By Thomas Ahnert
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Additional resources for The Moral Culture of the Scottish Enlightenment: 1690–1805
The Rankenians are known especially for their close interest in, and admiration for, the moral writings of the third Earl of Shaftesbury. 8 They were also known to have been skeptical about the value of creeds, such as the Westminster Confession, and followed the debates over subscription in Ireland, where it was not made mandatory for students entering the ministry 36 c o n d u c t a n d d o c t r i n e until the 1690s, because the precarious existence of Irish Presbyterian congregations in the late seventeenth century had meant that no clear ecclesiastical structures had formed.
Given the fate of Thomas Aikenhead two decades before that may seem a matter of prudence rather than principle, but an examination of Simson’s own writings strongly suggests that he did not in fact hold particularly deistic views. He did not, for example, believe that “the means of salvation . . 64 Yet, even if Simson steered clear of deistic principles in his theological views, the implications of his theories, according to his opponents, were probably indistinguishable from those of professed deists, thus justifying the accusation of deism.
The Irish nonsubscriber John Abernethy, for example, who was also a friend and associate of the moral philosopher Francis Hutcheson, made this passage the subject of a sermon in which he argued that all theological 38 c o n d u c t a n d d o c t r i n e doctrine, like that enshrined in the Westminster Confession, should be open to inquiry and debate. Our understanding of religious truths in this life was necessarily limited and imperfect, though it progressed over time, from one historical age to the next.