Conference Report: The Clergy in Early Modern Scotland

Sponsored by Newman University, Birmingham, the University of Edinburgh, the Society for Renaissance Studies and the Royal Historical Society, the Clergy in Early Modern Scotland conference took place at New College, University of Edinburgh, in May 2017. Here’s an update.

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Catherine E. McMillan opening the conference

The Clergy in Early Modern Scotland conference took place at New College, University of Edinburgh, in May 2017. Bringing together postgraduate, ECR and more established scholars, the conference explored the changing, sometime divisive, nature of clergy, their families and beliefs in early modern Scotland.

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Russell Newton introducing the work of Claire McNulty


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From left to right: Jamie Reid Baxter, Paul Goatman and Steven Reid take questions from the audience


Divided into three roughly chronological strands, speakers explored sixteenth century parish politics, the unsettling period of the post-Restoration period, and a more thematic look at types of clerical exchange in the final session. A closing roundtable, led by John McCallum (Nottingham Trent) and Steven Reid (Glasgow) completed the conference with a more open discussion.


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Ex-president of the Scottish Church History Society, Andrew Muirhead


The conference built on recent interest in grassroots religious change to explore the lived experiences of the clergy in the parish context. Delegates were struck by the interconnected nature of ministers in their parish setting. As one delegate expressed, this context ‘gets through the stereotypes and through to the human complexity’ of the clergy. The clergy were intimately plugged into their communities – part of wider socio-economic networks with neighbours, patrons and members of the nobility. Ministers were not simply conduits of homogeneous theological ideas. Their individual beliefs were forced to interact with a whole host of parish contexts so, despite their vaunted status, clerics remained wedded to the peculiar circumstances of their parishes.



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A blurry shot of Jamie McDougall


Clerical relationships could criss-cross regions – opening clerics up to a raft of different influences and friendships. For example, Jamie Reid-Baxter (Glasgow) showed how manuscript poetry, penned by Andrew Melville and others, passed between ‘godly’ circles in Fife. Relationships between these networks were complex, full of gossip and efforts to cultivate the right image of godliness as Felicity Maxwell (NUI, Galway) showed in her fascinating paper on John Durie and Dorothy Moore. These connections were critical in shaping religious observance and the shape of local ministries. For example, as Paul Goatman (Glasgow) showed in his paper, some patrons (heritors, in the Scottish context) had long-standing links with particular universities that influenced the types of preacher they sought for their parishes.


This approach has important consequences for how Reformation scholars understand factionalism, anticlericalism and religious change. In a Scottish context, appreciating the lived complexity of the ministry raises questions about the labels we so often deploy: from the start of the ‘inchoate’ and ‘chaotic nature of the initial Reformed settlement discussed by Steven Reid (Glasgow) to the upheavals of the mid- to -late-seventeenth century. Panels at the conference explored the near futility of defining a ‘Covenanted’ minister in the mid-seventeenth century and the range of opinions ministers could develop when faced with a political or theological challenge. Jamie McDougall (Glasgow) implored listeners to develop ways of assessing ‘degrees of conformity’ rather than binary distinctions between ‘conformist’ and ‘nonconformist’. Ben Rogers (Edinburgh) and Andrew Muirhead (ex-President of the Scottish Church History Society) underlined how ministers developed coping mechanisms to deal with potentially thorny issues arising from the religious settlement after 1692.


There is one note of caution, though. The ministry was not the only agent of religious change in this complex system of relationships. As Claire McNulty (Queen’s, Belfast) showed, parishioners could also serve to police key aspects of discipline – like access to the annual communion celebration. Moreover, as discussion in the closing roundtable suggested, church courts (staffed by lay elders and deacons) could also interact in complex ways with both the presiding minister and other members of the laity. While kirk sessions were meant to augment and extend clerical influence, a minister’s agency could be subtly changed by interactions with prominent elders. This layer of interaction is ripe for further discussion.


Overall, The Clergy in Early Modern Scotland conference enmeshed the minister into his parish. It served to weaken some of the unfortunate stereotypes that have haunted studies of Scottish religiosity while emphasising lesser-appreciated influences: clerical wives, families, neighbours and friends. Ministers were not conduits of change or reformers who came read-made to implement change. They interacted with, and were moved by, their parish contexts. The papers and panels at The Clergy in Early Modern Scotland underlined how we have far more to do to outline the processes of persuasion and negotiation proposed so eloquently by the likes of Margo Todd and Andrew Pettegree.


Chris R. Langley (Newman University, Birmingham), Catherine E. McMillan (Edinburgh), Russell Newton (Edinburgh)


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