The Church of Scotland
In the 18th century the Church of Scotland was, by most measures one of the most forward thinking and enlightened churches in Europe – it placed at its heart the concept of education, welfare for the poor and freedom of expression, untrammeled by prejudice and doctrine. It was a strict church: Calvinism isn’t a fun loving theology, but for a poor nation like Scotland it was an essential part of the system of community and cohesion. Yet for all its plaudits there was an anomaly; and one borne within its own laws and statutes.
If a minster should die while in his office, his stipend and pay would be withheld and carried forth to his successor. Fair enough, but no financial provision was made for his widow; no compensation, no pension: no luck- you’re on your own. This actually had the effect of driving manse widows to the poor-house or an early grave; it was an unacceptable and un-christian settlement. The solution however came not from prayer or charity, but from mathematics, and Scotland’s new found love affair with all things reasoned.
One of the great pillars of the Church following the Reformation of 1560 was education. The leaders of the new Kirk, as it is known in Scotland believed that your route to God and heaven wasn’t through a procession of be-mitred popes and bishops, but by personal covenant and an understanding of the bible itself. So, the bible was translated into English and the Kirk undertook to set up a school in every parish so that everyone regardless of wealth and position could learn to read, and thus read the bible. It was a social revolution. No where else in Europe could a peasant population get such a level of education. What the Church had not bargained on, was that liberated to read, people would read books other than the bible, and write philosophies that contradicted the bible. The genie was out of the bottle and there was no putting it back.
By the 1760s, the financial benefits of the Treaty of Union with England and her overseas colonies were increasingly evident – money from the south was funding innovation, trade and entrepreneurial ambition in Scotland; growing the Scottish economy and personal wealth like never before in our history. This exponential rise in fortune; coupled with improvements in agricultural output and industrial productivity needed reasoning and rules. Parallel to capital gain, and underpinned by Scotland’s universal education system, the money financed an Enlightenment of thought, science and medicine the envy of the world. With thinkers aplenty, new economic philosophy and reason, moored to an understanding of mathematics and the traditional Scottish nature of counting the pennies, blossomed.
David Hume, the greatest philosopher since Aristotle wrote several theses on modern wealth and economics; but it was another Scot, Adam Smith that changed the landscape forever. In 1776 Smith, who was from Kirkcaldy published his famous book – The Wealth of Nations. In it he fathered modern economics, capitalism and the idea of a free market guided by the unseen hand. It was revolutionary, and counts as a seminal work in the history of the world. While Smith used philosophy others applied mathematics to prove the rhetoric right.
Dr Robert Wallace
Dr Robert Wallace was a Church of Scotland minister, and an enthusiastic mathematician. Born in 1697 in what is now Clackmannanshire, Wallace spent much of his early studies and most of his ministry working out mathematical problems – it was his passion. During his time as the minister at Greyfriers Kirk in Edinburgh it was proposed that a scheme be set up to provide for the widows of ministers. Wallace along with another preacher, Alexander Webster took the task of creating a system and selling it to both the Church and Government. Both men were mathematical geniuses and they figured out that premiums paid in by living, married ministers could be calculated to give a certain pay-out in the event of a death, based on various computations of probability. This had never been effectively achieved before, and never attempted by such a large organisation.
In 1743 they devised a system that predicted life expectancy for the ministers and their wives, creating life-tables which gave accurate mortality figures; how many widows would be left; and the amount of interest the fund would receive. From this they could then precisely figure out how much each clergyman must pay into the pot to achieve the desired amount of compensation for the bereaved. This is known as actuary, and is one of the most lucrative forms of insurance employed across the globe. Colin MacIain, professor of Mathematics at Edinburgh University, checked, verified and declared the work sound. His certificate of recommendation is the first ever in the history of actuary work.
Webster gathered the statistics to prove the scheme workable and Wallace sold it to the Kirk and to Parliament. In 1744 The Churches and Universities (Scotland) Widows’ and Orphans’ Fund Act was passed by Parliament. It is better known as the Scottish Ministers’ Widows’ Fund. Today it continues to exist as part of a wider housing and trust fund operated by the Church. It is the world’s first and oldest scheme.
The Scottish Enlightenment brought forward many advances in many fields, both scientific and in literature; and the near forgotten story of Wallace and Webster, the application of mathematics to a human problem and the birth of actuary and mutual assurance played an enormous role in that story. They calculated the fund’s worth 20 years from when it was set up as part of their experiment. They were out by a margin of just One Pound: an incredible feat and a wonderful story.
This article was written by David McNicoll, owner of Highland Experience USA. Highland Experience specialise in tour and vacation packages to Scotland