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Send Back the Money

Fraser MacDonald

After the 1843 Disruption, when the Free Church of Scotland split from the Church of Scotland, some of its leaders tried to raise money from Presbyterians in the American South. Some of those who gave money were slavers. There was disapproval, but the money spoke louder – some sources say the church accepted £3000, others $3000. The American abolitionist Frederick Douglass came to Edinburgh in 1846 to urge the church to ‘Send Back the Money’. Last year, the Free Church Board of Trustees agreed to set up a committee of inquiry into these donations, led by the principal of the Edinburgh Theological Seminary, Rev. Iver Martin. The expectation was that it would report to this May’s General Assembly. ‘It’s an important issue,’ Donald Forsyth, the chairman of the trustees, said, ‘and we’re not going to dodge it. It needs to be addressed.’

It looks like it has been dodged. We are not allowed to know about the discussion at this year’s Assembly, held towards the end of May, because, against the usual custom of Presbyterian governance, the issue was dealt with in private. But it seems that no research was undertaken and no report written. After some internal debate, the Assembly issued a statement. The church ‘recognises and freely admits the historical sins of members of the denomination in relation to slavery’; ‘we express regret over the interaction between members of a Free Church delegation that visited the USA in 1844 and some of their US associates’; ‘we grieve that the Free Church decided to receive funds as a result of the delegation’; and ‘we acknowledge with sorrow the actions of our forebears.’ The statement is apologetic without being an apology.

What happened to the report? What is the extent of the church’s slavery wealth? Where did the money go? We don’t know, because the church’s sin and regret and sorrow and grief didn’t extend to finding out. Its statement carefully concentrates on US donations and doesn’t mention what several historians have shown: the American money was a small fraction of the church’s slavery wealth, most of which came from Jamaican plantations by way of an 1853 bequest from the Glasgow sugar baron and conservative evangelical James Ewing. The church has never acknowledged this, although the value of Ewing’s bequest (and there are probably others we don’t know about) has been estimated by Stephen Mullen of Glasgow University to be equivalent to £14.5 million (calculated relative to average wages in 2020).

The prospect of reparations may explain this reluctance, but there’s also a more existential explanation. The Free Church has a benign self-image. It thinks of its history as being a record of God’s providence and a testament to the faithfulness of his people. Although the church doesn’t venerate saints – Calvinists believe in the priesthood of all believers – there is a particular reverence for the so-called Disruption Worthies: the church’s early leaders, including Thomas Chalmers, Robert Candlish and William Cunningham, all of whom defended taking the slavers’ cash. Chalmers’s portrait is painted on the window of the Free Church’s Presbytery Hall in Edinburgh and his statue looks down over George Street. He regarded himself as pro-abolition, but his position was gradualist. He suggested that slaves could be given one day off a week so that in seven or eight years they could earn enough to buy their way to freedom. ‘The slave who idled his free time, whether in sleep or amusement, would of course make no further progress towards a state of freedom. He would live and die a slave because he chose to do so.’

None of this is well known in Scotland, not even within the Free Church. I certainly didn’t learn about it from my Welfare of Youth Sunday schooling, nor did I learn that another Disruption Worthy, the geologist and newspaper editor Hugh Miller, boasted about having stabbed a black teenager. The church seems to think the Send Back the Money episode is safely distant, but the 1840s aren’t so long ago (I once knew a church elder whose father was born before the Disruption) and this isn’t an obscure controversy: in the US, Douglass’s campaign is an important part of the abolition story. In his recent Gifford Lectures, the philosopher and US presidential candidate Cornel West twice mentioned Douglass’s campaign in Edinburgh.

The leader of the Church of Scotland’s evangelical faction until his premature death in 1831 was Andrew Mitchell Thomson, who believed in armed resistance against West Indian proprietors: ‘If there must be violence, let it come,’ Thomson wrote. ‘Give me the hurricane rather than the pestilence.’ Had he lived to lead the Free Church there would have been no question of accepting slavery money. ‘I look not at the money but at the price paid for it,’ wrote the American abolitionist Henry Clarke Wright, who joined Douglass on his tour of Scotland: ‘to get the money they gave the fellowship.’ The church did not think that enslaved people mattered enough to warrant refusing the money.

The corrupting effect of this decision is still being felt. It’s evident in the church’s dismissal of the African American opera singer Andrea Baker’s request in 2015 for an official apology. Its then moderator, Rev. David Robertson, said he ‘was being emotionally blackmailed to make a meaningless gesture’. A church spokesperson used the same word, ‘meaningless’, in December 2020 in response to another request for an apology. The church seems to see itself as the victim here. Even the late Donald Macleod, its most liberal voice and most eminent theologian, argued in 2020 that ‘the only life left in the “Send Back the Money” story is the life injected into [it] … by those who think it can still embarrass the Free Church.’

The church has taken consistently terrible views on race. Its gradualist stance on slavery was followed by a similar position on apartheid. South Africa has a ‘native population that is still largely primitive, politically immature and … pagan’, the editor of the Free Church magazine, the Monthly Record, wrote in 1960, ‘and we see at once the extreme danger of according immediate admission to full political responsibility.’ The boycott of South African goods that followed the Sharpeville massacre, he added, was ‘one of the most senseless things we have heard’. A reference to apartheid being ‘evil’ was removed from a General Assembly report by Rev. Kenneth MacRae of Stornoway, who said that problems ‘existed … wherever there were black and coloured races’. The civil rights marches of 1968 were, according to the Monthly Record’s editor, ‘communist-inspired’. Enoch Powell was widely and publicly supported. One elder walked out of the 1974 Assembly in protest at a delegate from the Dutch Reformed Church giving ‘a defence of apartheid cloaked in Christian zeal’. He waited in the vestibule, appalled at ‘the rousing reception … which would seem to indicate agreement with the views expressed’. When Macleod was editor of the Monthly Record in the 1980s he put a photo of an anti-apartheid demonstration on the cover, drawing a stinging rebuke from another minister who defended the ‘praying Calvinists’ of the South African government. But Macleod defended the church’s position on slavery and had to resign from his long-standing column for the West Highland Free Press in 2015 after writing that ‘in the event of Islamic dominance in Britain our friendly Muslim shopkeepers will have little option but to march behind the radicals.’ This is the liberal wing of the Free Church of Scotland.

Its most prominent minister, David Robertson, has regularly retweeted posts that say things like: ‘I am white. I’ve worked all my life for this country. My sons and grandsons are white. We are now second-class citizens and discriminated against for jobs. Why?’ He routinely mocks anti-racist movements; accused the SNP former first minister, Humza Yousaf, of being ‘anti-white’; described the English far right activist Tommy Robinson as ‘intelligent, passionate, persuasive and incredibly brave’; complained about not being able to use the word ‘coloured’; described books about racism by Reni Eddo-Lodge and Ben Lindsay as ‘racist’; criticised black Christians for talking about black theology; and circulated conspiracies about ‘cultural Marxism’. He recently shared a video of the al-Muhajiroun leader, Anjem Choudary, saying he was ‘obliged to implement Sharia’ in Britain (Choudary was jailed for two years in 2016 after being convicted under the Terrorism Act). Tagging Yousaf, Robertson asked ‘why so many in the SNP thought Kate Forbes with her Christianity was more of a threat than Humza with his Islam?’ It’s tempting to dismiss Robertson as a fringe figure (he is currently a minister of the Scots Kirk in Australia), but the Free Church used him as a spokesperson during the 2023 SNP leadership election and he still commands a following in Scotland, boasting of his proximity to the new deputy first minister, Kate Forbes (‘I know her personally’), who in 2014 allowed her writing to be published on his blog. The Free Church’s leaders are aware of what he writes – I’ve told them – but they prefer to look the other way, even as they declare that they are ‘firmly opposed to all forms of racism’.

The contrast between the Free Church and other churches and institutions is stark. The Church of Scotland produced a substantial report on its links to slavery last year. Its moderator, Sally Foster-Fulton, went to Jamaica in April with leaders of the Episcopal and United Reformed churches. A statement of acknowledgment and apology is supposed to follow next year. The group intends to visit every presbytery in Scotland to discuss their findings with church members. The Church of England has put £100 million in a reparative investment fund, a figure the Church Commissioners have said is not nearly enough. The University of Glasgow published a ground-breaking report on the institution’s slavery links in 2018 and set aside £20 million for reparations. Edinburgh University and Edinburgh Royal Infirmary are doing similar work. The Free Church, meanwhile, insists that ‘we, as the Free Church today, are unlikely to be the beneficiaries of these funds due to the various transfers of property to other denominations.’ This isn’t much of an excuse, since the church got its fair share of property after the split of 1900 (when most of its members joined with the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland to become the United Free Church), and in 1904 claimed successfully in the House of Lords that it was the legal heir to the Disruption Free Church.

Since 2020, the Free Church has announced detailed positions on sex work, assisted dying, gender recognition reform, sex education, conversion therapy (three times) and abortion (four times). Yet it couldn’t give as much attention, let alone the attention it deserves, to its own links with slavery. Like many Free Church families, mine was caught up with the legacies of empire and slavery: my great-grandfather named his collie after a racial epithet; he planted trees for the Baillies of Dochfour, a family of ‘West Indian merchants’, and his daughter went into service for McIntosh of Moy Hall, another Jamaican plantation owner. Our religious life and thought was shaped by empire. My earliest geographical education came from mission reports from India and Africa that were couched in a language of racial hierarchy: of spiritual wilderness, the Dark Continent, the barren fields and the harvest of heathens. A definition of the racialised other shaped our sense of self. We didn’t think about empire. We were empire.


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