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.