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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 October 2013

Department of History, Harvard University E-mail:


Scholars have hitherto found little to no place for natural philosophy in the intellectual makeup of the Enlightened historian William Robertson, overlooking his significant contacts with that province and its central relevance to the controversy surrounding David Hume and Lord Kames in the 1750s. Here I reexamine Robertson's Situation of the World at the Time of Christ's Appearance (1755) in light of these contexts. I argue that his foundational sermon drew upon the scientific theism of such thinkers as Joseph Butler, Edmund Law, and Colin Maclaurin to counter the autonomous figurations of the universe associated with Hume and Kames, and to develop a historical account of progress based around Christian progressivism rather than the stadial theory of Adam Smith. Robertson conceived of history neither in secular terms nor in those of traditional religion, but sought instead to update the language of providentialism by naturalizing the sacred within a framework of general laws.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2013 

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For valuable comments on versions of this paper I would like to thank David Armitage, Duncan Kelly, Nicholas Phillipson, Richard Sher, Jeffrey Smitten, and the anonymous referees.


1 Dugald Stewart, Account of the Life and Writings of William Robertson (1801), in Biographical Memoirs, vol. 10 of The Collected Works of Dugald Stewart, ed. William Hamilton (Edinburgh, 1858), 101–241, 105, 200.

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5 My use of the term “scientific theism” follows the most inclusive definition given in Hurlbutt, R. H. III, “David Hume and Scientific Theism,” Journal of the History of Ideas 17 (1956), 486–97, 487Google Scholar. This was a “kind of theology” in the eighteenth century that employed “the new science, both as a method and as a body of factual and theoretical knowledge, in support of the Christian Religion.”

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7 Henderson, Robert, “A Short Account of the University of Edinburgh, the Present Professors in It, and the Several Parts of Learning Taught by Them,” Scots Magazine, 3 (Aug. 1741), 371–4, 373Google Scholar; Grant, Story of the University, 1: 273–4. Dugald Stewart suggests that Robertson attended Pringle's class, and many subsequent commentators declare this outright; Jeffrey Smitten concludes that Robertson “probably” studied with Pringle. Dugald Stewart, Life and Writings, 105; Stewart, Alexander, “The Life of Dr. William Robertson,” in Robertson, William, The Works of William Robertson, vol. 1 (Edinburgh, 1818), ilxxxix, vGoogle Scholar; Bower, History of the University, 3: 28; Seccombe, Thomas, “Robertson, William,” in Lee, Sidney, ed., Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 48 (London, 1896), 425–30, 425Google Scholar; Smitten, Jeffrey, “Robertson, William (1721–1793),” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004)Google Scholar.

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13 Dugald Stewart, Life and Writings, 105. Mathematics was a nonmatriculating class, so there is no official record of Robertson's attendance. In addition to the testimony of Henry Brougham and Dugald Stewart, however, see Bower, History of the University, 3: 28–9; Seccombe, “Robertson,” 425.

14 Henderson, “Short Account,” 372; Murdoch, Patrick, “An Account of the Life and Writings of the Author,” in Maclaurin, Colin, An Account of Sir Isaac Newton's Philosophical Discoveries (London, 1748), ixx, vGoogle Scholar.

15 Henderson, “Short Account,” 371–2; Bower, History of the University, 2: 246; Grant, Story of the University, 1: 272. John Boswell, who attended Stewart's class in 1727, reported studying the same works by Gregory (Elements of Catoptrics and Dioptrics) and Keill (Introduction to Natural Philosophy and Introduction to the True Astronomy). Pitman, Joy, “The Journal of John Boswell: Part 1,” Proceedings of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh 20 (1990), 6777, 68–70Google Scholar.

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19 Ernest Campbell Mossner, Bishop Butler and the Age of Reason (1936; repr., Bristol, 1990), esp. 178–97. Both Hume and Kames greatly admired Butler's work—Hume so much that in 1737 he reported “castrating” the Treatise so as to give the Bishop, as little offense as possible.” Hume to Henry Home, 2 Dec. 1737, in Greig, J. Y. T., ed., The Letters of David Hume, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1932), 1: 25Google Scholar. For Butler's influence and interactions with Hume and Kames see Mossner, Butler, esp. 156–65; Mossner, , “The Enigma of Hume,” Mind 45 (1936), 334–49CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Jeffner, Anders, Butler and Hume on Religion, trans. Bradfield, Keith and Stewart, James (Stockholm, 1966)Google Scholar; Penelhum, Terence, Butler (London, 1985), 172–83Google Scholar; Russell, Paul, The Riddle of Hume's Treatise: Skepticism, Naturalism, and Irreligion (Oxford, 2008), 129–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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21 For Robertson's interest in Stoicism see William Robertson (his son), “Notes for Dugald Stewart,” National Library of Scotland, MS 3979, fols. 22–3; Smitten, Jeffrey, introduction to William Robertson, Miscellaneous Works and Commentaries, ed. Smitten, vol. 12 of The Works of William Robertson, ed. Sher, Richard B. (London, 1996), ixlv, xiii–xviiGoogle Scholar.

22 Robertson to Smith, 14 June 1759, in Mossner, E. C. and Ross, I. S., eds., The Correspondence of Adam Smith, vol. 6 of The Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith (Oxford, 1976), 40Google Scholar, see 40 n. 1; Ross, , The Life of Adam Smith, 2nd edn (Oxford, 2010), 95–6Google Scholar.

23 “The Rev. Mr. William Robertson, Minister at Gladsmuir” appears on the list of subscribers prefixed to the work.

24 Eighteen shillings was the advertised non-subscription price for a bound copy of the quarto edition Robertson purchased. See e.g. the Whitehall Evening Post. Or, London Intelligencer 594 (28–30 Nov. 1749). For biographical details see Smitten, “Robertson, William.” On subscription publishing in the Scottish Enlightenment see Sher, Richard B., The Enlightenment and the Book: Scottish Authors and Their Publishers in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Ireland, and America (Chicago, 2006), 224–35Google Scholar.

25 Maclaurin, Account, 3; Murdoch, “Life and Writings,” xx.

26 Maclaurin, Account, 4.

27 Wilson, David B., Seeking Nature's Logic: Natural Philosophy in the Scottish Enlightenment (University Park, PA, 2009), 65, 67Google Scholar. Maclaurin seems to have been referring specifically to Hume with the remark that “some have pursued this [skeptical] way of reasoning, till they have admitted nothing but their own perceptions.” Maclaurin, Account, 95; Davie, George, The Scotch Metaphysics: A Century of Enlightenment in Scotland (London, 2001), 19CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Gabbey, Alan, “Newton, Active Powers, and the Mechanical Philosophy,” in Cohen, I. Bernard and Smith, George E., eds., The Cambridge Companion to Newton (Cambridge, 2002), 32957, 333–5CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Russell, Riddle, 37.

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29 In the second edition of his Opticks, Newton wrote that “if natural philosophy in all its parts, by pursuing this method, shall at length be perfected, the bounds of moral philosophy will be also enlarged.” Newton, Isaac, Opticks, 2nd edn (London, 1718), 381Google Scholar.

30 Russell, Riddle, esp. 15–19, 31–4.

31 Russell, Paul, “Wishart, Baxter and Hume's Letter from a Gentleman,” Hume Studies 23 (1997), 245–76Google Scholar.

32 [Hume, David,] A Letter from a Gentleman to His Friend at Edinburgh (Edinburgh, 1745), 12Google Scholar.

33 Ibid., 19–27. Politics also played a role in the failure of Hume's application. Emerson, Roger L., “The ‘Affair’ at Edinburgh and the ‘Project’ at Glasgow: The Politics of Hume's Attempts to Become a Professor,” in Stewart, M. A. and Wright, John P., eds., Hume and Hume's Connexions (Edinburgh, 1994), 122Google Scholar; Stewart, M. A., The Kirk and the Infidel (Lancaster, 1995)Google Scholar.

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36 Anderson, George, An Estimate of the Profit and Loss of Religion (Edinburgh, 1753), 56Google Scholar.

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39 [Hume, David,] A Treatise of Human Nature, 3 vols. (London, 1739–40), 1: 279–82Google Scholar; Hume, Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding (London, 1748), 118–19 n. †; Ross, Kames, 60–7, 103–6, 109.

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43 John Stewart, “Some Remarks on the Laws of Motion, and the Inertia of Matter,” in Essays and Observations, 70–140, 126, 133.

44 Hume to Stewart, Feb. 1754, in Greig, ed., Letters of David Hume, 1: 187.

45 [Bonar, John,] An Analysis of the Moral and Religious Sentiments Contained in the Writings of Sopho, and David Hume (Edinburgh, 1755), 3Google Scholar.

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48 Witherspoon, John, The Ecclesiastical Characteristics (Glasgow, 1753), 25, 47Google Scholar, see 27; 2nd edn (Glasgow, 1754), 27.

49 [Smollett, Tobias,] review of Daniel MacQueen, Letters on Mr. Hume's History of Great Britain (Edinburgh, 1756)Google Scholar, Critical Review 1 (Apr., 1756), 248–53, 248. This would become volume five of Hume's six-volume History of England (1754–62).

50 [Bonar,] Analysis, 2; Nicholas Phillipson, Hume (New York, 1989), 15–16, 40–42.

51 [James Mackintosh,] preface to [Mackintosh, ed.,] The Edinburgh Review for the Year 1755 (London, 1818), v–xvi, xiv; Mackenzie, Henry, An Account of the Life and Writings of John Home (Edinburgh, 1822), 25Google Scholar.

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55 See esp. Harris, James, Of Liberty and Necessity: The Free Will Debate in Eighteenth-Century British Philosophy (Oxford, 2005), 64103CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

56 Bower, History of the University, 3: 71.

57 Robertson, William, The Situation of the World at the Time of Christ's Appearance, and its Connexion with the Success of his Religion, Considered (Edinburgh, 1755), 6, 14Google Scholar.

58 Smitten, introduction, xxii; see Mossner, Hume, 340; Smitten, “Shaping of Moderation,” 282–3; Kontler, László, “Time and Progress—Time as Progress: An Enlightened Sermon by William Robertson,” in Miller, Tyrus, ed., Given World and Time: Temporalities in Context (Budapest, 2008), 195219Google Scholar.

59 [Jardine, John,] review of Robertson, Situation, Edinburgh Review 1 (1755)Google Scholar, in [Mackintosh, ed.,] Edinburgh Review, 37.

60 Robertson, Situation, 7.

61 As one account has it, “Edinburgh was alive with the contest” over the fates of Hume and Kames; for “it is not difficult to imagine the interest which the inhabitants of a dull provincial city would take in a dispute in which her most eminent men were engaged.” Eugene Lawrence, The Lives of the British Historians, 2 vols. (New York, 1855), 2: 100. For a particularly outspoken attack on Hume and Kames as “free-thinkers,” “infidels,” and even “our modern infidels”—published the following year, but indicative of their long-standing reputations—see [Walker, Thomas,] Infidelity a Proper Object of Censure (Glasgow, 1756), 6Google Scholar and passim.

62 The arguments were, first, that the belatedness of Christ's appearance cast doubt on the truth of his message; and, second, that the good deeds of ancient heathens revealed virtue to have a secular foundation. Robertson, Situation, 6–7, 17.

63 Ibid., 4.

64 Ibid., 13, 18, 19, 22, 30, 43; Robertson, The History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V, 3 vols. (London, 1769), esp. 2: 78–9.

65 See Kubrin, David, “Newton and the Cyclical Cosmos: Providence and the Mechanical Philosophy,” Journal of the History of Ideas 28 (1967), 325–46CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Cohen, I. Bernard, “Isaac Newton's Principia, the Scriptures, and the Divine Providence,” in Morgenbesser, Sidneyet al., eds., Philosophy, Science and Method: Essays In Honor of Ernest Nagel (New York, 1969), 523–48Google Scholar; Hoskin, M. A., “Newton, Providence, and the Universe of Stars,” Journal for the History of Astronomy 8 (1977), 77101CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Force, James E., “Providence and Newton's Pantokrator: Natural Law, Miracles, and Newtonian Science,” in Force, James E. and Hutton, Sarah, eds., Newton and Newtonianism (Dordrecht, 2004), 6592CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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67 Maclaurin, Account, 85, see 387, 390.

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69 Butler, Joseph, The Analogy of Religion (London, 1736), 128, 171–2, 189Google Scholar.

70 Robertson, Situation, 7. In The Principles of Moral and Christian Philosophy, George Turnbull set out “to account for MORAL, as the great Newton has taught us to explain NATURAL Appearances, (that is by reducing them to good general laws).” George Cheyne proposed similarly, in An Essay on Regimen, “to draw up and collect . . . general Laws of the Divine Agency in the natural, moral, and intellectual World.” Cheyne, George, An Essay on Regimen (London, 1740), 18Google Scholar; Turnbull, George, The Principles of Moral and Christian Philosophy, 2 vols. (London, 1740), 1: iGoogle Scholar.

71 Hume, Philosophical Essays, 55.

72 [Home, Henry,] Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion (Edinburgh, 1751), 375–6, see 327Google Scholar.

73 Robertson, Charles V, 1: 51.

74 Robertson, Situation, 8, 10, 13, 14–15. For Robertson's Arminian understanding of free will see Smitten, “Shaping of Moderation.”

75 Sher, Church and University, 31–2; Yeager, Jonathan M., Enlightened Evangelicalism: The Life and Thought of John Erskine (Oxford, 2011), 3240CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

76 [Robertson, William,] “Reasons of Dissent” (1752), in [Morren, Nathaniel, ed.,] Annals of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, from the Final Secession in 1739, to the Origin of the Relief in 1752 (Edinburgh, 1838), 231–43, 233Google Scholar.

77 Maclaurin, Account, 390; Harrison, Peter, “Newtonian Science, Miracles, and the Laws of Nature,” Journal of the History of Ideas 56 (1995), 531–53CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

78 Butler, Analogy, 188, 190, see 128–9, 185–93; cf. Penelhum, Butler, 178–81.

79 Robertson, Situation, 3–4.

80 See esp. Kontler, “Time and Progress.”

81 Hume, David, “Of National Characters,” in Essays, Moral and Political, 3rd edn (Edinburgh, 1748), 267–88Google Scholar. Ross, Ian, “Quaffing the ‘Mixture of Wormwood and Aloes’: A Consideration of Lord Kames's Historical Law-Tracts,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 8 (1967), 499518Google Scholar; Sebastiani, Silvia, The Scottish Enlightenment: Race, Gender, and the Limits of Progress, trans. Carden, Jeremy (Houndmills, 2013), esp. 2343, 76–7CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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83 Robertson's earliest extant reference to stadial theory has been located in [William Robertson,] review of Henry Home, Lord Kames, Historical Law-Tracts, 2 vols. (Edinburgh, 1758), Critical Review 7 (1759), 357. For the attribution, see Richard B. Sher in Smitten, introduction, xxv–xxix.

84 O'Brien, Karen, Narratives of Enlightenment: Cosmopolitan History from Voltaire to Gibbon (Cambridge, 1997), 133–4CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

85 Robertson, Situation, 7–8.

87 Cheyne, Essay, 156, 160–62, 171–3, 258; Turnbull, Moral and Christian Philosophy, 1: 35–8, 1: 223–92 passim, 2: 62–4, 2: 274–7, 2: 299–304; Maclaurin, Account, 3, 91; see also Turnbull, A Treatise on Ancient Painting (London, 1740), 39.

88 Butler, Analogy, 133, 192.

89 Benin, Stephen D., The Footprints of God: Divine Accommodation in Jewish and Christian Thought (Albany, NY, 1993), 177Google Scholar; Funkenstein, Amos, Theology and the Scientific Imagination from the Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century (Princeton, 1986), 213–71Google Scholar; Harrison, Peter, The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (Cambridge, 1998), 133–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

90 Robertson played a substantial role in expounding Huttonian geology, revising the unpublished preface (c.1785–7) and probably the “Abstract” (1785) to the Theory of the Earth, as well as laying out its structure and that of John Playfair's Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth (1802). Apart from providing stylistic and organizational help, Robertson was called on to deflect religious criticism, which he tried to do in the revised preface by downplaying conflicts with scripture and adopting what he called a “more Theological” tone. Realizing that it would probably still do more harm than good, Robertson advised Hutton to omit the preface altogether (which he did). But Robertson's subsequent assistance with Playfair's defense and explanation of Hutton in the Illustrations—a project he may have conceived—shows that he had not given up the aim of reconciling scientific and theological accounts. Dean, Dennis R., James Hutton and the History of Geology (Ithaca, NY, 1992), 22–4, 103, 108Google Scholar, 275–6; Smitten, introduction, xlvii–xlix, xlviii.

91 William Robertson, cited in Dean, Hutton, 22–3.

92 William Robertson, “Speech on Roman Catholic Relief” (1779), in Miscellaneous Works, 143–60, 150.

93 Butler, Analogy, 179.

94 Robertson, Situation, 7–8.

95 Crane, R. S., “Anglican Apologetics and the Idea of Progress, 1699–1745” (1934), in Crane, , The Idea of the Humanities and Other Essays Critical and Historical, vol. 1 (Chicago, 1967), 214–87Google Scholar; Mossner, Butler, 136–40; Richard Brinkley, “A Liberal Churchman: Edmund Law (1703–1787),” Enlightenment and Dissent 6 (1987), 3–18; Chadwick, Owen, From Bossuet to Newman, 2nd edn (Cambridge, 1987), 7495CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Spadafora, David, The Idea of Progress in Eighteenth-Century Britain (New Haven, 1990), 85104Google Scholar.

96 Law, Edmund, Considerations on the State of the World with Regard to the Theory of Religion (Cambridge, 1745), 53, 164, 229, 233 nGoogle Scholar.

97 Ibid., 35–6, 87, 126, 164.

98 Ibid., 187; see Crane, “Anglican Apologetics,” 272; Phillipson, Nicholas, “Providence and Progress: An Introduction to the Historical Thought of William Robertson,” in Brown, Stewart J., ed., William Robertson and the Expansion of Empire (Cambridge, 1997), 7073Google Scholar.

99 Gleig, Some Account, xxii–xxiii, xxiv; see similarly Alexander Stewart, “Robertson,” xiii.

100 Law, for his part, cited Robertson's sermon with approval in later editions of the Considerations. Law, Considerations, 5th edn (Cambridge, 1765), 115 n. *; 6th edn (Cambridge, 1774), 118 n. *.

101 See Sebastiani, Silvia, “Conjectural History vs. the Bible: Eighteenth-Century Scottish Historians and the Idea of History in the Encyclopaedia Britannica,” Lumen 21 (2002), 213–31CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

102 Robertson to John Russell, 16 June 1788, cited in Robert Chambers, ed., A Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen, rev. edn, 4 vols. (Glasgow, 1855), 4: 180.

103 [Gleig, George,] “Robertson (Dr William),” in Encyclopaedia Britannica, 3rd edn, vol. 16 (Edinburgh, 1796), 307–10, 308Google Scholar.

104 Hume, David, The History of Great Britain, vol. 1 (Edinburgh, 1754), 25–6Google Scholar; MacQueen, Letters, 133.

105 Robertson, Charles V, 2: 78–9, 2: 120.

106 Robertson, Situation, 43.

107 See Gleig, Some Account, xlviii.

108 For the first claim see Gascoigne, John, “‘The Wisdom of Egyptians’ and the Secularisation of History in the Age of Newton,” in Gaukroger, Stephen, ed., The Uses of Antiquity: The Scientific Revolution and the Classical Tradition (Dordrecht, 1991), 171212, 204–5CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For the second see Clark, J. C. D., “Providence, Predestination and Progress: Did the Enlightenment Fail?”, in Donald, Diana and O’Gorman, Frank, eds., Ordering the World in the Eighteenth Century (Houndmills, 2006), 2762, 51CrossRefGoogle Scholar; see also Allan, David, Virtue, Learning and the Scottish Enlightenment: Ideas of Scholarship in Early Modern History (Edinburgh, 1993), 208–11Google Scholar.

109 Horn, D. B., “Principal William Robertson, D.D., Historian,” University of Edinburgh Journal, 18 (1956), 155–68, 158Google Scholar.

110 Robertson, Situation, 4; Robertson, Charles V, 2: 78. For this claim see esp. Daston, Lorraine and Park, Katharine, Wonders and the Order of Nature (New York, 1998), 329–68, esp. 350–51Google Scholar.

111 Robertson, Charles V, 1: 51, 2: 78; see similarly Robertson, Situation, 3–6.

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