Hugh Miller and the Disruption

First of all, a brief comment on the word "Disruption".  It is often taken to mean a disruption of the Church itself, but that is not how it was seen by the participants.  Indeed, "disruption" was not part of their vocabulary.  They spoke, instead, of a "separation" and this in fact became the standard Gaelic word for the event: An Dealachadh.  They were not disrupting the Church.  They were separating from the state, severing  the church-state connection and turning their backs on all the advantages of establishment and endowment.  Why?  Because the state was demanding too high a price: the right to interfere in the Church's internal affairs.  That demand placed them in an intolerable position.  They could not stay in the Establishment and retain their spiritual independence.  They had no option, then,  but to separate: not from the church but from the state.

The Disruption was a defining moment which changed the spiritual and cultural face of Scotland for ever.  Without Miller it would never have taken place.  He was neither cleric, preacher nor platform-speaker, but through his editorials in the Witness he exercised an influence second to none but Chalmers.

But how?



First, he argued against patronage.  This was imposed on the Church by Act of Parliament in 1712.  Its effect was simple, and devastating: the power to appoint ministers was invested in the nations’s landlords.  The Church protested for years and as early as 1733 it had already caused a major secession.  But the protests had long since been muted.  With the advent of Chalmers and the revival of Evangelicalism the Church found its voice again, the protests resumed and none protested more vociferously or more effectively than Miller.  He attacked patronage  relentlessly.  It was unbiblical; and it was a breach of the Kirk's historic constitution, particularly as laid down in the First and Second Books of Discipline, both of which had condemned patronage.

But that wasn't all.  Patronage, Miller declared, served the same purpose  as the episcopacy which the Stewart kings had vainly tried to impose on the Kirk.  It was an attempt to secularise the Church.  What the king had failed to do through bishops, the state could now do through the landed gentry.  "Scotland's acres" would control Scotland's Kirk and they would ensure that no one who threatened their interests would ever occupy their pulpits.


Popular election of ministers

But Miller didn't simply condemn patronage.  He argued for popular election.  Congregations had an inalienable right to choose  their own ministers.  In this, Miller was going considerably further than Chalmers.  Chalmers, a temperamental aristocrat, had little inclination to populism.  He was content with the Veto Act, passed by the General Assembly in 1833.  This left in the hands of the landlords the right to nominate ministers, but it gave "male heads of families" a power of Veto: a power, indeed, of simple veto.  Objectors did not have to give reasons.  If they didn't like the man, that was it.  This was about the furthest Chalmers would go, except that he might have been willing to vest the right of nomination in the presbytery rather than in the landlord.

Miller (along with William Cunningham, the leading evangelical theologian) went much further.  The people had more than a right to veto.  They had a right to choose.  Indeed the call of the people was indispensable to the making of a minister.


The counter-argument was that the people were not fit.  They were too ignorant to meddle with such high matters.  Miller's abhorrence of this argument was total.  He had a high view of "the people".  Was he himself not one of them: "a plain working man from the north country"?  He remembered the robust virtues of the ordinary people of Cromarty, and recalled the courage and dignity of the South-Western peasantry during the Killing Times.  He pointed out that Robert Burns was a peasant and James Watt a mere mechanic.  And he appealed to the recent Reform Bill.  What had Scotland come to, if men were fit to choose a Member of Parliament and yet not fit to judge the qualifications of a gospel-minister?


The Evangelicals were the party of the people

Miller's third line of attack was that the Evangelical party were the popular party: the party of the people.  This was no easy task.  Four-fifths of the population had no church connection; of those who did have a church connection half were Seceders, with no time for ministers of the Establishment; and these ministers had caused further alienation by their failure to support the Reform Bill.  Few had shown willing to fight for the rights of ordinary people. 

But Miller could at least argue that the Moderates were not the people's party.  They were in the pay of the landed acres, more interested in their farms and glebes than in their flocks, and utterly indifferent to the plight of the working poor.  Indeed they exploited them shamelessly, and this was epitomised in the fact that the first man in the north to raise the price of a boll of meal to £3 was a Moderate minister.  When they weren't trying to run their businesses, declared Miller, they were either in jail for debt or poring over the small print of the laws on bankruptcy.

What was worse, they weren't of the people's religion.  The "popular" religion was still that of Thomas Boston and his Covenanting forebears.   Remember, Miller said, that Presbyterianism was the religion of the people before it became the religion of the state.  It was imposed not from above, but from below.  Indeed, the religion which the state had sought to impose had been broken on the anvil of popular resistance.   


The ineptitude of the Moderate leaders

The other weapon in Miller's armoury against the Moderates was the ineptitude of their leaders.  Dr Cook was typical.  He had dared to venture into a pamphlet-war with Cunningham and had written a bulky publication on the Reformers' views on Intrusion (the practice of forcing ministers on congregations against their will).  The pamphlet, said Miller, was full of extensive quotations, but they were all second-hand: taken, blatantly, from the speeches delivered from the Bench by the judges of the Court of Session.  Dr Cook had included even their misquotations within quotation-marks!

How different were the Evangelical leaders!  Chalmers, Cunningham, Gordon and Candlish were household names.  They were formidable debaters.  They were great preachers.  They were brilliant intellects.  Chalmers had the largest mind the Church of Scotland ever produced.  No one ever conversed with him without being changed.

And all this Evangelical superiority could easily be proved.  It was a simple matter of phrenology.  Great men had great heads, little men had small heads, and as you cast your eye over the benches in the General Assembly you could tell at once the difference in class.  All the Moderates had small heads.  The Evangelicals' were huge.  And as for Chalmers there wasn't such a head in the whole of Scotland; no, not in Christendom; not even in the whole world.  As far as Miller was concerned, on the day of the Disruption (18 May, 1843), all the great names (and the huge heads! left the Kirk.  Only the non-entities were left behind. 

And with the leaders went the people; and this was almost entirely of Miller's making.  In 1840, when he took up the editorship of the Witness, the whole Scottish press and most of the population were opposed to the Evangelicals.  By 1843 Miller had educated and persuaded almost the entire church-going population, and swung them behind Chalmers and the Evangelicals.

This should not be forgotten.  The Disruption is often seen as the precipitate of social and economic circumstances.  Far more important was the phenomenon of leadership.  In the Highlands, great preachers such as John MacDonald, ‘the Apostle of the North,’ had filled the vacuum left by the departure of the clan chiefs, and  when the ministers left the Establishment the people followed them without hesitation.  And in the South, too, the great evangelical leaders were cult figures.  The Disruption was their endorsement.


Miller’s religion

It is tempting, today, to try to assess Miller without his religion, as if his faith were no more than an extraneous accident of his personality.  But Miller cannot be understood apart from his spirituality: everything about him sprang from his Christian discipleship, and the reason for his passionate commitment to the non-intrusion cause was that in his view the issues were momentous for the spiritual well-being of the people of Scotland.  Popular election, he believed, would place evangelical ministers in parishes all over the country and this, and this alone, would save the land from Chartism and infidelity.  That was his view before he became editor of the Witness, it grew out of his religious faith, and it remained his view ever after.   Without that faith he would not have been Hugh Miller.

Miller's spirituality was the popular piety of Scotland.    It was the kind of piety reflected in "The Cottar's Saturday Night": a piety of the Word, epitomised in a family worship which required no priest.  But it was also a piety moulded largely by the pulpit; and by the pulpit conceived of primarily as an instrument of religious education, appealing directly to the intellect.  This reflected Miller's own experience. The greatest single influence on his life was own minister in Cromarty, Dr Alexander Stewart, and even in his most sober moments he would place him in the ranks of genius, along with Dr Chalmers.

But this piety also had its own saints.  Scotland had a rich hagiographical literature with which Miller was totally familiar: books like Howie's Scots Worthies and James Stewart’s Naphtali, both detailing the lives and sufferings of the Covenanters.  Two of the most famous of these Covenanters, Thomas Hog of Kiltearn and James Fraser of Brea (near Resolis) had come from his own native Ross-shire.  Both had been imprisoned on the Bass Rock, and when the Rock came into view as Miller sailed up the Forth on his first visit to Edinburgh he was overwhelmed with emotion.  Edinburgh, "the Athens of the North", did nothing for him.  What stirred him was the Bass Rock, "that stern Patmos of the devout and brave of another age."

But the piety was not merely popular.  It was also enormously erudite.  It's not simply that Miller was pious and erudite.  His piety itself was erudite.  "Plain working man" he might claim to be, but plain working man he was not.  His reading had been encyclopaedic.  In the English belles lettres he had read virtually everything; in the poets, likewise.  As for philosophers he had mastered Brown and Reid, stalwarts of the Scottish School of Common Sense Realism; he could summarise to Dr Stewart, Hume's argument against miracles and Campbell's reply to it; and he could observe that Campbell had the better case, but the worse arguments.  In theology, he had read Knox and Durham and Rutherford and Baxter and Flavel and Boston and John Brown and the Erskines.  He was familiar with Cowper and the Olney group; and his article on "The Mosaic Vision of Creation" shows that he had grappled with the latest contributions from German Hebraists and could put them to good use. 

This was no mere "fundamentalism", but a spirituality of extraordinary intelligence.

It was a spirituality, too, which was clearly focused; and its focus was Christ.  In early manhood, Miller had felt the attractions of scepticism but in later life, he became convinced that it owed its appeal to the unattractiveness of an abstract deity.  His own deity was no abstraction, but God incarnate: Jesus Christ the God-man, who had taken our nature and shared our experiences, and to whom every plain working man could relate.  For the same reason he shrank from abstract doctrines of the atonement and protested that theories that spoke of the cross as a satisfaction to divine justice had little appeal to the heart.  What got to the heart was the exemplarist dimension of the cross: the death of the God-man as a demonstration of love.

But if the spirituality was sharply focused, it was also closely integrated.  In Miller, theology, literature and geology moved together and flowed into the one pool.  The idea that Miller finally blew his brains out because he was driven mad by the tension between his science and his religion is utterly baseless.  In the whole range of Miller's writings there is no trace of any such tension.  If it had ever existed, it was resolved long before he began to write; and in any case it wasn't in his head but in Chalmers's, that the battle was fought.  Miller did not have to be a pioneer in the area of religion and science.  As early as 1804 (when Miller was only two years old) Chalmers had written, "The writings of Moses do not fix the antiquity of the globe."  All Miller's theological mentors (Cunningham, Candlish, Stewart) concurred, and the entire Free Church followed them.  Geology could have all the time it wanted. 

Miller never wavered from that point of view.  Nor did he show any sympathy with the pseudo-science which sought to explain fossils and rock-formations by the Mosaic deluge.  Here Miller and Chalmers set the agenda for Scottish Presbyterianism, which remained remarkably free from the embarrassments which have marred relations between religion and science in England and America.  The explanation for Miller's suicide lies in his horrendous work-load (producing a paper the size of the Scotsman, single-handed, twice a week), not in unresolved theological tensions.

The clearest indication of the integration of religion and science in Miller is the way that he links the succession of geological eras to his Christology.  These eras, he said, move forward.  Their hall-mark is progression.  They never go back.  No extinct life-form has ever reappeared, and no dynasty which perished has ever come back.  But all our divinely-implanted instincts tell us that the progress must have a terminus.  The current age, the product of all that has gone before, is the age of man.  But it would be arrogant to think that it must be final.  There must be a terminal dynasty; and that dynasty, in Miller's view, must be the dynasty of the God-man.  This will be the final age, when Jesus Christ as true God and true man will be "the adorable monarch of all the future" and "Creation and the Creator will meet at one point and in one person." 

Such a construction reminds us, in some ways, of Teilhard de Chardin’s  Omega-Point, although in de Chardin the point is reached through the inherent forces of Evolution, while in Miller it is achieved by divine action.   It may be dismissed as speculative.  But even so it represents a bold attempt to unite geology and theology in a creative synthesis, finding in the story of the rocks the key to a unified-field in which fossils are linked with incarnation.


A final assessment

Without Miller, there would have been no Disruption and no Free Church.  The people would not have been informed and the ministers would not have had the nerve.  Still, our final assessment must be sombre.

First, the Disruption ultimately produced what Miller never intended: Disestablishment.  This was exactly what he sought to avoid.  The Free Church, as he dreaded, united with infidelity to undermine and embarrass the Church of Scotland and pressed the principle of Spiritual Independence to the point where the Kirk could no longer bear even to be recognized by the state.

Secondly, the Disruption never produced what Miller dreamed of: a Scotland transformed by the freedom to choose its own ministers and a land aglow with the warmth of a thousand Chalmers.  Like many a revolutionary, he lost control of the revolution.  A church launched by the theology of Knox and Chalmers and Stewart would founder on the shoals of hubris and the rocks of German  rationalism.   His life's work contributed, perversely, to the Scotland we know today: one which holds in contempt all that Miller held dear.