Religion and the Rise of Liberalism: The First Disestablishment Campaign in Scotland, 1829–1843

Stewart J. Brown
1997 The Journal of Ecclesiastical History  
independence. In all over a third of the ministers and perhaps half the lay membership left the establishment. On the day of the Disruption, the prominent Edinburgh Dissenting minister, Drjohn Brown of the United Secession Church, Broughton Place, felt called to play a part in thejevent. Early that afternoon, his biographer related, he was in a peculiarly solemn mood and 'could not resist the impulse' to enter the still empty Tanfield Hall where the outgoing ministers were to gather. He took a
more » ... eat on the platform and waited. In time, the procession of outgoing ministers and elders arrived followed by the immense crowd. As they streamed into the hall, Brown stepped forward to greet them. He was, however, immediately enveloped in the crowd and his gesture passed unnoticed. 1 It was a telling moment. During the past decade, Brown had been one of the most stern and unbending of the Scottish Voluntaries, those who believed that church membership must be entirely voluntary and who opposed in principle the connection of Church and State. A leading campaigner for the disestablishment of the Church of Scotland, Brown had refused to pay the Edinburgh church rate, or Annuity Tax, in a highly publicised case of civil disobedience. He had published pamphlets, delivered speeches, served on the committees of Voluntary societies. Now, as the Established Church was breaking up, Brown was drawn into the Tanfield Hall in order to welcome his former opponents out of what he viewed as the imprisonment of the state connection. In the event, he was largely ignored by outgoing ministers who felt no gratitude to Brown and his associates for 'liberating' them, who refused to embrace Voluntary principles, and who 1 J. Cairns, Memoir of John Brown, Edinburgh 1869, 198-9. 682 RELIGION AND THE RISE OF LIBERALISM were not prepared to forgive and forget the bitter conflicts between churchmen and Voluntaries during the previous decade. 2 Yet, in a sense, Brown did have a claim to be on the platform of the first Free Church General Assembly -for, to a large extent, he and his fellow Scottish Voluntaries were the makers of the Disruption of 1843. The Voluntary campaign of 1829 to 1843 united most Scottish Dissenters for the goal of disestablishing and disendowing the national Church of Scotland, and achieving the separation of Church and State. It was the first disestablishment campaign in Britain and it generated unprecedented public excitement and activity, including the organisation of public meetings and debates, the sending of petitions and deputations to parliament, the formation of societies and boards, the creation of new journals and the publication of mountains of tracts and pamphlets. Although largely an urban movement, the Voluntary agitation also spread through the rural lowlands, gaining broad support in villages and farming communities. In the view of Lord Aberdeen, speaking in the House of Lords in March 1838, 'never had any question of domestic policy so much agitated the people of Scotland since the union of the two kingdoms'. 3 The Scottish Voluntaries established connections with Dissenters in England and Ireland, and called for a united British campaign for 'doing away with the Ecclesiastical Establishments in toto\ 4 The campaign raised questions concerning the nature of society as well as the relations of Church and State. Influenced by the spirit of liberal reform, the Voluntaries challenged the traditional Scottish social hierarchy, dominated by the landed classes and by professionals in the legal, university and church establishments -a social hierarchy in which influence and authority flowed downwards from an enlightened social elite to the middle and labouring orders. Voluntaries rejected the idea of Scotland as a godly commonwealth, a covenanted nation, organised into territorial parishes dominated by local alliances of landowners and ministers, elders and schoolmasters of the Established Church. In its place, they struggled for a more individualistic and egalitarian society, a civil society of voluntary associations, in which neither the State nor the Established Church would exercise power over individual conscience in religious matters, and in which all religious denominations would be equal in law and no person need fear victimisation or discrimination because of private beliefs. Voluntaryism appealed particularly to the commercial and manufacturing middle classes in the towns and cities of industrialising Scotland, and Voluntary agitators combined religious Voluntaryism with support for free trade, a national, non-denominational
doi:10.1017/s0022046900013464 fatcat:q2ykhlhmnzf5lfvrry5kwrxpdi