Monday, December 05, 2005

Evidence on the Religious Climate Affecting Adam Smith

Virtue on line: ‘The voice for global orthodox Anglicanism’ (4 December), carries a review: The Elizabethan Prayer Book, Edited by John E. Booty, Virginia/Folger. 427 pp. $29.95, by Michael Dirda, a critic for Book World (©

In part of his thoughtful review Michael Dirda reports:

Bunyan also uses such surprisingly modern phrases as "spending money" and "Were you doers, or talkers only?"And he ends Part One with a chilling sentence. Ignorance has arrived at the Celestial City and knocks on the door. So very close to his heavenly goal, he nonetheless lacks the proper "certificate" and is suddenly, unexpectedly damned, bound hand and foot, and thrust by angels through a door in the side of a hill. Writes Bunyan: "Then I saw that there was a way to Hell, even from the Gates of Heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction." On which harrowing note he brings his original vision to a close: "So I awoke, and behold, it was a Dream."Such declamatory moments remind us that Bunyan passed much of his life, when not in prison, preaching in the open air. In our era of so much bland speech-making, we sometimes forget about this sheer power of oratory. Great preachers even now preserve its tradition, one in which human elocution alone, backed by passionate conviction and a desire to save souls, can bring people to tears, to their knees or to their feet. Think, for a supreme example, of Martin Luther King Jr.The almost legendary 18th-century preacher George Whitefield was so magnificent a speaker that the atheist philosopher David Hume declared that he would travel 20 miles on foot to hear him. Once, every high-school student read, with growing terror, the rolling periods of Jonathan Edwards's sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." After describing the horrors of the pit, he reminds us of the sharp precariousness of life:"The bow of God's wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood."


Though Michael Dirda does not say so, David Hume had such a gentle disposition (he never criticised any reviewer of his writings, no matter how rude and ignorant their words) that he had many friends among the ministers and elders of the Scottish Church during his lifetime, all of them aware of his views on religion and religious mysticism, and of his honest, open nature. Many of whom, right to the top of the Church, were unwilling to castigate and denounce him in the same distasteful manner as did some of their ‘Christian’ brethren.

Indeed, when the zealots tried to ‘excommunicate’ him, a wholly disastrous social edict but of no philosophical importance, his friends in the Church rallied to his defence and the zealots lost handsomely, with not a little gentle mocking for their pains.

It was not for nothing that he was called ‘Saint David’ by many who knew him.

I have raised the issue of 18th-century Scotland’s religious climate in ‘Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy’ (Palgrave, 2005) and here on the Lost Legacy Blog. The passages quoted above show a glimmer of the religious climate of ‘hell and damnation’ preaching that pervaded life in the Kirk that dominated Scottish social and family life throughout Smith’s lifetime. The reviewer’s purpose in quoting the prose had a different purpose, namely to illustrate the excellent use of the English language by some members of the Church of England; the ‘Calvinist’ inspired, Presbyterian Church in Scotland was more prone to alarmism about the furies of Hell than some of their southern neighbours.

For many of his contemporaries, particularly his beloved mother, the threat of Hell’s fire, mitigated only by an elsuive Heaven’s promise, was a very real, present and personal danger, under which most, including Adam Smith, were intimidated into compliance or prudence about causing the offence to the zealots. There are many signs of this in Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments” and clues to his indirect criticism of religious doctrine in his surrogate condemnation of the pagan superstitions when his real target was religious superstition. On the death of his mother, Margaret Douglas (and later his cousin, Jane Douglas) he averred to no words about them being in Heaven, or that he would meet them again in what preachers called the ‘afterlife’.

Modern readers of Smith’s Works should take their context into consideration when they assert that he was a Deist and that a religious theme runs through his philosophical and economics writing.


Post a Comment

<< Home