Ebenezer Erskine – Preaching God’s Grace in Tumultuous Times

Ebenezer Erskine – Preaching God’s Grace in Tumultuous Times

            The name Ebenezer Erskine is rarely remembered outside of Scotland. And yet, it was a well-known name in his day. Founder of the Secession Church and a strong voice in the Marrow Controversy, he was involved in many of the tosses and turns of the Scottish Kirk of his time and left a mark in those that followed.

Child of Religious Persecution

            Ebenezer’s family had a long-standing reputation as faithful promoters of the gospel since the days of George Wishart and John Knox. Ebenezer’s father Henry was a Presbyterian minister in Cornhill, Northumberland – one of the 2000 who had been ejected in 1662 by the Act of Uniformity. Due to his persistence on preaching, Henry was imprisoned three times, tortured, and exiled.

            It was in this context of poverty and persecution that Ebenezer was born on 22 June 1680 in Dryburgh, Berwickshire. For two years, he was raised single-handedly by his mother while his father was in exile. After that, the family moved around frequently, while Henry continued to preach when and where it was possible.

            After the Declaration of Toleration of 1687, Henry was free to accept a call to minister at Whitsome, a small village on the Scottish border. One year later, he moved to the nearby parish of Chimside, where he ministered until his death in 1696.

            Ebenezer – then sixteen – was one of the five children who were present at Henry’s deathbed. His younger brother Ralph explained how seeing his father die evoked in him a greater love for the Lord Henry had served all his life.

Erskine’s Conversion

            Things were different for Ebenezer, who harbored serious doubts about religion. When, after graduating from the University of Edinburgh, he was licensed to preach and ordained to the small rural parish of Portmoak, he could only do so mechanically and without passion, fixing his eyes on a stone on the wall in front of him. He found mentions of Christ “nauseous” and the gospels “the most wearisome part of the Bible … since they came over the same things.”[1]

            One of the greatest religious influences on his life was his wife Alison Turpie, a lady about his age, whom he had met while tutoring at the home of a distant relative. He was particularly intrigued by the conversations she had with his brother Ralph, who visited them when on vacation from the university. Ralph and Alison spoke of Christ and His kingdom with a sincerity Ebenezer had never experienced. Alison enjoyed these visits, because she could never enjoy the same type of discussions with Ebenezer.

            The catalyst in Ebenezer’s conversion was apparently a crisis in Alison’s life after she gave birth to her second child. The strain of pregnancy and childbirth and the changes a new child brought to her life were compounded by spiritual anxieties. She feared she had lost faith in God, who seemed ready to pour out his wrath against her. Ebenezer watched as neighboring pastors came to pray for her and to encourage her. At the end of their prayers, she prayed with a confidence that moved everyone to tears.

            “Within some days after this,” Ebenezer wrote in his diary, “though clouds were still around her, the Lord quieted the storm.”[2]

            From then on, she was able to talk to Ebenezer heart-to-heart, and her faith strengthened his. The change became obvious as soon as he mounted the pulpit, as he preached with passion and zeal, looking at his listeners instead of the wall. Soon, his sermons attracted so many listeners – even from distant areas – that he had to preach in a nearby field in order to accommodate them all.

            Alison died in 1720. She had been ill for almost a year, but her health failed completely after a bout of fever affected all of her children. Three of them died before her, and one after. Erskine described his wife as “a person of the greatest candor, equity, and ingenuity” with “a great reach of judgment in religion.”[3]

Erskine and the Marrow Men

            In his diary, he remembered how he heard Alison, twenty days before her death, talking in the garden with two of her friends about a book that had become controversial at that time, the Marrow of Modern Divinity. “The freedom of the covenant of grace and the nature of faith” provided so much food for thought that the women talked for forty-five minutes, until Ebenezer called Alison inside for fear that she might catch a cold.

            This book, first published in 1645, largely forgotten, and finally resurrected by the famous preacher Thomas Boston, had been republished in 1718, largely in response to the General Assembly’s condemnation of a confessional statement: “I believe that it is not sound and orthodox to teach that we must forsake sin in order to our coming to Christ.”[4]

            While Boston and others agreed that the wording of this statement was not ideal, they believed it communicated the gospel truth that Christ came for sinners and that only God’s Spirit, through the gospel, can give the power to forsake sins. Coming to Christ and hearing the gospel must come first, they said in a formal document of protest.

            But the General Assembly didn’t budge, and the statement was erased from their creed. As a result of their opposition, Boston, Ebenezer and Ralph Erskine, and nine other ministers who had been most vocal in their defense of both the creed and the book were labeled as “antinomians” (opposers of God’s law). For years, they suffered personal abuse and lost both friends and opportunities to serve. Today, they are often remembered as “the Marrow Men.”

Erskine and the Secession

            Ebenezer continued to stand up against abuses in the church, including the practice of “patronage” (the right of landowners to appoint ministers with or without the approval of the congregation). He attacked this publicly in 1732, in a sermon he gave as moderator of the Synod of Perth and Stirling. Greatly offended by his accusations, some of his hearers convinced the synod to issue an official rebuke.

            Still convinced of the danger patronage posed to the integrity of the church and the pure preaching of the gospel, Erskine and three other ministers - William Wilson, Alexander Moncrieff, and James Fisher – rose in protest. In the end, the Assembly released the four ministers from their charges and forbade other ministers to have fellowship with them.

            In 1733, the four ejected ministers formed themselves into what was called the “Associate Presbytery” (later known as “Secession Church”). Ralph joined the group in 1737, as well as three other ministers, in spite of the hardships their decision implied. Initially, the Assembly tried to “reclaim these poor deluded people,” in order to “prevent the increase of a schism.”[5] But no unity could be achieved as long as each party continued to stand its ground on fundamental issues. In 1740, the General Assembly formally deposed all eight members of the Associate Presbytery.

            Rather than bringing the ministers back into the Church of Scotland, this decision served only to alienate more people from it. When the authorities came to evict Ebenezer from his church, he had to calm down an angry congregation who was ready to fight, and direct them outside where he continued to preach in the open air. Eventually, the Secession Church grew considerably, attracting other ministers and their congregations.

Further Division

            A new division started in 1744, when the burghers (citizens) of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Perth – where the Secession Church was strong – were required to take an oath “to endorse the religion professed in the realm and authorized by the laws thereof.” This was mostly a measure to prevent Roman Catholic influence in those cities where Catholics exercised free commerce. Understanding these premises, the Erskine brothers took the oath, believing it didn’t force them to compromise their Christian conscience. Others, instead, saw it as an endorsement of the Church of Scotland.

            The Erskines’ oath caused a major controversy. In 1747, the Secession Church broke into two parties, the Burghers and the Anti-Burghers – a division known as the "Breach".

            The Breach affected the Erskine brothers profoundly, especially since it involved a division within their families. When the Associate Synod voted to excommunicate those who had taken the Burghers’ Oath, the voting members included Ebenezer’s son-in-law James Fisher. The Erskines’ biographer A.R. MacEwen tells of a moving scene when Fisher returned home to his wife Allie.

            “'Well?' she said. He was silent. She followed him into his study and repeated her query—'Well?' After a long pause he replied, 'We have excommunicated them.' 'You have excommunicated my father and my uncle! You are my husband, but never more shall you be minister of mine.' She kept her word, and joined the Burgher congregation at Jedburgh. It is to her husband's credit that he showed no resentment, and every Sunday morning mounted her on his pony, that she might ride to Jedburgh to profit by ministrations which preserved the loved traditions of the Portmoak Manse.”[6]

            Ralph received a harsher treatment from his third son John, minister of Leslie, who had joined the Anti-Burghers and had no qualms in fiercely opposing his father. In spite of the pain this opposition caused him, Ralph kept his eyes on the Lord and the grace he had loved and preached all his life. Rather than blaming others, he saw this incident as a fit retribution for the severity he had himself displayed toward the Church of Scotland during the Secession.

            Ebenezer also kept his eyes on the church’s true Leader, as he wrote to another minister, “Here is comfort, in case of rents, divisions, and manifold disorders in the visible Church, as there are at this day. The great Master of the House is looking on. He permits and over-rules all these disorders for His own holy and wise ends, for the trial of faith and patience, and to show His own skill in bringing order out of confusion.”[7]

            In spite of the pain of the division and of an increasing deterioration of his health, he continued to preach the excellence of God’s grace. In the end, even one of his firmest opponents, the Anti-Burgher Adam Gib, told a minister who had never heard Ebenezer preach, “Sir, you have never heard the Gospel in its majesty.”[8]

            Ebenezer’s last sermon was on the verse, “I know that my Redeemer liveth” (Job 19:25). He died in Stirling on 2 June 1754. A full collection of his sermons was collected by James Fisher and published in 1761 as The Whole Works of Ebenezer Erskine. Today, this collection is available in three volumes.

[1] Donald Fraser, The Life and Diary of the Reverend Ebenezer Erskine, A.M.: Of Stirling, Father of the Secession Church, Edinburgh: William Oliphant & Sons, 1831, p. 89

[2] Ibid, p. 288

[3] Ibid., p. 286

[4] The Auchterarder Creed, by the Presbytery of Auchterarder, Scotland.

[5] John M. Kerrow, History of the Secession Church, Edinburgh: William Oliphant & Sons, 1839, p. 165

[6] A. R. MacEwen, The Erskines, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900, p. 132

[7] Ibid., 134.

[8] Barnett T. Racliffe, The Makers of the Kirk, London, Edinburgh: T. N. Foulis, 1915, p. 248


Simonetta Carr