http://northernrenaissance.org | ISSN: 1759-3085

Creative Commons License

Published under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported Creative Commons License.

You are free to share, copy and transmit this work under the following conditions:

David George Mullan, Narratives of the Religious Self in Early-Modern Scotland (Ashgate, 2010)

David George Mullan, Narratives of the Religious Self in Early-Modern Scotland. Farnham: Ashgate, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-7546-6832-9. 464pp. Hbk. £75.

Reviewed by Stuart Macdonald

[1]  David Mullan has spent his academic life exploring the ideas of various individuals and movements within the Reformed tradition. He has looked at the American Roger Williams, at the idea of episcopacy in sixteenth-century Scotland and, more recently, at the ideas of Scottish Puritans. Narratives of the Religious Self continues this interest and explores the ideas found in the life writings of later Scottish Puritans. He has already edited a collection of some of these writings in Women’s Life Writing in Early Modern Scotland: Writing the Evangelical Self (2003). In this latest book Mullan has provided an in-depth analysis of these and other writings and placed them within a broader religious and historical context.

[2]  The approximately eighty life-writings being explored in this book are from Scots who supported the Covenants and are concentrated in the period from the restoration in 1660 to around 1730. These Scottish Puritans, sometimes also referred to as evangelicals, shared an intense religious devotion, similar ideals and understandings, and had rejected the norms of their culture. Their life-writings give us a sense of how they understood God as active in their lives and the world and how they shaped those experiences to conform to existing typologies.

[3]  The structure of the book is very clear and helps us to move from the general to the specific topics under consideration. The sources and the idea of life-writing and some other examples of autobiography, not only English Puritan but also Soviet communist, are introduced. The book then divides into two parts: the first looks at the lives and times of these individuals, while the second looks at how they engaged, as the title of this section appropriately names it, in ‘Constructing the Evangelical Self’. David Mullan begins the first section by outlining the events of the seventeenth century with an eye to how these men and women would have understood the key events of their times: ‘What follows in this chapter is less a critical analysis of the Restoration period than a series of mainly first-person vignettes from various pens which describe the world in which the writers grew up and suffered’ (43). It is this sense of suffering, of being on the losing side in troubled times, which informs these writers, many of whom were unbending in their opposition to the religious settlement and government. It was the experience of opposition, of Rullion Green and Bothwell Bridge, and other conflicts that formed ‘the ground of suffering in which Scottish religious self writing flourished’ (79). David Mullan provides us with the background of these events, not in an objective sense, but in a manner sympathetic to the way in which those who wrote their spiritual autobiographies would have experienced them. The next chapter, ‘Shining Lights and Burning Hearts’, looks at how these life writers broke with the church in order to follow preachers like Samuel Rutherford, Robert Fleming, Thomas Hog, and others. Through their preaching. writing, and example these preachers greatly influenced many including those who recounted their own individual struggles in their writings.

[4]  The next two chapters move from the specific historical events and personalities which shaped the lives of these writers to more general human experiences such as birth, childhood, education, marriage, and career. The experiences of childhood amidst high mortality rates and other dangers often led to a later sense of God’s providence at work and shaped how these life writers spoke of their own piety and their later conversions. David Mullan also discusses how these individuals moved through adolescence to adulthood, including choosing their vocation and mates. Throughout the book there is a comparative approach, as these themes are compared with what we know of Puritans outside of Scotland. For example, Mullan notes that in New England marriage had many features of a business transaction, with love (hopefully) following. The Scottish Puritans – at least as described in these narratives – seem to have had a different experience, with ‘rational love’ being more central (212).

[5]  Part II of the book moves to consider three features central to these narratives and the way individuals understood their lives. This was a piety which was very emotional or affective. David Mullan focuses particular attention on the melancholy which seems to have been a major feature of their experience of faith. Careful attention is also given to how they understood the Bible. Mullan highlights the influence of the book of Psalms, not only in developing piety, but also in encouraging individuals to give an account of their lives and struggles as well as shaping the forms in which they did this. These individuals read the Psalms and the Bible differently than do modern readers. Typology, he argues, is the key to understanding this way of reading scripture. Individuals saw themselves as living through experiences which were similar to those which they read about in the Bible: ‘Consequently, what happened long ago is viewed as a foreshadowing of what occurs in these latter days in the lives of the saints’ (278). The Bible then gives one a key to understand one’s own sense of melancholy or suffering, as well as a sense of the providence or over-arching control and plan of God. Providence dominates these writings as individuals interpret their experiences within an understanding of God’s mysterious hand at work in the world of their day. Chapter seven is key within the book, as the author argues that one of the unique contribution of Scottish Puritans was their belief in personal covenanting. This was related to their reading of the Song of Songs and their understanding of being married to Christ. Narratives of the Religious Self closes with a brief Epilogue which explores the role of the Bible, questions of the intended audience, gender, and offers a discussion of the differences between Puritans in England and Scotland. A closing word reminds us that these individuals were not out to better society as much as they were interested in making themselves more righteous (376).

[6]  Narratives of the Religious Self is a book which will be of great interest to those who are specialists in seventeenth-century Scotland or those who study international Calvinism. It is probably not a book which those new to the area will find easy going. As someone who knows aspects of the topics under discussion, but certainly not all of them, there are a few things which I found would have made this fine study more accessible. One would involve translating the Latin phrases that appear throughout the book into English. More significantly, I found the interchangeable use of the terms evangelical and Puritan confusing. Sometimes both phrases were used, while in other places only one appeared. For example, Robert Fleming is described as ‘the archetypical evangelical minister’ and later in the same paragraph as similar to ‘any good Puritan or evangelical of his century’ (108). Is there a distinction, in David Mullan’s mind, between these two terms, and if so, what precisely is it? This lack of clear definition is one of the few areas I found confusing in an otherwise excellent study.

Knox College, University of Toronto, May 2012