Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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The Life and Works of Robert Baillie (1602-1662)

Reviewed by David G Whitla

Alexander Campbell, The Life and Works of Robert Baillie (1602-1662): Politics, Religion and Record-Keeping in the British Civil Wars. St Andrews Studies in Scottish History (Boydell, 2017). ISBN 978-1783271849, 270 pp., £75.00.

[1] The welcome resurgence of scholarly work on the history and theology of the seventeenth century Scottish Covenanters has been greatly enhanced by the addition of Alexander Campbell’s fine intellectual biography of one of its most important theologians and public figures, Robert Baillie (1602-62). Campbell’s work significantly furthers the ongoing reassessment of the intellectual landscape of pre-Enlightenment Scotland, arguing that it was in fact ‘a rich, variegated, cosmopolitan and dynamic nation of thinkers’ (p.4). Baillie’s compendious letters and journals have been long-plundered sources for historians of seventeenth century Britain, but with the exception of Florence McCoy’s 1974 work there have surprisingly been no major monographs on Baillie. Campbell has mined the extensive Baillie manuscripts leaving no stone unturned to provide a compelling reassessment of the moderate Covenanter behind the ‘Letters and Journals’ and supplying a fine contribution to our knowledge of early modern Scottish theology and politics.

[2] Campbell’s opening biographical sketch situates Baillie in his context and engages with the new Covenanter historiography that revises both the ‘whiggish’ Presbyterian hagiographies and the modern deconstructionist historiographies that esteem pre-Enlightenment Scotland as something of an intellectual wilderness. Campbell reveals Baillie as a scholar of first rate erudition in a European republic of letters, and a moderate among Covenanters, influenced heavily by his university tutor and lifelong friend, the irenic Presbyterian Robert Blair, and Episcopalian preachers and thinkers like William Struther and John Cameron. His parish ministry at Kilwinning enabled him to initially fly under the radar during the growing ecclesiastical tensions of the 1630s, but he eventually overcame initial misgivings and found himself (perhaps uncomfortably?) among the Covenanting leadership, serving as professor of divinity at Glasgow, a Scottish Commissioner at the Westminster Assembly, and authoring several influential polemical tracts and theological textbooks throughout his career. However, in the ensuing factionalism, he soon became ostracized by the radical Kirk party, siding with the Engagers in 1648 and the Resolutioner party in the 1650s, and eventually accepted the principalship of Glasgow University at the Restoration.

[3] In chapter two, Campbell’s study of Baillie’s views on church-state relations undermines the traditional historiography that there was a strong consensus among the early Covenanters on questions of monarchical power over the church. Baillie did not adopt the Buchanan-Knox-Rutherford politic, thus positioning himself outwith the Covenanter ‘radical mainstream’ and developing a far more conservative political resistance theory in his Laudensium Autokatakrisis (1641). Campbell’s work is groundbreaking in exploring this ‘constitutionalist’ minority report within the Covenanting leadership – a loyalist strain which he calls ‘Presbyterian royalism’ – a view that set Baillie’s intellectual trajectory in the squabbles of mid-seventeenth century Scottish Presbyterianism to firmly ally himself with the Engagers and Resolutioners, with Lauderdale and Sharp, and eventual quiescence with the Restoration establishment, but not at the expense of personal godly zeal or Presbyterian commitment. While aspiring to a ‘British Presbyterian Church settlement’ (p.59) along with the more radical Covenanters he laboured with at the Westminster Assembly, he ultimately considered the church and crown to be mutually self-supporting institutions, affording the crown a far more prominent place in ecclesiastical affairs than proponents of the ‘Melvillian’ ‘two kingdoms’ doctrine. Campbell is perhaps hyperbolic to classify Baillie’s view as verging on ‘Erastian’ (pp. 69-77); certainly, he expected the king to pass civil laws favourable to the Church, to ratify her General Assembly’s reforms and support the censures imposed by her courts – but this was something even the most radical Covenanter aspired to.

[4] Campbell’s third chapter is a welcome addition to a growing body of scholarship that attests to the latent ambiguities within post-Reformation Scottish Protestant ecclesiology. The Covenanter movement has long been portrayed by the ascendant whig historiography as a monolithic movement of Presbyterian radicals seeking religious liberty from Stuart tyranny and a despotic episcopal tyranny of conscience. Campbell’s study of Baillie reveals a prominent Covenanter whose Presbyterian credentials have been erroneously considered impeccable – thanks in part to a selective reprinting of his papers – but who in fact embraced a far more moderate Presbyterianism than many of his colleagues in the Covenanter regime. This ecclesiology, while ‘defy[ing] straightforward categorization’ (p.111), was at heart a form of modified episcopacy, with a strong emphasis on the final authority of the church’s higher courts, that might appropriately include bishops – or at least, which elevated preaching ministers above the office of lay elders (p.107).

[5] This view is juxtaposed with the emerging radical de jure polity of Rutherford and the Gillespies, which ironically opened doors to détente with the English Independents, who were for Baillie a life-long nemesis, and for whom he reserved his own share of polemical venom. Nowhere was this more visible than in the bitter Protester-Resolutioner schism of the 1650s, which revealed the latent fragility of the allegedly monolithic Covenanter hegemony. Building on recent work by Hunter Powell, Campbell navigates well the complexities of the vying Covenanter ecclesiologies. Baillie’s vision on the majority Resolutioner side was of an ecclesia mixta that pragmatically embraced lapsed ‘malignants’ in the interests of a unified national kirk, whereas the Independent-leaning Protesters who sought a purged church containing only the godly – drawing from Baillie the stinging accusation of Donatism (p.110).

[6] However, Campbell’s efforts to recast Baillie as the quintessential moderate need to be read in tension with the diatribes of his polemical writings. Campbell persuasively argues that Baillie’s polemics were written with a generous vision for an inclusive national kirk, which he hoped would walk a via media between the tyranny of Laudian bishops, and the ‘tyranny of conscience’ and proliferation of sects that would result from Congregationalist separatism (p.103). Like his subject, Campbell walks a fine line himself in portraying Baillie as both a man of moderation yet writing in the often acerbic and unforgiving polemical rhetoric of period scholastic debate. But it is a line he walks well, not recoiling from exposing the razor-sharp edge of Baillie’s theological invectives, yet presenting a portrait of the European homme de lettres labouring with his pen to achieve peace in church and state in troubled times: ‘Undergirding his controversial works was a peculiarly irenic vision, rigidly doctrinaire but subtly inclusive’ (p.229). Nevertheless, while Baillie’s nuanced view is presented as far more reflective of mainstream Scottish Presbyterianism in the mid-seventeenth century than the traditional historiography has allowed, Campbell’s case for such widespread theological diversity within the Covenanter ranks would be significantly bolstered by rallying more case studies of committed Covenanters who concurred with Baillie’s theological subtleties.

[7] Campbell contextualizes Baillie’s theological works in their European intellectual context in chapter four, thus recovering them from the largely-discredited ‘Calvin vs the Calvinists’ thesis, but at the same time, perhaps surprisingly, he responds to the ‘blind spots’ of Richard Muller’s counter-thesis, which he contends suffers from a tendency to disregard outliers like Baillie who do not conveniently fit into a ‘Reformed tradition’.

[8] Once again, for Campbell, Baillie’s self-appointed role as champion of Reformed orthodoxy is portrayed as subservient to his overarching irenic vision of Reformed unity in British and European context. It is a challenge to paint a nuanced portrait of an unyielding ‘heresiographer’ driven by a magnanimous vision of British ecclesiastical union. But on occasion, the reader feels that the sheer weight and dogmatism of Baillie’s theological corpus – so brilliantly expounded in this volume – has outbalanced Campbell’s bold narrative of ‘toleration’ and ‘ecumenism’ to describe his subject (p.116, 138), and it feels as if he has perhaps overplayed his hand. It is a narrative made somewhat less convincing when one’s subject routinely assaulted undeniable contemporary irenicists like Baxter and Ussher.

[9] Nevertheless, this chapter does excellent service in finely tuning the Scottish adaptation of the ‘Calvinist consensus’ thesis posited by David Mullan and Margo Todd, revealing that in Baillie’s case at least, there were positions even between the allegedly rigid Arminian/Calvinist dichotomy. Campbell amply illustrates Baillie’s lifelong polemical battle with Arminianism and Socinianism, but in order to bolster his portrayal of the theological moderate, joins an increasing cadre of historical theologians in declaring that Baillie ‘remained ambivalent towards hypothetical universalism’ (p.132). Arguably, however, the evidence presented would instead suggest a generous forbearance towards close friends and theological colleagues like John Strang and James Ussher, who were proponents of this mollification of Calvinism, rather than any personal endorsement of it.

[10] These quibbles aside, Campbell’s exploration of Baillie’s Reformed theology is a welcome rejoinder to the tendency for early modernists to focus on the comparatively few ‘heterodox’ forerunners of Enlightenment thought to the detriment of the culture of the ‘orthodox’ intellectual majority in Baillie’s day, many of whom pursued their own programs of contextualized theological pluralism. Campbell makes a compelling case that the intellectual contributions of these thinkers can no longer be ignored.

[11] The narrative of clerical opposition to royal intrusions on the kirk’s worship from the Five Articles of Perth (1618) to the Laudian Canons and Prayer Book (1636-37) has been portrayed in the dominant confessional historiographies as a story of a comparatively monolithic and unbroken Presbyterian opposition to an equally monolithic Episcopalian establishment. However, in the fifth chapter, Baillie’s example provides evidence that even among the most influential Presbyterian clergy there were significant ambiguities and complexities of theological and ecclesiastical divergence. Campbell reveals Baillie as a considerably more reluctant covenanting leader than the more radical faction led by Gillespie and Rutherford, whose black-and-white reactions to such ‘popery’ were balanced by Baillie’s shades of ecclesiological grey. Campbell helpfully sifts through the massive Baillie literary corpus to explain the nuances in his thought, showing why kneeling at the Lord’s Table was an adiaphoral matter, whereas (after a period of intense study, and sensitivity to its pastoral implications) he concluded that the Prayer Book contained the seeds of popery and Arminianism, and became one of its fiercest critics in contemporary print. Campbell argues that this case study lends weight to the thesis that ‘a façade of presbyterian unity merely cloaked the diversity of beliefs that characterized worship in the Church of Scotland’ (p.167), and that the Covenanters were willing to accommodate a greater diversity of beliefs than has hitherto been assumed.

[12] Chapter six examines Baillie’s defence of the authority and perspicuity of Scripture contained in his posthumous Operis Historici et Chronologici (1663). This important work addressed the philological debate on the origins of the Hebrew vowel points raised by continental theologians engaged in the emerging science of textual criticism. Campbell negotiates this dense material ably, though perhaps with less confidence; e.g. it is unclear whether or not the English transliteration of Hebrew terms from left to right (and not right to left, resulting in actually reading the word backwards), is a publisher’s blunder (p.185). Of particular value is the discussion of the homiletic impact of Baillie’s erudition. There is a dearth of scholarly studies on early modern Scottish preaching, and Campbell’s analysis of Baillie’s homiletic style and critique of the new preaching styles of Leighton and Binning is welcome, though we could wish for a deeper analysis of the wealth of Baillie’s extant sermons in manuscript (admittedly a massive task, by any standard).

[13] Campbell’s study concludes with a fascinating discussion of record-keeping as biography. Since Baillie’s massive manuscript correspondence ‘comprised the building blocks for a history, not the finished edifice’ (p.214), he shows how they have been edited and used in such a way as to ironically obscure their compiler’s own intent behind the collection, and consequently, his own life story. Campbell persuasively argues that the real Baillie has been lost – while his testimony to history has been plundered by successive generations of Presbyterian and Episcopalian historians with their own agendas – and then he attempts to set the record straight. Baillie’s purposes in maintaining a broad correspondence within the Reformed ecumene in the Transatlantic world are explored, and issuing a timely reminder to researchers that ‘the archive itself is not a source of unmediated information and it is crucial to that historians attend to the circumstances that shaped the archive itself’ (p.224).

[14] Campbell’s monograph shows the great value of intellectual biography in unravelling the complexities of the political and ecclesiastical debates of mid-seventeenth century Britain, setting a high standard for the genre, and providing an assessment of Baillie that is not likely to be surpassed for some time. His confident grasp and sane analysis of Baillie’s massive manuscript output places Campbell at the forefront of Covenanter studies. Any serious student of the Covenanting period cannot afford to be unacquainted with Robert Baillie, and consequently, cannot afford to be unacquainted with this important work.

 Queens University Belfast, September 2018

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