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United Secession Church

The United Secession Church (or properly the United Associate Synod of the Secession Church) was a Scottish Presbyterian denomination. It was founded in 1820 by a union of various churches which had seceded from the established Church of Scotland and existed until 1847.


A history of the secessions

The First Secession

The First Secession rose out of an Act of the Church of Scotland's General Assembly of 1732, which was passed despite the disapproval of the large majority of individual presbyteries. A previous Act of 1730 had taken away even the right of complaint, and so the protests of the dissentients were refused. In the following October, Ebenezer Erskine, minister at Stirling, preached a sermon referring to the act as unscriptural and unconstitutional. Members of his synod objected, and he was censured. On appeal, the censure was affirmed by the Assembly in May 1733, but Erskine refused to recant. He was joined in his protest by William Wilson (1690-1741), Alexander Moncrieff (1695-1761) and James Fisher (1697-1775) (ministers at Perth, Abernethy and Kinclaven respectively). They were regarded by the Assembly as being in contempt. When they still refused to recant, in November the protesting ministers were suspended. They replied by protesting that they still adhered to the principles of the Church, whilst at the same time seceding.

In December 1733 they constituted themselves into a new presbytery. In 1734 they published their first testimony, with a statement of the grounds of their secession, which made prominent reference to the doctrinal laxity of previous General Assemblies. In 1736 they proceeded to exercise judicial powers as a church court, published a judicial testimony, and began to organize churches in various parts of the country. Having been joined by four other ministers, including the well-known Ralph Erskine, they appointed Wilson Professor of Divinity. For these acts proceedings were again instituted against them in the General Assembly, and they were in 1740 all deposed and ordered to be ejected from their churches. Meanwhile, the membership of their 'Associate Presbytery' steadily increased, until in 1745 there were forty-five congregations, and it was reconstituted into an 'Associate Synod'.

The 'Burghers' and 'Anti-Burghers' division

Soon controversy arose over the religious clause of the oath taken by town burgesses in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Perth. The burgesses were required to swear: "I profess and allow with my heart the true religion presently professed within this realm and authorized by the laws thereof". In April 1747, the seceders divided over whether they should swear the oath or not. Two bodies were formed, each claiming to be the true 'Associate Synod'. Those who condemned the swearing of the oath came to be popularly known as 'Anti-Burghers', while the other party were designated 'Burghers'.

The 'New Lichts' and 'Auld Lichts' division

In the late eighteenth century, a second controversy erupted in both groups over the provisions of the Westminster Confession of Faith concerning the role of the civil magistrate in church affairs. Both Synods disavowed 'compulsory and persecuting principles' in religion. But a minority in each protested. In 1799 the Burghers split into the 'New Lichts' (who supported this revision of the confession) and the 'Auld Lichts' (who opposed it). The 'Anti-Burghers' similarly divided in 1806.


The United Associate Synod of the Secession Church was founded in 1820 by a union of the various churches which had seceded.

In 1847, it in turn united with the Relief Church to form the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

See also