Liberal Presbyterianism before Erdman

Not science or naturalism but politics, community, social capital, and civility have weakened Presbyterian convictions way more than higher criticism or evolution. The situation in Scotland after the Glorious Revolution and the restoration of Presbyterianism in the Kirk:

This new urban sociability reflected and contributed to the pan-British and European shift towards latitudinarianism near the turn of the century. The clergy’s co-operation in pursuits that lay outside the narrow boundaries of theology fostered camaraderie among individuals from across the religious spectrum. ‘We perfectly agree with you in your sentiments’, the London Society for the Reformation of Manners wrote to their Scottish counterparts, ‘that however Christians may differ in opinion as to other things, yet they should all agree in advancing the common interest of Christianity in promoting the practice of piety and virtue.’ In turn, the Scottish Societies resolved ‘not to meddle with the particular opinions or practices of persons in religion, [for] although we differ in our sentiments as to some things, yet that we are united in our zeal for God, our charity for men, and concern for our country, do invite and entreat all’. When the Scottish Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge sought donations to establish parochial libraries throughout northern Scotland in the early 1700s, they relied on English clergymen of all theological stripes for assistance. An analysis of the libraries’ catalogues reveals an interesting result from the joint endeavour. In addition to the expected staples of orthodox Presbyterians, English men and women sent discourses that were disproportionately comprised of moderate English Episcopalian bishops or archbishops, such as John Tillotson, Gilbert Burnet, Edward Stillingfleet and Benjamin Hoadly, as well as Robert Leighton, the former archbishop of Glasgow who had attempted to unite Presbyterians and Episcopalians in the 1670s. Furthermore, scientific and philosophical writings by John Locke, Francis Bacon, Robert Sibbald, Robert Boyle,William Chillingworth, Hugo Grotius and Samuel von Puffendorf, in addition to Cicero and Euclid, were also quite popular. Records for Inverness, Dumbarton, Dingwall, Dumfries, Sleat, Duriness, Kilmoor, South Uist and Bracadle all confirm this pattern to be the norm.

Against this trend of tolerance and intellectual innovation, a majority of Presbyterians vehemently resisted with protests in the General Assembly and legal depositions in the parishes. There was a noticeable dichotomy between the Assembly’s leanings and those of the Presbyterians who comprised it. How, then, did the moderates attain their victories and enforce their influence? They relied upon the Williamite state, which was committed to forging inclusive national churches in Scotland and England, to turn a numerical disadvantage into an opportunity via diplomacy and undemocratic means – namely, the strategic manipulation of key religious institutions. (Ryan K. Frace, “Religious Toleration in the Wake of Revolution: Scotland on the Eve of Enlightenment, 1688-1710s,” Journal of the Historical Association, 2008, 369-70)

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