denomination he was in turn compelled to flee when he was accused of heresy before the Burgher Synod, and as he fled he issued a pamphlet that poured forth animosity against both branches of the Secession. They, no doubt, were glad to be rid of him.

God willing, next time we shall say something about the course of theology taught by William Moncrieff at Alloa.



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