The Edinburgh Unitarian Congregation was founded in 1776, the same year as the United States of America, as a Society of Universalist Dissenters.
Three important events shape the congregation's story.
- 1638. The National Covenant denied papal authority, denied the monarch's authority in religion, and proclaimed Christ as the only king and head of the church.
- 1689. The Revolutionary Settlement of William and Mary as joint monarchs of Scotland. They did not sign the Scottish Covenants so the strictest Covenanters opted out of the national church. Later they formed the Reformed Presbytery. They were rigid Calvinists and believed God determined the saved and the damned.
- 1749. Controversy in the Reformed Presbytery. Was Christ's atoning death sufficient to save all human beings? The Reformed Presbytery split into Calvinists and Universalists.
Universalists groups in the Scottish Borders believed God elected everyone to salvation. In 1776 a few Berwickshire Universalists came to Edinburgh looking for work. They brought their minister with them, James Purves, chosen according to Biblical injunction by throwing dice.
Some of the early members had read John Taylor's Scripture Doctrine of Original Sin. Taylor was an English Unitarian and his 'black mischief' is mentioned in Robert Burns' Epistle to John Goldie.
The British government imposed special security measures during the war with revolutionary France. In 1799 George Jamieson, a government spy infiltrated the congregation. He borrowed some money from them and disappeared. When a letter arrived for him the members opened it and found that it was from William Vidler, an English Unitarian and a founder of The Unitarian Fund. They wrote to Vidler and henceforth they became involved with the British Unitarian movement.
In 1813 Unitarianism became legal so Edinburgh Universalists adopted the Unitarian name. Ex-Baptist and medical student, Thomas Southwood Smith, was then minister. He lectured in the Unitarian Chapel on Illustrations of Divine Government. Attacking theories of human nature which are fatal to human improvement he said, "What can be imposed must be improved and will be improved until man in society reflects the benevolent purposes of the Almighty." Smith was friend, and intellectual conversant with the Utilitarian (greatest happiness of the greatest number) philosopher Jeremy Bentham. He pioneered public health and the 1848 Public Health Act for England and Wales. His grand-daughter, Octavia Hill, was a founder of the National Trust.
Edinburgh Unitarians built their present church in 1835 as their sixth place of worship. Early places of worship were rented in Broughton, at Skinners' Hall, Barbers' Hall and in Carrubber's Close, all off the High Street, before the purpose built 'New Town' Unitarian Chapel in Young Street. The minister then, Robert Stannus, was Irish and eloquent. Over the front door they put a Unitarian proof text "There is one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus". Also unexpectedly and inexplicably, they called the church St. Mark's Chapel.
In 1839 a controversy arose. Visiting preacher, Philip Harwood, told the congregation "Moses could not have written the first five books of the Hebrew Bible", and "Paul's famous Damascus Road experience was psychological." He had just read the latest in advanced German theology which asked 'Is the Bible religiously authoritative?'. This was all too radical for the minister, who banned Harwood from St. Mark's! The incident associates Edinburgh Unitarians with very significant trends in Biblical studies.
Robert Drummond had imbibed all the new insights, and part way through his 56 year ministry in 1872, a new constitutional basis was adopted. It enshrined private judgment and individual conscience, rather than the Bible, as paramount in religious matters.
From 1927 to 1958 Wallace Tavener was minister. On Sunday evenings he gave political commentaries. He was the third of a series of ministers who took social and political criticism from a faith perspective very seriously. Some Edinburgh Unitarians remember him with affection and great appreciation for his honest thought and his realistic vision about how things are and might be. He was a convincing exponent of humanistic theology long before it became a significant factor in British Unitarian thought.
During the second half of the twentieth century, under the ministries of Bruce Findlow and Andrew Hill, the congregation has increasingly recognised its role both as a city centre and as a tourist city church. St. Mark's, with its splendid acoustics for music, was the first Edinburgh church to provide space for the Festival Fringe. In times of possible ecological catastrophe, the worship of this theologically liberal and pluralist church has increasingly focused upon the earth as sacred. The church has also played an active role in the development of the inter-faith movement in Edinburgh, and is recognised as a centre of inter-faith activity. A current challenge, is the renewal of our architecturally significant but ever ageing premises.