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:/; ‘Scottish Friends of the People’ from Blog On this day in Scotland