The History of Leith

May 11, 2004

A Man of Contradictions

John White (1867-1951) stands out amomg Scottish Churchmen of the 20th century as a man of contradictions. It is either of a man who got out of touch with the Church he served or a man whose Church abandoned the values he stood for.

John’s father was a floor miller in Kilwinning in Ayrshire who died yong. John was supported by his mother during his studies at the University of Glasgow. There he benefited from the Neo-Heglian ideas of Edward Caird before taking his first Charge as parish minister of rural Shettleston in 1893. In 1904 he was at South Leith but returned to Glasgow and the prestigous Barony Church in 1911. In all these parishes he was committed to the Thomas Chalmers ideal of a caring Community which looked after people in every sense of the word. In South Leith he involved himself in parish visitation, Bible Class,poor relief,cycling club, boy’s brigade, literary society, unofficial employment exchange and Christmas breakfasts for the poor. He had afternoon services for working people and a keen concern for urban deprivation.

That same vision of Chalmers gave White the impetus to become involved in the movement to reunite the Prebyterian Churches in Scotland. The unted Prebyterian Church and the Free Church had been united to form the United Free Church in 1900. Then in 1906 negotiations were begun for the purpose of uniting the Church of Scotland and the new United Free Church. White became a leading member of the Church of Scotland committee asigned in 1908 to conduct the union negotiations that were to continue for over two decades. Because the Church of Scotland was an established church parliamentary acts were required to pave its way to the church union. White proved a consummate ecclesiastical politician able to manoeuvre the corriders of power in London to gain the necessary cross party support.

Although a staunch Tory White gained the respect and co-operation of Liberal and Labour politicians. The high point of his career was the union of 1929 between the United Free Church and the Church of Scotland an event which saw as undoing the damage of the Disruption of 1843. Much of his stature had come from his fiercely patriotic stance in World War I. He preached the justice of the War cause and then spent a year as chaplain to the cameronians in the trenches on the Western Front (August 1915 to September 1916). Men remember him as a man of great courage, not just conducting burials at the front, but, though a man of nearly fifty carrying the wounded back to safety on his broad shoulders. He was active too on the Church of Scotland commission assigned to consider the “spirtual and moral meaning of the war” and to help plan post war reconstruction so the sacrifices of the war would not be in vain.

After the war White was bitterly disappointed in the “new world” with its industrial stagnation and party divisions of social class and political confrontation. It was far from Chalmers ideal of community. As a church leader he tried to mediate between the social classes unitl the General Strike of 1926 showed that this was unrealistic. Even though he had been one of the leaders in establishing the church and nation committee in the church in 1919. White now said that he would leave aside social issues and argued againt John Baillie and George MacLeod saying that it should confine its interests to issues of personal morality such as temperance, censorship ans sabbatarianism.

However other apects of his bitterness were more damaging. During World War II he argued with George Macleod on the issue pacifism and accusedthe Iona Community of being “A refuge for pacifists”. More sustained and at first sight contradictory ro his work to end divisions was the way he led the Church of Scotlnd in the 1920’s to attack the Irish Immigrant Catholic Community asthe reason for unemployment and low wages they were “taking the jobs Scots protestants”. But perhaps it is not all that contradictory for one way to unite a group is to foster and direct its hatred towards an enemythat can be defined as “outside the covenant” and made a scapegoat for all the ills affecting the group. So he launch a vitriolic campaign arguing to Sir John Gilmour in 1926 that “the superior Scottish race was being supplanted by the Irish inferior race”. Then after World War II white turned his attention to a bitter campaign against Communism which many thought was a bit extreme.

On the positive side however John Whites commitment to church extension remained all his days. After the 1929 union and throgh the 1930’s he translated Chalmers ideal into building of hundreds of Churches in the new housing areas each aimed at being at the centre of the new communities. Again in the 1940’s he fought for resources both for bomb damaged churches and for new ones dispite the difficult financial pressures of those days of hardship and rationing. Here at least was no contradiction.

extracted from “Gods People” by Andrew Monaghan

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