HISTORY OF NEWPORT AND THE PARISH OF FORGAN ; AND RAMBLES ROUND THE DISTRICT, by J. S. Neish, 1890
PART VIII. ORIGIN OF NEWPORT INDEPENDENT CHURCH
The only Dissenting congregation in Forgan previous to the Disruption, was a small body of Scotch Congregationalists, the nucleus of the present flourishing Independent Church of Newport. It is one of the oldest Independent congregations in Scotland, having been organized in the beginning of the present century, during the religious excitement which led to the formation of the denomination known as Scotch Congregationalists. Their history is very interesting, but to render the narrative more intelligible, it is necessary to preface it with a brief sketch of the origin of Independency in Scotland.
The founders of Congregationalism in Scotland were the brothers Robert and James Haldane, and their fellow workers Messrs. Aikman and Raite. The Haldanes were descended from an ancient Perthshire family, which for centuries owned the estates of Gleneagles and Airthey amongst the Ochil hills. Their father was captain of a ship in the East India Company's service, his paternal estate being Airthey, near Stirling, to which Robert succeeded. Their mother was a daughter of Alexander Duncan of Lundie, father of the renowned Admiral Duncan of Camperdown. The young Haldanes were early deprived of their parents, and were left to the care of their grandmother, Lady Lundie. During their boyhood they lived in a large house in Dundee, on the banks of the Tay. Their early training was entrusted to a private tutor, superintended by their uncle, the Admiral. When mere lads they went to sea. Robert entered the Royal Navy at the age of seventeen, and served with distinction in several naval engagements. James, in his seventeenth year, joined an East Indiaman as a midshipman, and rose to the command of one of the Company's finest ships. In 1794 Robert Haldane retired from the Navy, married, and settled on his parental estate of Airthey, near Stirling. Two years subsequently his brother also left the East India Company's service, and married and settled down. Much about the same time the brothers became the subject of deep religious 'impressions', and ultimately they resolved to consecrate their lives to the service of Christ.
Great events were then shaking the nations of the earth. The first French Revolution had deluged the streets of Paris in blood, and lighted the torch of war, which, before it could be extinguished, involved the whole nations of Europe in the conflagration. Revolutionary and Atheistical opinions, emanating from the leaders of the French Republic, spread like wildfire all over Europe, and found their way into the very heart of our own seagirt isle. Religion and morals in Scotland were then at a very low ebb. 'Moderatism ' was rampant in the Established Church, and, with a few exceptions, the teaching of her pulpits had degenerated to cold morality. Sad must have been the state of the Church of Scotland at that time when David Hume could say 'that the Scottish Church was more favourable to Deism than any other religion'. Referring to this period. Dr. Cunningham said 'it was one of the most deplorable of the Church's history'. It was in these distracting times that Robert Haldane was brought to a knowledge of the truth as it is in Jesus. But vital godliness had not wholly departed from the land. A remnant of evangelical Christians were still left both in England and Scotland, and these taking counsel together, resolved to gird on the sword of the Lord and go forth to fight in His name.
The formation of the London Missionary Society in 1795 was the beginning of a great religious revival throughout England and Scotland. To arouse the people to take an interest in missions to the heathen, eminent preachers, such as the Rev. Rowland Hill, Mr. Simeon of Cambridge, and others visited Scotland, and their labours stirred up the people to new spiritual life. Mr. Robert Haldane was the first Scotchman that joined the London Missionary Society, his first subscription being £50. Fired with zeal in the cause of missions, he resolved to sell the estate of Airthey, and with the proceeds to establish a mission to the Hindoos in Bengal. He engaged as his co-workers in this enterprise the Rev. Greville Ewing, then minister of Lady Glenorchy's Church, Edinburgh; the Rev. Mr. Innes of Stirling; and Mr. Bogue of Gosport. But the Government and the East India Company threw obstacles in the way, and the enterprise had to be abandoned. Mr. Haldane next turned his attention to the condition of the people at home, and, aided by his brother, James, and Mr. Aikman, a Society was organised in Edinburgh for the 'Propagation of the Gospel at Home'. They were joined in this work by the Rev. Messrs. Ewing and Innes, both of whom seceded from the Established Church. This Society was instituted in 1797, and the members consisted of Christians of various denominations. Its funds were raised by subscription, but these were limited in their amount, and the greater part of the expenses incurred by the Society were defrayed by Mr. Robert Haldane. The object of the Society, as set forth in its first address, was not to form a new sect, or to extend the influence of any denomination, but to make known the Evangelical Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ wherever they saw a deficiency of the means of grace. In employing laymen as preachers and catechists, they meant it to be distinctly understood that they did not confer ordination on them as preachers or teachers. The preachers were also forbidden to make public collections at services, or to accept any money privately, as all their expenses were defrayed by the Society. Amongst the preachers and catechists sent out by this Society were James A. Haldane, Mr. Aikman, and Mr. Raite, who made extensive tours throughout Scotland. They were also joined in this work by ministers from England, and the fervency of their preaching produced a great excitement all over the country.
In 1798 Mr. Raite was commissioned by this Society to 'itinerate' in Fife, and in the course of his travels he visited the parish of Forgan. The majority of the ministers of the Established Church were not only opposed to this movement, but, as will be shown, cherished a bitter hostility against it, and determined at all hazards to stamp it out; but there were a few sound evangelical ministers who thoroughly sympathised in the movement, and encouraged the preachers in their work. Amongst this number was the Rev. James Burn, the parish minister of Forgan. Mr. Burn invited Mr. Raite to visit Forgan, and allowed him to preach during the week in the old kirkyard, where the people gathered in large numbers from all parts of the surrounding country to hear him. On the Sabbath following it was arranged that Mr. Raite would again address the people in the churchyard. A large congregation accordingly assembled within the 'sacred enclosure', but a heavy shower of rain came on as the service was about to begin, and the people took shelter in the old parish kirk. Under the circumstances Mr. Burn allowed Mr. Raite to occupy the pulpit, though he was well aware that in doing so he was rendering himself liable to be censured by his brethren. And he did not escape, for in due course he was summoned to appear before the Presbytery of St Andrews to answer for this flagrant violation of canonical rule. Mr. Burn was warned of the danger to which he exposed himself in sympathising with these wandering preachers, but he boldly declared that he 'would do it though he should be put out of his church the next week'. Mr. Burn defended himself nobly when he came before the Presbytery, and, in the course of a withering speech, he severely assailed Mr. Hill, one of his bitterest opponents. One of the brethren, remarking on Mr. Burn's speech, said 'that it was the nature of burns to run down a hill', a wretched pun which tickled the 'Moderates' immensely. The pun had, however, a double meaning well known to all the brethren of the Presbytery. In 1780 Mr. Burn appeared before the General Assembly, and opposed by a vigorous speech the appointment of the Rev. Mr. Hill to the second charge of St Andrews Parish Church, on the ground of the Rev. gentleman holding a Professorship in St Andrews University, which he had no intention of resigning. The Assembly decided in favour of Mr. Hill. Coming home from one of those stormy meetings of Presbytery on a cold winter night Mr. Burn caught a severe cold, which brought on inflammation of the lungs, from which he never recovered.
But to return to the itinerant preachers and the results of their work in the parish of Forgan. A deep impression was made on the minds of the people by the preaching of the Word, and many were brought to a knowledge of the truth. Amongst those who were thus awakened were two young men, Thomas and George Just, sons of Mr. Robert Just of Broadhaugh, a small property in West Newport. Mr. Just also owned a piece of land in East Newport, which was known as 'Just's Park', but which is now feued and built upon, and bears the name of James's Place. Thomas Just, who for thirty-eight years was pastor of the Newport Independent congregation, is said by his biographer (Mr. Lothian of St. Andrews) to have been early 'the subject of deep religious impressions, being frequently brought under strong convictions of sin, and retiring for secret prayer that God would enlighten his mind in the knowledge of Christ'.
Under the evangelical preaching of the Rev. Mr Burn he learned the way of salvation, but the visit of the evangelists to his native village was the dawning of a new life to him. One of the means employed by the 'Society for Propagating the Gospel' was the establishment of Sabbath Schools, and into this department of the work Thomas Just and his brother George entered with all the ardour and zeal of young converts. Sabbath Schools were opened at Newport, Ferry-Port-on-Craig, Leuchars, and other villages in the district, and the brothers devoted much of their time to the work of organising and teaching these schools. The visit of Mr. Raite was followed by other evangelists and ministers from England and Scotland, who, by their fervent preaching, stirred up the people to renewed earnestness. Amongst those who about this time visited Forgan were the Rev. Mr. Philip of Aberdeen, afterwards Dr. Philip of South Africa, Dr. Cracknell of Weymouth, Mr. Aikman, and others. A small devoted band of earnest Christians joined themselves together in Newport and the 'Waterside'. They used to meet several times a week for prayer and conversation on spiritual things, and to encourage each other in prosecuting the work, but as yet they still adhered to the Church of their fathers. A storm was brewing, however, and ere long it burst upon them, and filled their hearts with consternation. The success which had attended the labours of the itinerant preachers roused the jealousy and alarm of the 'Moderates' in the Established Church, and they determined to aim a blow at them which would check their influence.
At the meeting of the General Assembly in May, 1799, overtures from the Synods of Aberdeen and Angus and Mearns anent 'Vagrant preachers, Sunday schools, irreligion, and anarchy' were laid on the table. The overtures were unanimously adopted, and an Act was passed, prohibiting all persons from preaching within the jurisdiction of the Assembly who had not first been educated and licensed in Scotland. A Committee was also appointed to draw up a 'Pastoral Letter' addressed to the people on the subject of itinerant preaching, and a report on Sunday Schools, which latter document was hostile towards these institutions as then conducted. Four thousand copies of the 'Pastoral Admonition', as the first document was termed, were printed and circulated throughout the country, and the parish ministers were also ordered to read it from their pulpits on the first Sabbath after it reached them. This obnoxious 'Bull' filled the hearts of the evangelical portion of the clergy of the Church of Scotland with feelings of grief and indignation, and many of them refused to read it, while others complied under protest. The 'Admonition' charged the itinerants with being 'uneducated' and 'self-sent men'. It attacked the 'Society for Propagating the Gospel at Home', and charged the preachers with 'entering parishes without any call', with 'erecting Sabbath schools', and connecting these schools with 'certain secret meetings', 'censuring the doctrines of parish ministers'; and also charged the teachers and preachers with being 'enemies to the civil government and to the ecclesiastical establishment of the land, and with being in league with the Revolutionary party in France'. It also declared that these men were 'acting as if they were possessed of some secret method of bringing men into Heaven', and further warned the people from 'following up and down a set of men of whom you know not whence they be'. The Procurator of the Church was also instructed to take proceedings against the Sabbath School teachers on the strength of some obsolete statutes enacted by the Scottish Parliament against 'Papists and Malignants'. The Acts of the Assembly against itinerant preachers were not repealed until 1842, the year previous to the Disruption, when Dr. Cunningham carried an overture against them. In supporting Dr. Cunningham's motion, the Rev. Dr. Guthrie stigmatised the proceedings of 1799 as 'one of the blackest Acts the Church of Scotland ever passed'. Strange to say, after the Disruption the obnoxious Act was again re-enacted with indecent haste, in the face of strong protests from several members of the Assembly, and especially from Sir Charles Dalrymple Ferguson, of Kilkerran. Subsequently, however, the prohibition anent ministerial communion has been withdrawn by the General Assembly. Opposition to the itinerant evangelists was not wholly confined to the 'Moderate' party in the Established Church; the Relief and Anti-burgher bodies, now composing the U.P. denomination, were equally hostile in their attitude towards them. They denounced them in their Church Courts, and even went so far as to depose a minister from their communion for identifying himself with the movement.
But to return to Newport. The arbitrary proceedings of the General Assembly alarmed the teachers of the Sabbath Schools in this district, and in their perplexity they applied to their friend the Rev. Mr. Burn. Mr. Burn thoroughly disapproved of the course adopted by the General Assembly, but, being a man of peace, he advised Messrs. Thomas and George Just, and their colleagues in the Sunday schools, to appear before a Magistrate and take the oath of allegiance to the Government. Accordingly they presented themselves before the Sheriff of Fife at Cupar on 29th October, 1799, and took the oath, when no further proceedings were instituted against them.
The 'Pastoral Admonition' had the effect of stimulating the Haldanes and their friends to fresh zeal, and led them to take a 'new departure' in their operations. They separated themselves entirely from the Established Church, and formed new congregations on Independent principles. In large towns Tabernacle Churches were built, and classes were established for training students, the greater part of the funds being provided by Mr. R. Haldane. One of these 'Tabernacles' was built in Dundee, and Mr. Innes, late of Stirling, was appointed the pastor. This building, which was termed the West Port Church, was erected in North Tay Street. It was afterwards purchased by the Town Council, and constituted into one of the Town Churches, and it is presently known as St David's Established Church.
One of the reasons for separation from the Established Church was the lax state of discipline in the Church, by which members were admitted into her communion without regard to their moral or spiritual condition. Mr. Thomas Just was long dissatisfied with this state of things, and seeing no hope of reformation within the Church he was led to examine more closely the principles of Congregationalism; and eventually, after the death of the Rev. Mr. Burn, he, along with his brother and other kindred spirits in the district, broke off their connection with the Church of Scotland, and attached themselves to the 'Tabernacle' in Dundee. In 1801 a congregation was formed at Newport, consisting of sixteen members. Students from Mr. Innes's theological class continued for some time to supply the little flock with sermons. In the following year the theological class was removed from Dundee to Edinburgh, and then the congregation applied for preachers to the 'Society for Propagating the Gospel at Home'. A Mr. Thomas Taylor was accordingly sent to minister to them in spiritual things, and after he had laboured amongst them for some months he was appointed their pastor, and set apart for the office on 5th January, 1803. The incomes of these Congregational pastors in thinly populated districts were very small, and they were often compelled to labour with their hands like Paul, so that they might not be burdensome to their flocks. It is recorded of Mr. Lindsay, of Letham, that he had to open a small shop to eke out the income he derived from his congregation, while many others were driven to similar expedients. Mr. Taylor, the first pastor of the Newport congregation, opened a day school to enable him to support his family. But here he was poaching on the preserves of the Established Church, and in marked keeping with the intolerant spirit which the 'Moderate' party had shown towards the itinerant evangelists, he was summoned before the Presbytery of St Andrews as 'a teacher within their bounds', and required to sign the Confession of Faith. Mr. Taylor refused to comply with the Presbytery's demands, and the Ecclesiastical Court called on the civil power to aid them in enforcing their tyrannical decrees. The case was taken before the Sheriff of Fife, and after a protracted litigation, extending over a period of two years, the Sheriff decreed against the poor schoolmaster. A Sheriff officer, armed with a warrant, proceeded to the humble schoolroom at 'Westwater', and by virtue of his authority he turned out the teacher and scholars, shut the door, locked it, and affixed the Royal seal over the keyhole. Such contemptible tyranny requires no comment. Poor Mr. Taylor, persecuted for conscience sake, was compelled to resign the pastorate of the Newport church, and emigrate with his family to America.
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