5. Religion and the 'Simple Life': Dugald Semple and Translocal ‘Life Reform’ Networks

Translocal Lives and Religion - Connections between Asia and Europe in the Late Modern World - Philippe Bornet

Steven J. Sutcliffe [+-]
University of Edinburgh
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Steven Sutcliffe, University of Edinburgh, is Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion at the University of Edinburgh. He specialises in the study of alternative religion in modernity and in the modern history of the study of religion/s. He is author of Children of the New Age: A History of Spiritual Practices (2003), co-editor (with Ingvild Sælid Gilhus) of New Age Spirituality: Rethinking Religion (2013) and co-editor (with Marion Bowman) of Beyond New Age: Exploring Alternative Spirituality (2000). He also edited Religion: Empirical Studies (2004) and is a co-editor for the Bloomsbury Advances in Religious Studies monograph series. His current research includes the archive of the Scottish conscientious objector and ‘simple life’ practitioner, Dugald Semple (1884-1964), and the social and cultural history of the Gurdjieff-Ouspenskii movement. He is President of the British Association for the Study of Religions between 2015-2018.


This chapter presents a case study of a Scottish exponent of the ‘simple life’, Dugald Semple (1884-1964), within early twentieth century networks of life reform or Lebensreform. Semple lived mostly in the rural hinterland of Glasgow, then the ‘second city’ of the British Empire, although he also worked briefly in London and visited Norway, Switzerland and the US. The son of a tailor and clothier, Semple was apprenticed as an engineering draughtsman before deciding to go ‘back to the land’ to live in a tent and caravan on the local heath. Presenting himself as an advocate of the ‘Simple Life’, and working as a freelance journalist, naturalist and photographer, Semple practiced voluntary simplicity, pacifism, vegetarianism and religious nonconformity. This chapter argues that the underlying thread in Semple’s ‘life reform’ is a non-conformist, anti-clerical religious individualism which incorporated Transcendentalism with a Tolstoyan and Gandhian pacifism. He may therefore be understood as a local example of a wider European Lebensreform movement which is well-known from different German examples, but was also found in Switzerland, the Nordic countries and elsewhere. A case study of Semple’s career in dialogue with his English and continental interlocutors demonstrates the value of empirically based transnational enquiry at the level of individuals and networks for understanding the varied inflections of ‘life reform’, particularly the religious roots of the phenomenon. It also contributes to the historiography of important currents in ‘alternative religion’ which fed the post-world-war-two ‘new age’, ‘eco’ and commune movements.

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Sutcliffe, Steven. 5. Religion and the 'Simple Life': Dugald Semple and Translocal ‘Life Reform’ Networks. Translocal Lives and Religion - Connections between Asia and Europe in the Late Modern World. Equinox eBooks Publishing, United Kingdom. p. Oct 2020. ISBN 9781781795835. https://www.equinoxpub.com/home/view-chapter/?id=31742. Date accessed: 20 Nov 2018 doi: 10.1558/equinox.31742. Oct 2020

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