(Scottish) Free Presbyterians seem to be known to outsiders mostly, if often in caricature, as not much more than a bastion of staunch sabbatarianism and unwavering opposition to Roman Catholicism, among all the other things that traditional calvinistic presbyterianism is generally reviled and resented for.*
Skipping lightly over the apostles and the reformation, the immediate story began with the Disruption of 1843, when, after a decade of strife in the Church of Scotland over the question of the relations between church and state (manifested in practical questions such as who should have the final say in appointing a minister for a congregation, whether the congregation itself or some church-external authority) – and after a series of lengthy court cases where the decision went against the independence of the Church from the State in ecclesiastical matters, several hundred ministers left the Established church under the leadership of Thomas Chalmers and colleagues, and so the Free Church was formed.
The 1843 Free Church viewed itself as in a way the Church of Scotland – the Church of Scotland, Free – carrying on intact the original position of that church and everything it stood for, and leaving behind those who had abandoned the original witness.
But just fifty years later, there were new controversies within the Free Church itself, one of which revolved around the status of the church’s confession of faith, and what it meant for ministers and elders to subscribe to it. When it came to the stage that the church passed legislation which effectively allowed people to become office-bearers without making any meaningful commitment to the confession, Revs Donald Macfarlane and Donald Macdonald separated from the Free Church and formed the Free Presbyterian Church. (This was 1893.)
The FP split was tiny compared to the FC split, involving only two ministers and a handful of elders and trainee ministers, compared to the couple of hundreds in the FC case, and it attracted none of the positive publicity that the Disruption did. (It also very nearly never happened, because a substantial number of ministers who were deeply unhappy with the situation decided against leaving in the end.)
While the original FP distinctive was uncompromised (uncompromising?) commitment to the Westminster Confession, over time, various other differences have emerged between this denomination and even its closest sisters. Some of these, such as sabbath-observance and the use of psalms in worship rather than hymns, are things which would have been characteristic of all the reformation churches in Scotland in the past – abandoned for what FPs are not prepared to recognise as valid reasons. The FP version of implementing church discipline, in addition, can often take a different form from how things are done in other contemporary denominations, even the closely related ones (with several expectations about the behaviour of communicant members, for example, often not being shared by many other fellowships – in terms of what counts as ‘worldliness’ perhaps particularly, although again I think it’s fair to say that this difference has been increasing even in the past couple of decades).
Differences between denominations, as you might or might not have picked up from me before, I’m not at my happiest discussing. I don’t like barriers between Christians and I don’t like bolstering them up, even when I think they’re necessary. So I’ve tried not to say anything with the intention of offending anyone – apologising now in case I failed – and trying to keep in mind that the things that divide are often much smaller than the things that unite, in the grand scheme of things.
For while one saith, I am of Paul, and another, I am of Apollos, are ye not carnal? Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man? I have planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.
But just one more thing, on a personal level – whatever can be said about (what might be seen as) the peculiarities of FP practice, the preaching of the gospel is really what should hold us together and give meaning or validity to our separate existence. For as long as we have the free offer of the gospel preached from FP pulpits, for that long it makes sense to continue listening to it within the context of FP-style worship and discipline. That is, I’m not saying that the free offer of the gospel isn’t or can’t be preached in churches that don’t share exactly our position on hymns and things, but even if the FP line on worship and discipline was outwardly impeccable, in the absence of convicting and edifying preaching of the doctrines of grace and the free offer, these things wouldn’t mean much. Meantime, eccentricities and inconsistencies and outright flaws can be put up with, if the congregations who gather in simplicity of worship and whatever scruples of lifestyle are ultimately gathering to have fellowship around the gospel. ‘This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.’
* On the sabbath question remember this, and on the Catholic question, the opposition is thoroughly doctrinal, rather than personal, if somewhat tenaciously resolute.