Beginnings of the Scotch Baptists
In 1838 a Scotch Baptist church was formed in Adelaide under the leadership of David McLaren, the Manager of the South Australian Company. A church building was taken over in Hindley Street which had been vacated by the Wesleyans, but in January 1841 McLaren returned to England and the congregation divided over the question of open and close communion.
One record in the Old Church Book expresses the condition of affairs thus; "That portion of the church who hold strict communion sentiments were quite willing to allow their brethren to differ from them in opinion, but to act upon that opinion could not be tolerated, as such a proceeding would have destroyed the unity of the body. (1)
The problem had existed during McLaren's time but he was a strong willed and capable leader well able to hold the congregation together. Without his leadership the congregation divided. A number of members joined other churches. A new group was formed at North Adelaide with Samuel Gillas minister.
Andrew Murray with seven others were dismissed to form a church at Noarlunga. (2)
The division depleted the congregation to the point where those who remained were unable to carry the building debt. They moved to a little mud cottage in Morphett Street.
The Scotch Baptists held a highly Calvinistic position. Conversion came by the Holy Spirit to the elect. The sinner could do nothing except wait and hope the Holy Spirit would enter his life. Once the Holy Spirit gave the sinner the ability to believe in the Lord Jesus, he was then able to receive the Holy Spirit, was born again and became one of the family of God. Consequently immersion was not for the pardoning of sins, but to formalise in a symbolic way what had already happened.
Over the next four years, with the increase in membership through the addition of newcomers, there were those who leaned to the General Baptist position that salvation was available to all. There were those also who had some understanding of the teaching of baptism for the remission of sins. These brethren had fragments of Alexander Campbell's writings, and his teaching was freely discussed among the members of the congregation. However, Campbell's teaching was difficult to understand and those who were in sympathy with his ideas were only learners and no match for the competent argument and public speaking of Captain Scott, who branded Campbell's ideas as "damnable heresies". (3)
Captain Scott was the morning speaker in the congregation and advocated a "Post-Millennial Advent" position - the spiritual reign of Christ. In the afternoon Thomas Neill preached a "Pre-Millennial Advent" position - the personal thousand years reign of Christ. The majority of members came to hold the "Personal Reign" position. Neill's Advent position seems to have prevailed in the congregation and was later a further cause for division. Thomas Magarey says in his Memoirs,
For though there were in Australia those who were professed holders of the faith of Alexander Campbell, the far greater number were holders of the early doctrine of John Thomas, including his errors of soul sleeping. (4)
John Thomas, the founder of the Christadelphians had great influence on Campbellite congregations in both America and Britain. After emigrating to America, Thomas had joined the Campbellite movement, but between 1837 and 1844 his differences with Campbell on such questions as baptism and prophecy became so pronounced that Thomas and his followers were declared to be schismatic. Thomas' monthly Apostolic Times circulated among British Campbellites, and when he adopted the views of a man named Miller, his doctrine had even wider appeal.(5) Campbell was completely opposed to John Thomas' teaching, as was Thomas Magarey. Magarey believed Campbell was correct in all his teaching except possibly the question of open communion.
By the beginning of 1845 many in the Scotch Baptist congregation in Adelaide felt their church was not altogether founded on New Testament principles and an uneasiness prevailed. In November 1844 a Rev. Thomas Playford came to South Australia from England to take possession of some property in Hindley Street. He was not in Adelaide long before he began preaching. He united with Anthony Foster in Hobson's Place with a group known as "The Methodist New Connection.” When Foster left for England in April 1845, Playford took over the congregation and advertised his intention to form a church on New Testament principles i.e. the discarding of sectarian names, taking the New Testament alone as the standard and guide. Several from the Scotch Baptist congregation attended, including Messrs. Neill, Santo, Armour, Jones and Verco. They had their names entered on the roll and were present at several preliminary meetings. At these meetings Playford proceeded to unfold the foundation beliefs and practices of the new church. When it was discovered, from a question by Thomas Neill, that Playford held with open membership, the group removed their names from the roll and returned to the Scotch Baptist church. (6)
It is puzzling why Thomas Neill had even thus briefly left the Scotch Baptists to join Playford's congregation. Neill was a deacon of the church and preached regularly each Sunday afternoon with a strong following in the congregation. Maybe he was curious because he had been receiving information from his friends at Kilmarnock on the question of baptism for the remission of sins. There is every likelihood though, that the New Testament church that Playford spoke about was the same as Neill believed and preached and the others agreed with who went with him.
The Millennium that Playford preached claimed to embody the true church of Christ. But Playford's claim drew an angry refutation in a letter to the Editor of the South Australian by a gentleman calling himself 'Auditor.'
...The lecturer (Playford) also compared the Church of Christ to a Carcass, and the members composing it to eagles . . . Matthew 24:28 ..Now this quotation, on which he founds and draws his comparison, does not in my humble opinion either refer to the Church of Christ as a body or to individuals composing it. (7)
About August/September of 1845, a 'For Sale' notice was observed on some land in Franklin Street. As the mud cottage was getting too small and inconvenient, it was decided to purchase a section of it and build a chapel. It was commenced at the end of September 1845. The contractors were Philip Santo, carpenter, and James C.Verco, stone mason. These two men were among those who, contending for a New Testament church, had joined Playford's congregation only a few months earlier, returned, and were now the builders of the new Scotch Baptist church. It seems these men and others of like opinion had assumed a strong position of leadership in the congregation, but Scott still retained control.