Scotland’s Christian heritage

Scotland has a strong Christian heritage:

In the sixteenth century. Scotland and Holland were the only European countries to succeed in defying the wishes of their rulers by embracing the evangelical gospel during the Reformation.

John Knox (1514-1572) became a powerful leader in the Scottish Reformation. A man of action and passion, he preached against the established Church for its unbiblical doctrine. Arrested for his part in a rebellion against Mary Queen of Scots, Knox was imprisoned in France. Subsequently released, through a combination of public pressure and the payment of a ransom, Knox spent time in Geneva with John Calvin, before returning to Scotland to lead the Reformation. From 1560 he preached in St Giles Cathedral at the heart of the City of Edinburgh. The whole nation felt the presence and power of God through his preaching. John Knox prayed, ‘Give me Scotland, or I die!’ So burdened was he to see his nation turn back to God that he pleaded with the Lord either to give him Scotland or let him die.

Known throughout the world as the ‘Land of the Book’, Scotland’s Christian influence was felt far and wide. In 1631 the motto of the City of Glasgow was ‘Lord, let Glasgow flourish through the preaching of thy word and praising thy name’.

In the seventeenth century, the Covenanters defended freedom of speech and the gospel in Scotland.

In the nineteenth century, Thomas Chalmers was an important figure.

In 1835 Chalmers was appointed Convenor of the Church of Scotland’s Church Accommodation Committee (later called the Church Extension Committee). When he resigned as Convenor in 1841, 220 new churches had been built and paid for, almost entirely from voluntary contributions. Following the Disruption in 1843, and founding of the Free Church of Scotland, Chalmers orchestrated a new building programme. After four years, the Free Church claimed to have 730 buildings, the vast majority built in these four years. Jay Brown reflects on the scale of this achievement: ‘The building of the Free Church was one of the great achievements of Victorian Britain. In four years, 730 churches had been built throughout Scotland, and supplied with ministers…Most impressive, the Free Church ‘establishment’ had been created entirely with voluntary contributions.’ (Jay Brown, Thomas Chalmers and the Godly Commonwealth)

Yet Chalmers considered his most significant work the training of the next generation of leaders. In mid-life, he gave up the pulpit for a professorship, first in St. Andrew’s, then Edinburgh. Chalmers was convinced that while church extension was important, what mattered more was the quality of leaders. Under Chalmers’ instruction and mentoring, a group of able and visionary leaders emerged, among them Andrew and Horatius Bonar, George Smeaton, Robert Murray McCheyne, Hugh Martin, James Buchanan and others.

Through the centuries many missionaries have left Scotland as pioneers of global mission, like Mary Slessor, Alexander Duff, David Livingston and Eric Liddell.

In 1910 the first World Missionary Conference was held in Edinburgh. As a catalyst for global mission, the event was described as ‘the most notable gathering in the interest of the world-wide expansion of Christianity ever held.’

The Tell Scotland Movement (1953–56), associated with Tom Allan and D.P. Thomson, was the most extensive and ambitious attempt at outreach by the Protestant Churches in Scotland in the twentieth century. It was given significant impetus by the 1955 Billy Graham All-Scotland Crusade, climaxing in a series of meetings in Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall. For six weeks around Easter 1955, nightly mass rallies of 10,000 people packed the Kelvin Hall. Graham spoke of the singular presence of God during that time, both in the preaching and singing. The final event at Hampden Park attracted 100,000 people. The All-Scotland Crusade was given extensive coverage in the national press and broadcasting media. The follow-up discipleship programme was on a scale not seen since the nineteenth century.
Critical reflection rightly questions the scale of the impact some claimed at the like, but there is no doubt that it was a significant time for the cause of the gospel in Scotland.

State of the Church in Scotland today

Scotland in the twenty-first century is facing a spiritual crisis.

The same national broadcaster who promoted the Billy Graham Crusades barely half a century ago, at the time of his death in 2018, gave prime time to the view that Billy Graham was a failed American evangelist whose fundamentalist gospel was wrong and had little impact.

A country with such a strong Christian heritage is now one of the most secular in Europe. Estimates put the number of born-again believers in Scotland somewhere between 1.5-2%. Conversion rates are less than 1%. Scotland is now considered by Global Mission Organizations as an unreached nation.

John Stevens, Director of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC), the largest network of independent gospel churches in the UK, has written an important book entitled Knowing our times: how British culture impacts our mission. He writes:

‘…the culture of the UK is fundamentally secular, and increasingly so. This is reflected in political and intellectual life and above all in the all-dominant [mainstream] media which reflects a consistently negative attitude towards Christian belief…’

In Scotland,

‘churches have begun to decline at phenomenal speed, and secularism has swept in to a far greater extent than in England…’

2010-2020 has been a turbulent decade for the Church in Scotland.

The Church of Scotland (the Kirk), Scotland’s national Church, is in terminal decline. Key decisions in the last decade have seen the formal rejection of the Bible as the rule of faith and life. The next step will be setting aside the historic Westminster Confession of Faith as the Church’s subordinate standard. Membership is in rapid and accelerating decline. The number of ministers is to be reduced from 1,000 to 600. Covid has accelerated a financial crisis.

Most of the established evangelical churches have left. Some have remained, by circumstances or by conviction, seeking to witness from within the denomination.

Like the Church of Scotland, the Scottish Episcopal Church has made formal decisions that constitute a rejection of the Bible. Currently under discipline from the Global Anglican Communion, the Global Anglican Futures Network have appointed relief bishops to Scotland. Strong evangelical churches have left the denomination.

In 2021, the Church of Scotland and the Scottish Episcopal Church entered into an historic alliance. St Andrew’s Declaration, affirms partnership and common trajectory of the two Churches.

These are historic events. We should not underestimate the extent of the challenge. Yet God is sovereign. The Bible is God’s Word, the supreme rule of faith and life. The biblical gospel is the power of God to salvation.

Emerging gospel vision and strategy in Scotland

There are signs of an emerging gospel vision and strategy in Scotland. After a period of consolidation, and for many the acquisition of buildings, the churches that have left the denominations are now established and thriving, training leaders and planting new churches. There is increasing impetus among independent churches. The Free Church of Scotland is strong. Networks like Didasko are growing.