Understanding the rise and fall of religion in today’s secular Scotland

This is the first of our Bella Classics series covering important texts from the past and trying to understand their significance.

Religion and Society in Scotland since 1707 by Callum G. Brown, Edinburgh University Press.

Religion and Society in Scotland since 1707 was published in 1997. It tells of the complexity of Christian cultures in Scotland during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and how these subsequently unraveled. At the turn of the century, wrote the social historian, Callum Brown, the ‘nosedive in church membership, churchgoing, religious marriage and baptism’ which had started during his teenagehood in the 1960s had continued. ‘At the same time’ – he continued – the puritanical regime of old Scots religion died with little fuss, fluttering to the ground lighter than a house of cards.’

Religion and Society had a complex intellectual and publishing history. It was a much-revised edition of Brown’s first monograph, The Social History of Religion in Scotland since 1733 which had appeared a decade previously, in 1987. The later text was much changed to take account of developments in history practice and writing and changing ideas about the history of secularisation.

The original edition adhered to an earlier orthodoxy that had envisaged religion diminishing during the nineteenth century as a result of industrialisation and the growth of modern cities. Many churchmen had been convinced that urban living caused the decline of religion. Amongst their number was the Rev Thomas Chalmers, leading light of the Free Church, who believed that the proletarian populations of large towns comprised ‘masses of practical heathenism.’ Brown argues that these nineteenth-century clergymen created a discourse of the ‘unchurched’ urban working classes which later influenced what historians believed. By the 1990s, views had shifted. There was a greater confidence about the extent and depth of religion during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as scholars embraced the insights of cultural history. The updated edition adopted these and drew upon then emerging trends in history writing, chiefly a burgeoning concern with identities.

Much of the book details a cultural world now sunk into twilight and obscurity. For the vast majority of Scots, Christianity meant Calvinism, a creed that was felt to be of immense significance to their lives and which informed national identity. A salient characteristic of this culture during the nineteenth century was a tendency for splitting.

Brown ascribes this to the emergence of a capitalist society and the decay of traditional social structures, with religion diversifying into ‘a multiplicity of denominations and sects with marked distinctions of social class, community type and region.’ Some historic attempts to explain the almost incomprehensible saga of breakups and reunions inspired the creation of diagrams that resembled those of elaborate nineteenth-century plumbing. Divisions over issues such as church doctrine, and the thorny issue of who appointed clergy have bequeathed a glut of former church buildings in towns across the country, many of which are now gainfully employed in other capacities such as shops and pubs. The 1843 Disruption, in which over four hundred evangelical clergy departed from the Church of Scotland to establish the Free Church, was once one of the most famous events in Scottish history. Instructively, it is now little known.

Equally alien to contemporary Scotland was the dominance of a culture of moral puritanism. This had been fostered by the Reformation and finessed by its inheritors. An infamous element was the persistence into the mid-twentieth century of the Sabbath and ensuing curtailment of recreation and commercial activity on Sundays. Brown notes that the strength of Sabbatarian culture had been such few of the country’s religious rules had been made into laws, and that Sunday trading had always been legal – it was simply that before the 1970s few dared to open their shops. By the late 1990s, this had retreated to parts of the Western Highlands and Na h-Eileanan Siar: places which ironically, had been the final parts of Scotland to be converted to puritanical Presbyterianism.

Religion and Society was perhaps the first Scottish history that related the cultural collapse and marginalisation of puritanism in the 1960s and 1970s to arguments about people’s changing expectations about how they would spend their leisure time. Tensions between churchgoing and leisure were far from new.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the threat of competition from commercial recreation had led to churches that catered to a newly expanded middle class in suburbs such as genteel Morningside in Edinburgh encouraging a whole range of activities in their halls. But during the 1960s, they were unable to compete with the desire for new types of leisure activity and the prospect of less inhibited behaviour on the part of the young. Brown asserts that both an ‘explosion in modern recreation’ and the growth of social liberalism worked in tandem to undermine religious culture. Consequently, changes to lifestyle rather than direct ideological confrontation instigated decline.

Brown later came to believe that in the two decades which have elapsed since publication the book’s agenda had been eclipsed by the effects of secularisation, wondering if it would now gain a significant readership. One illustration of this is the phenomenon in which undergraduate students in history frequently require an explanation of the basic outline of Scotland’s religious landscape, and that this may be delivered by professional atheists.

To many of them, church history is alien, and their identities are disconnected from it. Furthermore, the intellectual development of Religion and Society speaks of secularisation. The original 1987 edition was steeped in church heritage and discourse and chiefly appealed to a now much diminished clerical audience. The 1997 edition saw the narrative adapted to focus much more upon religious decline in the twentieth century, including the shifting demographics of religiosity. Brown now holds the view that the subject is unworthy of a third edition because of the dwindling appeal of religious history.

Other aspects of the book have been overtaken by developments in historical research and writing. Knowledge of contemporary Scottish history has increased exponentially, with the social history of the late twentieth century now the object of much attention. Brown’s later work has drawn upon the insights of gender history to a much greater degree, with the role of women in the 1960s religious crisis receiving considerably more attention. There is no in-depth exploration in Religion and Society of non-Christian religions. The book further fails to consider either ethnicities or sexualities, both of which would now be considered serious shortcomings. Nonetheless, Religion and Society in Scotland since 1707 warrants inclusion in the canon of classic Scottish texts. It remains an indispensable introduction for readers seeking to understand three hundred years of the nation’s dense and thorny religious history, as well as those curious about the origins of today’s secular society.


Comments (7)

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  1. SleepingDog says:

    To what extent has Scottish Christianity an uneasy relationship with its past, to the extent that both a lack of criticism (of venerated ancestors) and factional disputes put an unbearable burden on belief for those familiar with its history? Or put it another way, to what extent was it inevitable that, once a doctrinal religion that demanded orthodoxy was subjected to rational questioning, it would fracture and implode? Was it increasingly difficult for church authorities to keep defending past beliefs and practices if (as supposedly heavenly-endorsed representatives of eternal and universal divine law) local historians and whistleblowers kept turning up concrete evidence of systematic wrongdoing? I am thinking, for example, of the records of church-sanctioned witchburnings in my local area.

    It seems that archaelogical finds are increasingly supporting historical interpretations that suggest earlier Christians (in Scotland as elsewhere) were the local version of today’s Taliban and ISIS, and the ‘pagan’ conflicts with them could be seen as at least partly a war against the subjugation of women and conscience. And it does seem (I have just watched the recent Panorama on buy-now-pay-later schemes aimed at the young) that the Church has long preached the opposite: pay now, get your reward in heaven, which only works if you can sustain a belief in such an intangible.

    Or to put it in simpler terms, does the revised book entertain the possibility that secularism is simply a return to comparative, collective sanity?

  2. Mons Meg says:

    Of course, the big problem with Callum Brown’s book is that it discusses religion and society in Scotland since 1707 with reference almost solely to Christianity (and to the Christianity of the Kirk at that). It certainly doesn’t deal with any of the non-theistic religiosity to which many folks have turned in their weak-minded need for certainty and hope since word of the death of God arrived in Scotland in the later 20th century and ‘unchained the Sun’.

    1. Time, the Deer says:

      To be fair he goes on to deal with the very same – what he calls pick-and-mix spirituality – in some depth in The Death of Christian Britain (2000).

      1. Mons Meg says:

        Indeed! But that still leaves the question as to whether there has in fact been a decline in religion in Scotland or just in Christianity/the Kirk.

  3. Roland says:

    As one of them genteel morningsiders of the 20th century …. In retrospect the collapse of the church in society has been quite dramatic though it’s decline has been so steady it has largely gone with barely a whimper. I spent the naughties in a West coast sabbatarian community and again watched the stranglehold go quite quickly over that decade – ferries on Sunday, park signs quietly not being replaced, laundry staying on the line….There was an obvious demographic contribution with a particular generation passing on. There is a bit of a vacuum though.

    1. Mons Meg says:

      I might hing a washin oot on a Sunday, but I draw the line at a vacuum. God abhors a vacuum.

      1. Roland says:

        Very good!

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