Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Theology and Classical Study
By Sir William Hamilton (17881856)
AS the Scottish Reformation did not originate in native learning, so it did not even come recommended to the Scottish people, by the learned authority of its propagators. In relation to other national Reformers, the Reformer of Scotland was an unlettered man. Compared with Knox, says a great German historian, Spittler, Luther was but a timorous boy;but if Knox surpassed Luther himself in intrepidity, even Luther was a learned theologian by the side of Knox. With the exception of Melville, who obtained what erudition he possessed abroad, the religion of the people of Scotland could boast of no theologian, living in Scotland, worthy of the name. Of Scoti extra Scotiam agentes we do not here speak. Some remarkable divines Scotland has indeed possessed; but these were all adherents of that church, which for a season was established by the will of the monarch in opposition to the wishes of the nation. The two Forbeses, to say nothing of Leighton, Burnet, and Sage, were Episcopalians. In fact the want of popular support made it necessary for divines of that establishment to compensate by the strength of their theological learning for the weakness of their political position. The struggle which ensued between the Episcopal and Presbyterian parties was, from first to last, more a popular than a scientificmore a civil than a theological contest; and the Covenanters, whose zeal and fortitude finally wrought out the establishment of the religion and liberty of the nation, were unlearned as they were enthusiastic. With the triumph of the Presbyterian polity and doctrines, the controversy between the rival persuasions ceased. The Scottish Episcopalians were few in numbers, and long politically repressed; and the other separatists from the Establishment, so far from being, as in England, the enemies of the dominant church, were in reality its useful friends. They pitched in general somewhat higher the principles which they held in common with the Establishment; and whereas in England the Dissenters would have radically destroyed what they condemned as vicious, in Scotland they wished only, as they in fact contributed, to brace what they viewed as relaxed. Thus, in Scotland, if sectarian controversy did not wholly cease, theological erudition was not required for its prosecution. The learning of the Dissenters did not put to shame the ignorance of the Establishment; and the people were so well satisfied with their own triumph and their adopted church, that its clergy had no call on them for an erudition, to illustrate what was already respected, or to vindicate what was not assailed. Even the attacks on Christianity, which were subsequently made in Scotland, and which it was therefore more immediately incumbent on the Scottish clergy to repel, were not such as it required any theological erudition to meet; while, from the religious dispositions of the public, these attacks remained always rather a scandal than a danger. At the same time, in no other country was there so little verge, far less encouragement, allowed to theological speculation. The standards of Scottish orthodoxy were more articulate and unambiguous than those of any other church; and to its members the permissible result of all inquiry was in proportion rigorously predetermined. Though often ignorantly mistaken, often intentionally misunderstood, the national creed could not, as in other countries, by any section of the established clergy, be either professedly abandoned or openly attacked. In religious controversy, popular opinion remained always the supreme tribunal; and a clamour, when this could be excited, was at once decisive of victory. At the same time the highest aim of clerical accomplishment was to preach a popular discourse. Under the former system of church patronage, this was always a principal condition of success; under the present it promises to be soon the only one. Theological learning remained thus superfluous, if not unsafe.
Nor, in the third place, must it be overlooked, that the laudable accommodation of the Scottish Church to its essential endthe religious instruction of the peoplesecured it consideration and usefulness without any high attainment in theological science. This, indeed, it neither felt as necessary, nor possessed the means of encouraging. Ecclesiastical property was fairly applied to ecclesiastical purposes; and the duties and salaries of the clergy were neither inadequately nor unequally apportioned. If the professional education of the churchman was defective, still it was better than none. If not learned, he was rarely incompetent to parochial duties, which he could not neglect; while his religious and moral character were respectable and respected. The people of Scotland were justly, at least in its earlier times, contented with their Church.
In the Church of England, on the contrary, the splendour of extraordinary learning was requisite to throw into the shade its manifold defects and abusesits want of professional education, its pluralities, its sinecures, its non-residence, its princely pampering of the few, its beggarly starvation of the many. The grosser the ignorance which it tolerated, the more distinguished must be the erudition which it encouraged; and in the distribution of its higher honours, the promotion of merit, in some cases, was even necessary to redeem the privilege of neglecting it in general. Thus the different circumstances of the two churches rendered the clergy of the one, neither ignorant nor learned; of the other, ignorant and learned at once.
The circumstance, however, of the most decisive influence on the erudition of a clergy is the quality and amount of the preparatory and professional education they receive. As almost exclusively bred in the common schools and universities of a country, and their necessary course of education being in general considerably longer than that of other learned professions, the clergy consequently express more fully and fairly than any other class the excellences and defects of the native seminaries. On the other hand, the quality and amount of their learning principally determine for good or evil the character of the whole education, public and private, of a country; for the clergy, or those trained for the church, constitute not only the most numerous body of literary men, but the class from which tutors, schoolmasters, and even professors, are principally taken. Their ignorance or erudition thus reacts most powerfully and extensively, either to raise and keep up learning, or to prevent its rising among all orders and professions. The standard of learning in a national clergy is, in fact, the standard of learning in a nation.