IN a country that was obsessed with religion for centuries, no single event other than the Reformation itself has shaken the nation to its core more than the Disruption of 1843.

I suspect that in our modern secular Scotland not everyone will have heard of the Disruption that split the Church of Scotland in 1843. That is a pity because it truly was a major event in Scottish history whose consequences continue to this day, which is why I am devoting two columns to it.

To most Scots nowadays, the theological arguments and political discourses that surrounded the Disruption will seem esoteric and abstruse, but back in the 1830s and 1840s, such discussions were the stuff of everyday conversation, not least because the Kirk was still a huge presence in Scottish society where, don’t forget, politics as we know it was not for the common people – they mostly didn’t have the vote anyway – and church issues were often divisive and deeply felt.

The Kirk’s reputation as a killjoy and for being intolerant stems from the fact that for long periods, parishes were run by ministers and elders almost as a law enforcement agency. Indeed, lacking full time police officers, Kirk Sessions often became detectives, judges, juries and punishers for their parishes – anyone who wants to find evidence of that need only read the life of Rabbie Burns who was frequently before the ‘court’ of elders.

Yet the Scottish Presbyterian tradition that descended from the teachings of John Calvin in Geneva was far more democratic than the hierarchical approach of the Churches of Rome and England, and it could be argued that it was the very democracy of the Church of Scotland that led to the Disruption – that and the fact that Presbyterians of all social classes had access to education.

The ‘school in every parish’ that John Knox and his fellow Reformers dreamed about in the mid–16th century became a reality in the 1696 Education Act which came six years after King William and Queen Mary decreed that the Presbyterian Kirk would be the national church of Scotland, approving the 1690 Act of Parliament which made the Kirk legally the state religion of Scotland.

The 1696 ‘Act for Settling Schools’ survived the Act of Union in 1707 with education remaining very much a Scottish reserved matter, and indeed by the time of the Union almost every parish in Scotland had a school and a schoolmaster, the latter accountable to the parish minister and ‘heritors’, usually local lairds, landlords and landowners who had to stump up the salaries for the clergy and schoolteachers.

As if it was necessary, the 1696 Act cemented the Church of Scotland’s position as the kirk in control of the education of almost every young Scot. The Kirk’s version of Presbyterianism was very much now the national religion though Episcopalians were usually tolerated, especially in the North East of the country.

In 1711, just four years after the Union, the UK Parliament was prevailed upon to interfere in the Kirk’s affairs. Landed gentry and local burgesses had been more than a little peeved that their right to nominate ministers for parishes – called patronage – had been taken off them in 1690, so they lobbied Westminster to get back their rights of patronage.

The Church of Scotland’s own website describes what happened: “In 1711 legislation was enacted restoring the right of patronage which had been abolished in 1690.

“This returned power to landowners and town councils to nominate ministers to vacant parishes, thereby removing the right of call from congregations. This was to become the source of much division in the Church over the next century and a half. In 1733, protesting at what they saw as the Church’s acquiescence in patronage, a number of ministers seceded and in 1761 this was followed by a second secession.”

In 1712 when the Patronage Act took effect in Scotland, it was massively unpopular. Elders and parishioners alike railed against the change that saw them no longer have the right to ‘call’ ministers of their choosing. Some say that the upheaval caused by the new law almost ended the Union which was still fragile in those early days due to the fact that it had been imposed by the upper classes on a general populace that did not want it.

So one of the first things we learn about the 1843 Disruption was that it followed on from deep divisions that had lasted for more than 130 years and which included the two secessions in 1733 and 1761. The first was led by a charismatic figure, the Reverend Ebenezer Erskine, who with three minister colleagues formed an ‘Associate Presbytery’ against lay patronage, a stance which got them suspended from the Ministry – and of course many people flocked to their aid, Erskine being a particularly popular preacher.

The 1761 secession was much more widespread. Minister Thomas Gillespie, like Erskine, took a stance against patronage – he refused to participate in the induction of a minister to the parish of Inverkeithing as the parishioners objected. Gillespie and colleagues duly founded a new Presbyterian denomination, the Relief Church, as they had ‘relief’ from patronage. It proved very popular and at one time had more than 140 congregations.

The 18th century was a time of general religious and political tumult in Scotland. It also saw two major uprisings against the occupants of the throne of the United Kingdom, with Jacobites supporting the cause of James Stuart and his son, Bonnie Prince Charlie. It’s simplistic to say that many Jacobites were Episcopalian and Roman Catholic, while the Presbyterians adhered to the Hanoverian dynasty, but given that the Stuarts had stayed Roman Catholic, the Church of Scotland certainly had its fears about them taking the throne.

The Kirk suffered more problems with the foundation of the Reformed Presbyterian Church which is still in existence today, so it can be seen that the Church of Scotland was not always a united body – far from it, especially when it came to which tenets of Presbyterianism should be maintained and which should be dismissed.

The National: Thomas Chalmers may have been the first to name the DisruptionThomas Chalmers may have been the first to name the Disruption

All these splits and schisms indicate that the image of the Kirk as a great monolithic control freak was false – this was a dynamic church feeling its way forward by discussion and debate and certainly not accepting the dictates of Parliament and the courts.

Usually, but not always, the dramas were played out before the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland which is both the highest court in the Kirk and its governing body. As the name suggests, it assembles annually in Edinburgh to thrash out church theology and laws as well as organisational matters.

It’s been meeting since 1560, and by the start of the 19th century it ruled the roost over a country where perhaps four–fifths of the population were adherents of the Church of Scotland.

The divisions within the Kirk were soon an open sore, however, and ministers, elders and lay people began questioning the whole patronage system and whether the State had the right to impose it on the Kirk.

The real start of the Disruption can be traced to the passing of the Reform Act of 1832 which in Scotland had the effect of creating a new electorate of 65,000 – all men, all property owners – compared to 5,000 before. In one fell swoop the system of political patronage which had elected MPs was thrown aside – so why not do the same for Kirk patronage?

There was already in existence a group of so-called “Evangelicals” within the Kirk, who wanted stricter adherence to the Bible and a break with the state. They were opposed by the “Moderates” who were the majority in the Kirk and who backed patronage and did not want an argument with the State.

The Evangelicals grew in number and campaigned brilliantly so that by 1834, the General Assembly passed the Veto Act, starting what became known as the ‘Ten Years Conflict.’ This Kirk Veto Act allowed a majority within a parish to reject a patron’s choice of minister – only men who were heads of families could vote, it should be noted.

That may have been the Kirk’s democratically chosen position but the Evangelicals reckoned without the State and its right-hand men, the judges in the Court of Session.

They ruled in what became known as the Auchterarder Case that a congregation did not have the right to reject the choice of the patron, the Earl of Kinnoul, of a Mr Robert Young to be the local minister.

The judges went further saying that the Kirk had acted ‘ultra vires’, beyond its powers, in passing the Veto Act which clearly transgressed Parliament’s laws. They stated that the Kirk itself was a creation of the State and derived its powers from Parliament – a case of pouring oil on a blazing pyre.

More cases were brought, all of them lost by the Kirk, and the real crisis came in 1841 when the General Assembly suspended seven ministers from Strathbogie for proceeding with a minister’s induction against the Assembly’s own decree.

The following year, the General Assembly drew up a Claim of Right. It did not want the State interfering as Jesus Christ was head of the church, not the government in Westminster.

The Rev Thomas Chalmers, a leading Evangelical, recorded what happened later in 1842 in a letter to a friend which survives to this day: “You may perhaps have, by this heard of the proceedings of our Convocation in November. Between four and five hundred of our best ministers have subscribed a Memorial to Government, by which they commit themselves to the relinquishment of the Church’s temporalities, are not permitted to hold them but on the condition of subjected to the Civil Courts in things spiritual, on the footing of the decision by the House of Lords in the case of Auchterarder.

“And, if the Parliament grant us no redress, I have no doubt that the decision of our Convocation in November will be the decision of our General Assembly in May. It lies therefore with our statesmen whether there shall not be an utter disruption of our Church in a few months. None of us are at sanguine of a favourable measure at their hands, and we are laying our account with the connexion being dissolved early in summer. The eyes of the country are opening to this fact as to a coming certainty, and I feel great confidence that with the blessing of God, we shall be able to resolve ourselves into a great Home Mission, and take possession of the land.”

The divisions between Evangelicals and Moderates grew ever deeper. The unthinkable – a schism to split the Kirk – became a looming reality.

The following April, with feelings running very high, Chalmers wrote: “Our crisis is rapidly approaching. We are making every effort for the erection and sustenation of a Free Church, in the event of our disruption from the State which will take place we expect in four weeks. I am glad to say that the great bulk and body of the common people with a goodly proportion of the middle classes, are upon our side, though it bodes ill for the country that the higher classes are against us.”

It was Chalmers who appears to have coined the name of the the Disruption. Next week we’ll see what happened on a momentous day in May 1843, and how it changed Scotland.