I wrote this article in 2009 as an extension of my interest Scottish history and thought. Virtually nothing has been written about John Maclaurin, yet he was one of the most important Scottish theologians of the eighteenth century. He corresponded with Jonathan Edwards, preached at the 1742 revivals in western Scotland, and pastored a key church in Glasgow.
Here is the abstract:
The important, but unexplored, John Maclaurin of Glasgow (1693–1754) represents the branch of enlightened evangelicals in the Church of Scotland who defended aspects of supernaturalism as compatible with reason. Evangelicals like Maclaurin endorsed the transatlantic evangelical revivals while still maintaining that such pervasive and multifarious spiritual awakenings were not a chaotic display of enthusiasm. Maclaurin supposed that God had created humanity with the ability to reason and could influence one’s thinking to adopt epistemological assumptions about religion that some saw as irrational and superstitious. In order to prove this point, Maclaurin turned the tables on the opponents of the revivals by arguing that in order to be truly natural, in the sense of being a complete human, one must embrace the inner workings of the Holy Spirit. The corruption of our nature that occurred as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve left mankind in an incomplete state. Therefore, the purpose of God’s supernatural grace is to restore mankind to its authentic natural state. Without such divine aid to form knowledge, he argued, one would never be able to gain a full understanding of spiritual truth.
Similar to Thomas Aquinas, Maclaurin assumed that humans can know many things about God and his work in the world using reason. Sin has not corrupted our intellect to the extent that we cannot ascertain any truth about God from observing the world around us. Nevertheless, in order to have a thorough understanding of God, divine grace is needed. Following Aquinas, Maclaurin claimed that God uses secondary causes like preaching to motivate people to seek grace. Such secondary causes cannot produce any real change in a person unless accompanied by the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. As opposed to many of the more liberal ministers of the day, Maclaurin, although not entirely comfortable with the fainting and weeping that sometimes appeared at the revivals, was willing to admit that emotional displays could be a natural response by a person whose heart had been moved by the spirit of God. While defending extreme emotions, Maclaurin’s main point in his sermons was that evangelicalism was entirely reasonable.