Sum of Saving Knowledge; Authors and History

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The Sum of Saving Knowledge.

According to the Scottish Historian Robert Wodrow, the Sum was written by David Dickson and James Durham, and their amanuensis was Patrick Simson, George Gillespie’s cousin. “It’s said by some that Mr Dickson and Mr Durham went sometimes to the Craigs, about the High Kirk of Glasgou, and made that litle piece we have called The Summ of Saving Knouledge.”1 “Mr David Dickson. He and Mr James Durham dreu up The Summ of Saving Knouledge, in some afternoons when they went out to the Craigs of Glasgou to take the air, because they thought the Catechisme too large and dark; (and, if I be not forgot my informer, Mr P. S. [Patrick Simson,] was their amanuensis,) and the application was the substance of some sermons Mr Dickson preached at Inneraray, written out at the desire of my Lady Argyle”.2 Seventeen years later, Wodrow also wrote in a life affixed to an edition of Dickson’s Truth’s Victory over Error: “Great was the friendship and familiarity between these two eminent lights of this church there; and among other effects of their familiar conversation, which still [i.e. always] turned upon profitable subjects and designs, we have the sum of saving knowledge, which hath been so often printed with our Confession of Faith and Catechisms. This, after several conversations, and thinking upon the subject and manner of handling it, so as it might be most useful to vulgar capacities, was by Messrs. Dickson and Durham dictated to a reverend minister, who informed me, about the year 1650. It was the deed of these two great men, and though never judicially approven by this church, deserves to be much more read than I fear it is.”3

The Sum of Saving Knowledge is not an official Scottish standard, and never received official sanction (Leslie Stephen, ed., Dictionary of National Biography [1888] 15.42). It was first included with the Confession of Faith and Catechisms by the printer Lithgow in 1650. According to Warfield, some Lithgow editions have in place of the Sum, the Directions for Family Worship and the Solemn League and Covenant.4 The expansion of the documents traditionally included in the Scottish standards rests according to B. B. Warfield in his article on the “Printing of the Westminster Confession,” in the effort of printers to “supply as comprehensive a collection as possible” fueled by the dual desires for a volume that would function as an ecclesiastical manual, as well as a “richly furnished popular book of religion.5 “Our Scotch forefathers turned for spiritual nourishment especially to ‘the Sum of Saving Knowledge and the Practical Use Thereof,’ which had come to be a stated portion of the current editions of the Confession of Faith, just because that volume circulated at first chiefly as a devotional book and a directory for practical religion.”6

The mistake made by many till the early 18<sup>th</sup> century, that the Sum was a production of the Westminster Assembly, is due to a punctuation mistake which occurs in the first printing by Lithgow, that caused the impression the Sum was one of their productions. David Hay Fleming traces this history out in an article on the Sum in the Princeton Review.7

This error led covenanters particularly to object to its omission in Dunlop’s edition of the Scottish Standards. Dunlop promised to include it in a proposed third volume if it could be shown the Sum was an official standard of the church (the third volume never materialized due to Dunlop’s death). When the covenanters produced their rival collection to Dunlop’s, they concede its private nature but nevertheless retained it due to its long time inclusion:

“But then, they have not troubled the Reader with any private Composures, except the Sum of Saving Knowledge and the Practical Use thereof, if it deserve no better Character than that of a private Composure, which for more than Seventy Years has constantly been published with our Westminster Confession and Catechisms. It was never yet condemned, in any Head or Article thereof, by any Church-judicatory; but, on the contrary, has met with such Approbation in the Hearts and Consciences of the Lord’s People, and been so universally received, as if it had been a publick Standard, that now it may pass for such by common Consent; it being A brief Sum of Christian Doctrine, contained in Holy Scripture, and held forth in the Confession of Faith and Catechisms; and will be quarrel’d by none, who hold the Mystery of Faith in a pure Conscience, and go aside neither to the right nor left-hand Extremes. And there being nothing of that Kind in the Collection, it is hoped the Inserting it will not be disapprov’d of, though’ want of room has occasion’d the leaving out Calvin’s, and the Palatine Catechisms.8

Some other background is provided by Andrew Edgar: “The week day catechising that at one period formed so important a part of pastoral work in the Church of Scotland, were not restricted to children. What the object of these catechisings was may be inferred from the tenor of an act of Assembly passed in 1639, which ordained that every minister, besides his pains on the Lord’s day, should have weekly catechising of some part of the parish, and not altogether put off the examination of the people till a little before the communion. Ten years later this act was renewed, and a clause added to it directing “every minister so to order his catechetic questions as thereby the people who do not convene all at one time but by turns unto that exercise, may at every diet have the chief heads of saving knowledge in a short view presented unto them.9 At this point Edgar drops a footnote drawing a connection from the words saving knowledge to the Sum, stating that it was a mystery how it became part of the standards. He then cites Wodrow’s preface to the 1726 edition of Dickson’s Truth’s Victory over Error.

Some speculation may be in order at this point to conclude. It may be that the design of Dickson and Durham was sparked by the 1649 order noted by Edgar. In addition, Dickson was transferred to Edinburgh in 1650, and Lithgow was an Edinburgh printer. It makes sense that Dickson brought the piece with him and he or others who saw it and appreciated it, brought it to Lithgow’s attention with the design that it would be useful to include with the standards. This may have occurred during the printing process, and may explain why some Lithgow editions include the
Sum, and others not it, but the Solemn League and Covenant and the Directory for Family Worship. Or it is possible these were paired with the already printed Confession and Catechisms once they were printed.10 From that point over time the mis-punctuation led to the belief it was a production of the Westminster Assembly, and by the time even the strict covenanters conceded this, it was too endeared to the popular mind to drop from their Collection of official standards. From there Lumisden and Robertson included it in their pattern setting 1728 edition of what has become the traditional compliment of Scottish standards.11


1. Robert Wodrow, Analecta: or Materials for a History of Remarkable Providences; mostly relating to Scotch Ministers and Christians (Printed for the Maitland Club, M.DCCC.XLII) 3.9-10.

2. Analecta, 1.166.

3. Cited from Hay Fleming who cites a 1749 reprinting. The original preface is signed “Eastwood, January 5, 1726. R.W.” David Hay Fleming, “The Sum of Saving Knowledge” The Presbyterian and Reformed Review Vol. 10 No. 38 (1899) 318–324.

4. B. B. Warfield, “Notes Toward A Bibliography of the Westminster Confession: I. Britain,” The Presbyterian and Reformed Review, xii (1901) 626.

5. B. B. Warfield, “The Printing of the Westminster Confession,” The Westminster Assembly and Its Work (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1981) Works, 6.344. See also Coldwell, “
The Development of the Traditional Form of The Westminster Standards,” The Confessional Presbyterian 1 (2005) 168ff.

6. B. B. Warfield, “Spiritual Culture in the Theological Seminary,” Princeton Theological Review, volume 2, 1904, page 85.

7. David Hay Fleming traces this error out in the fore cited “The Sum of Saving Knowledge”.

8. The Confessions of Faith, etc. (Edinburgh: Lumisden and Robertson, 1725) vi–vii. Hay Fleming cites the text without the stylistic capitalizations. The original put the normal text in italic and the titles in Roman; reversed here for modern convention.

9. Andrew Edgar, Old Church Life in Scotland: Lectures on Kirk-session and Presbytery Records (Paisley and London: Alexander Gardner, 1885) 93.

10. See Hay Fleming who describes the different examples of the Lithgow edition, page 323. Apparently the Shorter Catechism ends on page 258, which is the last page of signature L, and the other documents in each example begin with the first sheet of signature M.

11. See Coldwell, "Traditional Form," and “Examining the Work of S. W. Carruthers: Justifying a Critical Approach to the Text of the Westminster Standards & Correcting the 18th Century Lineage of the Traditional Scottish Text.” The Confessional Presbyterian, 1.43–64.
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