Religion in the Age of Enlightenment


Ryan K. Frace


Church of Scotland, religion, Hugh Blair


When describing the Scottish Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge in 1750, Edinburgh's minister Hugh Blair proclaimed:

It must be the interest of every good man, of every Briton, to encourage this design tending so evidently to make us a happy, a free, and a united nation. Religion and liberty, industry and joy, are sisters, and never appear to such advantage as when in company [together], so that now, Religion and Industry go hand in hand, strengthen and establish one another.

Blair's comment illustrates an intriguing and important development: by the mid-eighteenth century, political economy-a central component of the Scottish Enlightenment-had emerged as a preoccupation of the national Church of Scotland. Yet Scottish Presbyterianism's realignment with an economic national interest starkly contrasts the church's seventeenth-century Covenanting traditions, which vehemently denounced the integration of the sacred and the profane. The Covenanters and their supporters, ascendant during the British Civil Wars (1642-51) and highly influential into the 1700s, also adhered to a decidedly confessional national interest that privileged doctrinal purity and religious uniformity. Violence and persecution often defined the relationship between Episcopalians and Presbyterians, with the latter taking control of the national church during the Revolution of 1688-89.2 Why did the topics of civic utility, commercial productivity, and political arithmetic begin to share the pulpit with the clergy's traditional emphasis on scripture and doctrine? What does this shift tell us more generally about broader religious developments on the eve of the Enlightenment?