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Lady Glenorchy and her Churches

The Story of 200 years


Rev. D. P. Thomson


The Research Unit, Barnoak, Crieff, Perthshire.

The introduction to this small paperback starts with ‘Justice has never been done to the part played by women in the life and work of the Scottish Church. This is especially true of Lady Glenorchy, the subject of this short sketch... The fact remains, none the less, that apart from her great contemporary, the Countess of Huntingdon, no woman in this country has been responsible for the founding of so many churches, and none has touched the life of two very different denominations, north and south of the Tweed, at so many points. Unlike the Countess of Huntingdon, who formed her congregations into a denomination which, microscopic as it is now, still bears her name, Lady Glenorchy sought to link hers with denominations already in existence, or so to frame their constitutions that they might later be thus identified. In this she was wise, as the history of the past 200 years has shown.’

Willielma Maxwell, was born 2nd September 1741. Her mother would both outlive her and remarry Lord Alva, the Lord Justice-Clerk of Scotland. Mary, her older sister, married the premier peer in Scotland – William 17th Earl of Sutherland. Willielma would then marry John, Viscount Glenorchy, son of the 3rd Earl of Breadalbane, whose wealth was almost on a par with that of the Earl of Sutherland.

In 1765, while at Taymouth Castle, Lady Glenorchy suffered a serious illness and this awakened in her religious concern. This has been initiated by a visit to the daughter of Sir Richard Hill of Hawkstone. Lady Glenorchy met John Wesley in 1770 and heard him preach. She would comment ‘I hope Mr Wesley is a child of God. He has been an instrument in his hands of saving souls; as such I honour him and will countenance his preachers. I have heard him preach thrice; and should have been better pleased had he preached more of Christ and less of himself. I did not find his words came with power to my own soul.’ She found herself much more drawn to Whitefield and the Calvinistic wing of the Evangelical movement.

In 1771, Lord Glenorchy died and she was left with an independent fortune of between two and three thousand pounds per year. She would establish churches and endow ministries the length and breadth of both Kingdoms. She always created Presbyterian or Independent churches. Her influence would touch the Rev. Jonathan Scott whose books have been printed, the Bonars (who later were would be linked to the Free Church) and George Burder (founder of British and Foreign Bible Society, secretary of London Missionary Society and editor of the Evangelical Magazine).

It was in a Glenorchy church the Rev. Thomas Woodrow ministered, who was the maternal grandfather of Woodrow Wilson. In 1918, when Wilson visited the UK after the signing of the armistice his was the first visit of a serving US president to our island. After being met by the King and treated to a state banquet at the Palace. He would travel for the service on Sabbath, not to Westminster Abbey or St. Pauls, but to his grandfathers church in Carlisle. In that church for the one one and only time in the history of English NonConformity, a Bishop of the Anglican Church read one of the lessons and a President of the United States addressed the worshippers.

The book is super as it brings the history of her work up to the 1960s. I am sure that most readers will be surprised and the extent and breadth of her work and influence.