History Scotland

An unikely pioneer

The story of Reverend Aaron B Nde, who rose to become a senior member of the Free Presbyteri­an Church

- David McVey is an independen­t researcher and writer. He is a lecturer at New College, Lanarkshir­e.

Black History Month encourages individual­s to examine their own conscience­s but also the history of their wider community. Few of our major companies, organisati­ons and public bodies have done well in promoting diversity at a senior level. Sometimes, those you’d expect to do well, don’t; there hasn’t yet been a Black leader of a major political party, or a Black editor of the Guardian or the Observer. There are odd instances where pioneers in this regard are organisati­ons that the more openly liberal bodies would look down on. In recent history, we might consider the example of Reverend Aaron B. Ndebele but that will involve first going much further back, to examine the beginnings of the Free Presbyteri­an Church of Scotland.

To do this we must try to unravel, at least slightly, the convoluted history of Presbyteri­an denominati­ons in Scotland. It is not generally a tale of admirable Christian unity. An exception, perhaps, was the Great Disruption of 1843, which saw the original Free Church of Scotland split from the establishe­d Church, a move that was based as much on social justice as on doctrinal purity. However, the emergent Free Kirk was not stable and unchanging; by the 1890s, it was inching towards unificatio­n with the United Presbyteri­an Church (UPC). Some ministers and congregati­ons scented a relaxing of doctrinal soundness and so there was a minidisrup­tion in 1893 (exactly 50 years after the Great Disruption), with some congregati­ons leaving to form the Free Presbyteri­an Church of Scotland (FPC). The Free Kirk did indeed merge with the UPC in 1900, becoming the United Free Church of Scotland. And here things become horribly complicate­d; for a remnant of the Free Kirk resisted the merger, retained the name Free Church of Scotland, and continues to this day.

For a time there seemed the possibilit­y that the remnant Free Kirk and the Free Presbyteri­ans might merge and the FPC ruling body – the Synod, rather than a General Assembly

as in other Presbyteri­an churches – did debate the matter. However, they were suspicious about the soundness of the Free Kirk and agreement was never reached. Nonetheles­s, by 1907 the FPC had twenty congregati­ons and twelve ministers, although there was a drift of ministers, congregati­ons and elders to the Free Kirk.

People often confuse the Free Kirk and the Free Presbyteri­an Church even today; the derogatory term ‘Wee Frees’ is used of both. Without going into abstruse theologica­l and ecclesiolo­gical detail, the Free Kirk fairly strictly interprets the scriptures but allows some freedom of practice for congregati­ons; the Free Presbyteri­ans interpret matters even more strictly and leave little leeway.


The FPC Synod meets at least once a year, but sometimes more often, while the Church’s congregati­ons are grouped into six presbyteri­es. Three of these cover the highlands and islands, the Church’s heartland, while the Southern Presbytery includes the lowlands as well as the Church’s congregati­ons in England, the USA and Canada (one church in each country). Another presbytery gathers distant congregati­ons in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, while the Zimbabwean Presbytery covers the Church’s most active area of missionary outreach.The Church has operated there for over 100 years and there are around 40 congregati­ons in Zimbabwe today. In many missionary situations, converts are directed towards local congregati­ons of national Churches, but the Free Presbyteri­ans organised their own. FPC churches furth of Scotland, whether in Australia, Zimbabwe or Singapore, have local congregati­ons and local leaders, but they are Free Presbyteri­an Churches of Scotland.

Free Presbyteri­ans have been scorned for many reasons, not least the exclusion of women from leadership roles. That criticism may be valid, but the overseas activity of the FPC showed that they were well ahead historical­ly of many secular organisati­ons in one respect; black people were always viewed as equal to whites and leadership was open to local Christians in the Zimbabwean Mission and Presbytery from an early date.


Aaron B. Ndebele was born in 1925 and trained as a teacher. He started attending a local FPC church when teaching at Zenka primary school. In 1962 he became headmaster of a primary school at Ingwenya and when the minister (a Scotsman) was away he would take the services of the local FPC congregati­on. He enrolled at the University of Salisbury/Harare and began studying for the ministry. He studied in Scotland for a term and was ordained in Zimbabwe in 1966. He served in a number of different congregati­ons and represente­d the Church on visits to Malawi, Kenya and to Synod meetings in Scotland. In 1988, he was appointed moderator of the synod becoming, in effect, the Church’s earthly leader.

It is possible to overstate the significan­ce of this appointmen­t. The Free Presbyteri­ans are a small denominati­on and, from most perspectiv­es, a narrow one, yet they had a man of colour as their senior figure long before many supposedly more open organisati­ons. It was still four years before the UK would have its first Black trade union leader, Bill Morris (now Baron Morris) of the TGWU. Perhaps the Free Presbyteri­an Church of Scotland deserves some credit.

However, after his year as moderator, Reverend Ndebele was drawn back into Scottish Presbyteri­anism’s latest controvers­y.The best-known figure in the FPC was Baron MacKay of Clashfern, Lord Advocate, Scotland’s senior law officer, who was an elder. When senior members of the judiciary died, it was his understand­able practice to attend their funerals.Two of those funerals, in 1986 and 1988, were Roman Catholic services, and hostile voices within the Free Presbyteri­ans claimed MacKay had broken the Free Presbyteri­an code by showing ‘support for the doctrine of Roman Catholicis­m’. Lord Mackay denied the charge, saying, ‘I went [to the funeral masses] purely with the purpose of paying my respects to my dead colleagues’. The Southern Presbytery suspended Lord Mackay both from eldership and his membership of the Church.

The case was reconsider­ed at the synod in 1989.The new moderator of the synod, Reverend Lachlan Macleod of Greenock, was a member of the Southern Presbytery, so to preserve at least the appearance of impartiali­ty, Reverend Ndebele returned to chair the session at which the appeal was heard.

There were, and remain, suspicions that some forces within the Church resented Lord Mackay’s prominence and fame.The synod confirmed the expulsion and yet another Presbyteri­an split occurred when several congregati­ons and hundreds of members left to form the new Associated Presbyteri­an Churches (APC). Lord Mackay was (and remains) a respected figure across all political parties and Christian denominati­ons, so the outcome was dreadful PR for the FPC.The Church’s own obituary of Reverend Ndebele remarked that he ‘rose to the occasion admirably, it has to be said, and presided over the Court in a most competent, dignified, firm and impartial manner’. Perhaps not that impartial, however, for the obituary goes on to say that in ‘the issue which occasioned the departure of those men who formed what was to be called the Associated Presbyteri­an Churches, he was rock-firm on the side of the Church, as were, to a man, all the other African brethren’.

Reverend Ndebele returned to Zimbabwe. His final visit to Scotland was to the 1995 synod in Inverness. A year later, he was struck by a passing bus outside one of the Zimbabwe churches. This was a great blow to a man of his age, but he made sufficient recovery to be able to preach in churches again. He retired in 2000 and passed away in 2004.

Aaron Ndebele will be at most a footnote in Scottish and UK history, given the obscuranti­sm of the organisati­on he represente­d. However it is perhaps worth pondering on his achievemen­t, the one thing, perhaps, that much larger Churches, businesses, charities, political parties and public bodies could learn from the Free Presbyteri­an Church of Scotland.

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