Reformed Presbyterian Divinity Hall (1803-1876)

(Historical account to 1860)

The Reformed Presbyterian Church has its roots in those covenanters, mainly in the south-west of Scotland, who did not recognise the Church of Scotland established by the Revolution Settlement of 1690 to be the true successor to the Presbyterian tradition. With no ministers until 1709, and only one until 1742, it never had a large body of clergy. Their divinity hall, initially based at the Reformed Presbyterian church in Stirling, was set up only in 1803 and closed in 1876 on the union of the greater part of the denomination with the Free Church of Scotland. A previous attempt to start a college in 1785 had failed when the nominated teacher of divinity died. In the period between the organisation of the Reformed Presbyterian presbytery in 1742 and the founding of the divinity hall, candidates for the ministry were trained informally over a period of around 15 months by a number of ministers at various churches, with 'trials for licence' covering different aspects of their education.

The hall followed the general pattern of the Presbyterian secession churches by being based in the church or manse of the professors, who were also ministers with charges. The first professor of divinity was Revd John MacMillan, who held the post from 1802 to 1818 in Stirling. He was succeeded by one of his former students, Dr Andrew Symington, D.D., who taught his students from 1820 to 1853 in Paisley. On his death, the post was divided; his brother William, also a student of MacMillan, looked after systematic theology in Glasgow from 1854 to 1862, and W. H. Goold taught biblical literature and church history from 1854 to 1876 at Newton Stewart in Dumfries and Galloway. It is not clear how the hall functioned after 1853 with its two professors in different places, but in the early days in Stirling the students lodged with families attached to the congregation. While the hall was in Glasgow, students on occasion had teaching or missionary posts within the city which supported them and allowed them to live independently. A library for the use of students was set up with a legacy of £20 and maintained from voluntary contributions.

The divinity hall was the charge of the Synod's Hall Committee. Initially Scottish students were required to attend four or five sessions. This led to tension with Irish applicants for Scottish churches as the Irish synod allowed ordination after only three or even two years' attendance at the divinity hall. The church finally decided that the Scottish church could only accept Irish probationers who had studied for the same length of time as Scottish candidates. The funding of the divinity hall was the responsibility of the church as a whole and initially assessed at £2 per year from each congregation. The salary of the professor of divinity was set at £30 per year, and remained at that level for 50 years, but this was in addition to his stipend as a minister, which at Stirling in 1802 was set at £52 per year. The church was not wealthy, as most of its members were from the rural working class.

In 1839 it was reported that the session lasted seven weeks. The first class meeting started at 7.30 a.m. with devotional exercises and a lecture from the professor, with the second meeting of the day from 11.00 a.m. till 1.00 p.m. This commenced on alternate days with a reading of Scripture in Greek and Hebrew followed by an examination of the students on the subject of the lectures, the students giving written answers to a number of questions. The professor examined these answers and commented on them in class the following day. There was a weekly essay, together with three vacation exercises which were delivered publicly and criticised by both professor and students. Afternoon and evening meetings of the class were arranged as required, so the formal teaching day might easily be six hours in length. Within the Reformed Presbyterian church it was believed that their students covered as much work in seven weeks as the university divinity halls covered in five months. After 1854, the course was formalised at five sessions each of eight weeks, with a course of intersessional study upon which the students were examined at the start of each session.

A small number of students already had degrees prior to entering, normally from Glasgow University. It seems likely that most were expected to have studied at university in the general arts curriculum. At least one studied in Germany after leaving the divinity hall before proceeding to ordination. In general students were expected to enter the Reformed Presbyterian ministry, either in Scotland or Ireland, although a few did join other denominations.

The hall served the denomination which had churches throughout southern Scotland, being strongest in the southwest. During the period of the college's existence, 108 ministers or missionaries were ordained, at the rate of one or two per year in the early years, peaking at five in 1865, of whom three were missionaries to the New Hebrides. The names of those students studying between 1805 and 1819 are known, and show that the number from year to year varied from four to nine. An unknown number of Irish students also attended as the Irish church had no hall of its own. After the union of the Reformed Presbyterian Church with the Free Church of Scotland in 1876, all training was conducted in the permanently staffed Free Church College at Aberdeen.

Noteworthy students included John Laidlaw (1832-1906) and John G. Paton (1824-1907). Laidlaw, who joined the Free Church after three sessions in the Reformed Presbyterian Divinity Hall and became professor of systematic theology at New College, Edinburgh, was influential in the unions of the Free and Reformed Presbyterian Churches in 1876 and in the abortive conference of the three major Churches in 1885 which laid some of the groundwork for the union of the Free and United Presbyterian Churches in 1901. Paton was a renowned missionary in the New Hebrides; his autobiography is a minor classic of Victorian missionary memoirs.

Although small, the Reformed Presbyterian Church saw itself as a missionary church, taking as its primary sphere of influence the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) in the Pacific, and several missionaries were trained for work there. In addition to their divinity studies, potential missionaries were given rudimentary medical training at the Andersonian College in Glasgow and other practical training. A number of students also went as missionaries to colonial Australia and New Zealand.

Andrew T. N. Muirhead


Such records as survive are in the National Archives of Scotland, generally at CH3/391 and specifically at CH3/391/20, the minutes of the Committee on Divinity Hall. CH3/391/21 contains the Matriculation book of Reformed Presbyterian Divinity Hall from 1805 to 1875.

Published sources

Couper, William James, The Reformed Presbyterian Church in Scotland. Its Congregations, Ministers, and Students (Edinburgh, 1925).
Mechie, Stewart, 'Education for the Ministry in Scotland since the Reformation, III', Records of the Scottish Church History Society, 15 (1965), 1-20.
Ormond, David Duncan, A Kirk and a College in the Craigs of Stirling (Stirling, 1897). Scottish Presbyterian (Nov. 1839), 234-6.

Andrew T. N. Muirhead, 'Reformed Presbyterian Divinity Hall (1802-1876)', Dissenting Academies Online: Database and Encyclopedia, Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies, November 2011.