Our historic and handsome silver plate Communion wine ewer and finely engraved tray commemorate a most remarkable and colourful schism in Presbyterian history in the south.
Chalmers Church, as it became, grew out of the dissatisfaction of five members of First Church Dunedin after the contentious decision to introduce instrumental music into Church worship in 1884. As a contemporary cartoon plainly put it “Wud ye lure me tae Rome wi’ the rest o’ them, wi’ your organs an’ anthums an’ sich like abominations?”
Desiring to form a breakaway church, they initially called themselves the “First Free Presbyterian Church of Otago”, their prime objective to “be without the aid of human hymns and musical instruments” and to strictly adhere to “the principles of the Free Church of Scotland as set forth in the Act of Assembly of 1846”.
Their first Session met in May 1885, worshipping for five years in the Oddfellows Hall, before purchasing a church building previously occupied by the Primitive Methodist Church.
“It is not, however, to be assumed that [the congregation] are narrow, bigoted, or intolerant, as some would suppose. With them it is a matter of principle…. They regard the end in view, and the most effective means of accomplishing it, and for those reasons alone they cling to their simple ways, and for no other.”
In 1889 the congregation affiliated itself with the ruling Presbyterian body in the south, the Synod of Otago and Southland, taking on the name of Chalmers Church.
The congregation however retained their unique character and own forms of worship, the use of Gaelic speaking Preachers being an enduring characteristic throughout its history.
“They believe that simplicity of worship in the long run will bring the soul into closer touch with the realities of life, reveal more effectively the solemnities of death and the eternal world, and influence the life and character more permanently for good.”
Not wishing their services to become “a fine piece of sensuous semi-concert, kind of entertainment…. For the same reason that a concert is popular…” the singing continued to be, as in the days of their forefathers, led by a Precentor.
“He would hear no fine organ… nor would he hear any hymns, for Chalmers people are content to sing the songs of Zion in the Psalms of David and in the Paraphrases, so well known and so fervently loved by the pious of Scotland for many generations.”
Following a schism within the congregation in 1910 “[due to] a departure made by the congregation in the practice of public worship” and a consequent legal battle in the Supreme Court, again over the introduction of instrumental music, the Church was sold. However, the Church was purchased anew and re-opened in 1913, but this time with instrumental music. Falling membership and financial difficulties led to the eventual and final closure of Dunedin’s only “Gaelic Church” in 1935.
Upon closure a committee of men appointed to represent the congregation arranged for the dispersal of various items. The original Communion ware of 1884 (although quite possibly of earlier date) went to the (present) Otago Settlers Museum. The handsome new set, apparently purchased “by the ladies of the congregation” in 1896, of which these are just two pieces, were distributed amongst various Parishes. Our ewer and tray pictured here were given to St Stephen’s Church North Dunedin while we know of the location of at least one Communion cup.
Thus ended in all but name a valiant but ultimately doomed attempt to maintain the style and practices of Church worship of our Scottish Free Presbyterian Church forefathers.
By Donald Cochrane, Curator of Photographs.
I’m fairly sure my grandfather’s family worshiped there when they first arrived in Dunedin, probably in the early 1920’s, from the Isle of Skye. He married a Methodist – but she became a Presbyterian. Mum had his Gaelic Bible.
There were a number of connections of Chalmers with the similar Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia/Free Presbyterian Church of Victoria.
Rowland S. Ward