The Revd Dr George Garden, exiled for his Christian convictions and passion for Scotland and its rich spiritual heritage returned to his much beloved city of Aberdeen to gather around him, a small band of faithful who will join in the worship of the living God. Nothing would deter him from his singular focus of offering his utmost for the highest. He wanted to offer his Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, his best in worship. It meant moving from house to house, gathering in small groups to offer worship in Spirit and in Truth. This is the birth of St John’s.
There is another equally compelling reason for Dr Garden to establish a church which is founded on sound doctrine and the rich heritage of the church, squandered by some. Prof Henry Scougal was a childhood friend and fellow at Kings College, Aberdeen. George and Henry formed a deep passion for truth and beauty in worship, revealed in their writings. The short treatise, ‘The Life of God in the Soul of Man’ reveals the depth of their knowledge of God and their compassion towards our human condition. The treatise is addressed to a friend – George Garden, the only man who fully understood the depth of Henry. Alas, Henry died eight and twenty and his friend George carried on the legacy – now shaped as St John’s.
Vision 2020 will mark 300 years of witness to this friendship formed and nurtured in Christ Jesus, our Lord.
The present edifice is almost half the age of the congregation and has its own story which is portrayed below.
Early History of the Church
St John’s today can claim descent from the mediaeval burghal church of St Nicholas: in 1693 Dr George Garden, the first Rector of St John’s, was ejected from the second charge of the East Kirk of St Nicholas for refusing to conform to the Presbyterian establishment. Those of his congregation who still adhered to Episcopacy left with him. In 1720, after five years in exile, he returned to Aberdeen and gathered the remnants of his congregation together. This was the real beginning of St John’s Church.
Initially, the little congregation worshipped in a chapel in the clergyman’s house. However, after the repeal of the Penal Laws in 1792, they prospered and, in 1806, built a church in Golden Square. It was dedicated to St John the Evangelist and was said to be a handsome edifice with a spire. The Rev. Patrick Cheyne was the driving force behind the move to Crown Terrace and the foundation stone of the present beautiful building was laid on 20th November 1849. The church was consecrated and opened for worship by the Primus, Bishop William Skinner, on 6th May 1851.
Two other city churches may be regarded as daughter churches of St John’s. Mr Cheyne’s successor, the Rev. Frederick G Lee left, with his supporters, to form a new congregation and they built St Mary’s, Carden Place. His successor was the Rev. John Comper. He left St John’s to start a mission in the Gallowgate from which St Margaret’s Church evolved.
The present day Church of St John the Evangelist was consecrated on 6th May 1851. Its roots, however, can be traced back to the dawn of Christianity in Scotland and to the founding of the ancient diocese of Aberdeen in the 12th century. The first bishop of the diocese had his cathedral in Old Aberdeen, with the parish church dedicated to St Nicholas in the New Town.
In the turbulent years that followed the Reformation of 1560, the Episcopal order was temporarily lost as Presbyterianism was enforced. In the old diocese of Aberdeen, however, many were unwilling to conform. The beginning of the congregation of St John’s can be dated to 1720 when Rev Dr George Garden, ejected from the East Kirk of St Nicholas for his refusal to accept Presbyterianism, formed a church of like-minded parishioners. This small congregation met in a series of houses around the Castlegate, since no church could be built under the Penal Laws. One such meeting place was destroyed by Cumberland’s soldiers and the furniture burnt in a neighbouring street.
From the days of such humble beginnings in 1720 through the glorious days of the dedication of the present church building in 1851 to the present day, the congregation of St John’s continued to offer the sweet sacrament of prayer and praise to the glory of God.
Art & Architecture
The architects were Messrs. Matthew and Mackenzie and the building in the early Decorated Style, prevalent at the beginning of the fourteenth century. The windows have geometrical tracery. When the church was consecrated only the chancel, nave and south aisle had been completed; the north aisle was added in 1898 and the tower was not completed until 1913. The walls are built of hammer-dressed Aberdeen granite but the dressings at the quoins and voids are in freestone from Burntisland. The nave roof is timber and the sedilia, piscina and altar are made from Caen stone (the present altar covers the stone altar), the fine shelly limestone from Normandy, which was often used in mediaeval buildings.
The wonderful font is pre-reformation and came from the ruined church at Kinkell near Inverurie. Alexander Galloway was the Rector of Kinkell from 1516 until his death in 1552 and he was also Rector of Kings College, Aberdeen, several times during this period. He designed and donated many works of art to the Diocese and this font is attributed to him; it bears his initials on the West panel. Other carvings are the five wounds of Christ, the crown of thorns and a rose, the symbol of the Virgin Mary.
This was designed by Sir Ninian Comper and was placed above the High altar in the 1930s in memory of his parents. Ninian Comper was the leading ecclesiastical architect and designer of his time and was the son of the Rev. John Comper and his wife Ellen. John Comper was the Rector of St John’s from 1861 – 1870 and was ‘a man…pervaded by a passionate pity for the poor’. He established a mission in the Gallowgate and persuaded the sisters of the Society of St Margaret to establish a community in Aberdeen. John Comper was one of the most advanced priests in the Anglo Catholic Revival in Scotland and in 1870 he became the Rector of the new congregation of St Margaret’s in the Gallowgate. Ninian Comper’s unusual ‘strawberry signature’ is a tribute to his father who died suddenly in the Duthie Park while giving strawberries to poor children. The strawberry can be seen in churches around the world.
The magnificent golden reredos is a celebration of the Incarnation. The Virgin Mary is writing the Magnificat in a book held by an angel and the inscriptions say: ‘For whom all things were made’ and ‘The word was made flesh’. The Christ child is holding the Ninian Comper strawberry signature.
The Stained Glass Windows:
The East Window
This magnificent window should be viewed from the bottom to the top. The lower window shows a series of scenes from the life of St John with the crucifixion in the centre. The centre window immediately above this shows the risen Christ flanked by Peter, the Virgin Mary, John (beardless) and James (the great) and the top window shows Christ in glory wearing a rainbow coloured robe and surrounded by allegorical figures.
The Chancel Windows
North wall, beside the High Altar. Memorial window for the Priest of St Andrews, Aberdeen, who died in 1843, with images of St Peter and St Andrew.
South wall, beside the High Altar. Memorial window for Patrick Cheyne and his wife Margaret (possibly the parents of Rev. Patrick Cheyne, Rector of St John’s, 1818 – 1858) who died in 1848 & 1838 with images of St Patrick and St Margaret of Scotland.
North wall, opposite the organ. Memorial window for Elizabeth, wife of Inglis Stuart, who died in 1848. Images of Mary and Martha (left) and the Resurrection (right).
The Nave Windows
North wall, East end. Two memorial windows. Left: For Catherine Scott of Craibstone who died in 1855. Images from the early life of Christ. Right: For Isabella Cheyne who died in 1859. Images from the Mary and Martha story.
South wall, East end. The War-Memorial window. Memorial window for all the young men from St John’s who were killed in the Second World War. The theme of the images is the Resurrection.
West wall, beside the main door: The Falconer Memorial Window.
Memorial window for John Stewart Falconer, Rector of St John’s, who died in 1874 after only three years in office. Images of Timothy (left) and Paul (right).
Above the Choir Vestry door: An image of St Cecilia with angels with musical instruments, which is appropriate for the entrance to the Choir Vestry.
Mural over the Chancel Arch
Who painted it? When was it painted? We don’t know.
To read more about this enigma download a lecture delivered on Friday the 17th of January 2002 at the launch of St John’s Restoration Project by Dr John Morrison, Senior Lecturer, Department of History of Art, University of Aberdeen
(The lecture notes are published here with no modification parts of it in note form.)
Lecture PDF coming soon