by Elad Carmel

In 1718, George Turnbull (1698–1748), then a young student of divinity at Edinburgh, wrote to the philosopher John Toland (1670–1722) (see Fig. 1):

Sir I am a Freethinker, and I glory in the character. Some people are pleased to say that I am no good Christian… But if to prove all things & to hold fast that only which is good, be true Christianity; I am as orthodox as any man can pretend to be. I neither regard custom, nor fashion, authority nor power; truth & reason are the only things that determine me.

Could one be a freethinking Christian in early eighteenth-century Britain, where ‘freethinking’ was more often than not a pejorative term synonymous with infidelity and atheism? It was this—perhaps naïve–conviction that encouraged Turnbull to initiate a dialogue with Toland, author of Christianity Not Mysterious (1696), the book which was at the centre of the deist controversy of the 1690s. Turnbull hoped “that I may tell my Sentiments to you freely, & that if you differ from me, you will, for the sake of truth, give your self the trouble to shew me why you do so.”

By then, Toland had already become a notoriously radical and controversial writer, associated with the deists who denied the truth of all aspects of revealed religion, attributing them instead to ‘priestcraft’—the machinations of a power-hungry clergy. Turnbull, on the other hand, would become a tutor, philosopher, theologian, and eventually a clergyman. Yet the momentary interaction between them was indicative of a deeper sentiment in Edinburgh at the time (for a contemporary view of Edinburgh, see the featured image above). This unique sentiment may be characterized as moderate radicalism.

Fig. 1: John Toland (1670–1722). Copper engraving by Johanna Dorothea Sysang (1729–1791), 1766. The only known portrait of Toland was drawn by Sysang, an innovative engraver from Leipzig. The etching was prepared as a frontispiece for Urban Gottlob Thorschmid’s Vollständige Engländische Freydenker=Bibliothek. In welcher den Schriften der Englischen Freydenker die vortreflichsten Schutzschriften für die Christliche Religion, und für die Geistlichen entgegen gestellet werden. Dritter Theil (Kassel, 1766). In his left hand, Toland holds his book “Pantheis | [ti]con” (first published in 1720) while the Latin caption of the illustration reads “Johannes Toland | Hibernus.” Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel. Courtesy of Herzog August Bibliothek.

George Turnbull was a member of the Rankenian Club, a vibrant intellectual group founded around 1717 by students of divinity in Edinburgh, who used to meet and discuss philosophy, with a particular admiration for Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671–1713). The Rankenians, or “heterodox Presbyterians,” as Thomas Ahnert called them, placed themselves exactly in the middle between orthodox dogmatism and radical deism. They did not subscribe to natural religion alone, but promoted freedom of conscience and debate, and preferred virtue and charity over rigid doctrines. In the words of Turnbull’s brother-in-law, Robert Wallace (1697–1771), another prominent member of this circle, they were “moderate freethinkers” (quoted from the letter dated 1751 which is discussed further below).

After Wallace’s death, the Scots Magazine celebrated his club’s “mutual improvement by liberal conversation and rational inquiry.” It singled out its social contribution, as the club was “highly instrumental in disseminating through Scotland, freedom of thought, boldness of disquisition, liberality of sentiment, accuracy of reasoning, correctness of taste, and attention to composition.” What is more, “the exalted rank which Scotsmen hold at present in the republic of letters, is greatly owing to the manner and the spirit begun by that society.” While this accolade speaks for itself, the former members of the club remain almost unknown today. The picture which emerges is that of a group of thinkers who brought forward an innovative middle-way stance, and indeed a philosophy of what middle-way actually entails. It has been argued that the Scottish Enlightenment was about “the ability and willingness of a remarkable number of Scots to take part in a conversation… and to keep that conversation going in a spirit of open-mindedness, politeness, and elegance.” In this sense, Wallace and his associates made a lasting contribution to the Scottish Enlightenment. They were “just as much part of it as… Hume and Smith.”

Let us take a closer look at the case of Wallace to briefly demonstrate some of these points. As a self-identified moderate freethinker, Wallace fought to find common ground even with his heterodox adversaries, including David Hume (1711–1776), and to defend their right to voice and debate their views within reasonable boundaries. As a philosopher, Wallace developed a compelling theory of moderation. A few examples from his writings, many of which remain unpublished, illuminate his strong and consistent commitments to these principles.

Wallace was a Scottish minister who held a number of senior leadership positions in the Church of Scotland during the 1740s, taking on the office of the Moderator of the General Assembly, among other posts. Nevertheless, with his somewhat radical views, Wallace clearly stood out from the clerical mainstream. As early as 1720, he wrote, albeit only privately, one of his more critical treatises whose position is known in modern scholarship as anti-subscriptionist (see Fig. 2). At the time, ministers were still required to subscribe to written confessions of faith, such as the Westminster Confession of Faith or the Thirty-nine Articles, but this practice had started to be called into question in Scotland, England, and Ireland. Expressing his commitment to the principle of the liberty of conscience and the idea that such requirements were as futile just as they are wrongful, Wallace wrote “a little treatise against imposing creeds or confessions of faith on ministers or private Christians as a necessary term of laick or ministeriall communion.”

Fig. 2: Theological manuscript treatise (Edinburgh, 1720/1764) by Robert Wallace (1697–1771). MS. La.II/62018 composed ca. 1720 and revised in 1764. The document forms part of a larger collection of manuscript sermons and theological treatises by Wallace. Heritage Collections. Courtesy of University of Edinburgh Library.

What is more, Wallace still endorsed this view in 1764, when he was reflecting on his past writings. When annotating his earlier manuscript from ca. 1720, he affirmed that “tho the argument might be pursued further yet there are many just observations in this little treatise: which discover both an early genius & an aversion to be fettered by creeds & modern confessions.” Wallace’s theory in this sense is close to what is today called the neo-Roman or non-domination conception of freedom, which contrasts liberty with arbitrary rule, enslavement, and tyranny. In this case, it is the human mind that should be liberated from any kind of tyranny, clerical or otherwise.

Wallace was indeed known as a radical in various respects, “a somewhat atypical figure” whose “eccentricity” was reflected in an exceptionally liberal approach to marriage and sexuality. He defended women’s natural and equal inclination and right to “venery” and stated that he would “encourrage a much more free commerce of the sexes than is allowed by our customs & permitt women to make proposals as well as men.”

Yet if Wallace is discussed at all in modern scholarship, it is usually in relation to his polite disagreement with Hume on the question of whether the population of the world increased or decreased between ancient and modern times. Hume held the former opinion, while Wallace opted for the latter. But this was not the only difference between the two philosophers. Hume, the so-called ‘infidel,’ published blunt anticlerical comments, claiming that “the ambition of the clergy can often be satisfied only by promoting ignorance and superstition and implicit faith and pious frauds.”

Wallace was obviously disappointed about Hume’s remarks and wanted to exonerate the profession of the clergy from such harsh accusations. In response, he prepared a letter in 1751, in which he argued that Hume went too far (see Fig. 3). It is better not to generalize to begin with, Wallace writes, but if anything, the British clergy helped to promote rather than to suppress the cause of liberty in religion—unlike the French one, for instance. The manuscript for the letter is remarkably titled A Letter from a Moderate Freethinker to David Hume… Concerning the Profession of the Clergy (1751). In the manuscript, Wallace states that a “freethinker ought to be of no particular party but the party of good sense… he will not scruple to detect the Errors of a friend, & will deal generously with a foe.” Hume seems to have been both a friend and a foe for Wallace, which is maybe why in the end, Wallace never sent the letter.

Fig. 3: Manuscript for A Letter from a Moderate Freethinker to David Hume… Concerning the Profession of the Clergy (Edinburgh, 1751) by Robert Wallace (1697–1771). MS. La.II/971, composed ca. 1751. Heritage Collections. Courtesy of University of Edinburgh Library.

“Virtue,” Wallace stated in 1761, “lies in the middle.” In his final work, Wallace formulated his theory of “moderate” or “sober” freethinking, which is the position that had already guided him throughout his life and work. This theory constituted a number of principles of true freethinking. Wallace writes, for instance, “that none are obliged to embrace any doctrine whatsoever, unless it be accompanied with sufficient evidence” and “that men ought to divest themselves of all prejudices, and never suffer the authority of any one man, or any body of men, to have an influence upon them in opposition to reason.” Notably, however, this was a moral and philosophical, rather than theological, position in the sense that Wallace, unlike some radical English Presbyterians for example, did not aim to reduce the number or content of doctrines considered necessary for Christian faith.

This position had political implications, and it is here that Wallace went even further, adding two more principles that should apply to anyone who does not threaten to destroy religion or the peace of society. He emphasizes “that it should be safe for every member of society to profess his belief of any doctrine whatsoever” and “that every member of society… should be trusted and employed, both by private persons, and by the state, in proportion to his abilities and integrity, without enquiring more particularly into his religious principles and practice.” What thus began as a private anti-subscriptionist position four decades earlier with his manuscript treatise, was now a well-established, open, and uncompromising position in support of religious toleration and mutual respect, which stood in opposition to both persecution and discrimination.

As these examples demonstrate, one of Wallace’s greatest passions and indeed life projects was to show—just as Turnbull hoped in 1718—that one could and should be a freethinking Christian. He aimed to promote a freethinking version of Presbyterianism, outlining guidelines for being a ‘moderately radical’ Christian both in theory and in practice. More broadly, Wallace’s numerous writings reveal a nuanced and thoughtful world view of kindness and moderation, which can serve as a model today just as it did in the middle of the eighteenth century.

I thank Thomas Ahnert, Alasdair Raffe, Martina Reuter, and Philippe Schmid for their advice and encouragement, and the staff at IASH and the Heritage Collections (formerly the Centre for Research Collections) at the University of Edinburgh for their continuous and kind support.

Elad Carmel holds a DPhil from the University of Oxford. He is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Jyväskylä, author of a recently published monograph Anticlerical Legacies: The Deistic Reception of Thomas Hobbes, c. 1670–1740 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2024), and associate editor of Hobbes Studies. He conducted a large part of his research on Wallace as a Daiches-Manning Memorial Fellow in 18th-Century Scottish Studies at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH) at the University of Edinburgh. For more information on Wallace and the freethinkers, see his articles in History of European Ideas on “Anthony Collins on Toleration, Liberty, and Authority” (2022) as well as “Moderation in the Scottish Enlightenment: The Case of Robert Wallace” (forthcoming).

Edited by Philippe Schmid

Featured Image: From Scotia depicta; or, The antiquities, castles, … and picturesque scenery of Scotland (London, 1804), with engravings by James Fittler (1758–1835), which are based on the Scottish on-site drawings by John Claude Nattes (1765–1839). Plate XXXI/b showing Edinburgh Castle. Shelfmark of the print version: J.134.f. National Library of Scotland. Courtesy of the National Library of Scotland.