Note: This blog post is based on my most recent work-in-progress “A Short History of Adam Smith in Love.”
Perhaps the most neglected aspect of Adam Smith’s biography is the pervasive role religion played in Scottish life. More to the point, the most regulated aspect of Scottish life by far in Adam Smith’s time was not the economy; it was people’s sex lives. Every parish in Scotland had its own ecclesiastic or church court. These parish courts or “kirk sessions” (as they were called) had jurisdiction over every parish member’s private and public conduct, including over all matters of sexual morality.
According to extensive historical research by Rosalind Mitchison and Leah Leneman, the great majority of these church cases consisted of sexual matters. (Mitchison & Leneman, 2001, surveys over 8,000 church court records spread across 78 Scottish parishes from the mid-17th to mid-18th Century.) Leneman and Mitchison (1988, p. 483, emphasis added) have also painted a detailed picture of the repressive nature of Adam Smith’s world and of the roving jurisdiction of Church courts over sex: “In the early modern period every parish in Scotland had its own church court (the kirk session) dealing with matters of conduct and morality. Drunkenness, sabbath breaking, slander, riotous behavior–all these came under the aegis of the session. However, partly through a sharper defining line between the roles of lay and of ecclesiastical jurisdictions, by the mid-eighteenth century the great majority of cases were of a sexual nature ….” In addition, Leneman and Mitchison emphasize “[t]he thoroughness with which these cases were pursued.” Specifically:
|“The usual train of events was for an unmarried girl to be reported as ‘with child’ at a meeting of the kirk session and to be cited to appear at the next meeting. At that time she would be asked to name the man who had been guilty with her, and that man would in turn be cited to appear at a forthcoming meeting. Unless a case were in some way unusual, for instance if the man denied fornication with the woman, further enquiry would not normally be made into the circumstances surrounding the act. However, for some unknown reason, certain parishes in the Western Highlands and certain parishes in Fife often went on to ask where, when and how often intercourse had taken place.”|
Even pre-marital sex or “ante-nuptial fornication” was a sin. According to Leneman and Mitchison (1988, p. 484), for example, most of these cases would came to light when a woman gave birth to a child less than nine months after being married. (According to scholars, there was a disconnect between official Church doctrine and informal social norms on the matter of pre-marital sex. For ordinary people, betrothal was a part of marriage, and as such made sexual intercourse permissible. Church elders, however, generally did not approve of such “irregular” marriage. For the Church, a marriage required the public exchange of promises in the presence of the parish minister. See generally Hardy, 1978; see also Gillis, 1985, pp. 52-54.)
We can thus make two Smithian conjectures given this repressive state of affairs in early modern Scotland. One conjecture is that the Adam Smith must have been very careful in his private life. Although the penalties for fornication, adultery, and other such moral offenses consisted of shaming penalties, or “penance on the pillar” to quote Leneman and Mitchison (1988, p. 495), a cautious and careful scholar of Adam Smith’s stature would not have wanted to incur such penalties as they would have derailed his prestigious academic career and lucrative private tutoring opportunities. The other conjecture I wish to make here is far more provocative and tentative. Given that there is evidence that Adam Smith did fall in love multiple times during his life, did Adam Smith not resent these religious restrictions? Were these religious restrictions on his love life perhaps the genesis of Adam Smith’s life-long love and defense of liberty?