Thursday, July 01, 2010

Glasite Beginnings: Scottish National Religion in the Early Eighteenth Century


This post picks up the topic of my previous entry on Robert Sandeman (1718-1771). Eventually, the student of Sandeman has to go back to his mentor and father-in-law, the Scottish minister John Glas (portrait above). And to understand Glas and the movement he inspired, we have to establish the setting, the religious and political climate of Scotland in the early 1700s.

For centuries, religion in Scotland was dominated by the idea of a national church. For example, the Scots Confession of 1560, written under the guidance of John Knox, clearly united church and state. Chapter 24 takes up "The Civil Magistrate":

Moreover, we state that the preservation and purification of religion is particularly the duty of kings, princes, rulers and magistrates. They are not only appointed for civil government but also to maintain true religion and to suppress all idolatry and superstition. (The Scots Confession 1560, ed. G. D. Henderson, trans. into modern English by James Bulloch, [Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1960], 78).

More-elaborate wording is found the Westminster Confession of Faith, which also provides for a national church. Drawn up and introduced during the 1640s, it became the official statement of the Church of Scotland in 1689. As late as 1910, all ministers of the Church were required to subscribe to it. Regarding the civil magistrate the Confession states the following:

It is his duty to take order that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented and reformed, and all ordinances of God duly settled, administered and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatever is transacted within be according to the mind of God. (Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, Documents of the Christian Church, 3d ed. [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999], 322).

Similar language is found in the Solemn League and Covenant. For a time this document united the kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland, declaring them to be of one reformed religion. In 1644, in exchange for military assistance from Scotland, the statement was imposed on all Englishmen over the age of eighteen. Article 3 pledges to maintain the king's authority in the preservation and defence of the true religion. (Documents of the Christian Church, 317).

To the Scottish mind, then, a national church, governed under a system of presbyteries and synods, was natural. And because of the political history of the Church of Scotland, its national covenant was not so much about religious conviction as it was about patriotic zeal, especially against the influence of the old enemy, England.

It was into this world that John Glas was born in Auchtermuchty, Scotland, on September 21, 1695. His family line included many clergymen, beginning with his great-grandfather, William Glas, a favorite of Scotland's King James VI, who would eventually ascend to the throne of England and oversee the translation of the Bible that bears his name.

A devout young man, Glas pursued his preparation for Christian ministry with remarkable zeal. The University of Saint Andrews awarded him the Master of Arts degree when he was still only seventeen years old. Glas later continued his studies at the University of Edinburgh. Although he doubted his own ability and readiness--"My uneasiness in all respects was evident to me" he later wrote--he finally agreed to go through with the exams administered by the Presbytery of Dunkeld, and received his probationary license on May 20, 1718. The next year, Glas was called to become the next pastor of the small church at Tealing in the Presbytery of Dundee (John Howard Smith, The Perfect Rule of the Christian Religion [Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2008], 17-18).

As a young preacher, Glas was in full sympathy with the long-established Church of Scotland. During those early years, he considered the Church's presbyterianism the most scriptural and, therefore, the best form of church government. He completely rejected the episcopal form, referring to it as prelacy, and gave little thought to independency, congregationalism, which he regarded as mere confusion and the mother of all the sectaries (Smith, The Perfect Rule of the Christian Religion, 187, n. 12). But he was compelled to reconsider the question when he began a course of evening lectures based on the Shorter Catechism. Question 26 asked, How doth Christ execute the office of king? Glas concluded that, ironically, Christ did not rule as the king of the Church of Scotland. Instead, heads of state and disinterested, heavy-handed members of synods controlled everything.

In time, he came to understand the kingdom of Christ as spiritual. He, therefore, rejected the notion of a national church and began to favor the idea of the independent congregation made up entirely of followers of Christ, as opposed to all the citizens who just happened to live in a given parish. In the words of Smith,

Stemming from a belief in the essential spirituality of the church, he came to the conclusion that such an institution must be composed of true believers who possessed a real experience of saving grace, who, in compliance with the will of Christ, felt an inevitable compulsion to separate themselves from the world. (The Perfect Rule of the Christian Religion, 21).

As Harry Escott put it, Glas concluded that National Christianity is not New Testament Christianity (The History of Scottish Congregationalism, [Glasgow: Congregational Union of Scotland, 1960], 17).

A radical commitment to the spiritual and, therefore, independent character of the congregation of Christ's people--the separation of church and state, announced by the church--became a hallmark of the group that would come to be called Glasites, and later Sandemanians.

But this wasn't the only idea that Robert Sandeman inherited from his mentor. More about John Glas another time.

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