Rev. RALPH ERSKINE (1685-1752) – SECESSIONIST MINISTER
By George Robertson
Faith, without trouble or fighting, is a suspicious faith:
For true faith is a fighting, wrestling faith.
Ralph Erskine, 1733.
There are two statues in Dunfermline which commemorate eminent men. One can be found in Pittencrieff Park and honours the well known philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. The other stands at the front of the former church at the corner of Queen Anne Street and Pilmuir Street and honours the Rev. Ralph Erskine. The story of the former is well documented but the question arises – who was the other?
Before looking at Ralph’s life, perhaps it would be advisable to say something about his father, the Rev. Henry Erskine, who at the time of Ralph’s birth, was residing at Monilaws, near Cornhill, Northumberland, as this might give an indication of the influence the father had on the son. Henry Erskine was born in 1624 at Dryburgh, Berwickshire and graduated M.A. from Edinburgh University on 15th April 1645 and later ordained – date uncertain – to the church at Cornhill. Being of Puritan persuasion, when the English Parliament passed the Act of Uniformity 1662, Henry, together with around 2,000 other clergymen, refused to take the necessary oath – which would have required them to preach an Episcopalian form of religion – and he was required to vacate his church. However, at great risk to himself, he continued to preach at conventicles what he considered to be the correct form of religion, but during April 1682 he was arrested and imprisoned successively at Melrose, Jedburgh and Edinburgh. He was eventually called before a committee of the Privy Council and asked whether he would stop his conventicle preaching but, unsurprisingly, he refused. He was fined 5,000 merks and sentenced to imprisonment on the Bass Rock. His health being in a poor state, he requested his sentence be changed to banishment from the kingdom and this was allowed.
He spent two and a half years with his family at Parkridge near Carlisle but then returned to Scotland and settled at Monilaws, near Cornhill. Unfortunately, he was again apprehended for his beliefs and spent time in prison at Newcastle, being released during 1685. Eventually he was permitted to continue preaching and finally settled at Chirnside where on 10th August, 1696, aged 72, he died. Henry was obviously a very determined man with firm religious beliefs, which caused him much suffering and this might give an indication why, in later years, two of his sons Ebenezer and Ralph, acted in a similar manner.
Henry was married twice, his second wife, whom he married at Dryburgh on 1st September 1674, being Margaret Halcro, from Orkney, and she is the mother of Ebenezer, born 22nd June 1680 at Dryburgh and Ralph was born at Monilaws on 15th March 1685.
Before continuing with Ralph Erskine’s story, perhaps it is time to relate a tale concerning his mother. The story is told that having died she was buried in the churchyard at Chirnside and that the gravedigger – who was also the church sexton and local joiner – knowing Margaret had been buried wearing rings on her fingers, returned later that night, opened the coffin which had yet to be covered with earth and attempted to remove one of the rings. Unable to do so, he then made an attempt to cut off the finger. During this action, he was horrified to find Margaret suddenly regained consciousness, sat up in the coffin, screaming with pain, she, it is suggested, having been in a trance and obviously not dead. The man left the grave in a hurry! A short time later Henry heard someone knocking at his door and he is reputed to have remarked that if he had not known he had just buried his wife he would have thought the person knocking was her. On opening the door Margaret was indeed found to be standing there still wearing her grave clothes no doubt much to the astonishment of all concerned. This incident occurred several years prior to the birth of Ralph who could claim his mother died before he was born! Is this a true story – I leave it to the reader to decide! It is told in further detail in a recent “Did You Know?”
Henry died in 1696 when Ralph was eleven years old and three years later Ralph was enrolled as a student at Edinburgh University. On 3rd February 1700 a fire broke out in Parliament Close, Edinburgh and Ralph, who had obtained lodgings in that area was lucky to escape with his life, stating later he escaped by running through the flames carrying his books. A lucky escape indeed. Ralph continued his studies at the University until 1704 when he graduated with an M.A. degree, although for some reason, his name does not appear in the list of graduates. His vacations at this time were spent at the home of his brother Ebenezer, who was minister at Portmoak in Kinross-shire and no doubt Ralph’s religious ideas were being formulated during these visits. Between 1705 and 1711, Ralph was tutor to the children of “Black Colonel” John Erskine of Carnock and it was whilst he was thus employed he completed his religious curriculum and was licensed on 8th June 1709 by the Presbytery of Dunfermline. On 1st May 1711 he was called to Dunfermline Abbey as Assistant Minister and this was followed on 14th June of the same year by a call to be minister at Tulliallan. However, he decided Dunfermline was his preference and he was ordained to begin preaching there on 7th August 1711, and some five years later on 1st May 1716 he was admitted to the First Charge – or First Minister – of Dunfermline Abbey (then known as Dunfermline Parish Church).
It should now be pointed out that by this time Ralph had strengthened his connection with the local community when, on 15th July 1714, he married Margaret Dewar, only daughter of John Dewar, Laird of Lassodie. The union produced nine children. Sadly, Margaret died on 22nd November 1730 but on 24th February 1732 Ralph remarried, this time his bride being Margaret Simson, daughter of an Edinburgh Writer to the Signet (lawyer). This marriage produced a further four children.
There is little doubt, Ralph was an inspirational preacher and his congregation responded accordingly by attending his sermons in ever increasing numbers. However, this period in Dunfermline’s history was not without trouble and strife, since during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715, a detachment of Jacobite troops arrived in the town and requisitioned the Abbey, although they were quickly driven out. In addition, during April 1716, the lantern tower of the Abbey, situated at the junction of the nave and choir, collapsed. This fall was blamed on the fact that the already ruined choir was being used as a burial place and the graves, which had been dug around the base of the tower had loosened the foundations, causing the fall.
It was around this time, Ralph and others began to give thought to an evangelical book entitled The Marrow of Modern Divinity, which had been written in 1646 by an English puritan soldier named Edward Fisher. The book asserted that gospel law took precedence over man made law and claimed all sinners could be saved – an opinion which Ralph found himself in agreement with. Unfortunately for Ralph the idea was most certainly not the opinion of the Church leaders. The Marrowmen, as they were known, further agreed with a subsequent edition of the book published in 1718, which stated sinners had free access to the Saviour. Again the Church leaders objected to this belief, declaring it “unsound and detestable” and by 1720 the General Assembly had prohibited ministers from preaching from the book and made it clear church members should not read it. However, the book struck a chord with many and the ideas in the “Marrow” were kept alive well into the 19th century and beyond.
Meanwhile, Ralph continued as sole incumbent of the Abbey pulpit until 20th November 1718 when James Wardlaw joined him as Assistant Minister. The two men apparently signed a covenant whereby, amongst other things, they undertook that neither would “yield to the management of his wife” and further “if any (presumably meaning other persons) commended the one beyond the other, he would drop what might create discouragement to his colleague as occasion allowed”. What the respective wives thought of the first covenant is not recorded. Whether the covenants between the two ministers was responsible is not clear, but there is little doubt they proved to be a popular pairing, since by the 1730’s the number of religiously examinable persons in the parish was reputed to be in the region of six thousand. Ralph describes communion services beginning at 8.30am and continuing until around midnight with between four and five thousand communicants – but trouble was on the horizon.
In 1732 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland passed an Act which caused great unease within the religious community. Up to this point the Patron of a church – usually the local land owner – had the final decision in the choice of minister. This was to be changed where a Patron had not made such a decision within six months and the Heritors and Elders were to be given the right to nominate this person. Ralph’s brother Ebenezer Erskine and others disagreed with this describing the Act as unscriptural and unconstitutional, they of course believing that the choice of minister lay with the members of the congregation. Argument continued on the matter until November 1733 but Ebenezer Erskine and the other minister refused to alter their view. This resulted in them being suspended by the General Assembly and at this point they declared they would secede from the Church. This decision was confirmed the following month in a barn at Gairney Bridge, near Loch Leven, where a number of ministers including Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine, decided to form a breakaway secession church which they named the Associate Presbytery. Although in agreement with his brother, and despite being present at this meeting, Ralph did not secede at this time from the Established Church. Thereafter these ministers, having formed themselves into a new presbytery, began to exercise judicial powers as a church court and, taking the matter even further, began to organise secession churches throughout Scotland. During 1737, Ralph Erskine finally made his decision to join his brother and the others as a secessionist having pondered on the matter for some considerable time before doing so. The Rev Peter Chalmers, in his “History of Dunfermline” Vol 1, p 432, tells us that on 15th May 1739 Ralph, together with others, informed the Established Church that they were declining the jurisdiction of the Church. This resulted in them being, on 12th May 1740, deposed from the ministry for not retracting said declinature. However, as Chalmers relates, Ralph continued to preach in the Abbey, taking it in turn with James Wardlaw – who did not share Ralph’s secessionist views – for a further two years. Ralph alternated this with preaching, in the open, to the secessionist members of his congregation from a “tent”, this being in the form of a wooden kiosk, similar to a sentry box, which was erected in a yard in Chapel Street, Dunfermline, where a large barn was available for use in inclement weather.
Obviously not an ideal situation, in a very short time, Ralph’s secessionist congregation collected sufficient money to begin the construction of a church in what is now known as Queen Anne Street, Dunfermline. Doctor Jean Barclay tells us the building was “80 feet by 50 feet, had galleries on three sides and sittings for 1100 with a “tent” park nearby”. The barn-like church was opened in June 1741.
In 1747, the Secession Church was faced with further difficulty regarding the Burger Oath. Again Jean Barclay explains this was due to the wording of the Oath imposed on would-be burgesses of Scottish towns which stated – “Here I declare before God and your Lordships that I profess and allow, with all my heart, the true religion presently professed within this realm and authorised by the laws thereof: I shall abide thereat, and defend the same to my life’s end, renouncing the Roman religion called Popery”. This caused the secessionists to break into two factions with one, the Anti-Burgher group, fearing that the words “true religion” referred to was that preached in the Established Church, from which they had broken away, and therefor they could not accept the oath. The other faction – the Burghers – led by Ralph Erskine, did not see the wording as a problem. Ralph’s view was that he did not see it as “improper for seceders to take the burgess-oath, even when it included that religious clause which was the subject of dispute”. For this he was censured at Perth by a group of secessionist ministers, including his son John, who supported the Anti-Burgher faction, which distressed him immensely.
Despite being troubled with a variety of ailments, Ralph continued his ministry in the Queen Anne Street Church until his death, of a virulent fever, which occurred in Dunfermline on 6th November 1752. He was sixty-eight years old and in the forty-second year of his ministry. He is buried in the north part of Dunfermline Abbey graveyard where, in 1876, a magnificent sarcophagus was raised in his honour. Ebenezer Henderson, on page 463 of his Annals of Dunfermline, gives us a free translation of the Latin inscription on an earlier tombstone which was replaced by the sarcophagus;
Sacred to the memory of Ralph Erskine, who died on the 6th day of November, 1752, in the 68th year of his age – Here lies the dust of a man of untainted piety; His flock he instructed with uniform fidelity; He firmly opposed the corruptions and faults of the clergy of His age. To bye-paths he turned not aside, but reverenced the law of God.
This earlier gravestone still exists today having been placed on a low pedestal at the east side of the front door of the Queen Anne Street Church. This was probably carried out when this original stone was replaced by the present sarcophagus which stands in the Abbey graveyard.
Henderson goes on to tell us that Ralph Erskine was buried on Thursday, November 9th 1752, “in the presence of a vast concourse of spectators, deeply and justly lamenting the loss of so valuable a minister”. He also says – “this eminent divine lived and died in a house down a close leading from the south side of the High Street to the junction of Maygate with Abbot Street”, which would appear to indicate he resided in what is known today as Wilson’s Close.
The Reverend Ralph Erskine was obviously a man of great determination and deep conviction who was not prepared to sacrifice his religious beliefs. He was a charismatic preacher, a large number of his sermons being published and, after his death, reprinted several times. He was also a poet, a wit, a raconteur and perhaps unusually, he was a violin player, causing one of his church elders to remark – “he was nane the waur for his tunes on the wee sinful fiddle”!
The church the secessionists built in Dunfermline in 1741 was replaced by another built in 1800. It still exists on much the same site as the first building but is no longer used as a church and is presently undergoing repairs. The statue referred to at the beginning of this article still stands at the top of the steps leading to the front door and was erected in 1849 on the site of the pulpit of the original church.
During research into this article many sources have been examined including –
Rev Peter Chalmers History of Dunfermline Vol. 1
Ebenezer Henderson’s Annals of Dunfermline.
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Dunfermline Men of Mark by the Glen Library – books 1 & 3.
The Richard Waitt painting is held in the National Gallery of Scotland.
The image of the first church is from page 437 of Ebenezer Henderson’s Annals of Dunfermline.
All photographs by the author.
Finally, I acknowledge the assistance willingly given by Dr Jean Barclay & Sue Mowat who allowed me access to their earlier research into the life of Ralph Erskine and the Secessionist Church.