Today we continue our consideration of what objects could tell us if they could talk with this beautiful little brooch created in 1843. The brooch has on the front a number of gravestones with a burning bush behind and a number of years around the edge. On the reverse is the following inscription:
THE / LEGISLATURE HAVING / REFUSED TO PROTECT / THE CHURCH OF SCOTLAND / IN THE EXERCISE OF HER SPIRITUAL / PRIVILEGES ESSENTIAL TO A / CHURCH OF CHRIST, / FROM THE COERCIVE INTERFERENCE OF THE CIVIL COURTS. / DR WELSH THE MODERATOR, / ALONG WITH 474 MINISTERS PROTECTED / AGAINST THIS INVASION OF HER RIGHTS / GUARANTEED BY THE TREATY OF UNION / AND RESIGNED THEIR LIVINGS, / GLEBES AND MANSES, / DECLARING / THAT THEY COULD NOT, IN / FAITHFULNESS TO THE / LORD JESUS CHRIST / THE ONLY HEAD OF THE / CHURCH, REMAIN IN AN ESTABLISHMENT / SO CONSTITUTED / 18. MAY / 1843
What is this little object trying to tell us about what happened 171 years ago on Sunday?
In the years before this brooch was created landowners had the right to choose the minister in their local church, but sometimes the chosen chap was considered unsuitable by the local congregation, so they vetoed him and chose a replacement. To cut a very long and complicated story brutally short, the government stated that church congregations didn’t have the right to do this. Usually a minister who was chosen by the congregation to replace the man chosen by the landowner whom the congregation didn’t want (still with us?) tried to begin his work in the pulpit. When this happened the courts sometimes banned him from the church, or even the parish, and threatened him with imprisonment.
Many ministers, including Dr Welsh, the Moderator of the Church of Scotland in 1843, and Thomas Chalmers, an alumnus of St Andrews and a former Professor of Moral Philosophy here, thought that this was unacceptable. There was only one head of the Church and that was Christ, not the government. After failing to convince the authorities to allow the vetos, Chalmers, Welsh and around 473 other ministers walked out of the Church of Scotland at the General Assembly on 18th May 1843 to form the Free Church of Scotland.
Why was it called the Free Church of Scotland? The brooch tries to tell us. The dates around the edge are important ones in the history of the Scottish Church and the gravestones are those of notable figures in the Church of Scotland’s history. The brooch wants to tell us, then, that the Free Church of Scotland fits into the Scottish Church’s long story. It wasn’t seen as another denomination, but as another step in the natural progression of the Kirk – the Church of Scotland, but free from the shackles of government control.
The brooch manages to tell us a good deal already, but if it had lips it could tell us some terrible stories. The item was made so that women could show support for those who had joined the Free Church, many of whom suffered a great deal. Congregations who left the Church of Scotland were without buildings and met in barns or outside. The minister in Blairgowrie wrote “God’s answers to prayers were most striking. Often on Saturdays the rain poured in torrents, but by Sabbath the sun and wind were sent.” Eventually it did rain on the Sabbath in Blairgowrie, and as the Church Bible was slowly ruined the congregation struggled to hear the preacher for the drumming of the drops on umbrellas.
Ministers were also without manses. Many landowners refused to allow them to rent buildings on their land. Dr Henry Duncan, minister in Dumfriesshire, lived in an unfinished home and called his living room the “great drawing room of nature” because it lacked a wall. John Kirk, minister in Arbirlot, found a home in Arbroath, several miles from his parish. He calculated that over the course of three years he walked over 2000 miles between his home and his parish! The wife of Thomas Davidson, minister at Kilmallie, died after living in a hut that didn’t keep out wind and rain. Davidson called her “another victim to the cruel oppression of the proprietors of Scotland.” McVean, minister of Iona, moved with his family into the schoolmaster’s house until the Presbytery of the Church of Scotland encouraged the Schoolmaster to evict him. McVean was later found dead in a hut, the only place he could find to lay his head.
This brooch, then, can tell some terrible stories of ministers who sacrificed much, sometimes everything, for their God. It can also, however, tell stories of great growth. Within a few years there were church buildings, manses and a college to train the ministers (the building is now home to New College at the University of Edinburgh, with the Free Church College, soon to be renamed the Edinburgh Theological Seminary, in more modern accommodation next door). All this supported around 600 Free Church congregations and much of it was down to our alumnus Chalmers.
Chalmers could draw a crowd, you might say he was the One Direction of his day (well, not quite). When this Fife lad (who, apparently, never lost what one man called “the bruising barbarism of his accent”) went to the big city of London, hundreds of miles from his sphere of influence, the church in which he was preaching was packed out, with ladies fainting and listeners falling out of windows. Beatlemania before its time! This charisma, along with his keen mind, meant that he was able to raise money quickly to fund the massive building works that became necessary.
If this brooch could talk, therefore, the story it could tell would have all the trappings of a melodramatic novel. The fact that it’s true makes it all the more exciting.