United Presbyterian Church Divinity Hall (1847-1900)

(Historical account to 1860)

The United Presbyterian Church Divinity Hall was set up as a result of the union of the United Secession and Relief Churches in 1847, creating the third largest Presbyterian Church in Scotland, which in the lowlands and borders was similar in size to the Free Church and the Church of Scotland. It had very little presence in the Highlands, but was strong in Orkney, while it effectively ruled Glasgow in the latter years of the century. It also had a significant presence in England and Ireland, and the divinity hall therefore educated men for those ministries too.

The hall was funded by the synod and managed by its Committee on Theological Education. This consisted of the professors and no fewer than twelve others, ministers and elders, with their proceedings reported to synod annually. They also superintended the library. The hall prepared ministers for the United Presbyterian Church, but it accepted students from outside the church.

The original professors were John Brown, who taught exegetical theology, James Harper, professor of systematic and pastoral theology, Neil McMichael, professor of history of doctrines, William Lindsay, professor of sacred languages and criticism, and John Eadie, professor of hermeneutics and evidence. John Brown died in 1858 and the decision was taken to continue with four professors. With the death of William Lindsay in 1866, they were reduced to three, but the following year restored to four with the appointment of John Cairns.

Entry to the hall was through examination by the student's presbytery. This was intended to test their piety, motives, talents, and acquirements, and might be repeated at intervals throughout the course. They were expected to have studied Latin, Greek, logic, and moral philosophy at one of the universities for at least three sessions. The presbytery also examined the students in Hebrew, mathematics and religious knowledge. Students were strongly recommended to have studied geology, chemistry, and other natural sciences, to keep pace with the advances in learning.

The hall was in Edinburgh, with the professors continuing to hold pastoral charges outside the session. For the first time it was housed not in the professors' churches, but in the new Synod Hall at 5 Queen Street, built by the United Secession Church in anticipation of the union. It was replaced in 1877 by a new synod and theological hall in Castle Terrace (since demolished). One of the four United Secession professors had died in 1843, so in preparation for the union, he was not replaced. The new United Presbyterian Synod decided on four professors, but accepted that it should open with five: the two Relief Church and the three United Secession Church professors.

The hall followed the general Secession pattern of four short sessions lasting no more than eight weeks. For the remaining ten months the students were under the superintendence of the presbyteries. The amount of work, examination and involvement varied significantly between presbyteries, but included discourses on scripture and examinations on ecclesiastical history, the Greek and Hebrew Bible, and theology. A bursary scheme was put in place under synod management which used a written examination. In 1849 it provided thirty-four scholarships of £10 or £15 pounds per year.

The professors taught a prescribed syllabus. Latin studies were based on Calvin's Institutes. Greek was based primarily on the Epistles to the Romans, Timothy, the Galatians, and the Hebrews. Hebrew studies were based on selected chapters of Genesis, Isaiah, the Psalms, and Daniel. Theology was based on the lectures of Andrew Dick, published in 1840; biblical literature on Samuel Davidson's Sacred Hermeneutics Developed and Applied; and Church History on George Waddington's A History of the Church from the Earliest Ages to the Reformation and J. H. Merle D'Aubigny, The History of the Reformation in England, with the final year covering Scottish Church history since the Reformation, and the history of the United Presbyterian church and its predecessors.

The library was also housed at the Synod Hall in Edinburgh and was available to ministers of the church as well as students. Printed catalogues of the library were prepared in 1850 and 1868, and show the library to have contained around 5000 volumes, mainly theological, but with some literature, philosophy, and travel, as well an as extensive reference library. The library also held the archives of the denomination and its predecessors. As most students had also matriculated at one or other of the universities, their libraries were also available to them.

The hall opened in 1847 with over a hundred students, twenty-seven in their first year. Thereafter the intake varied between seventeen in 1855, and fifty-five in 1856, but the total number of students was normally between 130 and 150. The students included the first African to be ordained in any of the Scottish churches, Tiyo Soga, who entered the hall in 1852. He was ordained in 1857, and returned to South Africa as a missionary. Isaac Salkinson was born a Russian Jew, and was converted to Christianity in England. He later entered the United Presbyterian Divinity Hall and was ordained in 1859, serving mainly as a missionary to the Jews.

The United Presbyterian Church inherited missions in the Caribbean and in Calabar, Nigeria, from the Secession Church. Soon after the union it also took over the work in Jamaica that had been commenced earlier that century by the Scottish Missionary Society, as well as the mission in Kaffraria that had been established by the Glasgow South African Missionary Society. Strong links were maintained with the Presbyterian churches of Canada and the United States.

The hall's independent existence came to an end with the union of the greater part of the Free Church to form the United Free Church in 1900. The majority of the United Free Church itself reunited with the Church of Scotland in 1929.

Andrew T. N. Muirhead


The records of the United Presbyterian Church are in the National Archives of Scotland (CH3/303/1-4 and CH3/985/1-2).

Published sources

Catalogue of the Divinity Hall Library of the United Presbyterian Church (Edinburgh, 1850).
Chalmers, John Aikin, Tiyo Soga: a Page of South African Mission Work (Edinburgh, 1878).
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.
Struthers, Gavin, The History of the Rise, Progress, and Principles of the Relief Church, Embracing Notices of Other Religious Denominations in Scotland (Glasgow, 1843).
United Presbyterian Church, Theological Education, Hall, and Library (Edinburgh, 1858).


The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland holds plans for the original building of 1846 and for later changes which can be seen at http://canmore.rcahms.gov.uk/en/site/106195/details/edinburgh+4+5+6+queen+street/ . A ground plan of the building can be seen on the OS 1:1056 plan of 1851: (Town plan of Edinburgh Sheet 29). The building later became BBC Scotland's Edinburgh studios and offices before being developed as a music performance venue. http://maps.nls.uk/townplans/view/?sid=74415443&mid=edinburgh1056_1_sw. A small amount of material on the building of 1877 can be found at: http://canmore.rcahms.gov.uk/en/site/133336/details/edinburgh+castle+terrace+synod+hall/.

Andrew T. N. Muirhead, 'United Presbyterian Church Divinity Hall (1847-1900)', Dissenting Academies Online: Database and Encyclopedia, Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies, November 2011.