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Turning points in church history: 13. Pre ’59 revival – Part 2: Scotland

1 September 2011 | by John Legg

Turning points in church history: 13. Pre ’59 revival – Part 2: Scotland

Henry Cooke (see pages 14-15 in the May/June issue) had strong links with the evangelical church in Scotland, which had to go through similar travails to Ireland’s and to these we now turn.

Moderatism in Scotland

The church in Scotland from 1760 to 1810 was dominated by Moderates, men who refused to define the faith, regarded evangelicals as extremists and were accordingly lifeless and unspiritual. In the words of Rowland Hill (quoted by Dr John Macleod in Scottish Theology, p.201), ‘They satisfied themselves with being moderate, not only in their faith, but in their love to God and moderate in their obedience to His will, while they inclined to be immoderate in the licence they allowed themselves … in their disregard to the law of God.’ This party controlled the church assemblies and the universities. When Henry Cooke was at college in Glasgow, ‘the divinity classes were a disaster … particular doctrines, especially those such as characterise sound Calvinism, were studiously avoided. The impression was left … that all specific systems of doctrine were unimportant.’ Intellectualism, polish and oratory were all.

The state of the church was dire. Ministers found their position conducive to almost anything except preaching the gospel. That, after all, savoured of extremism. One such minister found ample opportunity to follow his interests in mathematics, in which he lectured in St. Andrews University. In a published pamphlet, he asserted, ‘from the authority of his own experience, that after the satisfactory discharge of his parish duties, a minister may enjoy five days in the week of uninterrupted leisure for the prosecution of any science in which his taste may dispose him engage.’ Like others he desired to improve morality in his parish, but found that his exhortations had little effect. That man, Thomas Chalmers, minister of the country parish of Kilmany from 1803, was later the good friend of Henry Cooke, and in many ways his counterpart in Scotland.

Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847)

Chalmers was converted during a long illness, which, together with the deaths of his believing brother and sister, fixed his mind on ‘the magnitude of eternity’. When he came to see the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement and became a real Christian, his ministry was transformed. The church officer commented on the change, that now, unlike previously, whenever he came to the manse, he found the minister at his (theological) books. More, as he proclaimed his newly-found faith, the people were changed as well. His importance soon extended far beyond his own ministry. In 1815 he moved to Glasgow where he was immensely popular and effective; he also became a professor in the university. It was when he moved again in 1828, to become Professor of Divinity at Edinburgh University, that his most significant period began. His inaugural lecture was crowded with outsiders as well as divinity students. One of those present said it was a turning-point in the history of the church in Scotland. Why?

We need look no further for an answer than the names of some of the students in the Divinity Hall, who met together for a prayer meeting in Dr Chalmers’ vestry. The best known is Robert Murray M’Cheyne, who was converted in 1831 and until his untimely death (if we may be allowed to use the expression) in 1843 exercised a ministry of exceptional godliness. His great friend, Andrew Bonar, was a fine minister in his own right, but chiefly known today as the author of his wonderful, and most influential, memoir of M’Cheyne. Other well-known names are Horatius Bonar, Andrew’s brother and famous hymn-writer, whose wonderful biography of their friend, John Milne of Perth, has recently been republished (see pages 28-29), Alexander Somerville, Thomas Brown, historian of the Disruption, and the theologian, George Smeaton.

Revival came to M’Cheyne’s parish in Dundee, while he and Andrew Bonar were away in Palestine on a ‘mission of enquiry’ about the Jews. There had already been some signs of increased concern in the parish, but it was under the supply preaching of a young candidate for the mission field, whose departure had been delayed, that the trickle of conversions became a flood. This young man was William Chalmers Burns, a Glasgow graduate of great earnestness. The work had begun in William’s father’s church in Kilsyth and continued in Dundee before spreading elsewhere, both in Scotland and England, before Burns eventually left for China.


However, these godly young men were not only concerned with evangelism and revival. Under Chalmers’ leadership they were at the forefront of the battle for the purity of the church. Part of the legacy of moderatism was ‘patronage’, the system by which local nobles and others dictated who would fill the pulpits of the land. The congregation had no say and this meant that all too frequently, moderates were given the parishes and gospel preaching was absent. By 1833 the evangelicals had a majority in the General Assembly, but the moderates appealed to the civil courts, which banned the evangelicals even from preaching in the parishes where there was no gospel ministry. Thus, in their struggle for ‘the crown-rights of the Redeemer’, Chalmers and his supporters were not engaged in a sterile fight over church government, but a battle for souls.

The climax came in 1842 when Chalmers addressed a huge gathering of 470 ministers and detailed arrangements were made to leave the church if the church and political leaders refused to give way. These leaders mocked the evangelicals. They reckoned that somewhere between a hundred and six would actually leave. One man even promised to eat all who came out! When the 1843 Assembly began, the waiting crowd saw row after row of ministers (accompanied by Henry Cooke) leave the hall (and their salaries and manses) for conscience sake. The eventual total of 502 amazed the secular minded members of the government in England. (All the missionaries joined them.) They immediately set up the Free Church of Scotland. Within a year they had provided 500 churches and a fund for ministers’ salaries. The story of the trials of those many congregations and ministers who were left without a place to worship or even live, makes stirring and moving reading. More importantly, the blessing of God on their preaching continued and increased throughout the land. Is it any surprise, that when the revival spread to Scotland in 1859 (though it was not confined by any means to the Free Church), these ministers and people welcomed it with open arms, warm hearts, and willing hands and voices?

What is the link between these things? Whatever the work – uncompromising reformation, increased godliness, multiplied conversions – if it is productive of such results, it must be from the Spirit of God.

John Legg is a member of the editorial board of The Evangelical Magazine.