The Failure of Fundamentalism

The state of fundamentalism can be thought of as one in which extreme beliefs tip the scale irreconcilably far from the opposing side, thereby outweighing any opportunity to find balance at the center. It is this idea that Scott explores in Old Mortality through the character of Henry Morton, a man who wavers in his philosophy whilst surrounded by the fundamentalist viewpoints of the rival Episcopals and Covenanters. By exploring the extreme positions of this conflict, Scott suggests that it is only through an open approach that any reconciliation can be found and that polarizing ideologies may yield only negative consequences. I would argue that Scott makes the case, at least via the narrator, that these extreme positions are both equally undesirable regardless of what principle they espouse.



Forced into choosing a political side, Morton’s motivation to support the Covenanters stems from loyalty to his family and his concern for his countrymen. Notably, it does not arise from pride or principle. This is evidenced by his offer of refuge to Balfour out of loyalty to his father, rather than any belief in the campaign, as he explains that he will “neither undertake to subscribe to or refute [Balfour’s] complaints against the government” and that he does not seek to engage in their “cause, or in [their] controversy” (Scott 75). He is not prepared at this stage to either join or rise against them. Although Morton is ultimately pressed to choose a side, he does not take up the cause out of a deep principle or ideology. He does what he has to do given what he thinks is best at the time and is constantly prepared to re-evaluate his position.


Even once Morton is convinced to join Balfour’s ranks, he does not accept the cause without question. He explains to Balfour that he is prepared “to contribute every thing within my limited power to effect the emancipation of my country” (Scott 235), but unequivocally condemns the assassination of the Archbishop (Scott 235). This is in stark contrast to Balfour’s belief that the execution was not only warranted but indeed sanctioned in the name of God. This demonstrates the trouble of fundamentalism – if you believe that there is no greater cause than your own religion, you can excuse any action in its defense. It is to Morton’s credit that he is able to remain composed and rational in his delivery as it likely would have been incredibly intimidating to be under the influence of Balfour and surrounded by men unambiguously convinced of their cause. He retorts Balfour’s claim and explains that just because,

“the Almighty, in his mysterious providence, may bring a bloody man to an end deservedly bloody, does not vindicate those who, without authority of any kind, take upon themselves to be the instruments of execution, and presume to call them the executors of divine vengeance” (Scott 235).

Morton recognizes the danger of fundamentalist belief as it may blind people from seeing beyond their own viewpoint to the detriment of others. Although this behavior may seem indecisive, Morton’s stance seems to be the only way of understanding the arguments of both sides so that a compromise may be reached. This is made clear in the conclusion of the novel as no character belonging to an extreme position prevails and yet Morton survives.

Morton’s balanced philosophy can be traced to his value system which is strongly rooted in relationships as he is motivated to act not because of politics, but out of his concern for others. Morton may be less of a typical hero in this way, but he is also more realistic. He is not the embodiment of an idea or an archetype, but a man whose mind is open to reason and competing ideas – the most likely pathway to common ground.


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2 thoughts on “The Failure of Fundamentalism

  1. I agree with the argument that is presented above. It makes sense that Henry Morton would be a stand in for the middle ground position. It is interesting to think about how Scott may even be using the character as a stand in for his own political beliefs. I think that while some readers may find Morton too indecisive, his position is necessary to create some sense of balance in the novel.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for this, Debora. I agree – it is interesting to consider that Scott may be using the character of Morton to express his own beliefs. He certainly seems to be making the point that any one goes too far, in either direction, is wrong.

      Liked by 1 person

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