It is the 21st of September 2023. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
There are few authors who are as linked to their home country as Sir Walter Scott is to his native Scotland. Walter Scott, the author of the Waverley Novels such as Rob Roy and the historical Ivanhoe, is said to have “invented Scotland” or at least preserved it from being swallowed up into an amorphous “Great Britain” with his historical novels (the first of their kind) and poetry. He also has the largest memorial dedicated to any author in the world. In fact, to see this 200-foot Gothic structure, you could take the train to one of Edinburgh’s main stations- named Waverley after Scott’s novels. Not to belabor the point- but he is on Scottish banknotes and is credited with the fact that Scottish banknotes are still printed despite being a single currency in the UK. Oh, he also went on a treasure hunt to find the lost Crown Jewels of Scotland, which were hidden away during the reign of Cromwell.
Ok- so you get the point, Sir Walter Scott is a big deal in Scottish history- but as this show is the “Christian History Almanac,” and so we might ask- did he leave any particular mark on church history? And he did- let’s get his bio and spin Ito towards his influence on the church.
Walter Scott was born on August 15, 1771, in Edinburgh, Scotland. This puts him right in the Age of Enlightenment, the era of Revolutions, and a nascent Romanticism.
As a young man he contracted polio, and to convalesce, he would spend time in the Scottish Borderlands with his Aunt Jenny. It was from here that he obtained his obsession with the natural contours of Scotland and her past. He would attend University and follow his father's footsteps into law. But it was his first collection of poetry- the “Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border” in 1802 and 1803 that put him on the map. He would start a publishing house with a friend, John Ballentine, buy a farm on the River Tweed, and rename it Abbotsford in honor of the Medieval monks who would use that land as a crossing area to get to their abbey. His fascination with Medieval Britain was seen in his Ivanhoe- a work of Medieval historical fiction famous for its portrait of Sir Robin of Locksley (aka Robin Hood), and it was John Henry Newman who later credited Scott with popularizing the Medieval catholic church which lead to the acceptance of the Catholic-friendly Oxford movement later in the 19th century. It should be noted that scholars have countered this with a slew of typical anti-Catholic tropes used in his novels.
His first historical novel “Waverley” romanticized the Jacobites (those Highland Scots who wanted the Catholic James II back on the throne). In his novels and journals, he also wrote positively of Quakers and the Covenanters. Covenanters were opposed to Highlanders (their “covenant” was to retain Presbyterianism amidst the Civil Wars, and they were brutally persecuted until the Glorious Revolution). From his novels, you would be unable to pinpoint his theological affinities as he was able to write sympathetic characters from all sides.
Once, when his Presbyterian friend and transcriber fretted over two sermons he was to write, Scott- not a Presbyterian, wrote the two sermons that were later published as “Religious Discourses by a Layman.”
If Scott had one particular axe to grind, it was his father’s brand of rigid Calvinism within the Scottish Presbyterian church. He had a distaste for philosophical speculation and belonged more to the coming Romantic Age than that of the Scottish Enlightenment. And just as Scott is seen as a Scottish Nationalist but was actually a proponent of the unification, he too was a member of the Episcopal Church of Scotland (that is, the Church of England in Scotland). One historian suggested that this was on account of his love of antiquity and of the pomp and circumstance of the high church traditions. He was once asked to help update the Psalms of the Church, but he rejected the offer, writing that he thought, as with law and theology, we should be careful to innovate.
Scott’s later life was one of struggle. The publishing house went bankrupt amidst a financial crash, and he was over 100,000 pounds in debt. During this time, his wife died, and his journals reflect a curiosity about the afterlife and his musings on what heavenly glory would look like. He himself would find out, after a series of strokes, Sir Walter Scott died on this, the 21st of September in 1832.
The last word for today is from Sir Walter Scott- it is the inscription that he wrote inside his Bible: (and here, “awful” is Awe-inspiring, not “bad”).
Within that awful volume lies
The mystery of mysteries!
Happiest they of human race,
To whom God has granted grace
To read, to fear, to hope, to pray,
To lift the latch, and force the way;
And better that they’d ne’er been born
Who read to doubt, or read to scorn.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 21st of September 2023, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man whose favorite Scotts include Sir Walter, the paper company, the lunar crater, and 1517’s Executive Director Keith… Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man with a shout-out to Ron in Alaska’s kids, who laugh at how I say my name… I’m Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be OK.