Wednesday, 21 March 2018

An unworldly World of their own? A look at 20th-century Free Church life

Rebarbative as the public face and loudly trumpeted doctrines of the Free Church (FC) may appear to many people born in the 20th and 21st centuries, that institution is an inescapable part of the history of Lewis, and so of the family history of the majority of those with roots in Lewis, varied and scattered though these may be. There were other aspects to life on the island, but it was scarcely possible to live in Stornoway without some awareness of the FC and its beliefs - including the one about reaching out to those not already affiliated to it, and telling them off if their habits and customs deviated from its rules. Being a committed part of its demanding world and peculiarly rich emotional life was different, and its details can be viewed as casting an interesting sidelight on the 'history of mentalities', among other things. For an insider's view of Free Church life and thought in the first half of the 20th century, we turn one more time to the Diary of Kenneth A MacRae.
(Dates on the left are those of the diary, not its writer.)
Such marathon Communion sessions in various places feature largely in the book.
Still spreading the Word:
These items were found in a second-hand copy of the Diary.
Theological arguments will not be rehearsed here, nor will doctrinal differences (other sources are available for that sort of thing, e.g. The People of the Great Faith, by Douglas Ansdell, Acair, 1998). On the other hand, MacRae's constant reference to spiritual matters, in particular the state of his own "soul" and its travails, does become repetitive but has a certain fascination, not unlike that exerted by several fictional works attempting in different ways to describe the psychological state of the religious-minded. One might cite James Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner, or numerous passages in the novels of Iris Murdoch, or rather more frivolously, Amos Starkadder in Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm. Not that any of these can fairly be compared to MacRae, who would have found much to blame in their doctrines: ultra-Calvinsim taken to extremes; Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism, unacceptable by definition; and populist evangelism. There is likewise interest in the language used, the behaviour expected and rituals practised, as well as, of course, the social attitudes evinced.

A page from 'Cold Comfort Farm', by Stella Gibbons, first published 1934
The following extracts and comments are again grouped by topics, often overlapping, not by date.

Interior World

2-6-1912 old 'offensive' preaching urgently required...
27-9-12 disagreement with the strictness and indeed unreasonableness of some of Miss Kemp's views
9-10-12 Edinburgh: new interests and temptations

15-4-1913 back to the university and my godlessness... Perhaps no specific sins. No time... Pride.
26-5-13 I must not quietly pass what I know to be out of accordance with God's laws; must be prepared to endure.
20-7-13 dread seeking souls for my own name as preacher.
9-8 craving for and lure of romance; pride... Vain wretch! (Referring to himself)
5-9-13 cycling not conducive to spirituality
7-9-13 preaching of the "law" - told Lowlanders will not suffer it. Will not alter, to the end: Calvary, judgment and hell.
31-12-13 "The groan or sigh is the prayer most pleasing to God, for there is the least of self in it." (He quotes; mot of his reading was of and by old-time preachers and ministers.)

19-1-1914. What mysterious power is in Gaelic melody?
20-1-14 old couple of old school, condemned in unreserved terms modern civilisation. Wife of strong mettle, uncompromising.
7-6-14 danger of being led away by imagination
25-10-14 I have a right to expect my prayers to be answered.

9-1-1922. Oh that I could be serious at all times!  10-1 spoke on revivals, their dangers.

23-1-22 spiritual benefit of diary: own soul must receive first interest.

World of Ministry, first experiences


28-6-1914 Lochgilphead. Knew I loved the people.
22-11-14 surprised at opinions sometimes held by Free Church people.
21-3-1915 Kildonan: feeling of desolation; the terrible change which has come over our dear land.
1-5-15 Aberdeen. Set forth the present deplorable state of Britain.
16-5 Tarbert, Lochfyne. An inquiry into the prevailing desolation.
1-8-15 the voice of my people; was afraid I was offending some. Feeling that I had set the people against me. 12-9 I had wonderful power. No-one spoke, I saw no smile on any face.

1-1-1916. In the prayer the tears rolled down my cheeks.
9-1-16 tired of preaching and all to no purpose.
14-5-16 If I can't get to preach I don't want to live.
30-7 desire to flee away to Skye or Lewis.

15-4-1917 to get away to the dear north land, God's own dear people.
11-8-17 The sight of Dingwall [his home town], quiet, lying in its peaceful valley across the water.
12-8 Ferintosh Communion. Saw many tears at the table.
13-7-1918 Skye. Man came forward, tears streaming down cheeks and falling on floor.
9-9-18 blight of Moderation everywhere present.
1-10-18 generally heard Free Church people [seen as] queer, prejudiced and narrow-minded. 
7-9-1922 A band of Plymouth Brethren began to sing at the street corner... was longing to go and join them.

Isle of Lewis, some early impressions and observations
MacRae had found much to approve in Lewis, before receiving the 'call' to Stornoway.
9-10-1919 Ness: size and beauty of church. Attendance 650, 1000. Native garb modest and becoming - exceptional today.
10-10-19 One said that those who felt it long at a Question Meeting would find it long in heaven.
12-10-19 Lewis singing... so like the song of glory.
13-10-19 ... amazed at the giving of the people. Black houses: did not think them so bad at all.
14-10 Bragar, Carloway, Callanish - enjoyable run.

6-1-1922 reports from Lewis re spiritual life very encouraging; in November found ministers mourning frivolity and decadence of the young people.


22,26-9-22 Crossbost, Lochs, Gravir. Church holds 1700, crammed to excess. Earnest attention; more brokenness under the Word with us in Skye.


Women and children - maybe not first, but not last either
Although predictably patriarchal in his attitudes, and restrictive in his assumptions about the role of women in the church, MacRae was not a misogynist, showing interest in and appreciation of many female members of his congregation as well as his own family. Women were also assumed to take full unmediated responsibility for their own spiritual development as individuals; there are frequent mentions of them being "awakened" and received into the church after the due process of being "troubled" and "exercised", with assessments of their characters. Women acting as elders and ministers were, however, numbered among the "hindrances to revival".

June 1916 Arran Striking girls, strong, hardy and intelligent; contrast with the poor, weakly dressed-up things [in towns].
Two young girls who vexed me with their inattention and restlessness.
15-8-16 married in Kyle Temperance Hotel. (His wife was a fellow member of the Free Church).
20-8 happiness engaging affections and interests too much.


p.221 on Monday evenings he tried to relax, play with daughter. -224 Wife's account: fortresses of wooden bricks, child became adept. Supply of troops was not meagre: regiments; and alien soldiers, not all of the smartest appearance. Hard peas for ammunition, shouts of victory when battle won, usually by 'Kilties', brought back new from city.


7-4-1932 finished the visitations; would like to reach all the servant girls, pupils and lodgers.

9-4-32 Two awakened. Girl from Back had to be carried out of the church, now serving in the Nurses' Cottage. Other on staff of girls' hostel.
23-10-32 Would that my own daughter were persuaded to come!

11-12-32 girl in tears [at the service], from Point, a gutter in the town.

29-12-1934 little Bayble girl - not easy to arrange private conversation.

28-11-1953 (Australia)... afternoon tea in the park, prepared by the ladies of the congregation.

Stornoway Free Church Sabbath School in the 1930s.
The noticeboard lists 3 services on Sunday (Sabbath) and a Thursday Prayer Meeting.
p.465 MacRae's editor tells us he believed "children enlightened by the Spirit can understand the preaching of the Word" and the Free Church expected quite a lot from its youngest attendees. They were encouraged to call attention to lapses and errors among their friends and neighbours.
15-1-1918 poor wretch, (I) cannot even talk to a child about his soul!

20-6-1932 examined 7 classes in the Nicolson [school, Stornoway] in R.I. (Religious Instruction) It was well done on the whole but no better than in Skye.
22-2-1936 movement in the town among the schoolchildren misguided by the 'Pilgrim Preachers'. I have no faith in it; cocksureness and self-sufficiency. Attendance upon concerts and 'the pictures' mark them off as the victims of a religious delusion.
30-5-36 opposed forming organisations to foster friendships among young people; gave warning as to the serious consequences...
13-6-1953 Melbourne, a very godless city. Restlessness among children.
5-2-1963 lecture on The State and Education
p.486-487 letter on Religious Instruction in schools. 15-3-63
p.480 notes of Address to children at Laxdale school: Holding On.


Evangelism, Revivals and Conversions

While looking forward to a genuine general "revival" and always keen to make the right sort of converts, MacRae was suspicious of many of the movements that arose in the aftermath of the First World War, and later., as indicated in the reference to schoolchildren above, and in other references:


31-3-1922 Reports of revival activity... Fear emotionalism and artificiality.
1925 Lectures on historical revivals; many questionings.
p 220 Kilmuir congregation: an element of Hyper-Calvinism.

Feb. 1928...ultra-Calvinism has generated a mysticism and drowsiness that is strangling the Gospel.
p 224 re Sabbath League, some ministers strangely lethargic.

25-11-1931 Baptism, father unwilling. In a way I respected his thoughtfulness...
2-11-1933 began winter's lectures; spoke on 'Religious deceivers'.  (p.268n other lectures this year included "The Sabbath Question".)
10-11-1934 since Spring Communion, Carloway, 10 men, some ringleaders in frivolity, and 7 female - influence of truth, so concerts etc. cannot now receive enough support to continue.
17-11-34 place of fear as a motive to religion, neglected.

Extracts from early 1933 (p.49 in the published Diary)
evoking the process of securing the right 
sort of adherent.
Note specialised 
use of 'concern', 'broken', 'wakened', 'relief':
it wasn't supposed to be too 
easy or painless.

2-5-1936... very much annoyed on Monday by a good woman (who complained about the church not being open at the former time on Sunday afternoon) ... Unreasonable spirit which refuses religion the right to adapt itself has done infinite harm in the Highlands. Strange, too, how good people can be the main hindrance...

October 1936 Arran: non-churchgoing has come in as a plague.  Renton: annoyed to see a vase of flowers and plants in the church.

pp.319-320 Report to Public Questions Committee: The great mission of some churches would almost appear to be to amuse their young people, but to neglect them and allow them to go their own way is almost as fatal.
p.363- re revivals. Address to the Young. -368 simply, what is medically known as mass hysteria. Young women, nervous reactions (1940). I shall give the 'swooners' no latitude.

10-3-1941 I am inclined... to think a great deal of this business is just a put-on.
p 443- contents of worship to be warranted by the Westminster book of praise. -451 All Scotland Crusade: SY Town Hall hired by Church of Scotland, relayed outside.  -458-9 a sad Assembly…  apprehension as to the future.

1960 report of Church and Nation Committee of Church of Scotland re "half-day Sunday": most devastating blow; Sabbath has been ruined in this land.


A few further animadversions on social life etc.

27-1-1922 unveiling of Clan MacRae war memorial... Doctrinal abuse... Another promising report as to religious conditions in Lewis, Back.

9-2-22 ... (re) marriage ceremony: indicated that the wedding must be over by midnight and have no dancing and such frivolity.
6-5-22 religious type of Highland soldier gone now. My regiment still has the old place in my pride and my affections.
29-12-22 case of the 'poor and the needy'... Thus was Satan foiled.
5-5-1924 Influenza still prevails in the district.

4-6-24 Long prayers are ruining prayer meetings in the Highlands today. They are a weariness to the flesh and they tire the people by their unfitness and selfishness.

30-12-24 having to send up to HQ a report anent the state of religion and morals in the congregation.
1960 report of Church and Nation Committee of Church of Scotland re half-day Sunday: most devastating blow; Sabbath has been ruined in this land.

p.472 Greatest cause of emigration persistent propaganda... Ruin of the Highlands as the home of the Celtic race.  Tourism. 476 Sunday papers.


28-4-1956 Time will alter things in spite of us.

  
17-2-1925 [not on Lewis] funeral, amazed; did not see a tear.

MacRae died on 5-5-1964


May 1964. Reportedly the largest funeral ever seen in the island.











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