Associate Synod (Burgher) Divinity Hall (1747-1820) and United Secession Divinity Hall (1820-1847)

Because Alexander Moncrieff, the Secession divinity hall professor, sided with the Anti-Burghers at the Breach in 1747, the Burghers had to make new arrangements for the education of their ministers. The father of the Secession, Ebenezer Erskine, briefly and rather unwillingly took on the role of divinity professor in Stirling. In 1749 the divinity hall was placed under the care of James Fisher, his son-in-law, and moved to Glasgow. It then moved to Kinross under John Swanston, (1764-67), Haddington under John Brown (1767-87), and finally to Selkirk under George Lawson (1787-1820). A further breach split the Burghers in 1799, into the Old Light and New Light Burghers, mainly regarding the relationship of the civil magistrate to the church. Lawson stayed with the New Light party, and remained in charge of their divinity hall until his death shortly before the Union of 1820.

After the Anti-Burghers underwent the equivalent schism in 1806, it soon became clear that very little except their history separated the two New Light bodies. The two churches united in 1820 as the United Secession Church, with only a handful of the Anti-Burghers staying out as the Protesters, but they included George Paxton, the Anti-Burgher professor. With neither of the previous professors available, the United Secession Divinity Hall was founded with a new professor of divinity, John Dick, in Glasgow. The combined hall was clearly beyond the scope of one man, so in 1825 a second professor, John Mitchell, was appointed. Dick became professor of systematic theology (1825-33) and Mitchell professor of biblical literature (1825-42). On the death of Dick in 1833, the number of professors was increased to four with the appointment of John Brown as professor of experimental theology (1834-47), Robert Baulmer as professor of systematic theology (1834-44), and Alexander Duncan as professor of pastoral theology and church history (1834-44). After the death of Mitchell in 1842 and the illness of Duncan, James Harper took over as professor of pastoral theology (1843-47) and acting professor of experimental theology, while John Eadie succeeded Mitchell as professor of biblical literature (1843-47). Initially students studied in Glasgow for the first two years before moving to Edinburgh, but later all the teaching was in Edinburgh.

In 1847, the United Secession Church united with the Relief Church to form the United Presbyterian Church, and the two divinity halls merged. By 1845 the United Secession Church was planning a new Synod Hall in Queen Street, Edinburgh, which became the Theological Hall and Synod Hall of the new United Presbyterian Church. It is unclear whether this building was in use as the divinity hall, or indeed at all, prior to the union.

The divinity hall throughout its history was regulated by the synod and intended only for the training of its ministers. Like the other divinity halls, the session lasted for eight weeks over a period of five years. Absenteeism was a major problem and it appears that many students were not present for the prescribed period. In the time of Erskine, Fisher, and Swanston the session was during the spring months, but after Lawson took over it moved to the autumn. In the United Secession Hall, the session was extended to nine weeks, with a minimum of six weeks' attendance required.

The Burgher divinity hall differed from the Anti-Burgher hall under Alexander Moncreiff, dispensing with a separate philosophy class for the junior students. This does not seem to imply that the Burgher ministers had less of a general education than the Anti-Burghers, rather that the Burghers were concentrating on training for the ministry, and thought the rigorous study of theological subjects would suffice to counteract any dangerous enlightenment ideas gleaned by the students during their time at university. John Brown of Haddington's Compendious View of Natural and Revealed Religion (1782) is believed to represent his course of lectures. An interleaved copy in New College, Edinburgh contains manuscript notes which may represent further explanation for his students. When Lawson took over in 1787 it is clear that he used his predecessor's lectures. His published works do not include any lectures. John Dick's Lectures in Theology (1834), published shortly after his death, represents his teaching. The increase in the teaching staff in 1825 and in 1834 meant greater specialisation. Mitchell when he joined Dick became responsible for biblical Literature and the language teaching it implied.

George Gilfillan's memoir, The History of a Man (1856), describes the characters of his professors, to whom he gave transparent fictitious names such as Dr Mildman for John Mitchell. Of Mitchell he said: 'His chief fault, as a professor, lay in over-indulgence and over-praise of his students. What geniuses he thought of some of them! I have heard him panegyrize a poor creature that could hardly spell, till he persuaded him that he was at the least a Chalmers, more probably a Plato.' With reference to Dick he wrote: 'This was the spirit of Dr. Dogmatic Dry's criticism. It passed like frost over all his students' sermons, and, more or less, shed its chilling influence upon the good and the bad, upon those that soared and those that cowered in timid mediocrity.' As the professors increased from two to four, Gilfillan was also taught by Duncan and Brown: 'Dr. Dungeon. I call him so from the immense quantity of recondite learning he had contrived to amass, although, from the want of method and clearness, it was often of little use to him ... He loved the young fermenting brain, and was fond and proud of discovering the germ of genius.' Brown was dismissed with the comment that 'to his students he was distant, without real dignity, sometimes severe, and sometimes partial without discrimination. He was a learned, but not a gifted man' (Gilfillan, History of a Man, 156-60).

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. It also included many from Ireland and a significant number from Scottish Presbyterian congregations in the north of England. This is particularly noticeable from the late 1760s. A fifth of the students taught by Brown later served congregations in Ireland, and although the actual number of Irish students taught by Lawson was very similar, because of the greater overall number of students they only formed about a tenth of the total. There were very few Irish students after 1795. The number of students from England was particularly high under Lawson, reaching almost ten per cent of the total. Overall 637 students were admitted to the Burgher divinity hall. Numbers averaged four per year for Erskine and Fisher, and nine per year for Swanston and Lawson. During the existence of the United Secession Divinity Hall, 753 were admitted, an average of twenty-eight per year. The numbers attending the Anti-Burgher hall prior to 1820 suggest that the United Secession Church maintained the supply of potential ministers but did not significantly increase it.

The students included the poet Michael Bruce, author of the Ode to a Cuckoo, who did not live to complete his course. William Skirving studied briefly in the Burgher divinity hall before turning to agriculture. As secretary of the (Scottish) Society of the Friends of the People he was tried for sedition and subsequently transported in 1794 to Botany Bay penal colony, where he died in 1796. George Gilfillan became a prominent and popular preacher in Dundee, albeit with some unorthodox views. He was also known as a poet and author, and as a champion of the industrial poor in Dundee and of the slaves in the USA. Ralph Wardlaw, a grandson of Fisher, entered the Burgher divinity hall, but embraced congregationalism under the influence of the Haldane brothers and became professor of systematic theology at Glasgow Theological Hall.

Following the Anti-Burghers' lead in 1753, the Burghers planned to send their first missionary to America in 1754, but in the event the first Irish missionary was sent in 1765, and the first Scottish-based missionaries in 1766. When John M. Mason returned to Scotland in 1801 on behalf of the Associate Reformed Church in New York, despite having been a student at the Anti-Burghers' Hall, he was commissioned to bring his church into an understanding with the Burghers, and to visit the divinity hall to recruit ministers. In both he was successful, establishing Articles of Correspondence and taking five ministers and a probationer with him to America. A strong connection was built. There also developed an important connection with Nova Scotia, which was nurtured by a constant stream of Scots in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, giving rise to the Associate Presbytery of Truro under the superintendence of the Scottish Synod, which later formed part of the Presbyterian Church of Nova Scotia. The United Secession first took on mission work in Jamaica in 1831, which led to the erection of the Presbytery of Jamaica and the founding of an academy in 1841, which used Dick's lectures with a view to training missionaries.

Andrew T. N. Muirhead


The National Archives of Scotland hold the Associate Synod (Burgher) records (CH3/28/1-5) and the United Secession Synod minutes (CH3/298/1-4). Additional records survive for: Lawson's divinity hall at Selkirk (CH3/281/1-4) and the library catalogue (CH3/281/5); the United Secession Hall Students' Society (CH3/305/1-2); Secession students on behalf of the Presbyterian Church of Nova Scotia and the Seminary at Pictou (CH3/1284/104).

Published Sources

[Brown, John (of Dalkeith)], Memorials of the Rev. James Fisher in a Narrative of his Life ... and a Selection from his Writings (Edinburgh, 1849).
Brown, John (of Haddington), A Compendious View of Natural and Revealed Religion (Edinburgh, 1782).
Dick, John, Lectures on Theology, ed. [Andrew D. Dick] (Edinburgh 1834).
Gilfillan, George, The History of a Man (London, 1856).
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 Foreign Missions of the Secession and United Presbyterian Church (Edinburgh, 1867).
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).


The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland holds plans for the Synod Hall and College of 1846 and for later changes which can be seen at A ground plan of the building can be seen on the OS 1:1056 plan of 1851: (Town plan of Edinburgh Sheet 29)

Andrew T. N. Muirhead, 'Associate Synod (Burgher) Divinity Hall (1747-1820) and United Secession Divinity Hall (1820-1847)', Dissenting Academies Online: Database and Encyclopedia, Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies, November 2011.