Elizabeth Duchess of Gordon
The name of Elizabeth, Duchess of Gordon, though probably unknown to most readers, crops up again and again in many of the biographies of those connected with the Free Church around the time of the Disruption. She was associated with such folk as the Bonars, McCheyne, Moody-Stuart and Brownlow North, to name but a few.
In a work published in 1881 called Disruption Worthies, written as a memorial to those who played a significant part in the Disruption of 1843, she is the only woman included out of a total of 70 biographical sketches. This gives some indication of the high esteem in which she was held by her contemporaries and the generation which followed.
This is remarkable for two reasons. Firstly, she was a wealthy landowner. At a time when the infant Free Church experienced almost universal opposition from the landed classes, Elizabeth supported it. The section of society to which she belonged was afraid that any demands for a greater say among the working classes were but the first steps towards a repeat of the revolution which had recently taken place in France. Many of them, including Elizabeth for a time, considered the Free Church's aspirations to self-determination in spiritual matters in this light.
Secondly, she was an Episcopalian by birth and upbringing. She belonged to a system which was at the opposite end of the ecclesiastical spectrum from the Free Church — a system which had a history of oppressing the spiritual independence of the church in Scotland; which allowed state interference in its spiritual affairs and which was anathema to the Scottish evangelical Presbyterian mind.
How such a person came to be considered one of the Free Church worthies is best understood by a consideration of her spiritual development and outlook.
Elizabeth was born in London on 20th January, 1794. Her father Alexander Brodie became a landowner, after making his fortune in India. Her mother died when Elizabeth was only six years old, and Elizabeth was brought up by her aunts.
This fact, though seemingly insignificant, was important because her aunts ensured she was given a liberal education to a degree unusual for a young woman of her day. It meant she was well read and well informed about current affairs, including ecclesiastical developments, and was in a position to make balanced judgments in such matters.
Elizabeth married the Marquis of Huntly in 1813, but was widowed in 1836. This left her in possession of the Huntly estate in the parish of Strathbogie, Aberdeenshire.
Aberdeenshire was the stronghold of the Moderate party of the Church of Scotland. As such it was an area of spiritual barrenness and vehement opposition to the evangelical cause. Strathbogie was the parish in which the Marnoch church, where the mockery of the induction of Mr. Edward Young took place, and the State's interference in the spiritual affairs of the Church reached new heights. (See Disruption Diary, The Monthly Record, February and March 1993.)
This was where God in his wise providence had placed Elizabeth. Reason suggested that Elizabeth would be opposed to all the Evangelicals, who were to form the Free Church, stood for. Grace dictated otherwise, for she had been brought to a knowledge of the Saviour, and obedience to his will and Word was to mould her outlook and remove even the most ingrained prejudices.
Exactly how and when she came to faith is not clear, but it seems that an essay on faith, written by one of the Erskine brothers, was instrumental in her conversion, as were conversations she had with some Christian friends among the aristocracy. In time, she was brought to faith in Christ and to a clear understanding of the doctrines of grace. It was her love of these doctrines that gave rise to the anomalies in her relationship with the Free Church cause.
Before the Disruption she sat under the ministry of the evangelicals within the Church of Scotland, drawn by their commitment to the Saviour she loved and the doctrines she embraced. She had invited them to her home as guests for the benefit of the spiritual fellowship they provided.
Though strongly opposed to the church's defiance of the Court of Session interdicts issued in connection with the Marnoch Case, she provided hospitality for the preachers sent by the church to conduct services in the parish. During all this time, though she loved the evangelicals who would form the Free Church as the servants of Christ, she would not support their efforts to free the Church from State interference and to reestablish its right to spiritual independence.
Elizabeth was out of the country when the Disruption actually took place, but she continued in what one called "beautiful inconsistency". She disapproved of the Free Church's quitting the Establishment, yet continued to provide hospitality for its ministers.
However, when she returned to Huntly and had to make a decision as to where her loyalties lay, she eventually and unreservedly came out on the side of the newly formed Free Church. Such a choice was costly for a person in her position and she soon suffered the loss of the respect of many of her peers. Writing in 1845 about the consequences of her choice she said: "I believe you judge very truly, that the honour from man I have so long enjoyed and cherished will be much withdrawn".
Despite this, she dedicated herself and her home to the furtherance of the gospel cause. This was especially so in the area where she lived. This North East corner of the land was known among evangelicals as the "Dead Sea" because of the spiritual poverty of the area and the strong opposition from both Moderates and landowners to the gospel message.
Many of the aristocracy came into contact with the gospel of salvation through contact with Elizabeth and her Christian guests. Her own winsome Christian lifestyle removed the prejudices many had against the evangelical cause and the Free Church in particular. Only eternity will show how many among the aristocracy were saved through her instrumentality.
One name among this section of society with which many are familiar is that of Brownlow North. During a stay with the Duchess of Gordon at Huntly in 1839, North had been brought under serious religious conviction as a result of a conversation he had with Elizabeth. We find her own description of what had happened recorded in Moody-Stuart's life of North:
Mr. North was staying in Huntly, engaged in shooting, and utterly careless and ungodly. Some friends of his wrote to me, asking me to take some notice of him, with a view of withdrawing him from his evil ways and companionships. I promised to do so, and gave him an invitation to dinner. When we were at dinner, he sat beside me, and suddenly said to me with much gravity: 'Duchess, what should a man do who has often prayed to God and never been answered?' I lifted up my heart to God to teach me what to say. I looked him quietly in the face, and said, so as not to be overheard by others, 'Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts' (James 4:3). His countenance changed, he became very greatly moved, was very quiet during the evening and thanked me ere he left.
The result of this conversation was a temporary reformation of character in North. He gave up his old ways for a time and entered a course of study for the ministry of the Church of England. Even while he was in Oxford studying, Elizabeth took an interest in his spiritual welfare, regularly writing to him as well as asking friends to look after him there.
It soon became clear that North's change had been nothing more than a legal reformation, and soon he was back to his old godless ways. Elizabeth however did not write him off and continued to seek and pray for his conversion. She was not disappointed and some years later she had the joy of inviting him to Huntly where he was asked to address a prayer meeting.
North was to be greatly used of God in the revival in the North East in the latter part of the 19th century and the Duchess as we will see did much to facilitate the preaching of the Word which was central to this revival.
Reference has already been made to the unscriptural condition of Aberdeenshire in the days of the Duchess. Many ordinary folk there had never heard a gospel sermon. The legalism of the Moderates coupled with the prejudice of most landowners made it most unlikely that they ever would hear such a message within the church building. The Duchess was acutely aware of this and took steps to encourage gatherings outdoors. She enlisted the services of evangelicals to preach at the half-yearly feeing market, where farm labourers gathered together to hire out their services. Such open air preaching had been virtually unheard of in this area but the Lord greatly blessed it and many were brought to saving faith through these meetings. She also arranged large gatherings in the grounds of the Huntly Lodge to encourage those who were Christians but had little opportunity for fellowship with likeminded folk, and for the preaching of the Word to those who were as yet strangers to divine grace.
When Elizabeth had come to the North East, it was a spiritual desert. We give in her own words her response to such unpromising conditions.
We must pray very, very hard for more labourers in the Lord's vineyard, and that he may send us pastors after his own heart. I do not see where they are to come from at all, and therefore I think I can pray with the more entire faith, and feel sure that the Lord will give them in his own time and way.
Annals of the Disruption, p. 162
It was a response of prayer and faith; an active faith that led her to do whatever was in her power to foster a change in the spiritual conditions around her. She lived to see that prayer answered in the outpouring of the Spirit in reviving power as God poured out living waters upon the dry ground. In this, she set an example much needed in our own day — when faced with similar spiritual barrenness our response is often that of despondency and inactivity.
Elizabeth's commitment to the cause of Christ was not however restricted to the North East of the country. When in Edinburgh, she sat under the ministry of Moody-Stuart in Free St Luke's. She had contributed liberally toward the cost of this church building and as the congregation grew and prospered, and engaged in outreach work in the Holyrood area of the city, the cost of the mission and school there was largely met by the Duchess.
Wherever God in his providence placed her, she sought to further his cause and God in his mercy richly blessed her efforts to that end. She was instrumental in transforming the "Dead Sea" of the North East into "pools of living water" and many who subsequently became ministers, missionaries and elders in the Free Church owed a debt of gratitude to God for the way he had used her to promote the spiritual good of that area. It was her devotion to her Lord and her commitment to his cause in such an unselfish and tangible way that endeared Elizabeth to the hearts of those in the infant Free Church and earned her a unique place among their "Worthies".