Scottish Christianity Before the 18th Century

scottish enlightenment catholic church presbyterian theology presbyterian church scottish reformation

Paul Mueller for AdamSmithWorks

September 16, 2020
The Scottish Enlightenment took place within a specific religious context that framed many of the debates and conversations of its leading philosophers. Understanding that context gives us a better sense of what Scottish thinkers like Smith, Hume, Ferguson, Reid, Hutcheson, Robertson, Kames, Blair, and others were up to. Many of their philosophical and moral arguments either directly contested, or indirectly supported, orthodox Presbyterian theological positions. Understanding the theological context will also shed light on how these philosophers viewed the role of religion in society.
But showing this topic justice means working through both church history and Presbyterian doctrine. I’ve written four essays that can be read independently, but together give an overview of the theological context of the Scottish Enlightenment and how that context affected the conversation and development of ideas. This essay is the first of those four.

Pre-Reformation Scotland (11th-15th centuries)
Scotland, like every other northern European country, went through a period of Reformation where theologians and political authorities broke away from the Roman Catholic Church. The reasons for this break are numerous and varied by country, but they generally included disagreements over theology, over the proper structure of church government, over the relationship between church and state, and over the sources of authority in morality and law.
Before the Reformation, Scotland had a long history of Catholicism. The first missionaries came to Scotland in the middle of the first millennium AD. They met with moderate success in the face of varying levels of resistance and persecution. At that point in time, Scotland was composed of many different tribes and clans without any central government. Christianity expanded slowly until it was enthusiastically adopted by an early Scottish monarch, Malcom III, and his wife Margaret in the 11th century. By the time rumblings of protest against Catholicism in Scotland began in the 1400s, the nation had been Catholic for centuries.
These rumblings were largely the result of an English theologian, John Wyclife (1320s - 1384), questioning and criticizing Catholicism. Wycliffe was a professor of theology at Oxford University and briefly master of Balliol College which Adam Smith would attend three and a half centuries later. Wycliffe left behind many students who were curious about, and discontent with, the doctrines and operations of the Catholic Church. By the end of the 15th century, these critics of Catholicism who followed the ideas of Wycliffe were called Lollards - and there were thousands of them in England and across Europe.
One of those critics was Jan Hus of Bohemia. Hus openly resisted Papal authority in the early 1400s. One of his students, Paul Craw, went to St. Andrews in 1433 advocating that everyone read the Scriptures and criticizing many aspects of Catholicism. Even though Craw was tried for heresy and executed that same year, he began the stirrings of reformation by convincing a large handful of influential people of the demerits of Catholicism. Increasing numbers of Scottish people throughout the rest of the 1400s began rejecting Catholicism after Craw’s preaching and martyrdom.
Despite growing support, the ideas of Reformation remained underground in Scotland until well into the 16th century. The Stewart Kings of Scotland (James III 1460-1488, James IV 1488-1513, and James V 1513-1542), were decidedly Catholic and supported all Catholic claims and rights in Scotland. The weakening of the Scottish monarchy after James V was killed in a battle against the English opened the door for the ascendancy of Protestantism in Scotland.

Reformation Scotland (16th century)
Some scholars argue that the Scottish Reformation officially began in 1528 when Patrick Hamilton was burned at the stake in St. Andrews after teaching, preaching, and disputing with Catholics there. The Scottish Reformation ended in 1558 when “died the last Scottish martyr put to death in the struggle between Romanism and Protestantism.”1 Shortly after this, the first major Protestant documents in Scotland, The Scots Confession and the First Book of Discipline, appeared in 1560.
John Knox (1513-1572) was the most famous Scottish Reformer. During the early part of the Reformation, he lived and taught abroad, most significantly in Geneva with John Calvin. When Knox returned to Scotland, he became the driving force behind the creation of the Presbyterian Church. But besides his huge theological influence, Knox also openly challenged Scotland’s rulers, especially Mary Queen of Scots:
Knox boldly denied the right of princes to prescribe their religion to the people; and when asked whether subjects when they have the power may resist their princes, this pioneer of popular liberty fearlessly declared that when princes exceeded their bounds and demanded from their subjects what they are not required to obey, resistance by force becomes a duty. Paralysed with anger and astonishment, she [Queen Mary] was silent for quarter of an hour, and then, after Knox had urged the duty of princes to nourish the church, she answered, ‘Ye are not the Kirk that I will nourish; I will defend the Kirk of Rome for I think it is the true Kirk of God.’ ‘Your will, madam,’ answered Knox, ‘is no reason, neither does your thought make that Roman harlot to be the immaculate spouse of Jesus Christ.’ This beginning of controversies is a fair specimen of the many conversations and discussions between these two.2
Although Knox annoyed political rulers,
Neither Mary of Guise nor Mary Queen of Scot could do without him. Even though they were Catholics, Knox represented a spiritual authority they needed to legitimize their own. When Queen Mary announced her plans to marry her worthless cousin Lord Darnley, Knox gave her such a fierce public scolding that she burst into tears in full view of her court.3
Many factors came together to set the stage for a remarkable transformation of the religious landscape of Scotland in the 16th century. One was the laxity of Scottish rulers in tolerating dissent by the followers of Wycliffe and the converts of Craw. For example, James IV refused to stamp out the “Lollards of Kyle”:
In A.D. 1494 the Archbishop of Glasgow [Blackadder] summoned to appear before the king in the town of Ayr as many as thirty suspected persons, against whom he laid a charge containing thirty-four counts. They denied that the Pope is the successor of Peter, that there is any value in Papal bulls, pardons, or indulgences, that the Virgin, images or relics, should be worshipped, that masses can avail for the dead, that the bread and wine in the sacrament are made by transubstantiation the very body and blood of Christ...They were fortunate, too, in their chief spokesman Reid, who answered with great readiness of wit, which pleased the king, so that much to Blackadder’s annoyance they were dismissed...They were the real progenitors of the great reformation which, in little more than half a century, was to raze to the ground the whole structure of the Romish Church in Scotland.4
A second factor that allowed Protestants to gain control of Scotland was the weakness of the Scottish royalty. Following the death of James IV, the next three Scottish monarchs began their reigns as infants - which meant that Scotland was governed by regents for nearly half of the 16th century.5 Although these regents ruled on behalf of Catholic monarchs, they were not always Catholic themselves and, even if they were, they had to appease the reformers among the nobility. These dynamics were particularly important during the regencies for Mary (1542-1558) and for James VI (1567-1583).
A third factor that aided the success of Scotland’s reformers was widespread support among the Scottish nobility. While some of this support was due to genuine agreement of beliefs, much of the support was due to the nobles’ desire to confiscate land, buildings, and other property held by the Catholic Church. And there was a lot of it: “At home, a clergy, who were at once licentious and rapacious, held in their hands well nigh half the wealth of the land.”6

While this motive aligned the nobility with the goals of Protestant leaders in the early part of the reformation, it led to conflict and disagreement after the reformation when deciding what property, land, and income should be given to Presbyterian ministers and the Presbyterian church. The Scottish Parliament and Scottish nobility were much less willing to support the Presbyterian Church wherever it meant they had to give up or give back wealth they had taken from Rome. Macpherson describes how:
Two-thirds of the church rents were assigned to the old Popish holders of them, all this ultimately going into the hands of the local nobility and lairds, and only one-third apportioned to the uses for which all had been claimed, out of which, after paying the ministers, it was expected that a considerable revenue would go to the crown. This third was thus preyed upon under one pretext or another, so that the pittance left for the ministers was miserably small.7
Or as MacLeod points out, John Knox:
had to deal with a greedy set who saw to it that of the patrimony of the Church the third part should be divided between the Court and the Reformed ministry. Two thirds were to go to the ‘outed’ priests. It was of this arrangement that the Reformer said: ‘Two parts were given freely to the devil, and the third part was to be divided between God and the devil.’ Those in power saw to it that as far as they could bring it about they would keep the Reformed ministers poor.8
A fourth factor that opened the door to religious reformation in Scotland was England’s break with the Catholic Church under Henry VIII (reign 1509-1547) in 1534. Henry created the Church of England and confiscated land and revenue from monasteries and other Catholic church holdings. Although he did not implement many specifically Protestant practices or much Protestant theology, Henry was not interested in supporting Catholicism in Scotland against the reformers.
During Elizabeth’s decidedly Protestant reign in England,9 the Scottish reformers created the Presbyterian Church. In fact, the First Book of Discipline was a report to Elizabeth about the state of reformation in Scotland. It represented early thinking about how a national reformed church ought to be organized. Before this, the Scottish Reformation had followed the Swiss example of forming local churches city by city and town by town.
In terms of Scottish theology, the Swiss reformers, especially John Calvin, and the Dutch reformers had the most important influence. A critical idea the Scots adopted from the continental reformers was federal or covenantal theology. The application of that idea in the development of Presbyterianism in the face of significant opposition was part of: “an age of controversy, indeed perhaps the greatest Theological age that the Church has ever seen.”10 Covenantal theology also shaped Scottish (and English) history when it became their rallying cry during the English Civil War or the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.

Covenanting Scotland (1st half of 17th century)
Despite having significant influence among the Scottish people, the Presbyterian Church in Scotland struggled to gain political recognition and protection. James VI of Scotland (later James I of England, Scotland, and Ireland) had little love for Presbyterians, including his Presbyterian tutor George Buchanan. After the union of the Scottish and English crowns in 1603, James I gave the Anglican church greater authority in Scotland and used it to extend his rule there.
Still, James recognized the influence of Presbyterianism in Scotland and did not try to stamp it out or fully replace it with Anglicanism. His son (Charles I), under the influence of the ambitious archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, was not so prudent. Charles issued orders that Presbyterian services incorporate significant Anglican practices – including using the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Besides the theological conflict this created, such a move violated the Scottish Presbyterian “two kingdoms” doctrine, that civil authorities had no spiritual authority, and was therefore seen as a gross abuse of power. Protests erupted across Scotland at these impositions and a national covenant was written and signed by Presbyterian leaders and Scottish nobility rejecting the Anglican practices and ejecting Anglican bishops from the country. Charles I tried to enforce the Anglican practices but was defeated by the armies of the “Covenanters” in the Bishops’ Wars, which set the stage for the English Civil War.
The Scottish Covenanters played an interesting role throughout the English Civil War. Although they fought with Parliament (Roundheads) against the royalist supporters of Charles I (Cavaliers) in the early 1640s, they then supported Charles II in his attempt to retake the throne after his father’s execution. But officially supporting Charles II was controversial and caused a rift among Presbyterians. The Presbyterian General Assembly passed a resolution supporting the Scottish Parliament’s decision to crown Charles II based on his promise to implement Presbyterianism across the three kingdoms. Yet many Presbyterians felt that the General Assembly was overstepping its bounds. They also distrusted Charles II and objected to allowing his supporters, many of whom had not been friendly to the Covenanting cause, to take national leadership roles.
Those who supported the resolution were called Resolutioners.11Several divines protested it (Protestors12) and were censured for it. They held their own General Assembly, arguing that the traditional Assembly had become unfree. This schism lasted until the Restoration when both sides were forced out of political favor. But MacLeod argues the legacy of the split can be seen in the First Secession (1733) and in later conflicts between the Moderate Presbyterians and the evangelical high-flyers: “The Reformed Church never got over the bad results that can be easily traced back to this schism which rent its unity in the days of the Commonwealth.”13

Restoration Scotland; or The Killing Time (1660-1688)

After the wars of the three kingdoms and the Protectorate under Cromwell, Charles II was restored to the British throne in 1660. Although he had received Scottish support in the 1640s, Charles II had little love for the Scots, and even less for Presbyterianism. He allowed James Sharpe, the Anglican primate of Scotland (leading church figure) and the royal Secretary for Scotland, the Duke of Lauderdale, to govern on his behalf. Sharpe and Lauderdale regularly persecuted Presbyterians in the name of the king. They hired ruffians and evil men to silence all dissent, religious or civil; rogues who lied regularly, granted no quarter, tortured with impunity, and were otherwise brutal towards the people.
Thus began a bleak time for Scotland, and especially for ardent Presbyterians. British historian Macaulay noted how “The Covenanters were persecuted ‘like wild beasts, tortured till their bones were beaten flat, imprisoned by hundreds, [and] hanged by scores.’”14 The early Scottish historian Robert Wodrow wrote that Restoration Scotland represented “a very horrid scene of oppression, hardships and cruelty, which, were it not incontestably true, and well vouched and supported, could not be credited in after ages.’”15
Macpherson recounts some of these abuses: “The barbarities of which the brutal followers of such a leader were guilty passes all description. During the presence of Turner and his dragoons in Galloway and Dumfries a reign of terror prevailed throughout the whole district.”16 In 1666 and 1667, dissenting Scottish Presbyterians faced:
Dalziel of Binns [who was] commander of the army charged with the suppression of the rebellion. This general was a man admirably suited for the work to which he was called, and prepared to execute the cruel purposes of Sharp(e) without compunction and without pity….He was a fanatic, as fanatical as any Covenanter, only his allegiance was not to God but to an earthly tyrant.17
Later, archbishop Sharpe enlisted the clannish and war-like Highlanders to “punish” stubborn Presbyterians, especially in the western lands of Argyll:
The exasperation rapidly spreading was greatly increased [in 1678] by the bringing down into the western and south-western country of the Highland Host, a mob or rabble of wild, uncivilized hillsmen, about 8,000 or 10,000 in number, who were allowed to plunder without restraint the houses and estates of all gentlemen under suspicion, and to commit unspeakable atrocities wherever they went. These ruthless savages were directed by the curates [Anglican clergy], and the odium of their barbarities rightly fell on those who made use of them.18
Archbishop Sharpe, the author of so much persecution and suffering, was finally assassinated by desperate Presbyterians in May of 1679. Unfortunately, such action did not end the woes of the Scots. Violence, conflict, and persecution continued from that point until the glorious revolution in 1688. After William and Mary took the throne, the Presbyterians in Scotland faced little external religious persecution. As Macaulay notes: ‘If the Revolution had produced no other effect than that of freeing the Scotch from the yoke of an establishment which they detested, and giving them one to which they were attached, it would have been one of the happiest events in our history.”19
Yet within the Presbyterian church the fire of doctrinal controversy and religious heterodoxy began to grow. It would eventually become a conflagration in the late 1700s under the Moderate Party, of which nearly every major Scottish enlightenment figure was a part. The precursors of the Scottish Moderates, men like Francis Hutcheson, John Simson, and George Campbell, criticized traditional Scottish theological doctrine as too narrow and severe while introducing large doses of stoicism and moralism. As I argue in another essay, these thinkers paved the way for orthopraxy to replace orthodoxy and for classical moral philosophy to replace divine revelation during the Scottish Enlightenment.

If you enjoyed this essay on the history of Scottish Christianity, you might also like Jordan Ballor's "Adam Smith in Theological Perspective," or Samuel Fleischacker's "Adam Smith on Religion, " also on AdamSmithWorks. 

Herman, Arthur. (2001). How the Scots Invented the Modern World. Three Rivers Press: New York, NY.
Jackson, Clare. (2003). Restoration Scotland, 1660-1690: royalist politics, religion and ideas. Vol. 2. Boydell Press: London.
Macleod, John. (1974 [1943]). Scottish Theology: in Relation to Church History Since the Reformation. The Knox Press: London.
Macpherson, John. (2015 [1901]). A Story of the Church in Scotland: From the Earliest Times Down to the Present Day. FB &c Ltd.: London.

  1. Macpherson 1901:103
  2. Ibid:116-117
  3. Herman 2001:15
  4. Macpherson 1901:70-71
  5. There were 15 years of regency before James V took the reins of power, 16-19 years of regency before Mary Queen of Scots formally took power, and 11-16 years of regency before James VI took power.
  6. MacLeod 1943:3
  7. Macpherson 1901:118
  8. MacLeod 1943:45
  9. The more distinctly Protestant shift in the Church of England came during the reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI (1547-1553), through the efforts of archbishop Thomas Cranmer. Though Edward’s half-sister Mary I (1553-1558), also known as Mary of Guise or “bloody Mary,” tried to reverse the reforms and bring the English church back under Roman control, she ultimately failed. When Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603), Edward’s other half-sister, took the crown, she reinstituted the reforms under Edward along with other distinctly Protestant views.
  10. MacLeod 1943:28
  11. Resolutioners included: Robert Baillie, David Dickson, Robert Douglas, James Wood, George Hutcheson, James Fergusson
  12. Protestors included: James Guthrie, William Guthrie, Patrick Gillespie, George Gillespie, Samuel Rutherford, Hugh Binning
  13. MacLeod 1943:84
  14. Jackson 2003:2
  15. Ibid:2
  16. Macpherson 1901:244
  17. Ibid:245
  18. Ibid:261
  19. Quoted in Macpherson 1901:285-286