Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Today on the Christian History Almanac, we remember James Morison and his role in the divisions in the Church of Scotland.

It is the 14th of February 2024. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac, brought to you by 1517 at; I’m Dan van Voorhis.


It is a rare treat- Valentine's Day and Ash Wednesday falling on the same day! Hey babe, I got you some roses and ashes- because we are all going to die.

As for the history of Valentine’s Day- we’ve done it on this show before, and you can also check out my pal Gretchen and Katie’s podcast on the 1517 network, “Freely Given,” as I am their guest on a new episode about the topic.

If I were to whittle down all controversies throughout the church's history, I might contend that there is one question that has been the most difficult to answer and has been responsible for the most number of church splits and schisms.

It is: “Who is in charge?” With the implied answer, “not the one, or thing, currently claiming to be.” Try this in your own church, family, or workplace- for a question that sometimes must be asked, it can do a lot of damage.

And such was the case in the Scottish Church of the 16th century (and yes, Badger, I will soon do a whole weekend edition on the Scottish Kirk). The Scottish Reformation dates from 1560 and the work of John Knox and others out of St. Andrews and then beyond. But soon, with the Union of the Crowns under King James, the question was: should there be one church for the new United Kingdom? Most Scots said: “No!” After all, the Anglican Church still had Bishops and the Scots wanted nothing to do with giving one person that much power. Instead, they stuck with their “Presbyterian” model of having “Presbyters” or Elders lead the individual church and then a session of united Elders making decisions for the whole body.

A series of divisions still occurred over issues like “To what extent must a pastor affirm the Scots and Westminster Confessions?” And “Do civic leaders need to make an oath to the church?” 

By 1820, these had led to divisions and reunions and the birth of the “United Secession Church,” a moderate church body with broader standards for orthodoxy.

One such minister in this body was Robert Morison, the father of James Morison- at one time a household name across Scotland- who was born on this the 14th of February in 1816.  

James was born in Linlithgowshire- his mother died shortly after, and he was raised by his father and his aunt. At 14, he entered the University of Edinburgh, and at 18, he entered the Divinity Hall of his father’s “United Secession Church.”

At school, he was first associated with controversy when he wrote a paper asserting that while Jesus is the eternal, unbegotten God, he did not become a “son” until his incarnation. This stoked some concern but he was judged within the bounds of Orthodoxy. He would be licensed to preach in 1839 and spent time filling pulpits across northern Scotland. It was there that he read on the revivals in America and determined to never again preach from a manuscript. Instead, he would preach extemporaneously and exegete the text.

He found it especially difficult to preach from texts like 1 John 2:2, “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only ours but also for the whole world,” while his church body held to a doctrine of limited or specific, atonement.

In 1840, he published, pseudonymously, a tract called  “The Question: What Must I Do to Be Saved?” Which taught a universal atonement.

When it came time for his ordination in 1840, the congregation appeared on Sunday, October 1st, at the church in Kilmarnock. They were surprised that no one was there. An emergency meeting had been held regarding Morison and the text that he would admit to writing. He agreed to suppress its publication and to be careful with his language regarding the atonement.

It didn’t help the following Sunday when he proclaimed “the atonement of Calvary’s Bleeding Lamb to every sinner without distinction and without exception.” He was suspended, but his church refused to recall him and they broke from the denomination. James’ father and a few others would also join in seceding and creating the “Scottish Evangelical Union,” an advisory body without adjudicating power. Former Presbyterians and Congregationalists would join in the movement called by some the “Morisonians.”

Later, this group would form part of the foundation of what is today the “United Free Church” (and not the Free Church of Scotland- or the Free Church of Scotland- Continuing- I know, it’s hard to keep track). Ladies and Gentlemen: Protestantism!

James Morison would lead the church and an academy with distinction until his death in 1893. Born on February 14th, 1816, he was 77 years old.



The last word for today is from the daily lectionary for Ash Wednesday- hear a portion of the 51st Psalm:

You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.

Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.

Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 14th of February 2024, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man who, for this auspicious day, recommends giving black flowers or bitter chocolates- he is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man whose wife told him she’s pretty big on this holiday. I can’t wait to see what she has in store! I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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