Presbyterian describes a method Church Government. The word presbyter means elder, and Presbyterianism means government of the Church by elders, These are divided into two classes, those who rule over the spiritual affairs of the congregation, and those who teach and rule. The latter are the ministers, the former the elders, and together they form the Kirk Session, A separate body in a congregation, variously known as a Committee of Management, a Deacons Court, or a Congregational Board, is concerned with property, income and expenditure. Presbyterianism has always asserted pointedly the duty of every member of Church to care personally for the Church and to further it in all its activities by his personal support and interest. Every member has the right to take part in the election of the minister and in the management of the affairs of the congregation. Every member is to expected contribute according to his resources.

The Church in Scotland

The Reformed Church in Scotland came into being in 1560. It was established in 1567. The essence of Establishment is a contractual relation with the state involving certain undertakings and securing certain exclusive privileges and preferences. This contract is expressed and embodied in a series of statutes from 1567 onwards (That in 1587 declares ‘There is no other face of Kirk, nor other face of religion, than is presently by the favour of God established within this realm,’) concluding with the act of 1921 which embodies nine articles setting forth the constitution of the Church of Scotland and another act of 1925 handing over to the Church of Scotland the state endowments. When we say that the Church is ‘Established’ what is implied is that by an Act of Parliament it is declared to be the National Church that it is intimately connected with the state and in virtue of the state connection enjoys a privileged position. It soon became clear that this ‘establishment’ bore a cost as the State began to interfere in the life of the Church. In the 17th Century the attempt to introduce bishops led to the persecution of the ‘Covenanters’ those who had covenanted to maintain the freedom of the Church. After much bloodshed the revolution settlement of 1690 restored Presbyterianism.

The Secession and Relief Church

The problems with establishment continued however and in turn led to a breakaway from the Established Church in 1733. This led to the Secession Church, associated with Ebenezer Erskine. ‘Patronage’, the right to choose the minister, was largely the issue. The State passed the ‘Patronage Act’ giving this right to the landowners, the Church maintained this right belonged to the people. This Church had its difficulties as secondary matters split the seceders. There were the ‘Auld Lichts’ and the ‘New Lichts’, the ‘Burghers’ and the ‘Anti-Burghers’. The issue of patronage again caused problems in 1761 and led to the formation of the Relief Church, associated with Thomas Gillespie.

The Free Church and the Disruption

There was a third breakaway in 1843. This was the ‘Disruption’ associated with Thomas Chalmers and led to the formation of the Free Church. While the Seceders and Relief came about by the separation of one or two at a time the ‘Disruption’ saw over 400 hundred ministers resign from the Church of Scotland. There followed a series of unions. In 1847 the Secession Church and the Relief Church united to become the United Presbyterian Church. In 1900 the Free Church united with the United Presbyterian Church to become the United Free Church. A minority did not go into that union and continue today as the Free Church of Scotland. In 1929 the United Free Church united with the Established Church (the Church of Scotland). A minority did not enter that union and continue today as the United Free Church of Scotland.

1929 Onwards

The United Free Church of Scotland minority met for their first General Assembly on 6th October 1929 in Glasgow. They elected Rev James Barr to be the first moderator of the continuing Church.┬áThe Photograph on the right shows three of the leaders of the continuing Church atone of many churches being opened in the 1930’s. It was agreed that for the first five years following the Union they would be known as the United Free Church of Scotland (continuing) to distinguish them from the pre 1929 church. This led to the nickname ‘continuers.’ What was it they were continuing? The minority who didn’t go into the union of 1929 did so because three things were important to them.



Historically the United Free Church of Scotland has consistently been opposed to State Establishment of religion, believing it to be a hindrance to the welfare and witness of the Church of Jesus Christ. Even in situations where there is no actual interference with the Church’s spiritual autonomy, the threat is implicit in the State-Church relationship.


The special recognition by the State of one denomination, places the Churches on an unequal footing and is not in the interests of the best Inter-Church relations.


Material support should come from the freewill offerings of the members. Where the State for specific purposes, regarded as promoting the welfare of the people, offers material or financial aid to all Churches, without distinction and without injustice to other institutions, or interference with the Church’s freedom, acceptance of such aid would not be incompatible with the Church’s position.

In the years following 1929 a great programme of building churches began and new congregations were founded. Like many of the other denominations in Scotland the Church grew considerably until 1956 since when the numbers have fallen. A number of Church extension projects have been undertaken and new congregations established. In a changing society the Church continues to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. The Church following the tradition of the United Presbyterian’s and the Free Church has been active overseas. Medical missions were established in Bechuanaland (now Botswana) in association with the London Missionary Society. This work saw the establishment of a hospital at Molepolole. Attempts were made in association with the Presbyterian Church in Canada to open up a new work in India however the outbreak of the Second World War prevented this work developing further. The work in Bechuanaland though thrived. Needs change and in 1975 the government of Botswana took over the hospital. The Church continues it’s association with the Church in Botswana through close ties with the LMS successor the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa. In recent days this has seen a number of Botswana students for the ministry being trained in Scotland.

Adapted in part from an article by Rev A Innes.