Christian Erskine

When Christian Erksine lost two of her brothers fighting against the French, the Rector of Charlotte Chapel wrote to her to arm her with doctrinal weapons to continue the ideological fight against the Revolution.

Lived
12 November 1776 -
Origin
Cardross
Father
James Erskine of Tulliallan and Cardross 1739-1802 m. 1762.
Mother
Lady Christian Bruce (d.1810) daughter of 8th earl of Kincardine
Story
Daniel Sandford wrote to Christine Erskine following the death of her eldest brother Charles, a year after his younger brother James had also tragically died. Sandford wrote, 'The very severe affliction with which it has pleased God to visit you, induces me, who have already known you in affliction, to take the liberty of offering you condolence, & if I can, consolation', and the family valued the letter sufficiently to write out a copy of it which was preserved in the family archives (5). James, a Lieutenant in the navy since 1795 (4), had died in a tragic accident when his ship, Queen Charlotte, caught fire off Leghorn in the Mediterranean, and blew up and sank with great loss of life. (6 and 7). Charles was one of 300 British soldiers killed in the important defeat of the French in Egypt in 1801, led by General Sir Ralph Abercromby who also perished in the action. The Caledonian Mercury reported,
Aboukir had surrendered, and Alexandria was supposed by Lord Keith, if not taken, to be on the point of surrendering. The French cavalry, in the style of Mamelucks, attacked the British infantry, with all the impetuosity peculiar to the Arab caalry, but were defeated in every attack... This victory is undoubtedly of decisive and seasonable importance. It must be obvious to every one, that the success of our expedition to Egypt makes a wonderful alteration and improvement in our situation, places us in a more firm and formidable attitude, and enables us to negotiate with greater prospect of success. Government are in possession of the particulars of the loss sustained by the British army in its first operations on the Egyptian shores... Lieutenant Colonel Erskine of the 92d, lost a leg.'
And a few weeks later his death was announced (8). Christian and her brothers James and Charles are not mentioned amongst the children of James Erskine in (3). Their children are given as John (d.1792), David (1772-1847), William (1780-1805), and 'other issue'. It seems strange that James and Charles, whose deaths were recorded in the newspapers at the time, and remembered subsequently by military historians, were not recorded by the family.
Religious views
The letter from Sandford reveals more about his own religious views than Christine's, but it does suggest what he expects from her:
The feelings of our nature have a claim upon us, which it is neither contrary to reason nor to Religion, to indulge. We are to be careful indeed against excessive sorrow... & repining -- but it is necessary to know the value of what one has lost, before we can say that his sorrow is excessive, & we may be sure that, that lamentation is not likely to be importunate, which resignation to the Divine is ever ready to correct & chasten. Upon the acquaintance which I had had with you, I do not, Madam, presume too much, when I say, that I expect your affliction to be of this sort -- your loss is great -- I have no words for it -- but I am almost certain that this letter will find you patient, though afflicted, & resigned tho' sorely wounded.
Sandford's words show how the loss of an eldest son was a public as well as a private tragedy:
Of the excellent young man, whom you lament, I have not the happiness to know any thing personally; but I have heard from those who knew him well, how valuable & good he was... I sympathise with the parents & relations, who weep for the loss of a man of so much promise as Col. Erskine, in whom they had so much honest pride, of whose future worth & honor, they had affectionately formed such hopes: & I join most readily in the general regret, which we all can feel, that society, at a time, when we can little spare excellence of any kind, has been deprived of one, who seemed formed to become one of its most admirable & useful members. These are subjects of sorrow in wch we are all interested, & in which we can all take a part, and it may perhaps contribute somewhat to alleviate the afflictions of your departed Brothers family to know how sincerely even those unconnected with him, by blood or friendship accompany them in their distress.
Sandford's consolation was the theology of 'the best of all possible worlds' of Leibniz' Theodicy, and he aimed to show why Charles' death was the best thing for him:
His name will never be mentioned but with honor - will never be recollected by his countrymen, but with gratitude - by his fellow-soldiers, but with pride & honest emulation to follow his steps... that reputation is beyond the possibility of diminution, and that honor irreversibly secured. For him we cannot lament, how much sooner we lament for ourselves.'
Yet Sandford also defended free will, teaching that 'We are directed in Scripture to "work out our own Salvation" & therefore it is eveident that our own exertions arer requisite in order that "this Good" may arise to us from the events of all our lives.' The event could also produce good for Christian if her resignation produced greater trust in God, comforted her parents, and taught her to better reflect on her own death, so she 'may derive comfort under your present affliction, by applying it to this good purpose.' Despite attacks by Enlightenment philosophers following the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, Leibniz' doctrine still proved a useful tool for pastoral care in 1801, especially in the reaction against all philosophy associated with the French Revolution. It is almost as if Sandford is arming Christine with doctrinal weapons to continue the war against the French on behalf of her brother:
You are too religious, Madam, not to acknowledge with me, that our first & great duty is to resign ourselves & all our concerns, unreservedly, to the disposal of Almighty God: convinced that He, who is not only All Wise, but All Good, can never will nor do, that which is not ultimately for the happiness of his Creatures.
Sandford praises the Christian upbringing of the family:
You know the example your Brother ever saw in those excellent Parents who are left to bewail him -- you know the precepts they instilled into his breast... With respect to his condition you can have no doubt.'
The whole letter is written on the assumption that Christine is strongly religious:
If you find yourself therefore, at this trying period, less composed that you think you ought to be, do not make yourself unhappy on that account -- You will gain by God's mercy & assistance, strength in time... I wish to be the more earnest on this Subject as, of all the distresses of a pious Mourner, I know none more frequent & oppressive than the fear of not being sufficiently resigned & tranquil under affliction.
While there may be some wishful thinking or persuasive exaggeration in Sandford's assumptions of Christine's piety (his writings elsewhere suggest he is generally optimitic about the piety of his audience), he is clearly confident that he is writing to someone of strong faith, and the fact that his letter was preserved suggests he was not completely wrong.
Chapel connection
1801 Receipient of a pastoral letter from Daniel Sandford

Sources

  1. Registers of Charlotte Chapel (NAS CH12/3)
  2. Edinburgh Post Office Directory 1818
  3. Peter Beauclerk Dewar, Burke's Landed Gentry of Great Britain: The Kingdom in Scotland 19th edition (Burke's Peerage and Gentry, London 2001) p.389
  4. Commissioned Sea Officers of the Royal Navy, 1660-1815 (Navy records Society 1994)
  5. Copy of a letter from Daniel Sandford to Lady Christine Erskine, 26 May 1801, National Archives of Scotland GD124/15/1706
  6. 'HMS Queen Charlotte Figurehead' in Monuments and Memorials in Portsmouth, online accessed 13 June 2010
  7. Caledonian Mercury 12 April 1800 p.2 and 3
  8. Caledonian Mercury 4 May 1801 p.3 and 25 May 1801 p.3

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