Did Presbyterianism make Scotland a more Socialist country?

In the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town, a grand old cathedral stands amid the tourist bustle of the Royal Mile. This building stands as a towering testament to Scotland’s tortured religious past. In 1558 the stirrings of the Protestant Reformation were being felt in Scotland’s towns and cities, and in Edinburgh these tensions exploded in the St. Giles Day Riot. A statue of the saint was thrown into the Nor’ Loch, the stinking body of water that lay where Princes Street Gardens are now. This drama was followed, and compounded, with the repatriation from Geneva of the fiery preacher John Knox. In 1559 he marched into the cathedral and claimed it for the reformed faith. A week later he was elected minister of the parish.

To the modern eye, the significance of these events may seem fleeting. How do John Knox and his drama influence modern Scottish society? What, if any, relevance does that story bear to the everyday lives of Scots in the 21st century? To the more discerning eye, the word ‘elected’ should stand out like a sore thumb. These events occurred in an age before our modern, universally franchised democracy could be countenanced. In a highly hierarchical society, in which power, wealth and knowledge were controlled in the hands of a hereditary and ecclesiastical elite, the people of Edinburgh elected their own minister. When the Stuart monarchs tried to re-impose rule-by-bishops, as well as an English prayer book on Scotland, a local woman called Jenny Geddes reportedly interrupted a sermon in St Giles and threw her stool at the preacher. This symbolic act of Scottish irreverence kick-started the Covenanting Revolution of 1637/8. In this revolution, demands for political freedom were inextricably linked with demands for the preservation of Scotland’s Presbyterian settlement.

The power of this action should not be underestimated. In our own age, politics is fought through the prism of our secular religions, of which we have many: liberalism, conservatism, socialism etc. In the age of Reformation, arguments about consent to power and the relationships between God, King, and citizens, were more likely to be fought through the prism of worship. How worship was conducted had a central symbolism to people’s lives. Whether you could read the Bible in your own language, or whether you had it dictated to you by an ecclesiastical, literary elite made all the difference. And whether citizens had any voice in the running of their parish - that most basic societal and administrative unit of the Early Modern World - and in the choice of their minister, again made all the difference.

Before the Reformation came to Scotland, the country, like the rest of Western Europe, had been part of the Roman Catholic Church. Liturgical orthodoxy was established in Rome, and filtered down to the masses through a complex hierarchy of bishops. This hierarchy intersected with the autocracy of kings, as royal authority was projected through the pulpit onto parishioners who had little other source of information about the outside world.

The Calvinist emphasis of the Reformation in Scotland fitted well, some might say, with its national character. The pre-determinism of this grim strand of Protestantism fit with the dourness of the Scots: the resolution that everything might be doomed, but you ought to try your best anyway. The overthrow of the bishops in the 16th century meant the structure of the church had to be re-organised. Power was now devolved locally. The parish was run by the ‘Kirk-session’: a local parish council that included local big wigs - men of stature in the community, and the minister. This was the system characterised as Presbyterian. It wasn’t a perfect form of representation. Women and the poor were still sidelined. But despite its imperfections, this change represented nothing short of a revolution, a significant shift of power downwards and outwards.

Much has been made in the study of Scottish social history of the stultifying, and often paralysing community pressures and puritan morality that the Kirk-session imposed upon individuals. And there is more than a grain of truth in that. Scotland’s cities have always represented a chance for her young people to escape the claustrophobic rural enclaves they hail from and to expose themselves to a more liberating, cosmopolitan environment.

It could be argued that my writing here comes from a place of complacency. Living in a city like Edinburgh gives me freedom: freedom I would never have enjoyed in a smaller, more rural Scottish environment. However, it is an irrefutable fact that the politics of this country, since at least the early 20th century, have been more solidly left-leaning than that of its larger, southern neighbour. In my lifetime, and that of my parents and grandparents, Scots have voted consistently for a more egalitarian and communitarian society. It doesn’t seem such a stretch to suggest that the seeds of that spirit were sown when Jenny Geddes decided that she had finally had enough.


*Illustration by Eun Bin Seo*

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