In 1733, an earnest 18-year-old Oxford undergraduate was striving to live a holy life. But something was missing. He had a circle of spiritual friends, and one of them passed him a book entitled The Life of God in the Soul of Man. It was a breakthrough. “I never knew,” he wrote, “what true religion was, till God sent me that excellent treatise by the hands of my never-to-be-forgotten friend” (George Whitefield’s Journals, 46–47).
That undergraduate was George Whitefield, and he would go on within a few years to become the leading preacher of a spiritual awakening that spanned both sides of the Atlantic. The friend who passed on this book to him was Charles Wesley, and he would become the great hymnwriter of that same revival. Indeed, almost all the leaders of the early evangelical movement read this book at some point and testified to its importance.
“This little book was there at the very roots of the evangelical revival.”
Somehow this little book was there at the very roots of the evangelical revival. It was like an underground aquifer that allowed life to appear in the soil above. What was it about this book that made such an impact on George Whitefield and so many others?
Henry Scougal, Protestant Mystic
The book was written by a young Scottish minister named Henry Scougal, who died at only 28 years of age. Published anonymously in 1677, it was originally a tender letter of spiritual direction to a female friend, Lady Gilmour, and it retains the warmth and directness of this personal correspondence. When we read it today, it feels like listening in on spiritual counsel.
Though young, Scougal had absorbed the spirituality of past classics like a sponge. He had read Augustine and many of the church fathers, medieval spiritual writers such as Thomas à Kempis, and more recent devotional authors such as Teresa of Avila and Madame Guyon. But somehow, he assimilated all this material such that when he wrote his own book, it was the core truths that came through. He didn’t need to mention any of these authors by name.
In his hands, the teaching of the mystics was neither particularly monastic nor Catholic. Shorn of its complexity, reduced to its essentials, it was the basic teaching of the apostle Paul for all Christians. His message was simple: we are all meant to experience a “union of the soul with God, a real participation in the Divine nature.” Scougal explains by quoting Paul’s letter to the Colossians: “In the apostle’s phrase, ‘it is Christ formed within us’” (44).
What Is True Religion?
A clue to the importance of this book is that Whitefield says it taught him “true religion.” For all his earnestness and discipline, for all his religious observance and sincerity, he had still not discovered the central reality about being a Christian. As he read this book, he was surprised to find that his religious duties were not regarded by Scougal as the essence of religion. Not at all. Whitefield later recalled the experience:
“Alas!” thought I, “if this be not true religion, what is?” God soon showed me; for in reading a few lines further, that “true religion was union of soul with God, and Christ formed within us,” a ray of Divine light was instantaneously darted in upon my soul, and from that moment, but not until then, did I know that I must be a new creature. (George Whitefield’s Journals, 47)
The breakthrough for Whitefield, as for others, was the discovery that union with Christ was the center of the spiritual life. Everything else flowed from this. John Calvin had said something similar at the beginning of book 3 of the Institutes. The work of Christ as our mediator is useless to us until we are united to Christ by the Spirit.
“The essence of Christianity or ‘true religion’ is to have a new vital principle animating the soul.”
Correct doctrine, correct practice, correct morality — all this is fine and good, but it isn’t the thing itself. The essence of Christianity or “true religion” is to have a new vital principle animating the soul. Christianity is not just an idea. “I know not how the nature of religion can be more fully expressed,” wrote Scougal, “than by calling it a Divine life” (44). It is to find God himself taking up residence and living in me. It is all contained in his title: The Life of God in the Soul of Man.
This then was Scougal’s great theme. After clearing the decks of all the mistaken ideas of religion, he focused his attention on this one imperative. He wanted his reader to experience this. “Here, here it is, my dear friend, that we should fix our most serious and solemn thoughts, ‘that Christ may dwell in our hearts by faith’” (126).
Without this indwelling presence, a person is no more religious “than a puppet can be called a man” (48). But if Christ himself lives in us by the power of the Holy Spirit, then his very life shines like a candle in the soul. “Nay,” says Scougal, “it is a real participation in his nature, it is a beam of the eternal light, a drop of that infinite ocean of goodness; and they who are endued with it, may be said to have ‘God dwelling in their souls,’ and ‘Christ formed within them’” (49).
Just as our bodily life is characterized by sensation, so also our spiritual life is characterized by faith, “a kind of sense, or feeling persuasion of spiritual things.” And it is not just faith in general but “faith in Jesus Christ” (55). As an active vital principle, this divine life goes to work to make us more like Christ in love to God, charity to our neighbor, purity of heart, and humility of mind.
Excellencies of True Religion
A great spiritual classic not only tells you what ought to be, but it also helps you to desire it. Part of the power of Scougal’s book lies here. In the second part, he paints a compelling picture of the beauty of the divine life: it is what we have really been longing for all our lives, if we only knew it — what in fact we were made for.
He understood as well as any psychologist that human beings have an insatiable desire planted deep in our hearts. The soul “hath in it a raging and unextinguishable thirst, an immaterial kind of fire . . . importunate cravings” (112–13). But he redirects us to see that this most basic desire is fundamentally a longing of the creature for the Creator.
“What,” he asks, “is a little skin-deep beauty, or some small degree of goodness to match or satisfy a passion which was made for God?” Or again, “What an infinite pleasure must it needs be, thus as it were to lose ourselves in him . . . swallowed up in the overcoming sense of his goodness” (74, 78).
Infinite pleasure. I remember as a young person wondering whether following God might mean giving up the pleasures one might otherwise enjoy. A turning point came for me in reading Psalm 16, which concludes, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). In Scougal’s words, “Never doth a Soul know what solid Joy and substantial pleasure it is, till . . . it give itself fully unto the Author of its being, and feel itself to become a hallowed and devoted thing” (78).
Far from missing out on anything, living in union with God promises transcendent joys that are greater than we can imagine. All the streams of desire empty into this ocean.
Scougal also offers practical counsel on sustaining life in union with God. All heaven is engaged on our behalf and stands ready to support us. “Why should we think it impossible that true goodness and universal love should ever . . . prevail in our souls?” (96). And there are steps we can take. “We must not lie loitering in the ditch,” he says, “and wait till Omnipotence pulls us thence” (98).
In the first instance, he counsels us that if we desire the divine life in our souls, we can be careful to avoid sin and guard against temptation. We cannot expect to be healed while we are drinking poison. He outlines several practices of self-examination to assist us to a deeper watchfulness over our souls.
He also offers counsel on prayer and contemplation to help us keep our eyes on Christ, and he urges a practice of “consideration.” Just as a spouse might consider the qualities of the beloved, so we might consider God’s perfections. All this serves to increase love. We might also consider with gratitude God’s gifts: “Whatever we find lovely in a friend,” for example, can elevate our affections, for “if there be so much sweetness in a drop, there must be infinitely more in the fountain” (122).
Scougal knows too that in our continued pilgrimage here below, we are often tempted to despair. Yet Christ has sent his Spirit to assist such weak and languishing creatures as we are. He encourages us that where the Spirit has taken hold, where there is the faintest spark of God’s love in the soul, the Spirit will preserve this and “bring it forth into a flame, which many waters shall not quench” (95).
So, when we feel spiritually barren, we may humbly offer up to God a prayer of simple regard. “Here I am, and I present myself to you just as I am. I am here, and I am yours.” Or as Scougal writes, “Let us resign and yield ourselves up unto him a thousand times” (117).
Take Up and Read
Jonathan Edwards began his great treatise on the Religious Affections by saying that there was no question of greater importance to mankind than this: “What is the nature of true religion?” He had read Scougal, and I wonder if he was thinking of this book as he wrote.
Scougal gave what is still one of the best and simplest answers to this question. For any of us still asking today what true religion really is, and how to experience “the life of God in the soul of man,” it is worth turning again to read his little book.