Constitutional, Protester and United Original Secession Divinity Halls (1806-1852)

Constitutional Associate Presbytery (Anti-Burgher) Divinity Hall (1806-1827), Protesters' Divinity Hall (1820-1827), Original Secession Divinity Hall (1827-1842), United Original Secession Divinity Hall (1842-1852)

Following the New Light versus Old Light split in the Anti-Burgher Synod in 1806, the divinity professor, Archibald Bruce, remained with the minority Old Light party who formed the Constitutional Associate Presbytery. He was appointed their professor and the Constitutional divinity hall therefore remained in Whitburn until his death in 1816. Thomas McCrie Sr briefly succeeded Bruce, but because of the demands of his ministry only served until 1818. Teaching was then organised by the presbyteries. A growing realisation that there was little or no theological difference between the New Light Burghers and Anti-Burghers led them to form the United Secession Church in 1820 (which joined with the Relief Church in 1847 to form the United Presbyterian Church). George Paxton, professor of the Anti-Burgher divinity hall, remained outside the 1820 union, and together with a few others formed the Protesters' Synod. He was appointed professor of its hall. The Protesters' Hall was in Edinburgh for its short life, being held in Paxton's house from 1820 until 1827. In 1827 the Constitutional and Protesters' presbyteries united to form the Original Secession Church. Their divinity hall was effectively a continuation of Paxton's hall in Edinburgh, and he remained as professor until his retirement in 1836. He was succeeded by Thomas McCrie, son of Thomas Sr, who was joined by Benjamin Laing in 1839. They served until 1852. They were ministers for whom their teaching was an additional duty. In 1842 a small group of Old Light Burghers who had remained outside the union of 1839 joined them, to form the United Original Secession Church, which in 1852 united with the new Free Church of Scotland. Again part of the church remained outside the union and survived as the Original Secession Church until it was absorbed into the Church of Scotland in 1956.

Throughout his teaching Paxton based his lectures on Johannes Marck's Christianae theologiae medulla, which he taught over five years. He also taught Greek and Hebrew. The lectures of his successor, Thomas McCrie Jr were described as 'highly evangelical and often accompanied with much unction' (Scott, Annals and Statistics, 606), and he was said to have developed an original approach to teaching. All three halls seem to have been very similar in teaching style and content to the parent Anti-Burgher Hall, though the use of Marck suggests that the teaching persisted in Latin for longer.

As with all the pre-1842 dissenting Presbyterian churches, these denominations were theoretically national in scope but had little if any impact on the highlands and western isles. The halls were only intended for the training of ministers.

The Constitutional Divinity Hall only trained nine ministers for the denomination between 1806 and 1827. A further four students were never ordained, and a fifth was ordained in the established church. The Protesters' Hall under Paxton produced seven ministers for the denomination or its successor, and one who was later ordained in America. Three other students, who were never ordained, are known to have attended. The United Original Secession Hall trained twenty-nine ministers for the church or for the Free Church after 1852. Three more became ministers abroad while twenty-two students were not ordained. Inevitably a number of students were to die in the course of their studies, or soon after being licensed as preachers but prior to ordination.

The Constitutional Hall's most outstanding student, John Duncan (Rabbi Duncan), joined the established church before the conclusion of his studies. He was Professor of Hebrew in New College, Edinburgh (Free Church) on its foundation in 1843. James Wylie, a student of the United Original Secession Hall, was assistant editor of The Witness, later editor of The Free Church Record, and in 1860 he was appointed by the Free Church Professor of The Protestant Institute of Scotland. He was a prolific author.

Andrew T. N. Muirhead


The main archival sources are held at the National Archives of Scotland: the Constitutional Presbytery (CH3/301/1), and the United Original Seceders (CH3/301/2&3).

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, 'Constitutional, Protester and United Original Secession Divinity Halls (1806-1852)', Dissenting Academies Online: Database and Encyclopedia, Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies, November 2011.