Free Church Deputation Report (1854)
REPORT OF DEPUTATION TO SHETLAND
By appointment of the Home Mission and Sustentation Committees, the Rev. Messrs Lewis of Leith, and Macfarlan of Monkton, visited the congregations and mission stations of the Church in Shetland, during the month of August last. From the favourable character of the weather, the deputation was enabled to complete the mission tour of the islands from the extreme south of Dunrossness, to the northern islands of Unst and Fetlar, preaching to and addressing, on the principles of the Free Church, on more than thirty different occasions, numerous and deeply interested congregations. Since the visit of the deputies, a devoted member of the Free Church in these islands writes:-"This visit has revived disruption times, when we were honoured to receive men of God whom we would never have seen but for that event, when, to use the words of good Mrs Savage, we felt as if the house were perfumed by their prayers; and now again this visit has been most refreshing." Such missionary tours draw closer the hearts of the members of the Church, and are as refreshing to ministers as to the people. It but requires that the Free Church had larger means at her disposal to occupy a more commanding Christian position in these islands, and become still more extensively useful to their truly warm and simple-hearted people. There is an open ear amongst the islanders to hear the gospel, and except during the throng of the Haaf, and the herring fishing season, they are at leisure to assemble at the call of the preacher who may be sojourning for a season amongst them. A well and extensively organised system of missionary labour so arranged as to supply the public ministrations of the gospel every second or third Sabbath, to every considerable centre of population, is what the exigencies of the islands require. The poverty of the people precludes the hope of self-supporting churches, or even of the most distant approximation to that state. In Lerwick alone can such a result be ultimately looked for, where there is a thriving mercantile community; and the day of such a consummation might not be far distant if health were restored to its present able and devoted minister. Other congregations throughout the islands might undoubtedly make greater exertions for the support of the gospel; but the people have been accustomed to think themselves poor, and to be called poor, and to look to the efforts of others for gospel ministrations, and as yet the spirit of self-reliance has bfeen but imperfectly awakened.
An incident occurred during the visit of the deputation to Unst, that shewed how effectually our Church is guarding the islanders, through her sound scriptural instruction, from the snares of false teachers. A Mormonite preacher had for some time been itinerating through that island, with the view of making converts to his sect, and persuading some of its vigorous youths to accompany him to the Rocky Mountains. He was well aware of the readiness with which the Shetland young men listen to tales tempting to emigration, and of the necessity they are under, from the straitness of their own country, to look out for foreign employment. He had, accordingly, largely mingled with his exposition of doctrine, alluring descriptions of the Mormon Settlement and its gold regions, but, notwithstanding, he could not catch one small fry in his net. This entire want of success he attributed to the Free Church, almost all the Unst people belonging to it, and filling on Sabbath two large churches, in one of which the Mormon had himself been present on one of the Sabbaths of his visit. Despairing of success in Unst, and apprehending its cause, when about to leave for Yell, a neighbouring island, he anxiously inquired if all the people were Free Church there also, rightly judging he might spare his arrows if the islanders at Yell bore the same shield as the men of Unst.
Yell is an extensive island, being about twenty miles long and six broad, for which the Free Church has hitherto done nothing, and where the destitution of the means of grace, notwithstanding what is attempted by other denominations, is greater than in any other part of Shetland. An elder of the Free Church at Unst, about to remove to Yell, affectingly pleaded with the deputation to secure, if possible, were it but one missionary to the island, who might arrange to come round once a month, and cheer their Sabbaths by the preaching of the Word. Even with such a limited amount of ministrations they would feel they were not altogether in the desert, nor would their children be in danger of growing up without all sense of divine ordinances. During the three vacant Sabbaths the elder who thus earnestly pleaded for a missionary, was willing to conduct, in his own immediate district, a Sabbath-school for the young, which would also be available as a prayer-meeting for all ages.
At present the northerly extremity of Yell has the occasional services of the Free Church missionary who is settled at Fetlar, and who, under the most discouraging circumstances, has clung for three years to his post of duty in that island, and found his reward in the blessing that has accompanied his self-denied work. But for the benevolent exertions of some ladies in Edinburgh, the missionary in Fetlar would have been compelled to have retired from his field of labour, and even with their exertions he has received little more than £25 annually to maintain him at his charge. The peculiar position of Fetlar as a sanctioned ministerial charge has hitherto excluded it from aid from the Home Mission Fund. From whatever source, it is a station that ought to be upheld, and we trust that the ladies who have hitherto come so generously to its aid when left to itself by the Church, will not relax their efforts. It is at present thrown entirely upon their care, and when they are told that it is a station numbering nearly three hundred worshippers every Lord's day, where not a few have been awakened to inquiry, and where there have been the undoubted evidences of the hand of the Lord accompanying his Word, they will perceive that their efforts are expended on a field worthy of them.
The other principal Mission Station in the islands, Dunrossness, also struggles with not a few difficulties. It, too, is prosperous in numbers, is blessed with a single-hearted, zealous, and able missionary; has had once and again its favoured seasons of spiritual revival, more especially in the conversion and awakening of many of the young; it has rooted itself also in the affections of the locality, and is exercising a decided Christian influence upon it; but it still wants, and for the climate of Shetland it is a great want, a weather-proof church in which to hold its meetings. An excellent building, in point of size and solidity of structure, has been erected on a site freely granted by Mr Grierson of Quendale, who in addition contributed liberally to the erection, but the interior has now stood for several years without either lath or plaster, rendering it all but unfit for occupation during the winter season, and not a seat has yet been fixed in its area. As wood has been for sometime obtained for seating it, and is now lying useless within its walls, could only £70 or £100 be secured from any source, the building could be converted into a most comfortable and commodious church, that would attract, instead of at present repelling, all but those who can brave a Shetland winter's cold and tempest.
General Condition of Islands
It is but little known to many of the brethren and congregations in the south, the struggle that the ministers of Shetland have had ere they secured the shelter of the walls within which their people now assemble. Their respective localities have been able to yield little to the cause of church and school erection, and mainly through the energy of the ministers representing the wants of their people, and devoting themselves, amidst manifold discouragements, to the supply of these, have they planted the churches, and manses, and schools that now so pleasantly greet the eye of the traveller in these islands, and awaken the hopes that, though nature looks wild and sterile in these regions, grace may yet convert its moral wastes into a garden of the Lord. We would have rejoiced could it have been added, that these great and self-denied exertions of our ministers in Shetland for their respective congregations, had been so crowned with success as to have left no pecuniary obligations behind. These are now comparatively small in amount, considering that nine churches and four manses have been built, and that two large commodious schools, with accommodation for teachers, are in progress of erection. We believe that if an effort could be made amongst the friends of Shetland, to raise a thousand pounds, it would free that large amount of property entirely of encumbrances, and complete, according to the scale at present contemplated, the church and school architecture of these islands. Ought this to be viewed as an impracticable effort?<ref>The Home and Foreign Record of the Free Church of Scotland, November 1853.</ref>
Ministers of the Free Church in 1854 were listed as George Turnbull (Cunningsburgh), James Bain (Delting), Daniel Fraser M.A. (Lerwick), James Gardner (Quarff & Burra), James Ingram A.M. and John Ingram (Unst), and John Elder (Walls).