Charles Buck Theological Dictionary
A numerous body of Presbyterians in Scotland, who have withdrawn from the communion of the established church. In 1732, more than forty ministers presented an address to the general assembly, specifying, in a variety of instances, what they considered to be great defections from the established constitution of the church, and craving a redress of these grievances. A petition to the same effect, subscribed by several hundreds of elders and private Christians, was offered at the same time; but the assembly refused a hearing to both, and enacted, that the election of ministers to vacant charges, where an accepted presentation did not take place, should be competent only to a conjunct meeting of elders and heritors, being Protestants. To this act many objections were made by numbers of ministers and private Christians. They asserted that more than thirty to one in every parish were not possessed of landed property, and were, on that account, deprived of what they deemed their natural right to choose their own pastors. It was also said that this act was extremely prejudicial to the honour and interest of the church, as well as to the edification of the people; and, in fine, that it was directly contrary to the appointment of Jesus Christ, and the practice of the apostles, when they filled up the first vacancy in the apostolic college, and appointed the election of deacons and elders in the primitive church.
Many of those also who were thought to be the best friends of the church expressed their fears, that this act would have a tendency to overturn the ecclesiastical constitution which was established at the revolution. Mr. Ebenezer Erskine, minister at Stirling, distinguished himself by a bold and determined opposition to the measures of the assembly in 1732. Being at that time moderator of the synod of Perth and Stirling, he opened the meeting at Perth with a sermon from Psalms 118:22 . "The stone which the builders rejected, is become the head stone of the corner." In the course of his sermon, he remonstrated with no small degree of freedom against the act of the preceding assembly, with regard to the settlement of ministers; and alleged that it was contrary to the word of God and the established constitution of the church. A formal complaint was lodged against him for uttering several offensive expressions in his sermon before the synod. Many of the members declared that they heard him utter nothing but sound and seasonable doctrine; but his accusers, insisting on their complaint, obtained an appointment of committee of synod to collect what were called the offensive expressions, and to lay them before the next diet in writing.
This was done accordingly; and Mr. Erskine gave in his answers to every article of the complaint. After three day's warm reasoning on this affair, the synod, by a majority of six, found him censurable; against which sentence he protested, and appealed to the next general assembly. When the assembly met in May 1733, it confirmed the sentence of the synod, and appointed Mr. Erskine to be rebuked and admonished from the chair. Upon which he protested, that as the assembly had found him censurable, and had rebuked him fro doing what he conceived to be agreeable to the word of God and the standards of the church, he should be at liberty to preach the same truths, and to testify against the same or similar evils, on every proper occasion. To this protest Messrs. William Wilson, minister at Perth, Alexander Moncrief, minister at Abernethy, and James Fisher, minister at Kinclaven, gave in a written adherence, under the form of instrument; and these four withdrew, intending to return to their respective charges, and act agreeably to their protest whenever they should have an opportunity. Had the affair rested here, there never would have been a secession; but the assembly, resolving to carry the process, cited them by their officer, to compear next day. They obeyed the citation; and a committee was appointed to retire with them, in order to persuade them to withdraw their protest.
The committee having reported that they still adhered to their protest, the assembly ordered them to appear before the commission in August following, and retract their protest; and, if they should not comply and testify their sorrow for their conduct, the commission was empowered to suspend them from the exercise of their ministry, with certification that, if they should act contrary to the said sentence, the commission should proceed to an higher censure. The commission met in August accordingly; and the four ministers, still adhering to their protest, were suspended from the exercise of their office, and cited to the next meeting of the commission in November following. From this sentence several ministers and elders, members of the commission, dissented. The commission met in November, and the suspended ministers compeared. Addresses, representations, and letters from several synods and presbyteries, relative to the business now before the commission, were received and read. The synod of Dumfries, Murray, Ross, Angus and Mearns, Perth and Stirling, craved that the commission would delay proceeding to a higher censure. The synods of Galloway and Fife, as also the presbytery of Dornoch, addressed the commission for lenity, tenderness, and forbearance towards the suspended ministers; and the presbytery of Aberdeen represented, that, in their judgment, the sentence of suspension inflicted on the aforesaid ministers was too high, and that it was a stretch of ecclesiastical authority. Many members of the commission reasoned in the same manner, and alleged, that the act and sentence of last assembly did not obliged them to proceed to a higher censure at this meeting of the commission. The question, however, was put,
Proceed to a higher censure or not? and the votes being numbered, were found equal on both sides: upon which Mr. John Goldie, the moderator, gave his casting vote to proceed to a higher censure; which stands in their minutes in these words:
"The commission did and hereby do loose the relation of Mr. Ebenezer Erskine, minister at Stirling, Mr. William Wilson, minister at Perth, Mr. Alexander Moncrief, minister at Abernethy, and Mr. James Fisher, minister at Kinclaven, to their respective charge, and declare them no longer ministers of this church; and do hereby prohibit all ministers of this church to employ them, or any of them, in any ministerial function. And the commission do declare the churches of the said ministers vacant from and after the date of this sentence." This sentence being intimated to them, they protested that their ministerial office and relation to their respective charges should be held as valid as if no such sentence had passed; and that they were now obliged to make a secession from the prevailing party in the ecclesiastical courts; and that it shall be lawful and warrantable for them to preach the Gospel, and discharge every branch of the pastoral office, according to the word of God, and the established principles of the church of Scotland. Mr. Ralph Erskine, minister at Dunfermline, Mr. Thomas Mair, minister at Orwel, Mr. John M'Laren, minister at Edinburgh, Mr. John Currie, minister at Kinglassie, Mr. James Wardlaw, minister at Dunfermline, and Mr. Thomas Narin, minister at Abbotshall, protested against the sentence of the commission, and that it should be lawful for them to complain of it to any subsequent general assembly of the church. The secession properly commenced at this date.
And accordingly the ejected ministers declared in their protest, that they were laid under the disagreeable necessity of seceding, not from the principles and constitution of the church of Scotland, to which, they said, they steadfastly adhered, but from the present church-courts, which had thrown them out from ministerial communion. The assembly, however, which met in May 1734, did so far modify the above snetence, that they empowered the synod of Perth and Stirling to receive the ejected ministers into the communion of the church, and restore them to their respective charges; but with this express direction, "that the said synod should not take upon them to judge of the legality or formality of the former procedure of the church judicatories in relation to this affair, or either approve or censure the same." As this appointment neither condemned the act of the preceding assembly, nor the conduct of the commission, the seceding ministers considered it to be rather an act of grace than of justice; and therefore, they said, they could not return to the church-courts upon this ground; and they published to the world the reasons of their refusal, and the terms upon which they were willing to return to the communion of the established church. They now erected themselves into an ecclesiastical court, which they called the Associated Presbytery, and preached occasionally to numbers of the people who joined them in different parts of the country. They also published what they called an Act, Declaration, and Testimony, to the doctrine, worship, government, and discipline of the church of Scotland; and against several instances, as they said, of defection from these, both in former and in the present times.
Some time after this, several ministers of the established church joined them, and the Associated Presbytery now consisted of eight ministers. But the general assembly which met in 1738, finding that the number of Seceders was much increased, ordered the eight ministers to be served with a libel, and to be cited to the next meeting of the assembly, in 1739. They now appeared at the bar as a constituted presbytery, and, having formerly declined the assembly's authority, they immediately withdrew. The assembly which met next year, deposed them from the office of the ministry; which, however, they continued to exercise in their respective congregations, who still adhered to them, and erected meeting-houses, where they preached till their death. Mr. James Fisher, the last survivor of them, was by a unanimous call in 1741, translated from Kinclaven to Glasgow, where he continued in the exercise of his ministry among a numerous congregation, respected by al ranks in that large city, and died in 1775, much regretted by his people and friends. In 1745, the seceding ministers were become so numerous, that they were erected into three different presbyteries under one synod, when a very unprofitable dispute divided them into two parties. The burgess oath, in some of the royal boroughs of Scotland, contains the following clause: "I profess and allow with my heart the true religion presently professed within this realm, and authorised by the laws thereof. I will abide at and defend the same to my life's end, renouncing the Romish religion called Papistry." Messrs. Ebenezer and Ralph Erskine, James Fisher, and others, affirmed that this clause was no way contrary to the principles upon which the secession was formed, and that therefore every seceder might lawfully swear it. Messrs. Alexander Moncrief, Thomas Mair, Adam Gib, and others, contended, on the other hand, that the swearing of the above clause was a virtual renunciation of their testimony; and this controversy was so keenly agitated, that they split into two different parties, and now meet in different synods.
Those of them who assert the lawfulness of swearing the burgess oath are called Burghers; and the other party, who condemn it, are called Antiburgher Seceders. Each party claiming to itself the lawful constitution of the Associate Synod, the Antiburghers, after several previous steps, excommunicated the Burghers, on the ground of their sin, and of their contumacy in it. This rupture took place in 1747, since which period no attempts to effect a reunion have been successful. They remain under the jurisdiction of different synods, and hold separate communion, although much of their former hostility has been laid aside. The Antiburghers consider the Burghers as too lax, and not sufficiently steadfast to their testimony. The Burghers on the other hand, contend that the Antiburghers are too rigid, in that they have introduced new terms of communion into the society. What follows in this article is a father account of those who are commonly called the Burgher Seceders. As there were among them, from the commencement of their secessions, several students who had been educated at one or other of the universities, they appointed one of their ministers to give lectures in theology, and train up candidates for the ministry. Where a congregation is very numerous, as in Stirling, Dunfermline, and Perth, it is formed into a collegiate charge, and provided with two ministers. They are erected into six different presbyteries, united in one general synod, which commonly meets at Edinburgh in May and September.
they have also a synod in Ireland, composed of three or four different presbyteries. They are legally tolerated in Ireland; and government, some years ago, granted 500l. per annum, and of late an additional 500l. which, when divided among them, affords to each minister about 20l. over and above the stipend which he receives from his hearers. These have, besides, a presbytery in Nova Scotia; and, some years ago, it is said, that the Burgher and the Antiburgher ministers residing in the United States formed a coalition, and joined in a general synod, which they call the Synod of New York and Pennsylvania. They all preach the doctrines contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith, and Catechisms, as they believe these to be founded on the sacred Scriptures. They catechise their hearers publicly, and visit them from house to house once every year. They will not give the Lord's supper to those who are ignorant of the principles of the Gospel, nor to such as are scandalous and immoral in their lives. They condemn private baptism; nor will they admit those who are grossly ignorant and profane to be sponsors for their children. Believing that the people have a natural right to choose their own pastors, the settlement of their ministers always proceeds upon a popular election; and the candidate, who is elected by the majority, is ordained among them. Convinced that the charge of souls is a trust of the greatest importance, they carefully watch over the morals of their students, and direct them to such course of reading and study as they judge most proper to qualify them for the profitable discharge of the pastoral duties. At the ordination of their ministers, they use a formula of the same kind with that of the established church, which their ministers are bound to subscribe when called to it; and if any of them teach doctrines contrary to the Scriptures, or the Westminster Confession of Faith, they are sure of being thrown out of their communion.
By this means, uniformity of sentiment is preserved among them; nor has any of their ministers, excepting one, been prosecuted for error in doctrine since the commencement of their secession. They believe that the holy Scriptures are the sole criterion of truth, and the only rule to direct mankind to glorify and enjoy God, the chief and eternal good; and that "the supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all the decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures." They are fully persuaded, however, that the standards of public authority in the church of Scotland exhibit a just and consistent view of the meaning and design of the holy Scriptures with regard to doctrine, worship, government, and discipline; and they so far differ from the dissenters in England, in that they hold these standards to be not only articles of peace and a test of orthodoxy, but as a bond of union and fellowship.
They consider a simple declaration of adherence to the Scriptures as too equivocal a proof of unity in sentiment, because Arians, Socinians, and Arminians, make such a confession of their faith, while they retain sentiments which they (the Seceders) apprehend are subversive of the great doctines of the Gospel. They believe that Jesus Christ is the only King and Head of the church, which is his body; that it is his sole prerogative to enact laws for the government of his kingdom, which is not of this world; and that the church is not possessed of a legislative, but only of an executive power, to be exercised in explaining and applying to their proper objects and end those laws which Christ hath published in the Scriptures. Those doctrines which they teach relative to faith and practice are exhibited at great length in an Explanation of the Westminster Assembly's Shorter Catechism, by way of question and answer, in two volumes, composed chiefly by Mr. James Fisher, late of Glasgow, and published by desire of their synod. For these fifty years past, the grounds of their secession, they allege, have been greatly enlarged by the public administrations of the established church, and particularly by the uniform execution of the law respecting patronage, which, they say, has obliged many thousands of private Christians to withdraw from the parish churches, and join their society. In most of their congregations, they celebrate the Lord's supper twice in the year; and they catechise their young people concerning their knowledge of the principles of religion previously to their admission to that sacrament.
When any of them fall into the sin of fornication or adultery, the scandal is regularly purged according to the form of process in the established church; and those of the delinquents who do not submit to adequate censure are publicly declared to be fugitives from discipline, and are expelled the society. they never accept a sum of money as a commutation for the offence. They condemn all clandestine and irregular marriages; nor will they marry any persons unless they have been proclaimed in the parish church on two different Lord's days at least. The constitution of the Antiburgher church differs very little from that of the Burghers. The supreme court among them is designated The General Associate Synod, having under its jurisdiction three provincial synods in Scotland and one in Ireland. They, as well as the Burgher Seceders, have a professor of theology, whose lectures every candidate for the office of a preacher is obliged to attend.
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Buck, Charles. Entry for 'Seceders'. Charles Buck Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/cbd/s/seceders.html. 1802.