In May 1843 a schism in the Church of Scotland, better known as the Disruption, led to the creation of the evangelical Free Church of Scotland. It was the culmination of a decade-long conflict over the ability of parishioners to appoint their minister, and reflected wider concerns over state interference with the Scottish Church. April’s MP of the Month is the Conservative MP for Argyllshire, Alexander Campbell, who was one of the founding elders of the Free Church. His ruthless electioneering in Argyllshire from 1836, eventual election in 1841, and failed legislative attempts to prevent the breakup of the Church placed the looming controversy at the centre of parliamentary politics. It also revealed irreconcilable differences between the Conservative Prime Minister Robert Peel and one of his few Scottish backbenchers.
Alexander Campbell entered Scottish Conservative politics after a brief military career, which had seen him garrisoned in Quebec between 1830 and 1832. He returned to Scotland in 1832 following the death of his father, who had sat in the Commons as a loyal ministerialist during the Napoleonic wars. On succeeding to the family estates in Perthshire and Argyllshire, which included Monzie Castle, Campbell threw himself into Conservative politics in both counties.
In December 1835 Campbell took the unusual step of commencing a canvass in Argyllshire, despite there being no imminent suggestion of an election. His constant state of electioneering throughout 1836 was provoked by the Whig government’s Irish church legislation, which he saw as an existential threat to the established Church, not just in Ireland, but in Scotland. Campbell, who was considered by one observer to be ‘more of the itinerant preacher than the parliamentary candidate’, warned that proposals to appropriate funds from the Irish Church, the continuation of the Maynooth grant and government support for Irish repealers such as Daniel O’Connell, were foreboding signs that the Whigs intended to attack the Scottish Church next.
By July 1836, Campbell’s campaign had brought him into contact with the leading Scottish Evangelical, Thomas Chalmers. Earlier that month, Argyllshire’s Whig MP had somewhat foolishly claimed in a letter to his constituents that Chalmers supported the Whig ministry. This provoked a war of letters between Campbell and his opponent, which received widespread publication in the English, Irish and Scottish press. The letters resulted in Chalmers’s denunciation of the appropriation of Irish Church revenues as ‘an act of violence against the Episcopalian Protestant establishment in Ireland’, and a sign that ‘the Presbyterian establishment of Scotland’ was ‘not safe’ in Whig hands. Significantly, the episode also led to the forging of a close friendship between Campbell and Chalmers.
As expected, Campbell contested the 1837 election at Argyllshire, in what the Morning Post described as a contest between ‘Protestanism or Popery’. However, he was defeated on account of the electoral strength of the county’s Whig proprietor, the 6th Duke of Argyll. In the aftermath of his defeat Campbell maintained his close links with the leadership of the Scottish Evangelicals. He was elected as an elder of the General Assembly in 1838, and emerged as a prominent figure in ongoing non-intrusionist calls to allow parishioners to appoint their ministers.
Campbell’s electoral prospects increased dramatically in December 1839 with the succession of the Conservative 7th Duke of Argyll, which meant that his return for the county at the next election was now considered a certainty. With Parliament a realistic prospect, Campbell turned his attention to legislation that he hoped would solve the brewing schism over state interference in the Scottish Church. In 1840 he began to promote proposals to establish the precedence of the Church courts over the civil courts in cases where ministers proved unacceptable to their parishioners. The policy was the cornerstone of his campaign in Argyllshire during the 1841 general election, where he was returned unopposed thanks to the influence of the Duke of Argyll and the popularity of his non-intrusionist stance.
As he had promised on the hustings, Campbell’s main goal in Parliament was to introduce legislation to prevent the breakup of the Scottish Church. However, he was frustrated at Westminster by the inability of the Conservative Prime Minister, Robert Peel, to realise the gravity of the situation, as well as the government’s unwillingness to support what he felt was a deeply Conservative cause. The government failed to support his efforts for a select committee on the Scottish Church in March 1842, and in April he introduced the Scottish Church patronage bill, which would have given congregations the right to reject ministers. Crucially, the government’s refusal to support the bill on a technicality led to its withdrawal in June 1842.
Despite the government’s assurances that they would legislate on the issue in the next session, Campbell was dismayed when ministers refused to back a motion on the Scottish Church in March 1843. For Campbell this was the final straw, and with the reality of a breakup of the Scottish Church imminent he returned to Monzie Castle to build a wooden church, which he would later present to the Free Church congregation there.
In May, Campbell made one last attempt to prevent a schism, pleading with the Prime Minister to ‘avert the breaking up of the Church, by instantaneous and satisfactory legislative interposition’. Peel ignored his plea, and on 18 May 1843, Campbell was one of the 73 elders who attended the Disruption Assembly, walking side by side with Thomas Chalmers from St. Andrew’s Church to Tanfield Hall in Canonmills, where the Disruption Assembly was held. On the same day he confirmed his intention to resign his parliamentary seat in order to promote the interests of the Free Church.
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