Synod of United Original Seceders (1852-1956): Overview

The Synod of Original Seceders, 1852-1956

– a Historical Overview


This part of the web-site deals with the Annals of the Synod of United Original Seceders (UOS). It gives brief factual accounts of ministers and probationers and of the congregations in which they served. It is not a historical analysis of the Church’s situation. It is not an objective assessment of the factors which made them what they were or of their contribution to the life of the Scottish Church or nation.

Nevertheless in compiling these annals some impression is received of the general pattern of the UOS Church’s development and demise and that’s the subject of this very brief historical overview.

The story of the last 104 years of UOS history can be divided into three sections. There were 20 years or so of consolidation; about 25 years of growth; and the rest is the story of terminal decline.

1. Consolidation

At the Second Disruption, the UOS church was torn apart, almost down the middle. Where a minister remained in the UOS Church with his congregation more or less intact, life carried on more or less as normal. In other congregations, there were conflicts and difficulties to be faced. In some cases, there was a legal battle for the property; in others, the expense of constructing a new church building. Some times these battles were bitter or prolonged. For the Church as a whole, therefore, there had to be a period of consolidation at the local level.

Through the division which was part of the “Union”, the overall structures of the UOS Church were also dislocated and had to be restored. Thus there were new arrangements to be made for the training of students; for the upkeep of the denominational magazine; the clerkship of the Synod and of the four Presbyteries. Arrangements were made promptly in these areas but it put a strain on the resources of the church. In regard to training and administration, almost the same amount had to be done as previously – with half the personnel available to do it.

These congregations which emerged from situations where their minister had joined the Free Church required supply, and regular pulpit supply was hard to come by. This was a particularly pressing problem for the UOS Church because they tried to hold strictly to their view that only licensed men could take services. Adjustments had to be made. Hence students might be authorised to take Sunday services in particular circumstances and under certain conditions, for example, that they only preach sermons that had already been examined and sustained by their professor or their Presbytery.

There was more liberty in regard to who had the right to hold prayer meetings. But necessity required that the definition of a prayer meeting became somewhat flexible. At any rate, one way or another, congregations which did not receive regular supply nonetheless were able to survive, partly through the informal ministry of their own efforts.

Until there was a more adequate source of ministry, the church was under extreme strain to supply the means of grace to all who looked to the UOS Church for them. This explains why there was some flexibility in getting men licensed before they had completed their full course at the Divinity Hall. It also explains in part why ministers who wished to go abroad to spread the Secession testimony in the Antipodes were treated somewhat severely for even thinking of doing so.

2. Growth

In regard to numbers of congregations, after a bit there was growth. It is true that Colmonell, a country parish in Ayrshire, faded out after a few years, as did Balmullo in Fife. On the other hand, the congregation of Millhill, Olrig, Caithness, was formed after a dispute in the Free Church there, when the disaffected parties applied for admission to and were received by the UOS Church.

Three other churches were received into the UOS Church directly or indirectly as a result of the union of the Free Church with the majority of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in 1876. Carnoustie Reformed Presbyterian Church had been formed from the minority of the UOS congregation there which had not entered the Free Church at the Union of 1852. Having declined to merge with the Free Church in 1852, it is not surprising that it declined to do so 24 years later. It returned to the UOS Church in 1876. The Paisley and Darvel congregations were both formed from portions of the Reformed Presbyterian congregations which had united with the Free Church. The Free Church had departed from its practice of singing Psalms only, unaccompanied by musical instrument. When innovations in regard to worship were introduced into these congregations, a section deserted the Free Church and sought refuge in the UOS Church so as to continue their traditional way of worship.

However, growth in the number of congregations did not just come from disaffected groups which separated from other congregations. The Glasgow, Laurieston, congregation was formed by the disjunction of some members from the Glasgow, Mains Street, Church. Other members from other denominations also joined them so that it is difficult to know how much real church growth there was and how much was just the result of the transference of denominational loyalties. Yet there can be no doubt that some efforts were made to reach the un-churched in their vicinity.

In fact, Mission work seems to have been given a boost about this time. The Ayr congregation always had congregational mission work from the outset but at this time it seems that many of the students were employed as home missionaries in their student days.

Certainly the Glasgow, Bridgeton, congregation was what would be called today a church plant. It was formed on the basis of missionary work in a needy part of the city sponsored by the Home Mission Committee of the UOS Church in conjunction with the local Presbytery. It eventually became a fully self supporting congregation and indeed promoted work in Springburn which for a time flourished but never came to anything.

At this time too, the UOS Church took on responsibility for mission work in Seoni, India. True, the man whose name is specially associated with building up the Seoni mission – John McNeel – was a native of the USA who joined the Scottish UOS Church in order to take up the work in India. Nevertheless, that a small Scottish Church should take on such a large missionary project was a significant achievement and says much about the outward lookingness of the church at this time of growth.

Another aspect of development during this period was the way in which different congregations attended to their buildings. Several buildings that were old or ugly or uncomfortable were transformed into beautiful, comfortable, well lighted and well heated ones. Some were demolished; some were renovated but there was a significant transformation in the standard of church property in the last quarter of the 19th century.

Membership statistics were favourable. The Church was not a large one but membership was increasing gradually. Of course, this was no different from other Presbyterian Churches of the time, yet it must have been viewed with quiet contentment that they had weathered the storm of 1852 and were now making some gains, even among non-church people.

At the end of the 19th century, an impartial observer might have thought that the UOS Church was well placed to develop further – but if so, it was only because no one had observed the writing on the wall.

3. Decline

The fact of the matter was that the UOS Church was leaking like a sieve and the damage that was being done was about to come to the light.

As the 19th century ran its course, the Scottish Presbyterian Churches changed their pattern of worship abandoning their position on unaccompanied Psalm singing. The UOS commitment to that position never changed but as in other churches there was not the same attachment to it as formerly. But there were other matters in the UOS Church’s Testimony that people found increasingly difficult to accept whole heartedly. One of these was ministerial communion: ministers of other churches were not meant to be allowed into the pulpit to preach in UOS congregations.

Not only so, but the commitment of the UOS Church to “a Covenanted Reformation” proved a stumbling block to some. They were not only committed to the First Reformation of 1560 but to the Second Reformation – in particular they maintained that the National Covenant and the Solemn League and Covenant were still binding on the nation. To take the covenants was a requirement of her office-bearers. True, the covenanting that was entered into did not involve simply the reiteration of these 17th century Covenants; the covenants were brought up to date to reflect the changed moral situation of the day. Yet behind it all was the idea that these old Covenants were binding and that they could have no ministerial fellowship with those who thought otherwise.

That there was less and less interest in this “Covenanted Reformation” as the 19th century ran its course was quite obvious. It was seen in the number of those who dropped out: ministers and probationers who elected to be associated with another denomination; students who did not complete their studies.

Here is a table illustrating drop our rates:

There is in this table what we might term a “plateau” and a “spike”.

The plateau occurred in the years 1871-1910 when the trickle of men who dropped out swelled for a time to a stream. When we recall that the UOS Church about the end of the century had only 28 ministerial charges, then we realise how such a stream of departures seriously undermined the life of the church.

The spike was in the last years of the UOS Church’s separate existence. It is to be explained by the fact that ministers knew what the outcome for their church must be and, frustrated by the determination of some to resist the inevitable, they anticipated the inevitable and joined the Church of Scotland as individuals rather than wait for the UOS Church to accede to the Church of Scotland as a body.

We do not know exactly why these men left. But a significant number of them stated that they were out of sympathy with the Covenanted Reformation or that they had difficulty with other distinctive beliefs of the UOS Church. Nor do we know what happened to all of these men after they left the UOS Church. Three or four took the relatively short step to the Free Church; a few more associated with the United Presbyterian Church; some went abroad; a few of the students who dropped out took up secular employment; but at least 20 ended up in the Church of Scotland.

This means that even in the time when there was significant growth taking place in the UOS Church, there were sufficient numbers dropping out from the ministry that any thinking person would have wondered where it would all end. The writing was on the wall and the message was clear: people brought up in your midst do not believe that a Covenanted Reformation is relevant for the 20th century.

So there was a gradual haemorrhage of ministers who felt the commitment of the UOS Church to a Covenanted Reformation was out-moded and who in general felt restricted by the terms of the Church’s Testimony. These were often young gifted men whose gifts if kept within the UOS Church could well have kept the church growing. The loss of such men doomed the church to extinction and although its demise was slow in coming, its death knell was sounded when a clump of men left the church around the turn of the century.

As the years passed, there was some recognition within the UOS of what was happening. The Testimony was reviewed and changes were made, but still there were those who held the Church to the old line of the Covenanted Reformation. With the union of the majority of the Free Church with the United Presbyterian Church in 1900 and the Union of the majority of the United Free Church with the Church of Scotland in 1929, church unity became a big idea and leaders of the UOS Church spoke of the possibilities of returning to the mother church – the Church of Scotland.

But there were other churches to whom the UOS Church was closer theologically. There was the Reformed Presbyterian Church who were the church of the Covenanters; and there was the Free Church of Scotland, the minority who remained outwith the Union of 1900. Discussions from time to time took place with these Churches, which at that time held the same views on worship as the UOS Church did. There was indeed some practical cooperation with the Free Church in different ways. The UOS helped in the training of Free Church ministers, in the difficult days after the 1900 Union. There was cooperation also on the mission field: the Free Church sent missionaries to Seoni and helped in the work there until they took over an adjacent area of their own in the Lakhnadon/Chappara area.

The details of the discussions with these churches is a subject worth detailed study. Arrangements for Union with the Free Church in the 1930s were all but completed but eventually came to nothing.

But the leakage of ministers continued and it was clear that something had to be done about the situation. There was a renewed attempt to tamper with the Testimony to try and make it more acceptable and to have a “federal union” rather than an incorporating union with the Free Church or the Reformed Presbyterian Church. These efforts came to nothing and quickly the terms for accession to the Church of Scotland were agreed in 1956 and the Original Secession, which had lasted 223 years came to an end.