Church Leadership History of Bristo Baptist
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History of Bristo Baptist Church


The earliest written record of what is now Bristo Baptist Church is a manuscript extract from the Scots Magazine for November 1765. This is unsigned so we do not know which of the church's founders made the note nor who ensured its survival. The extract reads as follows:

" on Monday November 25 an antipaedobaptist administered the ordinance of Baptism to two adults in the water of Leith hard by Canonmills near Edinburgh in the following manner the two persons being first stripped were cloathed with long black gowns and then went into the water along with their Minister who after repeating some words in their ordinary form took them by the nape of the neck plunged them down over head and ears and keept them for a little time wholly under the water "

This was in fact the second such baptism. Shortly before, Robert Carmichael, pastor of a small independent church in Edinburgh, had come to accept Baptist principles through a close study of Scriptures and correspondence with Archibald McLean, a Glasgow bookseller and printer. Knowing no other Baptist in Scotland, Mr Carmichael had travelled to London where he had been baptised on 9 October 1765 by Dr John Gill of Carter Lane, a noted Baptist evangelical. It was on his return to Edinburgh that Carmichael baptised five members of his independent congregation, so instituting the first "Scotch Baptist " church.

Unknown to them, however, there was another Baptist in Edinburgh. Sir William Sinclair, founder of the Keiss church on his Dunbeath estate, was in the debtors' prison in the grounds of Holyroodhouse, where he had sought sanctuary. As long as he remained there he could not be asked to repay his debts. Sir William died in 1768 and is buried in Lord MacLeod's grave in the Canongate Churchyard.

Had he and the founders of the Edinburgh church met what might have been the effect on Scottish Baptist history? A few weeks after Carmichael had baptised these seven, Archibald McLean travelled from Glasgow to be baptised in turn. In 1767, settling in Edinburgh, he naturally joined the infant church, being elected co-pastor with Carmichael a year later. Archibald McLean very quickly became leader of the Baptist work in Scotland. In 1785 the church asked him to give up his work in the printing trade and supported him in full time church and denominational work. He died in 1812, remembered affectionately as "Father McLean ".


During its long history Bristo has had various meeting places:

1. The Magdalene Chapel in the Cowgate, which was also the home of the first General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1560 under the leadership of John Knox. (The building is now owned by the Scottish Reformation Society and is open to the public.)

 2. Richmond Court, built in 1787 as the first place of worship erected by Baptists in Scotland.

 3. St Cecilia's Hall, Niddry Wynd, bought in 1802 as Richmond Court had become too small. This was sold to the Freemasons in 1809 and the congregation met in :

 4. the Old High School, Infirmary Street, until

 5 the Pleasance Chapel was completed. This was occupied from 1811 until 1834.

 6 St Cecilia's Hall again, pending the opening of the Chapel in Bristo Place on 20 November 1836. There the church remained until

 7 our present building opened on 20 February 1935. (This explains why the name "Bristo " was retained.)

 But a church is not a collection of buildings, no matter how historic they may be. "Church" is the people of God and any church history must concentrate on their work and witness.


A church set in order

From its inception the Edinburgh church ordered itself on the New Testament model described in Acts 2:42

"And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine (teaching) and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in prayer" (New King James Version). It is appropriate, therefore, that consideration of these four key activities formed the core of our Anniversary celebrations on 21 November. Before an individual church was set in order a plurality of Elders or Pastors (the words were synonymous) as well as deacons, were considered essential, both groups elected by the congregation. Breaking of Bread (Communion) took place every Lord's Day and was only for baptised believers who held to the same principle of order and faith (i.e. only church members could participate). An Elder had to be present to administer communion. Public prayers and exhortations of the brethren were observed in meetings and offerings for poorer brethren were taken. Occasionally the Agape or Love Feast was observed. Our present practice of a monthly congregational lunch reinstates this tradition. Decisions of the church meetings had to be unanimous.

 Because of the distinctive plural pastorate form of government, those following the Edinburgh pattern became known as "Scotch Baptist" churches, to distinguish them from later foundations, such as Charlotte Chapel, based on the "English" model of a single full-time pastor. These terms do not reflect the church's country of origin.

 As leader of the Scotch Baptists, Archibald McLean was responsible for setting in order churches in Glasgow (1769 John Street, closed 1969), Dundee (1769 South Seagate, closed c. 1855), Montrose (1769, closed 1790), Largo (1790), Kirkcaldy (1798, Rose Street, part of which later became Whytescauseway) and Paisley (1795, Coats Memorial). These all looked to the Edinburgh church as their mother church, since, before they were established, converts were baptised in Edinburgh and became members of that church. In an age when the Church of Scotland was rent by various schisms over points of doctrine and the relationship between church and state theological debate became something of a national pastime. The Edinburgh church was often called upon to arbitrate in disputes among the "connexion" of Scotch Baptist churches. Particular problems were caused by the need for an Elder to preside at Communion. For smaller fellowships this meant that they could not observe the Lord's Supper until an Elder from another church could visit them. The churches divided on this issue in 1810 and in 1834.

 Largely because of McLean's influence and writings, Scotch Baptist Churches were formed in England, particularly in Lancashire and Yorkshire, and Welsh speaking ones in North Wales. David Lloyd George, prime minister from 1916 to 1922, was brought up by his uncle, who led the Scotch Baptist church in Criccieth.

 Until the appointment of William Grant as the first full-time pastor in 1870, our leaders were all laymen who carried on their own business or professional employment while serving the church. Is it more than coincidence that William     Grant's ministry, which lasted until his death in 1902, was the most fruitful in Bristo's history? Membership increased from 200 to over 600. The first ordained minister was Rev. W.B. Nicolson (1897-1919). He left Bristo to become secretary of the Baptist Union of Scotland but died the following year. The dual pastorate ended with the retiral of Percival Waugh (1903-23) who was an assistant secretary, a very senior position, in the Inland Revenue. It was said that government ministers "quailed before him".

 Since then we have followed the mainstream Baptist practice of one full-time ordained minister. This change was recognised by the decision to delete the word "Scotch" before "Baptist Church" on the title paper of the roll book (Minute 21 February 1927 A Journal of Proceedings in Connection with Bristo Place Baptist Church Edinburgh).



As leader of the Edinburgh church, Archibald McLean was responsible for setting in order the Scotch Baptist churches which followed its foundation. He therefore laid the ground-rules for worship and practice in the new church order. These were firmly based on the New Testament. In considering his Institutions of Divine Worship it is interesting to note how these have changed over the years yet fundamentally remain the same. The following were considered essential each Sunday :-

a) public reading of the Old and New Testaments;

b) mutual exhortation of the brethren on the Lord's Day, immediately after the reading of the Scriptures;

c) preaching and expounding the word, a work proper to the Elders or Pastors, who were to feed the flock;

d) public prayers and Thanksgivings, not only of the Elders, but also of the brethren, according to directions given them as a body;

e) singing of praise (Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs);

f) collection for the support of poor saints (i.e. church members);

g) Breaking of Bread (Lord's Supper); and

h) feast of charity (love feast, in the interval of public worship)

Other practices, less frequently observed, were prayer and fasting on particular occasions, the kiss of charity on various occasions, washing of feet, "not as a ceremony but whenever it could be of real service to a disciple of Christ."

The discipline of the church was based on Matthew 18:15-17 "Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone; if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take one or two more that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church; but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican" (AV). If a member did not repent of an offence he was excluded from communion and fellowship with members until he acknowledged his error or wrongdoing. The aim of this form of discipline was to reinforce the separation of the church from the world, to show brotherly love to an erring member and give him opportunity to repent, after which he would be reinstated as a member. (These notes are based on a summary of McLean's writings in Robert Dawson Mitchell's Ph.D thesis "Archibald McLean, Baptist Pioneer in Scotland", Edinburgh University, 1950, pp. 196-200).

Exhortation was not the same as preaching a sermon, but could be used as a trial for young men in preparation for future election to the Eldership. The congregation chose those whom they considered suitable to exhort. One of these voting slips has survived, undated but the style of the printing and written notes suggest the late 18th or early 19th century. The printed instructions are as follows:-

"Make a Cross (thus X) opposite the Names of those whom you think qualified to Exhort on the Lord's days. Return your List, Crossed as above, on or before next Sabbath. If any Exhorters Name has been omitted, add it. If there be any on the List who, in your opinion ought not to Exhort at all, Score out the Name."

There follows a list of 27 names of which a cross is against Lawson, Kemp and W. Wilson. In manuscript, underneath the list of names, our anonymous elector has written "ye may speak one by one that all may learn. Do not speak to please men if they(?) should not be the servant of Christ--Paul." A record of the early church services is contained in "Reminiscences of the Old Baptist Church, Pleasance" by James Williamson, a manuscript dated 1891 but describing his experiences as a small child in the 1820's.

The morning service lasted from 10 a.m. to just before 1 p.m. with the following order:

1st Psalm or Hymn - Prayer by one of the brethren

2nd Psalm or Hymn - Prayer by one of the brethren

3rd Psalm or Hymn - Prayer by one of the brethren

Lessons from the Old and New Testaments

Prayer by the presiding Pastor 1st, 2nd and 3rd Exhortation

The exhortations were spontaneous addresses, not pre-arranged. If more than one Elder or Deacon stood to speak at the same time, the presiding Pastor decided on the order. After a much-needed break the afternoon service commenced at 2 p.m. with three psalms or hymns and prayers, lessons from the Prophets and Epistles, another Hymn, the Sermon by one of the Pastors, a closing hymn during which non-members left as only members could partake of the Lords Supper which followed. Now we can understand why the love feast was such an important part of Bristo's early history.

The Williamson family lived in Leith so had to walk to the Pleasance and similarly back home after the afternoon service arriving there about 5 p.m. or even later. With our modern transport and multiplicity of churches it is difficult to imagine the problems our ancestors faced in meeting to worship and listen to God's Word according to their principles. We have much to learn from their steadfastness.

Social aspects of church life

By the 1870s, as well as the morning and afternoon services each Lord's Day (which were described in part 3) there was a Sunday School at 5.15 p.m. and an Evangelistic Meeting at 7 p.m. The Young Men's Fellowship met at 9.45a.m. but in 1892 the Sunday School changed to 4 p.m. and the Young Men's Fellowship to 4.15 p.m. A prayer meeting was also held on the first Sunday of every month at 10 a.m. (which the Sunday School teachers, the Fellowship Association and other church workers were expected to attend) "for special prayer on behalf of all work carried on by the Church and its members."

This concentration of activity on a Sunday must be seen in the context of a 6-day working week with an average finishing time of 6-7 p.m. For the committed Christian Sunday was hardly a day of rest.

A weekly Bible Class was held on Tuesdays at 8 p.m. and each Thursday there was a meeting "for worship" at 8 p.m., the first Thursday of every month being "specially devoted to prayer for the Spread of the Gospel". The church also conducted "missions" in Potterrow and Hatter's Court, Pleasance. These were poor parts of the city and work was mainly with children and young people. Churches then, like society in general, were more segregated socially than now. Many poor people did not feel comfortable in church, considering that they did not have suitable clothes. In other churches it was also the practice to charge pew rents as the main source of income, which restricted attendance to those who could afford to pay. Bristo never adopted that practice. Occasionally we find people from the Potterrow mission coming into membership.

Despite the limited leisure, there were also several weekday activities, mainly during the winter and spring months from October to May. The Band of Hope promoted total abstinence from alcohol. During the meetings, readings were given by the members and addresses by various friends. The Mutual Improvement Association was first formed in 1863 and, initially, lasted until 1871. The aim of the Association was "the moral, social and literary improvement of its members".

Membership was initially restricted to the young men of the church. When it was reformed in 1877, ladies were admitted as associates (which meant they could not present papers or serve on the committee). Their talents were utilised, however, for the annual soirée and they were admitted as full members in 1920, having filled the gaps made by the men on war service. The Society continued until the 1940s. Among the topics debated was "Will the freedom of the Negro be most likely to be promoted by the dissolution or reconstruction of the American Union?". This was on 19 February 1864 in the midst of the American civil war. The result was 6 in favour of re-construction and 11 for dissolution. Other topics covered included capital punishment and the union of church and state. It was therefore no light meeting. In 1865, honorary membership of the association was granted to Mr William Gillon "for the repetition of his kindness in the loan of the necessary china for our Soirée."

More practical meetings were the Dorcas Meeting, a ladies sewing meeting, and the Missionary Working Party, again a sewing meeting where "garments" were made for the Zenana Mission under the auspices of the B.M.S. These limitations on female service illustrate the general view of women, particularly the middle and upper classes, in Victorian society. Their social work was seen as an extension to their domestic role.

Incidentally Bristo may have played some part in the founding of the Baptist Missionary Society. The Church Newsletter of December 1965 carried a report of the Bicentenary celebrations from 26-28 November that year. The guest speaker on Monday 28 November was Dr Ernest Payne, general secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain and a former president of the Baptist Historical Society. In his address Dr Payne stated:

"Dr Charles Stewart joined Bristo in 1778 and soon afterwards got to know a group of ministers in Northampton. He sent parcels of books to them, including the works of Johnathan Edwards, and it was through reading these works that eventually led these ministers to take steps which led to the formation of the B.M.S."

Who knows where a simple gift of books might lead?

The brief history sketched here forms part of the scholarly work of the late Dr. Christina Lumsden, who was a member of Bristo and church secretary for many years.

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