The Legacy of the Free Church Abroad

On 18 May 1843 a large number of clergy withdrew from the established Church of Scotland – an event that became known as the Disruption of 1843, and led to the foundation of the Free Church of Scotland. The history of the Free Church is intrinsically connected with many a Scottish venture and settlement abroad, but perhaps nowhere more so than with the establishment of Dunedin, Otago, in the South Island of New Zealand. This is the case because Dunedin was organised under the New Zealand Company’s offshoot, the Otago Association, as a Free Church Settlement in 1848, thus bringing a large number of Free Church settlers to the country to build a ‘new Edinburgh’ in the South Seas. Here, and as a direct result of the 1843 Disruption, Scottish Presbyterian settlers were themselves key to a specific colonisation scheme.

Among the first arrivals was the Revd Thomas Burns of Dumfriesshire, who had been offered the position of minister to the Otago-bound migrants in mid-1843 by the Colonial Committee of the Free Church of Scotland. A nephew of the poet Robert Burns, Thomas was the most important religious leader of the young settlement, building a strong organisation for the Presbyterian Church in Dunedin and beyond. As Tom Brooking explains, Burns ‘presided over the setting up of the Synod of Otago and Southland in 1866, and established the three presbyteries of Dunedin, Clutha and Southland. Naturally Burns was foundation moderator.’ The spiritual home became First Church, built by R. A. Lawson in Gothic style, and opened in 1873 (see image above).

While a significant number of Scots went to Africa with the London Missionary Society prior to the mid-nineteenth century, it was then that a notable change took place. This was triggered by the Disruption of the Church of Scotland in 1843. After its formation, the Free Church began to keenly promote foreign missions. This had the effect that the Established Church, perhaps sensing an air of competition, followed suit quickly, also increasing its missionary activities overseas. As Esther Breitenbach has noted, the Disruption ‘released an evangelical energy reflected in the growth of the foreign mission movement’. In South Africa, and by the mid-1800s, the Free Church alone had 13 missions in Kaffraria, 14 missions in the Transkei, and five missions in Natal, with a total of 144 Scottish missionaries. There was a substantial number of native staff, and hundreds of schools, catering for well over 15,000 pupils, had also been set up.

In India too the impact of the Free Church was significant, as the following images document (all images from the British Library, click on the image to go directly to the related information page):

General exterior view of the Free Church of Scotland Mission School, Nagpur
Interior view of the Free Church of Scotland Mission School, Nagpur
Group of staff and inmates of the Free Church of Scotland Mission Orphanage, Nagpur
Group of Christian converts at the Free Church Mission, Madras
Group of Muslim students of the Free Church of Scotland Mission, Madras
Portrait of the Rev. P. Rajahgopaul of the Free Church of Scotland Mission, Madras


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