On the beach near Cairnbulg, some four miles east of Fraserburgh in North-East Scotland, on the morning of 10th May 1878, there is a bitter, bone chilling wind blowing. Looking out we see a lonely bedraggled woman scouring the shoreline. She is weak with the cold, broken in spirit and desperate. Christian Watt is searching for the body of her husband who had, a few days before, been lost to the sea upon which he had made a living.
Her’s had been a tragic life. Having already lost her oldest son to the sea (and she would lose others) her husband and breadwinner was now gone. Eventually, frozen with cold she gave up what she realised was a fruitless search. Having come to the house of a relative she was given a warm welcome and a hot cup of tea before setting out again for her own home at Broadsea. She takes up her own story –
“My Cousin’s daur kissed me, and we parted and waved to each other across the burn. As it was my husband’s body was never found, but I asked God to help me. Instantly I knew a second work of grace had taken place in my life. Going over the sands at a place called Maggie’s trink, I was baptised with the Holy Ghost and with fire, and knew God had a purpose for my life’.
Fisherman’s Cottage, Buchanhaven, Peterhead, Aberdeenshire.
Christian Watt, was the granddaughter of Ellen Lascelles to whom we were introduced in our last post. Shortly before her marriage Christian had another experience that was to change her life and give her the strength to live through a series of hardships, tragedy and loss we can only imagine in our day. It was while waiting for her fiance to return from whaling in Greenland that the transformation took place –
“During the week of waiting, I read nothing but my Bible, and to my own joy and astonishment I found the Lord Jesus as my own personal saviour. Only in my own personal experience did I discover how man was alienated from God, and how we were reconciled by his death on Calvary’s cross. In my own room that night I knew I had I passed from death unto life. ‘Oh joyous hour when God to me a vision gave of Calvary, my bonds were loosed my soul unbound, I sang upon redemption ground.'”
It is interesting to note that the hymn Christian quotes, ‘Redemption Ground’, was written a year after the event described here. The second experience to which Christin refers, that of being ‘baptised with the Holy Ghost and with fire’ is also very interesting in a number of ways. The practical importance, the empowering to face what would be an extremely difficult future was, of course, the most important. But her description and experience also takes us back to a more theological question, for the term – ‘Baptism with the Holy Ghost’ as an experience subsequent to conversion was not a doctrine or term espoused or used by most Scottish churches in 1878. It is also possible however, as with the hymn Christian quotes, that the term was similarly of later vintage but applied to her own earlier experience (Christian lived until 1923 and the ripe old age of 91). We do know that Christian had some interaction, in later life, with the Faith Mission. Formed in 1886 in Scotland by John George Govan, the Faith Mission placed great emphasis on the ‘Second Blessing’, As I write I am looking looking at a book recommended to me some years ago by a ‘Faith Mission’ friend , entitled – ‘Two Fold Gift of the Holy Ghost’. One of the chapters in the book is entitled ‘The baptism of the Holy Ghost’ while another is entitled – ‘The Baptism of Fire’. Significantly, one of Christian’s wayward and rebellious sons, who had totally rejected religion as a result of his heartbreaking experience and the negative aspects he saw in it, came to faith in Stornoway (he was a fisherman) through the auspices of the Faith Mission.
But, as we noted in the last post, Christian’s Granny recorded that – ‘All my people belonged to the Quietists’. There is no doubt but that Christian, who was close to her Granny, was brought up in an atmosphere where the things of the deeper spiritual life, as espoused by Quietism, were encouraged. So it is, perhaps, not surprising that Christian regarded her experience that May morning in 1878 as perfectly normal.
That the deeper spiritual life espoused by Christian’s forebears had a profound effect on more than one generation, and left a mark which is detectable even today, is without question. It was in Cullen, on the North-East coast of Scotland (a place synonymous with Quietist movement), that I first realised there were deeper wells to drink from in the spiritual life than those I had hitherto experienced – but that’s another story. However, I certainly had no knowledge then of the events I am writing about now.
The movement known as Quietism, which had such a profound impact on Scotland, and, there is little doubt, on the life of Christian Watt had its early roots on the continent. Quietism, of course, was not a denomination or church – but rather, like the Charismatic movement today, a term referring to those holding to a set of beliefs which crossed denominational boundaries.
The Spaniard Miguel de Molinos (1628-1696) is the man credited as the instigator of the revival movement known as Quietism. However, as with many titles the term ‘Quietism’ was coined by its enemies.
It was in 1675 that Molinos published his most famous work, the ‘Spiritual Guide’. His writings (which became very popular), although initially approved by the Roman Catholic Church, later fell out of favour with the authorities. De Molinos was subsequently arrested and brought before a tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition and sentenced to life imprisonment. He died a prisoner nine years later in 1696.
Miguel de Molinos (1628-1696)
However, the search for the deeper spiritual life and the “prayer of quiet” on the continent in the 1600’s was by no means unique to Miguel de Molinos. Another man on this search was Frenchman, and later to be Bishop of Geneva, François de Sales (1567 – 1622). He wrote the book – ‘Introduction to the Devout Life’, unique in that it was written for the common men and women of his day. Quietism, which subsequently spread among Roman Catholics through small groups in France, was, it is said, strongly influenced by the thoughts of François de Sales and his emphasis on pure love resulting from spiritual practice. De Sales motto was, “He who preaches with love, preaches effectively.”
Another man who was to embark on this journey was the French Roman Catholic Archbishop, theologian and poet François Fénelon (1651 – 1715). But once more this journey and his sympathies were to cost him dearly.
It was in 1688 that Fénelon first met his cousin Jeanne Marie Bouvier de la Motte Guyon (1648 – 1717), more commonly known simply as Madame Guyon. Fénelon subsequently became an admirer and advocate of his cousin’s views. Although accused of ‘Quietism’ Madame Guyon (1648 – 1717) had never herself adopted the title. However, the Bishop of Chartres expressed concerns regarding Madame Guyon’s orthodoxy, noting that her views and opinions bore ‘striking similarities to Miguel de Molinos Quietism’, which Pope Innocent XI had condemned in 1687.
Jeanne Marie Bouvier de la Motte Guyon (1648 – 1717)
After publishing the book ‘A Short and Very Easy Method of Prayer’ Madame Guyon was herself imprisoned (1695 to 1703). Both she and her cousin François Fénelon subsequently submitted to the censure of the church. However Fénelon was removed from his post as royal tutor.
But what exactly was the kind of experience and view that brought such a violent reaction from the church authorities? From our standpoint, some 400 years after these events, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction, propaganda from truth and bias and prejudice from impartiality and objectivity – always a problem for the historian. However we can turn to some of these experiences and their implications for ourselves in attempting to make our own evaluation.
It was after she had become weary of external religion and eventually unburdening her heart to a Franciscian Friar that Jeanne Guyon entered in to a deeper experience of God –
“I felt a very deep wound, a wound so delightful that I desired not to be cured. He had given me an experience of His presence in my soul; not by thought or any application of the mind, but as a thing really possessed after the sweetest manner … Thy love, O my God, flowed in me like a delicious oil, and burned as a fire which was going to devour all that was left of self. I was suddenly so altered that I was hardly to be known either by myself or others … those faults … disappeared, being consumed like chaff in a great fire … my love became a prayer of rejoicing and possessing, devoid of all busy imaginations and forced reflections; it was a prayer of the will, and not of the head. The taste of God was so great, so pure, unblended and uninterrupted, that it drew and absorbed the power of my soul into a profound recollection without act or discourse. I had now no sight but of Jesus Christ alone. All else was excluded, in order to love with the greater extent, without any selfish motives or reasons for loving.”
And it was as a result of this experience that, some years later, Rosehearty, just outside Peterhead on Scotland’s North-East coast, became the headquarters in Scotland of the movement she inspired. The man who headed up this mission was Dr. George Garden (1649–1733) a minister of the Scottish Episcopal Church, and a committed Jacobite (interestingly there is a street in Peterhead named after him).
George Garden was a ‘soul-friend’ of Henry Scougal, author of the well known book – ‘The Life Of God In The Soul Of Man’ . George Whitfield was later to say that he never really understood what true religion was until he had read Scougal’s book!
In 1710 The Synod of Aberdeen complained of –
“The great increase of Bourignonism in this province, especially by means of Dr. Garden ‘who’ keeps up a settled society of unmarried men and women living together into the house of Rosehearty for propagating the principles of A.B.”
The AB referred to was Antoinette Bourignon an earlier French ‘Mystic’ whose works Garden was also responsible for translating. This task landed him in deep water with the church authorities. Garden was subsequently deposed and prohibited from – ‘exercising the ministry or any part thereof in all time coming’. However, he simply ignored the censure and continued his work!
George Garden was also a very close friend of the 4th Lord (Alexander) Forbes of Pitsligo, who, as we have noted previously (see last post), as a young man, travelled to France where he met François Fénelon and Madame Guyon.
And so it was that a group of Aberdeenshire friends consisting of Dr. George Garden, (supported by his elder brother, Professor James Garden, also of Aberdeen), Lord Forbes of Pitsligo, Dr, James Keith, an Aberdeen man practicing medicine in London and the agent through whom Madame Guyon sent her letters, and Lord Deskford of Banffshire (who had also visited Madame Guyon in France), became the driving force in the promotion of the deeper spiritual life in North-East Scotland and much further afield. It was these men that primarily, along with Henry Scougal earned the reputation of the ‘Scottish Quietists’.
One historian has noted of this group (all of whom were Episcopalians and, apart from is Dr. James Keith, ‘ardent Jacobites’) –
‘The men involved are obviously not negligible characters from any point of view. None of them was a S. Francis de Sales or a John of the Cross. None of them was in any interesting way abnormal or eccentric. They were simply intelligent men of good social position, who had seen something of life at home and abroad, had had some experience of the political and ecclesiastical conflicts of a difficult period of history, and had been led from dissatisfaction with the outward state of things to seek and to find peace within. Garden and his friends were dissatisfied with organised Christianity in Scotland as they found it under established Presbyterianism. They intensely disliked the splitting and re-splitting of hairs which characterised the theology of the Covenanters.”
Garden himself wrote –
“Nothing outward in government, creed or mode of worship can satisfy the increasing hunger in the Church; all are seeking something which they find not, yet know not hardly what they seek.”
It could be said that this is also the cry of many hearts in our own generation!
For Garden – ‘Religion was the principal thing, and that religion he found in Augustine and Thomas à Kempis, and Pascal and Henry Scougall.’ And, when he was introduced to the writings of Madame Guyon, it is said that he found the same thing there. He was convinced that they would ‘revive the life and spirit of Christianity’. He wrote – ‘upon the reading of her writings they (he and his friends) have felt a deeper sense of divine things, and their hearts and consciences have been more touched than by most of other writings which they have seen. There’s a certain dryness and deadness in most of writings and sermons nowadays about divine things, that they do not at all touch the heart ; and even the best of them savour more of the head than of the heart. There was never more preaching than in this age, yet never a greater spiritual famine’.
In 1710, George Garden travelled to the continent. From his later letters we know that he was with Madame Guyon at the time of her death on the 9th June 1717. After returning to Scotland he lived for a time in Rosehearty but, for the most part continued his ministry in Aberdeen.
Garden was said to be – ‘A man of outstanding interest, a leader, dignified, cultured, of strong will and great determination, and at the same time lovable, deeply religious, entirely humble, and with the heart of a little child’. He died on 31st January 1733.
The historian G. D. Henderson, one time Professor of Church History in the University of Aberdeen, speaking of Garden, states –
“Altogether it was largely the work he had done in rousing interest in foreign mystical writings and leaders that created this Scottish following for Madame Guyon, and that brought it about that her books and letters found their way to Cullen and to other Scottish Castles where the mystics made their appeal and where spiritual direction was welcome.”
However, as we have seen previously, it was not only in castles that the message of the deeper spiritual life as advocated by Madame Guyon and others found a home. Many a fishers families cottage and a cotter’s hovel welcomed the message with open hearts and, as a result, it transformed lives and gave hope in a word where these things were in desperately short supply. The lives of Ellen Lascelles and her granddaughter Christian Watt are ample testimony to that.
After the death of Christian Watt’s husband, from a purely human perspective, her life took a devastating downward turn. Following a further period of severe hardship, poverty and losing everything, she took a mental breakdown and was hospitalised. She subsequently spent, apart from brief visits away, the remaining 40 years of her life in an institution – Cornhill Hospital, Aberdeen. So much, we might say, for her earlier assurance that ‘God had a purpose for my life’. But that would be to underestimate her impact and influence by a million miles. In Cornhill, Aberdeen City and much further afield through her correspondence as well as to the many who visited her and sought her counsel she was indeed evangelist, counsellor and friend. She touched the lives of hundreds for good and for eternity and was perhaps the most unique evangelist Scotland has ever seen! And, at the age of 90, she was still working and involved in that mission! Shortly before she died in 1923 in her 91st year she was able to write –
“My life has been hard but I would not say it has been a sad waste, for my purpose has been to shed light in a dark place, and I have kept the faith, for which we are told we will be rewarded with a crown of life’.
‘To shed light in a dark place’! What deeper purpose could God have for any of us?
For this article I have drawn heavily on the book ‘Mystics of the North-East’ 1934 by G. D. Henderson. Other sources include ‘The Christian Watt Papers’ 1983 by David Fraser, Wikipedia, and ‘The Life and Teachings of Jeanne Guyon’ (online-unattributed).