Friday, May 02, 2008

Book Review: Hugh Miller

Michael A. Taylor, Hugh Miller, Stonemason, Geologist, Writer (Edinburgh, National Museums of Scotland, 2007). Paperback, 176 pages. £12.99

Hugh Miller (1802-1865) is a controversial character in Scottish Church history. A devout Calvinist, he nevertheless held to the 'Gap Theory', that there is a gap between Genesis 1.1 and 1.2. He was a champion of the Free Church in the Ten Years' Conflict, but airbrushed out of history by the official historian, Robert Buchanan. He was a godly man, yet took his own life in a tragic incident. He was a pioneer in geology, and a chronicler of folk-tales, a scientist with an interest in the legendary and a love for Christ and the Church. Hugh Miller stood between the old ways and the modern age, a newspaper editor who went about Edinburgh in the grey maund of a stonemason.

And Michael Taylor manages the great feat of portraying the whole man in his book. We have Miller the rebellious youth, Miller the workman, the journalist, the churchman and the scientist, not to mention the family man. Taylor is thoroughly sympathetic and strictly factual. There is no historical speculation here, but the life of a man of God who never forgot his humble origins. We have presented in this book a man who, having wasted his early opportunities in life, saw the error of his ways after conversion and turned all his natural powers to improve himself. But better than that, Miller turned his abilities as a writer to the service of the Church he loved. Yet, after the Disruption of 1843 and the death of Thomas Chalmers, Miller stood against ecclesiastical domination of his paper, a paper that had championed the Free Church cause in the Ten Years' Conflict. As a consequence, he was airbrushed from history by Robert Buchanan, his role being reported only by his friends, and by later historians.

Miller's tragic suicide reminds us that the past was not a golden age. A devout Presbyterian elder, Miller rose early one morning and shot himself through the heart with a pistol that he had carried for protection (he had been a bank messenger at one point in his career, and the job had required him to be armed). What are we to make of this? Had he lost his faith following his geological researches? No, Taylor replies, there is simply no evidence for that, not even in his anguished suicide note. It is more likely that he was suffering some sort of depression, and following a particularly horrific nightmare, he rose and killed himself. Rightly, his friends and minister did not hold his death to have destroyed all the good that he had done, and Hugh Miller had the burial he deserved.

This book is a tour de force of popular historical writing. Sacrificing nothing in the way of scholarship, Taylor nevertheless writes so as not to put off the less scholarly readership that such a book as this needs to survive. In many ways, the book is just the sort of thing that Miller himself, journalist and popular writer that he was, would have approved of.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Free Presbyterisn Publictions have a new title available called "A Heart For Africa" by Dolina MacCuish. It is available from the Free Presbyterian Bookroom. It is a biography of the late Jean Nicholson who seved as a missionary in Zimbabwe. It is an attractively produced hardback and is reasonably priced at £11.50.

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