Whig matriarchs and tory missionaries: episcopalian women in early nineteenth-century Edinburgh

A Paper delivered to the Scottish Church History Society, 3 November 2018

Edinburgh at the beginning of the nineteenth century: the height of the Scottish Enlightenment, the start of the romantic period. Scotland is enjoying peace after years of Jacobite civil war, but the French Revolution has challenged the idea that progress will be plain-sailing. Science and invention are galloping ahead, but the social implications of industrial revolution are beginning to unfold. Having almost literally died out at the end of the previous century, the Scottish Episcopal Church is enjoying an extraordinary transformation and revival. How did women fit in to this world, and how did they help to shape it? I’m going to attempt to paint a group portrait of some of the women of the episcopal church, and catch a sense of how they conceived their own life and mission. 

Historiography 

Gender history in this period has been dominated by the ‘separate spheres’ debate. Davidoff and Hall argued that men and women in the 1830s had a more rigid idea of gender difference than their predecessors in the 1790s, under the influence of evangelical revival.(1) However, this narrative has been challenged by Amanda Vickery and subsequent studies, whose research suggested a continuity of experience of women and men, based on a shared understanding of the roles and relationships of genders, as of ranks, persisting through centuries, with considerable space for choice and self-expression within this framework. The collection of essays edited by Sue Morgan and Jacqueline de Vries, Women, gender and religious cultures in Britain, 1800-1940, is an important contributor to this revisionist narrative in terms of religious cultures. Closest to our subject is Jane Rendall’s study of the progressive daughters of Scottish Whig professors at the turn of the nineteenth century.(2)

Good ladies and the shadow of a shade

At the end of the eighteenth century, an important group sustaining a moribund Scottish episcopalianism were high-ranking, elderly Jacobite ladies. Whereas men faced business and political penalties for being episcopalian right up to 1792, women, largely excluded from business and politics, were under far less pressure to conform. As a young English clergyman newly arrived in Edinburgh, Daniel Sandford was disconcerted by an old lady ‘in the habit of starting from her knees during the most solemn parts of divine service’, because she maintained that ‘prayer for the house of Hanover […] was little short of sacrilege’.(3) It might have been Margaret Hay, aged eleven when her father was Bonnie Prince Charlie’s treasurer, an ‘old lady kind and venerable’, whose funeral in 1814 took Sandford to the old burial ground of nonjuring episcopalians in Restalrig; or Margaret Urquhart, whose father never ceased to give thanks for the special divine favour which preserved him from slaughter at Sheriffmuir and capture at Clova.(4)

For a generation brought up on David Hume’s political economy, this episcopalian belief in a God who appointed rightful kings (demonstrably unsuccessfully) seemed evident nonsense; for a generation exploring John Sinclair’s Statistics, the idea of divine interventionism was testable and disprovable. ‘Grown up people talked at this time of nothing but the French Revolution and its supposed consequences; younger men of good education were immersed in chemistry and political economy’, wrote Henry Cockburn, explaining how religion had been out of fashion in his youth.(5) In 1807 William Forbes, head of arguably the most important family in Scottish episcopalianism, published an edited collection of anti-enlightenment episcopalian writings. It was reviewed by Francis Jeffrey and Walter Scott, who concluded that the work had been ‘dandled into popularity by bishops and good ladies, […] though made up of such stuff, as we really believe no grown man […] could possibly go through without nausea and compassion.’(6) In the face of enlightenment thinking, episcopalian teachings had come to look childish to university-educated men. The result was, as his successor recalled, ‘The late Bishop Sandford told me that when he first came to Edinburgh […] few gentlemen attended church […] Sydney Smith […] seeing how almost exclusively congregations were made up of ladies, took for his text […] “O that men would therefore praise the Lord!” and […] laid the emphasis on the word “men”.’(7) 

Whig matriarchs

I’ll come back to how the episcopal church responded, but first I want to explore the male chauvanist dark side of the Enlightenment at which the quote about ‘good ladies’ hints. 

Several Edinburgh lawyers and businessmen in the whig Edinburgh Review circle had their children baptised in Sandford’s episcopal chapel, which was not only fashionable, but the most convenient place of worship if you lived in Charlotte Square. But, as Henry Cockburn had said, they were not demonstrably religious. Their worldview was classical republicanism: the ‘Athens of the North’. In public life this meant free exchange of ideas, extension of privilege, and meritocracy: the French Revolution without the Terror. What I found striking about this group, highly educated but not the academics studied by Rendall, was that, while they preached equality, they seemed to be modelling a more patriarchal and gendered way of life than their predecessors, successors or opponents. I found it difficult to find out much about the wives of these men, and what I did find did not provide much support for Jane Rendall’s picture of enlightened women engaged in social improvement and activism. It is not a new insight that ‘liberté, egalité, fraternité’ tended to masculinise politics, by replacing the old aristocratic informal networks of influence with meritocratic processes; but what is perhaps more surprising is the gendering of these classical whigs’ domestic life. 

A group of these young whig Charlotte Square families, keeping Daniel Sandford busy in baptisms, met for dinner at one of their new houses in 1809: ‘Fine country butter and country honey and country bread, slaked with […] cups of tea with cream from our own cow‘ as Henry Cockburn reported they boasted proudly.(8) Cockburn ‘set up his rural household gods’, as he put it, two years later, ‘and’, he wrote, ‘unless some avenging angel shall expel me, I shall never leave that paradise.’ He planted trees and wrote odes in the style of Horace on his Pentland Linn. ‘Every thing […] is my own work, and to a great extent the work of my own hands,’ he wrote.(9) This was the generation associated with agricultural improvement and Scotland’s first reforestation movement. Fruitful fields and a fruitful wife, a lavish landscape and homely hospitality, peace, plenty, and the pursuit of happiness in a promised land: this was the classical ideal of the generation which followed David Hume, in his own Edinburgh just as in America. 

The wives of these whig patriarchs had a clear role: raising their children, and spending their money. Domestic happiness made for numerous children. Elizabeth Cockburn had 11 (‘read Malthus every nine months’, Henry wryly and ineffectually schooled himself as he awaited the eighth and wondered how he would provide for them all). Elizabeth’s sister Isabella, who married Henry’s friend Thomas Maitland, had 9. Another who had been at the ‘cream from our own cow’ party, Helen Tod, had 12. 

Another characteristic legacy, literally, was numerous keepsakes described in loving detail in their wills: ‘my Brussels lace scarf’, ‘the bracelet and locket of Malakite’, ‘my Topaz ring set in pearl’, ‘the portrait of a lady by Georgione’, ‘a landscape by Hobbina’, ‘Blue china jars are Jane’s[,] the hexagons I wish Graham to have’, ‘Your father’s the best likeness I ever saw should be Archie’s’, ‘The bust of my beloved Maitland is Stuart’s, also the china table, the Aberdeen stand, the blue Christening jug and bowl’, ‘The small silver tea pot I give to Graham. The short silver candlesticks I would wish to be given to my dear James’ boy, that if spared he may know he had a grandfather who gave them to his grandmother the day he was made a judge.’(10) These objects, testament to the material success of the whig men, were chiefly important to the women for their associations. As Helen Tod wrote, ‘I think my children will kindly value them as remembrances from me and associated with their early, or home recollections.’(11)

This generation of whigs, buying acres, building houses, filling them with china and paintings, commissioning portraits and sculptures, and dressing in Brussels lace and jewels, were undoubtedly materialistic, but their wealth had a very particular meaning and purpose. It was not for show: in public life they dressed unostentatiously and had a relatively small Edinburgh establishment, and all this luxury was kept hidden in the country. Nor was it for power, which they were ideologically committed to being earned through wit and merit. Rather, it was for its associations: it was the stuff of happiness. One of the Edinburgh Whigs, Archibald Alison, was an episcopal clergyman, slightly older than Daniel Sandford. His essays on ‘Associationism’ made his name as Britain’s leading philosopher of aesthetics. His lesson, which he recognised had the good classical genealogy of Platonism, was that ‘Matter is not beautiful in itself, but derives Beauty from the Expression of MIND.’(12) ‘it was impossible to hear Alison preach without being moved and delighted’, said Henry Cockburn. Alison ‘made me truly see what was before me’.(13) Each of the many objects cherished by these whig families was imbued with happy memories: of a loving relationship, of a happy holiday, of a public success, or a private commitment. 

Tory missionaries

I’ve said lot elsewhere about Daniel Sandford’s work to reinvent that moribund Scottish episcopalianism for this modern society which seemed to be rejecting Christianity in favour of Horace and Plato. This reinvention combined three elements. First, an evangelical emphasis on the equal call of every person to an active mission, in contrast to the old episcopalian hierarchical, mystical providentialism. Second, a sacramentalist reassurance of regeneration through baptism, in opposition to presbyterian Calvinist predestination. Both of these aligned his denomination with the enlightenment mood of optimism, progress and personal fulfilment and choice. Third, a development of the episcopalian traditions of fast, festival, liturgy and sanctuary: structuring the church year, the church service, the church building with poetic, choreographic, musical and architectural elements which reinfused Scotland’s plain, cerebral religious landscape with the art and heart of the romantic movement. 

What my previous papers have not emphasised enough, is how much I think Sandford was the conduit for women’s ideas. His father died in his infancy, and he was brought up by his mother and by her support network who were the original Bluestocking circle. These remarkable women, some of whom lived to great ages, oversaw his upbringing and remained his friends throughout his life. Whereas from the outside, the Bluestockings were regarded with suspicion — too aristocratic, trying too hard to make a point, pretentious, inelegant — Sandford, on the inside, seems simply to have absorbed their worldview. And the lessons I think Sandford learned from the Bluestockings were that women’s minds were just as powerful as men’s; that there was no conflict between religion, enlightenment and art, and that party conflicts were artificial and damaging dualities obscuring unified divine truth. This case deserves a fuller argument, but today I want to move on from the women who influenced Sandford, to the women that he influenced in turn, who went on to amplify his message through considerable influence of their own.

The women of the next generation of Scottish episcopalians, brought up in Sandford’s congregation, left very different wills to those of their whig sisters. Jane Duff, the wife of one of Sandford’s closest supporters, made her will ’trusting in the mercies of my Blessed Redeemer that when I am drawing near to my great change I will be supported by him & that my mind may be free from worldly anxiety’.(14) The wealthy Falconar sisters left legacies to a hundred Edinburgh charities, and a thousand pounds to its two episcopal churches; while Barbara and Mary Walker left their wealth to found Edinburgh Cathedral. Whereas the whig women’s wills look backwards and inwards, to little treasures which recall loved ones and happy times in the past, the tory episcopalian wills look forward: towards heaven for themselves and to the social good that their wealth can do after their death.

It was not just so in wills. When Sandford’s daughter Francis married his curate and they moved to London to become urban missionaries, she was no stay-at-home wife or consigned to the more domestic side of the project: she sought her father’s advice on how best to argue with parishioners who had been reading Tom Paine, while her husband ‘attend[ed] the sick poor, and hear[d] their little story, and relieve[d] their wants.’(15)

Anne and Alice Mackenzie, daughters of a close friend of Sandford, became assistants to their brother when he was made Bishop of Central Africa. Anne, who went on to edit a missionary periodical, looked backwards not to recall fond associations, but to criticise: ‘she doubted whether there was much real religion’ in her family as children, their ostensibly fervent episcopalianism ‘consisting in thinking ourselves superior to our Presbyterian neighbours’.(17)

The aristocratic women whom I discussed in my last paper to this society, who competitively founded tractarian churches south of Edinburgh in the 1840s, seem similarly motivated by a desire to exercise their wealth in shaping the world. 

Catherine Sinclair, daughter of that John Sinclair the statistician, grew up in Sandford’s Sunday School. She became an author of children’s stories filled with lively, mischievous, curious, active, self-critical and high-principled girls and boys who are finding their way to becoming forces for good in the world. 

Margaret Douglas Clephane and Spencer Compton were married by Bishop Sandford in 1815. Both were poets, giving us a glimpse into their thought-worlds. Compton’s poems, for all their romantic imagery of wild Highlands, remained in the arcadian, assocationist tradition. Margaret was more original. Her paraphrase of the opening of the book of Ezekiel might have been inspired by Sandford’s lesson to young people that that the Psalms were ‘inspired compositions of the greatest sublimity and piety’(17)

I saw—and lo! a whirlwind from the North
Came rolling on—cloud above cloud, and fire,
Now flashing dim and lurid through the dark,
Now brightly issuing to enwrap the storm
In one vast blaze!
And high
O’er all—bright as the firmament—invisible
From overpowering brightness—sat the Likeness
Man was created from.(18)

I never like the word feminist, especially when it is anacronistic, but it is difficult to think of another word for Margaret’s major narrative poem Irene, which explores the impact of ‘man’s inconstancy’ on women. 

These ‘tory episcopalian’ women were not content to seek fulfilment in domestic happiness and prosperity. Whereas their episcopalian mothers and grandmothers had longed for the return of the divinely-appointed Bonnie Prince, these women internalised, developed and modelled their own divine, regal mission. 

Conclusion

I argue in line with Morgan and de Vreis, that Davidoff and Hall were right that evangelicalism was transformative for women between 1790 and 1830, but not by putting them in a restricted sphere; rather by making them determined to break out of it. Jane Rendall and I have painted very different pictures of women in early nineteenth-century Edinburgh, based on very small samples. And both our papers focus on the higher ranks: most of the women I encountered in my study of Sandford’s congregation are merely glimpsed struggling to survive life, not musing on its meaning. There is a lot more work to be done to understand their world. 

It is difficult for me to be objective about this history, because I’m a direct product of the world I’ve been describing. I grew up in Daniel Sandford’s church, my father taught at the boys’ school Henry Cockburn founded to teach Greek and Latin, and my own school, St Georges, was founded in 1888 by women who were members of the Edinburgh episcopal church which Sandford revived: Sarah Mair, Charlotte Carmichael, Anne Dundas. The gamble that I have described these early nineteenth-century women facing — between risking imprisonment or happiness in rational materialism; and risking madness or holiness in a restless, heroic mission — precisely reflects the gamble in which I find I frame my own life. How far they have shaped me, or how far I have reshaped them, will be something for the next generation of Edinburgh historians to debate. 

REFERENCES

1.  Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and women of the English Middle Class 1780-1850 (revised edition) (Routledge, London, 2002) p.75.

2.  Jane Rendall, ‘“Women that would plague me with rational conversation”: aspiring women and Scottish Whigs, c.1790-1830’ in Sarah Knott and Barbara Taylor (eds), Women, gender, and Enlightenment (Palgrave MacMillan 2005) PP.326-347.

3. John Sandford, Remains of the late Right Reverend Daniel Sandford, vol. 1, (Edinburgh: Waugh and Innes, 1830) p. 45. 

4. Margaret Hay’s Will, National Archives of Scotland SC70/1/11/583; Francis Grant, Register of burials in the Churchyard of Restalrig 1728-1854 (Scottish Record Society, Edinburgh 1908); James Grant, Old and New Edinburgh (London, Cassell, 1880s) vol.5 p.13; H. Gordon Slade, ‘Craigston Castle, Aberdeenshire’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 108 (1976), 262–300. 

5. Henry Cockburn, Memorials of his time (T.N.Foulis, Edinburgh and London 1909) p.40-41.

6. [Walter Scott and Francis Jeffrey] `An Account of the Life and Writings of James Beattie, by Sir W. Forbes of Pitsligo’, Edinburgh Review, April 1807 vol.10 pp.171-199.

7. Edward Bannerman Ramsay, Reminiscences of Scottish Life and Character (Edinburgh: T.N. Foulis, 1857) p. 57. 

8. Alan Bell, Lord Cockburn: Selected Letters (Edinburgh: John Donald, 2005) p. 28 (Cockburn’s italics). 

9. Henry Cockburn, Memorials, p.242.

10. National Records of Scotland wills: Jane Anderson, SC70/4/107/437; Elizabeth MacDowell; Isabella MacDowell.

11. Helen Duff’s will, National Records of Scotland, SC70/1/164/755.

12. Archibald Alison, Essays on Taste, p.410-11.

13. Cockburn Memorials p.290; Karl Miller, Cockburn’s Millenium (London: Duckworth, 1975) p.162. .

14. Jane’s Inventory National Records of Scotland SC70/1/58/701.

15. Sandford, Remains p.364.

16. Frances Awdrey, An Elder Sister. A short sketch of Anne MacKenzie and her Brother the Missionary Bishop (London, Bemrose and Sons, 1878).

17. Sandford, Sermons for young persons, p.264. 

18. Spencer Compton, Lord Northhampton, The Tribute: a collection of miscellaneous unpublished poems by various authors (London, John Murray, 1837) p.54-57.