The uses of providence in early modern Scotland
in The supernatural in early modern Scotland
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For early modern Scots, the concept of providence infused life with religious significance. Everyday experiences such as nosebleeds, hailstorms and unexpected encounters with owls were understood as special providences, acts of divine intervention. Through the notion of general providence, moreover, the entire course of history could be perceived as an expression of the divine will. Focusing on the period from 1560 to c.1800, this chapter shows how providence enlaced the natural and supernatural worlds.

Uses of providence ranged from the personal to the global. Individuals often understood their lives in providential terms. Covenanting culture placed particular emphasis on recording ‘rare and remarkable passagis’, and, after the 1660 Restoration, dispossessed Presbyterians assiduously catalogued manifestations of divine favour. The concept of providence offered comfort in the face of adversity, but also meant that hardships might be interpreted as divine punishment. Long after the reinstatement of Presbyterianism in 1690, this picture of God as ‘a Smiting and a frowning Beloved’ continued to shape religious experience.

The chapter concludes by showing that providence could also be viewed on a grander scale. Writers from John Knox to William Robertson situated Scottish history within a providential framework. The minister Robert Wodrow collected special providences to demonstrate that God had manifested himself ‘in poor Scotland ... as much as any where since the primitive times’. Though their ways of understanding the world and writing its history changed over the period, early modern Scots consistently found in providence a useful expository and monitory framework.

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