Henry Scougal (1650-1678)

Henry Scougal was the son of a Presbyterian minister -- Patrick Scougal -- who became Bishop of Aberdeen when the Scottish Episcopacy was restored following the restoration of Charles II to the thrones of Scotland and England in 1660. From an early age, Henry Scougal displayed considerable intellectual gifts – a prodigious memory, and aptness for languages and a taste for books, the content of which he mastered with remarkable facility.

At the age of fourteen, Scougal entered King’s College Aberdeen and graduated four years later with an arts degree. As a student he proved to have qualities of leadership as well as academic ability, serving as president of the student society, and he gained a reputation for deep spiritual seriousness combined with a keen sense of humor. His book of meditations -- Private Reflections and Occasional Maxims – was authored at the age of eighteen.

Very shortly after graduation, ‘being thought worthy to be a master where he had so lately been a scholar’ Scougal was appointed Regent in King’s. He acted in this capacity until, at the exceptionally young age of twenty, he was appointed Professor of Philosophy. Three years later, he was prevailed upon to become minister of a small rural parish in Aberdeenshire, but he remained there only a year, before, on unanimous vote of the Synod, he was called back to be Professor of Divinity at Kings. His time in this post was not to be long. Having contracted tuberculosis, he died in 1678 a few days before his 28th birthday. At his funeral, George Garden, a friend and colleague delivered a lengthy sermon that circulated widely, and strengthened the sense that Scougal’s death had deprived Scotland of its most promising intellect.

Scougal’s most celebrated publication was The Life of God in the Soul of Man. Originally a pastoral letter to a friend, its evident merits as a work of devotion led to its being copied until it reached the hands of Gilbert Burnett, Professor of Divinity at Glasgow from 1669-74. A future Bishop of Salisbury and a close ally of Archbishop Tillotson, whose writings provided Hume with the opening for his essay on miracles, Burnett arranged for Scougal’s book to be published in 1677. Although Scougal himself died eighteen months after its publication, his book went through nine major editions between 1677 and 1830.

The Life of God in the Soul of Man proved hugely influential in Christian circles, especially among Methodists since John Wesley was one of its greatest admirers. Its significance within Scottish philosophy lay in the fact that it displayed a far greater interest in ‘religion’ than in theology, and set itself to discern ‘true religion’ from the false forms in which religion masqueraded. To this extent, though it is primarily a devotional work, it may be seen to be a forerunner of, for instance, Hume’s essay ‘Of Superstition and Enthusiasm’.

Scougal's library, built upon the collection he inherited from his father, was very extensive and included both philosophical works and the writings of the mystics. He made two trips to England and this may explain his connection with the Cambridge Platonists, whose works were quoted extensively in his lectures on ethics, and whose thought also shifts the focus of attention from the Puritan emphasis on theology to a broader philosophical interest in religion.

Gordon Graham, Princeton Theological Seminary