The Magazine

The Devil in Scotland

James Hogg's 1824 novel of sin and salvation.

Mar 31, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 28 • By ALAN JACOBS
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THIS BELIEF has never been summed up more succinctly than by Anne Hutchinson, the controversial seventeenth-century New Englander: "As I do understand it, laws, commands, rules and edicts are for those who have not the light which makes plain the pathway. He who has God's grace in his heart cannot go astray." Though the extremity of Hutchinson's views led to her banishment from Massachusetts, she argued that they constituted the logical extension of the belief shared by all Puritans (and many other Protestants) that Christians live under a "covenant of grace," not a "covenant of law." That is, Christians are redeemed not by any good works but by God's free gift of salvation. This gift is accompanied by the presence of the Holy Spirit: The believer is properly guided by that "indwelling" Spirit rather than by the lifeless machinery of the Law. Those teaching this view of salvation have typically then gone on to assert that the Holy Spirit would never lead us to do anything that is contrary to the moral law as presented in Scripture, but Hutchinson was not careful on this point, and that, more than anything else, got her banished.

This view can be intensified and complicated by the specifically Calvinist belief in "predestination to election"--that is, God's choice, determined even before the Creation, of those who would be saved--and its corresponding doctrine, the "perseverance of the saints." Those whom God elects cannot lose their salvation; to think otherwise would be to compromise the divine sovereignty. Thus when the "justified sinner" of the title, a disturbed young man named Robert Wringhim, suggests to his mysterious friend that "indubitably there were degrees of sinning which would induce the Almighty to throw off the very elect," the friend responds promptly:

Why, sir, . . . by vending such an insinuation, you put discredit on the great atonement, in which you trust. . . . Now, when you know, as you do (and as every one of the elect may know of himself) that this Saviour died for you, namely and particularly, dare you say that there is not enough of merit in His great atonement to annihilate all your sins, let them be as heinous and atrocious as they may? And, moreover, do you not acknowledge that God hath pre-ordained and decreed whatsoever comes to pass? Then, how is it that you should deem it in your power to eschew one action of your life, whether good or evil? . . . That is, none of us knows what is pre-ordained, but whatever it is pre-ordained we must do, and none of these things will be laid to our charge.

This argument is repeated several times in the course of the story. In the portion called the "Editor's Narrative," which precedes Robert's first-person account, we hear that whenever Robert questioned "the boundlessness of the true Christian's freedom," and expressed "doubts that, chosen as he knew he was from all eternity, still it might be possible for him to commit acts that would exclude him from the limits of the covenant," his friend was quick to counter, "with mighty fluency, that the thing was utterly impossible, and altogether inconsistent with eternal predestination."

The question that drives Hogg's novel, and drives it relentlessly, is simply this: What are the psychological and moral consequences of holding these theological convictions? What happens to a young man who cannot answer the "mighty fluency" of arguments that the elect (like Nietzsche's "supermen") are above all law?

IN PURSUING THIS QUESTION, Hogg disregards almost everything that a good novelist is supposed to pay attention to. One notes again and again inconsistencies of plot and character, inexplicable changes in narrative direction, and unbelievable coincidences. One of the most notable lapses occurs in a scene, rather late in the novel, in which an old peasant relates a lengthy tale about how Satan himself was caught preaching in a village church. At first Hogg has the peasant speaking in very broad Scots, with every oddity of pronunciation represented phonetically; but soon he grows tired of this and lapses into standard (and quite eloquent) English, only to veer back into dialect as the story nears its end. But by the time I got to this point in the novel I didn't care about Hogg's craft. It was the story that mattered to me. I wanted to know more about the Devil.