Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Erskine, Ebenezer

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ERSKINE, EBENEZER (1680–1754), founder of the Scottish secession church, born on 22 June (baptised 24 July) 1680 at Dryburgh, Berwickshire (Harper, who gives the record of birth and baptism from H. Erskine's manuscript), was the fourth son of Henry Erskine (1624–1696) [q. v.], by his second wife, Margaret (d. 14 Jan. 1725), daughter of Hugh Halcro of Orkney. He was educated at Edinburgh University, where he graduated M.A. (as ‘Ebenezer Areskine’) on 28 June 1697. After graduation he became chaplain and tutor in the family of John, earl of Rothes, at Leslie House, Fife. Having been licensed by Kirkcaldy presbytery on 11 Feb. 1703, he was called to Portmoak, Kinross-shire, on 26 May, and ordained there on 22 Sept. by the same presbytery. In the following year he married. Always diligent in the duties of his office, he was without distinct evangelical convictions, until the chance overhearing of a religious conversation between his wife and his brother Ralph [q. v.] left an indelible impression on his mind. His popularity dates from the impulse thus given to his preaching, which was homely in style (he wrote, but did not read, his sermons), yet dignified by a rich voice and a majestic manner. To his sermons and communions the people flocked from all parts, and his elders had to provide for over two thousand communicants. The attitude which he now began to take in ecclesiastical politics did not commend him to the leaders of the church. On 17 Jan. 1712 the parish of Burntisland, Fife, was divided about the election of a minister, and competing calls were made out in favour of Erskine and another; the commission of assembly gave the preference to the patron's nominee. This is said to have been the first instance of the kind since the revolution; by an act which shortly afterwards (22 May) received the royal assent the rights of patrons were fully restored. Immediately before the introduction of the patronage act the episcopal clergy had been protected by a toleration act (1712), which imposed the oath of abjuration on the ministers of both churches. This touched the consciences of those who, while rejecting the ‘pretender,’ found themselves unable to swear that he was no son of James II; moreover the oath was construed as affirming the principle that the monarch must adhere to the Anglican communion. On both these grounds Erskine refused the oath, remaining a non-abjurer to the last. The penalties of the act (fine and expulsion) were not enforced against the presbyterian clergy, and the non-abjurors were sustained by popular sentiment. On 2 March 1713 Erskine was called to Tulliallan, Perthshire, but his translation was refused by the presbyteries.

He sided with Boston in the ‘Marrow controversy,’ which began in 1717 [see Boston, Thomas, the elder, (1677–1732)], and being one of the ‘twelve apostles’ who signed the ‘representation’ of 11 May 1721, he shared the rebuke passed on them by the assembly of 1722. His contumacy interfered with his advancement in the church, though it does not appear that he was anxious to leave Portmoak. He was proposed as a candidate for Kirkcaldy, Fife, but the synod on 1 Oct. 1724 prohibited his preaching on trial. In May 1725 Andrew Anderson arraigned him before the commission of assembly on the ground of certain sermons, some of which had been preached ten years before. He was called to Kinross, but on 4 April 1728 his translation was refused. Had he been a member of the assembly (1729) which confirmed the suspension of John Simson, divinity professor at Glasgow, for heretical teaching, he would have joined Boston in his protest against the inadequacy of the sentence. At length, on 28 April 1731, he was called to the third charge, or west church, of Stirling. He was admitted on 8 July, and transferred from Portmoak on 6 Sept. His entrance on this important charge was followed by his election to the moderatorship of the synod of Stirling and Perth. In his improved position he redoubled his opposition to the policy which ruled the proceedings of the assembly.

In 1732 the assembly passed an act to regulate the election to vacant churches in cases where patrons had failed to present. This act, which ignored the right of popular choice, was pushed through in a somewhat unconstitutional way, and Erskine initiated a protest against it, which the assembly refused to receive. Preaching in the following October as outgoing moderator of synod, on ‘the stone rejected by the builders,’ Erskine inveighed against the act as of no ‘divine authority.’ After three days' debate the synod, by a majority of six, passed a vote of censure on the sermon. Erskine appealed to the assembly, but only escaped the synod's solemn rebuke by retiring from the meeting, a course which he repeated in April. On 14 May 1733 the assembly sustained the action of synod, and Erskine was rebuked at the bar of the house by the moderator, John Goldie or Gowdie. Anticipating this censure Erskine, in concert with three others, had prepared a protest, which they now asked permission to read. This being denied they withdrew, leaving the paper behind them. By ill luck this paper fell into the hands of James Naismith of Dalmeny, Linlithgowshire, who, at the evening session, called the assembly's attention to its contents. At eleven o'clock at night the assembly's officer was sent to the four protestors, with a citation to the bar of the house next morning. They appeared and were handed over to a committee, in the hope of getting them to retract the protest. As they would not do this, the assembly directed them to appear in August before the standing commission, which was empowered to suspend, and in November to depose them, if they remained obdurate. On 16 Nov. 1733 a sentence equivalent to deposition was carried by the moderator's casting vote.

On the same day Erskine and his three friends (William Wilson of Perth, Alexander Moncrieff of Abernethy, and James Fisher of Kinclaven) put their names to a formal act of secession. At Gairney Bridge, near Kinross, they constituted themselves (6 Dec.) an ‘associate presbytery,’ with Erskine as moderator. They had the enthusiastic support of their flocks, who, at Perth and Abernethy, resisted the deputation of assembly appointed to declare the churches vacant. The spring communion at Abernethy drew a vast concourse of people from all parts of Scotland. The ‘testimony’ of the new religious body, issued in March, had roused the whole country. The assembly began to feel that it had gone too far. Accordingly in 1734 the obnoxious act was declared to be informal and ‘no longer binding;’ and on 14 May 1734 the synod was empowered to remove the censure from the four ministers, and restore them to their status. This was done on 2 July. That nothing might be wanting to the grace of the restoration, Erskine was in his absence re-elected to the moderator's chair.

Wilson would have accepted these healing measures, but Erskine had now embarked on a course from which he could not turn back. He regarded the assembly's whole ecclesiastical policy as a compromise, and was not to be won by personal concessions. The proceedings of the assemblies of 1735 and 1736 confirmed his distrust of the overtures for conciliation, and brought applications to the ‘associate presbytery’ for ‘supply of preaching’ from seceding bodies in various parishes, where the appointment of ministers under the law of patronage had been confirmed by the assembly in the face of congregational remonstrance. After the assembly of 1736 Wilson came round to Erskine's view of the situation, and on 3 Dec. 1736 the four seceding ministers issued their second or ‘judicial testimony,’ which reviewed the history of the church of Scotland from the Reformation, and presented an elaborate indictment of the policy pursued since 1650.

Modern successors of Erskine's movement agree that the ‘judicial testimony’ is a document of very unequal merit. Its historical references are often inaccurate, while its invective against the repeal of the penal statutes against witchcraft, and its dealing with the rights of other men's consciences, detract from the nobility of its protest. In exhibiting hostility to the union with England, the testimony simply resumes the attitude of the assembly itself, which for years had treated the union as an occasion for national fasting. The issue of the testimony was followed by important adhesions to the cause of secession. In February 1737 Ralph Erskine and Thomas Mair of Orwell joined the ‘associate presbytery.’ Later in the year parliament passed an act in reference to the murder of Captain Porteous, and ordered that every minister of the church of Scotland should read the act from the pulpit once a month for a year on pain of deprivation. Two ministers, Thomas Nairn of Abbotshall and James Thompson of Burntisland, joined the ‘associate presbytery’ rather than obey the Erastian ordinance; and the reading of the act led to further secessions in many parishes. The ‘associate presbytery’ now began to provide for a supply of ministers by licensing candidates.

In 1738 the assembly, on a complaint from the synod of Perth, directed the standing commission to bring the eight seceders before the next assembly. They were cited individually to appear at the assembly's bar in May 1739, to answer charges of ‘crimes’ and ‘enormities.’ They met, and passed an act of ‘declinature’ renouncing the assembly's authority. On 18 May they appeared as a presbytery at the assembly's bar. The moderator of assembly expressed the willingness of the church to ignore what had passed if the seceders would return. Mair, as their moderator, explained that they took the position of an independent judicatory. The libel against them was read; Mair read the ‘declinature’ in reply, and the ‘associate presbytery’ withdrew. Still the assembly, which contained such men as John Willison of Brechin, in strong sympathy with the general views of the seceders, did not proceed to extreme measures. The seceders were again cited to the assembly of 1740. They disregarded the summons, and on 15 May, by a majority of 140 to 30, they were formally deposed.

Next Sunday (18 May) Erskine's congregation at Stirling found the doors of the West Church locked against them. They were about to break in, when Erskine interposed, led a vast concourse to the Abbey Craig, just outside the town, and conducted public worship. Till a meeting-house (erected 1740) was ready for him he continued to officiate in the open air.

The seceders took vigorous steps to consolidate their position. Wilson was their professor of divinity, and Ralph Erskine writes to Whitefield (10 April 1741) that he had ‘moe candidates for the ministrie under his charge than most of the public colleges, except Edinburgh.’ At the invitation of the seceders Whitefield visited Scotland, preaching his first sermon in the parish church of Dunfermline, from which Ralph Erskine had not yet been excluded. In August 1741 Whitefield held a conference with the ‘associate presbytery.’ They wanted him to preach only for them, because they were ‘the Lord's people.’ Whitefield characteristically replied that ‘the devil's people’ had more need to be preached to. A rupture ensued, and the subsequent ‘revival’ at Cambuslang, under Whitefield's preaching, was denounced by the seceders as a satanic delusion. When Wesley subsequently visited Scotland (1751), he considered the seceders ‘more uncharitable than the papists.’

On 28 Dec. 1743, Erskine revived at Stirling the practice of public covenanting. The secession was rapidly growing; and on 11 Oct. 1744 it was organised as an ‘associate synod,’ containing the three presbyteries of Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Dunfermline. From the north of Ireland applications for ministerial supply had been received as early as 1736, and were repeatedly renewed by seceding minorities from presbyterian congregations. The Irish interest was placed under the care of the Glasgow presbytery; and at length, on 9 July 1746, Isaac Patton was ordained at Lylehill, co. Antrim, by a commission from Glasgow. Nowhere was the work of the secession more important than in Ulster, where, in spite of great opposition, it exercised a very potent influence in restoring to presbyterianism its evangelical character.

During the rebellion of 1745, Erskine and his followers mounted guard at Stirling in defence of the town. Stirling was taken, and Erskine then preached to his congregation in the wood of Tullibody, some miles to the north. In 1746 he headed two companies of seceders against the ‘Pretender,’ and received a special letter of thanks from the Duke of Cumberland.

But now a question of religious politics arose, which split the secession into two antagonistic parties. Already in 1741 the seceders had been at issue on the question of appointing a public fast, on the day fixed for the established church by the crown. Erskine was with the minority who would have been willing to adopt the ordinary day. At the first meeting of the ‘associate synod’ the terms of the civic oath taken by burgesses of Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Perth came under review. This oath pledged the burgesses to the support of ‘the true protestant religion presently professed within this realm, and authorised by the laws thereof,’ in opposition to ‘the Roman religion called papistry.’ It was held by some that the terms of the oath implied an approval of the established church, if not an adhesion to it. The synod was torn by heated debates on this point. On 9 April 1746 a majority at a thin meeting condemned the oath as unlawful. On 9 April 1747 the synod modified its judgment; declaring by a small majority that its previous decision should not be made a term of communion, till it had been referred to the consideration of the presbyteries and kirk-sessions. The dissentient minority, nearly one-half of the synod, regarded this vote as unconstitutional, and immediately separated, taking the name of the ‘general associate synod.’ Popularly it was known as the ‘anti-burgher synod,’ and the original body as the ‘burgher synod.’ The ‘associate synod’ was left without a professor of divinity, and Erskine undertook the duties. His health compelled him to resign this work in 1749. John Brown (1722–1787) [q. v.] of Haddington, the commentator, began his theological studies with him.

Feeling ran so high between the two sections of the secession, that on 4 Aug. 1748, the ‘anti-burgher synod’ passed sentence of deposition from the ministry on Erskine and ten other ministers of the ‘burgher synod.’ The breach was not healed till 8 Sept. 1820, when the two synods joined in forming the ‘united associate synod,’ from which few congregations stood aloof. The Irish seceders were incorporated into the Irish general assembly on 10 July 1840 [see Cooke, Henry, D.D.]. The Scottish seceders amalgamated with the ‘synod of relief’ [see Boston, Thomas, the younger] on 13 May 1847, thus forming the ‘united presbyterian church.’

Erskine died on 2 June 1754. He was twice married: first, on 2 Feb. 1704, to Alison (d. 1720), daughter of Alexander Turpie, writer at Leven, Fifeshire; by her he had ten children, of whom two sons and four daughters reached maturity; Jean, his eldest daughter, married the above-mentioned James Fisher, minister of Kinclaven, Perthshire; secondly, in 1723, to Mary (d. 1751), daughter of James Webster, minister at Edinburgh; by her he had two sons, James and Alexander, a daughter, Mary, and two other daughters. A statue of Erskine is placed in the United Presbyterian Synod Hall, Queen Street, Edinburgh.

Erskine's ‘Works’ were published in 1799, 8vo, 3 vols., and again in 1826, 8vo, 2 vols. They consist almost entirely of sermons, which he began to publish in 1725, with a few controversial pamphlets. The chief collection of his sermons published in his lifetime was: 1. ‘The Sovereignty of Zion's King,’ Edinburgh, 1739, 12mo. Posthumous were: 2. ‘Sermons, mostly preached upon Sacramental Occasions,’ Edinburgh, 1755, 8vo. 3. ‘Discourses,’ Edinburgh, 1757, 8vo, 3 vols. 4. ‘Sermons and Discourses,’ Glasgow, 1762, 8vo, 4 vols.; Edinburgh, 1765, 8vo, a fifth volume (this edition was brought out by the Duchess of Northumberland, in whose family one of Erskine's sons lived as a gardener). He assisted his brother Ralph in drawing up the synod's catechism. Among his manuscripts were six volumes on ‘catechetical doctrine,’ written at Portmoak between 1717 and 1723; several volumes of expository discourses; and forty-six sermon note-books, each containing about thirty-six sermons of an hour's length. Reprints of his single sermons, in rude chapbook style, are among the most curious productions of the early provincial presses of Ulster, at Newry, Lurgan, Omagh, &c.

[Hew Scott's Fasti Eccles. Scot.; contemporary pamphlets, especially the Representations of Masters E. Erskine and J. Fisher, &c., 1733; A Review of the Narrative, &c., 1734; the Vision of the two brothers, Ebenezer and Ralph, &c., 1737; the Re-Exhibition of the Testimony, 1779 (contains a revised reprint of most of the original documents relating to the secession); Memoir by James Fisher, in preface to Ralph Erskine's works, 1764; enlarged memoir, by D. Fraser, prefixed to Ebenezer Erskine's works, 1826; Jones's edition of Gillies's memoir of G. Whitefield, 1812, p. 273, &c.; Chalmers's Biog. Dict. 1814, xiii. 306; Thomson's Origin of the Secession Church, 1848; Cat. of Edinburgh Graduates (Bannatyne Club), 1858, p. 156; Grub's Eccles. Hist. of Scotland, 1861, iv. 54 sq.; Reid's Hist. Presb. Ch. in Ireland (Killen), 1867, iii. 241 sq.; Harper's Life of Erskine, quoted in Anderson's Scottish Nation, 1870, ii. 150.]

A. G.