Alastair Shannon, POW Camp Afion Karahissar, and ‘Morning Knowledge’

Troops being led away by the Turkish Captors at Kut-al-Amara May 1916. from https://norfolkinworldwar1.org/tag/mesopotamia/

The place names of Mosul, Basra, Fallujah, Baghdad, so familiar to us today through the continuing violence of war in Iraq, came to the attention of many British in much earlier wars. The failure of the Mesopotamian (Iraq) Campaign and the five-month siege of Kut-al-Amara and its devastating results in April 1916 however, stunned the British public.

In an attempt to offer positive news to the British public after significant failures in the war effort, the Gallipoli campaign being one, the 6th Indian Battalion under the leadership of General Charles Townshend set out to take Baghdad from the Ottomans. The bloody battle of Ctesiphon laid to rest any of the initial progress made by Townshend. His 10,000 British and Indian troops, 3,000 of them sick and injured, and 3,500 non-combatants were forced to retreat to the fortress garrison of Kut-al-Amara.

The fortress sat in a loop on the Tigris River enabling the Turks to encircle it keeping up continual pressure on the sieged site. Various British relief contingents failed to break through the Turkish ranks causing a further 22,300 deaths, injuries and imprisonments. Besides continuous sniper fire and shelling of those trapped within Kut, ‘the lack of food, medical help, extreme cold temperatures and torrential rain and flyblown living conditions’, resulted in approximately 1,750 further deaths. After 147 days under siege Townshend surrendered to the Turks on 29 April 1916.

Within the group was Molly Whitelaw’s brother, John Alastair Shannon of the Highland Light Regiment. Having been captured in the December 1915, he had been reported missing. The Shannon’s much wished-for news that Alastair, their son and brother, was alive in a POW Camp in Anatolia was confirmed in July 1916.

British officers, on an excursion with their dogs from the prison camp at Afion Karahissar. They are wearing civilian clothing and the mountain that marks the city stands in the background. These POW’s lived in the lower camp at Afion Karahissar. from ‘Pursuit of an Unparalleled Opportunity’.

References in Molly Whitelaw’s papers indicate Alastair was part of the ‘Death March’ that crossed 1900 kms of Syrian Desert where thousands died of ‘dysentery, beri-beri, scurvy, malaria, enteritis’ and exhaustion. Of the 2,500 white British prisoners who set out on the march, only 856 survived. Shannon spent the rest of the war in Anatolia, quite possibly at Afion Karahissar, with at least 100 British Officers. He was repatriated in December 1918.

In my attempts to discover further information about this period of Alastair Shannon’s life the Internet threw up a review of a book he published in 1920: Morning Knowledge: the Story of the New Inquisition. A review noted it, ‘a queer but striking book …it makes silence the feature of the religious history. It is fantastic, very fresh and partly amusing; a little Bergsonian and pragmatist; but for a young man most remarkable.’

My curiosity was aroused. What was Bergsonian thought I wondered, what did Alastair have to say in his treatise and did he in any way influence my subject, Molly Whitelaw? I set out to track down this publication. This wonderful site, ‘Forgotten Books’, came to the rescue and over several months I have attempted to come to grips with Shannon’s arguments, some I identify with but others I find esoteric and somewhat confusing- but then I am no philosopher. The dedication caught my attention. To those held captive by intellect whose hearts have been set at liberty by the thunderbolt of a wounded God. The essence of his thinking is reflected in this dedication.

In the desert space under the ‘great rock of Afion Kara Hissar’, in what appears to be a relatively moderate Anatolian Officers’ Prison Camp, Shannon (he was a 2nd Lieutenant) set about to write a philosophical treatise on life, death, time, space and silence in relation to war, the value of human life and questions of faith. It took one year of his two-and-a half-year imprisonment to complete.

Shannon was studying philosophy when World War I broke out. Professor Henri Bergson, the French Thinker, who became an influential popular force in the first half of the 20th century, described by some as having a cult following, where ‘women flocked to his meetings’, made a considerable impression on Shannon.

Professor Henri Bergson, 1927. Wikimedia

Shannon’s ‘wilderness’ experience opened the opportunity for him to question and test this new philosophy outside the academic environment. For this young man in his early twenties, whose war experiences forced him to find new meaning, Bergson opened possibilities for the re-visioning of self, i.e. a new self-consciousness, leading to a new theory of life. In particular, Shannon desired to test this new thinking alongside his knowledge of the Christian faith in which he was brought up, against these new experiences of war to reconceptualise the meaning of life and to enable a freedom of belief beyond the dogmas that had surrounded him. Bergson’s writings appear to sit comfortably with an evangelical outlook and they held considerable appeal to the American liberal religious wing. His writings provided a framework for theologians, such as Alfred North Whitehead, someone who fascinated me in my younger days. Shannon’s book could well slot into the field of Process Theology.

It’s an intriguing text. Shannon presents his ‘inquisition’ as a dialogue between himself (Peter) and a friend he calls Jack. He introduces into the dialogue a scientist to consider ‘life the subject matter versus sciences dealing with Matter; intuition the method as opposed to intelligence used by science.’ The Padre’s theory of man did not suffice these ‘inquisitors’, as the definition of God was too bound in dogma. A philosopher confronts them as a sceptic, which leads to a discussion on what is and how to reach ‘pure truth’. At this stage of the debate, I identified with Atherton, the philosopher, when he stated, ‘I have often dived deep, but I haven’t ever got such a rick in the back as you are giving me, Peter!” And so for the next 100 or so pages they continued their inquisition as if ‘on the road to Emmaus’; exploring the question of how God or ‘life’ could be spoken of in the midst of the tragedy the world was experiencing. Shannon finally resolved, to his satisfaction, a new meaning of life/God and how change can be approached through the silence of the ‘wounded God’ – ‘a silence born of suffering’… ‘This was the dreaded Silence, the Silence where lies all the suffering of the universe, all the travail of Creation longing for birth, God’s infinite pain’. He concluded, ‘Life is action, is expression. Our inquiry into the Meaning of Life is resolving itself into an Expression of the Art of Living’. But he had only reached the ‘Morning of Knowledge’ further exploration of was necessary for full knowledge of life.

It is a powerful point of ‘arrival’, however. Written as a ‘lament’, with mystical overtones, Shannon (Peter) comes to terms with death, death of friends, death of those he led in battle and the death of his inner person. He reached his lowest point of being, but the desert experience brought him unexpected life.

‘A Song in the Night’. (A few verses below extracted from his lament)

“Comrades that I loved fell at my side, silently
embracing the Unknown; without a sigh, without a
moan, they dropped like stones at my feet.
I passed on, my Beloved, trampling their poor bodies into the
reeking clay, crushing with my boots the faces I had
known so well.’

” The ranks clash together.
The bellows of rage blacken the face of the sun.
The bayonets sink deep, deep.
O God of Heaven, every thrust made is a thrust
into one’s own heart.
There is something broken there.
It will never be healed —
Your ear close. Beloved!
Closer! Let it be whispered to you only:
I have slain my friends.’

” O Love, Love, what misery is this Thou showest
me? Blind my eyes that I see not. Take this memory
from me. I am strong enough to die, but I am not
strong enough to see others die. This pain Thou
imposest upon me is more fearful than any wound.
Hide me, crush me, O Thou Beloved of my soul.
Guide these flying bullets into my heart. They cannot
make it sorer than it is, they will not sear it deeper. . . .’

” Thou did’st not hear my prayer. Thou gavest
no answer to my sorrowful desire.
Instead Thou did’st lead me into the deserts of the East
and give me responsibility over men. . . . ‘
….
” Then of a sudden, O Darling of my heart, my eyes
were opened, and I knew. I saw Thee battling for me
in the moonlight. Thou earnest to me in the form of
a Turkish artillery officer, limping on one foot, sup-
ported by two soldiers.’

” The bayonets were lowered. I was saved; saved
from myself.
My self-love sprang up in a roaring burst of flame.
The moon was dimmed by it.
In a moment of time I had learned the whole lesson of life,
that Thy most wondrous Love, Dear-heart, had striven
through all to set me free from body and spirit, to set
me free!’
….
” The dawn breaks, my Own, my Sweet. The birds
are beginning to chirp under the eaves. The sky is
silver; but the stratus clouds low-lying in the East are
tinged with gold. A new day wakes, the best day that
was ever given to Thee and me. I have told Thee of
my so great love, of my Death and of my Agony and
of my Resurrection.’

 

References: There are numerous accounts, diary entries histories and images of the Siege of Kut and the Iraq Campaign and the eventual capture of Baghdad on the internet for those interested.

‘The Barron Crescent’  in Shot in the Dark,  tells the story of the Siege of Kut

Eastern Nights – and Flights: A Record of Oriental Adventure, by Alan Bott, covers the story of Afion Karahissar POW Camp

Information on Bergson I also retrieved off various sites on the Internet. Encyclopedia.com has a succinct overview of Bergson’s thinking.

Loyal Royalist Follows Visit of Queen Elizabeth II, January 1954.

Image Reproduced courtesy of Upper Hutt City Library

I have just finished reading a series of letters Molly Whitelaw wrote to her family enthusiastically describing her impressions of the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Wellington in January 1954. The letters brought back my ten-year-old memories of standing outside Taita South School, in the Hutt Valley, waving my flag (Union Jack) as she passed by in an open car. Then, opening my Facebook that evening, there was a 35 mm movie of the Queen’s Coronation Royal visit to Dunedin in January 1954, produced by members of the Otago Cine Club. With this serendipitous happening I can’t but help share some of Molly’s impressions of the young Queen as she followed her around Wellington.

On a ‘superlatively beautiful afternoon’, dressed to the nines in her grey-green shantung outfit made my Madame Baraldi of Jacqmars, London, Molly and husband Alan, in his attire and top hat, and son Alastair in ‘suitably-aged double-breasted blue jacket and grey tie’ attended the Royal Garden Party at Government House. Wandering the ‘beautifully cultured lawn’ she delighted in meeting many friends and admiring the colourful dresses and ‘the pretty hats large and small, such as the Queen favours’. The appearance of the royal couple sent ripples through the crowd as they slowly moved around. Molly, disappointed that she had only a back view of the Queen, described her in great detail anyway, down to her ‘softly-tanned creamy skin, her ‘bamboo-cream pure shantung outfit and cap of ostrich feathers’. But, ‘by a marvellous stroke of good fortune,’ the Queen turned towards them, stopping to speak to a uniformed group. With a perfect view, she shared an exuberant description to the family of the Queen’s poise and bearing, graceful half-bows and ‘sweet gravity, which characterises her in most of her portraits and photographs’.

Added to all this excitement was watching son Alastair, recently returned from his compulsory military training, participating in a 100 strong Royal Guard of Honour marching in from the Wellington Cenotaph and later at the opening of Parliament.Molly’s pride evident as she wrote, ‘I must say they marched well; and their bayonets flashed as they presented arms in one shining, simultaneous row of steel’.

Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh on Parliament Building steps. Alexander Turnbull Library, Ref: 1/4-106770-F

Molly the royalist, took every opportunity to view her new Monarch. The Queen, wearing her magnificent Coronation Gown, when standing on the steps of Parliament was ‘a resplendent and beautiful figure’. Through her binoculars at Athletic Park she followed the open car as it travelled among the children, but she noted that the Queen smiled very little. Then, there was the return from the Races, and from Masterton when she wore ‘a most becoming red hat’ and on this occasion Molly noted her ‘smiling gaily’. Making it to Paraparaumu Airport, on their way to Napier, Molly’s last view ‘of the beloved Royal pair was a white plane, flying off into a blue sky, with that precious burden en route to Blenheim’.

Duke of Edinburgh talking to attendees at State Funeral. Alexander Turnbull Library, Date: 31 Dec 1953 From: Crown Studios Ltd. Ref: 1/4-106733-F

Molly and her husband Alan had the occasion to observe the Duke more closely than most New Zealanders. The worst train accident in New Zealand occurred at 10.20pm on Christmas Eve, 1953, when the Wellington to Auckland Express plunged into the flooded Whangaehu River at Tangiwai, in the central North Island. Of the 285 passengers and crew, 151 lost their lives with 21 unidentified at the time. The Duke attended the State Funeral at the Wellington, Karori Cemetery, and laid a wreath where the mass burial took place. Molly was greatly moved by the Duke’s ‘natural and compassionate manner and gentle, sympathetic words’. Alan Whitelaw in his capacity as a local minister had spent a week supporting the families who had lost their loved ones and were unable to return home with the bodies. It was therefore, appropriate for Molly and Alan to attend the Funeral Service. The accident left a shadow over Christmas 1953, for many across New Zealand. ‘Tangiwai’ takes its name from ‘the tears that come from great sorrow’ – ‘Weeping Waters’.

 

 

Book Review: Occupy until I Come: A. T. Pierson and the Evangelization of the World.

Occupy until I Come: A. T. Pierson and the Evangelization of the World.

by Dana L. Robert, Grand Rapids, Mich. : W.B. Eerdmans Pub., c2003. A Library of Religious Biography Series.

 I’m reading a diverse number of biographies at present ranging from literary, historical, through to biography of the arts and group biographies. I am particularly interested in those biographies that tell of faith and how it contributed both to the biographee’s life and to society. As I searched Hewitson Library catalogue for biographies of people of faith for my project, I discovered Dana Robert’s biography of Arthur T. Pierson (1834-1911).

I became aware of Dr. Dana Robert’s research when I first started exploring a topic for a Masters on women in mission way back in the early 1990s. Her numerous journal articles and finally her book American Women in Mission: A Social History of Their Thought and Practice, (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1997) updated a gap that appeared missing in mission literature at the time. Dana Robert has undertaken that task again in her biography of Rev. Arthur T. Pierson by bringing to our attention a hugely significant personality in the world of foreign missions in the last three decades of the nineteenth century.

References to Arthur T. Pierson’s writing are splattered throughout the early NZ Presbyterian Mission records as the Foreign Missions Committee developed strategies for missionary expansion into South China and North India during the first decades of the twentieth century. His many writings on mission were resources used in devotional material and missions’ studies by Bible Classes and Presbyterian Women’s Mission Union for a number of years. So I found it illuminating to follow his complex life and journey of faith.

I was keen to discover how Dana Robert dealt with Pierson’s religious faith and its interconnection with his surrounding society and the culture in which he lived. Often historians, particularly New Zealand historians, have difficulty mapping the role of religion and faith and its response to society and global society.  Did Dana Robert interweave Pierson’s theology and faith and draw out his response to his daily life, within his family and his ministry, within the dramatic cultural changes in American society that occurred during his life? I was not disappointed. Dana Robert takes us on an engaging journey as we follow his Presbyterian Calvinist traditionalism forward to a late nineteenth century American fundamentalist, pietistic and premillennial theology and faith during a somewhat tumultuous period of America’s history.

Pierson’s first experience of religious emotionalism was as a young lad at a Methodist Revival meeting, which led onto his ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit’ during his ministry training at the Union Theological College in New York in 1858. His efforts to reconcile science and the Bible while in his first parish almost caused him to loose his faith as he worked through days of depression. Despite the heavy criticism he received a few years later,  Pierson justified the Civil War as a ‘sacred mission’ on the grounds that the Puritan fathers brought the gospel as a lighthouse to the land. An end to slavery was ‘God’s battle’ and the sacrifice of life was a positive for the evangelisation of America.

His later highly successful ministry in the large elite parish of Fort Street, Detroit, during the 1870s, resulted in a further ‘crisis of faith’. Although he was a dynamic preacher, influenced the post-civil war evangelical identity, reshaped Michigan Presbyterianism, and helped develop its foreign mission programme, his inability to reach the urban poor with his literary style of ministry finally caused his ‘biblical conscience [to] leave him guilt ridden’. After a year of struggling with his ‘spiritual level of consecration’ he made the move towards a highly successful evangelistic ministry. Two parishes further on opportunities opened to bring his missionary zeal to the centre of his and others’ ministries.

Dana Robert skilfully sets the rise of America’s urban problems, the increased immigration and growing poverty as a further motivation for a world mission; only ‘the gospel of Jesus Christ would change hearts and alleviate social problems’, he believed. He set about developing programmes to mobilise and support faith missions across the western world. He is reputed to be the one behind the Student Volunteer Movement’s watchword, ‘the evangelisation of the World in this generation’, led by the well-known John Mott. His writings were prolific during this period. He edited the interdenominational magazine the Missionary Review of the World from 1888 until his death in 1911, and spoke at hundreds of gatherings on both sides of the Atlantic. Dana Robert draws out Pierson’s desire and urgency to maintain unity within Christendom, in particular a transatlantic evangelicalism.Pierson believed the effort of bringing the world to Christ would usher in Christ’s return.

I am intrigued by his continuing relationship with the US Presbyterian Church and its difficulty in accepting his re-baptism in the late 1890s, which, for them, was a step too far. I admire Pierson’s wife, Frances and their seven children. Dana Robert has given them a well-balanced place in Pierson’s over-all story. Without their committed support for his ministry through his quite tumultuous and factious times, living within a limited income during his mission phase, and coping with following him from place to place and back and forth across the Atlantic, would he have achieved what he did?

I thoroughly enjoyed this biography. Dana Robert’s choice of title based on the story of the talents in Luke is excellent, reflecting as it does Pierson’s goal as he strove to keep ‘God’s business productive’.

 

 

Scenes Behind Home Missions in early 1920s New Zealand

My research into early 1920s Home Mission Stations has seen me dipping into the Harvest Field, the Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Union (PWMU) magazine. First published in 1906, its aim to motivate and inform women on how to achieve their missionary goals has resulted in a goldmine of information, often not found elsewhere.

During World War I the PWMU were encouraged to support Home Missionaries alongside their overseas mission activity. A monthly article began to appear in the Harvest Field, which gave a vivid insight into their ministries successes and many trials. Admittedly, the aim of the publicity was to garner the sympathies of the readers, but there is little doubt that the expectations of a back-block ministry quite often bordered on the unreasonable. Although written just under 100 years ago, the Home Missions Director, Rev. George Budd’s reports have a familiar ring to those tales my parents told of the mid-1940s and early 1950s; little, it seems, had altered in 30 years.

Financing a back-block church where a scattered population came together infrequently, from a wide area, had always been difficult. The Committee had to plead, if not bully, larger congregations into giving financial support through special collections, donations and even bequests, and cajole an already pressured PWMU to donate goods and their time. By the 1920s, 117 Home Mission Stations had been established, staffed by 87 men; 85% of the Stations were beyond the bounds of small towns. Budd, early in his term as Director, recognised the role women could take in the Home Mission field and the Committee employed several over the years.

A road Rev John Newlands travelled to worship at Kumara on the West Coast in 1912. PRC P-A22-14-55001

The stipend rate for Home Missionaries was unrealistic, accommodation often-below standard, and transport and access to many of the remote areas not fully developed. Budd’s reports convey his deep concern. He considered inadequate provisions hindered the ability of the Home Missionaries to experience a ministry that would ‘fulfil their call to service’. Transport was a regular topic to report. On his travels he discovered that getting from place to place in these back-block stations was ‘no mean feat’. Budd bemoaned his fate after a long journey inland on one occasion. ‘The springs were in some cases quite forgotten when the trap was built,’ cushions, he continued, had ‘the stuffing omitted … and the missionary is not only expected to ‘walk uprightly’ but to ‘sit uprightly’ with no comfortable back-board for support. One occasion after travelling in an open buggy to attend two Sunday services, over 45kms of muddy road, in steady rain prompted Budd to take action. He placed an appeal through the Harvest Field for warm socks, ‘canvas lined trap’ rugs, and oilskin rain jackets, to be sent to Missionaries. ‘The winter is coming on,’ he wrote, ‘and many a man will be contemplating the dull drudgery of muddy roads, the discouragement of small congregations, and the many trials incident to the season.’

Service conducted around a pool table. Location unknown.
Presbyterian Research Centre

The physical strain of travelling from one preaching place to another on any one Sunday, the infrequency of worship in the more isolated centres, low attendance and the places used for worship also provoked his critique. A school classroom, a poorly built and draughty hall or a back room of a hotel did not come up to Budd’s expectations as ideal places of worship. ‘The pleasant environment of a church, the impressive music of a majestic organ, the rich choral work of a choir – all was missing’. Mind you, this somewhat embellished vision of a place of worship did not fit many worship centres, other than a few in large towns and cities. Budd may well have been missing his home parish of Devonport, as he was away on Home Mission duties for weeks at a time.

The ‘manse’ in the back-blocks were often humble dwellings in comparison to a fully sanctioned parish where simple guidelines applied. Single men described the one or two room shacks as barely suitable, and family accommodation was generally inadequate. There was a lack of modern-day conveniences of the time. Molly Shannon tells of their weekly bathing in the stream below the manse. Laundry facilities in a number of ‘manses’ were outside under a small lean-too proving to be very inconvenient for the women who undertook the heavy task of using a copper and mangle. One wife described the kitchen range as puffing out more smoke than heat and badly designed kitchens resulted ‘in walking miles’ in a day just to prepare food, stated another. Electric light and the telephone had reached few of the remote areas by 1920 and where it had the manse generally was the last to be wired up. The burden of these many discomforts fell heavily on the women and children.

Coupled with the many inadequacies of housing was the low stipend payment. ‘It has often been a struggle with poverty’, stated one Home Missionary. He added that without ‘the charity and generosity of our PWMUs’, many Home Missionaries would not have managed thus far. Another noted he had been in the service for 17 years on a stipend of $200 to $220pa. Yet another expressed what many also considered, ‘time and again I have thought of resigning’. On an average, the stipend was $300pa lower than ordained ministry but it carried the same expectations. Home Missionaries were excluded from the Beneficiary Fund and many had used their savings to make ends meet. The sacrifice was great. What’s more, the Church’s policy to transfer Home Missionaries every two or three years added further pressure and expense that few could sustain.

A questionnaire on stipends Budd circulated ‘resulted in depressing reading’, but even this did not stir the church fathers. A liveable remuneration did not justify the extra pressure on congregations, they opined. Although the General Assembly debated Home Mission stipends regularly, and did offer occasional relief, some extra theological training programmes, or ordain those with some qualifications, the stipend remained well below the standard stipend. This was partly due to what was perceived as the ‘unqualified nature’ of their status. Budd supported the respondents comments, reinforcing their ‘rights, which they had earned by steadfast service’ and agreed that the church ‘cannot ask such men to be simply nothings and nobodies’. It’s worth noting that the majority of Home Missionaries were unable to speak or vote at General Assembly and therefore, relied on sympathetic supporters to present their ‘case’.

Rev George Budd, Director of Home Missions from 1921-1938.. Presbyterian Research Centre, P-L-18013

For all Budd’s efforts, publicity and his visits to congregations, funding for both Maori and Home Missions was a constant exercise of persuasion. Budd reminded his readers they were ‘doers of the Word, not just listeners, and therefore not to deceive themselves’. People who took no action he compared to ‘aspen leaves, tremulous, sensitive, quivering, which sway with agitated responsiveness with every breath of wind, but though they are moving all day long, the night finds them just where they were in the morning’. Through his 17 years as Director, Budd stood by the Home Mission team doing what he could to improve their lot. Unfortunately, for researchers and Presbyterian Archives staff today,  Budd decreed on his retirement that the ‘old stuff ‘ he and others accumulated would be destroyed. We are fortunate his reports have survived along with some personal correspondence found in ministers collections.

There have been arguments for and against the success or otherwise of the Home Mission scheme. The strategy to employ theologically untrained missionaries led to a two-tier ministry within the Presbyterian Church that existed into the 1960s. Even though ministry in the back-blocks was challenging and often difficult and lonely, a large majority gave dedicated service, without which the Church’s goal to meet the spiritual needs of many in outlying communities may never have been carried out.

 

 

 

Agnes Renton ‘A Woman of Character’

The previous blog opens a small window into the benevolent pursuits Agnes Renton carried out in the first half of the nineteenth century. The Memorial informs us her benevolence ‘was nourished, purified and strengthened by love to Christ. It pervaded all her plans, all her undertakings and all her activities.’ This God-given gift, of ‘benevolence’, led to her life-long ministry of commitment to others. Benevolence, accompanied with a spirit of selflessness and faith, was a ‘fundamental virtue’ of eighteenth and early nineteenth century Evangelical Calvinism. Since each person was a sinner the proof of whether a conversion was sincere rose or fell on how each person conveyed God’s gift of true benevolence. Agnes steadfastly stood by her commitment, surrounding all her work with a confidence in God’s promise of hope for the future.

Ministers of Bristo United Presbyterian Church. Rev.Dr. Peddie top right. His son William in centre. 1879.

A young minister, Rev. James Peddie, a loyal Associate Seceder, began a new ministry at the Bristo Street congregation in 1783, when Agnes was two years old. His support of the newly formed Society for the Relief of the Destitute Sick and the Bible and Missionary Tract Societies and his strong advocacy for the voluntary efforts of the Associate Secession Synod appealed to Agnes’ parents. As regular attenders, Agnes sat through sermons, sang the hymns, learnt the Catechism, and slowly grew to understand the Westminster Confession, but it was the Bible where she found her inspiration. During the years of Peddie’s ministry Agnes developed an open, independent and enthusiastic understanding of her faith. By 1797, ‘after serious and lively impressions of the truth’, she was ‘received into the fellowship of the Church’.

The years until her marriage Agnes worked alongside her mother offering benevolent support. An avenue which provided her with ‘festivals of enjoyment’ during these years, and no doubt those that followed, were the sermons given at annual Missionary Societies gatherings, and talks by visiting Foreign and Anti-Slavery missionaries, no matter what ‘sect or party’. Generally held in the Assembly Room, these opportunities provided her with a network of people who held similar interests. The Memoir, when describing these gatherings highlights her middle-class and economic status.

Delightful is the remembrance of these gatherings the imposing throng of refined, intelligent, pious, people; the speakers sincere and eloquent, without claptrap, coarseness, or straining at effect; the sentiments and emotions elevating, stimulating, and purifying to the soul.

By the 1830s, the Renton children had mostly reached adulthood. Her daughters now able to undertake the management of the household freed Agnes to extend her benevolent activity among the increasing numbers of Edinburgh poor she confronted daily. By all accounts Agnes had a forceful personality. She had become known for her independence, the ability to make decisions fearlessly and to confidently put into action new projects. A friend noted that her ‘one passport’ to a project was ‘human misery’. Any criticism of her efforts brought the retort that ‘the beggar’s position demands for him all the countenance I can give him; the prince’s will secure for him plenty of parasites and flatterers to sound his praise, and win attention for his project, even were it less worthy than it is.’ Therefore, a priority for Agnes was to ensure the material needs of the poor were dealt with first, and then she concentrated on their spiritual needs.

Rev. Henry Renton, Kelso, writer of the Memoir of Agnes Renton

The author of the Memorial makes the observation however, that although Agnes recognised the need for some social reform to improve the living conditions of the poor, her focus was ‘identified with the advancement of its [Society’s] moral interests’. How accurate this observation is cannot be gleaned from the limited resource available, but hints throughout the Memorial do indicate her interests were beginning to recognise the necessity for some reforms. Her support of the Anti-Slavery Campaign, restricted alcohol use, and the education programme for Greek women are closely connected to reform, albeit with moral overtones.

Of interest is the strong views Agnes held against Malthus’ popular economic theory on population growth, which came to dominate religious and social theory. The removal of the Old Poor Law in particular, Agnes believed would unfairly affect children of the poor. When it was altered, Agnes saw the Bible as having a higher authority than anything found in State law and therefore should be ignored.

Neither is the ‘zealous’ support Agnes gave to the Voluntary campaign in 1830, a surprise. She had already voiced her preference that no one should be subjected to state control over religious or political beliefs. She ‘heartily concurred in Roman Catholic Emancipation’ and she took ‘a lively interest’ in the agitation for Political Reform and ‘felt the highest satisfaction at its triumph’. However, in the first decades of the nineteenth century a very fine line existed between what were considered ‘moral interests’ and how reform would take place. As writers such as A.C. Cheyne suggest, it was easy to reduce the cause for social and economic problems to a matter of Divine Natural Law. The problems and upheavals taking place among the destitute and homeless boiled down to a lack of personal faith and therefore lack of personal morality and behaviour.

Within her congregations Agnes obviously stood her ground and was a force to be reckoned with. She left Broughton Place congregation, where she had been a member for a number of decades, over a decision made by the Kirk Session, much to the chagrin of of her husband, family, and the Session. Frustratingly, no detail is given as to the reason of her departure. The Memorial notes she believed she had made a reasoned and genuine decision. ‘It only remained for those connected with her to lament her decision and to respect herself’.

The Rev. Dr. Peter Davidson, her minister at the time of her death, made comment in his memorial address, of ‘the natural intensity of force of Mrs Renton’s character’, and ‘the power which she was able to exercise over others’. Davidson believed there was no better way to describe her enthusiasm and passion for ‘the Lord’s work’ then that ‘she was truly … “a Mother of Israel”.’ He continued:

We have all need, my friends, to learn to pray more abundantly and perseveringly for the success of the gospel among ourselves, seeing we have undoubtedly lost one of the Lord’s remembrancers in this matter, one who obeyed from the heart the Divine charge, ” Ye that make mention of the Lord, keep not silence, and give him no rest, till he establish, and till he make Jerusalem a praise in the earth”.

The occasion in which Davidson gave this ‘honourable address’ was at the conclusion of Communion, the Sunday following her funeral, 26 December 1863. Not only was it rare to follow Communion with such a presentation, it was extremely rare for woman to receive it.

How Molly Whitelaw would have loved to know her great-grandmother’s story. In 1933 she wrote asking her mother for further information. The bemused response suggests the Memorial had been lost to the family. Her mother’s knowledge was limited to the family story of her philanthropic activity. Molly’s Mother, also Agnes, was only three years old when her father, Alexander and her grandmother Agnes Renton died in 1863.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘The Handmaid of the Lord’; the Public Life of Agnes Renton

Who was the infamous great-grandmother? Hints of philanthropic activity, radical politics and dissenting Presbyterianism, what more could there possibly be to arouse my curiosity? So I set out on my own journey of Who do you think you are? to discover Molly Whitelaw’s antecedents. Heritage sites and Scottish censuses, bar several wrong paths, revealed three generations of both sides of Molly’s family. So which great-grandmother was she referring to? Imagine my delight when the Internet threw up a digitised copy of a Memorial for Mrs Agnes Renton, the great-grandmother Molly so admired.

Not lacking in detail the 147-odd pages took some reading, how verbose writing could be in 1866! Written by her son, Rev. Henry Renton, it reflects much about late eighteen and early nineteenth century Scottish society, a study in itself, but for another time.

Agnes was born on 16 February 1781 to Henry Duncan and Rachel (nee Anderson), a second-generation cloth merchant. Agnes was the fifth of ten children and the fourth daughter. They lived in a grand house, which stood back from the surrounding ‘gloomy tenement buildings’ and overlooked open fields that in time would become the New Town area of Edinburgh. Henry, her father, was a Seceder, a member of the Associate Presbytery formed in 1737 by Revs. Ebenezer and Ralph Erskine. This is another fascinating tale to tell sometime.

Rachel, Agnes’ mother, also a member of the Bristo Street Congregation, was attracted to the Society of Friends whose practical philanthropy she admired and whose beliefs against state imposition over the Church she agreed with. Her fondness at attending Quaker lectures added to her already strong motivation to be active in improving the lives of others. Rachel has the honour of being the only woman noted in the History of the Broughton Place United Presbyterian Church (1872) for her spiritual and practical outreach as a Bible-woman to the Canongate Mission. Both Henry and Rachel had radical political leanings, members of the short-lived Scottish ‘Friends of the People Society’ during 1792-1794. It advocated Parliamentary reform, male suffrage and peace with France. No doubt, they viewed their dissenting church beliefs and its demands for ecclesiastical reforms as linking closely with the political reforms the ‘Friends of the People’ were seeking.

Agnes at a young age experienced a strong reaction to the injustices she saw around her and developed a deep interest in politics; an interest fed by the imprisonment of Thomas Muir the leader of ‘Friends of the People’. He was imprisoned for sedition and treason in 1793 by ‘a panicky Government’ concerned at a possible revolution. He was tried and sentenced to penal transportation and sent to New South Wales. While awaiting deportation Agnes, accompanied by a servant, regularly visited him with a daily meal. Her visits to Muir formed the belief that all people had a right to voice their political principles and opinions without punishment. Her support for political prisoners, especially those connected with anti-slavery often became a contentious issue among her friends.

In 1801 Agnes received a proposal of marriage from William Renton, a dissenter and member of the Broughton Place Congregation. She informed him that she would never marry another man’s servant, ‘you must be your own master before you can be my husband’. Her somewhat spirited response forced him to develop a drapery business. Obviously, the drapery store proved satisfactory and Agnes and William married in July 1802, had twelve children, eight sons and four daughters, all but two living into adulthood. Described as a ‘woman of marvellous activity, energy, and goodness’ Agnes had ‘a light, well-knit, elegant person, a great agility and nerve, …and a constitution of remarkable health and vigour’. A good manager of the household with sufficient capital to employ servants and nursemaids, Agnes offered an open home in Buccleuch Place, Edinburgh and it become a centre of political and ecclesiastical activity. The burgeoning numbers of ladies philanthropic and moral reform societies evident in Edinburgh from the beginning of the nineteenth century were a godsend in satisfying her desire to see justice carried out for all people.

The Memorial suggests that her membership of these groups were too many to detail, but some stand out.  Her long association with the anti-slavery cause began in the late 1790s when she joined her mother in supporting the Quaker’s efforts to raise the public’s awareness to the horrors of the ‘Trade’. Although a law in 1807, outlawed British ships from carrying slaves, Scotland’s deep association with the slave economies did not end. The campaign needed to continue and by 1830 the Edinburgh Female Anti-Slavery Association was formed. The main focus was to support American women in their efforts to see the abolition of slavery and also to pressure Scottish merchants to boycott these economies. Later, in 1856, on the loss of a motion in protest against an offensive journal article, Agnes along with two others walked out of the meeting and formed a new society, which she presided over until her death in 1863.

Her international interests evolved further with the establishment in 1825, of the Scottish Ladies Society for Promoting Education of Greek Females. Agnes considered the best way to raise the standard of a nation seeking independence was by educating the women. She formed a Committee of which Lady Carnegie was president and she, secretary. By enlisting the support of Rev. Dr. M’Crie and Rev. Dr. Andrew Thomson, dissenting ministers, the Society gained popular support and worked towards supporting two educational agents. The scheme eventually failed.

Support for the abolition of the Corn Laws campaign held high appeal for Agnes. The injustice of taxes placed on corn forcing up the price of bread and causing people to go hungry, horrified her. This was a political battle lasting 40-odd years and with other members she diligently delivered pamphlets, attended meetings and wrote letters of protest to Government ministers and officials. Temperance and prohibition movements were also life concerns and she was a dedicated visitor to the women prisoners at Bridewell Prison. The Ladies Peace Society met regularly at Buccleuch Place for many years. She attended the Second Peace Congress held in Paris, 1849. War, like slavery, she considered, were evils ‘hostile to the will of God, contrary to all the interests of man, and repugnant to the spirit of Christ … holiness and peace were the bright attributes of the Redeemer’s kingdom’.

This feisty woman cared little for conventionalities, spoke her mind and took action where she believed it was required. In the next blog we will join her on her journey of faith.

References: Memorial of  Mrs Agnes Renton by Rev. Henry Renton; History of the Broughton Place United Presbyterian Church with Sketches of its Mission 1872; Two Centuries of Border Church Life V0l. 1, by James Tait, 1889. ‘Benthamite Radicalism and its Scots Presbyterian Contexts, by Valerie Wallace, downloaded 5/4/2017  https:/www.cambridge.org/core; ‘Scottish Friends of the People’ from Blog On this day in Scotland

 

 

 

 

Do I write a Biography? – that is the Question.

Why have I this urge to write a biography, I ask myself? I have never been a great reader of biography or autobiographies. In fact, I can count on one hand those I remember reading in my younger years. As a schoolgirl I chuckled over Doris Gordon’s life as backblocks Doctor, and was only partially moved by the story of Mary Slessor, which my Bible Class leader encouraged all her girls to read. Whether it’s because I was drawn to the world of medicine or whether biographies of women only focussed on women who achieved the ‘unexpected’, I read the biography of Agnes Bennett, by Cecil & Celia Manson and the autobiography Lady Doctor, by Frances L. Preston. My mother gave me Somers Cooks’, A Friend in Need: Nurse Maud her Life and Work, but its almost immaculate condition raises some doubts. Did I ever read it? Family tales of the years of the great depression my father told encouraged me to search out other stories. Mary Findlay’s Tooth and Nail and Robyn Hyde’s Godwits Fly are two that I vividly recall. These auto/biographies still sit on my bookshelves.

Attending University in my late 30s opened a new world. Those long and daunting subject ‘recommended readings’ that were distributed at the beginning of each course included auto/biographies. Some I read with enthusiasm, such as the two volumes of Harriet Martineau’s autobiography, Raewyn Dalziel’s biography of Julius Vogel and Frances Porter’s detailed and exciting biography of Jane Maria Atkinson, Born to New Zealand. Pressure of time meant I only dipped into others, now long forgotten. At the time I was hopeful they just might contribute towards a respectable exam pass rate. So in many ways it was surprising that I chose as my Post Graduate Diploma thesis, the life of the Dunedin woman Mary Downie Stewart. Reflecting on the reasons why I chose this direction may explain my present urge to write a biography on Mary (Molly) Dorothea Whitelaw (nee Shannon).

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