I've been enlightening myself by reading through Keith Ives excellent history of the nonconformist church at the turn of the centuries just over a hundred years ago. In England the term 'Nonconformist' was given to any who during the period of the reformation (which you may have heard about, it was in all the papers) refused to attend the Church of England services. The church in Scotland had, naturally, a different approach to reformation, partly due to the influence of one of the leading men, John Knox, and also because Scots tend to make their feelings known if the situation requires this. Free church and Nonconformity basically mean the same thing. To study the late 19th century church position Keith Ives has concentrated on one forgotten man, indeed one I had never heard of until now. Yet this man had an great influence on church opinions and indeed following this he also had some effect on the changes to British society through his contact with leading men, Lloyd George being the most important.
William Robertson Nicoll entered the world as a 'son of the manse,' and not just any manse but a 'Free Church of Scotland' manse.' In 1843 the 'disruption' ended with a third of the Church of Scotland leaving to form their own church, the way people of integrity do. His father was content to minister in a small church in rural Aberdeenshire, satisfying his desire for knowledge by reading widely and giving a love of such knowledge and reading to his son. William however desired bigger things and once qualified found himself a church in Kelso in the borders in which to expend his preaching talents and imbibe his listeners with evangelical truths. His time there was cut short by a variety of illness and stress and it was recommended he move south to what was termed, 'warmer climes!' His lung was so badly damaged that he had to seek a very different kind of employment to feed his family.
Since his days at Aberdeen University Nicoll had contributed articles to the press. This had continued ever since and once in London Hodder & Stoughton, who had known him for some while, offered him a chance to work as an editor. So began his influential time ad editor of the 'British Weekly,' a religious paper that he made the leader amongst all such press of the day. For the next thirty or so years Nicoll was in the centre of theological debate, attempting to hold on to biblical truth while also allowing many teachings, mostly from Germany, to influence both himself and his readers. In the middle of the 19th century some in German universities decided to use a variety of 'criticisms' to investigate the truth of the bible. This normally ought to be encouraged as the truth has nothing to fear, however man's 'reason' cannot understand the book God has given us unless it is also open to the supernatural and the leading of the Holy Spirit. Too many 'discovered,' to their own content, mistakes, changes, alterations, that suited their understanding. Such teachings have influenced people ever since, in spite of alternative views being offered. Nicoll himself was so impressed that he gradually began to ignore the Old Testament altogether and began to concentrate on the cross of Christ, the centre of Christianity. However it is not possible to drop half the book, and much research has backed up much of the history of the OT. This debate added to the Darwin evolutionary theory which caused many believers to wonder what was truth.
Many leading men of the day were swayed one way or the other, it appears even some of the leading lights, often men who wrote in Nicoll's paper, took extreme views, some so extreme they soon were moving elsewhere. Such debates could not be new to a man brought up in the Free Church of Scotland. The 'disruption' left many men without a manse and their congregations without a church building. Soon after this another conflict arose and some left to form what became known as the 'Wee Free Church of Scotland!' A walk along the bank of the River Ness in Inverness shows some 16 church buildings there. The ones mentioned plus Baptist, Catholic, Congregational, Methodist, Reformed, Presbyterian and so on. Most arising from theological disputes, some from pride, the great killer. Should this be? Not really, but heresy will always arise, and secondary things, such as infant baptism, music and the like cause some to meet with like minded people, nothing wrong in this. Paul and Peter both had early disputes with those of the Circumcision Party, who thought all Gentiles ought to become full Jews. Later Gnostics, Arians, Pelagians etc became points of discussion. This has been a constant theme as both man and demon wish to turn us away from the central importance of Christ's finished work on the cross. Small things often cause division to our shame.
As time passed and his influence grew Nicoll became involved with politics! His other great love had been literature, which I regard as mere story books, and he had placed much emphasis on reading 'good books,' and gave such space in his paper, introducing stories in the copy also, not unusual at that time. However the political side became a good escape from theology as the nonconformists were always the leading light in reforming British society. The state church rarely motivated change. The early leaders of the Liberal Party were almost all nonconformists of some sort, and even the Labour Party front men were from working class chapels as opposed to state churches. This aided the introduction of pensions under the Liberal government of 1909, a time when Labour exchanges and unemployment 'dole' money also appeared. Many improvement to society occurred at that time, and Nicoll and the 'British Weekly' was in the centre of developments. Exactly where Christians ought to be today!
However the nonconformist churches were beginning to appear as middle class Liberals rather than evangelicals. While many trade unionists were from the churches the majority of the working class were not. The rise in wealth from the 1850's onwards had been made on their backs. Pit and mill, shop and farm found many now literate workers who considered they had the same rights to a better life as their so called 'betters.' Therefore their vote went to the Labour Party as it grew, and more so as Nicoll, who had been Knighted for his 'services' had given full support to the war effort once that broke in 1914. After the war the Liberals were tainted by coalition with the Conservatives who followed their normal practice of throwing workers on the dole in a time of austerity, while remaining well fed and warm themselves. 'Homes for hero's' never arrived as the Tory chancellor claimed there was no money in bankrupt Britain.
The free churches were also tainted as middle class, theologically dead, and people seeking a new satisfaction in life after the war sought refuge in pleasure, if they had the money, and socialist politics if they had not. The nominal dropped the church, those confused by fifty years of debate wandered elsewhere, and Nicoll must take a share of the blame for this. He had been one major instigator in moving into the political sphere, he had encouraged what was called 'believing criticism,' and the people had moved away with no certainties to depend on. William Robertson Nicoll never lost the centrality of the cross, but he lessened the hold of this for many. Either the book was true or not, if the OT was a doubt why not the NT? In academic circles such debate can continue with little damage, the man in the street often requires more easy to read information. The failure to explain, the lack of dependency on the Holy Spirit guided by scripture, the more people became confused.
Nicoll died in 1926, the free churches had lost their flocks after the war, and many of the members had given their lives for that cause believing it to be fighting for freedom and for God! Sadly the Germans also had similar ideas. It is important not just to read the bible but also to study it. To understand the main biblical doctrines and apply them to life each day. Far too many during Nicolls time did not do this, attending because everyone else did, reading the book sparsely, and understanding little. The free church has never recovered. The state church in England is a mess, with 95 per cent non evangelical and with agendas unknown in ancient times. The Church of Scotland is heading the same way, and for many years the leading men had little belief in the supernatural God. It is the minority that know him.
'Voice of Nonconformity' speaks to us today about the danger of following trends rather than Jesus himself. Biblical study is a must for anyone who wishes to know God through Jesus his Son, but there are many wide theological roads that lie open to the unwary. Read, study and think, would have been William Robertson Nicolls suggestion, use your brain, but I fear he himself was entrapped by fame, politics and position while struggling with theological disputes.