The Disestablishment movement had been begun before Dr. Cairns left Berwick, and he supported it with voice and pen till the close of his life. He did so, it need not be said, without bitterness, endeavouring to make it clear that his quarrel was with the adjective and not with the substantive—with the “Established” and not with the “Church,” and under the strong conviction that he was engaged “in a great Christian enterprise.”
During 1877 and 1878 the United Presbyterian Church was much occupied with a discussion that had arisen in regard to its relation to the “Subordinate Standards,” i.e. to the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. These formed the official creed of the Church, and assent to them was exacted from all its ministers, probationers, and elders. A change of opinion, perhaps not so much regarding the doctrines set forth in these documents as regarding the perspective in which they were to be viewed, had been manifesting itself with the changing times. It was felt that standards of belief drawn up in view of the needs, reflecting the thought, and couched in the language of the seventeenth century, were not an adequate expression of the faith of the Church in the nineteenth century. The points with regard to which this difficulty was more acutely felt were chiefly in the region of the “Doctrines of Grace”—the Divine Decrees, the Freedom of the Human Will, and the Extent of the Atonement. Accordingly, a movement for greater liberty was set on foot.
There were many, of course, in the Church who had no sympathy with this movement, and who, if they had been properly organised and led, might have been able to defeat it. But the recognised and trusted leaders of the Church were of opinion that the matter must be sympathetically dealt with, and, on the motion of Principal Harper, the Synod of 1877 appointed a Committee to consider it, and to bring up a report. This Committee, of which Dr. Cairns was one of the conveners, soon found that, if relief were to be granted, they had only two alternatives before them. They must deal either with the Creed or with the terms of subscription to it. There were some who urged that an entirely new and much shorter Creed should be drawn up. Dr. Cairns was decidedly opposed to this proposal. The subject of the Creeds of the Reformed Churches was one of his many specialties in the field of Church History, and he had a reverence for those venerable documents, whose articles—so dry and formal to others—suggested to his imagination the centuries of momentous controversy which they summed up, and the great champions of the faith who had borne their part therein. Besides, he was very much alive to the danger of falling out of line with the other Presbyterian Churches in Great Britain and America, who still maintained, in some form or other, their allegiance to the Westminster Standards.