BOOK REVIEW: THE SECOND DISRUPTION: THE FREE CHURCH IN VICTORIAN SCOTLAND AND THE ORIGINS OF THE FREE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH BY JAMES LACHLAN MACLEOD
Reviewer: J. Parnell McCarter
As readers of this website will readily discern, we encourage all Christians seriously to consider joining the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland (FPCS). Crucial to understanding the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland is understanding the context and rationale of its birth. James Lachlan MacLeod’s book, The Second Disruption, is a valuable tool in that endeavor.
It should be noted at the outset that Mr. MacLeod is not a member of the FPCS. His father was a minister in that body, but he never became a communicant member, and decided to pursue a religious course apart from it. His book was written as a doctoral dissertation in history at Edinburgh University. There is a subtle yet real humanist bent in the author’s work, and one cannot help but wonder whether humanism and modernism beguiled the author away from the FPCS, as it has many others.
But the defection of the author from the FPCS, and even its humanist bent, does not in any way render the book useless. Indeed, the author’s religious aloofness in some ways enhances the book’s value, for we have here not the narrative of a mere partisan.
The Second Disruption is a witness to the doctrinal apostasy that came to characterize the old Free Church in the latter decades of the nineteenth century. One after another liberal took an influential role in the Church, and eventually liberals came into control of all its educational institutions and its organizational leadership, despite their pledge of adherence to the doctrines of the original Westminster Standards. They denied all manner of doctrine, including but not limited to the infallibility of scripture, God’s providential preservation of the authentic text, the Establishment Principle, six day creation, and historic Presbyterian worship. In my opinion, the author does not acknowledge the heinousness of this breach of covenant, but he does document its occurrence. The liberals were men who took an oath of full agreement with the Westminster Standards and a pledge to defend their doctrines, yet they willfully denied and undermined those doctrines, until they had changed the Free Church to their latitudinarian and liberal perspectives. Such vile covenant breakers are deserving of scorn and the title ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’.
When the liberals had sufficiently proliferated so as to control the organizational apparatus of the old Free Church, they passed the Declaratory Act, releasing the Church from covenanted full subscription to the doctrines of the Westminster Standards, which they regarded as intellectual shackles. By the passage of the Declaratory Act the Free Church at once became a loose subscriptionist Church. Like the plethora of other loose subscriptionist Churches, not only did it no longer require full subscription of its officers to the Westminster Standards, it did not even specify a confession to which it fully subscribed. With the passing of the Declaratory Act, the old Free Church was no longer pledged to uphold and maintain the old Reformation standards, or really any standards for that matter. Its connection with the Westminster Standards were historical and no longer presently real. It was at this point that the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland was born, consisting of those who wanted to maintain a church fully pledged to subscribe and uphold the Westminster Standards.
The Second Disruption documents how some conservatives yet remained in the old Free Church, even after the passing of the Declaratory Act. Their argument was that they would remain in it so long as they were tolerated, while those that separated (the Free Presbyterians) argued that they could not remain in a denomination that tolerated such doctrinal laxity and unfaithfulness.
The separation of the conservatives that separated from the old Free Church in 1893 (in what is termed ‘the Second Disruption’) and those that remained in it marks the difference even to this day between the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland. The book explains the divide in this way:
“…the Free Presbyterian attitude to the Westminster Confession of Faith has not undergone any changes in the past century. As creeds and confessions have become less popular with many denominations, and as the Westminster Confession of Faith in particular has come to be seen as outdated and obsolete, the Free Presbyterian has clung resolutely to every single aspect of that controversial document…While most Churches that subscribed to the Westminster Confession have changed their terms of subscription or abandoned them altogether in the past hundred years, the Free Presbyterians have not. On the contrary, they have gripped it with unfaltering strength and held it high as a symbol of their identity. Continuity on this issue has been one of the Free Presbyterians’ most unshakeable emblems, and that has also contributed to their distinctive identity.
To sum up, the Free Presbyterian Church has remained virtually unchanged over the past century because the circumstances of its birth made an unbending and inflexible stance almost inevitable. As a Church which emerged in response to and, more importantly, as a protest against change, change became anathema to it…
There were from the beginning moves to bring the Free Presbyterians and the more conservative part of the Free Church back together again. This intensified with the split in the Free Church over the Union with the United Presbyterians in 1900, when the more conservative section of the Free Church, mainly in the Highlands and including many of the Free Presbyterians’ ex-allies in the battle against the Declaratory Act, chose to remain outside the Union. The Free Presbyterians gave this decision a guarded welcome, but declared that ‘the ecclesiastical position of the Anti-Unionists’ was ‘still unsatisfactory’. The Free Church minority rescinded the Declaratory Act and took other steps that, by 1905, had raised a very real possibility of reunion between the erstwhile allies, but although some of the Free Presbyterians’ most eminent ministers did re-join the Free Church, the majority remained separate.
To the Free Presbyterians, the key issue was the form of words of the Preamble to the Act with which the Free Church rescinded the Declaratory Act, where it was said that ‘this Church adheres, as she has always adhered, to her subordinate standards’. In a motion at the Free Presbyterian Synod of 1905, Neil Cameron stated bluntly that:
By this statement the Free Church seem to justify their own actions since 1893, and by implication to condemn the separate position taken up then by the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. This action on their part makes it impossible for this Church to view the terms of said preamble in any other light than as fixing these Churches in their present separate positions.”
So the Preamble to the Act with which the Free Church rescinded the Declaratory Act served as the continuing divide between the Free Church of Scotland and the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. That division has only widened with time, as the Free Church of Scotland itself has become increasingly liberal. It is like two ships traveling in directions several degrees apart; over time the distance between the two only widens. Conservatives within the Free Church of Scotland have protested in frustration with the increasing liberalism, eventually resulting in their expulsion and the formation of the Free Church of Scotland Continuing denomination.
Has history vindicated the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland? I think so. But whether you agree or disagree, I encourage you to read this fascinating account of its birth.
Note: For additional information about this book, readers are encouraged to visit the website of the author at http://faculty.evansville.edu/jm224/Second%20Disruption.htm .