Kirk History

1) The Godly Commonwealth

The Church of Scotland, known more colloquially as ‘the Kirk’, was not created by the Scottish Reformation, but transformed from its previous existence as a constituent member of the Roman Catholic faith. Prior to the upheaval of 1560 the church had fallen into serious decline through the Middle Ages, with corrupt priests more interested in property management and revenue collection than in the moral well-being of their flock. Add to that the political fact that Scotland was slowly becoming a puppet state of Catholic France, which hoped to put the squeeze on Protestant England, and the conditions for revolution were soon fast in approaching.

The Reformation

The nature of the Scottish Reformation of 1560 was very different to that instigated under Henry VIII in England almost thirty years earlier, where the changes implemented following a dispute with Rome over a royal marriage annulment had eventually led to the establishment of the Anglican Church. Following the Acts of Supremacy of 1534, Henry’s new church retained to a large extent much of the same ecclesiastical infrastructure as had existed before, with an almost identical hierarchy of priests, bishops and archbishops, but with the king’s authority replacing that of the Pope. The net result was that the king, as head of the church, retained control of all matters ecclesiastical through its episcopal structure. The theological background to the revolution in Scotland was quite different, instead instigated through the efforts and religious fervour of John Knox and other reform minded priests and nobles.

Trained as a Catholic priest, Knox had previously been a protégé of the reformist preacher George Wishart, who was to be martyred in St. Andrews in 1546 as a heretic for his Protestant beliefs. Following the subsequent murder of Cardinal Beaton, who had authorised the killing, by protestant activists at St. Andrew’s, Knox had ended up besieged inside St Andrew’s Castle with the killers, and was arrested and prosecuted alongside them. After a brief imprisonment he fled to Switzerland and spent a considerable period following the teachings of the reformer John Calvin. Calvin had set up a theologically driven statelet in Geneva based on a concept known as ‘the Godly Commonwealth’, where the church was responsible for the moral discipline and education of its flock, working in partnership with the state. Knox was deeply impressed with the Geneva model, and upon returning to Scotland helped to organise a religious upheaval in the country based on this ‘Calvinist’ concept. The old system was ripped away by the firebrand preacher and his associates, and in its stead came Presbyterianism.

In its earliest Calvinist form, the Presbyterian Church was not exactly the happiest of institutions, with ministers instructing people that they were all damned to Hell unless they had been predestined to join God in the afterlife as one of the chosen ‘Elect’. Despite its successful attempts to redefine the word ‘dour’, however, it was in fact a very democratic body. The congregation of each parish chose its own minister and elders, rather than have one imposed upon it by an unelected bishop or archbishop. Just for good measure, the landowners on which the churches were built, in the role of ‘heritors’, were required to pay a stipend to the ministers accepting a ‘calling’ on their patch, as well as to provide for their accommodation and the upkeep of church property. Essentially their role was to have a cheque book to hand at all times.

Although Knox is largely credited with embedding the new system in Scotland, he was actually something of a tame pussy cat compared to his successor, Andrew Melville. Knox had in fact initially agreed to retain bishops, though had renamed them as ‘superintendents’ to oversee the parishes, and at the Concordat of Leith in 1572 had even agreed to appoint candidates nominated by the Crown. Melville, the Arnold Schwarzenegger of Scottish Presbyterianism, was having none of this. To him, Presbyterianism meant that no one man or woman should be held up in authority over another, as he could see no evidence in the Bible that the earliest Christian churches had ever been hierarchical. Melville abolished the superintendents and neutered the General Assembly, turning it into nothing more than a talking shop for ministers. In the process he set the Kirk on a collision course with the ruling Stuart dynasty for the next century.

The Stuarts

In 1561, Mary, Queen of Scots, and a Roman Catholic, had been crowned as the Scottish monarch. Mary was a cousin of the English Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, and was soon deposed in 1567, her thirteen-month old son James taking her place on the throne (through an initial period of regency). With Elizabeth’s death in 1603, and with no apparent English successor, the Protestant raised James was invited to take the southern throne, and thus James VI of Scotland became James I of Britain, at the Union of the Crowns. Moving his royal court to London, it was not long before he decided to try to bring the Kirk of his homeland into line with the Anglican practices of his new southern kingdom. In 1610 he imposed bishops onto the body as heads of synods and presbyteries. Through his ‘Five Articles of Perth’, reluctantly accepted by the Kirk in 1621, he brought in further alien practices, such as kneeling during communion, private baptisms, private communion for the sick, confirmation by a bishop, and the observance of holy days such as Christmas. Scotland was now heading on a crash course towards full blown Anglicanism.

James’ son, Charles I, took things considerably further, eventually to the point where many Scots had had enough. In 1636 and 1637, Charles revealed proposals to introduce a new Anglican prayer book and mass north of the border. Thousands of furious Scots retaliated by signing a protest document known as the National Covenant, but the king simply labelled them as traitors, and threatened to march an army to Scotland to subdue them. In response, the Kirk abolished the role of bishops in Scotland at a General Assembly. War was declared by the king against these so called ‘Covenanters’. The Bishops Wars, as they became known, soon fed into a full scale civil war across the island. Charles would ultimately lose his head to Oliver Cromwell and a short-lived British republic.

In 1660, a century on from the Reformation, Charles’ son was restored to the English throne (having already been crowned in Scotland in 1651). Charles II had previously gained Scottish support for his restoration down south by promising to confirm Presbyterianism as the one true faith. However, Charles was a chip off the old royal block. Upon regaining England, he immediately went back on his word and once again reintroduced episcopacy into Scotland though the Recissory Act of 1661. With a snap of his fingers, the Kirk was brought firmly to heel under his direct authority through the hated system of bishops. Some three hundred ministers objecting to the move were forcibly removed from their churches, and instead took to preaching in secret open air meetings labelled as ‘conventicles’. The seeds were sown for another insurgency, and a new Covenanting army was raised in 1666 against the king, though this was defeated at the Battle of Rullion Green. When one of Charles’ Scottish archbishops was then assassinated in 1679, open warfare existed between the king’s troops and the Covenanters, in what became known as the ‘Killing Times’. (NB: Ancestry hosts the Scottish Covenanters Index, which includes the names of over 26,000 Covenanters identified by Isabelle McLean Drown as living between 1660 and 1690, whilst FindmyPast has an equally useful collection, Scottish Covenanters 1679-1688, drawn from various resources held at the National Library of Scotland and the National Archives in England). (Pic to the right - Scottish Covenanters memorial in Stirling)

In 1685, Charles II gave way to his brother, James VII, and the situation from a Scottish Presbyterian point of view worsened further. James was a Roman Catholic, who wished to promote tolerance of all religions, including his own. Matters came to a head at the ‘Glorious Revolution’ in 1688 when the king was forced to flee Britain, his place usurped by his nephew and son-in-law, William of Orange, at the request of English nobles. In 1691 the William’s army defeated his uncle’s Jacobite forces (after ‘Jacobus’, Latin for ‘James’) in battle in Ireland. As part of the resultant peace dividend, the role of bishops was finally kicked out of the Scottish Kirk forever. Presbyterianism was at long last fully cemented as the official form of worship north of the border.

Secessions and dissenters

Although the Kirk was confirmed as Presbyterian in structure following the Glorious Revolution, many congregations refused to succumb to the new order. They remained outside the new settlement and reconstituted themselves as the Scottish Episcopal Church (see p.67), soon gaining strong support in the Highlands and in cities such as Edinburgh and Aberdeen. A further branch of the Kirk also remained separate, a small faction styling itself as the ‘Cameronian’ Church; this had followed the teachings of the Covenanter Richard Cameron, and was equally unhappy with the terms of the revolution settlement (in 1743 it was renamed the Reformed Presbyterian Church). In the Highlands, small pockets of Roman Catholicism had also survived (see p.69). Nevertheless, Presbyterianism, through the state based Church of Scotland, was now dominant.

Despite its success, however, the established Kirk began to turn in on itself over various aspects of doctrine, with one sticking point in particular – patronage. With the loss of bishops and then superintendents, heritors began to assert influence over the choice of appointments in kirk sessions and ministries, a right soon formalised through the 1712 Patronage Act. Many church ministers became increasingly uneasy about this, and factions began to show signs of dissent. The first was the Associate Presbytery, formed by Ebenezer Erskine in 1733. This group was eventually forcibly ejected from the main body of the Kirk in 1740, whereby it renamed itself the Associate Synod. In 1761, another split occurred with the creation of Thomas Gillespie’s ‘Relief Church’, which had left the main Kirk for similar reasons.

These ‘nonconformist’, ‘dissenting’ or ‘secessionist’ factions could well be accused of having a unique talent for making two stones fight. Having left their parent body, they soon began to quarrel amongst themselves. Following Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite campaign of 1745-46, which was heavily supported by the Scottish Episcopal and Roman Catholic congregations of the Highlands, a new ‘Burgess Oath’ was introduced in 1747, designed to prevent those who had supported the uprising from ever taking high office again. Erskine’s Associate Synod church split into two camps, between those who would and who would not take the oath. Those who would swear it became known as the Burghers, and the opponents as the Anti-Burghers. Over separate issues the Burghers then further split in 1798, and the Anti-Burghers in 1806, both forming two camps, the Auld Lichts and the New Lichts (the Old Lights and New Lights), with the New Lichts in each camp firmly set on a more theologically liberal course.

A good example to show how seemingly pedantic (from today's perspective) some of the issues were to have forced splits was the 'lifter' controversy, a schism which took place within a burgher church in Ayrshire:

Mr Smeiton, a burgher minister established at Kilmaurs, thought fit to insist, that in administering the sacrament, it was absolutely necessary that the minister should break a piece of the bread, and hold it in his hand while uttering the prayer of consecration. Mr Smeiton and his brethren differed about this point... The argument was keenly agitated, and terminated in a rupture. Mr Smeiton refused to hold communion with those who did not punctually conform to his opinion; and his brethren passed a sentence of expulsion against him for his obstinacy. He despised the authority by which this was done, and continued to preach. His congregation were divided, and went to law about the property of the meeting-house; but Mr Smeiton was supported by sufficient numbers to enable him to maintain possession. Hence, however, originated a schism; and the parties were distinguished by the name of lifters and anti-lifters.

(Source: Forsyth, Robert (1805). The Beauties of Scotland, Vol 2. p.520. Edinburgh: T. Bonar and J. Brown)

In the 19th century, following the realisation by the dissenting bodies that the centre ground was slowly being lost, a series of mergers then happened, with both New Licht factions, for example, uniting in 1820 as the United Secession Church, merging in turn with the Relief Church in 1847 as the United Presbyterian Church. Needless to say, it is very easy to get lost in the evolutionary hierarchy of the churches’ developments. A useful flow chart showing the splits and mergers can be found online at, and as a fold out chart following the index in J. H. S. Burleigh’s A Church History of Scotland (see Appendix 2).

The Disruption

By the early 19th century the established Kirk, still dominant, was now beginning to lose its own grip on society, particularly in the growing urban populations being created by the Industrial Revolution, in which its archaic parochial structure just could not cope. Two powerful wings emerged within the Kirk advocating ways to deal with the developing situation. The ‘Evangelicals’, deeply upset with patronage and the increasingly perceived loss of Knox’s idea of the Godly Commonwealth, desperately wanted to take the church back to the core doctrine established at the Reformation. Opposing them were the ‘Moderates’, happy to maintain the status quo and to appease a State which was itself increasingly assuming responsibility for the masses as the Kirk members squabbled.

Patronage was again the straw which broke the camel’s back. By 1834 the General Assembly had been persuaded to create a Veto Act, essentially to abolish patronage from the Kirk’s proceedings. This was rejected by the Court of Session in 1838, a decision further supported by the House of Commons in March 1843. Whilst many ministers were content to stick with the status quo, the Evangelicals’ leader Thomas Chalmers had had enough, and with about a third of the delegates at the ensuing General Assembly that year walked out in disgust, in an event which came to be known as ‘The Disruption’. Abandoning the Kirk – and its adherence to patronage – the delegates instead formed the new Free Church of Scotland. It was not until 1874 that the established Kirk itself finally abandoned patronage, but the damage was done.

Multi-faith Scotland

Unfortunately for both the Free Church and the Church of Scotland, their untimely spat could not have been worse in terms of their Protestant objectives. As they parted, thousands of Irish Roman Catholics arrived in Scotland to flee the Great Famine which was ravaging their homeland. Both the main Protestant churches were seriously weakened at a time when the Roman Catholic Church (see p.X) was able to embed itself once again securely within the country – and this time with State tolerance – but many other denominations had also arrived by now and were equally able to gain ground.

A unique snapshot illustrating just how widespread religious adherence had become by the middle of the century exists via the returns of the Religious Worship Census of 1851, taken alongside the main decennial census on March 30th-31st. Although the Scottish returns were not as comprehensive as those in England, the report (accessible on HistPop at breaks down the number of congregations by denomination. The religious census was voluntary and not every church provided a return; of those that did, the following numbers of places of worship were recorded:

Established Church 904
Reformed Presbyterian Church 37
Original Secession Church 30
Relief Church 2
United Presbyterian Church 427
Free Church 824

Episcopal Church 112
Independents or Congregationalists 168
Baptists 100
Society of Friends 6
Unitarians 5
United Brethren, or Moravians 1

Wesleyan Methodists:
Original Connexion 61
Primitive Methodists 10
Independent Methodists 1
Wesleyan Reformers 1

Glassites, or Sandemanians 6
New Church 5
Campbellites 1
Evangelical Union 27

Isolated Congregations:
Various 8
Common 2
Unsectarian 1
City Mission 7
Christians 7
Christian Disciples 14
Christian Reformation 1
Reformed Christians 1
Free Christian Brethren 1
Primitive Christians 2
Protestants 4
Reformation 1
Reformed Protestants 1
Separatists 1
Christian Chartists 1
Denomination not stated 6

Roman Catholics 104
Catholic and Apostolic Church 3
Latter Day Saints, or Mormons 20
Jews 1

(Extracted from Table A: Summary of the Whole of Scotland, p.2-3)

Each church kept its own registers, and so clearly the advent of civil registration in Scotland in 1855 was something of a saving grace within such a fractured religious society for the recording of births, marriages and deaths in the country.

The schisms continued, with a minor split from the Free Church of Scotland in 1893 over relaxation of strict adherence to the Westminster Confession of Faith, which led to the creation of the Free Presbyterian Church (, known colloquially today as the ‘Wee Wee Frees’. Nevertheless, many of the church factions began to rejoin the mainstream Church of Scotland. In 1900 the majority of Free Church of Scotland and United Presbyterian Church congregations merged to form the United Free Church, which in turn rejoined the mainstream Church of Scotland in 1929. At each merger, however, some congregations resisted the tide, and continued as a remnant rump of the previous body. Those who carried on in 1900 as the Free Church of Scotland became colloquially known as the ‘Wee Frees’ (, whilst in 1929 a small United Free Church (Continuing) was also established, which by 1934 simply became known as the United Free Church – though by now a much diminished version of its predecessor body of the same name. Even from these much smaller bodies there have been further schisms, leading to bodies such as the Associated Presbyterian Churches in the 1980s and the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) in 2000.

Upon the main union in 1929, however, some eighty per cent of church going people in Scotland had once again become adherents of the Church of Scotland, albeit in a population where attendance was now entering into a rapid decline from which it has not recovered. Whilst the Church of Scotland remains the largest denomination in Scotland today (, it was effectively disestablished as the state church in 1929.