Rothiemay: The Deveron valley

CENSURED – But still the Minister

Britain is a country that, over the centuries, has had a lengthy history of religious discord, strife and sometimes severe persecution. From an early landscape of Celtic missionaries through connection between Monarch and Church to an established corporate Church in each of the nations that make up the British Isles. The Reformation, in Scotland as well as in England, caused considerable rifts between Church and State and between Church and congregations. Nowhere is this more evident, in modern Scottish history, than in the events leading up to and at the execution of the Disruption of 1843.

The background to this momentous event, which split the established Church of Scotland into two main factions lies, in part, in the Toleration Act of 1712. This Act allowed Scottish Episcopalians legal rights to worship, use the English Book of Common Prayer and to pray for the Monarch. This Act came upon the heels of the Act of Union 1707. The importance of the Toleration Act was, not so much that it may have appeared to favour the Episcopalian faction, but that it gave substance to the new ideas of toleration of the views of others as a religious virtue. And, perhaps more importantly for what followed, that the British government would no longer force the established Church of Scotland to conform to ‘State’ ideas.

Not by coincidence, in the same year, the government enacted the Patronage Act. Far from, as had been expected, this legislation restoring old ideas where patrons could present their favoured priest to be the congregation’s minister, the Act inadvertently simply encouraged a ground swell of non-conformism. Scottish Presbyterians especially – but also their counterparts in England – found the Act abhorrent. Their feelings were that the Church should be wholly independent of the State. Matters had been better in Scotland, they felt, when the 1690 Act had abolished patronage replacing it with the election of a minister system. Now, here was the government, not just twenty-odd years on, putting it back in place and reversing the democratic method with which many congregations had been more than happy. Patrons, it was felt, always tended to present rather middle-of-the-road ministers. Possibly the patrons thought that this was expediency in the simmering broth of disquiet. Unfortunately, for local communities more used to the firm grip of the Church in matters of observance, moral codes, help for the poor and education of the children, the patrons often didn’t present the minister with a ‘disciplined’ approach to the parish community.

Sadly sore feelings, on both sides of the divide that then resulted, showed in anger and sometimes in physical violence. By 1733 a group of ministers seceded (formally withdrew) from the established Church of Scotland and, with their congregations, formed the Associate Presbyteries. Over time this movement grew and formed what was known as the Secession Church. Human nature being what it is, this group split again in 1747, largely as a rift over an oath of loyalty to the State. Then the two factions divided again in the 1790s because they could not agree whether what was called the ‘Westminster Confession’ (that the Churches and the State are a union) was, in fact, God’s will on earth.

Before that, however, another group had developed too and this Presbyterian schism resulted in the formation of the Relief Church. This body’s main principles appealed to those parishes who were on the side of abolishing patronage, but wanted to be more hospitable to others of the Christian faith, but who were not of the secession frame of mind. By the turn of the eighteenth century – just forty-odd years before the momentous Disruption – there were over three hundred Relief or Secession parish congregations throughout Scotland accounting for roughly 10% of the country’s religious population. In addition there were other Church and Chapel congregations which, apart from Roman Catholic ones, included Episcopalians, Quakers, Baptists, Congregationalists, Reformed Presbyterians and Glassites (followers of the Reverend John Glass). At the same time the established Church of Scotland was changing within itself and gradually becoming more moderate.
This was taking place alongside social changes in the country too, whereby new ideas could flourish and a greater spirit of toleration could grow on the back of the removal of proscription against Roman Catholics in 1793. At the same time there was a move towards evangelism across the turn of the eighteenth century and at the beginning of the nineteenth century, while socio-economic changes and a greater political awareness would fertilise the idea that it was people and not patrons that would now represent the religious future of the country. As industrialisation developed, coupled with Irish, West Highland and Lowland Clearances, more and more people moved from the countryside into the big towns and the cities for work. Wages were low, working hours were very long indeed and working and living conditions were both dreadful and dangerous. Gradually, against that previous idea of the common man, the degree of self-determination came an understanding that the individual could think for himself and need not be ‘directed’ by the landowner/patron or by the Church.

Alongside this, agitation in France resulting in revolution, and a developing understanding that – together – men could right social wrongs meant that those who had a religious belief sought change to a more egalitarian prospect. Those who were less religiously inclined still sought greater social parity with their superiors. The government became very concerned about the overthrow of ‘the natural order’ and introduced the Combinations of Workmen Act of 1825, preventing even very small groups of men gathering together to form what we now call trade unions. At the same time conditions in the urban centres became worse and worse. Appalling over-crowding, prostitution, rapidly rising crime rates, starvation, a dreadful lack of public health provision and consequent outbreaks of typhoid, cholera and almost epidemic tuberculosis, all resulted in serious unrest among working people. In a country where the Church – whatever its leaning – had provided guidance, poor relief and a degree of basic education the resultant horrors of the urban existence caused an outcry, not just among those affected, but amongst many who would minister to them each Sunday.
Interestingly, for we shall see him later, Reverend Dr Thomas Chalmers, who had his parish in Glasgow wanted radical social change. For almost eighteen-years he worked immensely hard in trying to help those in his parish – and not always only those who attended his church – to survive the conditions they found themselves in. He was the first person we know of who utilised lay members of the congregation to carry forward the word of God and to effect improvements to individual’s lives where they could. Although this was, at that time, a revolutionary idea, it worked up to the point where the sheer numbers of people needing ministry and help saw the initiative subsumed under demand.

Gradually, across other Scottish towns and cities, swelling parishes couldn’t cope with the calls for aid from their congregations. In 1832 better off and more vocal dissenters, who were horrified by what they could see happening, began campaigning for a political change in the relationship between the established Church of Scotland and the State. The Reverend Dr Chalmers, on behalf of the established Church, began to propound the idea – among his peers particularly – that urgent reform was needed. His proposals included allowing congregations the power to veto the appointment of a minister put forward by a patron, to build more churches, especially in urban areas and the development of the old parish provisions for schools and, in spite of the problems in Scotland – the invigoration of the missionary movement overseas.

Middle class financial donations to the Church rapidly and substantially increased over the next five years as such people saw that a newly evangelical church could improve industrial urban Scotland. However, in 1838 the Scottish legal system ruled that the concept of the veto, in respect of the appointment of ministers to a parish, would be an infringement of the property rights of patrons. The average parish priest must have hardly known which way to turn. The civil law would fine and imprison anyone who vetoed an appointment. At the same time the Church law courts threatened the same people with ecclesiastical punishments if they didn’t enforce the veto in any case and in any parish. This long and enormously bitter conflict between minister, parishioners, the Church and the State, culminated on 23rd May 1843 in the Disruption.
The Disruption - forming The Free Church
The Disruption - the formation of the Free Church of Scotland

This photograph of the huge painting by David Octavius Hill RSA shows the very first general assembly of the new Free Church of Scotland. The theme of the painting is the culmination of years of struggle and of four hundred and seventy four ministers of the Church of Scotland leaving that Church Assembly that day, 23rd May, and walking en masse down, through the Edinburgh streets to Tanfield Hall where they signed the Act of Separation and Deed of Demission. In doing so they voluntarily gave up their livings, their manses and homes for their families. While they were not deposed, they were no longer ministers of the established church. The painting hangs, as it always has done since its completion in 1866, in the Free Presbytery Hall in Edinburgh.

This then was the national picture of the path to the Disruption, but what of the way things were in the Strathbogie Presbytery in which Rothiemay sits? In the neighbouring parish of Marnoch,which encompasses the village of Aberchirder, the issue of ecclesiastical versus civil laws came to an ugly head. At the beginning of December 1839 the majority of ministers in the Presbytery decided to take the Reverend Edwards on trial as the parish minister. (Mr Edwards had been an assistant minister in the parish for some years but was not well liked by all the congregation.) Taking this step meant that they would disobey the General Assembly’s directions and obeyed those of the civil courts. Within a week all seven ministers who had formed that majority were suspended from their posts. Then two months later the civil courts set aside the suspensions as unlawful. The parish became the centre of comment, speculation, the lawyers for the seven ministers and, of course, from the local and national newspapers such as ‘The Aberdeen Banner’ and the ‘Caledonian Mercury’. Many in the Church, dismayed by the unseemly squabbling and high-handed developments, began to wonder which of them would be next. There was much bad feeling on all sides with many harsh words spoken and published.

Strangely a year later the civil courts then ordered the Presbytery to admit the minister – Reverend Edwards – who had been at the root of the ‘presentation to the congregation’ problem. So, on a very cold day in January 1841 with heavy snow lying on the ground, the Presbytery proceeded with the induction to the parish of Reverend Edwards in front of the congregation of folk from Aberchirder and the surrounding hamlets. In the midst of the solemn events a senior member of the congregation asked leave to speak.
"We earnestly beg you” he said “to avoid the desecration of the ordinance of Ordination under the circumstances; but if you shall disregard this representation, we do solemnly, and as in the presence of the great and only Head of the Church, the Lord Jesus Christ, repudiate and disown the pretended ordination of Mr Edwards, and his pretended settlement as Minister of Marnoch. We deliberately declare that, if such proceedings could have any effect, they must involve the most heinous guilt and fearful responsibility in reference to the dishonour done to religion, and the cruel injury to the spiritual interests of a united Christian congregation.”

As one, the assembled congregation picked up their bibles and silently walked out of the church vowing never to return.

1841: The Congregation walks out of the Old Kirk of Marnoch
1841: The Congregation walks out of the Old Kirk of Marnoch
That, though, was not the end of the matter since, in the Spring, the General Assembly decided that the induction of Mr Edwards was null and void and instructed the Presbytery to induct yet another presentee, Reverend David Henry. The Assembly further decided that the seven ministers, who had gone to civil law for assistance, should be sacked, turned out of their homes and that their church posts henceforth fell vacant!

Other ministers, in some sympathy with the “Marnoch Seven” joined them across the country and gave holy communion – so they, too, were suspended from the ministry for nine months. The civil court of Session stepped into the fray and declared not only that the Assembly was yet again acting unlawfully, but that the Reverend Henry’s induction was unlawful too. Of course none of this unedifying hullabaloo helped the ministers or their families who had lost their livings and their homes; and certainly not their parishioners. One of the writer’s relatives – John Mooney (1816-1885) – who was travelling through Strathbogie district to see family at Rothiemay, tells of the upsets on several occasions and angry crowds at church doors.

The Old Kirk of Marnoch
The Old Kirk of Marnoch today
Harry Leith
Harry Leith's memorial
And in the parish of Rothiemay? The minister, the Reverend Harry Leith, who was a conscientious man, found himself in considerable trouble for his opinions. He was of the view that, as the appalling and unseemly fighting between the Assembly and the civil courts took place; and presented an unedifying display of argument, that parishioners should be able to make up their own minds and make their own choice whether to stay in the established Church or go to what would become the Free Church. He found himself in front of senior churchmen, was admonished, censured and fined 5 Scots pounds (today about £500.00) plus costs.
It is interesting to note that both he – and a minister at Grange parish – Reverend William Duff, who was of much the same mind, remained in the established Church of Scotland after the Disruption.

As so much discussion and argument had been going on for so many years prior to the actual breaking away, those in Rothiemay who moved to the Free Church of Scotland, were quickly able to organise themselves in temporary quarters until  the church could be built at Mannoch Hill, Rothiemay.  The photograph shows the interior of the church before 1958 when it was demolished.

Rothiemay Kirk
The Kirk of Rothiemay
The Free Kirk
The Free Kirk of Rothiemay
(Photograph courtesy of Moray Heritage Centre and Miss Pirie)
The congregation built a manse and a school and a house for the teacher and by 1848 the Free Church congregation in Rothiemay numbered three hundred and ten people. By 1901 this number had fallen to two hundred and forty six as the overall district population began to shrink in spite of the Free Church merging with the United Presbyterian Church. Later in the twentieth century this United Free Church would re-join with the Church of Scotland.

In the interim, however, congregations and ministers, whatever their ecclesiastical persuasion, would have their faith sorely tried as Britain faced the horrors of World War One and the losses of thousands upon thousands of young men.

If the Disruption had changed the face of Scotland’s modern religious history, then the battlefields of France would change the face of the country – and of Rothiemay - for ever.
© Copyright Diana C-S

The author is grateful for papers from: -
Mrs J Henderson, Kirkwall, Orkney.
The reminiscences of the late Reverend H L Mooney