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Established Church of Scotland

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The religious organization which has for three centuries and a half claimed the adherence of the majority of the inhabitants of Scotland, may be said to date from August 1560, in which month the Scottish Parliament, assembled in Edinburgh without any writ from the sovereign, decided that the Protestant Confession of Faith (drawn up on much the same lines as the Confession of Westminster) should henceforth be the established, and only authorized, creed of the Scottish Kingdom. The same Parliament abolished papal jurisdiction, and forbade the celebration or hearing of Mass under penalty of death; but it made no provision for the appointment of the new clergy nor for their maintenance. At the first General Assembly, however, of the newly-constituted body, held in December, 1560, the First Book of Discipline was approved in which not only doctrinal questions and the conduct of worship were minutely legislated for, but detailed regulations were drawn up for the election and admission of ministers, and for their support on a generous scale from the confiscated revenues of the ancient Church. Scotland was divided ecclesiastically into ten districts, for each of which was appointed a superintendent to travel about, institute ministers, and generally set the Church in order. A scheme of popular and higher education was also sketched out, for which the early Scottish Reformers have been highly lauded; but it was never carried out, and the whole educational work of the founders of the Kirk consisted in purging the schools and universities of "idolatrous regents" (i.e. Catholic teachers), more than a century being allowed to elapse before there was any attempt at national education in Presbyterian Scotland.

The fact was that the greedy nobles who had fallen on and divided amongst themselves the possessions of the Catholic Church, absolutely refused to disgorge them, notwithstanding their professed zeal for the new doctrines. Only a sixth part of the ecclesiastical revenues was grudgingly doled out for the support of the ministers, and even that was paid with great irregularity. The grasping avarice of the nobles was also responsible for all delay and difficulties in settling the system of church government on Presbyterian principles, as desired by the Protestant leaders. The barons saw with dismay the life-interest of the old bishops and abbots (preserved to them by the legislation of 1560) gradually lapsing, and their possessions falling to the Church. In a convention held in 1572 the lords actually procured the restoration of the old hierarchical titles, the quasi-bishops thus created being merely catspaws to the nobles, who hoped through them to get possession of all the remaining ecclesiastical endowments. Although the General Assembly refused to recognize this sham episcopate, the fact of its existence kept alive the idea that Episcopacy might eventually be the established form of government in the Scottish, as in the English, Protestant Church; and the question of Prelacy versus Presbytery remained a burning one for more than a century longer. During the long reign of James VI, whose vacillating character induced him first to cajole the Church with promises of spiritual independence and then to harass her by measures of the most despotic Erastianism, the religious condition of Scotland was in a state of continual ferment. The king succeeded in getting the bishops authorized to sit in Parliament in 1600; and when, three years later, he succeeded to the Crown of England, he openly proclaimed his favorite maxim, "No bishop, no king", declared Presbyterianism incompatible with the monarchy, suppressed the right of free assembly, and tried and punished the leaders of the Scottish Church for high treason. The discontent caused in Scotland by these high-handed measures came to a head after his death, when his son and successor, Charles I, visited Scotland in 1633, and professed himself pained by the baldness of public worship. His imposition, four years later, of the English liturgy on every congregation in Scotland, on pain of deprivation of the minister, was the signal for a general uprising, not less formidable because restrained. The Privy Council permitted (being powerless to prevent) the formation of a provisional government, whose first act was to procure the renewal of the National Covenant, first drawn up in 1580, engaging its subscribers to adhere to and defend the doctrine and discipline of the Scotch Protestant Church. The Covenant was signed by all classes of the people, and the General Assembly of 1638, in spite of the protest of the king's high commissioner, Lord Hamilton, abolished the episcopacy, annulled the royal ordinance as to the service-book, and claimed a sovereign right to carry out the convictions of the national church as to its position and duty.

These high pretensions of the General Assembly, of which King Charles was, through his commissioner, a constituent part, were bound to come in conflict with Charles' lofty idea of his royal prerogative. He absolutely refused to concede the right of his Scottish subjects to choose their own form of church government, and marched an army to the border to enforce submission to his authority. The Scotch, however, possessed themselves of Newcastle; the king was ultimately obliged to sign a treaty favourable to them and their claims; and his own downfall, followed by the dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell, a sworn opponent of Prelacy, brought the leaders of the Scottish Church into important relations with the new order of things in England. The Scottish Commissioners took a prominent part in the Westminster Assembly of 1643, convened to draw up the new standards of doctrine and church government for England under the Commonwealth; and it was then and there that was framed the "Shorter Catechism" which still remains the recognized religious text-book of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. The latter years of the Commonwealth were, in fact, an epoch of prosperity hitherto unknown for Scottish Presbyterianism; but the restoration of Charles II, who was nowhere more warmly welcomed than in his northern dominions, was a rude blow to their Church's hopes of continued peace and spiritual independence.

Within a year of his assumption of the royal authority, Charles rescinded through his Parliaments all the acts approving the national covenant and abolishing the hierarchy; and a few months later his Scottish subjects were bidden by proclamations to "compose themselves to a cheerful acquiescence" in the re-establishment of the "right government of bishops", on pain of imprisonment. Four new prelates were consecrated by English bishops for Scotland, and all occupiers of benefices had to get presentation from the patrons and collation from the bishops, or else be ejected from their livings, as nearly four hundred actually were. From this time until Charles II's death in 1685, an era of persecution prevailed in Scotland, large numbers of the Presbyterians refusing to conform to the Episcopal Church, and being treated in consequence with every kind of indignity, hounded from their houses, tortured, and in many cases massacred. The worship of the Covenanters was prohibited under pain of death, but was nevertheless largely attended all over the country, and the armed risings of the people against their oppressors were forcibly put down, the Covenanting forces being hopelessly defeated in several engagements. At length, on the king's death, came a few years' breathing-time and peace; for his Catholic successor, James II, himself of course a dissenter from the established religion, immediately conceded toleration and liberty of worship all over the kingdom, although some of his more fanatical subjects refused to accept a boon which they regarded as coming from a polluted source.

The Revolution of 1688, and the flight of the Catholic king, opened the way to the abolition of the Prelatical government which was odious to the majority of Scotsmen; and one of the first acts of the Parliament assembled in the first year of the reign of William III (July, 1689) was to repeal all previous acts in favour of Episcopacy. The Presbyterian form of church government was not settled by this Parliament; but, in the following year, the Jacobite and Prelatical cause having been rendered hopeless by the death of its leader, Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee, the king and queen and the three estates of the realm formally ratified the Westminster Confession, and re-established the Presbyterian form of government and discipline. Lord Melville, a zealous Presbyterian, had already replaced Hamilton as the king's commissioner to the General Assembly, and the Restoration Act of Parliament, asserting the supremacy of the Crown in ecclesiastical cause, had been repealed. Another act ordered all professors and masters in every university and school to subscribe the Confession, and the popular election of ministers took the place of private patronage to benefices. The secular power thus re-established the Church as a fully-organized Presbyterian body, just as it had re-established Episcopacy thirty years before; but the new settlement was made not by the arbitrary will of the sovereign, but (according to the principles of the Revolution) as being that most in accordance with the will of the people, as indeed there is no reason to doubt that it was. A very considerable section, however, especially in the east and northeast of Scotland, and more particularly among the wealthy and aristocratic classes, remained attached to Episcopalian principles; and though those of the clergy who refused to conform to the Establishment were treated with considerable harshness, no attempt was made to compel the laity to attend Presbyterian worship, or submit to the rigid Presbyterian discipline.

The majority of the Episcopalians were also Jacobites at heart, praying, if not working, for the restoration of the Stuart dynasty, and were thus a disturbing element in the country not only from a religious, but from a political point of view. The four Scottish universities (Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, St. Andrews) were believed, and with reason, to be very unfavourably affected towards the new order of things in Church and State; and the visitation of them conducting in the closing years of the seventeenth century resulted in the majority of the principals being ejected from office for refusing to comply with the test ordered by the statute of 1690. The effect of this state of things was that when the General Assembly met for the first time after nearly forty years, the universities were unrepresented save by a single member, while there were hardly any members belonging to the nobility or higher gentry, or representing the wide district of Scotland north of the Tay. The Assembly ordered all ministers and elders to subscribe the Westminster Confession, and appointed a solemn fast-day in expiation of the national sins, among which was expressly mentioned the introduction of Prelacy. But in view of the divided state of the country, it showed its prudence by not attempting to renew the general obligation of the National Covenant. The efforts of the Assembly, through its commissioners, to purge out the old incumbents throughout the kingdom, and replace them by orthodox ministers, proved quite ineffectual in Aberdeen and other strongholds of Episcopacy; but on the whole, the established religion, backed by the authority of the State and supported by the majority of the people, held its own, and increased in strength and numbers during the reigns of William II and his successor Queen Anne. The latter, while herself a strong adherent of the Episcopal Church of England, showed no inclination to favour the hopes and schemes of the Episcopalian minority in Scotland. A proposal in the Scottish Parliament of 1703 that the free exercise of religious worship should be conceded to all Protestant Nonconformists (Catholics, of course, were carefully excluded) was met by a violent protest from the authorities of the Established Church, and was consequently dropped. The Episcopal body, however, continued its private worship, though not sanctioned by law, and provided for its continued organization by the consecration of two more bishops (the old hierarchy being almost extinct) in 1705, without, however, claiming for them any diocesan jurisdiction.

The Union of England and Scotland into one kingdom in 1707, a measure unpopular with the great body of the Scottish nation, was resisted by many Presbyterians, through fear of the effect on their Church of a closer connection with a kingdom where Prelacy was legally established. Parliament, however, enacted, as a fundamental and essential condition of the Treaty of Union, that the Confession of Faith and the Presbyterian form of church government were "to continue without any alteration to all succeeding generations"; the religious tests were to be continued in the case of all holding office in universities and schools, and every succeeding sovereign was to swear at his accession to preserve inviolate the existing settlement of religion, worship, government, and discipline in Scotland. It was a rude shock to those who believed the unchallenged supremacy of the Scottish Church to be thus permanently secured to find the British Parliament, a few years later, not only passing an act tolerating Episcopalian worship in Scotland, but restoring that right of private patronage to benefices which, revived at the Restoration, had been abolished, it was thought forever, at the Revolution. The importance of the latter measure, from the point of view of the history of the Established Church, can hardly be exaggerated; for it was the direct incentive to, and the immediate cause of, the beginning of the long series of schisms within the body, the result of which has been, in the words of a Presbyterian historian, the "breaking-up of the church into innumerable fragments". There were already included within the pale of the establishment two widely differing parties: the old orthodox Presbyterians or "evangelicals", who upheld the national covenant to the letter, and looked upon the toleration of Episcopacy as a national sin crying to heaven; and the new and semi-prelatical party subsequently known as "moderates", who gradually became dominant in the government of the church, regarded their opponents as fanatics, declined to check, if they did not actually encourage, the Arminian or latitudinarian doctrines which were taking the place of the old Calvinistic tenets, and submitted without a murmur to the restoration of lay patronage, which struck at the very root of the essential principle of Presbyterian church government. The policy of the moderates prevailed; the revolt of the presbyteries was quelled, and the popular clamour to a great extent silenced. But at the same time thousands of people were alienated from the establishment, so that by the middle of the eighteenth century there were in every centre of population schismatic meeting-houses thronged with dissentient worshippers.

The long period of ascendancy of the Moderate party in the Church of Scotland, which lasted from the reign of Queen Anne well into the nineteenth century — a period of nearly a hundred years — was on the whole an uneventful one. Faithful to the Hanoverian settlement, and closely allied with the state, the establishment grew in power and dignity, and produced not a few scholars and philosophers of considerable eminence. Principal William Robertson, the historian of Scotland, of America and of Charles V, was one of the most distinguished products of this period; and he may be taken also as typical of the cultured Presbyterian divines of the eighteenth century, whose least conspicuous side was the theological or spiritual element which one might have expected to find in the religious leaders of the time. Spirituality, in truth, was not the strong point of the prominent Scottish churchmen of that epoch, whose doctrinal laxity has been acknowledged and deplored by their modern admirers and fellow-churchmen. Rationalism was rife in manse and pulpit throughout Scotland; and the sermons of Hugh Blair, which were translated into almost every European language, and were praised as the most eloquent utterances of the age, are purely negative from any theological point of view, however admirable as rhetorical exercises. Whatever spiritual fervour or devotional warmth there was in the Presbyterianism of the eighteenth century is to be looked for not within the pale of the dominant church, but in the ranks of the seceders from the establishment — the burghers and Anti-burghers, and other strangely-named dissentient bodies, who were at least possessed with an intense and very real evangelical zeal, and exercised a proportionate influence on those with whom they came in contact. That influence was exerted not only personally, and in their pulpits, but also in their devotional writings, which undoubtedly did more to keep the essential principles of Christianity alive in the hearts of their countrymen, in an unbelieving age, than anything effected by the frigid scholarship, philosophy, and rhetoric which were engendered by the established church of the country during the period under review.

It is singular that the state Church of Scotland, whose own religious spirit was at so generally low an ebb during the greater part of the eighteenth century, should nevertheless have during that period made more or less persistent efforts to uproot the last vestiges of the ancient Faith in the northern parts of the kingdom, many of which had remained absolutely unaffected by the Reformation. It was in 1725 that the yearly gift called the Royal Bounty, still bestowed annually by the Sovereign, was first forthcoming, with the express object of Protestantizing the still Catholic districts of the Highlands. Schools were set up, Gaelic teachers and catechists instituted, copies of the Protestant Bible, translated into Gaelic, widely disseminated, and every effort made to win over to the Presbyterian tenets the poor people who still clung to the immemorial faith and practices of their fathers. Want of means prevented as much being done in this direction as was desired and intended; and for that reason, as well as owing to the unexpected reluctance of the Catholic Highlanders to exchange their ancient beliefs for the new evangel of the Kirk, the efforts of the proselytizers were only very partially successful, the inhabitants of several of the western islands, and of many isolated glens and straths in the western portion of the Highland mainland still persisting in their firm attachment to the old religion.

Meanwhile the general revival of Evangelicalism, which was in part a reaction from the excesses and negations of the French Revolution, was beginning to stir the dry bones of Scottish Presbyterianism, which had almost lost any influence it had formerly exercised on the religious life of the people. The personal piety, ardent zeal, and rugged pulpit eloquence of men like Andrew Thomson and Thomas Chalmers awoke the Established Church from its apathy, and one of the first evidences of its new fervour was the official sanction given to foreign mission work, which had been condemned as "improper and absurd" by the General Assembly of 1796. The business of church extension at home was at the same time energetically undertaken; and though it was long hindered by the hopelessness of obtaining increased endowments from the Government — the only means, curiously enough, by which the Church seemed for years to think the extension could be brought about — private munificence came to the rescue, and within seven years more than two hundred churches were added to those already existing in Scotland. The first half of the nineteenth century, however, though a period of progress, was by no means a period of peace within the establishment. Side by side with the evangelical revival had sprung up again the old agitation about the essential evil of lay private patronage. Internally the church was torn by doctrinal controversies, resulting in the condemnation and expulsion of some ministers of distinction and repute, while in open opposition were the nonconforming bodies which had, at least temporarily, coalesced under the title of the United Seceders, preached uncompromising voluntaryism, and denounced all state connection with churches, and state endowments of religion, as intrinsically unscriptural and impious.

It was, however, the age-long grievance about patronage which proved the rock on which the Established Church was to split asunder and to be wellnigh shattered. The Veto Act, passed by the General Assembly in 1833, provided that the minister presented by the patron was not to be instituted unless approved by a majority of heads of families in the congregation; but the highest legal tribunals in Scotland absolutely refused to sanction this enactment, as did the House of Lords, to which the Assembly appealed. The claim of the Church to legislative independence was rudely brushed aside by the President of the Court of Session, in his famous declaration that "the temporal head of the Church is Parliament, from whose acts alone it exists as the national Church, and from which alone it derives all its powers". The result of this momentous conflict was what was known as the "Disruption" of 1843, when 451 out of 1203 ministers quitted the church, together with fully a third of its lay members, and initiated a new religious organization thenceforth known as the Free Church (see FREE CHURCH OF SCOTLAND).

The Established Church, shorn by the Disruption, of all the men who had been most prominent in promoting the evangelical revival, swept from its statute-book everything disallowed by the civil courts, became again "moderate" in its polity, and frankly Erastian in its absolute subservience to the civil power. With its national reputation seriously impaired, and abandoned by its labourers in the mission field, who all, with one solitary exception, joined the rival Church, its task was for many years a difficult and ungrateful one. It is to its credit as an organizing body that it promptly set to work, and with some measure of success, to repair the breaches of 1843, to recruit its missionary staff, to extend its borders at home, to fill up the many vacancies caused by the latest schism, and to erect and endow new parishes. In 1874, thirty-two years after the Disruption, the Assembly petitioned Parliament for the abolition of the system of patronage, so long the great bone of contention in the Church. The prayer was granted, and the right of electing their own ministers conferred on the congregations — a democratic arrangement which, however gratifying to the electors, often places the candidate for their suffrages in a position both humiliating and undignified, and is not infrequently accompanied by incidents as ludicrous as they are disedifying. Nor has the new order of things apparently brought appreciably nearer the prospects of reunion between the Established and Free Churches, although the question of patronage, and not that of State recognition was the main point of cleavage between them. A union of a kind, though not a complete one, there has been of some of the religious bodies outside the pale of the Establishment; but the State Church herself seems powerless to recall or reunite the numerous sects which have wandered from her fold, difficult or impossible as it seems to the outside observer to discover what essential points of difference there are between them in matters either of doctrine, discipline, or church government.

The Established Church of Scotland maintains that her system of government, by kirk-sessions, presbyteries, synods, and the General Assembly, is "agreeable to the Word of God and acceptable to the people"; but she does not claim for it exclusively the Divine sanction and authority. There is no doubt as to its general popularity in Scotland, to whose people the democratic element in Presbyterianism strongly appeals. In the lowest judicatory body, the kirk-session, the laymen or "elders" greatly preponderate, and they are as numerous as the ministers in presbyteries and synods; while the members of the supreme body, the General Assembly, are chosen by popular election. The Sovereign is represented at the Assembly by his Lord High commissioner; but his presidency is merely formal, and the Assembly is opened and dissolved not by him in the first place, but by the elected head or "moderator", in the name of Christ, the "head of the Church". It is needless however, to add that popular election and democratic government notwithstanding, the Scottish Established Church is, like its English sister, the creature of the State and absolutely subject to it; and nothing in its parliamentary creed can be changed except with the sanction of the authority to which it owes its existence. Viewed in the light of the history of the past three centuries, the passionate claim made by a section of Scottish Presbyterians to "spiritual independence" is as ludicrous as it is pathetic. Their Church enjoys exactly as much independence — neither less nor more — as may be conceded to it by the State which created and upholds it.

Present-day statistics

The number of ecclesiastical parishes in Scotland (1911) is 1441; of chapels, 80; of mission stations, 170; total, 1691; and the increase of church sitting since 1880 is stated to be 196,000. The total endowments of the Church from all sources (i.e. the national exchequer, local funds, "teinds" or tithes, either in kind or commuted, and funds raised within the Church) are reckoned at about X360,000 annually. The number of communicants, as returned to the General Assembly in May, 1910, was 711,200; and there were 2222 Sunday schools taught by about 21,000 teachers, with a roll of children amounting to nearly 301,000. It is claimed in the official returns of the Church that her membership has increased 52 per cent in 36 years, during which period the growth of the total population of Scotland has increased only 33 per cent. The Established church performed in 1908 45 per cent of Scottish marriages, as compared with 26 per cent (United Free) and 10 per cent (Catholic). Reckoning the population of Scotland in 1911 as about 4, 750,000, the proportion of communicants of the Establishment would be about 14 per cent of the whole. The church of Scotland has in recent years displayed much energy in the extension of her work both at home and abroad. Since 1878 the Home and foreign Missions have doubled their incomes; 460 new parishes have been erected, and 380 new churches built; missions have been established in Africa and China, and a Universities Foreign Mission started; and guilds and associations have been founded in connection with a great variety of religious objects. During the same period of thirty-six years a sum of between sixteen and seventeen millions sterling (exclusive of government grants, school fees, and interest on capital) has been voluntarily contributed for parochial, missionary, and charitable purposes in connection with the Established Church.

The four Scottish Universities all possess faculties of "divinity", with well-endowed professors lecturing on theological or quasi-theological subjects; and a degree at one of these universities, or at least a certificate of having attended courses of lectures therein, as a rule required for students aspiring to the Presbyterian ministry. Many "bursaries" or scholarships are available for students of divinity; and the course of studies prescribed for them is comprehensive and carefully arranged. It is impossible, however, to deny the fact, or to view it without apprehension, that the hold of dogmatic truth is becoming constantly weaker in the Established as in the Free Church, among teachers and learners alike. German rationalistic ideas have penetrated deeply into the divinity halls of the Kirk; and half an hour's conversation with a Scotch professor of Biblical criticism or systematic theology, or with the ablest of the younger generation of ministers who have sat at their feet, will be sufficient to show how wide has been the departure from the old orthodox standards of belief within the Church. The latest formula of subscription imposed on ministers at their ordination still professes a belief in the "fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith" contained in the Presbyterian Confession; but this does not apparently include any real acceptance either of the Divinity of Christ or of the inspiration of Holy Scripture, at least in the sense in which those doctrines are understood by Catholics. "In Presbyterian Scotland", writes a modern critic, "there are many good Christians, but Presbyterian Scotland is emphatically not a Christian country, any more than Protestant England." That such a deliberate verdict should be possible in the twentieth century of the Christian era is melancholy indeed.


"Acts of the General Assemblies of the Church of Scotland", 1638-1854 (Edinburgh, 1843-75); "Confession of Faith of the Church of Scotland", (Edinburgh, 1638); "First and Second Book of Discipline" (s. l., 1621); SAGE, "An Account of the Present Persecution of the Church in Scotland" (London, 1690); "Brief and True Account of the Sufferings of the Church of Scotland occasioned by the Episcopalians" (London, 1690); "Short Statement of the origin and nature of the present divisions in the Church of Scotland" (London, 1840); FOTHERINGHAM, "Presbyterianism in Religious systems of the World" (Edinburgh, 1861); McCRIE, "The Public Worship of Presbyterian Scotland" (Edinburgh, 18920; CALDERWOOD, "History of the Church of Scotland" (Edinburgh, 1842-44); LEE, "Lectures on the History of the Church of Scotland from Reformation to Revolution" (Edinburgh, 1860); KINLOCH, "History of Scotland, chiefly in its Ecclesiastical Aspect" (Edinburgh, 1888); WALKER, "Scottish Church History" (Edinburgh, 1881); "Church of Scotland Year-book" (Edinburgh, 1911); POWER, "Presbyterianism in C. T. S. Lectures on Hist. Of Religions" (London, s.d.)

About this page

APA citation. Hunter-Blair, O. (1912). Established Church of Scotland. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Hunter-Blair, Oswald. "Established Church of Scotland." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by John Looby.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. February 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, D.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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