The Church in 18th Century Scotland - establishment, revival and the growth of parties

During the 18th century the Church of Scotland was at last a Presbyterian establishment. The period is marked by the growth of primary and tertiary education and a remarkable transformation in the economy of Scotland. Scotland became the academic powerhouse of Europe, yet Scottish church leaders open to the excitements of expanding intellectual and geographic horizons dealt with the management of the church more than its theology. Revivals were experienced in Cambuslang and Kilsyth, linked to Whitefield and the Awakenings in Puritan New England. There were a number of secession movements, and polarisations developed between Moderates who wanted an ordered church cooperating with the government and Evangelicals who championed congregations who wanted freedom to choose their own ministers independent of the patrons.

The 1690s heralded a new era in Scotland. The 18th century is often criticised, yet it provided foundations for achievements of the Victorian era which should not all be attributed to Evangelicals and the Victorians. At the Revolution when the Protestant William of Orange was invited to replace the Catholic James, Presbyterians were the only group of church leaders in Scotland the government could trust politically (even if they did not like their democratic tendencies). It followed that the dominant group in the church, who came to be known as Moderates, favoured cordial links with government. The Episcopalians who remained loyal to their former king were in a difficult position and now found themselves marginalised.

The century became the age of the Moderate Party in the church, and intellectually the Age of Reason. It was certainly an age of education and innovation as literacy increased following the education act of 1696. Although the period saw the cultural repression of the Highlands in response to uprisings by those loyal to the Stuart royal line, it also saw the intellectual expansion of Scotland as a whole. The Church of Scotland was now decisively Presbyterian, but the place it would give to a piety increasingly labelled as "Evangelical" was uncertain. Improving landlords inspired by the agricultural revolution preferred sheep to crofters and further exacerbated Highland grievances by clearances. Universities, philosophy, and by the end of the century, creative writing, thrived. Robert Burns and Walter Scott bridge this period and the next in literature, and Thomas Chalmers, the key church leader of the 19th century, was born in 1780.

Following the Union of 1707 Scotland had no parliament of its own, and the Church's annual assemblies provided a place of debate for the issues of the nation and allowed Edinburgh lawyers nominated as elders to the Assembly to display their debating skills before a substantial audience. Consistent with their contribution to the membership of the Assembly was the Moderate view of the importance of order and respect for the hierarchy of courts from parish to presbytery to General Assembly. It followed that the decisions of Assembly were from time to time enforced on reluctant presbyteries or parishes by "riding committees" of the General Assembly. Their success in imposing the will of the national body also served to reinforce a sense of grievance among Evangelicals who were championing the rights of the congregation, and drove a number of people to leave the church and form "Secession" groups. By the end of the century the church was divided along Moderate and Evangelical lines, each party functioning in the General Assembly much as political parties had developed in the parliament at Westminster. The Seceeders were not much better at holding things together and  split over civil oaths, and whether anything new might be discovered in the Bible. Auld Licht and New Licht Burgher and Anti-Burgher Seceeders do not read like inspiring names for churches today, yet the issues that concerned them then are still with us.

It is easy to criticise Moderates as a group for their rational preaching and lack of evangelical warmth, but the polarisations of the bitter debates leading to the Disruption of 1843 should not be taken as the whole story. As we will see in the next period, Moderates and Evangelicals also worked together, and if they responded slowly to changing times, they did respond. Conventions of respect came to include the tradition that moderators of the General Assembly would be chosen from each party in turn, a practice which reappeared in New Zealand in recent decades.

The theological and cultural differences were often not as deep as the bitterness of set piece debates might suggest. Despite the telling criticism of the mid-century parody of Moderates by John Witherspoon, it would be fairer to observe that both parties were orthodox in themselves, but tolerant of deviations in different directions, and both parties shared many of the values of reason and Enlightenment. Moderates were more likely to be tolerant of the scepticism of David Hume. Evangelicals were more likely to be tolerant of the excesses of revival. Both saw science as a tool for reasonable faith and a weapon against superstition. The social attitudes can be confusing viewed from the habitual association in the 20th century of evangelicalism with conservatism. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was the later Evangelicals who were left wing socially, and liberal and democratic in their instincts - it was the Moderates who became increasingly socially and politically conservative. Even all this can be turned on its head when party loyalties over-rode all else. In 1805 Evangelicals defeated the Moderates over the appointment of John Leslie as a Professor of Mathematics in Edinburgh. John Leslie was an Evangelical parish minister. In this situation Evangelicals came out supporting education,  and the Moderates, with a long history of ministers who had helped run the University, used the Westminster Confession and anything else they could get their hands on to try and block his appointment.

Not for the last time arguments used to get a decision are not a reliable guide to the actual beliefs and values of groups concerned about power. The Leslie case not only showed the ways in which party politics can infect the judgement of the church and damage any sense of consistency of principle, it also showed how each party in the Church of Scotland valued both the Confession and Education. Yet there were differences. David Wright noted "Moderate opposition was rooted in their attachment to a rational natural theology requiring proofs and evidences, whereas Evangelicals would increasingly vindicate the faith on other, more subjective, grounds." (Nigel M de S Cameron, Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology, T and T Clark, 1993, 480f.)

Some of this difference about whether religious truth was something to be proved by reason or by feeling can be attributed to the 18th century Revivals in Scotland. George Whitefield and the "wark" at Cambuslang had profound effects on Scottish spirituality. The research notes of the minister of Cambuslang as he interviewed people about their spiritual experience can be consulted in the archives at New College Edinburgh. They were used by Arthur Fawcett in his research for The Cambuslang Revival.

Scotland continues to be both part of and not part of the rest of Britain, but from this period on it becomes more and more difficult to talk of Scotland without reference to what is going on in England. The Kingdoms were united under one Crown and then under one parliament, and migration from Scotland to England was steady. Nevertheless English understanding of what was going on North of the Border was limited, as it still is, and memory of periodic rebellions did not help. 

Revivals in England associated with the Wesleys and George Whitfield affected Scotland, and the hymns of Issac Watts and the writings of Philip Doddridge also travelled North. See Arthur Fawcett The Cambuslang Revival, Banner of Truth Trust, 1971. See also David Cornick,  Under God's Good Hand, 70-106.

The Church in 18th Century Scotland

Andrew Drummond and James Bulloch, The Scottish Church 1688-1843, St Andrew Press, 1973.

Nigel M de S Cameron, Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology, T and T Clark, 1993

Ian Dunlop, William Carstares and the Kirk by law established, St Andrew Press, 1967.


David Brainerd's Journal - Brainerd (1718-1847) was in America not Scotland, but supported financially by the Scottish Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge. His journal was published by Jonathan Edwards and became a spiritual classic.

John Roxborogh, Robert Millar of Paisley.

John Roxborogh, Scotland and Missions before 1813.doc

Education, Culture and Enlightenment

Alexander Broadie, The Cambridge Companion to the Scottish Enlightenment, Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Robert Burns

George Elder Davie, The Democratic Intellect. Scotland and Her Universities in the Nineteenth Century, 1961, 2000.

Cover: "Scotland has always had a distinctive approach to higher education. From the inauguration of its first universities, the accent has been on first principles. This unified the approach to knowledge - even of mathematics and science - through a broad, philosophical interpretation. This generalist tradition, contrasting with the specialisation of the two English universities, Oxford and Cambridge, stood Scotland in good stead. It characterised its intellectual life, even into the nineteenth century, when economic, social and political pressures enforced an increasing conformity to English models. George Davie's account of the history of these movements, and of the great personalities involved, has proved seminal in restoring to Scotland a sense of cultural identity. Originally published in 1961, The Democratic Intellect has had a marked - and acknowledged - influence on the thinking of those in power in higher education, and indeed upon the subsequent planning of several of the new universities, not only in Scotland."

Arthur Herman, The Scottish Enlightenment. The Scots' Invention of the Modern World, Fourth Estate, London, 2003.

David Hume

Scottish Philosophy in the 18th Century

Walter Scott

M A Stewart, Studies in the Philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1990.

Moderates and Evangelicals

Ian D L Clark, "From protest to reaction: the Moderate Regime in the Church of Scotland, 1752-1805," in N T Phillipson and Rosalind Mitchison, Scotland in the Age of Improvement, University Press, Edinburgh, 1970.

John R McIntosh, Church and theology in Enlightenment Scotland: The Popular Party, 1740-1800, Tuckwell Press, 1998.


Arthur Fawcett The Cambuslang Revival, Banner of Truth Trust, 1971.

Leigh Eric Schmidt, Holy Fairs. Scotland and the making of American Revivalism, Eerdmans, 2001


Thomas F Torrance, "Eighteenth Century Presbyterianism" in Scottish theology from John Knox to John McLeod Campbell, Edinburgh, T & T Clark, 1996, 223-255.