Original Burgher (Old Light Burghers) Divinity Hall (1799-1839)

The Original Burgher Synod (Old Light Burghers) was the smaller group resulting from the Burghers' schism of 1799. It continued as a separate body until 1839, when it voted to re-enter the established church in the wake of the evangelical revival. Four years later those who had joined the established church separated again and joined the newly formed Free Church. A majority of ministers (twenty-nine out of forty-one) had stayed out of the union of 1839. They joined the recently united Original Secession Church (formed by the Old and New Light Anti-Burghers) in 1842, and then in 1852 the Free Church. There are no records of ministerial training between 1839 and 1842 for this latter group.

As was conventional in the secession churches, the divinity hall comprised one professor. In 1800, William Willis was appointed, initially in Greenock, before moving to Stirling shortly after. He was succeeded in 1803 by George Hill, who held the post in Cumbernauld until 1818. William Taylor then conducted the hall from his church in Perth until 1833. After a year in which there was no divinity hall and the students were under the supervision of their presbytery, Michael Willis, son of William Willis, was appointed and the hall was transferred to Glasgow. It closed in 1839.

Like the other Secession halls, the purpose of the hall was to train ministers for the denomination. Some students later joined other churches, but this was seen as a lapse from grace. The hall seems to have been unfunded, the professors undertaking their duties without pay. In 1812 it was agreed that an annual sum of £25 should be collected from the congregations to pay for books, but it was never collected in full.

The course lasted for four years and each session for eight weeks, although it seems that some students may have been licensed after three years. Little is known of the teaching in the hall. A Compendious View of Natural and Revealed Religion by John Brown, professor of the Associate Burgher Divinity Hall (1767-87), was the core text, but it is not known whether this was the only work used. It was covered twice during the four years. There was also a confessional lecture where the professor demonstrated how the Westminster Confession was supported by Scripture. On Saturdays the Greek New Testament was studied, and on Mondays the Psalms in Hebrew.

The Original Burgher Synod, like all the Secession churches, was based largely in the Scottish lowlands, as well as Perthshire and Angus. A number of students were also trained for the sister Original Burgher Church in Northern Ireland. Students were expected to have attended a full university Arts course prior to enrolment, although few graduated. Competency in Hebrew was also required. The early ministers of the Original Burgher Synod had trained mainly under George Lawson at the Burghers' Associate Divinity Hall in Selkirk, and several of those who were students at the time joined the schism, ensuring there were sufficient ministers at the beginning. The initial class in 1800 consisted of five students who had been with Lawson at Selkirk prior to the schism, and a sixth joined the following year. Two more students joined in 1802, followed by five in 1803, though one of the five left in 1804 to study with Lawson and was ordained into the Old Light body in 1806. In thirty-nine years 106 students passed through the hall, seventy-two being ordained by the denomination and a further sixteen being ordained into churches outside Scotland, mainly in Ireland. A significant number of ministers later emigrated to Canada.

Few Original Burgher students achieved distinction outside their church. William Machray undertook his Arts course at Marischal College, Aberdeen. While attending the divinity hall, he was also teaching Greek at Marischal as deputy for the superannuated Professor Stuart. The last professor, Michael Willis was to have a career teaching in Canada and became the first principal of Knox College, Toronto. Like most of its contemporary churches, the Original Burgher Synod had links particularly with Ireland and also with North America, but the church was never large enough to undertake work abroad although funds were raised to support mission work.

Andrew T. N. Muirhead


Records known to have existed in 1884 are currently untraced.

Published sources

M'Kerrow, John, History of the Secession Church (Edinburgh, 1839).
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).
Whytock, Jack C., "An Educated Clergy", Scottish Theological Education and Training in the Kirk and Secession, 1560-1850 (Milton Keynes, 2007).

Andrew T. N. Muirhead, 'Original Burgher (Old Light Burghers) Divinity Hall (1799-1839)', Dissenting Academies Online: Database and Encyclopedia, Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies, November 2011.