Science in the Scottish Enlightenment
Science in the Scottish Enlightenment

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Science in the Scottish Enlightenment

2.2 The Church

The Scottish Church seems an unlikely place to look for the stirrings of enlightenment. In 1690, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland passed an act against ‘the Atheistical Opinions of the Deists’, and, in 1696, an eighteen-year-old Edinburgh University student was executed for denying some of the propositions of Christianity. The legacy of the Scottish, Calvinist Reformation, it seems, was one of conformism, intolerance and narrow-mindedness.

But this is not the whole story. Another impulse from the Reformation itself was founded on the principle of critical scrutiny of Catholic tradition. This rational, critical impulse was felt by more liberal members of the Scottish Church, and was given typical expression by the Reverend William Wallace, a minister close to the pulse of Edinburgh University life. He preached, in 1729, that there must be a

hearkening to the voice of sound reason, the examining impartially both sides of the question, with a disposition always to adhere to the stronger side and to embrace the truth wherever it appears in spite of all prejudices, of all opposition and authority of men. This is what I can never censure or apprehend being capable of being carried to an extreme,

(quoted in Cameron, 1982, p. 123)

The tradition that Wallace represented grew steadily during the century, and the ‘Moderate Party’ of the General Assembly, as it became known, was receptive to – and in return made contributions to – Enlightenment thinking.

At a more general level, the intensely pious Calvinist tradition may have flowed in unexpected, worldly directions. Calvinist zeal may have been one of the ingredients in the development of Scottish industry and the economy in the eighteenth century. Here is how a leading Scottish historian puts it:

The singleminded drive that is seen so often in business, farming and trade in the eighteenth century, and which appeared in cultural matters in men as diverse as Adam Smith, James Watt and Sir Walter Scott, is strangely reminiscent of the energy of the seventeenth-century elders in the kirk when they set about imposing discipline on the congregation. Calvinism thus seems to be released as a psychological force for secular change just at the moment when it is losing its power as a religion.

(Smout, 1969, p. 92)

This is an attractive suggestion, but we should not underestimate the problems inherent in transmuting a religious drive into a secular one. Calvinism – indeed Christianity at large – teaches that human nature is depraved. In 1717, in criticising a Moderate minister, the Church Assembly held that he had attributed ‘too much to natural reason and corrupt nature’ (Cameron, 1982, p.119). Plainly, a number of radical intellectual moves had to be made before human nature could be presented (as it was in the Enlightenment) as notably uncorrupt – as fundamentally social, and likely to be virtuous, given a rationally organised society.


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