The Relief Church, the second secession from the established Church of Scotland to have occurred over the issue of patronage, differed from the original secession churches in being essentially moderate and forward-looking in its theology. Taking its birth from the dismissal of Thomas Gillespie as minister of the parish of Carnock in 1752, its first presbytery was founded in 1761, eventually growing to a synod of six presbyteries.
As there were no fundamental doctrinal differences with the established church, the Relief Church was for many years content to accept candidates for the ministry who had gone through an arts and divinity course at one of the Scottish universities. Although the Relief Synod had discussed the desirability of erecting a divinity hall as early as 1795, it did not actually come into existence until 1824. During the 1820s the universities began to ask students to subscribe to the established church, which made the previous arrangement impractical, and the Relief Synod took the decision to found its own hall. On the Relief Church's amalgamation with the United Secession Church to form the United Presbyterian Church in 1847, the divinity hall was subsumed into the United Presbyterian Divinity Hall.
Management of the divinity hall lay with the Committee for the Superintendence of the Divinity Hall, which reported directly to the annual synod of the Relief Church. Admission to the hall was generally restricted to members of the Relief Church. Students were expected to have a university education prior to enrolment, although few were graduates.
The first professor in 1824 was Dr James Thomson, minister of the Relief Church in Paisley, where his hall was based. He was professor for the greater part of the hall's existence. After his death in 1841, his lectures were read by William Becket and George Brooks, who served as temporary lecturers. The following year, the hall moved to Glasgow on the appointment of William Lindsay as professor of theology, and Neil McMichael as professor of systematic theology and church history. McMichael was later Professor of Ecclesiastical History in the United Presbyterian Divinity Hall.
As the sole hall for the Relief Church, it served the whole of Scotland, but most of the students came from west-central Scotland. A total of 191 students entered the hall, with the total attendance each year varying between eighteen and forty-five. The divinity hall was wholly funded by the Relief Church, with individual congregations expected to provide support, though in practice this was not always forthcoming. The six presbyteries each had to provide pulpit supplies for one or more Sundays during the session.
Thomson had two meetings of his class each day, six days per week, and regularly gave the students exercises. He gave lectures on four mornings in the week and heard discourses prepared by students on the other two mornings. During the afternoons students were examined on the lecture given the previous day, which was then recapitulated the following morning. Essays were written weekly and examined by the professor in private. On Monday afternoons students gave a written or verbal account of the sermons they had heard the previous day. On Tuesday they read the Greek Testament, and on Friday a portion of Hebrew Scriptures. Besides studies during the session, students had to write a very considerable number of essays on systematic theology, which were sent to the professor for inspection. Students who failed to write a sufficient number did not proceed to trials for licence. The course lasted for four years.
A list of students who had finished their course was given to the synod, which then decided which students were to be taken on trials for licence by individual presbyteries. There are however examples of students founding their own congregations without the full training. In 1826 Edinburgh Presbytery reported that two students had formed congregations in the Freemasons' Hall and in the Caledonian Theatre while still under their superintendence.
Andrew T. N. Muirhead
The records of the Relief Church and Synod are held at National Archives of Scotland (CH3/272/1-3).
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).
Mechie, Stewart, 'Education for the Ministry in Scotland since the Reformation, III', Records of the Scottish Church History Society, 15 (1965), 1-20.
Struthers, Gavin, The History of the Rise, Progress, and Principles of the Relief Church, Embracing Notices of the Other Religious Denominations in Scotland (Glasgow, 1843).
Andrew T. N. Muirhead, 'Relief Church Divinity Hall (1824-1847)', Dissenting Academies Online: Database and Encyclopedia, Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies, November 2011.