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Sir Andrew Agnew



Sir Andrew Agnew

In Lochnaw, in Wigtonnshire, there is a building grotesquely combining the features of a modern country-house with those of an ancient castle. It stands on the margin of a lake embowered in thickets, which chequer the calm waters with pleasing variety of light and shade. Lochnaw is the ancestral seat of the Agnews, a family of Norman descent, the founder of which is said to have accompanied William the Conqueror to England. The family acquired Lochnaw in the reign of David II. of Scotland, and held for many years the position of Heritable Constable and Sheriff of Wigtonnshire. One of the Agnews was connected with the Covenanters, and on account of his fidelity to what he considered a patriotic and holy cause, suffered a fine of six thousand pounds, and was deprived of his shrievalty, which was conferred on that man of blood, Graham of Claverhouse. A later representative of the family was distinguished as a brave soldier, was with George II. at Dettingen, and rendered good service to the House of Hanover in the last Stuart Rebellion. He was succeeded by Sir Stair Agnew, whose name was long cherished by the tenantry, as that of a kind and generous landlord. While strict in demanding full and punctual payment, he let his farms at low rents. On one occasion he had his lands valued, and intimated to the valuer that he was to dine with him when he presented his report. On receiving the report, Sir Stair found that the valuation was much higher than he had expected, and that one farm was rated at three times the previous rental. He rung the hell, and indignantly demanded of the servant who had sent him that paper. He was told it was the valuer, who was waiting to dine with him. “Ha, na,” he said, “I canna see him; he would ruin baith me and my tenants out of house and ha’; send him awa’, send him awa’; he canna stay here.” This burst of feeling, though eccentric, shows that he regarded his own interests and those of his tenants as identical.

The son of Sir Stair was a lieutenant in the army, and was married to the daughter of Lord Kinsale, a descendant of the famous De Courcys, and the only member of the British peerage having the right, after the first obeisance, to remain covered in the presence of the sovereign—a right granted by King John as a reward of valour to one of the ancestors of the family. Lieutenant Agnew died at Lochnaw four months after his marriage, and the young widow returned to her parents in Ireland. It was in their house that the Sir Andrew was bora who, by chivalry displayed, not in tournament yards nor in the crash of war, but in the sphere of Christian and philanthropic enterprise, was to win a new and imperishable glory for the family name. The fatherless boy was tenderly cherished by his mother and grandparents, and repaid their care by beautiful manifestations of childish affection. His thoughtfulness for the feelings of others was, from the first, a prominent trait in his character. One day he and another boy were having a mock combat with daggers; his arm was accidentally pierced, and the stream of blood from it was so copious as to be alarming. The first thing he said was, “ O, take care that my mother does not know of it! She would be in such distressand the doctor who bound up the wound remarked “ how completely the dear little fellow’s concern for himself was swallowed up in concern for his mother.” As he grew up he took pleasure in, and to some extent cultivated music, drawing and poetry, but was still more powerfully attracted by architecture and heraldry. His heraldic studies, though pursued with an eagerness that far exceeded their worth, were not without value, as leading him to investigate the history of his own and other families. But, however great his interest in pedigrees and coats of arms, he was deeply impressed by the truth contained in the old and to him favourite lines,—

“True nobleness doth those alone engage
Who can add virtues to their parentage.’"

His paternal grandfather died when he had reached his sixteenth year, and he went to take possession of his estate in Wigtonnshire. But there was little that was pleasing to the eye of the youth : the castle was grim and uninviting, the plantations were choked with weeds and briers, and the lake had the appearance of a swamp. He was tempted to abandon Lochnaw to the neglect and desolation in which he had found it, and to spend the rental of his property in more congenial scenes. But better thoughts prevailed, and he decided to make such improvements in the house and grounds as to enable him to live in comfort where in due time he could discharge the duties of a resident landlord. Roads were cut through the thickets; trees were planted on spots that needed foliage to make them picturesque ; the lake was deepened and restored to its former beauty; a garden was artistically laid out; the castle was enlarged; and in a few years Lochnaw was replete with domestic and sylvan charms.

Sir Andrew was laudably anxious in reference to the culture of his mind as well as his estate, and devoted two winters to attendance at the University classes in Edinburgh. From Edinburgh he went to Oxford, where, though he did not attempt brilliant scholarship, he was far from being indolent; and by the natural graces of his character, commended himself to the esteem of students and tutors. The late Dean Milman wrote: “I should say that my impression of him at college is best expressed by the words that he was a born gentleman, quiet in manners, unpretending in every respect, and to those who knew him intimately, singularly amiable.” At Oxford he was attended by a servant whose history, if not romantic, is interesting. He was a negro, born in slavery in Barbadoes, but brought when about thirty years old, to this country by a female relative of Sir Andrew. He discovered, to his great joy, that the slave was no longer a slave when on British soil, and resolved that nothing should induce him to go back to the house of bondage. His mistress strove in vain to alter his determination, and he was ultimately received into the service of Sir Andrew’s mother, and was sent with the former to Oxford. He exulted in his freedom, and while busy cleaning the plate was often heard humming with glee,—

“Britons never—never shall be slaves!”

He received the light of the Gospel, and after devoted attachment to the Lochnaw household, extended through thirty years, was followed to his grave by a numerous gathering of people in all ranks of life, who thus testified their appreciation of his humble worth.

In the year 1816 Sir Andrew was married to Madeline, youngest daughter of the then widowed Lady Carnegie; a union in which he found unceasing joy and comfort. It was not until after his marriage that his heart was affected by the truth of the Gospel. Though not indifferent to the fascinations of worldly pomp and pleasure, he had from his youth up avoided the contaminations of vice, and was in moral purity, high principle and amiability as perfect as man can be without religion. There was much to approve in him, but Divine grace was wanting; and God, having a work for him to do, prepared him for it in His own way. In the manner of his conversion there was nothing abrupt or startling, and it would not be easy to state the precise time when he became “a new creature” in Christ Jesus. The work of the Spirit in his soul was silent and gradual, but not the less real. The first evangelical sermon he heard was from the Hon. and Rev. Gerard Noel. He went home delighted with the preacher’s eloquence, and in expressing admiration of it, added: “I am told, too, that the doctrine was good and Scriptural; but of that I am no judge.” But though he acknowledged himself to be no judge of the doctrine, his heart rebelled against it, and he could not understand how, with all his blamelessness, he was required to confess himself a sinner, and to implore the mercy of God through Christ. Still, prejudice was not so rooted in him as to prevent his inquiring as to his own condition and God’s terms of salvation, and he resorted to the Bible for guidance in the way of truth. His Scriptural investigations issued in his adoption of Evangelical doctrine; the perusal of “Chalmers’ Astronomical Discourses” tended to enlarge his spiritual apprehensions, and he was at length enabled to take Christ as his Saviour. Though always Episcopalian in his preferences, he felt it his duty to join the Established Church of Scotland; nor was he a merely nominal member, but gave efficient help to Sabbath-schools, Bible societies, and other religious institutions.

Sir Andrew was qualified by the grace of God for the great part he was to take in the advocacy of a due observance of the Sabbath. When he first settled at Lochnaw, he was like many more in his own rank of life, unmindful of the claims of the day, not scrupling to write letters, to make visits, or to travel in its sacred hours. One Sabbath, at the time of George IY.’s visit to Scotland, he was on his way from Glasgow to Edinburgh. Some part of the harness broke, and the carriage was detained while it was mended. A number of people who were leaving church gathered round the vehicle, and an old man was heard to say, “Weel, I kenna what gude the country may get from the king’s visit, but this I ken, that it has garred mair travelling on the Sabbath-day than ever I saw in my life before.” This reproof was keenly felt by Sir Andrew, but it was not until his heart was changed that he honoured and delighted in the day as one of rest and spiritual privilege. While a more becoming regard to its sanctity was engaging his thoughts, he was powerfully influenced by a sermon he heard from Dr. M‘Crie. The text was, “Remember the Sabbath-day, to keep it holy.” The preacher argued with that logical skill that seldom failed him, on the Divine authority, the reasonableness and benevolence of the commandment, warned his hearers against violations of it, and urged them to do their utmost in preventing profanation of the Sabbath, and in securing its proper observance. Sir Andrew thought at first that the preacher was too severe and stringent, but he allowed the truth to prevail, and “he went away with a strong conviction, which never left him, and which grew within him into the solid consistency of axiomatic truth, that Sabbath observance is an essential branch of morality, and that the fourth commandment is of equal obligation on man with the other precepts of the decalogue.” His mind being thus settled on that great question, the Providence of God opened to him a sphere on which he was able to contend publicly against desecrations of the day, which had increased to an alarming extent. He was returned as member for Parliament for Wigtonnshire in 1830. His mind was so constituted that in any proposed modification of the institutions of his country he could at once plead both for conservation and reconstruction; and at a time when the two political parties in the State were violently antagonistic, he was able to coalesce with either in measures that he deemed wise and prudent.

It was, however, as the advocate of a peaceful and holy Sabbath, that Sir Andrew Agnew was best known in the House of Commons and throughout the United Kingdom. The appalling secularization of the day in London stirred the members of “the Clapham Sect” to action, and a Society, called “The Lord’s Day Society,” was formed. At a meeting of its members it was agreed, “That though the law of the land is founded upon Christian principles for the protection of the Lord’s day, it has in process of time become wholly ineffectual; and it is therefore resolved that a petition be presented to each House of Parliament, praying the Legislature to take the matter into its most serious consideration, and with a view to amend the laws on the subject.” Several members of Parliament were applied to by the Society to represent its purposes in the House of Commons. One after another declined, and the lot fell on Sir Andrew. At first he shrunk from the task, but was eventually prevailed on to accept it. One night, after in vain attempting to negotiate with other members of the House, he went to bed jaded and weary, yet still pondering the difficulty of getting any one to engage in the service. Suddenly, between sleeping and waking, the thought rushed into his mind, “You yourself must be the man—you must undertake the work.” He was aroused, and after prayerful consideration, resolved that whatever the toil involved in the work, or the opposition and obloquy by which he might be assailed, he would vindicate God’s ancient law, and stand forth as the champion of those who could truly complain, “ Even Sunday shines no Sabbath-day for me.” In pursuance of this solemn resolution, he began by moving in the House of Commons, “That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the laws and practices relating to the observance of the Lord’s day.” The Committee was appointed, and the evidence given before it disclosed an enormity of Sabbath breaking more terrible than had been suspected, even by those who had been most awake to the gravity of the subject.

Acting on the Committee’s recommendation, Sir Andrew prepared a bill to guard the law of the Sabbath from unnecessary infringement. The preamble was borrowed from an old statute, affirming “that the holy keeping of the Lord’s day is a principal part of the true service of God,” and that it is “the bounden duty of the Legislature to protect every class of society against being compelled to sacrifice their comfort, health, religious privilege, and conscience, for the convenience, enjoyment, or supposed advantage, of any other class on the Lord’s day.” This was followed by a series of sweeping clauses against Sunday trading and traffic. Some of Sir Andrew’s friends thought that he asked too much, but he was convinced that the whole was demanded by religious principle, and that a scheme of compromise would effect less than a decided and comprehensive proposal, however strenuously opposed. There was opposition fierce and scornful, and the bill was thrown out. But Sir Andrew had too much of the spirit of his heroic ancestors to be crushed by defeat; with noble pertinacity he moved his bill session after session, and at length had the satisfaction of seeing it pass a second reading by a considerable majority. Soon the victory over infidelity and indifferentism would have been completely won, but at that juncture William IV. died, and there was a dissolution of Parliament.

While prosecuting his Parliamentary labours, Sir Andrew needed all his natural fortitude, and all his godly determination, to enable him to stand erect under the burden of abuse that was heaped on him. In the House he had to bear the low scurrility of O’Connell and Cobbett, and other members, who endeavoured to do by coarse epithets and phrases what they could not do by argument.

Out of the House, there was all the annoyance that could be occasioned by the misrepresentation and studied contempt of newspapers, the vile caricatures of comic prints, and the ribaldry of doggrel songs. One day Sir Andrew was in his lodging in London, reading the sixty-ninth Psalm, and had come to the verse, “They that sit in the gate speak against me; and I was the song of the drunkards,” when a half-drunken ballad singer entered the street, vociferating some profane verses directed against himself and the Sabbath. He was struck by the coincidence, and saw that in his own case the Scripture was literally fulfilled; yet could rejoice that though he had to suffer in a righteous cause, he was not without the consolations awarded to those who are persecuted for their fidelity to their Master. But though the world was against him, he had the unstinted confidence and support of good men. The Wesleyan Body, true to its primitive love of the Sabbath, was one of his most enthusiastic allies. The Conference voted him unanimous thanks for his exertions; Theophilus Lessey, before a large and influential assembly of ministers and members of all denominations, pitched the oratory which still lives in cherished traditions, to eloquent eulogy of his labours; and when he needed petitions to enforce his plea, thousands of Methodist hands were always ready to sign them. Sir Andrew appreciated the help he thus received, and at one of the Annual Missionary Meetings in Exeter Hall said, “ If I be at liberty for a moment to digress from the immediate subject of our present meeting, I would say, that to no part of the community have I, in another place, been more indebted, in reference to the Sabbath question, than to the exertions of the Wesleyan Methodists.”

Sir Andrew failed to obtain a seat in the new Parliament ; but in his comparative retirement he spared no toil in endeavouring to promote the reform on which he had set his heart, and was prominent in movements directed against the profanation of the Sabbath by railway traffic and Post-office business. In every relation of life the loveliness of his character was conspicuous. It has been well said, “The image of him treasured up in the recollections of his friends with the richest halo surrounding it, is that of the father seated on Sabbath evening, with his bright haired and beautiful children clustering around him and clambering upon him, while he was reading to them the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress.’ ”He took great interest in the discussions on ecclesiastical matters which preceded the Disruption, a catastrophe which he would thankfully have seen averted. He sympathised with the Evangelical party and its plea of non-intrusion, yet scarcely contemplated his own departure from the Established Church; but when the ministers rose from their places and left the Assembly, he left with them, scarcely knowing, he said, where he was, or what he was doing, till he found himself in that now historic procession to Canon-mills, with the arm of the venerable Chalmers locked in his. From that time, though with acknowledged reservations in favour of the Episcopalianism in which he had been brought up, he was identified with the Free Church. He had reached his fifty-sixth year when he had an attack of scarlet-fever, which was followed by painful symptoms of heart disease. In his affliction he said: “God does not send us these chastisements without cause, and it well becomes us to search and try our ways that we may see and mourn over all that has been amiss, and pray to be kept from such evil in time to come. I know that it does not affect our justification in the sight of God. I bless God that ‘ there is forgiveness with Him,’ and that it rests on the sure foundation of Christ’s death and Christ’s merits alone; but that blessed assurance should not make us the less anxious to search our hearts and try our ways.”

A little before his death he added to a prayer that he and his wife might be speedily reunited: “And may all our dear children, all bearing our name, all belonging to us, all our race, meet us at God’s right hand. O ! may not one be missing—may they all be there.” Calmly trusting in the Lord, he glided away to the glories and hallelujahs of an eternal Sabbath. He died in Edinburgh, April 12th, 1849, and was buried in the Grange Cemetery. Hugh Miller, always delighting to honour the great and good, thus wrote:—“The funeral of Sir Andrew Agnew took place as intimated on the morning of Thursday; and, with the exception of that of Chalmers,—which has never had any parallel in Scotland, and never again may,—it was one of the most remarkable ever witnessed in this city. The streets for a distance of at least two miles were thickly lined with spectators; and the procession, which was of such imposing length that there were few points from which it could be viewed as a whole, was composed of the most respectable citizens of Edinburgh—members of all the Evangelical Churches, who had taken this way of testifying their regard for the remains and the memory of a man who had stamped his name on a great religious movement unsurpassed in importance in the history of the Christian Church in Scotland.”


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