Holy boldness: Caroline Scott’s Family Prayers

The Gothic Revival architect George Gilbert Scott was devastated by the death of his wife Caroline and troubled by guilt that he his flourishing career had left her too much alone. Just as he never designed his own house but let his professional work stand as his legacy, so his monument to her was not to design a lavish grave, but to publish her own creative legacy, a volume of Family Prayers, ‘on which’, Scott writes, ‘she for many years spent much of her leisure time’.

In the model of the pious household, the head, George, would be expected to lead family prayers, but as he was so frequently absent the task would devolve onto his second-in-command, Caroline, who was thereby given free rein to be both leader and liturgist, a role she could never have taken under the gothic arches her husband was building for the Church of England itself.

Caroline’s little services, with titles such as ‘Monday evening’ or ‘Thursday morning’, 430 pages of them, luxuriate in the idiom of the Book of Common Prayer. She included the familiar words of the Lord’s Prayer and Doxology in most of the services to give them an element of participation, with perhaps one response from the set of responses in the Prayer Book offices. When she said ‘O Lord open our lips’, her family would automatically respond ‘And our mouth shall shew forth thy praise’, without need for a prompt. The services typically included a few verses from the bible, one of the collects (short prayers for particular occasions) written by Cranmer for the BCP, and often a few verses of one of the canticles set for daily offices in the BCP. All these are easily identifiable for the historian who also happens to sing Choral Matins and Evensong.

In addition to this familiar material, the meat of Caroline’s services is other, often longer petitions, all in the musical, antiquated idiom of the BCP (as antiquated to Victorians as to us, but familiar as the language of Religion), but not quoted from it. In his preface her husband wrote, ‘I am not able to tell which parts of them are original; but I know that they were composed, or compiled, with constant reference to all old precedents and authorities to which their writer had access; and, perhaps, more largely than others to those of Bishop Jeremy Taylor’. Here is a sample, the second-last prayer in the book, A Prayer for the Evening:

Almighty Father, who givest the sun for a light by day, and coverest the earth by night with the robe of darkness; vouchsafe we beseech Thee, to receive us this night and ever into Thy favour and protection; defending us from all evils. Save, defend, and keep us evermore; and may our souls be sanctified by Thy Spirit, and glorified by Thy infinite mercy, in the day of the glorious appearing of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. — Amen. p.429.

I have an advantage over Scott, which is that I have at my fingertips a global searchable database of digitised books, which includes the works of Jeremy Taylor. So I decided to paste some samples of Caroline Scott’s prayers into Google, and find out where her words came from.

Sometimes she edits and adapts the Bible and prayer book. Here she cuts a line from the BCP Collect for the thirteenth Sunday after Trinity, refocusing it from human failure to human possibility:

Keep, we beseech thee, O Lord, thy Church with thy perpetual mercy; and, because the frailty of man without thee cannot but fall, keep us ever by thy help from all things hurtful, and lead us to all things profitable to our salvation; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Here, she re-works some advice from James 4.8-10 into a liturgical call to confession, replacing his self-flagellatory language with her own idea of a more measured, constructive repentance:

Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded. Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up. and make confession of your sins unto him, with a hearty sorrow and humble hope — begging for mercy at the throne of grace.

Early in my searching I found a quotation from the kind of source I was expecting, the Anglican writers who in the seventeenth century wrote a great deal of devotional and theological material in the BCP idiom. Caroline quoted from an Exhortation to the Candidates for the degree of Master of Arts in the University of Edinburgh by Robert Leighton (1611-1684) Archbishop of Glasgow. Excited by the prospect that this method would enable me to re-create Caroline’s library, I googled on. Yet every other unfamiliar prayer I looked up returned only one result: Caroline Scott, Family Prayers. I found nothing by Jeremy Taylor. My small sample suggests that many of the Family Prayers are indeed Caroline’s own words.

O merciful Father, who invitest all penitent sinners to come to the fountain of mercy to be pardoned; all the oppressed to be relieved; all the sorrowful to be comforted; admit us, O gracious God, to partake of these Thy loving-kindnesses — that we may not only hear of Thy mercies, but may participate in them; not only see the gate of the Kingdom of Heaven set wide open, but may we enter in. Wedneday Morning, p.29

What was her theology? There is much about sin and repentance, although as the edits above suggest, Caroline rejects the powerlessness suggested by the BCP Calvinism in favour of a theology of participation and possibility:

O enable us, most gracious Father, to work out our own salvation, knowing that Thou wilt work with us, and wilt assist us by Thy grace; for we know that he who heartily endeavours to please God, and searches what His will is, that he may obey it, certainly loves God, and nothing that loves God can perish. — Tuesday Morning, p.25.

I was reminded of the Scottish theologian Thomas Erskine, who rejected the legalistic direction which Evangelical theology was taking in the 1820s in favour of a relational spirituality: salvation meant encountering, imitating, and eventually participating in God. Caroline’s prayer are similarly warm, relational and personal, with little interest in church or society, all about oneself and the universe. There are not many degrees of separation between them: Erskine was closely connected to the Sandfords in Edinburgh, probably a member of Bishop Daniel Sandford’s congregation in the 1810s and 20s, and at his death given his final communion by the Bishop’s grandson, Rev Daniel Fox Sandford, Rector of St John’s. The bishop’s daughter — and rector’s aunt, Frances, had married the bishop’s curate Charles Lane and settled in Wrotham, Kent, where the Scotts spent the summer of 1868. ‘My wife […] greatly enjoyed her stay there, and the more so, as the country around is very beautiful, and as she there made several very agreeable friendships especially with Mr and Mrs Lane at the Rectory’, wrote George (Personal and Professional Recollections ed. Gavin Stamp 1995, p.259 and 465). Frances was a serious theologian herself, as the letters to her father the bishop in answer to her questions demonstrate. Her husband’s theology focused on the Holy Spirit. ‘You know his favourite theme so well’, said the preacher at his funeral sermon. ‘We know how earnestly he himself daily prayed for an outpouring of the same Holy Spirit; and what a special day in his calendar was Whitsun day!’ (J.H. Jaquet, In Memoriam (London 1879) p.12) All these writers seem to share a warm, relational theology distinct from the legalism of evangelicalism, the mysticism of Tractarianism or the erastianism of the ‘Broad Church’.

Caroline’s themes in her prayers combine a sense of the epicness of God’s universe combined with the practicality of the Christian’s daily task. I was struck by her use of the phrase ‘holy boldness’ for one Sunday Morning prayer:

Give us, we beseech Thee, O Jesus, a holy boldness to confess before men, that Thou art the Sovereign whom we will serve. We have received from Thee the bounty of Thy grace. O assist us to be Thy faithful soldiers and servants unto our lives’ end. — Amen.

The phrase ‘holy boldness’ is not, to my knowledge, biblical, but Caroline didn’t make it up. I’m not sure what source she was likely to have found it in, but it is widespread in devotional writing and seems to be a translation of the Hebrew chutzpah.

My very brief sampling of Family Prayers could give me little more than an admiration of Caroline’s command of the religious idiom, her familiarity with her sources, and her confident filleting and reworking of them, with a great deal of her own material, into an original theological text. Digitisation, however, raises the possibilities of studying the theology of women from their unreferenced, private texts like these in ways that would previously impossible: reconstructing reading lists, identifying original passages, and then analysing theology in the light of contemporary ideas of their male counterparts in churches and universities. I should like to see church historians write a great deal more about the chutzpah-theology of women like Frances Lane and Caroline Scott.