In February 1838, less than three years after the founding of Melbourne, the Church of Scotland was allotted a two-acre site on the corner of Collins and Russell Streets. When the site was allocated, the elders objected that it was "too far out of town".
Forbes held his first Presbyterian service on Sunday 3 February 1838 in the Pioneers Church on the south side of Bourke Street near William Street. The Church of England soon made exclusive claims to this communal building and so Forbes held services in Craig and Broadfoot's store in Collins Street until a temporary timber building called Scots Church was opened on the south side of Collins Street near William Street (about where the Olderfleet Buildings now stand) in July 1838. It was essentially a large room with a fireplace.
The temporary building also served as the Scots' Church School which relocated to new brick premises in September 1839 on the part of the site granted by the Government on the corner of Collins and Russell Streets which was later the George's department store.
The foundation stone of the first purpose built church building was laid on 22 January 1841 and it was opened on 3 October 1841. It was designed to seat 500 and the contract sum was £2,485 without plastering, gallery, vestry or fittings. The building was opened with temporary seating. Plastering was carried out the following year, proper pews, gallery and vestry were added in 1849 and a spire some years later.
The congregation also built a manse (minister's house) on the site where the Assembly Hall now stands, which was sold to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria for 5,000 pounds in about 1913. In 2007 the Assembly Hall was bought by the Scots' Church Properties Trust to be renovated for use as congregational offices and meeting halls following the demolition of the Scots' Church Hall in Russell Street and the heritage listed Scots' Church Car Park and the redevelopment of the site with a 10 story building.
This first church building was demolished partly because of concerns that the tower and spire would collapse after it developed huge cracks and became crooked. The congregation had outgrown the building during Gold Rush of 1850s & 1860s as the population of Melbourne expanded.
Construction of the current building took place between 1871 and 1874, during the ministry of Rev Irving Hetherington and his assistant Rev Peter Menzies, and was opened on 29 November 1874 with seating for 1000. It was designed by Joseph Reed of the firm Reed and Barnes, and built by David Mitchell, the father of Dame Nellie Melba. Reed and Barnes also designed the Melbourne Town Hall, the State Library of Victoria, Trades Hall, the Royal Exhibition Building, the Wesley Church in Lonsdale Street, the original Presbyterian Ladies' College in East Melbourne, and Collins Street Independent Church, now St. Michael’s Uniting Church, on the opposite corner of Russell Street.
Scots' is in the Neo-Gothic style and built of Barrabol freestone, with dressings in Kakanul stone from New Zealand . During the last decades of the nineteenth century the spire of Scots' Church was the tallest structure in Melbourne. The interior features the large stained glass window depicting the Last Supper, basalt asile columns, timber beamed roof and an elevated floor for a good view of the pulpit.
The crest & flag of Australian Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies are located near lectern. Queen Elizabeth II was present for presentation by Dame Pattie Menzies in 1983. Queen Elizabeth had been accompanied by Sir Robert in 1961 when they visited Scots' to unveil a war memorial mosaic in the vestible near the entrance.
The first minister of Scots' Church was Rev James Forbes, who, as well as being involved in the foundation of Scots' Church, was instrumental in the establishment of John Knox Free Presbyterian Church on Swanston Street (now housing a Church of Christ congregation), Scotch College, Royal Melbourne Hospital, and the Melbourne Mechanics' Institute.
Scots' Church is currently served by a senior minister, Rt Rev Douglas Robertson, and a minister to the central business district, Rev Richard O'Brien. The evening congregation ("seventeenthirty") is served by Rev John Diacos, with a focus on evangelism to University students and young city workers. Rev Geoffrey Blackburn serves as the pastoral care minister.
Historically, most of the senior ministers at Scots' Church have been trained or served in the Church of Scotland, including Robertson, who first worked at Scots' as an assistant minister between 1991 and 1994. He returned to Scotland to take up the position of Parish Minister in Appin And Lismore, North Argyll, but was then called by the congregation of Scots' Church to come back to Melbourne and serve as senior minister from February 2001. Robertson is currently moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria.
An Indonesian language service is held every Sunday at 5:15pm. On April 1, 2007, the congregation known as the Indonesian Christian Church officially joined Scots'.
Members are not required to ascribe to the Westminster Confession, but, if they are not already a member of a Christian church, are admitted to membership by making a public declaration of faith in Jesus Christ and their committment to the church.
Although John Knox, the founder of Presbyterianism in Scotland in the 16th century, described the Roman Catholic Church as "the whore of Babylon" and the Westminster Confession of Faith calls the Pope, "that antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the church against Christ, and all that is called God" , two Catholics have preached from the pulpit of Scots' Church. The first was Archbishop of Melbourne Sir Frank Little in 1974 while Gordon Powell was minister, who joined the Uniting Church in Australia in 1977. Bishop Mark Colridge preached at Scots' in May 2005, telling the congregation, "If all we can manage is ideological warfare, it will come to nothing."
The new religion was launched with a $120,000 advertising campaign including posters reading, "The Ten Commandments, one of the most negative documents ever written." and draws from other religions including Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism..
In a interview with Stateline Victoria Dr Macnab replied to criticism saying that he was in agreement with others inside Christianity who, "are asking the traditional church to re-examine and renew their basic thinking about what faith can be, because millions of people do not find the old faith meaningful to their lives." He said he "would expect that kind of reaction from people who take the scriptures far too literally."
The Uniting Church did not move to discipline Dr Macnab because no formal complaint had been received.
The Session of Scots' Church, which is on the opposite side of Russell Street, published a statement in reply defending the Ten Commandments from "[t]he most incredible publicity war... being waged against the historic Christian faith." They installed a poster outlining the influence of the Ten Commandments on their Russell Street frontage facing towards St. Michael's. The text reads:
The Ten Commandments: the most positive and influential document ever written
More than 3000 years of history that engender and promote...
- respect for the Divine Creator, which saves us from the arrogance of our humanity as we enjoy and make use of his creation
- respect for the Divine character, which saves us from misplaced trust in the frivolous and transient gods of our age
- respect for the name of God, which teaches us humility and service
- respect for the spiritual nurture of our soul, because we are more than an accident of nature
- respect for family and especially parents
- respect for life, seeking to nurture and value all people, including the weak, the marginalised and the displaced
- respect for our spouse, for the sanctity of marriage and for the value of commitment
- respect for property and the rights of other people, taking nothing to ourselves that is not ours
- respect for the truth, including the value of rational, scientific enquiry as well as the gospel truth about God and his Son Jesus Christ
- respect for personal integrity and the purity of our hearts’ desires