Religious Fanaticism in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner

Scottish novelist James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner opens with a narrative by an unknown editor describing the Colwan family and the feud between the Colwan brothers, Robert, later known as Robert Wringhim, and George. The editor’s narrative is followed by the manuscript told in Robert’s point of view. This manuscript reveals Robert’s emotions and feelings of self-righteousness, and it allows readers to closely follow the events that led to his lost sense of reality. Religious fanaticism through its deep portrait of the Calvinist concept of predestination in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is a prevalent theme as reflected in the justification of sin, Robert’s self-righteousness and mental state of mind, and Gil-Martin’s evil demeanor.

The primary example of the prevalent theme of religious fanaticism through its deep portrait of the Calvinist concept of predestination in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is the justification of sin, especially when Robert kills his own brother George. On his eighteenth birthday, Robert’s father figure and minister, Reverend Robert Wringhim instills in him the belief that he is one of the elect, meaning that he is predestined by the Lord for eternal salvation and grace. The day of his birthday he also meets the character Gil-Martin in the woods, where his spiritual and intellectual capacities impress Robert. Robert’s belief that he is one of the elect, as well as urges from the evil Gil-Martin, leads him to commit the murder of his brother. Karen M. McConnell claims, “Robert Wringhim is blinded to the possibility of a fall from salvation due to the Rev. Wringhim’s assurance of his election, and Gil-Martin’s Antinomian insistence on a separation between mortal (and moral) behavior and spiritual redemption” (24). These two factors contribute to Robert’s spiritual blindness and reinforce his belief that as a member of the elect he is predestined for heaven, excused from his sins, and these factors also serve as justification for the murder. The murder of George Colwan is often viewed as one driven by jealousy and hatred. Robert Wringhim’s father disowned him and cared only for George, his first born son and sole inheritor of Dalcastle. Because of this, Robert bonded with Reverend Wringhim, the man who raised him and cared for him like his own son.

Reverend Wringhim also informed Robert of his elect status when he spoke, “All the powers of darkness shall never be able to pluck you again out of your Redeemer’s hand. And now, my son, be strong and stedfast in the truth. Set your face against sin, and sinful men” (Hogg 79). While jealousy and hatred towards George were driving forces in the murder, religious fanaticism was the primary reason for the murder. With encouragement in the form of divine purpose from Gil-Martin and the assurance from Reverend Wringhim that nothing could shake him from God’s grace, Robert resists every spiritual and moral inclination not to follow through with the murder of his brother. Ultimately his fanaticism prompts him to carry through with the murder because he views the sin as a justified one, he believes he’s doing the Lord and the Earth a good deed, and he believes he is predestined for heaven no matter what. As a member of the elect, Robert sees it his duty to be a tool of the Lord and to clear the Earth of sinners. His belief that the Lord is using him, an idea reinforced often by Gil-Martin, serves as justification for the sins he commits. While he believes his soul is saved, he continues to struggle with the idea of what is morally right and wrong. When Gil-Martin reiterates that by committing murders they are working in the Lord’s favor, it erases Robert’s doubts and his sins are justified. However, this is taking religion to an extreme, a fanatic level, and the minister Mr. Blanchard denotes this in a conversation with Robert regarding his affairs with Gil-Martin. The conversation reads, “He, indeed, pretends great strictness of orthodoxy regarding some of the points of doctrine embraced by the reformed church; but you do not seem to perceive, that both you and he are carrying these points to a dangerous extremity” (90). Here, Mr. Blanchard implies that he is aware of Robert’s state of religious fanaticism by voicing that even though he is devoutly following the doctrine and the ways of the church, he and Gil-Martin are pushing the boundaries of religion.

The theme of religious fanaticism through its deep portrait of the Calvinist concept of predestination is again ubiquitous in this conversation. Robert’s self-righteousness and mental state-of-mind also contribute to the theme of religious fanaticism. His belief that he is one of the elect and that his soul is finally and irredeemably saved is a driving force in his murder spree. When encouraged by the evil Gil-Martin to murder Mr. Blanchard, a moral preacher, it is revealed that Robert actually resists an opportunity for salvation. Although he is nearly convinced to go through with the murder, his mind wrestles with the distinction between moral and spiritual wrongdoings, dwelling on Gil-Martin’s point that the elect would be better off without such a “mildew” and it was their duty to rid the Earth of such wickedness. Revealing this battle and how his spirit was aloof from the idea of the murder, his manuscript reads, “I looked up to Heaven for direction; but there was a dimness came over my eyes that I could not see” (95). Here Robert gazes upwards to Heaven, as if asking the Lord what he should do, yet he resists what may be an opportunity for salvation. Furthering this point, when Robert is waiting to kill Mr. Blanchard, he hears a voice of caution but chooses to ignore it and follow through with the murder. By killing Mr. Blanchard, he pushes away his inclinations of morals yet again, and he believes he becomes what he has always yearned to be, a weapon of the Lord, punishing offenders and sinners. The theme of religious fanaticism is apparent through his own self-righteousness, demonstrated when he kills Mr. Blanchard with no remorse because he holds himself to God-like regards.

Robert’s self-righteousness can best be seen in the way that he views sinners. Robert places both himself and Gil-Martin on a pedestal as the elect and looks down upon everyone else. They do not value human life more than that of an animal, for they take lives and feel no guilt or remorse. When Gil-Martin speaks to Robert of murdering Mr. Blanchard his views on the value of a life of a sinner are revealed. Gil-Martin speaks, “Let us go and cut him off. What is the life of a man more than the life of a lamb? Or any guiltless animal? It is not half so much, especially when we consider the immensity of the mischief this old fellow is working among our fellow creatures?” (94). In this passage, Gil-Martin clearly expresses his view that Mr. Blanchard does not deserve to live because he does not like the way that he preaches or speaks ill of him. He goes on to say that it their duty to kill him. He speaks, “Can there be any doubt that it is the duty of one consecrated to God, to cut off such a mildew?” (94). Religious fanaticism is ever-present in this exchange between Gil-Martin and Robert. As an elect, “one consecrated to God” as Gil-Martin says, Robert finds it his duty to kill Mr. Blanchard and in this act his self-righteousness is revealed, and the theme of religious fanaticism through its deep portrait of the Calvinist concept of predestination is reinforced. In the novel, the anonymous editor first describes Robert, and it reads, “He was an acute boy, an excellent learner, had ardent and ungovernable passions and withal, a sternness of demeanour from which other boys shrunk” (15). Compared to his charismatic, kind brother, Robert is more a stern intellectual. He is good at reasoning, smart, and level-headed.

However, by the push of the evil Gil-Martin, Robert Wringhim begins to lose his sense of reality. His mind, already torn between spiritual and moral rights and wrongs, slips from him. Critic Ian Campbell describes Robert’s deteriorating mental state in the afterword to the novel, and it reads, “Wringhim’s religiose discourse attempts to convince us of the respectability of a narrative which is plainly increasingly composed of paranoia and self-delusion” (180). It is apparent that Robert has plunged deep into his own mind and far away from the real world when he awakes from a night of drinking and six months has passed. He remembers nothing of this time, including the murder of his mother by his own hand. His servant Samuel rushes in to tell of the discoveries of the bodies: “For God’s sake, master, fly and hide yourself, for your mother’s found, an’ as sure as you’re a living soul, the blame is gaun to fa’ on you!” (142). Here, the reader can see that everyone but Robert knows that he committed the murders. This point is reinforced when Robert speaks, “My mother found! And, pray, where has she been all this while?” (142). Again, the reader can see that Robert has no recollection of murdering his mother. However, Samuel allows the reader to see what the rest of the world is seeing in relation to Robert and the murders. He replies, “Been, sir! Been? Why, she has been where ye pat her, it seems, lying buried in the sands o’ the linn. I can tell you, ye will see her frightsome figure, sic as I never wish to see again. An’ the young lady is found too, sir” (142). Through this conversation the reader is allowed into the world that Robert is no longer fully in touch with. His state of religious fanaticism has led him to lose his grip on reality and live in a state of delusion and paranoia. The theme of religious fanaticism through its deep portrait of the Calvinist concept of predestination is again apparent through Robert’s lost sense of reality.

Robert’s apparent state-of-mind is clearly deteriorating throughout the novel. Readers are able to closely follow the events and emotions leading to this deterioration in his manuscript, which is a detailed account of the events in Robert’s point of view. Robert becomes haunted by Gil-Martin, even when not in his presence. This constant state of paranoia is driving him mad. He gives a glimpse into his mind, when he relates, “I could no longer live with my tyrant, who haunted me like my shadow; and besides, it seems there were proofs of murder leading against me from all quarters. Of part of these I deemed myself quite free, but the world deemed otherwise” (141). Here, Robert reveals that Gil-Martin has become a tyrant to him and haunts him in his daily life. The reader can also see that Robert has lost his grip on reality, for he sees himself free of the murders and cannot even recall committing them. The one person who encouraged him the most in his murder spree and the person he was once so fascinated by has now become the person whom he fears and who haunts him. The theme of religious fanaticism is shown here through the way that Robert’s beliefs have driven him mad and placed him into a constant state of paranoia. An ever-present example of the theme of religious fanaticism through its deep portrait of the Calvinist concept of predestination is Gil-Martin’s evil demeanor. When Robert first meets Gil-Martin in the woods he is infatuated with his character and intellect. His manuscript reveals, “I felt a sort of invisible power that drew me towards him, something like the force of enchantment, which I could not resist” (80). This enchantment can easily be inferred as the Devil’s enchantment. Robert is infatuated by the way that Gil-Martin looks exactly like him and becomes even more infatuated when Gil-Martin speaks: “You think I am your brother, or that I am your second self. I am indeed your brother, not according to flesh, but in my belief of the same truths, and my assurance in the same mode of redemption than which, I hold nothing so great or so glorious on earth” (80). Here, Robert believes he has found someone who has the exact beliefs as he does and holds religion in the highest regards. He meets Gil-Martin in one of the most optimal, yet vulnerable times of his life, when he has just been informed of his elect status.

Gil-Martin, as a devil figure, takes this opportunity to influence Robert and lead him to corruption and sin. He serves as Robert’s evil doppelgänger and says he envies his state of election and will be his humble disciple, easily accepting and agreeing with every one of Robert’s religious beliefs to captivate him and gain his trust. Robert reveals another eerie trait of Gil-Martin’s: “I stood in a sort of awe of him, which I could not account for, and several times was seized with an involuntary inclination to escape from his presence, by making a sudden retreat. But he seemed constantly to anticipate my thoughts” (81). In these lines, it appears that Gil-Martin has a sixth sense or perhaps can even read Robert’s mind. These devil-like qualities are the first signs that something is sinister about Gil-Martin and foreshadows that he is going to take advantage of Robert’s faith. Critic Alison M. Jack states, “Wringhim’s theology and biblical (mis)readings are the foundations on which Robert’s ultimately destructive faith are built. Gil-Martin takes the theology of predestination Robert has been taught by the Reverend Wringhim and pushes it to its logical limit” (51). Jack explains that Robert’s faulty foundation of faith can easily be spun and stretched to accommodate Gil-Martin’s evil motives and convince Robert to sin. Ultimately, this character flaw being taken advantage of is what led to Robert’s murder spree, and it demonstrates how the concept of predestination, when pushed to its limits, can lead to detrimental effects. The prevalent theme of religious fanaticism is again shown through this. Gil-Martin embodies several devil-like qualities, but one important quality is that the reader and Robert never witness him praying. For a man who claims to be in good faith and religious, it should be commonplace for him to pray and join in prayer with his close friends. Robert realizes the lack of prayer after months of their friendship, and his manuscript reads “After weeks, and may I say months of intimacy, I observed, somewhat to my amazement, that we had never once prayed together, and more than that, that he had constantly led my attention away from that duty, causing me to neglect it wholly” (88). These lines reveal Gil-Martin’s lack of prayer and also how he distracts Robert from worshipping and praying. To further this point, when Robert first encountered Gil-Martin on the day of his eighteenth birthday, they spent the whole day conversing about their beliefs. The passage states, “I then discovered that the purpose for which I had sought the fields had been neglected, and that I had been diverted from the worship of God, by attending to the quibbles and dogmas of this singular and unaccountable being” (82). Taking Robert away from his worship is an attempt to lead him further from the Lord and from his path as a member of the elect, thus making him more easy to influence. when he is asked what his Christian name is, he denies having one. Gil-Martin speaks, “Very well, you may call me Gil-Martin. It is not my Christian name; but it is the name which may serve your turn” (89). By denying having a Christian name, Gil-Martin could very well be denying being a Christian, and this could foreshadow his intentions and events to come. Gil-Martin’s evil demeanor is an example of the theme of religious fanaticism through its deep portrait of the Calvinist concept of predestination by the way he twists Robert’s concepts of religion to fit his agenda.

Gil-Martin, as a devil figure, is manipulative and cunning. He uses Robert’s status as an elect and the concept of predestination as a weapon against him. He encourages him to sin and constantly reinforces the idea that the sins are justified because they are of the elect and tools of the Lord. By murdering these people, he says that they are ridding the world of sin. Without this push from Gil-Martin and without him placing such an emphasis on Robert’s elect status, Robert would likely not have started his murder spree, and he would have devoted his time to prayer and worship. Gil-Martin’s presence is one that Robert begins to fear, as if he can feel the evil qualities his friend embodies. In his manuscript, Robert recalls, “When I was by myself, I breathed freer, and my step was lighter; but, when he approached, a pang went to my heart, and, in his company, I moved and acted as if under a load that I could hardly endure” (126). These lines reveal the fear and stress Gil-Martin, through his evil demeanor and motives, places on Robert when he is present. The theme of religious fanaticism is again present in the way Gil-Martin manipulates Robert and uses his status against him. The most prominent devil-like quality that Gil-Martin encompasses is his ability to change his appearance. The reader first witnesses this act when Robert meets Gil-Martin for the first time in the woods. Gil-Martin takes on an appearance that is strikingly identical to Robert’s. However, in Robert’s next encounter with Gil-Martin, he looks completely different. Gil-Martin responds to Robert’s confusion of his appearance by stating, “My countenance changes with my studies and sensations. It is a natural peculiarity in me, over which I have not full control. If I contemplate a man’s features seriously, mine own gradually assume the very same appearance and character” (86). No normal man can change his appearance in this manner, and when Gil-Martin uses this ability to commit murder, it can only be viewed as a devilish quality. Critic Ian Duncan claims, “Gil-Martin’s ‘cameleon art’ conflates sympathy with physiognomy, the art of interpreting the forms and expressions of people’s countenances. This physiognomy is flagrantly invasive—a colonization of the other that erases the properties of his interiority, his supposedly inalienable private self” (346). Duncan’s elaboration on Gil-Martin’s ability is justified through the lack of Gil-Martin’s personal life. By changing his appearance, neither Robert nor the reader can have a firm grasp on who Gil-Martin really is. Lacking knowledge of Gil-Martin’s family life, connections, or past, Gil-Martin remains a mystery to everyone. Chameleonizing, Gil-Martin depersonalizes himself and easily symbolizes the devil. Throughout the novel, the reader sees that the townspeople, however, despite the lack of knowledge and background, are still able to peg Gil-Martin’s presence as an evil one. Mr. Blanchard speaks of Gil-Martin to Robert, and it reads, “I never saw any body I disliked so much in my life, Mr. Robert; and if it be true that he is a stranger here, which I doubt, believe me he is come for no good” (90). Even before any murders were committed, Mr. Blanchard, oblivious to Gil-Martin’s plot to kill him, was able to read Gil-Martin’s motives as evil ones. His intuitions prove to be correct when Gil-Martin convinces Robert to assist in killing him. Gil-Martin’s evil demeanor reflects the theme of religious fanaticism through its deep portrait of the Calvinist concept of predestination through its ability to sway Robert’s decisions, and its ability to twist the concept of predestination in order to rationalize Robert’s sins.

The theme of religious fanaticism through its deep portrait of the Calvinist concept of predestination is ubiquitous in James Hogg’s novel as reflected by the justification of sin, Robert’s self-righteousness and mental state-of-mind, and Gil-Martin’s evil demeanor. Hogg’s use of an outside, anonymous editor allows for better understanding of the plot as well as the characters. The manuscript, allowing an alternative point of view from the fanatic’s mind, can be confusing considering Robert has gone mad, but it allows the reader to closely follow the events and emotions that led to his lost sense of reality. The looming presence of the evil Gil-Martin drove Robert mad and led to his murder spree. Without manipulation and encouragement by way of Gil-Martin and without Robert’s use of his elect status as justification for his sins, it is unlikely that Robert would have ever sinned to such extreme. He would have instead devoted his time to the Lord, and he never would have committed suicide. The novel, although confusing at points, serves an excellent purpose of informing readers of the detrimental effects of religious fanaticism by utilizing the Calvinist concept of predestination.