The Clergy in Early Modern Scotland

Here the editors of this detailed look at the role of clerics during a turbulent period tell us about how they chose to represent the clergy of the time and how the complexities of the lives of Scottish ministers defy simple descriptions.

The Clergy in Early Modern Scotland explores the complexity and nuances of early modern ministry. But how do you appropriately represent the early modern clergy? This is a question that has bubbled below the surface during the four-year gestation of this edited collection.

Credit: Chris R. Langley

In 2017, when we first organised a conference to consider the Scottish ministry, our publicity material was adorned with the image of John Knox. Specifically, we used a photograph of Knox’s statue, which towers over the quad at the University of Edinburgh’s New College. It felt like a fitting choice for our publicity flyer: not only is Knox the best-known early modern Scottish cleric, but the conference was being held at New College. Yet while Knox is well known, it is difficult to argue that he is representative of the ministry as a whole (and certainly not in his Victorian guise). So when it came to choosing the cover image for The Clergy in Early Modern Scotland, it was not to Knox that we turned, but to a seventeenth-century portrait of Alexander Henderson (or ‘Rev. Ruffles’ as he has been affectionately dubbed by some). Sir Anthony van Dyck’s contemporary portrait of the covenanting leader portrays an ideal Scottish cleric: a serious man of God, dressed in austere black robes, with a book (perhaps a Bible) in his hand. Van Dyck’s portrait of Henderson has much to commend it: it offers a more realistic representation of a godly minister from a seventeenth-century standpoint (and despite Henderson’s sombre appearance we’ve become rather fond of the striking figure that he cuts on the beautifully designed cover).

Yet neither Knox’s towering statue in the New College quad nor the portrait of a serious and solitary Henderson satisfactorily captures the true nature of the Scottish ministry. Both offer idealised representations that skew our perception of the early modern clergy in at least three key ways.

First, the Scottish clergy were more down to earth than statues on plinths, like Knox’s, might suggest. These elevated images imply that ministers were somewhat removed from the general populace. Yet, while ministers exercised authority over the laity by right of their vocation, they were still enmeshed within the structures of the parish. As such, ministers were attuned to the needs within their parishes and played a critical role in ensuring effective poor relief, particularly by exhorting charitable giving from the pulpit. For the most part, ministers sought to maintain healthy relationships with those who were not only their parishioners, but also their neighbours. And, if the favourable accounts given to parish visitations are anything to go by, they seem to have been largely successful in this endeavour. Tensions did sometimes arise, particularly when ecclesiastical authorities rubbed up against civil authorities (the disputes between the ministers and bailies in St Andrews in the 1590s are illustrative). But examples of care, appreciation, and conflict all emphasise the same point: ministers were not removed from the nitty-gritty experience of parish life.

Second, Scottish ministers were not the solitary creatures that their artistic portrayals have tended to suggest. Ministers were not only connected to their parishioners, but to their fellow clerics too. They met with one another at regular presbytery meetings, which provided mutual encouragement, accountability, and structure. In some cases, more informal relationships sprang up between the ministers of neighbouring parishes, as was the case between James Durham and Andrew Gray who both ministered in (what is now) Glasgow Cathedral and discussed with one another how best to interpret the Bible. Some clerics established networks outwith Scotland through personal correspondence. Ministers also received much-needed spiritual and practical support from their families, especially their wives, as they sought to further the work of reformation. If we are to understand the early modern ministry fully, we must pay attention to these clerical and familial networks rather than seeing them as standalone figures.

Third, leading figures like Knox and Henderson do not adequately represent the entire Scottish ministry, especially in terms of temperament, geography, and theology. While some ministers, like James Sharpe, may have shared Knox and Henderson’s uncompromising zeal, others, like John Dury, had a more irenic spirit. Indeed, Hugh Binning actively promoted the moderation of the affections in his sermons. Geographically, both Knox and Henderson are particularly connected with Edinburgh, having both served as ministers at St Giles. Yet the experience of ministry in rural areas could be quite different to that in cities. This is especially true of island parishes, like those on Orkney, where physical and cultural separation from the mainland presented distinct challenges. Variety can also be detected in terms of theology: protestant ministers post-1560 were generally Reformed (despite differing ecclesiological commitments), but there was greater diversity in the pre-Reformation period. The likes of Patrick Hamilton and Alexander Alesius were influenced by Lutheran rather than Reformed ideas. Given such diversity, a portrait of any single minister will inevitably fall short of representing early modern ministry in its entirety.

The van Dyck portrait of Henderson and the statue of Knox at New College both offer artistic interpretations of the ideal minister. Idealised understandings of the Scottish ministry were not, however, the product of artists or sculptors alone. The clergy themselves regularly painted mental images of the ideal minister through their pulpit exhortations, even if the reality often proved beyond reach. The Clergy in Early Modern Scotland centralises the clergy in discussions of Scotland’s long Reformation, but it does not seek to present a refashioned ideal. Instead, it delves into the lived experience (what some might call the ‘messiness’) of early modern ministry. The picture that emerges from its pages is less tidy than these artistic contributions — the idea of an aloof, solitary, or uniform ministry certainly recedes — but it is one that we hope better captures the complicated nuances of life as a Scottish minister in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.


Chris R. Langley is Reader in Early Modern History at Newman University, Birmingham; Catherine E. McMillan is a historian of religion and society in early modern Britain; Russell Newton is Lecturer in Church History at the Faith Mission Bible College, Edinburgh.

CONTRIBUTORS: Michelle D. Brock, Jane Dawson, Helen Gair, Michael F. Graham, Nathan C.J. Hood, Chris R. Langley, Peter Marshall, Felicity Lyn Maxwell, John McCallum, Catherine E. McMillan, Claire McNulty, Russell Newton, Janay Nugent, L. Rae Stauffer, Elizabeth Tapscott.

The Clergy in Early Modern Scotland
Edited by Chris R. Langley, Catherine E. McMillan and Russell Newton
9781783276196, Hardback, £42 or $59.40