"The pure Culdees
Were Albyn's earliest priests of God,
Ere yet an island of the seas
By foot of Saxon monk was trod;
Long e'er her churchmen by bigotry
Were barred from holy wedlock's tie."
T HE witness-bearing of early British Christians is not least in importance. Very rapidly Christianity spread over the British islands. For nine or ten centuries they were honoured to maintain and extend the doctrine of the cross, and that was along with a polity essentially presbyterial.
Three hundred and twenty years before the Incarnation a highway had been opened between Britain and Syria by the trade in tin. It seemed to be prepared for the gospel. When the zeal of the apostles and early disciples is considered, and how ready they were to embrace every opening; and when the early British Churches are found claiming affinity with the East rather than with the West, it cannot be doubted that this highway was employed to bring to Albion's isle the glad tidings of salvation. There was another pathway by which Christianity was introduced. It accompanied the legions of Rome. The Roman empire was then heathen. But the early Church of Rome possessed a missionary spirit. Christian soldiers and zealous missionaries came from Rome to Britain. British soldiers also returned with the transports to fight the battles of the empire. There they came in contact with Christianity, embraced it, and returned to tell their friends what God had done for their souls. As early as the year A.D. 56, Pomponia, a British lady, the wife of Plautius, a Roman general, was tried at Rome on the charge of holding 'a foreign superstition,' which can be fairly regarded only as meaning the Christian religion.
Christianity thus introduced was quickly forced over the greater part of these islands. The Roman power extended northwards to the chain of forts erected by Agricola, between the Friths of Forth and Clyde, sometimes only to the wall built between the Tyne and the Solway. Accordingly, when under the Emperor Dioclesian, in the year 293, a fierce persecution broke out against British Christians, they fled for safety where the Roman power did not extend. Beyond these walls and forts, the fugitive, the captive, and the missionary during ten years of persecution found liberty and room to work. That was a precious sowing time. Writing in A.D. 200, Tertullian declared that there were 'localities in Britain, hitherto inaccessible to the Roman arms, that had become subject to Christ.' If not even in the first and second centuries, there can be little doubt that Caledonia received the gospel during that persecuting period. By the beginning of the fourth century Albion and Caledonia — probably also Ierne or Ireland — had received the religion of Christ, rejecting Druidical superstitions and bloody rites, if these in reality there prevailed.
When the fifth century opens, Christianity exists by belief and practice amongst southern Britons, Scots, and Picts.
In A.D 400, Ninian, a British Christian arrived at the isle of Whithorn, in the extreme south-west of the Pictish kingdom. He had, before this, sailed across the Solway Frith to impart to the Picts the knowledge of the Saviour. How must he have been surprised to find that 'already they held views of Scripture different from those of Rome!' They were not heathen, but Christians — they possessed the Scriptures — they drew their opinions and practices, not from men or Churches, but from the Word of God. On that peninsula — formerly the isle — may yet be traced remains of what was probably Ninian's 'white house' ( Candida Casa ). There he erected the first stone building for the worship of God in Scotland. Beneath the surface of all the lying legends found in the memoirs of Ninian, written three hundred and seven hundred years after he had passed away, it is not difficult to see in this man, who is claimed as a devotee of Rome, a noble missionary of the cross. Did truthful materials exist, it may well be believed that Ninian would be less held in esteem by Rome, and more accounted of by lovers of the truth. Palladius also might be thus recognised. Some thirty years after Ninian he came 'to the Scots believing in Christ.' Both Scots and Picts were believers prior to the arrival of these missionaries. This appears even from Romanists' testimony. If they came to introduce the chains of the Papacy, they failed to get them fastened. Seven centuries passed by before Caledonia yielded to that usurpation.
Palladius, coming to Lochleven, found Servanus living 'after the forms and discipline of the primitive Church.' This statement shows that the Christianity prevalent in Caledonia in the fifth century, was not a loose profession, but that of organised communities, having forms and discipline exercised, and that these were different from those which Palladius was sent from Rome to introduce. Such indications lead to the belief that the early Church had somewhat of 'Paul's Presbytery' — that is, the essentials of presbyterial government. The fact more plainly reveals itself in the history of Patrick and of Columba, as well as in the long struggle which the Culdees were forced to maintain.
Patrick Succat, the son of a presbyter, was born on the banks of the Clyde, or as some think, at Banavie, in Lochaber. Carried captive to Ireland — there feeding herds of swine as the prodigal — he remembered the instructions of his childhood. Kneeling upon the grassy sward, he sought and found the Saviour. He vowed that, if delivered from captivity, there he would serve the Lord. The request was granted, and the vow performed. Freed and trained, he returned to the Green Isle. Assembling the people by the sound of the drum, he proclaimed a Saviour's love. Trials were not wanting, but his labours were crowned with success. 'We read,' says Archbishop Usher, 'in Nennius, that, at the beginning, St Patrick founded three hundred and sixty-five churches, and ordained three hundred and sixty-five bishops, besides three thousand presbyters.' It is easy to perceive that the one bishop in each of these churches was the teaching presbyter; the six or eight presbyters to each church those who were ordained to rule in the house of the Lord. Patrick himself was simply a presbyter, as were his fathers. He never was at Rome, never received ordination from 'a bishop.' Thus, while there is no description here of a fully-organised Church, the allusion is to elements that are essentially presbyterial. Called to the work of Christ, he entered upon it without episcopal ordination, the churches he established had no prelatic, but possessed presbyterial supervision. (See Dr M'Lauchlan's 'Early Scottish Church').
On the western coast of Scotland, south-west of the island of Mull, lies an island, three miles in length. Insignificant in size, that island has secured imperishable fame. It is thus extolled:
"Dear is Iona, for her glories long gone by;
Virtue and truth, religion's self must die
Ere thou shalt perish from the chart of fame,
Or darkness shroud the halo of thy name."
And why so warmly cherished is this Iona? It is -
"Because the dead who rot
Around the fragments of her towers sublime,
Once taught the world and swayed the realm of thought,
And ruled the warriors of each northern clime."
ln A.D. 563, a light wherry or currach, formed of osier twigs and skins, passed down the Foyle, and came dancing over the billows. It was pulled towards the shore; and when the thirteen men had landed, they fired the boat in token that they never meant to return. This was Columba, with twelve companions.
Of royal blood, Columba was ordained a presbyter in his native Ireland. Engaged in founding churches, he was tempted to engage as well in martial conflict. For this conduct he was constrained by the Synod to resolve to bring as many souls to Christ as the men he had slain in battle. The event led to a fuller dedication. Following the example of his Master, he chose twelve, who, with him, under solemn vow, proceeded from Derry to Iona, and there established that missionary institute where men were trained, and then despatched to work for Christ. Scotland gave to Ireland a noble missionary in Patrick — Ireland paid the blessing back in Columba, the apostle of the Western Highlands. Another settlement was afterwards secured in Abernethy, the capital of the Picts, Iona being in the lands of the Scots. A further settlement was by and by effected in Albion. Oswald, Prince of Northumbria, when a captive, was baptised, and learned to appreciate the Culdee institution. Sending to Iona for instructors, he and his people not only embraced Christianity, but by his gift, Lindisfarne was thenceforth 'the Holy Isle,' and became to England what Iona was to Scotland, at least in part. These Culdees, or 'men of the retreat,' sought seclusion in islands and caves, not simply to be safe from the dangers of barbaric warfare, but for converse with God, and for preparation, enabling them to emerge more fully equipped to do battle for the Lord.
Now, what was characteristic of that Culdee Church? Not prelatic Episcopacy, for prelates they had none. Columba was no prelatic bishop, he was simply a presbyter. As the founder and head of that collegiate institution, he had the title of 'presbyter-abbot,' as that of 'principal' is given to presbyters now who preside over modern colleges. Columba was president for life, and at his decease no prelate appears or interferes. The presbyters met and elected a successor. These severally, when trained, selected other twelve disciples, and went forth to carry on the work elsewhere. It was not Popery, for connection with Rome they had none. They observed no such vows as monks of Rome do. Although claimed now as subjects, the Culdees were condemned by Rome as rebels. They were declared to be 'friars of other and differing Churches; a stubborn, stiff-necked, ungovernable generation, that neither pay tithes nor first fruits, and who do not enter into legitimate marriage (i.e., not sanctioned by the priests of Rome), who neither seek nor render penance, and who do not confess.' Their equality of position as presbyters shows that, if not fully organised, they had a government essentially presbyterial.
For centuries they maintained an unequal struggle against prelatic Episcopacy and Popery. The British and Irish Churches were the only ones, beyond the bounds of the Roman empire, that were able to hold their ground against the efforts of the prelates and agents of Rome. For centuries they refused to conform. This is prominently proclaimed by two discussions of the period; that of the observance of Easter, and that of the tonsure. The Culdees held fast by the practices of the Eastern Church, in the custom of the tonsure, in opposition to that of the West. In regard to Easter, the period of observance selected proved more fully their independence. But in the very year of Columba's death, Augustine and forty monks arrived from Pope Gregory in Albion, with authority to govern the Saxons. Thereafter, no effort was left untried to gain the submission of the Culdees. By pomp, subtilty, and artifice, continual effort was put forth, operating on the natural fears, or the pride and ambition of man. One of the Culdees of Iona at length was gained — Adomnan of the Hebrides. Sent to the island to introduce prelatic Episcopacy, he went as he came. Summoned to a southern synod, the brethren in England adopted the views of Rome; the northern held to the practice of Iona. This was at the beginning of the seventh century.
Another and more insinuating form of aggression was tried. Letters arrived from two Popes, Honorius and John, urging that the smaller portion of the Church ought to yield to the larger. Filled with false charges, these letters were fruitless. At another synod, Coleman, the presbyter-abbot, was overborne but he refused to conform, declaring that 'the synod had no power contrary to the judgment of the Word of God,' and resigning his position at Lindisfarne, he returned to Iona. At length, by the influence of a Saxon monk, conformity was secured in the practices regarding Easter and the tonsure. This was in the beginning of the eighth century; when, also, the Scots missionaries were driven by Nectan, the Pictish king, from his dominions. The refusal to embrace Prelacy and Popery was the cause of continual hostility. But not until three centuries later was the constitution of the Culdee Church overthrown. Conformity in outward organisation had been determined on and it was pursued with the vigilance and perseverance that is characteristic of such a foe.
In these three centuries, vast changes passed over the British Isles. The Culdees at Iona and elsewhere were exposed to all the ravages of war. Notwithstanding, they remained unmoved strengthened with might from on high. By Margaret, a Saxon princess, and her tool-husband Malcolm Canmore, the Scottish king, the Culdees, by fraud and force, were put to silence. This was in the eleventh century. What Margaret left unfinished, her sons completed. One century sufficed. Then Popery was fully dominant. Then the Culdee Church had ceased to be. At the beginning of the twelfth century, the work was done. Noble were the protests raised during that long struggle. When the Pope's legate endeavoured to get the Culdee presbyters to acknowledge the supremacy of the Archbishop of York, Gilbert Murray firmly declared that 'it was wrong to oppress the mother, the Church of Scotland, which from the beginning had been catholic and free.' He declared that though he should stand alone, he would dissent from subjecting the free church of his fathers to any other power than that of the Lord; and that if it were needful to die in this cause, he was 'ready to lay down his neck to the sword.'
Thus, in these churches established by Patrick in Ireland — in the teaching bishop and the ruling presbyters — in the Institute of Iona, the presbyter-abbot being but the first among his equals, and placed at their head by their own choice or consent, so that order and instruction might be promoted, — and in the conflict with Prelacy and Popery, waged throughout six centuries, until, by force and fraud, their existence as a Church was crushed out, — the Culdee system possessed essential elements of government by presbyters, no higher order being recognised. — Under simple and scriptural polity, in that
"Island of Columba's cell,
There Christian piety's soul-cheering spark,
Kindled from heaven between light and dark,
Shone like the morning star."
How brilliantly these churches — that 'supported their religious opinions by proofs alleged from Holy Scripture' — shone throughout all the land, may be known from their multiplicity. Traces of their existence are yet found in the prefix or affix 'Kil,' meaning cell or church, compounded with the name of the missionary who first laboured there. This compound name was applied to the town, village, or land. Some of these, at the introduction of Popery, were removed, as at St Andrews, for that of some patron saint. Others, as Kirkcaldy — Kirk of the Culdees, Kirkcudbright — Kirk of Cuthbert, remain. Over the whole of Scotland, from the Solway onward to Kirkwall, in Orkney, these churches shone for Christ. The influence of this Church is also proved by the hostility of prelatic Rome. The Council of Caelhythe, in the ninth century, decreed that 'it is interdicted to all persons of the Scottish nation, to usurp the ministry in any diocese; nor may such be lawfully allowed to touch aught belonging to the sacred order; nor may aught be accepted from them, either in baptism, or in celebration of masses; nor may they give the Eucharist to the people; because it is uncertain by whom, or whether by any one, they are ordained' (Spelman).
By popish despotism the Culdee Church was despoiled and downtrodden. That triumph was alone the result of the powerful suppression of the now Romish kings and their Saxon followers. But that early Church, so pure and faithful, was destined, after the lapse of four centuries, to have in Scotland a glorious resurrection.