The construction of classical churches began in Scotland in the 1730s, and was initially a response to the churches of London, designed by such architects as Sir Christopher Wren, Sir John Vanbrugh, and especially by the Aberdeen-born architect James Gibbs, whose church of St Martin-in-the-Fields (now in Trafalgar Square) was extraordinarily influential both in Scotland and in the American colonies.
Classical churches have features modelled on Greek and Roman architecture, and especially on temple design. The adoption of classical forms symbolised rationality and clarity of thought, and was in large measure intended to be a reaction against what was seen by many as the irrational mysticism of the pre-Reformation church. The more elaborate Baroque and Rococo styles which developed from classicism in central and southern Catholic Europe were seen in Scotland as being ‘Romish’, and were not absorbed into church building in Scotland until the later 19th century.
Generally speaking, classical churches were expected to have columns on their frontages, but a modification of this treatment was developed in Italy and Holland, from the late 17th century, in which free-standing columns were replaced by half-pillars (pilasters) were applied to an otherwise plain wall surface. ‘Flat classical’ churches were much cheaper to build than full-blown classical structures, and remained current as a style until the middle of the 19th century. The ‘flat classical’ style became particularly associated with the Secession churches.