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A great coloniser : the Rev. Dr. Thomas Burns, pioneer minister of Otago and nephew of the poet

Chapter VII. — The Disruption

page 61

Chapter VII.
The Disruption.

No thinking man could look on the unexampled scene and behold that the temple was rent without pain and sad forebodings. No spectacle since the Revolution reminded one so forcibly of the Covenanters. What similar sacrifice has ever been made in the British Empire? It is the most honourable fact for Scotland that its whole history supplies.

Lord Cockburn.

In view of the Union of the great Churches of Scotland in the year 1929 it is almost impossible for us to realise the passionate intensity of the fervour which prevailed when the Free Church was formed as a huge secession from the Church of Scotland, as by law established, in the year of grace 1843. It is unnecessary to relate the long story of the ten years' conflict, which culminated in the Disruption. Happily for us those issues belong to the past century. With thankfulness we recall the reconciliation which has taken place in the past decade, following upon the introduction of reforms in the Church, and the growth of charity and fellowship in the Christian community at Home and abroad.

It will be sufficient to remind the readers of these pages of the main issues which precipitated the crisis in the National Church. For 100 years secessions had been taking place, owing to the sense of spiritual need, which the formal Church did not satisfy. By the year 1833 the evangelical party had grown into a majority of the General Assembly. Under the leadership of Dr Thomas Chalmers three measures for church extension were passed, but the State refused to grant support for the new charges, and the law courts declared the resolutions to be incompetent, as the Establishment was entirely subject to the State and its enactments. The Church petitioned the page 62Crown and Parliament in its claim of right of 1842 on behalf of its spiritual independence. Closely allied with this plea was the demand for the abolition of lay patronage in the appointment of ministers to vacant charges. As early as 1824 a society had been formed to seek relief from the pressure of patronage, a system which was supported by statute law. Conflict soon ensued between the presbyteries of the Church and the civil courts regarding the validity of appointments which had been made by patrons in opposition to the will of the congregations concerned. Church legislation was declared by the judges to be null and void unless authorised by statute law. Either the Church must sacrifice rights which seemed to be essential to her spiritual function or a break must be made with the existing ecclesiastical order.

The crisis came on May 18, 1843, when the General Assembly met in St. Andrew's Church, Edinburgh. The retiring Moderator, the Rev. Dr David Wesh, professor of church history in the University of Edinburgh, on taking the chair, read a protest to the effect that the civil court had subverted what had ever been understood to be the Church, and that he and those who agreed with him were about to abandon an establishment which they felt to be repugnant to their vows and consciences. Followed by hundreds of ministers and elders, Dr Welsh walked out of the church, and the procession was hailed with acclamation in the streets by the crowds that had assembled. At Canonmills Hall the Free Church of Scotland was constituted under the moderatorship of Dr Chalmers.

Of the 451 ministers who seceded from the National Church there were more than 200 country ministers who, to quote Principal Cunningham, "sacrificed almost everything for the opinions they had espoused. With their wives and little ones they were obliged to tear themselves page 63away from their manses and manse gardens; from the snug study, the laboratory of spiritual thoughts; from the rose bush on the wall, which had been trained by their own hand; the shady walk, associated with so many memories of the past; the shrubs and trees which by every successive tier of branches chronicled only too faithfully the passing years of their life and ministry."1

Among these heroic country ministers was Thomas Burns, who, having possessed a comfortable living and manse, was, by his devotion to the Free Church principle, impelled to make a very great sacrifice, in which his wife and children were involved equally with himself. He had all along attached himself to the evangelical party in the Church, and, as the issues became more and more clearly defined, he bravely faced the loss of all things for the sake of his principles. Accompanied by his friends and copresbyters, the Rev. E. B. Walace, of Barr, and the Rev. James Stevenson, of Newton-on-Ayr, Burns walked in the procession from St. Andrew's Church to the hall at Canonmills. The late Mrs Jane Bannerman, the second daughter of Dr Burns, left a vivid description of the events of those days of sacrifice, and I cannot do better than quote from her narrative:—

It seems to me a long time to look back to 1843, and yet I can recall so vividly the beautiful manse, with the plantation on one side and the row of beech trees, on one of which we had our swing, the hawthorn hedges, the long gravel walk bordered by the churchyard. I think I could fill pages describing the beauty of the place. What a peaceful, happy home the old manse was; our father spared no pains to improve and beautify it. The house looked away across green fields to the blue distant hills of Carrick, and at night we could count the fires of the different coal mines which lay between. A high wall shut us in from the quiet little village of Monkton, and at one side there was a door in the wall page 64which led in to the churchyard, where stood the old church, the roof gone, but still strong in its stone work, the outside stairs leading to galleries once. There are fine carvings still on the stone work, but the building is covered with thick ivy, the home of many a bird. This churchyard is, of course, haunted, and we heard of many things, startling and wonderful, filling the mind with vague fears. But this was not the only haunted place. Quite near, only across the fields, was the old house of Orangefield. Very dreadful were the stories the servants told us of things that took place.

Monkton is a quiet old place. The cottages are occupied by farm labourers for the most part. Of course, I am writing of what it was many years ago. There were many things of interest about it. but the thing I like best to write is a story our father used to tell of a minister who lived there in the old Covenanting time. He seems to have been a man of great piety, and in those days this meant a man who carried his life in his hands. Where our garden stood was in his time a thicket of gorse and broom, and the minister often retired to pray and meditate there. One day the troopers entered the manse, and, not finding the minister there, went to this thicket and found him engaged in prayer. They shot him on his knees, and left him to be taken up by any who cared to run the risk of being themselves suspected.

It must have been about the end of 1842 when I remember first hearing of the questions which were agitating thoughtful minds in Scotland, and no one knew what was to be the issue. There is no need for me to repeat history, now so well known, even if I had the ability to write it. My first recollection of these events is hearing our parents speak of going to Australia, and then of Canada, and this last was, I think, a very serious intention.

Then we began to hear of leaving the church and manse, "coming out" it was called. One day I asked my father if it would be nicer to "stay in," and he said: "Yes, to him it would!" After that I had no more speculations or doubts, our father had his mind made up. He put the place in order, added no more improvements, discharged his manservant, finding him a good place in County Antrim, in Ireland, as land steward, and set his affairs in order. Then he gave his thoughts to the works which crowded thick and fast upon him. The page break
The Manse, Monkton.

The Manse, Monkton.

First Church Manse, 1848.

First Church Manse, 1848.

page 65Presbytery of Ayr numbered 33 ministers. Only 11 left the Establishment, and they were all young men. Our father being the oldest (about 45), it fell to him to guide and encourage the others in those difficult times. He took a leading part in the work, holding meetings and explaining to the people the perplexing questions that were filling every one's mind at the time. The older ministers had no sympathy with "non-intrusion" principles, as they were called, and the gentry, with very few exceptions, did their utmost to thwart and hinder them. On one occasion father was to hold an evening meeting at Symington. The minister there had no sympathy with the times. He was an old man, and had an assistant, Mr Orr, a very amiable, pious young man, who was to take part in this meeting. They could get no place to meet in but a barn, and the night was most tempestuous. When they passed through the village every house was quiet, no one was astir; the rain fell in torrents. Mr Orr said they would have no meeting that night; things seemed against them. But father said: "Let us go on to the place, anyway." To their surprise the place was quite full; indeed crowded, so that they had difficulty to get in.

By May, when the ministers were to go to Assembly, the people about us were well informed, and they waited for the decision of the High Courts with as deep an interest as they who were in the centre. Our father went to Edinburgh, though not a member of Assembly that year, as did all the other ministers, and we eagerly read his letters. But one day I was the bearer of one having on the seal a medallion (as the fashion was then), with the words: "It is finished." I hurried home with the letter, and said eagerly: "Look at this; I am sure they have come out!" We gathered round our mother while she read the thrilling account of the proceedings of that eventful May 18, the quiet, solemn retiring from the old hall and the grave, orderly procession to Canonmills. I deeply regret that this letter was not preserved. Father often spoke of this event, and used to tell that, not being a member and the hall being crowded, he and our beloved friend Rev. James Stevenson were so awkwardly placed that they had to climb over a railing to get out with the others. He used to describe the grave, earnest faces of the ministers and the lookers-on—many of them in tears—and the deep silence that prevailed throughout the hall. After this we knew that we could not remain in the manse any longer. Mother set page 66herself to the task before her most heroically. All the furniture to be sold was put into the front rooms, and. the things we were to keep were gathered into the study and back rooms. Places were found for the nurse and housemaid; the maid-servant we retained to move with us to our new home, and when father returned we were quite ready to go.

A house was found after some search in New Prestwick on the borders of the parish at a toll bar. One half of the house was in Prestwick and the other in Newton parish. Our things were sold early in June, when the place was at its loveliest. The rhododendrons, lilacs, and laburnums were in a blaze of beauty, and the flowers in profusion; everything was so beautiful. I shall never forget the day of the sale. It was a long, weary day for us, but it came to an end at last. Our furniture was sent on before us. At evening a cart came to the door. A few remaining articles were put in, and, weary and sore hearted, we were put into the cart beside our mother. How worn and sad she looked after that long and fatiguing day! I can see her yet as she sat so pale and patient with us around her, and the baby on her knee. Then we started and passed the grand old beeches and the empty outhouses, down the long avenue, and out into the dusty road. Our father and brother and a line of 13 followers on foot locked the front door and the outer gate, and thus we left one of the happiest and loveliest homes any family could enjoy. Even now as I write the old dreary feeling returns; I do not care to linger over it.

It was wonderful how soon we settled down and made our new house comfortable. It was not a convenient one, but the best we could get. It stood on the roadside, and our neighbours were rough and very noisy, especially on Saturday night. They were colliers of a very low, degraded type. But we lived on peacefully for nearly two years there. We went to a good ladies' school in Ayr; our brother attended the Wallacetown Academy until he went to sea.

The people in Ayrshire joined the Free Church in great numbers. The old parish churches were nearly deserted, but the proprietors had no sympathy with our principles. We had to worship in a farmyard; well do I remember it. The benches were placed among the cornstacks. We had our garden seat sent there before we left the manse, and seats were improvised in a rough way. Many of the old women carried stools, but page 67the congregation mostly sat on the green bank sloping up to the woods. Our father preached in a "tent," so-called, but not like any tent I have ever seen before or since. It was more like a sentry box set on four legs, very ugly; but it served our turn, and many an earnest sermon was preached and listened to from it. It was from this box our father announced to his people his intention of going to New Zealand. I often recall our Communion on "the green"; a more solemn, thrilling scene I have never witnessed. A thousand people were assembled that day. The tables were long, three or four of them, and covered with white cloths; how still and quiet the people were, so orderly and reverent! They were mostly country people, farmers and their servants. One old lady, a widow, Mrs Reid, of Adamton, the chief proprietor (heritor) in the parish, came in her carriage, her old butler and house-keeper with her. There was no other carriage, but a good many carts and gigs, for many had come a long way. The day was threatening and very cloudy, the air still; we could hear the sound of the waves on the beach a mile off. Psalm 100 was sung, and the service began. Then the rain fell heavily, and continued to fall steadily till night. I remember our father as he stood at one of the long tables, the water dripping from the table cloth and the drops falling into the wine cup, mingling with the wine. Our dear Mr Stevenson, the same who was side by side with our father in that solemn walk from St. Andrew's Hall to Canonmills, was by his side, and sheltered his head with an umbrella from the rain.

1 "The Church History of Scotland," by Principal John Cunningham, D.D., vol. II, p. 534.