The Kirk will one day apologise to atheists, as it has to Irish Roman Catholic immigrants

In researching various articles about anti-Catholic bigotry in Scotland, I came across a chilling report by the Church of Scotland, called the “Menace of the Irish Race to our Scottish Nationality”1. This report began as a document produced for the General Assembly in 1923 by the Presbytery of Glasgow & The Synod of Glasgow and Ayr.

I would like to make it clear that I do not, in any way, want to imply that the views of this 1923 document represent the current views of the Church of Scotland, either its members, or its leaders. The Church has since apologised, and recognised the seriousness of the consequences of this report. This is also not meant to be a defence of the Roman Catholic church, its officials, or its policies. I am not particularly interested in any religion. I am though, as I think any person should be, interested in the social and historical role of the churches as social organisations.

The one thing that this highly toxic report does show however, is the ability of the National Church to get it spectacularly wrong!

This report was written during a time of significant Irish immigration to Scotland, many of whom would have been Roman Catholics. Some of the more chilling pronouncements in the document are;

“The Irish have separate schools for their children; they have their own clubs for recreation and for social intercourse; they tend to segregate in communities, and even to monopolise certain departments of labour to the exclusion of Scots. Already there is bitter feeling among the Scottish working-classes against the Irish intruders. As the latter increase, and the Scottish people realise the seriousness of the menace to their own racial supremacy…”

It is interesting to note that the Church of Scotland, in the document, differentiate between Catholic Scots and Irish Catholics, the former they suggest have ‘racial supremacy’.

This disgusting and disgraceful rhetoric by the Church did not self-generate, and was the product of centuries of anti-Catholic sentiments throughout the UK, beginning inevitably with the reformist traditions of, among others, John Knox. Looking at the historical developments, we start to get a sense of the development of this toxic anti-Catholic rhetoric.

A requirement of the Act of Settlement 1701, which was subsumed into the Act of Union 1707 makes it clear that the heir to the throne of the United Kingdom must not be a “Papist” and that an heir who is a Catholic or who marries one will be excluded from the succession to the throne.

Also, as part of the accession of a new Monarch, they are required to swear a proclamation oath, part of which includes a religious oath to defend the protestant Church of Scotland, and was until 1901 the following:

“I, N, profess, testify, and declare, that I do believe that in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper there is not any Transubstantiation of the elements of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ at or after the consecration thereof by any person whatsoever: and that the invocation or adoration of the Virgin Mary or any other Saint, and the Sacrifice of the Mass, as they are now used in the Church of Rome, are superstitious and idolatrous. And I do solemnly in the presence of God profess, testify, and declare that I do make this declaration, and every part thereof, in the plain and ordinary sense of the words read unto me, as they are commonly understood by English Protestants, without any such dispensation from any person or authority or person whatsoever, or without thinking that I am or can be acquitted before God or man, or absolved of this declaration or any part thereof, although the Pope, or any other person or persons, or power whatsoever, should dispense with or annul the same or declare that it was null and void from the beginning.”

…one wonders why they did not simply say; ‘must not be a Roman Catholic’, unless they were trying to be deliberately offensive.

Last year (2013) I was the subject of much derision online when I suggested that a revision of Guy Fawkes Night celebrations might be in order given the sectarian nature of their beginnings, and the fact that in some parts of the UK it is still celebrated by burning an effigy of the Roman Catholic Pope.234 I was branded ‘puritanical’ for trying to raise the issue of historical anti-Catholic bigotry, I hope the irony was not lost on my accusers!

My claim for the anti-Catholic nature of Guy Fawkes Night is clear to anyone who knows about the history of the gunpowder plot. For those who don’t, and don’t wish to learn, you can simply look at the text of the Observance of 5th November Act 16055. This delightful little gem, thankfully repealed in 1859, established a national celebration to give thanks that “…malignant and devilish papists, Jesuits, and seminary priests…” did not succeed in overthrowing His Majesty the King and the Houses of Parliament.

So, it’s clear that although the Church of Scotland’s antipathy towards Irish Roman Catholics was not spontaneous, they certainly did their utmost to enforce it.

In 2002 however, decency prevailed and the Church of Scotland apologised, saying that they “regret[sic] any part played in sectarianism by our church in the past and affirm our support for future moves toward a more tolerant society.”6

So, why do I conflate the treatment of Irish Roman Catholics and atheists?

Well, throughout it’s existence, the Church of Scotland has always made time to call out atheists for special criticism, as seen in this Church law from 15967, which enjoins Kirk ministers to:

“behave himselfe accordingly with the diverse ranks of persons within his flock, as namely with Atheists, rebellious weak consciences”

Perhaps the most well known, although not quite well known enough, instance of bigotry towards atheists is the murder of Thomas Aikenhead. Aikenhead was a student at the University of Edinburgh, when in 1696 he was indicted on a charge of the spurious non-crime of blasphemy. The indictment accused him of ‘ridiculing the holy scripture’.

During the trial of Aikenhead, the Church of Scotland General Assembly urged that he be subjected to “vigorous execution” to curb “the abounding of impiety and profanity in this land”.

And so in 1697, the 20-year-old student Aikenhead was hanged. Now, over three centuries later, the Church of Scotland has made no public apology for the murder of Aikenhead.

Even as late as 1831, the Church of Scotland laws8 made it clear that atheists are to be seen as lesser people:

It is seriously recommended to ministers of the gospel, and they are enjoined, where there is any apparent hazard of contagion from the atheistical principles of such as only go under the name of deists, to warn and guard the Lord’s people against that infernal course…”

Last year, I wrote an open letter to the Moderator of the Church of Scotland General Assembly in response to comments she had made which suggested that a secular Scotland would be one without religion, and also the worrying suggestion that “I do think that the Church has to speak out on issues, because if the voice of the Church isn’t heard, the voice of the secularists will be heard”.

So, it seems that the Church of Scotland are still content to see themselves as a combative force against non-religious people.

So, let me make my position clear. The Church of Scotland owes the Scottish people an apology for the historical persecution of those who do not believe as they do.





5Cressy, David (1992), “The Fifth of November Remembered”, in Roy Porter, Myths of the English, Cambridge: Polity Press, ISBN 0-7456-0844-2




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