The Associate Presbytery Divinity Hall was set up in Perth in 1737 as a result of the unanimous decision by the Associate Presbytery on 20 October 1736 to appoint William Wilson, minister of the Secession Church in Perth, as professor of divinity. After his death in 1741, the Presbytery appointed Alexander Moncrieff, the minister in Abernethy, as his successor and the divinity hall moved to Abernethy in March 1742.
While theoretically its divinity hall served the whole of Scotland, the Secession Church was essentially a lowland church, and in practice most students also came from the lowlands. There were, however, students from Ireland who shared a similar theology. Under Wilson about six new students entered in most years; under Moncrieff the numbers increased, rising to eleven in 1744. A total of twenty-eight students went through the hall under Wilson and a further thirty-six under Moncrieff. Each session seems to have lasted eight weeks, from March to May. The number of years attended by a student varied, but was normally four or five. They probably boarded out locally for the duration of the session. The hall itself was under the supervision of the Associate Presbytery (after 1745 the Associate Synod). When the hall was not in session students were under the direct supervision of their presbytery. Financially, the hall was supported by the Associate Presbytery, with each congregation asked to provide financial support for the students. Students were expected to become ministers of the Secession Church, though a number went to Ireland or to the American Colonies.
Among Wilson's students in the first intake was Adam Gib, the leader of the Anti-Burghers, and in the second Thomas Gillespie, founder of the Relief Church. Gillespie remained only very briefly, departing after just ten days, unhappy with the teaching. He studied instead with Philip Doddridge at Northampton.
The core studies were systematic theology, based on Johannes Marck's Christianae theologiae medulla in Latin, and chronology. Moncrieff had studied under Marck at Leiden. Students were expected to know some Hebrew and Greek. It is unclear whether these were taught by Wilson and Moncrieff, or whether students were expected to come already prepared. Gib had certainly studied Hebrew at university prior to entering the divinity hall. Teaching was in Latin, and also the examinations, but Moncrieff examined in English. Under Moncrieff, a philosophy class was added to the syllabus in 1742. This was taught by one of the senior students, namely Robert Archibald and David Wilson.
As a result of the Breach of 1747 over the legality of the burgess oath, the Secession Church split into Burghers and Anti-Burghers. Moncrieff was a leader of the Anti-Burghers and the divinity hall became the General Associate (Anti-Burgher) Divinity Hall. The Burghers were therefore forced to set up their own divinity hall, the Associate Synod (Burgher) Divinity Hall, under Ebenezer Erskine.
Andrew T. N. Muirhead
The records of the Associate Presbytery and Synod are in the National Archives of Scotland (CH3/27/1-3; CH3/28/1).
Landreth, P., The United Presbyterian Divinity Hall, in its Changes and Enlargements for One Hundred and Forty Years (Edinburgh, 1876).
Mackelvie, William, Annals and Statistics of the United Presbyterian Church (Edinburgh, 1873).
M'Kerrow, John, History of the Secession Church, 2 vols. (Edinburgh, 1839).
Mechie, Stewart, 'Education for the Ministry in Scotland since the Reformation, III', Records of the Scottish Church History Society, 15 (1965), 1-20.
Whytock, Jack C., "An Educated Clergy", Scottish Theological Education and Training in the Kirk and Secession, 1560-1850 (Milton Keynes, 2007).
Young, David and John Brown, Memorials of Alexander Moncrieff, M.A. and James Fisher, Fathers of the United Presbyterian Church (Edinburgh, 1849).
Andrew T. N. Muirhead, 'Associate Presbytery Divinity Hall (1737-1747)', Dissenting Academies Online: Database and Encyclopedia, Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies, November 2011.