Arthur Middleton on Henry Scougal who, towards the end of his short life, wrote the devotional classic The Life of God in the Soul of Man

Anglican devotional manuals are not much in vogue today. Means and ends are always before the reader of these manuals. Scougal’s The Life of God in the Soul of Man (1677) sees the end as ‘a real participation in the Divine Nature’ which is very much the spirit of the early Fathers and Hooker, Andrewes and the great Anglican divines. The means to this end is discipline, which opens our lives to faith and love, to humility and purity. Ian Bradley claims it to be ‘the most influential piece of Scottish devotional writing in the seventeenth century.’

John Jebb (1775–1833), Bishop of Limerick, in his Piety without Asceticism, commends Scougal’s treatise as a ‘specimen of Christian instruction, not only unexceptionable in its nature, but uniformly tending to edification of the best kind.’ It reminds him of the Imitation of Thomas à Kempis and recalls ‘that heavenly injunction, that, whatever be our inward feelings, we should ‘anoint our head, and wash our face, and appear not unto men to fast.’

Henry Scougal (1650–78) was a godly Scottish Episcopalian priest, the son of a bishop of Aberdeen, who became Professor of Philosophy at King’s College, Aberdeen. On taking orders, he accepted the country parish of Auchterless; and there, by unwearied diligence in catechizing, preaching and instructing from house to house, he gave full proof that the ministry was, indeed, his vocation. But he was soon called to a more important sphere.

In 1675, by the unanimous voice of the electors, he was chosen Professor of Divinity, in King’s College, Aberdeen; from whence, in the midst of a full career of usefulness, he was mysteriously but, no doubt, mercifully, removed to a better world, in the year 1678, at the early age of twenty-eight. ‘Being made perfect in a short time, he fulfilled a long time: for wisdom is the grey hair unto men, and an unspotted life is old age’ [J. Jebb].

Maturity of judgement

The Life of God in The Soul of Man, which was originally written to a friend to explain Christianity and give spiritual counsel, is his greatest work. For one so young who died of tuberculosis, his short treatise displays a perceptive awareness and a maturity of judgement, which may have been sharpened by his illness. In a letter to Bishop Jebb of Limerick (1801) from Alexander Knox, this devotional classic is said ‘to contain perhaps the finest view of practical religion, the most removed from coldness on the one hand and overheat on the other, that is to be found in the Christian world’ [J. H. Overton, English Church 1660–1714, p. 280].

Enduring popularity

The instant appreciation it received ensured its publication for a wider readership. Overton comments, ‘The reader who is first introduced to the work with such a flourish of trumpets will probably feel a little disappointment when he reads it. Not but that it is a well-written, well argued-out piece, but it bears evident traces of having been written, as it was, by a very young man; and devotional works, of all works, require the experience which nothing but age can bring.’ Yet George Herbert cannot be described as old when he died. Nevertheless, Scougal’s work was instrumental in the conversion of George Whitefield who was given a copy by his friend, Charles Wesley, and who said that he never really understood what true religion was till he had digested Scougal’s treatise. ‘What precisely was it that Whitefield learned from Scougal? In a word, it was the inwardness and supernaturalness of biblical godliness.’ Susannah Wesley recommended it to her son John. As we have seen Scougal would not have been able to write this without the seventeenth century behind him. So it provided much of the stimulation behind the Methodist Revival of Britain and the Great Awakening in America. It is still in print.

Scougal’s The Life of God in the Soul of Man is available in paperback from ND