Saturday, January 28, 2017

Leadership Lessons From Scotland For Scotland and The Rest of Us: James and Robert Haldane

Into the china shop that was late-eighteenth century Scottish Presbyterian Moderatism came two charging bulls, revivalists James and Robert Haldane.  In an era of social, political and spiritual change, they saw Scotland as gospel-starved and took action.  Despite external opposition and schism and their own stubbornness and naïvity, Robert and James left a strong Evangelical legacy.  They trained and sent itinerant preachers, established preaching centres, and were the primary founders of the Congregational and Baptist movements in Scotland.  The account of their ministry provides valuable lessons on the importance of innovation, preparation, and harmony for twenty-first century Christian leaders.

James Alexander Haldane (1768-1851), orphaned son of James Haldane, was born in Dundee and raised with his brother Robert by their grandmother; he enrolled at Edinburgh University in 1781 before becoming a sailor.  He married in 1793, and while in Portsmouth in 1794 was influenced by Independent minister David Bogue towards a vital Christian faith.  James quit sailing and settled in Edinburgh where several clergymen and ironmonger John Campbell discipled him.  After joining Charles Simeon on a preaching tour of Scotland in 1796, James and two friends embarked the next year on their own similar tour, taking affirmation from the Great Commission and the blessing of minister David Black.[1]  They preached in barns, village halls and fields to crowds of up to 6,000 people and saw multitudes respond, with forty conversions following in Wick alone.[2]  Seeing a great need for gospel preachers, in 1798, James, Robert and some Edinburgh laymen formed the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel at Home (SPGH) in order to organize and support  itinerants and catechists.  However, the Established Church felt threatened by '...the perceived hostility of the Haldanes to ecclesiastical establishments...', owing not least to James initial habit of critiquing ministers' sermons during his missions.[3]  Despite condemnation by the Church of Scotland General Assembly regarding the work of unqualified itinerants, the Haldanes carried on; James was ordained pastor to the new Edinburgh Circus Tabernacle congregation in 1799.  Envisioned as a mission alongside the Kirk, it actually became one of the first Congregational churches, growing quickly from twelve to over three hundred members and beyond; in 1801, Robert built a new Tabernacle seating three thousand.   James continued summer preaching tours while he and his colleagues worked towards recovery of an apostolic model of local church.  However, his efforts to implement weekly communion, mutual exhortation in Sunday services, and a plurality of elders were not welcomed by every Tabernacle member. 

The movement ground to a halt in 1808 when James Haldane shocked his followers by embracing believers' baptism.  Though Robert and two hundred of James's church members followed him in this, those who did not, left.  The Edinburgh Tabernacle was reduced by two-thirds, and associated churches across the country split or sided with Baptist, or, more often Congregationalist (paedo-baptist) parties.  Nevertheless, James continued in ministry, serving the Edinburgh Tabernacle for a total of fifty years, becoming secretary of the Scottish Baptist mission society in 1830,  and writing polemically in defense of truth.[4]  The respect he earned in his career was demonstrated at his funeral, where over six hundred clergy and members of various churches turned out and people lined the streets and windows in a rare show of tribute to any private individual.[5]

James's brother Robert Haldane (1764-1842) was born in London; he worked under his uncle in the navy, then married and settled in 1786 at his inherited home, Airthrey Estate.  He was intrigued by revolutionary politics but, influenced by David Bogue of Gosport and William Innes of Stirling, embraced an evangelical faith in 1795 which reset his life course.  Putting his estate for sale, he attempted a mission to Benares.  This goal was blocked by the East India Company, so Robert focused his energies on Scotland, helping form the SPGH in 1798.  With the vision to send itinerant preachers throughout Scotland, Robert organized a seminary in 1799, initially headed by former Establishment minister Greville Ewing.  By the time of its closure in 1808, the seminary had trained over three hundred itinerant ministers, many whom later became pastors.  Besides building the Edinburgh Tabernacle in 1801, he bought or built others in Glasgow, Dundee, and various towns and villages.  The SPGH also printed and distributed thousands of tracts and Bibles until 1804 when the new Bible Society took on this responsibility.[6]  All the work of SPGH was financed by Robert Haldane, who from 1798 to 1810 invested GB 70,000 in gospel work.  By sheer numbers, the endeavor was effective: from 1800 to 1807 Independent churches grew from fourteen to eighty-five in number.[7]  This growth plateaued at the schism in 1808.

In the ensuing years, Robert taught at seminaries in Geneva and Montauban, helping ignite the continental Réveil revival movement; he combated the Bible Society's inclusion of the Apocrypha, helping shape the content of today's English Bible;[8] and he wrote extensively, being best known for his apologetic for Scriptural inspiration and his commentary on Romans.[9]  

By examining the themes of innovation, preparation and charity in the Haldanes' careers we can observe vital lessons for twenty-first century ministry.

The Haldanes believed the church was ineffective at saving souls, so they implemented a new approach to ministry.  Taking the Great Commission and the blessing of their friends as a mandate, they adapted English evangelical models to propagate the gospel.  They ignored ecclesial power structures by empowering laymen as Sabbath School instructors and itinerant preachers.  The novelty of lay-led meetings announced by the beating of a drum was accompanied by a powerful work of God bringing revival to communities.  To create a venue for ongoing mission and follow up, the Haldanes set up massive Tabernacles, George Whitfield style.  Answering the need for educated itinerants, they bypassed the Establishment-run university system and started a seminary, taking a cue from English Independents.  The Haldane team achieved this despite concerted opposition by the Established church and magistrates from the very outset.  The fruit of this effort was scores of converts and dozens of Independent churches.  Additionally, the movement  awakened greater zeal in other religious bodies and ultimately helped place more evangelical ministers in the Established church.[10]

When church leaders of today see limited effectiveness in the face of great gospel need, they must be prepared to lay down past ministry models, learn from fruitful ministries, and innovate for their contemporary context.  Sometimes the only way to overcome the inertia of an entrenched, ineffective model is to start something entirely new.  Innovators need to prayerfully seek contemporary, gospel-faithful answers to searching questions: How do we gain an audience for the gospel?  How do we structure church life to empower and release lay ministry?  How do we effectively train leaders?  How do we structure ministry for long-term stability and adaptability?  Innovators need conviction, courage, humility, and flexibility, and a willingness to become all things to all men for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor. 9:19-23).

Successful innovation requires preparation.  Though the Haldanes set up a rigorous seminary program for the preparation of itinerant ministers, it is evident that James and Robert themselves lacked preparation: they developed their ecclesiology on the fly and made amateurish leadership blunders.

Meeks and Murray observe, 'While they were expeditious organizers, they entered Evangelical circles without a firm theological foot-hold.  Their understanding of the Scriptures, and especially of the New Testament, developed as they proceeded...'[11].   James's early focus at the Tabernacle was on mission, not church order; the immediate results developed on a weak foundation.[12]  In time, 'The original lack of interest in forms and organization [gave] way to a self-conscious insistence on apostolic propriety.'[13]    Their biographer observes the issues which came up: the frequency of the Lord's supper; public mutual exhortation by members; the plurality of elders; the mode of collection.[14]  Being theologically unprepared, the Haldanes stumbled over secondary issues.

The Haldanes lack of theological preparation overlapped with their leadership deficiencies in the areas of people skills and foresight.  They tended to rigorously impose their own developing ecclesiology on the church, lacking the skill to assess the relative weight of an issue, the ability to consider the legitimacy of opposing viewpoints, and the grace to allow divergence on secondary matters.[15]  With maturity, James may have navigated the outworking of his Baptist convictions with a keen eye to the ongoing unity of the movement he had founded, and prevented schism.  Instead, 'Somewhat naively both brothers believed that they should be able to state their views plainly and then work through their application in the life of the church.'[16]

The Haldanes came by their lack of preparation honestly.  They were unapprenticed laymen; they were part of a reactionary movement; they were blazing a trail in uncharted territory: some mistakes were inevitable.  Perhaps what they needed to mature was slower ministry growth over time, yet the movement grew with exponential speed, due in no small part to Robert's singular generosity.  Rev. Dr. Lindsay Alexander of the Scottish Congregational Union assessed the result of Robert's investment: 'The influence, however, thus exerted was rather from without than within... and the consequence was, a show of flower and fruit much greater than the plant, when left to itself and to ordinary influences, could sustain.'[17] 

The Haldanes are a reminder that today's innovative leaders need adequate preparation.  Leaders must take the time to establish both themselves and those they lead on a firm theological footing, sorting out primary, secondary, and distinctive doctrinal issues from the outset.  Especially when charting new territory, leaders must resist the urge to build fast and instead must create space for reflection.  They should glean insights from the tradition they are building on, even if much is to be left behind, and they should reflect on the missionary and leadership insights of the Church's primary leadership manual, the book of Acts.  When facing a great dilemma or opportunity, they should draw back and gain perspective from counselors both ahead of, beside and behind them.  Leaders who would innovate with lasting effect must prepare.

Additionally, leaders must exemplify love.  'By virtue of his wealth and talents, [Robert] Haldane occupied a pivotal position in the revival of evangelical Calvinism within Scotland,'[18] but great wealth and talent were not always accompanied by great personal character.  Likewise, because controversy abounded, Lovegrove must qualify, 'However, [James] Haldane was essentially a practical Church leader rather than a controversialist.'[19]  The Haldanes were part of the wider Evangelical movement in Britain and in that respect exemplified a unity that transcended denominational boundaries, welcoming into the pulpit Anglicans, Baptists, and Independents.[20]  But with regard to the Established church, their own members and colleagues, and outside ministers with whom they disagreed, the Haldanes regularly lacked grace.

The SPGH's itinerant work offended the Kirk by its very nature: as a new evangelistic movement, it overturned norms, exposed the church's missional deficit, and attracted political suspicion.  James added insult to injury by his early itinerant practice of attending the morning service at the Kirk and critiquing the sermon at the SPGH meeting in the afternoon.  No wonder the Established church felt his aim was to alienate members from their ministers.[21]  Not only Establishment outsiders but Haldanite followers suffered from their leaders' lack of charity.  Lovegrove comments on the Haldanes' lack of accommodation to parishioners and colleagues: 'In their quest for purity of order the innovators showed that they were prepared to jettison any realistic chance of harmony for the sake of adherence to the letter of Scripture.'[22]  Sadly, when the movement split, rather than seizing the opportunity to bless seceding fellowships, Robert called in their building debts and closed the Glasgow seminary.  In fact, James and particularly Robert fell out with many people in their lifetimes.  Robert's authoritarian personality, his financial embeddedness and control in many of the tabernacles, and his tendency towards personal criticism in controversies made him a difficult person for many to work with.[23]

While today's innovative leaders may unavoidably cause offence, they do not need to be offensive.  1 Corinthians 13 must shape our understanding of faithfulness and success: without love, our work is nothing.  Leaders must undergird every activity with godly character and generosity of spirit.  The maxim, 'In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity', should inform our responses to controversy.  Leaders must take steps to ensure than money and power are not centred on an individual but stewarded by shared leadership, and that they are utilized not for control or personal agenda but for the display and advance of the gospel.  They will know we are Christians by our love (John 13:35).

Robert and James Haldane were used by God to bring revival and a fresh expression of the church to Scotland which endures to this day.  They overcame incredible opposition and broke new ground nationwide.  Their courage, innovation and sacrifice provide a model and inspiration to spearhead fresh gospel work today.  Yet the Haldanes and the movement they founded foundered in ways that should give us sober pause.  Their failures warn us of potential pitfalls and serve as a mirror in which to evaluate our own ministries.  Their goal to please Jesus alone and to bring people to him is their greatest legacy and one to which leaders of today should aspire.

[1]  Alexander Haldane, The Lives of Robert and James Haldane, 154
[2]  Ibid, 190
[3]  John MacIntosh, Church and Theology in Enlightenment Scotland, 209
[4]  Edward Irving, Thomas Erskine, Thomas Chalmers, and Ralph Wardlaw were among those he debated in print.  See D. W. Lovegrove, 'Haldane, James Alexander', in Nigel S. Cameron, ed., Dictionary of Scottish Church History & Theology, 385
[5]  As described by a unnamed newspaper referred to in A. Haldane, 693
[6]  Kenneth Brownell, "Robert and James Haldane and the Quest for Evangelical Union", 8-9
[7]  Ian Shaw, Churches, Revolutions, and Empires: 1789-1914, 80
[8]  According to John Macleod, cited on book jacket of A. Haldane, op. cit.
[9]  The Evidence and Authority of Divine Revelation (1816), The Authenticity and Inspiration of the Holy Scriptures Considered (1827) and Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans (3 vols, 1836-39).
[10]  A. Haldane, 352;  Percival Waugh, "The Converging Streams" in Geo. Yuille, ed., History of the Baptists in Scotland, 59
[11]  D. E. Meek and D. B. Murray, "The Early Nineteenth Century" in D.  W. Bebbington, ed., The Baptists in Scotland, 32

[12]  Deryck W. Lovegrove, "Unity and Separation: Contrasting Elements in the Thought and Practice of  Robert and James Alexander Haldane" in Michael W. Casey and Douglas A. Foster, eds., The Stone-Campbell Movement: An International Religious Tradition, 523

[13]   Ibid, 537
[14]   A. Haldane, 358
[15]   Brownell, 10-11
[16]   Ibid, 12
[17]  Cited in A. Haldane, 362-3
[18]  D. W. Lovegrove, "Haldane, Robert" in Nigel S. Cameron, ed., Dictionary of Scottish Church History & Theology, 386
[19]  Lovegrove, "Haldane, James Alexander" in Cameron,  p. 385
[20]  Lovegrove in Casey and Foster, 522
[21]  Ibid, 523.  His stark critique of the very concept of a State church in 1820 is no less condemning, see James Haldane, Two Letters to the Rev. Dr Chalmers, on his proposal for increasing the number of churches in Glasgow (1820).
[22]  Lovegrove cited in Brownell, 13
[23]  Brownell, 14

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