What kind of a book would you expect to read under the subtitle A Spiritual History of Lewis and Harris?
John MacLeod’s 2008 publication, an attractive 300+page hardback, ambitiously covers the religious history of Lewis and Harris from Mesolithic times up to the present day, and could hardly be a more lively and compelling read.
The tone is set from the first section, a compact, no-nonsense review of the scanty data available on the religious practices of the island’s earliest settlements, the nature of Celtic Christianity, and the pre-Reformation period.
Likely, though, most readers will be drawn most immediately to the second and third sections – the ones which cover the 1820s up to 2008. Here MacLeod draws on his vast knowledge of island lore, presenting what is effectively an insider’s guide to the rich heritage of these islands. Sympathetic without being sentimental, he outlines the key events of these years — refusing to gloss over the errors and foibles of the various personalities, yet conveying a sense of the dignity and robustness of the breed of Christian which has typified the island for the past many generations.
He sketches, for instance, the irreligion of the place around the turn of the 19th century – drunken ministers and ignorant elders, with the general populace showing scant regard for the ordinances of divine worship or uprightness in life. “Before 1820, vital – as opposed to formal – Christianity was here all but unknown. From 1820, and through a variety of individuals and influences, Lewis and Harris flamed in full-blown Christian revival…” The doings and sayings of such men as Murdo MacDonald, Finlay Munro, Alexander MacLeod, and John Morrison, Gobha nan Hearadh are recounted.
Finlay Munro “conducted many services on Lewis – at South Beach Street in Stornoway; in the natural arena of Dalbeag on the West Side; and at another open-air locality in Gress. In Balallan, on his way to Harris, there is another striking story, for it demonstrates this remarkable evangelist’s humility. Speaking with his usual fervour, and eager to extol the blood of Christ, he declared that ‘one drop of that blood was sufficient to wash away the sins of the whole world.’ But afterwards, retiring for the night, he told his hosts soberly that ‘a man of God’ would be the first to open the door the next morning. So it happened, for one Donald Kennedy duly appeared, troubled by Finlay’s remarks. Surely the salvation of even one sinner required not just a drop of blood, ‘but the Saviour’s full sacrifice of himself unto death’? Rightly corrected, Finlay praised God on the spot for the privilege of meeting someone there with sufficient Bible knowledge – and pluck – to correct him.”
But the islands had barely come under the sway of this gospel when the Scottish church was mired in the controversies which culminated in the Disruption. MacLeod comes down firmly in support of the actions of Chalmers and colleagues in separating from the Establishment. “… it is most important to grasp that Evangelicals had no intention at all of splitting the Church. By exercise of their General Assembly majority, the Church of Scotland as a whole – and as a body – would break with the State.” Lewis and Harris, of course, became Free Church; of Lewis’s population of 23,000, only about 460 remained in the Established Church.
And then there was the 1892 Declaratory Act. Amyraldianism, Darwinism, hymns, Higher Criticism, and the still perplexing u-turn of Constitutionalists like Murdo MacAskill. Free Presbyterian congregations were formed in various locations in Lewis, and on Harris, a third of the Free Church people were estimated to have joined the Free Presbyterians.
This was followed by the 1900 Union, giving rise to a denomination (the United Free) that took scarcely any foothold in Lewis, where the people overwhelmingly stayed in the ‘minority’ Free Church – the group which the House of Lords eventually ruled in favour of.
This brings us then to the awful 20th century, marked by the islands’ huge sacrifice in the First World War, the utterly dreadful loss of the Iolaire in 1919, more unhesitating sacrifice in the Second World War. On the spiritual front, MacLeod ruthlessly debunks the mythology of Duncan Campbell’s much vaunted “Lewis Revival” of 1949-1952. Campbell came from the Faith Mission, with doctrines decidedly alien to the full-orbed Westminster Calvinism which was by then thoroughly well established in the island – universal atonement, the temporal priority of repentance to salvation, sinless perfection, and Spirit baptism. The nurturing of hysterical if putatively supernatural phenomena such as visions and convulsions was another unwelcome feature of Campbell’s methods, and MacLeod openly faults the accuracy of Campell’s version of events on several significant points.
But the whole is interspersed with huge dollops of human interest.
“MacRae [MacRath Mor] detested hypocrisy. Some fellow, the sort of busybody the Free Church was apt to appoint to the job of local Sustentation Fund collector, tried to impress MacRae on his travels by lamenting the general tight-fistedness and reluctance to give. ‘Well, how much do you give yourself?’ asked Big MacRae coldly. The man was discomfited. ‘Oh, the Lord hasn’t seen given me much of this world’s goods.’ ‘Wasn’t the Lord wise?'”
Further, MacLeod is not shy about expressing his own approval and disapproval (of both people and events) at suitably juicy moments. Eyebrows might indeed be raised over the inclusion of the odd somewhat demeaning anecdote about otherwise respected figures, or winks and nudges and the airing of old and baseless rumours. Yet the overall impression which the reader should go away with is a renewed respect for the undoubted piety and godliness of characters who were inevitably flawed in their own individual ways. The reader, in fact, could not reach such an appreciation without the deft help of the writer, and MacLeod’s affection and admiration for the spiritual life of Lewis and Harris is very evident.
It appears perhaps most clearly in the last few chapters, which contain a thoughtful apologia for the things about Highland religion which rarely fail to act as targets of misunderstanding and amusement for outsiders – the communion season, evangelical preaching including the seis, the dog collar, Gaelic singing, the question of Sunday ferries… He also treats conversion, and the sometimes fraught process of making a public profession of faith. And finally, with admirable delicacy, he discusses the recent resurgence of ‘earnest, enthusiastic’ religion among Lewis and Harris teenagers. Unless the Lord builds the house, they labour in vain who build it, but he will not break the bruised reed nor quench the smoking flax. The redemption of a soul is precious. Genuine religion in this life will always be attended with defects and inconsistencies: the question of primary importance is always whether it is genuine – whether it exists at all, before it can be refined and matured.
In short: Rich Gleanings from a Highland Harvest it’s not. Often hilarious, occasionally outrageous, and with a constant powerful forward momentum, Banner in the West presents the spiritual life of Lewis and Harris in its everyday colours – far from perfect, but real, and with implications for eternity.
- Banner in the West, by John MacLeod. Birlinn, 2008