In early October 1797 a small group of men rode in to Dornoch from the north. They had spent the last few months touring the north east, the Orkneys and Caithness. But these were not tourists. They were missionaries, enthusiastic and determined to share their Christian faith with the local population. Although Scotland had been Christian for many centuries, the men felt that for most people this did not deeply affect their deepest beliefs and ways of life. Their missionary impulse was part of the eighteenth-century ‘heart-felt’ Evangelical Christianity which had already swept North America, England, Wales and swathes of Scotland. One of the men was James Haldane, one of two brothers from a wealthy Stirlingshire family. They were both converted as young men who, their plans to become missionaries abroad stymied, developed a passion for evangelism in the north of Scotland. The institutional church at the time was very wary of itinerant preachers, particularly ones who were willing to criticise local ministers. They were also wary of the ‘enthusiastic’ religion of evangelists like John Wesley, George Whitefield and the Haldanes.
Haldane recorded in his diary that, accompanied by Mr. Aikman, they entered
Dornoch, the county town, where they heard a melancholy account of the state of religion. But whilst the people were without the blessing of a preached Gospel, it was comforting to hear of the good done at prayer-meetings, instituted about the time of the Revolution of 1688.
The minister at the time was John Bethune. He was a renowned classical scholar but did not meet the Haldane party’s standards. It may well be that Bethune had a more intellectual style of preaching than was acceptable to the Evangelicals who wanted an emphasis on the message of salvation and spiritual experience. Despite this perceived inadequacy of preaching in church, there was clearly a community of local people who nurtured their faith through fellowship meetings. These appear to have been common throughout the district and it’s fascinating to hear this account of how ordinary people practiced their faith.
They originated at a time when much of the power of godliness was experienced. They generally met at first in the minister’s house, or in some private house in the parish. The parochial fellowship meetings are now all so numerous, that they meet in churches. The minister acts as moderator. He begins with singing, and then prays. In many places, especially if the meeting be thin, he reads a portion of Scripture, and explains it. He then asks if any person has a question, or a case of conscience to propose for the consideration of those who are to speak at the meeting. A passage of Scripture is then mentioned, and a question proposed from it, relative to experimental [today we would use the word ‘experiential’ – i.e. the personal experience of faith] religion, by some person present. The moderator elucidates the passage, and states the question as intelligibly as possible. The speakers then deliver their sentiments with an earnestness suited to the importance of the subject, and the moderator collects their different ideas, corrects anything that may be improperly stated, and gives his own opinion. The man who proposes the question never speaks to it. In many places there is a prayer offered up about the middle of the service. One of the speakers prays after the service is over, and a psalm is sung. Occasions of this nature are highly and deservedly valued by the people. In many places, we understand they are the chief means of maintaining and carrying forward the work of Christ. It is here also worthy of particular remark, that until within these few years that some ministers have discountenanced them, it was the practice of a great part of the north country to hold public fellowship meetings on the Friday previous to the administration of the Lord’s Supper. Experienced Christians here discoursed freely of the manner of the Lord’s dealing with them, and we are enabled often to speak much to the comfort and edification of their weaker brethren.
It is often assumed that clergy were very controlling of the people but here we can see that while the minister offers some teaching and chairs the meeting, there was considerable input and direction from the participants. There was a balance of prayer, singing, reading of the Bible and discussion. However, some ministers obviously felt that the meetings challenged their control over their congregation, and tensions had arisen which became more pronounced over the next few decades. These ‘old Scottish fellowship meetings’ impressed the Haldanes and their colleagues and this type of social worship inspired some of the practices they promoted through the Baptist and Congregationalist movements. The Friday meetings before communion are still practiced by many Presbyterian churches in the Highlands and Islands to this day.
Having left Dornoch, where the Gaelic was so generally spoken, that the people did not understand English, they came to Tain, where they found the people highly favored, being blessed with a zealous and faithful minister of the Established Church, who is the fifth of that character, in immediate succession. This was Angus Mackintosh who had just been become their minister earlier that year. After preaching at Tain, Milton, Invergordon, and Drummond, they arrived at Dingwall, where they preached, both in the street and in the Town-hall, and then crossed the Ferry, and by the Lord’s good hand upon us, arrived in safety at Inverness, in the afternoon of the 18th October.
Alexander Haldane, Memoirs of the lives of Robert Haldane of Airthrey, and of his brother James Alexander Haldane (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1868), p.172-3.