Calvinism in Scotland

The belief that until very recently Scotland was a Calvinist nation is pure myth

Part of the reason is that Scotland sees its remaining Calvinist bodies through magnifying-glasses.  We cannot shake off our fascination with the Free Church and the Free Presbyterian Church.  They are part-bogeymen, part scarecrow, part dinosaur and part Super Ego.  Between them they receive as much media coverage as the Church of England, yet the total male membership of the Free Presbyterian Church is probably less than a hundred and the total strength of the Free Church only a fraction of the population of Inverness.  It is not the monster that breeds the fascination; it is the fascination that breeds the monster.

 

“Calvinism”, wrote the late Ian Henderson, “is a handy term which people use when they wish to disparage anything in Scottish religion” (Scotland: Kirk and People, p.64).

He might have gone further. “Calvinism” is a handy term which people use whenever they wish to disparage anything in Scotland.  It has been blamed for depression and alcoholism, the Highland Clearances, the disappearance of Gaelic folk-lore, the absence of great Scottish drama and prevalent underfunding for the arts.

Behind this lies a belief that until very recently ours was a Calvinist nation.  This must mean, at the very least, that the early Scottish Reformers were successful in their attempts to have their beliefs enshrined in law and that for centuries afterwards the nation’s political and intellectual leaders were thirled to the philosophy of Geneva.  In such a world the entire population was controlled by what the Gaelic poet, Derek Thomson, called “The Scarecrow”, otherwise a Presbyterian clergyman: “A tall, thin, black-haired man wearing black clothes” sweeping away the cards, taking the goodness out of the music and lighting the searing bonfire of guilt in our breasts.

This, of course, is pure myth. There have been very few periods (and these themselves very brief) when anything resembling Calvinism was the dominant influence in Scottish life and culture.  Even at the Reformation the Scottish Parliament refused to endorse Knox’s First Book of Discipline.  The nobility had no intention of handing back the ancient ecclesiastical lands to pay the stipends for ministers, build schools, and provide relief for the poor. Knox never saw in Scotland anything remotely resembling his vision of the Godly Commonwealth.  Even a century later, men like Samuel Rutherford received only the most haphazard remuneration; and many parts of the country had no Protestant ministry at all.

The Second Book of Discipline (1578) fared no better, and for the duration of James VI’s reign Scottish Calvinism was on the retreat.  The King’s schemes culminated in the passing of the Five Articles of Perth in October (1618), imposing on the Kirk medieval practices which were anathema to Andrew Melville and his associates: kneeling at Communion, private baptism, private administration of Holy Communion, Episcopal confirmation and observation of holy days.  W. M. Campbell was fully justified in commenting that in his own lifetime Andrew Melville saw little result of his work except frustration (The Triumph of Presbyterianism, p.8).

Under Charles I, Calvinism was fighting for its very life; under the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell it was treated as a spoiled child; and under Charles II and his brother James II it was harassed and butchered in a reign of terror as cruel and focused as Hitler’s Final Solution.  Unfortunately the period was darker than the literati of Scotland could bear to look upon; the revisionist version of the story triumphed, and the world is now assured that the Covenanting Holocaust was a legendary creation of the Cameronian imagination.

The Killing Times eventually gave way to the Glorious Revolution, but the bright hopes of 1688 were quickly eclipsed by the Act of Patronage of 1712.  Within a generation it had its intended effect, secularising the Kirk by making it the plaything of landlords.  Even Francis Hutcheson, Professor of Philosophy at Glasgow University and father of Scottish Moderatism, viewed the outcome with foreboding, predicting in 1735 that the sole study of candidates for the ministry would be “servile compliance with the humour of some great lord who has many churches in his gift” (quoted by James McCosh, The Scottish Philosophy, p. 67).  These great lords, usually educated in the South and affecting membership of the Church of England, quickly filled the pulpits of Scotland with sycophants more concerned with their fields than their flocks, more interested in fishing for salmon than fishing for men, and better acquainted with whisky than with the water of life.  In that long century of Moderatism, men who preached total depravity or mentioned the doctrine of Grace were banished to remote rural hamlets or forced to eke out their days in village schools.  The pulpits were for plagiarists of Tillotson and the disciples of Shaftesbury, purveyors at best of natural religion and Stoic morality.

Thomas Chalmers and Hugh Miller briefly stirred the waters: the former calling the Church back to a curious combination of the philosophy of Thomas Reid, the theology of Edwards, and the piety of Romaine and Wilberforce; the latter reminding her of the martyrs of the Bass Rock and of her historic right to choose her own ministers.  But even before Miller died, the tide had once again begun to turn.  The ablest men in both branches of the now divided Kirk were dreaming not of great spheres of evangelistic labour but of academic preferment; and they were preparing for that not by immersing themselves in the thought of Calvin or Rutherford but by going off to the universities of Germany.  Before anyone noticed, the students of “Rabbi” Duncan were regurgitating the views of Wellhausen, and those of William Cunningham were preaching the Gospel according to Ritschl.  Soon the various churches were passing their Declaratory Acts, formally divorcing Calvinism and launching out on the great sea of theological pluralism.  It is doubtful whether the twentieth century saw a single Calvinist appointed as Moderator of the Kirk’s General Assembly or Professor in a Scottish divinity faculty.

Where have all the tulips gone?

Where, then, have all the “tulips” gone? The plain truth is, they were never there. There was probably only one period in Scottish history when Calvinism was really in control, and that was between 1638 and 1649, when the Kirk was led by the great though diverse talents of Alexander Henderson, Samuel Rutherford and George Gillespie.  Presbyterianism held the conscience of the nation, the nobility briefly cast in their lot with the Church, and the English Parliament was desperate for her help in defence of national liberties.  Long before the movement could permanently change the face of Scotland it was reined-in by Cromwell’s Ironsides and then crushed by Claverhouse’s dragoons.

There were other later periods of relative affluence.  William Carstares injected some of his own Calvinism into the Revolution settlement of 1688, and the Treaty of Union found lodging for the Confession of Faith in one of its paragraphs (where it remained until 1921, when it was spirited away by the Articles Declaratory of the Constitution of the Church of Scotland in Matters Spiritual).  In 1843 the Disruption moved the soul of the nation and produced Scotland’s greatest-ever crop of Calvinist theologians.  But even so it involved less than half of the Kirk’s ministers, commanded the loyalty of few of the literati, and left unaffected the vast majority of the urban population.

How has it come about, then, that in the soul of every Scot there lies the belief that the reason for all his inhibitions and the explanation for all his failures is that he spent his early infancy among Holy Willies, justified sinners, penitence stools, gloomy Sabbaths and “fragments of the philosophy of Geneva”?

Part of the reason is that Scotland sees its remaining Calvinist bodies through magnifying-glasses.  We cannot shake off our fascination with the Free Church and the Free Presbyterian Church.  They are part-bogeymen, part scarecrow, part dinosaur and part Super Ego.  Between them they receive as much media coverage as the Church of England, yet the total male membership of the Free Presbyterian Church is probably less than a hundred and the total strength of the Free Church only a fraction of the population of Inverness.  It is not the monster that breeds the fascination; it is the fascination that breeds the monster.

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