Imagine it’s 1842 and in the thick dusk of an Edinburgh winter you’re walking across the Meadows. You take little notice of passers-by, but suddenly one approaches who commands instant attention. Dressed in tweeds and over-wrapped in a plaid, his tackety boots hit the road resolutely with every stride. An eccentric, perhaps even a poser, but not a man to be trifled with.
That would have been Hugh Miller, Editor of The Witness, trudging home to 5 Sylvan Place. In an age not short of immortals many would have reckoned him the greatest Scotsman of the day.
He had been propelled to fame by the part he played in the struggles of the church. On the face of things he possessed none of the qualifications for such a role. He was not a minister and he was unimpressive as a public speaker. His fame rested on his journalism. It is hard to find a modern comparison. He was as passionate as Tommy Sheridan, as withering as Jeremy Paxman and as stylish as Bernard Levin. But none of these could rival the force of his impact. Without Miller there would have been no Disruption.
Miller, a Cromarty orphan who became first a mason and then a banker had come to Edinburgh in 1840 to a new job as editor of The Witness, the evangelical newspaper. The Witness had one specific object: to attack patronage, a system which for over a hundred years had given landlords the sole right to choose ministers, regardless of the wishes of congregations. Miller deplored it. The Stuarts had tried to secularise the Church through bishops. Patronage secularised it through landlords. Scotland’s acres, he thundered, controlled Scotland’s kirk.
He castigated the evil relentlessly in a long series of brilliant editorials. It was unbiblical. It violated the ancient constitution of the church. It alienated the church from the people. Above all, it had intruded on congregations worthless shepherds more interested in their glebes than in their flocks. The first man in the North to raise the price of a boll of meal to £3 was a Moderate minister, cried The Witness; and when clerics of such kidney were not playing the market they were languishing in jail, swotting up the laws on bankruptcy. They had none of the qualifications required in a minister. Indeed, the most that could be said of many of them was that they were not known to the police.
But Miller reserved his most withering scorn for Roberston of Ellon and the other Moderate leaders. He had to hand a ready weapon; the newly popular pseudo-science of phrenology, which gave a whole new meaning to the idea that size matters. Phrenologists believed that a man’s intellectual and moral stature was in exact proportion to the size of his head. The Witness revelled in the theory. Miller could sweep his eyes round the General Assembly, moving from one side of the house to the other. What a contrast! On the Moderate side, mediocre little heads! On the Evangelical side, the massive heads of the Gordons, Cunninghams and Candlishes, climaxing in the incomparable head of Thomas Chalmers. There was not such a head in all Europe! No, not in the whole world.
Three years of this destroyed the Moderates. But Miller didn’t simply ridicule and expose. In one direction he was remarkably constructive and even visionary. In the early days of the anti-patronage campaign no one dreamed of going so far as to give congregations the right to choose their own minister. Thomas Chalmers certainly never dreamed of it. He was a temperamental aristocrat, with no great faith in the populace. The most he envisaged was that congregations should have the right to veto the patron’s nominee.
It was Miller who carried the Evangelicals beyond this to the principle that the calling of a minister should be entirely in the hands of the people. The Moderate chorus cried that this was absurd. How could such a task be left to ordinary, uneducated people? Miller had no patience with this. Scotland’s greatest poet, Robert Burns, had been an ordinary ploughman. Her greatest engineer, James Watt, had been an ordinary artisan (and another great man, the Editor of The Witness, was “a plain working man”). Besides, he wrote triumphantly, Parliament had just passed the Reform Bill, giving the franchise to ordinary people. What had Scotland come to when men were deemed fit to judge the qualifications of a Member of Parliament but not to judge the qualifications of a gospel minister?
When the Free Church came into being in 1843 it immediately put Miller’s principle into operation. But this immediately opened another door. Did popular election mean that women could vote in the calling of a minister?
The Free Church stirred, a trifle uneasily. Thomas Chalmers’ earlier Veto Act had restricted the right of veto to “male heads of families”. The new church never in so many words gave the ecclesiastical franchise to women. But what it did do had exactly the same effect: it conferred the right to sign a Call on all communicants. That instantly empowered women.
Populariser of science
But Miller’s influence was not confined to ecclesiastical politics. From childhood he had been an avid naturalist, scouring the beeches and exploring the rocks of his native Cromarty, and in the course of his life he accumulated what is still believed to be the biggest private collection of fossils ever held in Scotland (the collection is now one of the treasures of the National Museum). Nor did he merely collect. His discoveries were sufficiently important to warrant his having at least one fossil fish named after him.
But Miller’s most spectacular contribution was as a populariser of the new science. This was done largely through the columns of The Witness (no mere church magazine but a twice-weekly newspaper with a circulation that rivalled the Scotsman). These editorials were later collected together in books which for their day had a massive circulation. The most famous of these, The Old Red Sandstone, was first published in 1841 and had gone through seven editions by 1857. Other collections continued the theme. Wherever Miller went he took his hammer and notebook with him. The results can be seen in The Cruise of the Betsy and Edinburgh and Its Neighbourhood.
Miller’s enthusiasm, imagination and descriptive brilliance fill these pages. His fossil fishes, it was said, “swim and gambol”, as if Miller saw them not frozen in stone but swimming gaily in primeval seas. In 1841 he was as near to a David Attenborough as you could get.
It wasn’t all description, however. In geology, too, Miller was ever the campaigning journalist. He wanted his readers to share his enthusiasm for their God-revealing environment. But he also wanted to do other things. He wanted to defend geology from the attacks of ignorant clergy; and he wanted to defend the Bible from the attacks of ill-digested science.
Miller was not the first to argue that Christians should have no qualms about conceding a great age for the earth. Thomas Chalmers had done it before him, arguing, while Miller was a mere infant, that Genesis did not determine the age of the earth and that geology could have all the time it wanted. It was easy for Miller to pursue his own agenda in the shelter of the greatest churchman of the age. We are living, he said, in a graveyard, the remains of former eras all around us. No one can deny that the universe looks millions of years old. If it isn’t, the Maker is deceiving us.
But in these days, as today, there were those who argued for a literal six-day creation six thousand years ago. Faced with the geological facts they invoked the Flood. The Deluge explained everything. Miller ridiculed this, calling it “the geology of the anti-geologists”. He even argued (a bold step in his day) that a universal flood, covering the entire globe to a depth sufficient to submerge Mt Ararat, was a physical impossibility. The Flood could only have been local. It could not possibly explain the rocks and fossils of Western Europe.
There can be little doubt that Miller’s outlook, reflecting that of Chalmers and shared by all the great Free Church leaders, was a decisive moment in the history of relations between Christianity and science. Miller died before Darwin published his Origin of Species. We know for a certainty that he would have opposed it: he rejected utterly the idea that new species developed out of old. But he never rubbished Darwin’s predecessors and this is one main reason why Presbyterianism made a much more reasoned response to evolution than did such Anglican divines as Bishop Wilberforce. This explains, too, why there has never been any Scottish equivalent (so far!) of the infamous Scope’s Monkey Trial in the United States.
Probably the one thing remembered about Miller today is that he shot himself; and those who know that probably also believe that the reason he did so was that the strain of reconciling Genesis and geology ultimately proved too much for him.
This is as close to rubbish as one can get. There is not the slightest trace, anywhere in Miller, of any conflict between his religious beliefs and his scientific views. As we have seen, Chalmers had blazed the trail before him, the great Free Church leaders were at one with him and his views attracted no criticism, at least in Scotland. All his writings in this field are marked by confidence and serenity.
Why then did he kill himself? Was he mad? There is no doubt that he was paranoid and equally little doubt that he was fascinated by the paranormal. But Miller had a good deal to be paranoid about. He had, after all, made many enemies, and some of them might not have been at all averse to killing him. As for the paranormal, Miller was as sceptical as he was fascinated. He dismissed claims that outstanding Christians had “the secret of the Lord” by bluntly pointing out that the pagan Brahan Seer had been equally percipient.
There is a simple reason surely, for Miller’s ultimate tragic break-down: overwork. Twice a week, virtually single-handed, he produced The Witness. Today, the massive bound copies are awesome: page after page and column after column of small-print broadsheet, unrelieved by so much as a single photo. To make matters worse, Miller was not a fluent writer who could quickly throw off his copy within minutes of his deadlines. He was a painstaking perfectionist. Nothing went to the type-setter till he was happy with it.
To have produced the Witness once a month would have been a prodigious achievement. To do so twice a week would have suggested to witch-hunters that he was in league with the Devil. The thirteen large volumes published after his death represent only a fraction of his output. Were it all gathered together in one collection its range, quality and quantity would signal it as one of the greatest intellectual achievements in Scottish history.
Why then is Miller so utterly forgotten? Even the Free Church forgot him. Robert Buchanan’s definitive history of the Ten Years’ Conflict doesn’t once mention Miller’s name. Geologists forgot him. Journalists forgot him. Scottish schoolchildren forgot him. Familiar with Bacon and Lamb, Addison and Goldsmith, they knew nothing knew nothing of Miller.
He didn’t help himself. Even at the height of his influence in the run-up to the Disruption he never socialised and never sought admission to the inner councils of his own party. Maybe he wanted to be as free to criticise his friends as to criticise his enemies.
But the real reason for the neglect of Miller lies in his spirituality. He was first and foremost a Christian and his prose is entirely at the service of his religion. You cannot enjoy his style without having to encounter the religion and you can’t marvel at the fossils without having to listen to him talking about Genesis.
To make matters worse, Miller’s was the old-time religion of Knox and the Covenanters. It was intensely doctrinal, driven by what he called his stock of theological ideas, constantly replenished by the great cerebral sermons of men like Chalmers, Thomas McCrie and Stewart of Cromarty. Not that he much needed instruction from others. He had immersed himself in the classics of theology and knew every highway and byway of church history. His soul belonged to the 17th century. When he came to Edinburgh, the city did nothing for him. But when he sailed past the Bass Rock it stirred him to the core of his being. There his heroes had suffered in the dark days of persecution.
By rights, if the myth about the baneful effects of Calvinism is true, Miller should have had no imagination, no love of poetry and no pride in the scintillating sentence. But he had; and his religion is a totally coherent synthesis of Bible and creed, Genesis and geology, preaching and literature, history and observation.
At its heart lies Christ. Miller was a temperamental sceptic and for a while it was touch and go whether he would stay with his Uncle Sandy’s God. An abstract God held no attraction. What swayed him was the incarnation: God had taken human nature, lived our life and shared our pain. Again, he felt little drawn to the idea of Christ’s death as a satisfaction and warned that it would never appeal to working men. What they resonated to was the idea of the cross as the supreme sacrifice of an extravagant love.
It was in this Christ that Miller’s geology and theology met. The strata bore witness to successive creation eras, each with its own king. We live in the final era: the era of man, bearer of the image of God. Only one thing could conceivably follow it: the era of man-in-Christ.
There Miller’s imagination rested, enraptured. Here was the Omega-point. In Christ, the Dust of the Earth and the Maker of the Earth are one.