Aberdeen United Free Church College

Biography: Aberdeen Free Church College was established in 1843, with the appointment of Dr Alexander Black, formerly Professor of Divinity at Marischal College, Aberdeen, as its first Professor of Theology. Dr Black resigned his Chair in the spring of 1844, but the Free Church Commission of Assembly declined to appoint a replacement, believing that training of its clergy should be centralised in the newly established Free Church College in Edinburgh. Commitment to a training college in Aberdeen amongst church members and clergy in the city ensured the resumption of teaching for the following session, the task being shared between three local ministers. In 1845 the Inverness Assembly agreed to appoint Dr MacLagan as Professor of Theology, and the following year Marcus Sachs was appointed teacher of Hebrew. However, the Assembly of 1847 declined to erect any further professorships, and in 1848 declared that the church could not support more than one good college. This decision was opposed by members in Aberdeen, who undertook funding and erecting a college building, which they had hitherto been without. The building, situated at Alford Place, was opened in 1850, though its future was not secured until 1853, when the Assembly finally committed itself to the support of a Professor of Theology and a teaching assistant.


The College's position was strengthened shortly afterwards by an endowment of 4000, which permitted the establishment of a second Chair of Theology and a Chair of Hebrew; in 1875 George Thompson of Pitmedden and others provided a 10,000 endowment for a Chair of Church History; and in 1878 a bequest from Alexander Thomson of Banchory established the Thomson Lectures in Natural Science. This expansion of the College's teaching base permitted an increase in student numbers, and was complemented in 1887 by Dr Francis Edmond's gift of a new library and dining hall.


Fluctuating student numbers throughout the late nineteenth century brought intermittent calls for the closure of the Aberdeen College, and from 1878 - 1881 it received unwelcome attention as the "Robertson Smith case" occupied the attention of Aberdeen Presbytery, Synod and the General Assembly. This case was one of the most outstanding in the history of the Free Church, in which it was contended that articles submitted by Professor Robertson Smith to the Encyclopedia Britannica "contradicted, or even subverted, the doctrine of the plenary Inspiration and Divine authority of Holy Scripture, as set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith". (Rev R.G. Philip, Chapters from its History, 1855 to 1900 in 'The Church College in Aberdeen' (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1936), p. 15). Smith was dismissed in 1881, though the case, and the debate which ensued, continued to feed the imagination of church and college members for many years.


The Free Church and the United Presbyterian Church, were united in 1900, forming the United Free Church of Scotland. The College's name was altered to reflect the union, becoming known from 1900 as the United Free Church College, and Dr Robert Johnstone, who had taught at the United Presbyterian College in Edinburgh, was transferred to the Chair of New Testament in Aberdeen. Despite these changes, teaching and staffing continued at the College with few interruptions.


After the union, the Brown-Lindsay library of the United Presbyterian College, Edinburgh, was broken up and dispersed amongst the Free Church Colleges in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow. This important library contained a large number of pamphlets, sermons and other devotional works, many written by influential early Seceders. The portion of the library which went to the United Free Church College in Aberdeen was deposited in the University of Aberdeen Department of Special Collections on the closure of the College in 1986.


Greater change was effected by the 1929 union of the Church of Scotland and the United Free Church of Scotland. This had far-reaching implications for each of the United Free Church Training Colleges in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow, bringing them closer to the established University Divinity Faculties in their respective cities, and leading inevitably to changes in their staffing and teaching structures. The University of Aberdeen had initially proposed to erect a new building in Old Aberdeen where all theological teaching would take place, but this was rejected by the college, and a compromise reached in 1936, whereby the academic teaching required for the BD degree would be given at the University in Old Aberdeen, and all teaching specifically for Church purposes would be based at the college site in Alford Place. A new name for the college was deemed necessary, and the title Christ's College was adopted. By the early 1980s, an increase in the numbers of divinity students studying in Aberdeen had rendered the teaching accommodation at Christ's College cramped and impractical, and in 1986 all teaching was removed to the University campus at Old Aberdeen. The College buildings were sold, though the College still remains as a legal identity, administering its funds for the benefit of theological education in the north east of Scotland.


Throughout its 140 year history, the College drew its student population mainly from the North East and Highlands of Scotland. Some of its most notable students include Dr Laws of Livinstonia; Sir W. Robertson Nicoll, editor of the British Weekly ; Dr James Hastings and Dr. John A. Selbie, editors of the famous Bible Dictionaries (Hastings was also editor and founder of 'The Expository Times'); Rev Henry Stephen and Dr John Hector, missionaries in Calcutta; and Principal Skinner and Dr George Pittendrigh, missionaries in the Madras Christian College.


For further details see 'The Church College in Aberdeen', compiled by Christ's Church College, (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1936); and Dr Henry R. Sefton, 'Theological Education in Aberdeen', University of Aberdeen Divinity Alumni Association Newsletter , 13 - 15 (1994 - 1996).

Biography Date: 1900-36

Biography References: MS 3241, "Records of Christ's College, Aberdeen", CALM Record.


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