Sunday, 13 December 2015

James Hogg’s Unrepentant Justified Sinner and the Memoirs of the Public Life of James Hogg

Alasdair Thanisch and Peter Thanisch[1]

Present-day readers of James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner[2] (abbr. Private Memoirs) may find it difficult to interpret Hogg’s depiction of the religious persuasion of Robert Wringhim and his mentor, Rev. Wringhim. In the past, commentators assumed that those persuasions were intended to be either a bizarre Calvinist jihadism or a satire on Scottish mainstream religion. In this article, we propose the alternative view that the thoughts and actions of the Wringhims are fictionalized parallels of the main religious controversies in Scotland in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Gordon Donaldson summarises the doctrinal tensions within the Church of Scotland (abbr. Kirk) at that time in the following, carefully nuanced terms:

Perhaps there is a narrow borderline between proclaiming that Christ died to save [sinners] and asserting that those who had made an act of commitment and believed themselves numbered among the Elect were assured of salvation irrespective of their way of life.  [Extreme] positions were adopted by – or at any rate attributed to – both sides. At one end of the scale were those who were disposed to eliminate divine action altogether and teach a mere moral code. At the other end justification by faith was distorted into antinomianism.[3]
Those two “ends of the scale” were the subjects of the two major doctrinal controversies in the early eighteenth century Kirk, both of which have fictionalized parallels in Private Memoirs and both of which involved Rev. James Hog (1658?-1736)[4]. Hog was the leader of the Kirk’s evangelical wing, a loose network of like-minded ministers who saw themselves as defending traditional doctrine and ecclesiastical practices. In a forthcoming paper, we discuss Rev. James Hog’s involvement in one of those doctrinal controversies, the so-called Simson affair.[5] In the present paper, we discuss Rev. James Hog’s other doctrinal controversy in which Hog was accused of promoting the heresy of antinomianism. We look at how James Hogg wove that controversy into the plot of Private Memoirs.[6]

Looking back on the period of his life immediately prior to Rev. Wringhim’s pronouncement of his supposed justification, Robert Wringhim explained his lack of repentance for his sins in these terms:

I always tried to repent of these sins […] and though not always successful in my endeavours, I could not help that; the grace of repentance being withheld from me, I regarded myself as in no degree accountable for the failure. (p. 78)

Robert refers to repentance as a grace, reflecting the Calvinist credendum that an individual only starts to experience true repentance at a time of God’s choosing; moreover such repentance is only actually experienced by the elect.[7] James Hogg uses Robert’s self-analysis to articulate what a sizeable minority of early eighteenth century ministers in the Kirk perceived as a widespread malaise of spiritual apathy brought on by the brand of Calvinist doctrine (“hyper-Calvinism”) then prevalent in the Kirk. Robert’s observation concerning his lack of repentance is significant because the role of repentance does (in our opinion) materially affect the plot of Private Memoirs.[8] 

On 14 May 1717, the Kirk’s highest court, the General Assembly, strongly criticized the Auchterarder Presbytery for deviating from the Kirk’s doctrinal stance that repentance must precede justification in an individual’s spiritual life. The Auchterarder Presbytery had been demanding that their candidates for the ministry should adhere to the so-called Auchterarder Proposition:

I believe that it is not sound and orthodox to teach that we must forsake sin in order to our coming to Christ, and instating us in Covenant with God.[9]

Applied to Robert’s case, the Auchterarder Proposition means that Robert’s lack of repentance does not preclude his becoming one of the justified.

Rev. James Hog was a prominent supporter of the Auchterarder Proposition. Hog’s evangelicals included several ministers of the Auchterarder Presbytery, one of whom, John Drummond of Crieff, gave Rev. James Hog a copy of a book, The Marrow of Modern Divinity[10], The Marrow” for short.[11] On the subject of repentance, The Marrow concurred with the Auchterarder Proposition:

No man can turn to God, except he be first turned to God: and after he is turned, he repents.[12]

The Marrow was already known in Scotland and in earlier years, it had even been recommended reading for divinity students[13] without attracting any official opprobrium from the Kirk. However, the Auchterarder Proposition incident caused the hierarchy in the Kirk to become increasingly nervous and defensive. Hog was impressed by The Marrow, but he discovered that it was out of print: Drummond had bought his copy second-hand from an Edinburgh bookseller. One of Rev. James Hog’s strategies for promoting his brand of evangelical Presbyterianism was to arrange for the re-publication of older religious tracts that supported the doctrinal stance of his evangelical party. Consequently, in 1718 Rev. James Hog arranged for The Marrow to be reprinted, writing a highly flattering preface to be included in the new impression. Being no stranger to controversy, Hog would have been fully aware that the Kirk’s General Assembly would see the reprinting as a provocative attempt to flout their recent ruling on the Auchterarder Proposition. Sure enough, in 1720, the General Assembly prohibited recommendations of The Marrow on the grounds that it encouraged the heresy of antinomianism[14]. Principal James Hadow[15] who led the Kirk’s case against The Marrow (and, by implication, against Rev. James Hog), observed that

the Marrow teacheth that repentance goeth not before justification.  […] This Doctrine of Repentance is of very nigh Affinity with the Auchterarder Position […].[16]  

In Private Memoirs, James Hogg alludes to this controversy, sparked by Rev. James Hog, by having Rev. Wringhim announce to a surprised Robert that

I am assured of your acceptance […] your sanctification and repentance unto life will follow. (p. 79, our italics)

Thus the order of repentance in Rev. Wringhim’s soteriological prospectus concurs with the order posited by Rev. James Hog, the Auchterarder Proposition and The Marrow, but goes against the teaching of the mainstream Kirk.[17]

Immediately after the unrepentant Robert is pronounced to be justified, a few words of flattery from his new acquaintance, Gil-Martin, are sufficient to trigger Robert’s fall into the deadly sin of pride[18]: “My spiritual pride being greatly elevated by this address […]” (p. 81). Robert then murdered Rev. Blanchard, a Church of Scotland minister who held views that might seem innocuous to the modern reader, but which were highly controversial during the period in which the novel is set, i.e. the early eighteenth century. Blanchard’s views correspond closely to those of a real-life Church of Scotland minister, John Simson, whom James Hog accused of heresy[19], eventually destroying Simson’s career by getting him banned form teaching and preaching.

To sum up, we are saying that these major events in Robert’s career, that is his supposed justification and his first killing, are both based on the heresy controversies involving Rev. James Hog.

Although there is no direct evidence that James Hogg took an interest in Rev. James Hog, there are several indications that Rev. James Hog’s memoirs[20], published posthumously in 1798, might have come to the attention of James Hogg. Take, for example, the similarities in the layout of the title pages of Hogg’s Private Memoirs (Figure 1) and Hog’s Memoirs (Figure 2).  With respect to the title “The Memoirs of the Public Life of Mr. James Hogg[21], we note that in some of Rev. James Hog’s publications, he is referred to as “Mr.” rather than “Rev.” and his surname is given as “Hogg” rather than “Hog.”  We also note that in both cases, the memoirs are described as "written by himself."

Figure 1. The title page of James Hogg’s Private Memoirs.

Figure 2. The title page of Rev. James Hog’s Memoirs of a Public Life
(Reproduced with the kind permission of the National Library for Scotland)

With regard to the content, Hog’s Memoirs also resemble Hogg’s Private Memoirs in that both contain prefatory remarks written anonymously by someone identified only as “The Editor”[22]. As for the memoirs themselves, consider the second paragraph of Robert’s printed pamphlet:

I was born an outcast in the world, in which I was destined to act so conspicuous a part. My mother was a burning and a shining light, in the community of Scottish worthies, and in the days of her virginity had suffered much in the persecution of the saints. (p. 65)

Compare it with the first paragraph of Rev. James Hog’s Memoir:

[I] was born of religious parents, who had their share of suffering among other conscientious Presbyterians, while persecution raged in Scotland.[23]  

In conclusion, we stress that we do not regard Robert Wringhim’s Private Memoirs as allegorical. We claim, however, that reading this difficult novel can become easier if we interpret some key passages as fictionalized parallels of the life and times of Rev. James Hog.

If our observations are correct, then we have identified yet another double associated with Private Memoirs. In one way a Hog connection can simplify our reading of the novel by making explicable some of the apparently bizarre opinions and behaviour of Robert and Rev. Wringhim.  On the other hand, such a Hog connection would raise difficult questions about how James Hogg the novelist saw himself vis-à-vis Rev. James Hog.

[1] Peter Thanisch, Associate Professor, School of Information Sciences, University of Tampere, Finland.
[2] James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, ed. Peter Garside (Edinburgh University Press, 2001); henceforth, the title will be given as“Justified Sinner,” with page references given within the text of the article. 
[3] Gordon Donaldson, The Faith of the Scots (London, Batsford, 1990), p. 105.
[4] C.I. Moffat, Junior, "James Hog of Carnock (1658-1734), Leader in the Evangelical Party in Early Eighteenth Century Scotland," PhD Thesis, Faculty of Divinity, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1960. For a more recent account, see John Callow, ‘Hog, James (d.1736?),’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed 4 May 2015.
[5] A. Thanisch and P. Thanisch, "James Hog’s 'Old Errors digged out of their Graves,'" forthcoming Studies in Hogg and His World 26 (2015).
[6] A. Thanisch and P. Thanisch, "The Point of Confessions," Studies in Hogg and His World 21 (2010).
[7] Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XV, states that “Repentance unto life is an evangelical grace […] Repentance [is] of such necessity to all sinners that none may expect pardon without it.. [There] is no sin so great that it can bring damnation on those who truly repent.”
[8]  A. Thanisch and P. Thanisch, "The Point of Confessions." 
[9] D. Lachman, The Marrow Controversy 1718-1723 (Edinburgh: Rutherford House Books, 1988), p. 202.
[10] E. Fisher, The Marrow of Modern Divinity (Edinburgh: John Boyd, 1828), Google Books, accessed 1 June 2015; henceforth, the title will be given as The Marrow. This edition contains Rev. James Hog’s preface.  We note that Rev. James Hog’s preface became a standard feature of Scottish printings of The Marrow.
[11] Hogg scholars have tended to over-emphasize the part played by Thomas Boston in the controversy. Although he became more prominent later, at this stage his only role was to recommend The Marrow to Thomas Drummond. See Moffat, "James Hog of Carnock (1658-1734)...," p. 248.
[12] Fisher, The Marrow of Modern Divinity, p. 129.
[13] James Hog was already aware of The Marrow before he borrowed the book from John Drummond. James Osburn, Professor of Divinity at Marischal College, University of Aberdeen from 1697 to 1711, used to recommend the book to his students and Hog originally found out about it from that source. See Lachman, The Marrow Controversy 1718-1723, p. 261. 
[14] H.B. de Groot, "Calvinism, Presbyterianism, Antinomianism: The Theological Background of the Confessions," Studies in Hogg and His World 21 (2011), pp. 34-47.
[15] James Hadow was Principal of St. Mary’s College, St. Andrew’s University from 1707 until 1747. See D. F. Wright, "Hadow, James (1667–1747)," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed 31 May 2015.
[16] James Hadow, The Antinomianism of The Marrow of Modern Divinity detected. Wherein the letter to a private Christian, about believers receiving the law, as the law of Christ, is specially considered (Edinburgh, 1721), pp. 36-37 Eighteenth Century Collections Online, accessed 15 May 2015.
[17] We concur with Crawford Gribben’s observation that Wringhim’s system of theology is "totally unrepresentative of the orthodox Calvinism of any of the Scottish Presbyterian churches." See Crawford Gribben, "James Hogg, Scottish Calvinism and Literary Theory," Scottish Studies Review 5.2 (2004), pp. 9-26.
[18] A. Thanisch and P. Thanisch, "The Point of Confessions." 
[19] A. Thanisch and P. Thanisch, "James Hog’s 'Old Errors digged out of their Graves.'" 
[21] Hogg, Justified Sinner, Title page.
[22] Hogg, Justified Sinner, page iii.
[23] Hogg, Justified Sinner, p. 9.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. That the story of the 'Justified Sinner' is open to a whole host of non-mutually exclusive possible interpretations is arguably part of its appeal to (post) modern readers.

    Given the part played in the Marrow Controversy by both Thomas Boston (minister of Ettrick from 1707) and Hogg's near-namesake, I'm therefore open to the idea that it may have played at least some part in the shaping of the character of the young Robert Wringham.

    However, without wishing to dismiss the opinion of anyone who has considered the contents of Hogg's work in some detail; as it would seem fairly central to the work that much of the ‘detail of curious traditionary facts and other evidence’ presented by the editor to authenticate the tale doesn't bear close scrutiny, in the absence of any ‘direct evidence’ I have some concerns with the "several indications" used here to support the idea that the posthumously published memoirs of James Hog ‘might have come to the attention of James Hogg’.

    While the title pages of the two works appear broadly similar, the same could arguably be said for half the printed books in Edinburgh at the time; the layout and typesetting being fairly typical of the age.

    Unless the authors are suggesting that Hogg would have been interested in the work of one but not the other, the fact that Hog is styled "Mr" rather than "Rev" on the front of his Memoirs would seem to be neither here nor there, as is the fact that his surname is given as "Hogg" rather than "Hog". Variations in the spelling of proper nouns were not uncommon, ‘there being so little difference in the sound’. Aside from the obvious example of Colwan/Cowan, in Justified Sinner there’s also Ault-Righ/Eltrive/Altrive (Altrieve), Penpunt (Penpont), Ellanshaws (AllanShaws) and ‘the small river called Ellan’(Allan Water).

    By contrast, having published anonymously, Hogg's name is entirely absent from the title page of Justified Sinner, making this more of a difference between the two works than a similarity. In this regard it has more in common with the prose fiction of Sir Walter Scott aka ‘The Great Unknown’, who had a far more complex influence on Hogg's development as an author than Hog ever could, and who he'd previously been accused of imitating (‘Brownie of Bodsbeck’ to Scott’s ‘Old Mortality’).

    As to both Memoirs being described as "written by himself", this is hardly exclusive to the two; Benjamin Franklin's Memoirs (1791) were also styled thus to give but one example. More to the point, when the third edition of Hogg's "Mountain Bard" appeared (1821), it came prefixed with "A Memoir of the Author's Life, Written by Himself". No mention of Hog in it, but it does give his thoughts on whether the above accusation was justified (for want of a better word).

    With regard to the content; although both contain prefatory remarks written by an "editor", so too does “Old Mortality", with far more ‘evidence’ to suggest that Hogg’s Editor owes his existence to Scott than to Hog.

    Of course, none of this disproves the theory advanced above, but in closing, it’s perhaps worth noting that when the ‘Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner: Written by Himself’ first appeared, ‘The Lady’s Monthly Museum, Or Polite Repository of Amusement and Instruction’ summed up its thoughts on ‘this strange book’ with the words ‘Fronti nulla fide – that is – “Put no confidence in Title-pages, Mr Hogg,” the Ettrick Shepherd is the author, or editor, or both, of these “Memoirs:” which exhibit the characteristic ingenuity and extravagance of the highly-gifted but eccentric writer.’

    With that in mind, one should perhaps not judge a book by its cover (or its passing resemblance to that of another). Like is such an ill mark after all.