ONE striking sequel to the death of Thomas Chalmers was a
veritable spate of funeral orations. In addition to the hundreds that were
printed, by way of excerpt or summary, in city and provincial newspapers, there
were scores that found separate publication in full or augmented form. The bulk
were from Scotland and from the Free Church, but other lands and Churches
joined in to swell the tribute. No other Scottish churchman had ever such a
coronach. While an Argus-eyed critic might see in all this "an indulgence of
authorcraft rather than of grief," and while only in a minority of cases is any
fresh contribution made to the understanding of the man or his work,
nevertheless their mere volume makes its own appeal, and one finds oneself
concurring in the verdict of his colleague, Dr. James Buchanan, who, in opening
the next session in New College, said: "These tokens of a universal interest
and common sympathy . . . which have flowed in one unbroken " current since the
announcement of his departure . show more eloquently than words can tell that
the master-mind of the Free Church, the veteran hero of the Disruption,
tenacious to the last of his peculiar principles, and testifying for them with
his latest breath before rulers and nations, was still recognized and honoured
the world over, as the greatest representative and noblest Specimen of living,
large-hearted catholic-minded Christianity."
The deepest impression that remains from this mass of reading - and this seems to sum up Scotlands immediate reaction - is the prevalence of the note, even ir those most closely associated with him, of veneration from a distance. Dr. Chalmers is treated as though belonged to another order of being, to a race of supermen. For this impression the Scripture texts, on which tributes were founded, may be held partly responsible but only partly. The analogies of Moses and Abrham and Paul would not have been pushed so far with other leaders. For one who mingled so much and so constantly with his fellow men of all classes and conditions, there seems to have been something about him remote and inaccessible. Even the most outstanding of his brethren looked on him as one who habitually moved on a height too lofty for them to feel quite at home in his company. When the protagonist of any worthy cause is removed from the scene of his earthly warfare this note is never altogether absent in tributes paid to his memory. But in Chalmers case it was the all-pervading note and grief for the comrade-in-arms is swallowed up in veneration for the exalted personality. The uncommon man has almost blotted out the common humanity. It is no matter for astonishment that, in the situation he had left behind, there were keen watchful eyes in the land which saw in all this thç incipient stages of idolatry.
Nor did this marked veneration cease with the contemporary pulpit tributes. It is quite as emphatic in later verdicts of men of distinction who had known and heard him. Dr. John Brown, with memories rekindled by the Posthumous Works, coined for his description a phrase which is significant. A solar man he termed him, "drawing after him his own firmament of planets." To Professor David Masson as he looked back on the days of his youth, there were great Scottish figures in many walks of life, but the brightest luminary was Chalmers. "He had met no human being in the world," he was never tired of saying, "that he would call greater than Chalmers." Even Thomas Carlyle, who, in a crabbed mood of disagreement, could cavil at him as "ill-read," was constrained to say, "No preacher ever went so into ones heart. I suppose there will never again be such a preacher in any Christian Church"; and later, on hearing of his death, "I believe that there is not in Scotland, or all Europe, any such Christian priest left."
If that impression waned the reason is not far to seek. He became associated in mens minds with a sectional interest, strong and flourishing indeed, but still sectional. Lesser men outside felt that to indulge in praise of Chalmers was to increase the prestige of the Free Church, at the expense, perhaps, of their own. A bigger man like Norman MacLeod regretted that his Assembly took no notice of the death, and a little later spoke of him to a gathering of the laymen of the Church of Scotland as one "whose noble character, lofty enthusiasm, and patriotic views will rear themselves before the eyes of posterity like Alpine peaks, long after the narrow valleys which have for a brief period divided us are lost in the far distance of past history." Today, liberated from this inhibition, all may freely join in the homage paid by the men of his generation. Over thirty years ago a leading churchman said, "Chalmers belongs to us all." His words have their force multiplied now.
If we were to seek, from among the manifold activities recorded in the earlier pages, one phrase which might sum up the ideals of this devoted spirit, there are many who would choose "the Christian good of Scotland" as the watchword of his life. A Scotland regenerated in every part, religiously, morally, economically, and socially was his aim throughout. He burned to see a people evangelized and evangelizing, steadfast in good; and for good, industrious, and reaping the rewards of industry. Scotland was to be a vineyard of the Lord, with the weeds of poverty, crime, and irreligion banished by an efficient Christian culture.
But at no point in his career were the boundaries of Scotland his horizon. From the very moment of his evangelical rebirth at Kilmany it was the world-wide Christian enterprise that held his allegiance and drew forth his devotion. At the height of his social experiment he was campaigning for the Moravians. It was while he was commending to the public the lessons of that experiment that he was kindling the choicest spirits to serve their Lord in India. In his later years the phrase "the Christian good of Scotland" almost vanished from his vocabulary. It had been replaced by the " Universal Home Mission," to which the West Port was more a personal than a denominational contribution. He yearned to see the organized religious resources of every branch of the Christian Church united in a co-ordinated attack on heathenism, destitution, and ignorance. It was as a defender of the Christian faith that he won his theological spurs ; in the Churchs practical concerns he was the exponent of a vigorous and continuous united offensive on a world-wide front. Remembered by many as the author of division, he was much more markedly the apostle of union. No more catholic-minded man was ever driven by circumstances into being the founder of a separate denomination. For it was simply and solely because the Church of Scotland, established and endowed, was to him the obvious instrument for the Christian good of the part of the world nearest to his hand, that he sought to make it efficient. Just as he had counted release from the antiquated machinery for dealing with poverty in Glasgow necessary for coping with poverty in St. Johns, there must, he felt, be a similar release from the accumulated deadweight of a laissez-faire ecclesiastical past, before the Church of Scotland could fully accomplish its task of dealing with a changed and changing world. In no spirit of challenge to the State, but simply and solely for the welfare of its citizens, he embarked on that course of reform which was to end in the Disruption.
In a retrospect on the Disruption itself it is not unnecessary to recall the primary intention of the term. It is too often taken for granted that it meant a disruption of the Church, and that it was adopted by the "Free Protesting Church" to emphasize its magnitude, as being too extensive to be called a Secession merely, and in reality, "a rending in twain," to quote Dr. J. R. Flemings description. And when Anglican divines heard in Scottish churches phrases like "the glorious Disruption," particularly in prayers of thanksgiving, they wondered into what Bedlam they had strayed. But there was no suggestion of schism in the word. It was not a disruption of, it was a disruption from; not even a disruption from their brethren who remained behind, but a disruption from the Establishment. And by the Establishment they meant the whole privileges, emoluments, status, and obligations as then interpreted of the State relation. It was a word used by Dr. Chalmers in various connections throughout his whole career. It appears early in his journal and letters, applied to very diverse separations, such as from excessive addiction to secular studies and the Parish of Kilmany.
His own life had seen a "disruption" from these. In its ecdesiastical application it appears first, so far as one has observed, in his speech in the Assembly of 1839, where "the calamity of a disruption" manifestly refers to a disruption from the State. In later speeches it is equated with" a clear, and an honourable, and withal a Christian outgoing," and "a withdrawal from the intolerable position forced upon us." The language of the Protest and of the Deed of Demission bears the same implication; and the mere fact that the latter was sent to the Government suggests that it was its signing and transmission, which not only completed but constituted the decisive disruptive act. Disruption took place when the "true" Church of Scotland thus severed itself from the State. Tanfield Hall was its scene, not St. Andrews Church, where the severance of brethren took place. It was this implication which led the Established Church, at first at least, pointedly to avoid the term. What was a "glorious Disruption" to the one Church, was to the other a "lamentable Secession." But, into its original use and fundamental meaning, the thought of a split in the Church did not enter. The Disruption would have remained a Disruption, indeed it would have been all the greater a Disruption, had it been unanimous.
In point of fact, however, it did entail a "rending in twain," which in turn led to consequences both good and bad. On the credit side must be entered the awakening of the Christian people of every church in Scotland to their responsibility for the religious welfare of every corner of the land and the multiplied provision, in some quarters excessive, for the worship of God and the education of the children. In the larger centres a healthier emulation in good works displaced traditional inertia and superseded less wholesome ancient feuds. To all this there must be added the distinctive denominational contribution of the Free Church, which, from its initial plans through its subsequent achievements, alike in evangelism and education, at home and abroad, through its great teachers and leaders and missionaries, evoked the admiration of Christendom, as a living branch of the Church Universal abundant in blossom and equally abundant in fruit.
On the debit side must be placed, particularly in places with declining population, overlappings of agencies, and the consequent animosities. Men tended to be esteemed religious in proportion to the strenuousness and effectiveness of their activities against the other side. Ecclesiastical allegiance became a first consideration in local secular appointments, ruling even the granting of leases and the engagement of shepherds and ploughmen. And that hateful temper, Schadenfreude - for which the Germans alone have the word, but from which no people is immune - insinuated itself too often into the hearts of rival churchmen. There was, unquestionably, a sombre lining to the glory of the Disruption.
An adequate assessment of the responsibility for this catastrophic element would entail a recapitulation of the whole ground already covered. But, undoubtedly, in the critical final stages the onus rests on the Government of the day. When it refused to give its mind to "that massive and magnificent state-paper, the Claim, Declaration, and Protest of 1842," and instead took the opportunity of roundly rebuking the Church for its swollen pretensions and continued contumacy, the die was cast.
It has been frequently asserted, however, in exculpation that had it foreseen the magnitude of the withdrawal it would have acted otherwise; that, misled by its own particular Scottish correspondents, it decided that a final demonstration of firmness would ensure a widespread, almost universal, retreat from the positions, the Church had taken up. In confirmation, it is pointed out that, in later life, nearly all the statesmen involved, in one way or another, expressed their great regret at what had happened. Sir James Graham, in particular, is recorded as saying that "he would never cease to regard it with the deepest regret and sorrow, as the saddest event of his life, that he should have had any hand in that most fatal act" His first biographer, going even further, asserts that he "was convinced, when too late, of the error into which, in deference to the judgment of others, he had fallen". That he and the others did regret the sequel to their decision is unquestionable, but that he or they ever came to regard the decision as an error in policy is very doubtful. The attempt to represent them later as a group of penitents in white sheets has no substantial basis. They were, and remained, consistent Erastians, ready to smother any assertion of her autonomy on the part of the Church. They would have held up their hands in genuine horror at the release of the Church of Scotland from the yoke of patronage in 1874, a release, opposed indeed by the Free Church, but hastened by the contiguity of its system of popular election, and the failure of Lord Aberdeens Act. And no words would be adequate to describe their consternation had they been confronted with the spectacle of the Church of Scotland presenting to their successors in 1921 as articles lawful for her to enact, those contained in the schedule to the Enabling Bill, in especial Article IV.2 No! Misinformation may have led them to scamp consideration, and to act more peremptorily than they might have done; but sound information would not have altered their decision. They were convinced adherents of what Dr. Figgis has called "the concession theory of corporate life" the conception of an independent ecclesiastical authority in the commonwealth was, to them, a noxious weed to be ruthlessly extirpated. It stands to the credit of the British Goverument of 192! that, just when totalitarian states were beginning to assume new forms and were on the eve of a fresh prevalence, it should so handsomely and unreservedly recognize the historic claims of the Scottish Church.
It was, indeed, a historic claim on which this recognition set its seal. It had been blazoned on the Churchs banner from the beginning. 'Scotland for Christ through a Church free from civil domination in the ordering of its own spiritual affairs under Him' sums up the witness of almost four centuries. For Scotlands main contribution to Reformed Theology has been within this domain of the Erastian Controversy. Dr. William Cunningham put the matter in his simplest language, when he wrote: "Of all Protestant countries, England is the one where the claim of civil supremacy over the Church was most openly put forth, most fully conceded, and most injuriously exercised; while our own beloved land is that in which it has all along been most strenuously and successfully resisted." No century has been without its conflict, and none without its literary defence. The events that issued in the Disruption constituted the most subtle and penetrating of them all. When the struggle reached its culmination in the spring of 1843 it looked as though the Erastian forces had been following a plan. The new outworks constructed by the Church were first to be levelled with the ground, and then, by infiltration, the central citadel was to be taken from the rear. For it was no mere question of jurisdiction that was finally at stake. There are to be found scattered throughout the opinions of even the majority judges, ample acknowledgment of the validity and finality of the Churchs jurisdiction - within the limits conceded or prescribed by statute. Even Sir Robert Peel in the House of Commons could speak of the exclusive jurisdiction of the Church in spiritual matters, though what was left of it after the decisions of 1842 - 43 was microscopic. There are, of course, many apparent exceptions, like the declaration of Lord Wood in the Stewarton Case that the Court of Session had a two-fold duty to "declare what the Church is bound to do, and enjoin performance, and what it is bound not to do, . . . and enforce the restriction." Even this, in its historical context, is less drastic than it sounds apart from it.
The final quarrel of the courts and legislature was not with the fact of the Churchs jurisdiction, but with her claim as to the source of that jurisdiction. It was the high anti-Erastian doctrine of thc Westminster Confession that was once more challenged that "The Lord Jesus, as King and Head of His Church, has therein appointed a government in the hands of Church officers, distinct from the Civil Magistrate " - a doctrine reasserted in the Resolution of 1838, with the explanatory amplification "that in all matters touching the doctrine, government, and discipline of this Church, her judicatories possess an exclusive jurisdiction founded on the Word of God " - a doctrine which was to be still further defined in the fifth question of the formula of questions put to all probationers and ministers of the Free Church that that government is "distinct from, and not subordinate in its own province to, civil government, and that the civil magistrate does not possess jurisdiction, or authoritative control, over the regulation of the affairs of Christs Church" - all of which and more came to be embodied in the United Free Church Act anent Spiritual Independence (1906) and then in the Articles Declaratory of the Constitution of the Church of Scotland in Matters Spiritual (1926), which together constitute the basis of the constitution of the re-united Church in this matter. It is well at this point to incorporate Article IV that it may be read in the light of the central points at issue in 1843.
"IV. This Church, as part. of the Universal Church wherein the Lord Jesus Christ has appointed a government in the hands of Church office-bearers, receives from Him, its Divine King and Head, and from Him alone, the right and power subject to no civil authority to legislate, and to adjudicate finally, in all matters of doctrine, worship, government, and discipline in the Church, including the right to determine all questions concerning membership and office in the Church, the constitution and membership of its Courts, and the mode of election of its office-bearers, and to define the boundaries of the spheres of labour of its ministers and other office-bearers. Recognition by civil authority of the separate and independent government and jurisdiction of this Church in matters spiritual, in whatever manner such recognition be expressed, does not in any way affect the character of this government and jurisdiction as derived from the Divine Head of the Church alone, or give to the civil authority any right of interference with the proceedings or judgments of the Church within the sphere of its spiritual government and jurisdiction."
It was this historic claim that was the focus of attack and the centre of resistance in the Disruption conflict. The Lord Justice Clerk specifically denied the possibility of any jurisdiction which "not being derived from the State, cannot be subjected to the control of the judgment of the Courts appointed to enforce the laws made by the State." And many scornful words were directed against the pretensions of Churchmen - their doctrine of the Headship of Christ - and any independent jurisdiction or legislative authority flowing therefrom.
Within this generation a brilliant outside observer, Professor Laski, in language remote from the terminology of the struggle, thus states its essential meaning. "The Presbyterians of 1843 were fighting the notion of a unitary state. To them it seemed obvious that the society to which they belonged was no mere cog-wheel in the machinery of the State, destined only to work in harmony with its motions. They felt the strength of a personality which, as they urged, was complete and self-sufficient, just as the mediaeval state asserted its right to independence when it was strong enough not merely to resent, but even to repudiate, the tutelage of the ecclesiastical power. They were fighting a State which had taken over bodily the principles and ideals of the mediaeval theocracy. They urged the essential federalism of society, the impossibility of confining sovereignty to any one of its constituent parts."
Illuminating as this reading of their action is, the men of the Disruption were not pre-occupied with questions of political theory. They faced a concrete issue. And while it can be clearly seen to-day that these fundamental problems were involved, that was not how they presented themselves to those who had to make a decision which would shape the future of their land and church. Leaving out of account those who were moved by considerations of personal security or of personal popularity, the best of the men of 1843 found themselves confronted with the old choice of the priority of principle or institution.
To Chalmers and the like-minded, principle was paramount. An essential element in the Churchs witness had been denied. Every attempt to attain its recognition had failed. Full loyalty to the Headship of Christ was impossible within the now fettered institution. Let us abandon the Establishment, they said, and continue and deepen our witness to the principle, even if it be without the gate. Denuded as we will then be of what we have valued, we may do much, perhaps more than ever, to hold and to win Scotland for Christ.
The best on the other side stood by the institution. True, the Headship of Christ had been sadly impaired, but that doctrine had suffered hard knocks before. Let us, they said, accept the present limitations as transitory, and, even though some brethren seem content with them, let us work persistently for their removal. A better day will dawn when we will be able to fly the confessional banner in the face of all the worid. Within a century a better day did dawn, but it was the Disruption that had made it possible.
The historical survey here comes to an end. But a final word may be permitted in another vein, containing things sermon propiora, "properer for a sermon" as Charles Lamb translated it. It needed but little imagination, on that 2nd of October 1929, in the huge hail of reunion, to see the radiant figure of Thomas Chalmers, dwarfing all other intrusions from the past, raising those speaking hands of his in benediction, and calling on the great assembly to join, to the tune Scarborough or Devizes, in the familiar lines of the 147th Psalm:
God doth build up Jerusalem;
And He it is alone
That the dispersed of Israel
Doth gather into one.
Have we lived up to that fine hour, the culmination of many a struggle and the fruit of many a sacrifice? Is the reunited Church doing all that it might for the Christian good of Scotland, and in the Universal Home Mission? With institution and principle now reintegrated does the glow persist? And will it brighten? "Pray ye, therefore, the Lord of the harvest."
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