After the Breach of 1747, the Associate Presbytery split into two bodies, the Associate Synod or Burghers, and the General Associate Synod or Anti-Burghers, over the legality of the burgess oath required of burgesses in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Perth. The professor of the pre-breach Associate Presbytery, Alexander Moncreiff, sided with the Anti-Burghers and was appointed as the professor of their divinity hall, which therefore remained in Abernethy, where he was minister. After his death in 1761 he was succeeded by his son, William Moncreiff, who taught the students in Alloa, Clackmannanshire. On his death in 1786 Archibald Bruce was appointed tutor and the hall moved to Whitburn, Linlithgowshire (West Lothian). The hall was always conducted by a single professor, though in the early years often with a senior student teaching philosophy to the junior students.
With the split of the Anti-Burghers into Old Light and New Light factions in 1806, Bruce went with the minority Old Light faction, who then formed the Constitutional Presbytery. After a gap when the presbyteries taught the students, the New Light faction appointed George Paxton as their professor. In a break with previous practice, he was required to give up his pastoral charge of Kilmaurs, Perthshire, and move to Edinburgh. He remained professor until the union with the New Light Burghers and the formation of the United Secession Church in 1820. Opposed to that union, he remained with the small minority who stayed outside to form the Protesters Presbytery.
The divinity halls were regulated by the synod, and the students, who had to be in communion with the denomination, were initially examined by a committee of the synod. When William Moncrieff was professor applicants were examined in public on logic, metaphysics, and moral philosophy. They were then examined privately on their personal faith, knowledge of experimental religion, and their motives for studying for the ministry.
The full course usually lasted for five sessions, but when there was an urgent need for preachers some were licensed after only four. Gaelic-speaking students, and students destined for the colonies, were generally excused one or two years. Students for the Irish church also tended to remain for a shorter period, but they were not considered eligible for a charge in Scotland. The session varied in time between three months and nine weeks. As many students had to make considerable sacrifices they often failed to attend for the full session. Complaints by the examining committee about the poor attendance under William Moncrieff led the synod to adopt new regulations requiring a minimum of six weeks' attendance, otherwise the year did not count towards completion. Bruce was subsequently unhappy because some students were not available to be taught for much of the session, which was meant to involve attendance for a minimum of five out of the eight weeks. Some students only attended to hand in their written work.
The divinity course for much of the period was based on Johannes Marck's Christianae theologiae medulla, which was covered in its entirety over the five sessions. Alexander Moncrieff used Marck as his text book, and while the book was read in Latin, he examined the students in English. There is no evidence to suggest that his teaching changed in either style or content after the Breach. William Moncrieff also used Marck's Medulla as his text book, lecturing four times a week, though Turretin was recommended to the students as the system of theology. Once or twice a week they were set a theological problem which they took turns to answer, and on Saturdays they were lectured on a chapter of the Confession of Faith which likewise they had to comment on in turn. It is clear that Bruce followed the same pattern of teaching at Whitburn, and that Marck was his text book too. According to Peter Taylor, one of his students, they generally met once a day at twelve. On Mondays Bruce lectured, on Tuesdays and Fridays the students delivered their discourses, on Wednesday Bruce lectured on systematic theology, on which the students were examined the following day, and on Saturdays the confessional lecture and conference took place. Bruce's lectures were published as Introductory and Occasional Lectures for Forming the Minds of Young Men (1797). Taylor thought the course defective in the crucial area of sermon composition and preaching. The same student exercises were used by both Bruce and his successor Paxton. In the first year the students were given an exegesis in Latin and a lecture on a portion of the Westminster Confession, in the second year a homily, in the third year an exercise on a passage of the Greek New Testament, in the fourth a lecture, and in the fifth they had to produce a popular sermon.
During the early period philosophy was taught to the junior class in the first two years by an assistant, normally a senior student waiting for his first charge. John Mason was philosophy tutor with Alexander Moncrieff from 1756 to 1760. He instructed the first-year students in logic, using a system which he had compiled himself, covering also ontology and pneumatology. In the second year he gave a sketch of mathematics, with moral and natural philosophy, lecturing in Latin. He met his students twice a day, the first hour being an examination of the students on the previous lecture and the second the new material. The other senior students who taught philosophy were John Heugh, William Graham, Robert Archibald, David Wilson, Alexander Pirie, James Bishop, Isaac Ketchen, and John Smart. Generally about a third of the students attended philosophy classes at university, the rest in the divinity hall. The arrangement concerning the teaching of philosophy appears to have changed under Paxton, who had no pastoral charge, and was therefore able to superintend those students who were pursuing their philosophical education at Edinburgh University when the divinity hall was not in session. He also taught them Hebrew. The divinity course included Hebrew and Greek.
Theoretically, the synod covered the whole of Scotland, but in practice, like all the secession churches, it was largely a church of the lowlands and the borders. A significant number of students came from Ireland and also from Scottish Presbyterian congregations in the north of England. Nearly a quarter of the students later served congregations outside Scotland, a tenth in Ireland, another tenth in North America, and the rest in England. According to McKelvie's Annals and Statistics of the United Presbyterian Church, a total of 636 students passed through the hall. In earlier years the new intake could be as low as two, but in his final year Paxton had an intake of twenty-eight students.
Among the most celebrated students was the scientist and author Thomas Dick, briefly minister in Stirling until deposed for immorality, whose The Christian Philosopher, or the Connexion of Science and Philosophy with Religion sought to reconcile Christian belief with developments in scientific knowledge, especially astronomy. Walter Minto, who was never ordained, emigrated to America during his probation and became Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at Princeton University. James Drummond McGregor was a major figure in the development of the Presbyterian church in Nova Scotia and the Pictou Academy. Robert Bruce, was Principal, later President and first Chancellor of the Western University of Pennsylvania (subsequently the University of Pittsburgh). John Mitchell Mason, son of John Mason, a former student, took his degree at Columbia College, New York, and came to Scotland to study at Edinburgh University and in the divinity hall under Bruce. In 1804 he established 'Dr. Mason's Seminary', the first divinity hall of the Associated Reformed Church, New York (now Union Theological Seminary). Thomas McCrie, church historian, biographer of John Knox, leader of the Old Light Anti-burghers, and a prominent opponent of the Catholic Emancipation Bill of 1829, was a student under Bruce.
In 1776 the divinity hall library, which had existed as a collection of books for some years, was formalised under a management committee which included the professor, two other local ministers, a local merchant, and a student at the hall. The clerk and librarian was generally a student who held the office for a year. Starting with about 300 books, it gained stock both by donation and by purchase, using entrance fees and subscriptions. Archibald Bruce gave his professorial stipend to improve the library. The library moved with the hall, and a new management committee was formed from the local ministers. It survived the split of 1820 but remained in the hands of Paxton when he sided with the Protesters. By 1827 registered users were down almost to single figures and it ceased to be viable. There were discussions about donating it to the United Associate Synod, but no decision seems to have been taken and its final fate is unknown.
Tradition has the students boarding with the professor, though this seems unlikely. While the hall was in small towns, students probably boarded out, although in Whitburn there seems to have been a building known as the 'barracks' where students lodged. When the hall was in Edinburgh many of the students would have lived and worked locally, and engaged in teaching.
All the secession churches had daughter churches in the American colonies, or later in the United States. The Anti-Burghers were the first to take on foreign missions when they sent two ministers to Pennsylvania in 1753. A steady trickle of ministers followed them; this led to the setting up of the Associate Presbytery of Pennsylvania. Many of those involved in the training of ministers in North America had themselves been trained in Scottish divinity halls. By 1770 American seceder ministers had decided that the Burgher or Anti-Burghers distinction was irrelevant in America, though this met with disapproval from the General Associate Synod in Scotland. John M. Mason had attended the Anti-Burgher divinity hall, but it was to the Burghers that he looked to recruit Scottish ministers for the Associate presbytery in America in 1801-2.
Andrew T. N. Muirhead
The main archival sources are located at the National Archives of Scotland. References to the divinity hall are in the records of the General Associate Synod, 1745-1820 (CH3/144/1-3), and the library records, 1777-1833 (CH3/11/1). Records of the individual churches where the divinity hall was held are Abernethy Associate (Antiburgher) Congregation, 1744-1949 (CH3/687), and Edinburgh, Original Secession Church, Castle Wynd, Infirmary Street, 1820-1842 (CH3/1347).
Mackelvie, William, Annals and Statistics of the United Presbyterian Church (Edinburgh, 1873).
M'Kerrow, John, History of the Foreign Missions of the Secession and United Presbyterian Church (Edinburgh, 1867).
-----, History of the Secession Church (Edinburgh, 1839).
MacPherson, Hector, 'Thomas Dick, ''The Christian Philosopher''', Records of the Scottish Church History Society, 11 (1950), 41-62.
Mechie, Stewart, 'Education for the Ministry in Scotland since the Reformation, III', Records of the Scottish Church History Society, 15 (1965), 1-20.
Scott, David, Annals and Statistics of the Original Secession Church: till its Disruption and Union with the Free Church of Scotland in 1852 (Edinburgh, 1886).
van Vechten, Jacob, Memoirs of John M. Mason, D.D., S.T.P., with Portions of his Correspondence (New York, 1856).
Whytock, Jack C., "An Educated Clergy", Scottish Theological Education and Training in the Kirk and Secession, 1560-1850 (Milton Keynes, 2007).