Rejecting Scotland's Establishment


The structure of the Presbyterian Church

Originally, A "Presbyter" was one of several older officers, or "priests", who managed the local church's affairs. In the Anglican/Episcopal system, this Presbyter stands in the hierarchy between the Bishop and the Deacon. Within Scotland's church, however, the governance lay at the parish church level. The Parish Church was governed by a body of ELECTED Elders, who with the Minister, presided over a KIRK SESSION. The Minister was 'presented' to the local congregation by a laird, the Duke, or even the King in London (and, not to jump ahead of this story, this was the flashpoint leading to the Free Church.) The "Elders" were respectable men of the Parish. If any of one's ancestors were an "Elder" you can be sure that person was a man of "standing" in the Parish Community. These local churches are governed by a higher assembly, called a PRESBYTERY. A group of Presbyteries are called a SYNOD. And when Synods group together, they are form a GENERAL ASSEMBLY.

Unlike the Congregationalist system, the Presbyterian Parish congregation definitely part of a larger system.


The Kirk Session was responsible for parish order, ensuring that locals regularly attended church, and ensuring that the Sabbath was kept holy; that drunkeness and domestic abuse was punished. More interesting to our time, was its role in identifying the father of an illegitimate child, and collecting material support for that child and its mother. The Session collected money for the poor and helpless, and in times of famine, for food for the starving. It controlled badges which were given to paupers who were qualified to collect poor relief and beg within its Parish lands. It also attempted to deal with the insane, and those with serious disabilities.

The record of the South Knapdale Parochial Board is a great indicator of the various jobs that fell upon the Kirk Session. These Minutes list paupers; and describe the community's reaction to a Cholera Epidemic; they note funds taken in, and record how that money was spent. I have been impressed with the "modernity" of these notes, and can understand why, when these Scots left the Highlands for Australia, Canada and etc., they could function so well in urban cultures.

The Parish system in Britain gradually evolved from as far back in time as the 8th century. The earliest Christian centres were urban Bishoprics. Landowners, primarily rural creatures, often built private churches for themselves (and later) their peasants. They hired a priest, to whom they gave glebe land (about 60 acres). The Priest could in turn, collect fees for officiating at baptisms, funerals and marriages. In the course ot time, these private churches became normal appurtenances for landlords. The "parishes" continued to be useful administrative units to modern governments, particularly in dealing with poor relief and other social problems and conducting census'. You can find a map of Argyll's parishes here.

I emphasize the great age of the parish system, and its connection with the landlord. Otherwise, it is difficult to understand why the Lairds of the 18th and 19th centuries were so adamant in retaining their rights, temporal and sacred, within their Parish Church. Yet, the Lairds had transformed into Landowners and collectors of rent and the old 'paternalism' had disappeared by the mid 1700s.

The next chapter describes some unpleasant incidents that led to the Free Church. But note the following chart: the Presbyterian Church of Scotland was no sooner Established, than divisions multiplied: