Saturday, 14 April 2018

'A Book Through Time ' Part I: The Author and The Text.

Inspired by the BBC's A House Through Time, we're pleased to introduce a new blog series which focuses on a single book from its very beginnings to its place on the shelves at the Library of Innerpeffray today. The first post, which looks at the author and content of the work selected, comes from Kelsey Jackson Williams, Lecturer in Early Modern Literature at the University of Stirling.

Despite his name, John Scott (1638/9-1695) was no Scot.  The son of a “sufficient grasier” – according to the snobbish antiquary Anthony Wood – Scott was born at Chippenham in Wiltshire and while still young was sent to London to serve as an apprentice (in what trade we are not told).  He did not relish the life his father had laid out for him, though, and after three years of drudgery he gave up his apprenticeship and entered New Inn Hall, Oxford, in December 1658 at the age of nineteen, rather older than the ordinary undergraduate of his day and something akin to what we might now call a “mature student”.

Scott flourished at university, especially enjoying logic and philosophy, but left without taking a degree, perhaps due to a lack of funds.  The next decade of his life is a blank.  Again according to Wood, he was engaged in “some mean employment” which ultimately led him into holy orders.  From 1678 onwards he served in a series of increasingly prominent roles in the City churches: rector of St. Peter-le-Poer, prebend of St. Paul’s, Lecturer and Reader at St. Bartholomew-the-Great, and Rector of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, “at all which places he obtained a great name, and was much resorted to for his most admirable way of preaching”.

It was Scott’s skill as a preacher which allowed the Wiltshire lad to rise through the ranks of the Anglican Establishment.  In an era when preaching was a highly prized skill and the fashionable citizens of London would flock to whichever church could boast the most eloquent orator in its pulpit, such abilities could catapult even an obscure priest into the limelight.  Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, Scott was no politician.  He toed the political line, whether under the Stuarts or William and Mary, expressed a conventional and relatively mild dislike for James VII and II’s Catholicism, and would have “been a bishop, had not some scruples hindered him”.  The funeral sermon preached by his friend Dr. Zacheus Isham upon Scott’s death painted a portrait of an altogether blameless man, most memorable “for his Kindness, and Humanity, and amicable Disposition, and Affability, and pleasentness of Temper, and Condescension, and Sincerity, and readiness to do all good Offices for any that had recourse to him”.

But despite these accomplishments, Scott was most known, in his own lifetime and after, as a devotional writer.  Chief amongst his works was The Christian Life, from its Beginning to its Consummation in Glory, the first part of which was published in 1681, with a much-expanded second edition appearing 1683-1687, and which by 1730 had reached its ninth printing.  The volume under discussion in this series of blog posts is part two, volume two of the second edition.

The subject of this volume of Scott’s expansive work is succinctly set out on its title page, which states that within “that Fundamental Principle of Christian Duty, the Doctrine of our Saviours Mediation, is Explained and Proved”.  The six hundred-odd folio pages which follow set this forth in copious detail, laying out the necessity of Christ’s mediation between the devout Christian and their God, and exploring the nature and extent of that mediation – Christ’s “Kingdom” – through a close reading of the relevant Biblical passages.  In the thorny windings of Scott’s reasoning we can see an echo of the young Oxford logician and metaphysician at work in the mature priest:

Considering therefore how much we are governed by our sense in this state of our Apostacy, it was doubtless a wonderful wise contrivance of God, who is a pure Spirit, to assume to himself some sensible matter, that therein by presenting himself to our outward or inward sense, he might strike the deeper aw on us, and thereby the more effectually rule and govern us (p. 568).

Such arguments were part and parcel of late-seventeenth century Anglicanism’s larger project of explaining Christianity to an increasingly skeptical world.  As Scott had written earlier, “we cannot certainly distinguish what is done by the Spirit from what is done by our natural Reason and Conscience co-operating with him . . . it is not to be expected that we who know so little of the nature and intercourse of Spirits should be able to render a clear and distinct account of it” (pp. 80-81).  Ultimately, then, the Christian Life was more than just a devotional manual, it was the work of a philosopher grappling with the nature of belief and straining against the physical bonds of his own body to explore the metaphysical world of consciousness and the Divine.  “For alas! our minds are naturally so vain and stupid, so giddy, listless, and inadvertent, especially in spiritual things which are abstract from common sence” (p. 85) that these philosophical wrestlings were necessary for belief to survive at all.

- Kelsey Jackson Williams
University of Stirling

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