The Catholic Historical Review 87.2 (2001) 326-328
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Scottish Puritanism, 1590-1638
Scottish Puritanism, 1590-1638. By David George Mullan. (New York: Oxford University Press. 2000. Pp. xiii, 371. $99.00.)
David Mullan's informative book about Scottish religious thought in the years before the signing of the National Covenant comes to a startling conclusion: [End Page 326] that "the National Covenant as a political text may be seen not as the fulfillment but as the subversion of Scottish Reformed piety" (p. 320). The Covenanters "fabricated a crisis from the religious fanaticism of their own minds" (p. 321). So they in effect sold out to "a nobility bent on restoring its decayed estate," and thus "gave themselves over to what amounted to a form of Erastianism" (p. 319), against which they had unsuccessfully struggled since the days of Andrew Melville.
These conclusions do not necessarily follow from what has gone before. Mullan's purpose is to "demonstrate an essential community of theology and piety amongst presbyterians and episcopalians, those who became covenanters and anti-covenanters" (p. 1). This he has done, and very effectively. He begins with brief biographical sketches of the "puritan brotherhood," the theologians whose writings he analyzes. "Puritan" is a term not normally used in a Scottish context. It is nowhere defined; it apparently refers to those who opposed both the five articles of Perth and episcopacy as such. Mullan then goes on, in a series of meticulous and very interesting chapters, to analyze puritan beliefs: the importance of the preaching of the Word, the nature of the conversion experience, "the focal point of puritan piety" (p. 87), the striving for assurance in the course of life's pilgrimage, and the neat balancing act therein required between gloomy fatalism and the pride of Holy Willie. The most obvious features of religious thought, in Mullan's opinion, were "the Augustinian-Calvinist view of grace" and "the notion of the religio-political covenant" (p. 171). Covenant theology was complicated. There was the idea, dating back to John Knox, of Scotland as a covenanted nation, and then there was the individual's covenant with God. This took the form of federal theology: the covenant of works, which God made with Adam ("do, and live"), the covenant of redemption between Father and Son, and the covenant of grace ("believe, and live"), wherein Christ assumes for us the covenant of works. There quickly arose a twofold question concerning grace: was it preached to all, and was it resistible? The orthodox said no, Arminians said yes, and thus started down the road to perdition, i.e., Rome. Mullan rightly argues that the puritans greatly exaggerated the amount of Arminianism in Scotland. They associated it with episcopacy and Popery, and found examples of it in the new service book. To change a Good Friday collect from "may . . . godly" to "may . . . worthily serve thee, Is this not an approaching unto merit?" wrote one pamphleteer (p. 231). It was their visceral fear of Popery, which Mullan does not sufficiently stress, that led the puritans to jettison the doctrine of non-resistance to divinely appointed rulers and adopt what the town clerk of episcopalian Aberdeen called the nobility's covenant.
The main lines of Mullan's analysis are familiar, but the clarity and detail with which he lays it out are most helpful and welcome. There is also an excellent chapter on the place of women, who from Knox's time onward played important roles in the lives of Scottish ministers. If Mullan's conclusions, quoted at the beginning of this review, do not altogether convince, it is because the assurance that every pilgrim craved had to be sought in the public as well as in [End Page 327] the private sphere. Scotland was a covenanted nation, and the feet of Popery were at the door. The godly had no choice.
Maurice Lee, Jr.