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The Social and Industrial history of Scotland, from the Union to the present time
Eighteenth Century: 8. Religious Life


The change from Episcopacy to Presbyterianism at the Revolution left much bitter feeling in the south-west and in the region north of the Tay, where the Episcopalians were very strong. This feeling survived till well into the first half of the eighteenth century, when a new generation of clergy had taken possession of the parishes and the old animosities begotten of the persecution of the Presbyterians by the Episcopalians before, and of the Episcopalians by the Presbyterians after, the Revolution died down, and were only revived for a brief period by the excitement of the Forty-Five. Their place was taken by the outbreak of ecclesiastical contention within the Church, which caused no little ferment among the people, in certain districts at least, and resulted in a series of small schisms. Religion entered deeply into the life of the people. There were long services on Sunday, which it was obligatory to attend, and on at least one week day, whilst the minister carried the instruction of the pulpit to the homes of his parishioners by systematic visitation and examination in the Cathechism and the Scriptures. The churches in which they worshipped were often mean and miserable hovels, ill-lighted, ill-ventilated, and for long unheated and unseated, which the parsimonious heritors neglected to keep in repair. "Dark, damp, dirty hovels" is the description which the minister of Glenorchy applies to many of them even at the end of the eighteenth century.

The great "occasion" of the year in the religious life was the celebration of the Communion, when the people flocked from the neighbouring parishes to the parish church in which the Sacrament was to be held. The services extended over several days in addition to Sunday. Popular ministers drew great crowds, and in ii The Holy Fair " Burns has rather irreverently given a vivid description of the scene. It was no easy matter to provide food and shelter for such a concourse, and the attraction consisted for many in such excitement and good cheer as were to be had. These assemblies were for the preachers with a popular gift regular field days. The church or the tent was crowded to overflowing during their long harangues, whilst the man who had no unction or little action had the mortification to find that the ale barrels and the bread and cheese outside had more attraction for the crowd than his unsensational oratory. Though these celebrations were the nurse of genuine religious feeling, Burns hardly exaggerates the right human failings which he hits off, and the change to a more decorous order of things which, under the influence of Moderatism, took place during the century, was certainly a change for the better.

The century witnessed a gradual change in religious use and wont. In some respects it was a change for the better, though it greatly distressed the minds of the old-fashioned who strove to keep alive the religious fashions and forms of an older time. The stem Calvinism in creed and life was losing its hold on the educated classes. Superstitions like witchcraft and ghost appearances were becoming relics of past beliefs. Ministers who had in their Arts course attended the lectures of professors like Hutcheson and Adam Smith, Adam Fergusson and Thomas Reid were better educated and more liberal and sensible, and this clerical type gradually displaced the narrow remnant of Covenanting days. The name attached to this more liberal thinking section—the Moderates—is significant of the broader spirit in the Church, which presents such a contrast to that of the previous century. Even the party which in theology championed the old doctrines and was known as the Evangelicals shed the extreme narrowness of former days. The Moderate influence is apparent in the relaxation of ecclesiastical discipline with its obtrusive and tyrannical methods. It was losing its harsher features when Bums arose to satirise it and the theological narrowness with which it was associated. The reaction to which he gave such telling expression had many representatives among the more cultured clergy. Religion became more human; the Sabbath less of a tyranny and a terror. It gained in charity what it lost in fervour and severity. A remarkable evidence of the growth of this more tolerant spirit is afforded by the change of attitude towards the drama and the playhouse. In the middle of the century the theatre was still under the ban of the Kirk, and great was the scandal when John Home, minister of Athelstaneford, ventured in 1750 to produce his tragedy of Douglas—which the philosopher Hume too fondly judged superior to Shakespeare—in Edinburgh, and even ministers like Jupiter Carlyle dared to witness. The Edinburgh Presbytery sounded a warning note against these "dangerous entertainments" and "such seminaries of vice and folly," and to escape deposition Home was fain to resign his charge, whilst

Jupiter Carlyle manfully faced the "libel" of the Presbytery of Dalkeith. The Presbyteries fulminated in vain against this scandalous and illegal conduct, and in 1764 Edinburgh at last got its licensed theatre. Towards the end of the century it was no longer a crime for even ministers to be seen at the playhouse, and when Mrs Siddons came to Edinburgh the General Assembly was half deserted by its members. Dancing assemblies also became fashionable in spite of pulpit denunciations, and music, both vocal and instrumental, had many amateur devotees in Edinburgh, who performed at the concerts given in St Cecilia's Hall in the Cowgate.

On the other hand, the preaching of the Moderates, as represented by the affected and formal oratory of a Blair, failed to make the pulpit the potent force in popular life that it had been in less enlightened, but far more explosive days, when religion was a real, if to some extent a misdirected power in both public and private life. From this point of view there was force in the reproach of the Evangelical party that Moderatism with its commonsense morality (" legalism ") was tending to deaden the spiritual life based on the more experimental apprehension of the Gospel. Certain it is that, if the services became more decorous and refined, the churches were far less crowded than formerly. Moderatism by its insistence on the legal rights of patrons in the face of popular opposition to unwelcome presentees tended, too, to alienate the democratic spirit that was still a power in the religious, if not in the political sphere in Scotland. Whilst comparatively liberal in thought, it was strongly conservative and reactionary in ecclesiastical politics and ranged itself on the side of " law and order." Hence the secessions which, under the Erskines, took place in 1733 (the Associate Presbytery) and under Gillespie in 1761 (the Relief Presbytery). The former represented the old narrow spirit which had lingered in its purity among the Cameronians, the direct descendants of the Covenanters, who had refused to acknowledge an uncovenanted Revolution settlement. In 1747 they took to quarrelling among themselves over the question of taking the oath, imposed on citizens taking office in certain towns after the Forty-Five, to defend "the true religion presently professed," and went asunder into Burghers and Anti-Burghers„ The Burghers further divided into "Auld Lichts" and "New Liehts" over the question of maintaining the Solemn League and Covenant, according as they affirmed or denied its continued obligation. The old religious temper, which laid such stress on the minutiae of ecclesiastical beliefs, thus continued to colour the social life of the people despite the growing tendency to relegate them to the realm of things indifferent.


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