David Hume autograph letter signed, to Rev. R Trail

Item author: David Hume (1711-1776)
Item date: 1755
Grant Value: £4,000
Item cost: £41,600
Item date acquired: 2018
Item institution: National Library of Scotland
Town/City: Edinburgh

The unpublished letter, written in 1755, and the only known correspondence with Traill, concerns Hume’s recent reading of a sermon by Traill where he confronts Hume’s disparaging remarks about the Scottish clergy. Hume had previously criticised them in his 1748 essay ‘Of National Characters’ where he remarked that their need to ‘feign more devotion than they are… possessed of’ led them to ‘promote the spirit of superstition, by a continued grimace and hypocrisy’. Traill responded with his published sermon The Qualifications and Decorum of a Teacher of Christianity Considered (1755).

Written in Hume’s engaging manner he warmly praises Traill’s sermon but notes that it would do little to convert him to Christianity. Hume writes that he is also keen to meet Traill should he come to Edinburgh, and that he should meet his friends in the Church of Scotland with whom he also enjoys good relations, commenting that they are ‘a set of very agreeable sensible Clergymen, who sometimes admit me into their Company, notwithstanding the Murmors of Bigots’. This group formed the Moderate Literati of Edinburgh and included such Enlightenment luminaries as William Robertson and Hugh Blair who, in addition to their religious duties, both taught at the University of Edinburgh. Traill, who would himself go on to hold the Chair of Divinity at the University of Glasgow, has drafted his equally friendly reply to Hume at the end of the letter. In his response Trail writes that ‘there are few I believe, who have higher notions of your Talents as a Writer and Penetration as a Philosopher, than I have’.

Written at the time when hardliners in the Church of Scotland had charged Hume with heresy for his works on religion, the letter demonstrates his convivial demeanour and his commitment to the Enlightenment ideals of a free and cordial exchange of ideas.

The letter is an excellent addition to the National Library of Scotland’s Hume collection which is already the largest and most extensive in the world, and which attracts Hume scholars from all over the globe. The purchase of this letter ensures that an important part of Scottish Enlightenment history is preserved for the nation, and that it is publically accessible for those who would like to view and consult it.

Hume's letter
Courtesy of the National Library of Scotland.