Professor Tom Devine is a notable and respected historian. Writing in the Times on 10th August he doubtless provoked astonishment in media and political circles with his claim that modern Scotland has entirely ignored “the profoundly positive influence which reformed Protestantism also had on Scottish history.” We are glad to read a modern historian highlighting the prejudice and bias with which most commentators have reflected on Calvinism and the Scottish Reformation. The Times political editor who comments of Tom Devine’s views is no exception in his class when it comes to what the historian justly characterises as looking “habitually through a negative lens.” We hope that this wake-up will help to prevent such “incomplete and myopic analysis” of our history in the media.
Yet Professor Devine’s call that we “thank Calvin for great Scots minds,” is not at all an admission that the Reformation was an unqualified good from which our nation has now sadly departed and apostatised. Rather he describes the deathly Moderates of the 18th century Scottish Church as being those great minds for which we should presently give thanks. While Calvin and Scottish Calvinism doubtless influenced the Enlightenment in this country positively and prevented the enormities of the French Revolution from polluting our shores, the Moderatism of the Scottish Church, whose influence is still so painfully apparent, was and remains an aberration from the spirit and benign influence of true Calvinism.
Professor Devine’s characterisation of the post-revolution Church is in the stereotypical language which his article is challenging. To speak of “avenging Presbyterians on the rampage ” and of “a rigid and intolerant ideology” which seemed “to hold the country in an unyielding grip,” is emotive to say the least. While we welcome historians identifying the sources of liberty and freedom which we presently enjoy with Calvin and Scottish Calvinism, it seems strange that those who won that struggle for freedom in Scotland with blood – our Covenanters – are miscalled and maligned. Is not this period not also “seen habitually through a negative lens” by the professor himself? Men such as godly James Renwick ought to have as high a place in our regard when it comes to modern liberty as the Reformers. The Second Reformation and the Covenanting struggle are an essential foundation to 18th century peace and progress. In that era, and in spite of the rage of oppression, the doctrines and worship of Calvinism found most consistent expression. The reign of Moderatism was grossly inconsistent Calvinism redeemed only by the influence of evangelical religion which survived it.
In his forthcoming biography of Renwick, Maurice Grant rightly remarks, “Like the Reformers, he (Renwick) knew that the liberties of the Church went hand in hand with the liberties of the people. His stand was fully vindicated at the Revolution of 1688 It is not exaggeration to say that his testimony – and particularly his death – paved the way for the religious and civil liberties we enjoy today.” (From the Preface to Preacher to the Remnant due to be published by the Society later this year) It will perhaps require another spiritual Reformation before our rulers, our historians and our pressmen come to see the truth of this.
by Rev David Campbell