A Kirk Disrupted

March 13, 2014

Westminster alumnus, Dr. A. Donald MacLeod (B.Div. ’63, D.D. ’11) recently wrote a biography of Charles Cowan, a layman who was instrumental in the establishment and growth of the Free Church of Scotland in the mid-19th century. We spoke with Dr. MacLeod recently to ask about his interest in Cowan and the Free Church of Scotland, and Cowan’s importance and influence on the present day.

A Kirk Disrupted: Charles Cowan MP and the Free Church of Scotland is available at the Westminster Bookstore.

Dr. MacLeod’s interest in the Free Church of Scotland and Charles Cowan stems, in part, from his familial ties to Scotland. Born to a highlander, Dr. MacLeod’s heritage would be a natural connection to study Charles Cowan. However, when he married his wife Judy he discovered he now had a closer connection than before: “When I married who I thought at the time was an English woman I discovered that she also had a background in the Free Church of Scotland. My wife is the granddaughter of the grandson of Charles Cowan, so she inherited lots of his papers, many of those going back to the 1810’s and 1830’s.” With those papers, and a copious amount of bibliographical and genealogical material, Dr. MacLeod began to write his biography of Charles Cowan.

Charles Cowan was born into a family who owned a successful paper mill business outside of Edinburgh, Scotland. With his two younger brothers, he inherited the family business and they went on to grow it with great success. He grew up in a liberal (“Moderate”) Church of Scotland, but under the influence of his father’s first cousin and mentor, Thomas Chalmers, he came into a strong personal faith in Christ as a teenager. He identified with the evangelical party in the church who in the 1830’s and 40’s fought for the spiritual independence of the church.  In 1843 he was involved in the Disruption when 500 elders and clergy left the Church of Scotland and established the Free Church of Scotland. As a businessman and layman, Cowan was able to help establish what became the “Sustentation Fund” of the Free Church: “He was very prominently involved in the business of funding the clergy who left the denomination. A large amount of money was raised for the Free Church enterprise, which supported schools, 500 churches, and all the clergy.”

In 1847, he was elected to the British Parliament, defeating incumbent Thomas Babington Macaulay. Cowan served as MP for 12 years, and “was a vocal voice in defending the Free Church from all the calumnies of the English who didn’t understand what was going on, and who were, in a sense, responsible for the Disruption [of the Church of Scotland].” After he stepped down from parliament, he continued his papermaking business and served as commissioner to forty General Assemblies.

Dr. MacLeod’s interest in Cowan has to do with how his role as a layperson influenced the church. “So much of the emphasis on 19th Century Scottish religious life has been on clergy; it has been dominated by an inherent clericalism. In his early years, Cowan showed great discrimination and discernment. His accounts of every sermon he listened to were recorded in his diary, and some of his detailed comments about sermons he heard and books he read are fascinating—reflecting on the great people of the evangelical awakening in the Church of Scotland at that period”

His positive contribution to the Free Church of Scotland was primarily through his financial support. “It was a very rare level of giving [at that time], because previously all of the religious and ecclesiastical institutions were funded by the state as an established church.  I think Cowan helped the Free Church develop a very generous piety. He was particularly committed to the alleviation of poverty. He was, in a sense, an expression of the social conscience of the Free Church in the 19th century. With all his money, he was extraordinarily generous to many charities.”

His influence was not limited to what he could provide financially.  His father, Alexander Cowan, instilled in him a Reformed and Biblical concept of Christian vocation, entrusted with the stewardship of his business. His father-in-law, an Evangelical minister in Lanark, had been clerk of presbytery when Robert Owen, owner of the New Lanark mills, came under censure for his anti-Christian socialism that so influenced Karl Marx. Charles Cowan determined to provide a Christian alternative. “He received from his father a very strong sense of the responsibility of people to go out in mission to improve the lives of their employees. He worked diligently, and his paper mill (one of the largest in Scotland) became a sort of laboratory for treating employees with charity and with grace. In many practical ways, they took enormous detail and interest in their works, and they inspired loyalty, which exists even to this day. When we did the book launch in Penicuik, where the mill was located and had been closed for many years, we had a big response and the book just flew off the shelf. Because of their commitment, the name of the Cowans in that place is highly respected, even now.”

While Cowan was influential in establishing and maintaining the Free Church of Scotland, his mark on the church was not all positive.  “As the years went on, the influence of Thomas Chalmers being less and less visible in his outlook, he became (saying this politely) somewhat wobbly theologically. He pre-figured the second generation of the Free Church of Scotland and their gradual departure from the strong orthodoxy of people like Chalmers and others at the beginning.” Part of the problem was the high intellectual standards of the church and Cowan was himself a member of three scholarly organizations and contributed regularly to their research. Among others in the Free Church, Cowan began to be influenced by the Methodist revivalism of men like Dwight L. Moody and Ira Sankey.  He held onto “a warm piety, but [it was] not theologically informed.” 11 years after Cowan’s death, the majority of the Free Church of Scotland joined with the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland whose doctrinal subscription standards were much looser. 

Dr. MacLeod is pleased with the opportunity to tell the story of a man who provides the perspective of a layperson as his faith was shaped by events which have an impact to this day. His life is an example of how individual Christians can have an impact on the church and society. The affection with which his large family and his employees held him was very high.

You can order a copy of A Kirk Disrupted from the Westminster Bookstore.

Dr. A. Donald MacLeod receiving his honorary doctorate in 2011