The Scottish Enlightenment and Presbyterianism

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from An
Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought
vol. 1, Economic Thought Before Adam Smith

(1995). An MP3 audio file of this article, read by Jeff Riggenbach,
available for download

The Enlightenment
was a general movement in European thought in the 18th century
that stressed the power of human reason to discern truth. Generally,
it was dedicated to natural law and natural rights, although in
the later years of the century it began to shade off into utilitarianism.
While scholasticism was compatible with an emphasis on natural
law and natural rights, it was generally discarded and reviled
as ignorant "superstition," along with revealed religion.
In religion, therefore, Enlightenment thinkers tended to discard
Christianity, attack the Christian Church, and adopt skepticism,
deism, or even atheism.

In this atmosphere
corrosive of Christian faith and values, it is remarkable that
the Scottish Enlightenment was linked very closely with the Presbyterian
Church. How did this happen? How did a Scottish kirk that, in
the 16th century under the aegis of John Knox, had been fiery
and militant, become softened into a church that welcomed the
Enlightenment, i.e., natural law, reason, and latitudinarian if
not skeptical Christianity?

The answer
is that in the two centuries since John Knox the hard-nosed Calvinist
faith had weakened in Scotland. In particular, after 1752, a powerful
group of moderate Presbyterian clergy was able to take over and
dominate the Church of Scotland, the established church which,
since the union of Scotland and England in 1707, had been established
by the British Crown even though it was Presbyterian rather than
Anglican, as was the Church of England. (So bitter were the Anglican
priests in Scotland at the governmental establishment of Presbyterianism
that they, as well as the Roman Catholics, formed the backbone
of the Jacobite rebels dedicated to the restoration of the Stuart
monarchy in Great Britain.) Bitterly opposed to the moderates
was the evangelical party, that is, clergy true to the basic Calvinist
faith. The well-connected and highly educated moderates, strong
in the lowland areas of Edinburgh and Glasgow, and on the east
coast up to Aberdeen, were able to form the dominant power elite
in the Church of Scotland after the 1750s, even though they represented
a minority of the local kirks.

moderates, embodying a soft and latitudinarian theological outlook,
were intimately connected with the Edinburgh and Glasgow intellectuals
who constituted the Scottish Enlightenment. Most of their tactics
were planned in meetings in Edinburgh taverns. The dominant figure
among the moderates was the Rev. William Robertson (1721–1793),
an incessant talker and indefatigable organizer who led the moderates
after their formation in 1752, and who became the moderator, or
head, of the general assembly of the Church of Scotland from 1766
to 1780. In 1762, furthermore, Robertson became the principal
of the University of Edinburgh, and it was his leadership and
administration that vaulted Edinburgh into the front ranks of
European universities. Robertson was also the founder and leading
light of various learned societies, which brought together weekly,
for papers, discussion, and socializing, the leading figures of
the Scottish Enlightenment, including university professors, lawyers,
and the major figures of the moderate clergy.

Thus, Robertson
founded the Select Society of Edinburgh in 1750. Prominent during
the 1750s, the Select Society met weekly and included in its ranks
such university figures as Robertson, David Hume, Adam Ferguson
and Adam Smith, classical liberal lawyers such as Henry Home (Lord
Kames) and Alexander Wedderburn (later Lord Chancellor of Great
Britain), and such youthful but prominent moderate clergy as Robertson,
Alexander ("Jupiter") Carlyle, Robert Wallace, Hugh
Blair, John Home, and John Jardine. Carlyle was a charismatic
figure as well as a heavy drinker, as many moderate clergymen
were in that era; Wallace was in charge of Church of Scotland
patronage, as well as being royal chaplain. Wallace, in his private
papers, favored illicit sex almost to the point of promiscuity,
quickly warning that the activity would have to be kept hidden.
Blair, in addition to his duties in the clergy, was professor
of rhetoric at the University of Edinburgh. Jardine was a shrewd
politician, whose daughter married the son of Lord Kames who in
turn was a cousin of David Hume. John Home was a moderate clergyman
and secretary to Lord Bute, close friend of David Hume, and a
playwright – an activity that in itself was a matter of deep
suspicion to the dour, fundamentalist evangelical clergy. Thus,
Home wrote a play, Douglas, in 1756, which was put on with
many top leaders of the moderate Enlightenment acting in the play,
including the Rev. Robertson, Alexander Carlyle, David Hume, Hugh
Blair, and the Rev. Adam Ferguson, professor of moral philosophy
at the University of Edinburgh.

The lax views
of the moderates were under constant attack from the evangelical
forces. Particular targets were Lord Kames and especially the
philosopher David Hume, who was almost excommunicated for heresy
by the general assembly of the Church of Scotland, but was saved
by his powerful moderate friends. Even his moderate university
connections, however, could not gain for Hume any post in a Scottish
university, so great was the enmity of the Presbyterian evangelicals.

It should
be noted that one of the key leaders of the moderate party was
none other than Francis
. Thus, the Enlightenment intellectuals, philosophers,
and economists of 18th-century Scotland were intimately connected
with the fortunes and the institutions of the establishment moderate
wing of the Church of Scotland.

Hume, and Smith, then, while scarcely orthodox Calvinists, were
dedicated Presbyterians according to their own lights, and hence
their rationalism and theological laxity were nevertheless infused
from time to time with hard-nosed Presbyterian values.


N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian
School, founder of modern libertarianism, and chief academic
officer of the Mises Institute.
He was also editor — with Lew Rockwell — of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
, and appointed Lew as his
literary executor. See
his books.

Best of Murray Rothbard

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