Rosalind Mitchison on the history of Scotland

  • Presbyteries and Profits: Calvinism and the Development of Capitalism in Scotland 1506-1707 by Gordon Marshall
    Oxford, 406 pp, £18.00, September 1980, ISBN 0 19 827246 4
  • The Jacobite Risings in Britain, 1689-1746 by Bruce Lenman
    Eyre Methuen, 300 pp, £9.95, May 1980, ISBN 0 413 39650 9

It is over seventy years since Max Weber put forward the thesis that the Protestant ethic was closely linked to the ethos of capitalism, a thesis which has inspired a long-standing debate among historians. In the cases held to support the theory, Weber included Scotland. Economic historians have at various times commented on the paradox of the Scottish case, contrasting the backward economy of the country in the 17th century with its monolithic adherence to an extreme form of Calvinism, but nobody has, till now, taken the trouble to make a thorough study of whether the evidence from Scotland confirms or contradicts Weber’s theory. This book sets out to do just that, and it involves the author in a careful analysis of the structure of Weber’s argument as well as a consideration of Scottish dogma and enterprise. It is a pity that the title raises the irrelevant issue of presbyteries. Calvinism was a system of belief which in Scotland and some other countries was sustained by a presbyterian church structure, but could equally well make use of episcopacy.

Dr Marshall holds that the issue of Scottish economic development, or the lack of such development, is a red herring. The ‘medieval’ features of the economy, which prevented capital accumulation and deployment and the development of a skilled labour force, are treated as inbuilt. Weber’s thesis is shown to be, in fact, two separate theories: one, ‘that the modern capitalist mentality’ is based on neo-Calvinist theology as developed in the late 16th and the 17th century, and the other that this mentality has been a necessary feature in the development of modern capitalism. It is to the first of these two themes that Dr Marshall addresses himself.

The Calvinism that Weber looked to as the source of the spirit of capitalism was not that of Calvin himself but of later formulators. Neo-Calvinist thought hardened Calvin’s concept of predestination into the fully supralapsarian form enunciated at Dort, and built up with this a stress on the conduct of daily life which set forward for the elect hard work, asceticism, constant attention to detail and the scrutiny of one’s own behaviour. God granted his elect assurance of salvation, but the proof of this to the elect themselves lay in constant striving towards a godly life, and this striving had to be shown not only in personal relationships but in the faithful pursuit of one’s calling. The word ‘calling’ covered both a man’s personal relationship to God and his worldly occupation: the former was to be manifest in the latter. It was through rigorous self-analysis and constant application to duty that the elect ascertained his election, and since to doubt election was to demonstrate that one belonged to the reprobate, such analysis and application were the necessary seals of salvation.

Scottish theology, as Dr Marshall shows, was from the late 16th century fully neo-Calvinist. The sample of sermons analysed in support of this is representative, for neo-Calvinism was held to by both sides in the struggle over liturgy and episcopacy. When Arminianism became a political issue in England in the 1630s, the Scots, anxious to share in the same doctrinal scare, were, in fact, unable to produce any examples of heretical thought except an errant bishop in France. (William Forbes, who has been casually labelled Arminianist by some modern historians, seems to have been imbued with medieval Augustinianism.) ‘Arminian’ was a useful term of abuse and, along with accusations of incest and drunkenness, could be fastened on the King’s adherents, but the theories of Arminius have left no traces in 17th-century Scotland, not even as much as did Quakerism. There can be no doubt that the Calvinism which Weber saw as fostering the spirit of capitalism was the Calvinism uniformly held by those Scots capable of Protestant doctrinal thought.

But what did this come to mean in practice? Rigorous pursuit of an economic calling may be seen as an automatic route to capital accumulation, but this need not mean capitalist success. On the face of things, the government of Scotland was keen to promote economic development. Dr Marshall examines the economic legislation of the Scottish Parliaments and the Privy Council. Efforts were made to promote industries, privileges were offered to entrepreneurs, and infant industry was protected from foreign competition, as far as was possible in a system of protection which relied on a totally venal and inefficient customs service. An interesting example of Parliamentary concern for the economy is the Restoration legislation which attempted to combine industrial development with the solution of a social problem by ordering that vagabonds be compulsorily recruited as a serf labour-force for the ‘manufactories’, and sustained while undergoing training by a local rate.

Certainly the Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland give the impression of a constant drive for economic development. What Dr Marshall does not consider, in his analysis of the ethic shown in much of the legislation, is that the people who passed it in many cases did absolutely nothing to bring it into action. No locality can, for instance, be found impressing vagrants at its own cost into manufactories, and no industry took advantage of this subsidised but otherwise unattractive labour-force. When noblemen or merchant burgesses took off their Parliamentary robes and became potential ratepayers or employers, they could see that such legislation was impractical.

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