Scotland, Reformed Orthodoxy, and Tobacco

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Despite its premature appearance on Mark Jones's Top Ten List Of Books That Will Never Make A Top Ten List, tomorrow marks the official release of Reformed Orthodoxy in Scotland: Essays on Scottish Theology 1560-1775 (Bloomsbury Academic). Scholarly views on the nature of Reformed theology in the centuries following the Reformation have changed quite a bit in the last several decades. Persons wishing to bring themselves up to speed on the state of research into post-Reformation Reformed theology would do well to start with the late Willem van Asselt's essay "Reformed Orthodoxy: A Short History of Research" in Brill's Companion to Reformed Orthodoxy (van Asselt's entire chapter can be accessed using the preview function of Google Books). The essays included in Reformed Orthodoxy in Scotland generally aim to bring new and improved scholarly views on post-Reformation Reformed theology in toto to bear upon the study of individual divines and theological issues in the particular context of early modern Scotland. It includes chapters from established scholars like Richard Muller, Donald Macleod, Paul Helm, and Joel Beeke, as well as contributions from a number of younger academics working in the field.

Older works on post-Reformation Scottish theology (such as T.F. Torrance's Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John Macleod Campbell) tended to be dominated by the issue of that theology's fidelity to Calvin, an issue scholars now deem largely inconsequential. More recent work (including the essays in Reformed Orthodoxy in Scotland) tends to focus on the relationship of orthodoxy to movements substantially larger than the thought of any one reformer (patristic theology, medieval scholasticism, humanist scholarship, early modern philology and philosophy, etc.), and so provide a more robust perspective on orthodoxy as such.

One of the relations not explored in the chapters of Reformed Orthodoxy in Scotland, or, to my knowledge, in other scholarly literature, is that of Scottish orthodoxy to early modern Scottish uses and abuses of tobacco. This constitutes a rather regrettable lacuna in scholarship, one much in need of filling. The existence of some relationship between the fine theology produced in early modern Scotland and the use of tobacco is certainly suggested by the literary record. In 1614 William Barclay, a "Master of Art and Doctor of Physicke" from north-eastern Scotland, published a work on "the vertues of tabacco" in which he referred to the plant as nothing less than "divine."  William Barclay was, interestingly though unimportantly, a contemporary of several notable Scottish divines. And Barclay himself at least dabbled in theology. Several years after the publication of his treatise on tobacco he penned a defense of the Scottish reformer and humanist scholar George Buchanan's Latin paraphrases of the Psalms. Likewise interesting though unimportant is the fact that William's grandparents Patrick and Janet, Laird and Lady of Towie, are buried in the remains of St John's Kirk in the north-eastern coastal village of Gardenstown, where my wife was born and raised.

Barclay's work on tobacco, published by the Edinburgh bookseller Andro Hart (who was responsible for printing the Kirk's Psalters during the same period), is an intriguing read. His basic purpose is to highlight the medicinal -- and by good and unnecessary consequence, recreational -- merits of tobacco. Tobacco serves, he suggests, "to cure the asthma, or shortnesse of breath, dissolve obstructions, heale the olde cough, burning ulcers, wounds, migraim, Colicke, suffocation of the mother, and many other diseases, yea almost all diseases." Tobacco also is a "soveraigne helpe, and a present purgation, and approoved preservative against... Arthritis, the gowt, Lithiasis, the stone in reines or bledder, and Hydropisie." The social benefits of tobacco also merit mention: "It is the only medicament in the world ordained by nature to entertaine good companie, insomuch that it worketh never so well, as when it is given from man to man, as a pledge of friendshippe and amitie."

Modern readers might be surprised to learn of these medicinal benefits of tobacco. The apparent failure in our day to capitalize on said benefits might, however, have much to do with the manner in which we use tobacco. Barclay provides some detailed instructions upon how to make use of the "medicament" in question, depending upon one's particular ailment. Most of the maladies noted above can be treated by smoking tobacco. But Barclay is concerned to stress that tobacco should only be smoked on an "emptie stomack." He criticizes, in this connection, the "English abusers" of tobacco, who apparently smoke on full stomachs and, in any case, far too often. Barclay's recommended dosage of "suffumigation" comprises "the smoke of a pipe of fine Tabacco" once "every day" after "fasting in the morning."

For the particular ailment of excess phlegm a different method of ingestion is in order. "Take of leafe Tabacco as much as being folded together may make a round ball of such bignesse that it may fill the patients mouth, and incline his face downward towards the ground, keeping the mouth open, not moving any whit with his tongue, except now and then to waken the medicament. There shall flow such a flood of water from his brain and his stomacke, and from all the parts of his body that it shall be a wonder." 

Barclay concludes his treatise with a series of poems praising the virtues of tobacco.

Both here and there it worketh wondrous cure / And hath such heavenlie virtue hid in store.

He likewise seizes a final opportunity to rebuke in verse the abusers of Tobacco:

Why do you thus abuse this heavenlie plant / the hope of health, the jewell of our life? / Why do you waste it without feare of want, /  Since fine and true Tabacco is not ryfe?

Though Barclay himself draws no explicit connection between "fine Tobacco" and the fine Reformed theology of his day, it seems fairly obvious that some connection must exist. I leave it to scholars better than myself to identify and explore that connection -- perhaps a task for the highly regarded researchers who regularly contribute to the Nicotine Theological Journal? Barclay, as an aside, also wrote two treatises praising the virtues of the spring waters found in Aberdeenshire and Fife. A connection between Scottish Reformed orthodoxy and Scottish waters also very likely exists, even if Barclay forgot to mention in those further treatises that the virtues of said waters follow primarily from their being combined with malt in a mash tun and subsequently distilled.

In any case, it's clear that more work remains to be done on Reformed theology in early modern Scotland. While you wait for the definitive treatment of the relationship between Scottish orthodoxy and tobacco/whisky, why not pick up a copy of Reformed Orthodoxy in Scotland. Hard copies sell for the equivalent of a week's wage in your average developed nation. Amazon has Kindle versions for $17.95--the mere cost of a cup of fancy coffee at Starbucks (and certain to provide more substantial, albeit intellectual, nourishment).

Posted January 14, 2015 @ 10:41 AM by Aaron Denlinger
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