Dr John Kennedy (1819-1884)

Scottish Highland Christianity has been unique in preserving the biblical and spiritual attainments of the 16th-century Scottish Reformation to the present day.

Foremost in the ranks of 19th-century Highland Christianity was Dr John Kennedy (1819-1884), the renowned minister of the Free Church of Scotland in Dingwall for 40 years. Dingwall (Tingwall) was considered the Viking capital in the Scottish Highlands but Inverness is now the recognised capital of the Scottish Highlands and Islands.

In 19th-century Scotland, the Free Church of Scotland was a powerful force in national and ecclesiastical life

Through the same century, Christianity in the Highlands and the Lowlands of Scotland began to diverge from each other, to such an extent that in 1887 the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland abused his position in the chair to criticize the Calvinistic theology of the Highland congregations.

In such a climate, Dr Kennedy held the line and demonstrated how to do so, leaving a legacy that is seen to the present hour in the Presbyterian churches in the Highlands of Scotland, 140 years after his death, and in the worldwide Presbyterian diaspora they spawned around the world.

Just in time

It was almost too late. Kennedy’s colleague and equivalent in Lowland Scotland was Dr James Begg (1808-1883). Begg’s proposed solution to this declension was to separate ecclesiastically. The social historian Callum Brown showed in The Social History of Religion in Scotland since 1730 that a large and influential evangelical Presbyterian Church could have been preserved in Scotland if the threatened split had taken place in the 1870s. However, the political manoeuvring of Principal Robert Rainy defused the crisis by a calculated and tactical withdrawal of the issues in contention and in the following decade both Begg and Kennedy died within a year of each other. In the summer of 1882 Dr Kennedy had contemplated “a Caledonian Church” but now the way was clear for Rainy to lead the Free Church of Scotland to modify its public teaching by passing a Declaratory Act in 1892 that modified the subscription of its office-beares to its principal subordinate standard, the Westminster Confession of Faith, as Kennedy had foreseen.

This Declaratory Act was one of many throughout the world, documented in 1993 in my unpublished history of what I call The Declaratory Act Era, arising in a period of Victorian Doubt, as Owen Chadwick calls it.

Uniquely in worldwide Presbyterianism, there was a solitary ecclesiastical Protest against this Declaratory Act – in the Scottish Highlands – and Begg’s solution was implemented by the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. The evangelical, Confessional Christianity of the historic Church of Scotland was preserved in this new branch of Christ’s church, much to Rainy’s chagrin. This Highland response was the legacy of Dr Kennedy’s faithful preaching and defence of the Christian faith. It was just in time because another aged Highland leader, Dr Augustavus Aird (1813-1898), gave it as his opinion that there were no leaders left to form a new church, and he was too old to do so.

High-lighting the story

Kennedy’s role has been documented in the recently published John Kennedy of Dingwall 1819-1884: Evangelicalism in the Scottish Highlands, Alasdair J. Macleod, 2023, Edinburgh University Press. It is one of the Scottish Religious Cultures, Historical Perspective series.

This handsome volume came into my hands this week from the author, via his wife Esther and my daughter, to declare my interest. Its cover picture is the 1867 portrait of John Kennedy, still on display in the Free Church of Scotland Presbytery Hall, Edinburgh, using the photograph taken by my best-man Dr Robert J. Dickie, publisher of Reformation Press, whose first publication in early 1990s was The Saviour, a book of sermons by Dr Kennedy, with the fuller version of the portrait on its cover.

Macleod concludes p. 217: “The fact that historians have come increasingly to concur with Kennedy’s own assessment that the scale of change in the nineteenth-century Scottish Church was revolutionary, underlines his far-sightedness in his own day.” p. 227: “For Kennedy, the evangelicalism of the Highlands was nothing less or more than the religion commanded in Scripture, enacted in the Reformation, codified in the Westminster Confession and conserved in the stand of the Disruption Free Church. The Highland Church was not pursuing an eccentric cultural tradition, but rather maintaining the Calvinistic heritage that the majority of the Lowland evangelicalism seemed increasingly content to abandon. Kennedy’s legacy was evident in 1893, when thousands of [p. 228] Free Church people in the Highlands separated from a church that had modified its subscription to the Confession and its theology by means of a Declaratory Act.”

Macleod’s book is a popular version of his Ph.D. thesis, which follows his undergraduate thesis on Dr James Begg. I am now the proud owner of this fine volume and it can serve as my birthday present today.

As I had no specific blogpost for my birthday today, this useful volume gives me the opportunity to draw attention to a rare subject – how to preserve the Gospel.

The need of the hour

How to preserve biblical attainments is a lesson that will eventually be learned by global Christianity. Meanwhile Christianity and Christendom is slipping and sliding under the onslaught from secularism and unconverted office-bearers in the church. The national churches in Britain are failing the nations and large denominational churches in other countries are treading water. Thankfully, Christ is in control and “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” Mat 16:18.

In the kind providence of God, there have been many revivals and Reformations in the history of the Christian church, but these eventually decline when the Church grows complacent and grieves the Holy Spirit. The Lord sovereignly revives His Church, but judicially withdraws His Spirit upon its backsliding Rev 2:5.

There are many books about the declension of the Christian church at various times and in different places. The “third generation problem” has been commonly noted – that the first generation is faithful, the second generation takes its privileges for granted and becomes scholarly and the third generation experiments and fails. It is a feature of human nature. A family business is built up slowly by patient diligence; the second generation learns the same principles and begins to expand; the third generation expands too fast and the family business crashes. A successful business grows in a town; the second generation becomes a national business; the third generation goes international with shareholders interested only in profit and no-one cares about the abuses of workers in distant lands, where reports are produced to give the appearance of good governance but after decades of abuse a sting operation with subsequent exposure is the only thing that exposes that their ‘duty of care’ was paper-thin and not implemented, like most other reports into abuses in corporate and public life. It is the price paid for ignoring the application of Christianity to public life.

There are no books known to me about preserving the Gospel from this ungodly ambition in human nature, although Jesus warned about it Jn 5:44.

The means of preserving the Gospel has been developed in the Scottish Highlands, although not analysed nor published in written form. In the meanwhile it is preserved institutionally by the faithful preaching of the Gospel, the faithful application of the marks of grace and the maintenance of godly office-bearers through biblical creedal subscription 2Tim 2:2.

Scottish Highland Christianity, among many other features, has preserved the importance of being born again by the Holy Spirit of God Jn 3:3-8, a doctrine lost long ago from the public preaching of many pulpits.

To this must be added the maintenance and preservation of the Gospel. The lessons from Dr John Kennedy’s life and sermons are part of the literary corpus to this end, but the practical principles arising from biblical exegesis have still to be identified and published.

Thank you, Alasdair, for the birthday present.

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