Some Scottish Church History

Come with me to Scotland!

Sir Alexander Gray (born 1882) describes Scotland as a land of rugged Highlands and wide-open spaces.
“Here in the Uplands The soil is ungrateful; The fields, red with sorrel, Are stony and bare. A few trees, wind-twisted - Or are they but bushes? - Stand stubbornly guarding A home here and there.”
The Scottish is, in Gray’s words, land which is, for the most part, “Despising the plough.”
Gray is not looking down on the Scottish countryside with contempt. He is not disowning his native-land. He writes:
“The marsh and the moorland are not to be banished”.
Affirming his love for Scotland, Gray writes,
“This is my country, The land that begat me. These windy spaces Are surely my own. And those who here toil In the sweat of their faces are flesh of my flesh And bone of my bone.”
Scotland, and its people, may well be, for the most part, somewhat unsophisticated. There is, however, to be ashamed of Scotland and its people.
Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh, is described thus by Alexander Smith (1830-1867):
“Living in Edinburgh there abides, above all things, a sense of its beauty, hill, crag, castle, rock, blue stretch of sea, the picturesque ridge of the Old Town, the squares and terraces of the New - these things seen once are not forgotten.”
This, says Smith, “makes residence in Edinburgh more impressive than residence in any other British city.”
Concerning Edinburgh’s main street, Smith boasts:
“What a poem is that Princes Street! … The New is there looking into the Old. Two times are brought face to face, and are yet separated by a thousand years … There is nothing in Europe to match that I think.”
Although these words were written a long time ago, they still provide us with an apt description of Edinburgh. Edinburgh’s first impression on the visitor is that it is a beautiful city. The visitor is still impressed by Edinburgh’s combination of the Old and the New.
Glasgow is not so often described as a beautiful city. It is more frequently spoken of as an industrial city.
This is not to deny that Glasgow, like Edinburgh, has its fair share of beauty-spots. Glasgow is richly blesses with a considerable number of very beautiful public parks. Glasgow can, however, be rightly described as primarily an industrial city.
Tobias Smollett (1721-1771) described Glasgow as “one of the most flourishing (towns) in Greatt Britain … a perfect bee-hive … of industry.”
This is not to say that Glasgow is simply a huge, impersonal, industrial machine. Glasgow is ‘home’ to over half a million people.
By their warm friendliness, the people of Glasgow have frequently made the city “a beautiful city” for its visitors.
The response of visitors to the people of Glasgow is somewhat mixed. Some are put off by their lack of sophistication, Others are attracted by their openness.
“Some critics complain of a low level of general manners, and others find the rough and open ways of the Glasgow folk enchanting. (A Canadian visitor said, ‘These people are quite incapable of hypocrisy’” (George Blake, Scotland’s Splendour, p. 16).
Glasgow is an industrial city, inhabited by people, characterized by the openness of their personalities rather than their sophistication.
From these sketches of Scotland and its major cities, we may make some general observations:
(a) Lack of sophistication is nothing to be ashamed of.
(b) The old and the new can be combined attractively.
(c) The attractiveness of a place is not unrelated to the attractiveness of its people.

Learning from St Ninian and St Columba

In 397, St. Ninian came from Ireland to Scotland. He came to a small village called Isle of Whithorn. This village is in the south-west corner of Scotland. It has an intriguing name since it is not, in fact, an island. It is situated on a little peninsula of its own. St. Ninian came to Scotland to convert the Picts (the Scottish people) to Christianity.This was the humble beginning of Christianity in Scotland!
In 563, St. Columba came to Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland. A medieval abbey was built by St. Columba and his followers. This abbey, also known as Iona Cathedral, has been completely restored. Since the work of restoration was completed in 1959, Iona Cathedral has been a major attraction for visitors. Many parties have spent some time there, enjoying both physical and spiritual refreshment.
Iona Cathedral plays an important part in the life of the Church of Scotland. We can learn much from thinking about its ancient history. T. Ratcliffe Barnett (1868-1946) gives us a vivid description of Columba and the island of Iona,
“Columba’s Isle … only love, memory and the mystic’s vision can unlock the secret of this Isle of Dream. The spirit of Columba, that saint of blessed memory … still broods over the green …lands, the old grey stones, and the pure white sands. Yonder that navy of heaven which brought from Ireland more wealth of Christ than all the greatest ships of war … By these shores … Columba spoke to the fishes of the sea. On a wintry morning, he saw a vision of God’s love as he threw crumbs to the starving birds, and when they flew away, he cried, ‘Oh little birds - if only you know the thoughts and feelings of St. Columba’s heart and dream, the very winds that blow about the graves become Columba’s voice calling us to worship God.”
These words highlight the missionary character of Columba’s work - “that navy of heaven which brought from Ireland more wealth of Christ than all the greatest ships of war.”

Learning from John Knox - and Jenny Geddes!

In the Church at the time of the Scottish Reformation, we note the important contribution made by (a) John Knox, the great Scottish Reformer; and (b) Jenny Geddes, a common woman who was zealous for Christ.
Speaking of John Knox (1505-1572), Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) said this: “He is the Scotchman to whom all others, his country and the word owe a debt.”
Knox was a fervently passionate Christian man who used to pray, “Give me Scotland or I die.”
He realized that the issues in which he was involved were great,  greater than himself/ The future of Scotland was at stake.
It was because Knox saw the great importance of the struggle in which he was involved that he had the strength yo continue to fight for the cause of Christ in these difficult days.
What is the heritage that Knox left for the Church in Scotland?
In broad outline, it consists in the following convictions:
(1) Salvation comes to us by the grace of God alone;
(2) Salvation comes to us through Jesus Christ alone;
(3) Salvation comes to us through faith alone;
(4) Salvation comes to us through the Scriptures alone.
These teachings - the absolute priority of the grace of God in Jesus Christ, the absolute necessity of faith in Christ and the centrality of the Biblical teaching witness to Christ - remain of the greatest importance for today’s Church.
These Christian convictions have been interpreted in different ways by different theologians. They do, however, remain the core of the Reformed understanding of the Christian Faith, which we are called to interpret for the world of the twenty-first century.
To speak only about John Knox would be to give a one-sided view of the Scottish Reformation. The Reformation was not the work of one man. It was a long struggle that involved many of the little people in the pews. One of these little people was Jenny Geddes.
Knox died in 1572. In 1637, the Church was still in need of Reformation (Note: There is never a time when the Church can claim to be beyond the need for Reformation according to the Word of God in the Scriptures.) In 1637, at St. Giles’ Church, Edinburgh, something dramatic happened. Jenny Geddes protested against a form of worship being introduced to the Church of Scotland. She threw her stool at the dean. this caused a turmoil. she was supported by many of her fellow-worshippers. The form of worship was not successfully introduced to the Church of Scotland. It met its end not at at the hands of a great Reformer, but at the hands of the common people (Note: Whatever we may make of the Jenny Geddes incident, the important point is this - the change came from the pews. We need reformation in the pews as well as in the pulpits. We need faithfulness in the hearers of God’s Word as well as the preachers of God’s Word. Both the preachers and the hearers are to be “doers of God’s Word” (James 1:22).)

Learning from two great Scots - James Hogg and David Livingstone

Communication is both a privilege and a responsibility.
It is a privilege to be received with great joy. It is a responsibility which, as faithful preachers of God’s Word, we gladly bear as ‘the burden of the Lord.
We are to be faithful and bold in our confession of Jesus Christ and His Gospel.
Here, we can learn from
(a) The Covenanter, James Hogg (1770-1835);
(b) The missionary, David Livingstone (1813-1873).
James Hogg
As he was about to be executed for Christ’s sake, Hogg sang his “Scaffold Song”. It was a song of great triumph. It displays a a vivid awareness of the world to come:
“Sing with me! sing with me! Weeping brethren, sing with me! For now an open heaven I see, And a crown of glory laid for me. Sing with me! sing with me! Blessed spirits, sing with me! To the Lamb our song shall be Through a glad eternity. Farewell earthly morn and even. Sun and moon and stars of heaven; Heavenly portals ope before me. Welcome, Christ, in all Thy glory.”
The joy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ made the Scottish Covenanters willing to both live and  die for Christ.
David Livingstone
Concerning David Livingstone, Stanley said this:
“I grant that he is not an angel, but he approaches to that being as near as a living man will allow … No harassing anxieties, distraction of mind, long separation from home and kindred can make him complain … he has such faith in the goodness of Providence … His religion is neither demonstrative nor loud, but manifests itself in a quiet practical way and is always at work.” (cited in Sir Reginald Coupland, Livingstone’s Last Journey).
Here is Livingstone, the great missionary, working for Christ. What is most striking about him is not so much what he did but what he was. Christian character was Livingstone’s most effective ‘tool’ in the service of Christ.

Let us be a Church that seeks to bring Christ to the people of Scotland.

The name, “Church of Scotland” precedes the Reformation. It is a name which points to the Church’s missionary task. The Church of Scotland sees itself as the Church for the nation. (Note: My emphasis is not on the word “the”, which might suggest that the Church of Scotland was making an exclusive claim for itself. Far from encouraging such false denominational pride, I place my emphasis is on the word “for”, thus challenging God’s people in Scotland - whatever their denominational label (or their intentional avoidance of such labels) - to be an outward-looking people, committed to making disciples” (Matthew 28:19) in Scotland and beyond its shores.)
While I reflect here on the name, “Church of Scotland”, what I say should be understood as addressed word to the whole Church - all of God’s people. We are called to bear testimony to Christ to the people of Scotland (as part of our calling to bring Christ to the whole world.)
Since the Reformation, the Church of Scotland could quite legitimately have adopted the names, “Presbyterian” or “Reformed”. The Church of Scotland describes itself as both Presbyterian and Reformed in outlook. The Church, however, chose to retain the name, “Church of Scotland”.
The name, “Church of Scotland” draws attention to the inclusive character of the Church. It is a Church that seeks to bring Christ to the people of Scotland, a Church for the nation.
The names, “Presbyterian” and “Reformed” tend to direct attention to the exclusive character of the Church, i. e. the Church is this and, therefore, not that.
Our emphasis falls on the unity of the Church for the work of mission rather than the distinctive features which threaten to divide rather than unite.
Our emphasis is more extroverted - looking out in mission towards the world - than introverted - an undue emphasis on the distinctive features of one particular part of the whole Church.
We live in an age of religious pluralism. This is true within the Presbyterian and Reformed outlook as well as in the bigger picture of Church and society. In Scotland, there are several denominations which claim to be Presbyterian and Reformed. The most significant of these are:
(a) The Church of Scotland;
(b) The Free Church of Scotland;
(c) The Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland (from here has come, in recent years - The Associated Presbyterian Churches of Scotland) ;
(d) The United Free Church of Scotland.
(Note: I have not attempted to list these denominations according to relative importance. Opinions vary!)
The important feature, common to each of these denominations, is that they have retained, in their name, the words , “of Scotland.”
There has been division within Christ’s Church in Scotland. It should, however, be pointed out that this division has been motivated by the desire to be the true Church of Scotland, the Church that is truly for the people of Scotland.
In these denominations, the theological emphases may be different. The desire to be the Church of Scotland remains the same.
To us, the divisions of the nineteenth century are not always particularly intelligible. We may wish that they had never happened. Unfortunately, we cannot turn the clock back.
Rather than criticizing those who came before us, we must prepare the way for those who will come after us. We must move on into the future Christ has for us.
If we remember that we are the Church for the people of Scotland, a Church called to be united in the work of mission, we will be enabled to lay important our precious distinctives for the sake of the larger cause of evangelism (Note: I am not suggested that these “distinctives” are entirely unimportant. I am simply suggesting that our common commitment to the Great Commission - “Go and makes disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) - is more important than anything that divides us.)

The Psalms and Paraphrases in Scottish Worship

An important part of Scottish worship has been the central place of the Psalms and Paraphrases. By highlighting the Psalms and Paraphrases, I am not suggesting that we should retreat from contemporary worship styles into the older style of worship. The old and the new can be combined attractively.
Here, we shall look at a few of the favourites from the Psalms and paraphrases. We will note how closely their appeal is related to the traditional Scottish culture.
Psalm 23
“The Lord’s my Shepherd, I’ll not want He makes me down to lie In pastures green He leadeth me The quiet waters by.”
This is pastoral language. “The Lord’s my Shepherd”, “In pastures green”, “The quiet waters by” - this is the language of the traditionally Scottish culture.
Psalm 100
This well-loved Psalm also speaks to us in pastoral terms:
“Know that the Lord is God indeed; Without our aid He did us make: We are His flock, He doth us feed’ And for His sheep, He doth us take.”
Psalm 121
This greatly-appreciated Psalm directs our attention to the hills, such a prominent feature of the Scottish countryside:
“I to the hills will lift mine eyes, From whence doth come mine aid. My safety cometh from the Lord, Who heaven and earth hath made.”
The most popular Paraphrases are also closely related to Scottish life.
Paraphrase 30
Here, we sing about God’s voice commanding the tempest forth and stilling the stormy wave. Anyone who has sailed the seas around the Scottish coasts in wild weather will appreciate the words of this Paraphrase.
Paraphrase 2
Her, again, we have words that relate closely to the traditionally Scottish way of life:
“O God of Bethel! by whose hand Thy people still are fed.”
To a nation of farmers, these words were extremely meaningful.
Paraphrase 60
Here, we sing of Christ as “our Shepherd.” Traditionally, the people of Scotland could understand this way of speaking.
The Psalms and Paraphrases are not sung so frequently as they once were in the Church of Scotland (Note: The Free Church and the Free Presbyterian Church use only the Psalms in their worship.)
What are we to learn from the older Scottish tradition of singing Psalms and paraphrases? What are we to learn from the popularity of those psalms and paraphrases that are most closely related to the traditional way of life of the Scottish people?
Surely, the lesson is this - if we are to communicate, we must speak the language of our hearers. we must speak in a way that makes an intelligible point of contact with the thinking of our hearers. (Note: The language and thinking of our hearers is much more varied than it was in earlier days. This greater variety needs to be reflected in our worship and preaching.)

Some lessons for today’s Church

(a)  Lack of sophistication is nothing to be ashamed of.
Paul wrote:
” … God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong … ” (1 Corinthians 1:27).
We must learn to be more dependent on God and His grace.
(b) The old and the new can be combined attractively.
Jesus said,
” … I did not come to abolish, but to fulfil …” (Matthew 5:17).
This is surely an important principle for our understanding of history. we are not to say, “History is bunk.” We are to “fufil.”
What does it mean to “fulfil”?
We are not to get stuck in our past and its traditions. we are to interpret our past for the sake of the present.
(c) The attractiveness of a place is not unrelated to the attractiveness of its people.
Paul wrote: “you are Christ’s body … ” (1 Corinthians 12:27).
The Church is not a place. It is not an impersonal institution. The Church is people - you and me.
In Church history, we are concerned with people.
Church history reminds us again and again that Christian character is of the utmost importance for effective Christian service.
What we are for Christ will determine what we do for Him.
When we study Church history properly, we are not escaping into a purely academic interest in the past. We are hearing about the faith of people from our past. We are opening ourselves to the challenge of the God who says, “I want you to  be Mine - for this generation.”

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