ERSKINE, EBENEZER: Founder of the Scottish Secession Church (see PRESBYTERIANS); b. at Dryburgh (30 m. s.e. of Edinburgh), Berwickshire, June 22, 1680; d. at Stirling June 2, 1754. His father, Henry Erskine an English non-conformist minister (ejected by the Act of Uniformity, 1662; after the Revolution minister of Chirnside, Berwickshire; d. 1696), belonged to the family of the earls of Mar. His mother, Margaret Halcro of Orkney, claimed as ancestor the duke of Albany, son of James V. of Scotland. Both parents were distinguished by piety and holy living. The son inherited their more valuable qualities and somewhat of the high spirit not unbecoming the noble blood which flowed in his veins. He studied at the University of Edinburgh (M. A., 1697), and was licensed and ordained minister of Portmoak, Kinrossshire, in 1703. In 1704 he married Alison Turpie, whose religious experience and devout spirit were the means of giving him his first real "view of salvation." In 1731 he was translated to the more important charge of Stirling, which he occupied till his deposition from the ministry of the Church of Scotland, in 1740.
As a minister of the national church, no less than after his secession, Erskine's labors were abundant and successful. Few ministers of that day enjoyed greater popularity as a preacher. People came from distances of sixty or seventy miles to benefit by his ministrations; and at the dispensation of the communion it was sometimes found necessary, even in the small parish of Portmoak, to make provision for no fewer than 2,000 participants. His discourses were plain, even homely in style, but were delivered with a certain elevation and dignity of manner which were always characteristic of him.
But it is chiefly as a leader in ecclesiastical affairs, at a critical period of the history of the Church of Scotland, that Erskine was known in his own day, and is remembered. For the full history of the secession of 1733, see PRESBYTERIANS. Of this first considerable division in the Scottish Church, Erskine is admitted to have been the prime mover. The immediate occasion of the rupture was an act of the General Assembly of 1732, in connection with the vexed question of patronage. The relations of Erskine and his followers to the "ruling party in the Church," however, had been already strained long before this: first, in the so-called Marrow Controversy (q.v.), in which they were rebuked by the General Assembly; and again in a celebrated case of alleged heresy that of John Simson (q.v.), professor of divinity in the University of Glasgow, whose suspension from teaching without deprivation either of status or stipend was regarded by Erskine as a grossly inadequate sentence. In fact, in announcing their secession in the formal protest of Nov. 16, 1733, the four original members of the Associate Synod, as the new body was at first called, expressly ascribed the step which they felt it their duty to take, not to any one act of the Church, but to "a course of defection from our Reformed and covenanting principles."
- Among the incidents of Erskine's later years mention should be made of his procedure in the rebellion of 1745. When the rebels occupied Stirling, he not only organized a Secession corps of volunteers in behalf of the government, but acted as their captain, and for his patriotic conduct received the thanks of the duke of Cumberland. It is also to his credit that when the Associate Synod was rent asunder in 1747 into "Burghers" and "Antiburghers" by disputes over religious clauses in oaths administered to burgesses of Scotch cities, he took the side of toleration, and while the Anti-burghers excommunicated those who subscribed the required oath, he refused to make non-subscription a term of communion. On the other hand he showed a narrow spirit in reference to the work of George Whitefield and spoke contemptuously of the "noisy wind " which that "prelatic" preacher had "brought into the land." His published works were sermons and controversial pamphlets, which were issued in several collected editions after his death.
- (WILLIAM LEE.) HENRY COWAN.