Moderate Party (Scotland)

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Moderates, in church terms is, normally, though not exclusively, used to refer to an important party of clerics in the Church of Scotland during the 18th century. They are often contrasted with Evangelicals, though this is very much a simplification. Most members of both parties considered themselves orthodox Christians and the leaders – Principal Robertson for the Moderates and his Edinburgh University colleague, John Erskine for the Evangelicals – had a very warm and mutually respectful relationship.

  • They were characteristically very much part of the Scottish Enlightenment contributing to and deriving intellectual nourishment from an impressive range of scholarly activities of the time – literary, philosophical, historical and scientific.
  • They shared – far too easily, in the view of critics – widespread scepticism of Puritanical enthusiasm evident in the many revival movements of the age. (Dr Meek's cool appraisal of the "Cambuslang Wark" is a good example.)
  • They distrusted dogmatism and what they thought of as overly-intricate system building. In the eyes of some critics, this led them close to heresy – or at least, far from the Westminster Confession of Faith, which was the acknowledged foundation of Reformed Christianity in Scotland at the time.
  • Their preaching concentrated – again, too much so, in some eyes – on Christian conduct, rather than the details of creed. “It was of great importance”, said one, “to discriminate between the artificial virtues and vices, formed by ignorance and superstition, and those that are real."
  • Lastly, they had profound respect for the established hierarchies of both Church and Government. This attitude they shared with Lutheranism – and indeed, cited scriptural authority for it. It was, though, also congenial to the Scottish ruling class, who appointed Ministers, using the Patronage Acts.

The right of the landowning gentry to nominate Ministers to Parishes, and their consequent influence on Church matters, underlay the various Secessions (of 1733 and 1752, in particular) from the Church of Scotland which took place in the 18th Century. However, the theological differences between what became known as Moderates and Evangelicals were significant indeed. (See the case of The Reverend Doctor James Meek, a typical Moderate who had been nominated by the Duke of Hamilton and opposed by his Cambuslang Parishioners on aspects of his preaching).

On the other hand, the significant achievements and stature of many Moderate clerics – such as Principal William Robertson of Edinburgh University and one-time Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland; his successor as Principal (and also Moderator) George Baird, who set up the Church's education system; Thomas Reid, philosopher; George Campbell, theologian; Adam Ferguson, philosopher and historian; John Home, dramatic poet; and Hugh Blair, literary scholar – makes it difficult to dismiss them as insincere placemen.

As one later evangelical minister (The Rev.W.H. Porter in References below) said, the Moderates "gave us our Paraphrases; Campbell, who replied to Hume, M'Knight the communicator, Hill the theologian, and Blair the preacher, were Moderates. Though in 1796, the Moderates were mainly, not entirely, responsible for the defeat of Foreign Missions proposals, yet in 1829, the Mission to India was founded by Dr Inglis, a Moderate. Principles Blair and M'Farlane were both moderates, yet to the one the Church of Scotland owes her Education Scheme, to the other her Colonial scheme."


  • I D L Clark From Protest to Reaction: The Moderate Regime in the Church of Scotland, 1752 - 1805 in Phillipson, N. T. & Mitchison, Rosalind. Scotland in the age of improvement: essays in Scottish history in the eighteenth century. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996. originally published, 1970. xi,270p: map; 22cm. ISBN 0-7486-0876-1 Press F: Age of improvement
  • Porter, Wm Henry Cambuslang and its Ministers (in Mitchell Library - Glasgow Collection, reference GC941.433 CAM 188520 Box 952
  • Richard B Sher Church and University in the Scottish Enlightenment: The Moderate Literati of Edinburgh (Princeton: Princeton University Press and Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1985; paperback edition, Edinburgh University Press, 1991 ISBN 0-691-05445-2).