The Presbyterian interpretation of Scottish history, 1800-1914
The nineteenth century saw the revival and widespread propagation in Scotland of a view of Scottish history that put Presbyterianism at the heart of the nation's identity, and told the story of Scotland's history largely in terms of the church's struggle for religious and constitutional liberty. Key to this development was the Anti-Burgher minister Thomas M'Crie, who, spurred by attacks on Presbyterianism found in eighteenth-century and contemporary historical literature, between the years 1811 and 1819 wrote biographies of John Knox and Andrew Melville and a vindication of the Covenanters. M'Crie generally followed the very hard line found in the Whig- Presbyterian polemical literature that emerged from the struggles of the sixteenth and seventeenth century; he was particularly emphatic in support of the independence of the church from the state within its own sphere. His defence of his subjects embodied a Scottish Whig interpretation of British history, in which British constitutional liberties were prefigured in Scotland and in a considerable part won for the British people by the struggles of Presbyterian Scots during the seventeenth century. M'Crie's work won a huge following among the Scottish reading public, and spawned a revival in Presbyterian historiography which lasted through the century. His influence was considerably enhanced through the affinity felt for his work by the Anti- Intrusionists in the Church of Scotland and their successors in the Free Church (1843- 1900), who were particularly attracted by his uncompromising defence of the spiritual independence of the church. The steady stream of historical works from Free Church ministers and laymen during the lifetime of the church corresponded with a very weak output of academic history, and in consequence the Free Church interpretation was probably the strongest single influence in forming the Scots' picture of their history in the late nineteenth century. Much of this interpretation, - particularly the belief in the particularly Presbyterian nature of the Scottish character and of the British constitution, was accepted by historians of the other main branches of the Presbyterian community, while the most determined opposition to the thesis was found in the work of historians of the Episcopal Church. Although the hold of the Presbyterian interpretation was weakened at the end of the century by factors including the merger of most of the Free Church in 1900 and the increasing appearance from 1900 of secular and sometimes anti-Presbyterian Scottish history, elements of it continued to influence the Scottish national self-image well into the twentieth century.