It’s A Family Affair

Laigh Crewburn © Copyright Gordon Brown and licensed for reuse.

Gavin Alison (fl. 1683–1686)

Gavin Alison is only briefly mentioned once in the history of the United Societies, but his family dilemma points to the future direction of the United Societies in the late 1680s.

He was almost certainly the Gavin Alison, son to Gavin Alison, who is listed on the published Fugitive Roll of May 1684 as living in Crewburn [near either High Crewburn, or Laigh Crewburn] in Evandale parish, Lanarkshire. (Jardine, ‘United Societies’, II, 196.)

Map of Crewburn

Alison was a delegate from a prayer society in his parish to the Societies’ general convention. According to Robert Cathcart’s protest against James Renwick’s leadership of the Societies issued after 28 January 1686, Alison was barred from sitting in the Societies’ general convention because he had ‘joined with his father in family-worship, who heard indulged ministers’. (Wodrow, History, IV, 393-4n.)

At what exact point Alison had been barred from the convention is not clear from Cathcart’s ‘Informations’. Alison’s father was probably a hearer of James Hamilton, the indulged minister of Strathaven from 1672 until his death at some point after 12 March 1684. That suggests that Alison was barred between mid 1682 and mid 1684, although it may have been as late as 1685. (Fasti, III, 223.)

Alison was a victim of the dilemmas that family worship threw up. The issues of family worship is little noticed in the surviving correspondence of the Societies’ leadership, but it must have been a significant cause of friction at a local and family level for some Society people. The desire of Renwick and other hardliners to purge the Societies of all contamination with the sins of the land, reached into the closest possible relationships of Society people in a fundamental way: How did one tell one’s Presbyterian husband/wife/children/parents/master that you would not pray with them in family worship?

Renwick recognised the danger for the Societies that the problems of family worship presented in a letter to Robert Hamilton in Leeuwarden of 26 October 1686, which was written in the aftermath of Cathcart’s protest. In it, Renwick states that the one issue ‘which is like to break us [i.e. cause a schism in the United Societies] more than anything that the ministers [meaning Robert Langlands, George Barclay and the presbyterian ministers in exile at the Scots Kirk in Rotterdam] can do … is, the joining of children, servants, and others, in the family exercise of their parents, masters, and others, who are compliers [with the sins of the land]’. (Houston (ed.), Letters, 213.)

Renwick may have identified the threat that cases like Alison’s created to the cohesion of the Societies, but it did not assuage his desire to purge the Societies for the forthcoming Apocalypse. The problem for Renwick was that the issue of family worship loomed larger after the Societies membership expanded in the aftermath of Toleration in 1687 to include many former ‘compliers’ in the sins of the land.

Ultimately, the issue of family worship would wreck the coherence of Renwick’s hard-line platform. In late 1687, he suffered a series of defeats in the Societies’ convention over a call to the newly-ordained and more-moderate Societies’ minister, William Boyd, to privately preach among the families of Society people if asked. Boyd’s call undermined the drive to withdraw from those who were guilty of the sins of the land, as Boyd believed in re-engaging with non-indulged presbyterian ministers to obtain reunion with them, even if those ministers in turn maintained unity with their tolerated brethren. Boyd’s position was remarkably similar to that of Alison in joining his father in family worship. (Jardine, ‘United Societies’, I, 154-93.)

Gavin Alison and his father may be only a footnote in history, but they point to a more complex history of the Societies beyond the image of devoted followers of Renwick.

Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved.

~ by drmarkjardine on September 21, 2010.

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