If you visit the Given in Good Faith exhibition, currently open at the Centre for Research Collections, you’ll be able to see some of New College Library’s treasures set in the context of the exhibition themes of church history, worship, scripture and science.
For the first of these themes, church history, we chose Special Collections items that demonstrated how New College Library’s historic collections look back to the Free Church of Scotland’s intellectual history and reflect its heritage as a centre of learning for Presbyterian ministry.
Treasures from the Reformation include the first edition of John Calvin (1509-1564)’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. One of New College Library’s iconic items, this guide and inspiration for a new form of Christian life, became a hugely influential work of Protestant theology. Less than a dozen copies of this edition are known to be in existence.
Manuscript items in the collections are powerful evidence of the debates, doctrines and dissent that have shaped Scottish church history. This manuscript letter was written by James Renwick (1662-1688) ‘Scotland’s Last Martyr’.
Renwick was part of the seventeenth century Covenanting movement, who resisted the interference of the Stuart kings in the affairs of the Church of Scotland. Written in prison days before his execution, he reasserts his Christian beliefs and bids a touching farewell :
“Farewell beloved sufferers and followers of the Lamb…farewell, night wanderings, cold and weariness for Christ…farewell, sun, moon, and stars, and all sublunary things…”
The first New College librarians were very conscious of the need to preserve a record of the more recent history of the Church in Scotland, reflected in the very substantial collections of pamphlets we have today. These flimsy publications were bound together to gather up the threads of religious and political argument, from seventeenth century controversies to the present day. As an example we chose this rare example of a Communion sermon by Ralph Erskine (1685-1752). Eighteenth-century issues of church government and patronage prompted the foundation of several breakaway churches in Scotland, such as the Secession Church led by Ebenezer (1680-1754) and Ralph Erskine (1685-1752), who have many publications preserved at New College Library.
The heartfelt conviction that only Christ was King which set believers in conflict with church and state in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries also fuelled the birth of the Free Church of Scotland in 1843, which aimed to be free from state connection and acknowledge only the headship of Christ. When the volume below was published the foundation of the new Free Church would have been a recent memory to its readers.
While these documents recording the establishment of the Free Church of Scotland were published elsewhere, this particular edition is believed to be unique.
Christine Love-Rodgers – Academic Support Librarian – Divinity
Kirsty M. Stewart – New College Collections Curator