Australia History Personal The Free Church

Letter from Australia 80 – A Significant Birthday, an Educational Insult, The Wrong Side of History and the Free Church

Letter from Australia 80 – A Significant Birthday, an Educational Insult, The Wrong Side of History, and the Free Church

 Dear brothers and sisters,

In the midst of this pandemic there is much to be thankful for – it is because of the Lord’s mercies, which are new every morning, that we are not consumed – great is his faithfulness! (Lamentations 3:23).   Not the least of this is the wonder of modern technology.  Yesterday we were able to celebrate Annabel’s 60th birthday in a combination of ‘online’ and onsite events – Zoom, church, restaurant and home were all combined to great effect.  What struck me about the Zoom ‘conference’ with family and friends was the difference that a little (or a lot) effort makes!

Whether it was the photos and balloons in the background,  the co-ordination of everyone in different parts of Scotland coming online at the same late hour, or the co-ordination with Becky and the girls driving two and a half hours in Sydney traffic – all of it worked beautifully and made for a special occasion.    All of this was backed up by friends here.  To me this is a reflection of the family of Christ throughout the world and how we should connect at a time of disconnection – it doesn’t just ‘happen’, it requires thought, effort, prayer and good timing!

Annabel and I were reflecting on how unexpected life often turns out to be.  Who would have thought that she would be celebrating her 60th birthday in Sydney – in a world where we are effectively forbidden to travel!  Of course, there are some things – like death and taxes, and abuse on social media – that one can always expect!

As regards the abuse I have noticed that whenever the Lord begins to do something, the tongues start to wag, the fingers start to click, and the abuse begins.  I was sent this cracker from someone who I have had to block – he seems to have a wee obsession with me – and I don’t really see any point in engaging with someone who refuses to engage and just prefers to hate.

No, he’s of the “Scottish Family Party”, a front for the Rev David Robertson’s mewlings, one of the singularly most unpleasant individuals in the Free Church of Scotland who’s been desperate to become a celebrity cleric for decades, and tried doing to by baiting Richard Dawkins when he was hip with the kids. He’s also been trying to take the FCofS back to the 19th century. I did warn Lucas getting mixed up with Robertson would come back to bite him, and sadly this now appears the case.”

It’s a sad message for many reasons, but it is helpful to see how hatred and prejudice work. Truth is irrelevant for someone who hates.  The Scottish Family Party has nothing to do with me. In fact, I have good friends who question why I question whether such a political party can work.  But this is a democracy and I wish Richard Lucas and his friends well.  I’m sure though that Richard will be amused that his party is just a front for me!    It’s also a little amusing that my enemy thinks that Richard Dawkins was ever ‘hip with the kids’.   Dawkins constituency is much more the old ‘pale, male and stale’ rather than the hip and happening kids!    And I love the notion of my wanting to be a ‘celebrity cleric’.  Firstly, there is no such thing as a celebrity cleric in Scotland and secondly, it’s the very last thing I would want to be – not least because of the abuse such a position accrues.

However, in a couple of things my enemy may be correct.   I could well be ‘one of the singularly most unpleasant individuals in the Free Church of Scotland’  – although I do wonder what other individuals my enemy actually knows in order to make the comparison.  But I can certainly testify that there are far nicer people in the Free Church than yours truly!

There is however one truth in his wee diatribe – if you look hard enough you can always find a gem in the dung!   It is true that I would like to take the Free Church of Scotland back to the 19th century.  My enemy meant it as an insult because he is a chronological snob, believing that anything in the past must be worse than today’s world or the Nirvana we are inevitably heading to.  After all, how can you progress by returning to the past?  Is it possible to go back to the future?

The statement as an insult is based on ignorance – an ignorance which means we can never learn from the past – because we think we already know.   But those who know their history can learn from it.  Why would I want to take the Free Church back to the 19th Century?

It was in studying 19th Century history that I came across this rather strange church, the Church of Scotland, Free.  Reading books like the Annals of the Disruption by Thomas Brown I was astounded at what happened.  The Disruption of 1843 is one of the proudest moments in Scotland’s history – here for example is an article in, (of all papers!), The National, which summarises it well –


My well-worn copy of The Annals of the Disruption

The Free Church challenged the power of an intolerant and overwhelming State, stood up for ‘spiritual independence, cared for the poor, built hundreds of schools and churches, brought grain from Russia to avert the threat of famine in the Highlands, encouraged overseas mission, challenged the power of the landlords, established social work for the poor in the cities, and brought the Good News to many throughout Scotland.  Do I want the Free Church to return to that 19th Century vision?  You bet I do!    Given the choice between a narrow, parochial, defensive vision, and the grand vision of Chalmers, Guthrie and McCheyne there is no contest!   I am unrepentantly an ‘1843’ man!

So, to my enemy Mark – I thank you for the reminder of who I am.  Not a wannabe celebrity cleric, but an heir of a great revolutionary tradition which once turned Scotland upside down, and God willing, will do so again.   I am a follower of the Christ whose church in the 1st century turned ‘the world upside down’ (Acts 17:6) and has been doing so throughout the world ever since.   That Christ also commands me to love my enemies, do good to those who hate me and pray for those who abuse me (Luke 6:28) – so in obedience to Him, you have now been added to my prayer app!  I pray that the Lord will convict you of your sin, draw you to himself, and forgive you.  Then you will be able to appreciate, not only the good that the 19th Century Free Church did, but so much more.  You will come out of your wee enclosed world, into the full and glorious liberties of the children of God….

May we all know the peace, freedom and joy that Christ brings.

See you next week,


PS.  Here are some further articles on the radical 19th Century  Free Church that I want to return to!

Lessons from the Disruption – How a Church Split Can be Positive!

The Free Church and the Poor

The Tate, the Establishment and the Free Church

PPS – last weeks letter – it ties in with this weeks. – Letter from Australia 79 – Humiliation and Humility.


  1. As someone who, I think, like you began life in the Brethren, and am presently involved in a Free Church plant may I thank you for your wisdom, sanity and vision.

      1. Hello Pastor and Bob

        Please forgive my ignorance but can you please tell me a little about the telationship between the Brethren and the Exclusive Brethren?

        The reason I ask is that I went to school with a girl named Janelle who was a member of the Exclusive Brethren. She had to wear a headscarf and was not allowed to watch television or videos, amongst other things. Forgive me for saying so but it seemed quite cultlike to me do I often think of Janelle – who was a nice young girl – and feel worried/concerned about how she might have turned out as a result.

        I know the Exclusive Brethren have also were the subject of some political controversy here in Australia at one stage because they were sending large donations to the Howard Government, even though members of the group were not allowed to vote.

        On a much happier note, happy birthday to your wife, Pastor. I hope she had a lovely day. God bless you both and your family.

      2. I’m not really a Brethren historian – its made more complex by the fact that some closed brethren seem more open than some open. There was a group called the Taylorites who really were a cult….In general I have a great respect and affection for the Brethren…

      3. To answer my own question, these are some of the allegations about the Exclusive Brethren’s activities in Australia from a variety of news media sources:

        If these allegations are true, they are even worse than they though they were. I hope and pray my classmate, Janelle C., grew up to be okay.

        According to Wikipedia, “The Exclusive Brethren are a subset of the Christian evangelical movement generally described as the Plymouth Brethren. They are distinguished from the Open Brethren from whom they separated in 1848… The Exclusive Brethren are now divided into a number of groups, most of which differ on minor points of doctrine or practice. Perhaps the best-known of these, mainly through media attention, is the Raven-Taylor-Hales group, now known as the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, which maintains the doctrine of uncompromising separation from the world based on their interpretation of 2 Corinthians 6 and 2 Timothy 2, believing that attendance at the Communion Service, the ‘Lord’s Supper’, governs and strictly limits their relationship with others, even other Brethren groups.”

        In the “Criticism” section, ut says:

        “Some have suggested that the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church (PBCC), the subgroup of the Exclusive Brethren that has attracted the most media coverage, can be categorized as a cult because of its policy of separating itself from other orthodox denominations and because it prohibits radio and television, limits the use of computers and discourages socializing with people outside the movement.

        Critics of the PBCC have accused it of using cult-like techniques by controlling all aspects of its members’ lives. The group’s control over its members is such that many who have left the group have had trouble adjusting to life outside. To help with this problem, several websites have been set up[by whom?] to assist people who have left the church to adjust into mainstream society.”

        I assume the Brethren group uou grew up in weren’t like this, Pastor.

        Take care and God bless. I pray you God will give you strength to stay strong against the social media hecklers.

    1. My wife and I were also from the Open Brethren. We are however forever grateful for the solid bible teaching we got there many years ago.
      Sadly preaching today is far removed from the Gospel presented to us when we became Christians in that movement.

  2. You made me laugh with what you said about being ‘one of the singularly most unpleasant individuals in the Free Church of Scotland’ – it’s part of your charm to be that way ;).

    “He’s of the “Scottish Family Party”, a front for the Rev David Robertson’s mewlings.” Well, sounds like you are giving Charles Manson a run for his money there haha.

    And what was it the Dawkins described you as something like a “nasty little Scottish Presbyterian who isn’t even a proper clergyman?”

    Well now let’s see what we have in our armoury. Hmm, shall we consider the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God?

    “Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn, your vindication like the noonday sun” (Ps 37:5,6).

    “The Lord laughs at the wicked, for he knows their day is coming” (Ps 37:13).

    Or alternatively the “strength and honour” in the face of adversity as in the film Gladiator.

    Don’t let them grind you down and keep being unpleasant David ;).

  3. On the Brethren theme, and being ex-Brethren myself, I don’t know if there’s a good accessible history. Roy Coad’s History was perhaps a little too Anglo-centric and is obviously well out of date now. I don’t like to think too much about the once thriving Gospel Hall scene in the West of Scotland and its implosion over the course of one and a half generations. And Cambridge, England had four pretty healthy Assemblies in my time in the late 70s. It’s a case of the classic conservative motto: if we want things to stay the same (and we do, how we do!) things are going to have to change.
    On a lighter note there was a liberal Brethren symposium at Swanwick I think, about forty years ago, and the title of the resultant book was Where Do We Go From Here? One of the speakers remarked that there was a prior question: Where is Here? And an even prior existential question: Who are We?

    1. Hoory!!! That is great news! 🙂 🙂 🙂

      France and the USA have always been the great rivals in terms of cultural leadership, so it is great to see France revitalise and step up again to oppose the US left’s current unchecked madness.

      We need France’s leadership in the world to bring back civilisation and plain, good old common sense.

      Thank heavens they are starting to speak up about this madness. France, we are ready and listening to your leadership on this issue!

  4. Words of King Solomon come to mind…
    Whoever corrects a mocker invites insults;
    whoever rebukes the wicked incurs abuse.
    Do not rebuke mockers or they will hate you;
    rebuke the wise and they will love you.

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