St John's Renfield Church

Interior of St John's Renfield Church

St. John's Renfield Church is a parish church of the Church of Scotland, serving Kelvindale in the west end of Glasgow, Scotland. It is within the Church of Scotland's Presbytery of Glasgow.


The church building is situated in Beaconsfield Road, Kelvindale (within the G12 postcode area). The church is visible from the Great Western Road. Gartnavel General Hospital, Gartnavel Royal Hospital and the Glasgow Nuffield Hospital are located nearby.


The history of the present St John's Renfield Church has its roots in three separate congregations reflecting the ecclesiastical, industrial and demographic fortunes of nineteenth and twentieth century Scotland.

St John's Parish Church

The opening phase in the story dates back to 1819. Glasgow like other industrial towns was confronted with the appalling, overcrowded and insanitary living conditions[1] engendered by the rapidly increasing population.[2] A new Church, St John's Parish Church, was built on the corner of Bell Street and Macfarlane Street to serve the deprived Calton area.

Thomas Chalmers.
Minister at St John's Parish Church. (1819 - 1823)

Its first minister was the young Dr Thomas Chalmers who already had a considerable reputation as moral reformer and evangelical preacher[3] and whose leadership during the Disruption in 1843 was to make him, in the words of Carlyle, "The chief Scotsman of his age." Chalmers had managed to persuade[4] the Provost and Magistrates to appoint him as Minister to the new church in order to allow him to put into practice his unorthodox, evangelical ideas for alleviating the material and spiritual squalor generated by industrialism.[5] Thanks to this approach, which became a model in its time,[6] he hoped to bring about a moral change by fostering independence and by privileging personal contact, parochial care and schooling.[7] Chalmers' Ministry had considerable success[8] but was relatively short, for, in 1823, he was appointed to the chair of moral philosophy at St Andrews University. He was replaced first by Dr Patrick MacFarlan, and then by Dr Thomas Brown[9] and the Church continued to prosper with a growing congregation until the great schism caused over the issue of "spiritual independence" and "patronage" which led to the Disruption and the creation of the new independent Free Church of Scotland*. On 14 May 1843, Dr Brown preached his last sermon in Macfarlane Street, and then, with the support of 1151 out of 1175 members of the congregation,[10] left the church. Three days later, a new congregation was formed under the name of "Free St John's". Initially, without a place of worship, the congregation found a temporary location in Blackfriar's street, until, thanks to a subscription, sufficient funds were collected for a new Church to be built in George street in 1845, where "Free St John's" continued to prosper until 1922.[11]

Renfield Church

In the same year, 1819, a few hundred yards away new congregation was formed. It was a lay overflow congregation from the "Old Light Church" in East Cromwell Street, consisting of some 30 members and led by 2 elders: a weaver and a currier.[12] The first services were held in rented accommodation in Albion Street, until the acquisition of a permanent site in Renfield Street in 1820 by which time the congregation had grown to 236.[13] The Renfield Church, as it became to be known, was formed to meet the needs of the western suburbs and Calton. For two years, until the appointment of the Rev. Michael Willis in 1821, there was no permanent minister. The membership of the congregation continued to rise slowly, however, it was decided in 1855, because of shifting patterns of residence, to sell the Renfield site and move westwards.[14] A new Church was built in Bath Street with seating for 1200. After the death of the Rev Duncan MacNab, the Ministry remained vacant for a period of 12 months. Finally, and despite the reticence of some of the more intransigent purists of the congregation,[15] Dr Marcus Dods was inducted in 1864. This resulted in a memorable Ministry[16] and made Renfield's name as a centre for religious life in Glasgow.[17][18] Again, because of population shifts, it was decided that it would be advantageous for the congregations of Free St John's and Renfield to unite, which was finally accomplished in 1923. As the Renfield church was both more modern and more convenient, it was this building that was adopted to house the new congregation, "Free St John's – Renfield".[19] In 1924, the Rev. G.H.C. Macgregor was inducted as Minister.

The Hyndland Congregation

A few miles to the East, a third congregation had evolved, under the name of "The Hyndland Congregation". It was originally formed in 1852 when the Wellington Street congregation changed location. It was a small congregation of about 30 laymen which, finally in 1853, was taken in hand by the Rev. William Miller.[20] More suitable accommodation was found in Cheapside street in 1856 and the congregation, whose membership had by this time increased to 100 was dedicated under the name of "Mitchel U.P. Church".[21] Following the appointment of the new Minister, Dr John Wilson in 1861, there was a rapid rise in membership and, in 1873, a new site with seating for 1000 was opened in Breadalbane Street under the name of "Sandyford U.P. Church". At the request of the Presbytery however, the Church moved West to serve the developing areas of Hyndland . The project to build a new Church in Novar Drive was blocked by WW1. After the war it was decided to unite with "St John's – Renfield" and so a new congregation was formed, the "St John's Renfield and Hyndland congregation" in 1927.[20] The Church was transported ( i.e. relocated) to the new Church building in Beaconsfield road in 1931.


The church seen from Beaconsfield Road.

The church was dedicated in January 1931. The new building was planned by the United Free Church of Scotland, but by the time of completion the UF Church had already united (in 1929) with the Church of Scotland. On 15 December 1970 the church was designated as a Category B listed building.[22]

The church was designed in a Gothic revival style by the architect James Taylor Thomson (1887–1953).[23] He won the competition to design the church in 1927; it was built between 1929 and 1930. Thomson's wedding took place in the church in 1931. The church also includes elaborate oak carvings and stained glass by Douglas Strachan and Gordon Webster. Also in Glasgow, Thomson designed High Carntyne Parish Church and was involved in designing the chapel of the University of Glasgow and much of the 1937 Empire Exhibition site in Bellahouston Park.[24]


The present day

The minister (since 2009) is the Rev Fiona Lillie, who was previously minister at Stromness Parish Church, Orkney. The previous minister, the Rev Dugald Cameron, is now minister in Oban.[25]

A former minister (1966–1976) was the Very Rev Dr James A. Simpson, who subsequently moved to Dornoch Cathedral and became Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1994. His successor was the Rev Colin McIntosh, who subsequently became minister of Dunblane Cathedral (in 1988).[25]

The Very Rev Dr Sheilagh M. Kesting, the first woman minister to be Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, was a Probationer for the Ministry at St John's Renfield (prior to being ordained and inducted to Overtown Parish Church in Lanarkshire).[26]

Ministers: 1821 to the present day

Years of service Minister Subsequent responsibilities

(1819 - 1843)

1819 - 1823 Dr Thomas Chalmers

Moderator of the Gen. Assembly of the Church of Scotland (1832)
Prof. Theology, University of Edinburgh (1838)
Leader of the Disruption
First Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland (1843)

1824 - 1826 Dr Patrick MacFarlan Moderator of the Church of Scotland (1834)

Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland (1845)

1826 - 1843 Dr Thomas Brown Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland (1843)

(1843 - 1922)

1843 - 1847 Dr Thomas Brown Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland (1843)
1847 - 1880 Dr John Roxburgh Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland (1867)
1881 - 1882 Dr George Cameron (Associate Minister) Prof. Old Testament, Aberdeen University (1882)
1883 - 1922 Dr John Carrol

(1819 - 1922)

1821 - 1847 Dr Michael Willis Prof. Divinity, subsequently Principal of Knox College, Toronto (1857)
1848 - 1855Dr John Bonar
1856 - 1863 Rev. Duncan MacNab
1864 - 1889 Dr Marcus Dods Prof. New Testament Exegis subsequently Principal of New College, Edinburgh (1907)
1890 - 1898 Dr W. M. Macgregor Principal Free Church College, Glasgow (1928)

Moderator of the United Free Church Gen. Assembly (1919)

1899 - 1911 Dr Patrick Carnegie Simpson Prof. Church History, Westminster College, Cambridge (1914)

Moderator of the Gen. Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of England (1928)

1911 - 1923 Rev. John Fraser

(1852 - 1926)

1852 Lay congregation
1853 - 1860 Rev. William Miller
1861 - 1895 Dr John Wilson
1896 - 1926 Rev. W.A. Paton

(Union of St John's and Renfield 1819 - 1843)

1923 - 1928 Dr G.H.C.Macgregor Professor of New Testament History, Glasgow University (1933)

(Union of Free St John's, Renfield and Hyndland 1929 - 20_ _ )

1929 - 1952 Rev. James A. Campbell
1953 - 1965 Rev. James G. K. Brotheron
1966 - 1976 Rev. James A. Simpson Moderator of the Gen. Assembly of the Church of Scotland (1994)
1977 - 1988 Rev. Colin McIntosh
1989 - 2008 Rev. Dugald Cameron
2009 - Rev. Fiona Lillie

See also

Other churches nearby


  1. A Brief History of Glasgow.
    Glasgow was … " possibly the filthiest and unhealthiest of all the British towns".
  2. Agnew (2014)
    Increases caused essentially by the immigration of unskilled and often illiterate workers fleeing rural poverty from Ireland and the Highlands. A 10 fold increase between 1801 and 1901.
  3. See: Thomas Chalmers NNDB
    William Wilberforce is reported to have commented on Dr Chalmers' visit to London. "all the world is wild about Dr Chalmers."
  4. St John's – Renfield Church 1969, p. 4
  5. St John's – Renfield Church 1969, p. 7
  6. Discussed amongst others (unfavourably) by Karl Marx. See: Hollander p. 131
  7. St John's – Renfield Church 1969, p. 5.
    Within 18 months 24 schools were opened
  8. St John's – Renfield Church 1969 p. 5
  9. St John's – Renfield Church 1969 p. 7
  10. St John's – Renfield Church 1969 p. 8
  11. St John's – Renfield Church 1969 p. 9
  12. St John's – Renfield Church 1969, p. 14
  13. St John's – Renfield Church 1969, p. 15
  14. St John's - Renfield 1969, p. 21
  15. Carnegie Simpson 1909 Vol. 1. pp. 109 - 111
    Dr Dods was a progressive in theological terms and suffered on-going criticism from conservative Presbyterians for his alleged unorthodox and heretical leanings. He was criticised essentially on 2 counts: a) for his outspoken defence of modern biblical criticism and his rejection of the notion of the inerrancy of the gospel, b) for suggesting that the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens should be open to the public on Sundays.
  16. St John's – Renfield Church 1969, p. 24.
    The celebrated evangelist and lecturer on natural science Henry Drummond who was teaching at the time at Free Church College, Glasgow frequented Renfield Church and collaborated with Dods
  17. The Times, London. 23 December 1947.
  18. St John's – Renfield Church 1969, p. 23
  19. St John's - Renfield Church 1969, p. 26
  20. 1 2 St John's – Renfield Church 1969, p. 27
  21. St John's – Renfield Church 1969, p. 27
    The Rev. Mitchel was the first Minister of the Wellington Street Church.
  22. Historic Scotland: description of listed building
  23. DSA Biography of Scottish Architects website
  24. St John's. Accessed 12 August 2012.
  25. 1 2 Church of Scotland Yearbook, 2008-9, ISBN 978-0-86153-387-9
  26. BBC News, 31 October 2006

External links

Coordinates: 55°53′10″N 4°18′24″W / 55.8861°N 4.3066°W / 55.8861; -4.3066

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