Gilbert Burnet

Gilbert Burnet, after John Riley [National Portrait Gallery, London, 159]
Gilbert Burnet, after John Riley, oil on canvas, feigned oval (circa 1689-1691). National Portrait Gallery, London, no. 159. Used under Creative Commons Licence
My main job for the next few years will be writing a book, The Moral Reformation in Scotland, which is is under consideration by OUP.

English historians know Gilbert Burnet as the leading advocate of the ‘Glorious’ Revolution of 1688-9, which replaced a Catholic, King James (VII of Scotland, II of England) with a Protestant, William III, Prince of Orange. In tracts published before and after 1688, Burnet defended William as a king sent by God to reform the religious life of the people of Britain.

Historians see Burnet as an Englishman, defined by his later career as Bishop of Salisbury. The perennial English bishop has been connected to English religious movements, like the Cambridge Platonists and Anglican defenders of religious latitude, and English political developments, like the Convocation Controversy, which dominated debate within the English Church after 1716.

These interpretations seem to me lacking at best, highly dubious at worst, since they ignore Burnet’s youth in Scotland. As Burnet’s contemporaries recognised (usually when they were lampooning him), Burnet’s Scottish upbringing was key to his later successes. During his many years growing up in Aberdeen and East Lothian, Burnet was part of a small coterie of ‘moderate Episcopalians’ (his term) under the influence of Archbishop Robert Leighton, who developed a practical piety in the later seventeenth century in response to what they — possibly rightly, but probably wrongly — perceived as the failure of Scottish Presbyterians to meet the pastoral needs of Scotsmen and women. Burnet and his fellow ‘moderates’ believed that sixteenth-century Reformers had reformed the structure and doctrine of the Church, but their ideas had produced little change in the minds and morals of ordinary Christians which were, in their view, far more important than the questions of church government which seventeenth-century divines were prone to squabbling about. The ‘Leightonians’ reasserted the Gospel’s core message of love in order to effect change among the people who were bored with terse theological argument. They attempted to remodel ministerial training, gave spiritual counsel to Scottish nobility, and developed a new preaching style to effect what they called a ‘personal reformation’ among their flocks.

My book will offer an introduction to this Scottish movement and show how Scottish ideas about  moral reform came to influence the language of religion in Britain and across Europe, between about 1660 and 1730 — largely, it seems to me, through the efforts of Gibby Burnet. By focusing on a figure who historians see as so central to William’s campaign in 1688, this work will radically shift our understandings of what English historians have rightly called the ‘moral revolution’ of 1688.

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