Stow’s Religious Motivation

Providential circumstances led my thoughts to the necessity of doing something practically for the moral, physical, and intellectual elevation of the poor and working classes, instead of spending time in fanciful theories, and useless expressions of pity and commiseration for their sad condition. 1

Stow’s Christian faith


It is never prudent to assume the authenticity of personal faith, and particularly at an historical distance, but it seems reasonable to suppose that Stow’s motivation and sustained commitment to his educational work were founded on powerful Christian convictions and values. In any consideration of his life and work, therefore, it is informative to probe his Christian faith, his relationship with a number of Christian denominations, and his moral value system.

Stow’s Christian faith was nurtured by at least three sources: his family, over many generations; his association with friends and colleagues; and the power of the Christian church in the early decades of the nineteenth century.

Clearly, his upbringing was religious. Fraser described Stow’s mother, Agnes, as a major spiritual influence throughout his life: ‘Her Christian peace deepened with the years, and those subtle and silent forces which must tell on the opening history of childhood and youth, were perpetually surrounding her family’.2Stow also pays tribute to his father’s moral influence: ‘I may add a story which my father told me when a youth, to show that we may speak true words and yet deceive’.3

Weekly prayer meetings, conducted by his father, were held in the house, and the Rev. Dr. Love,4a well-known preacher, was a frequent visitor. William Stow purchased a family seat in the Laigh Kirk in Paisley which he left to his wife in his will.5

He and Agnes had all of their ten children baptised in the church. Stow’s elder brother, John, was involved in Sabbath Schools in Paisley, particularly Brown’s Lane School where he was leader.6

Besides gifts of £100 to the ‘House of Recovery’ (presumably provision for those in some kind of need) and to the Youth Church, in a heart-warming note John left £100 to the Parochial Sabbath School Society, addressed to ‘the heirs of John Stow’.7Stow’s sister, Margaret, among other charities, left £19.19 shillings to ‘The Scottish Missionary Society’ and to ‘The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland Extension Fund’.8Since Stow, at an early age, became interested in the ‘Youth’s Missionary Society’9it can be assumed that he, also, was actively involved in church life. Although the original building is now an Arts Centre, the ‘Laigh Kirk’ is still in existence.


On moving to Glasgow, Stow chose to attend St Mary’s Parish Church of Scotland, commonly known as the ‘Tron’10church, well-situated both to his home in the Gorbals and to his business in Argyll Street. There he was to meet the friends and colleagues, the second of the main influences on his Christian faith, who were so formative in the development of his values, beliefs and practice. His minister was the Rev Dr Thomas Chalmers, arguably the leading churchman of his generation, and when Chalmers moved to the new parish church of St John’s, Stow followed him. Chalmers’ powerful Glasgow sermons attracted large numbers and soon found their way into print. The recurring impact of the twice-weekly sermon, Bible study, committee and informal meetings and Sunday school preparation on a young man of eighteen and upwards must have been profound. ‘Live for something. Do good, and leave behind you a monument of virtue that the storm of time can never destroy’ Chalmers thundered from the pulpit.

Stow and Chalmers were still exchanging correspondence over thirty years later:11The enthusiastic but dutiful tone of the early notes is followed by a more mature exchange of views in subsequent letters. Stow’s thinking was undoubtedly influenced by his minister: other articles on the website will suggest that his views on pauperism and poor relief particularly in large towns, Malthusian theories of agriculture and population, Christianity and capitalism, national education, the development of conscience and the creation of a ‘godly commonwealth’ all reflect Chalmers’ enthusiasms. Even Stow’s interest in science, so apparent in his science curriculum and list of required apparatus, may have stemmed from the series of Thursday afternoon lectures on science and Christianity which Chalmers delivered from 1815-1816, when Stow was twenty-two to twenty-three.12

For the sake of completeness, we may also mention two further ministerial influences on Stow’s life. When Chalmers moved from Glasgow in 1823, Rev Dr Patrick MacFarlan from Polmont Parish Church was appointed to St John’s in July 1824. His ministry lasted only eighteen months but he remained interested in Stow’s work, for he was a committee member of the Glasgow Infant School Society (GISS) which was not formed until 1827 13and he visited the Drygate School on January 28th, 1830.14

Stow was actively involved in the appointment of McFarlan’s successor, Rev Dr Thomas Brown (see below). Like Chalmers, he too came from a country parish and was keenly involved in social issues. He was also a member of the GISS Committee and, according to his own testimony, he visited the Drygate School on many occasions, two of which, October 21st 1829 and August 31st 1830, are recorded.15Both McFarlan and Brown were to become Moderators – McFarlan of the Church of Scotland (1834) and of the Free Church (1845) and Brown of the Free Church (1843).16

Chalmers, McFarlan and Brown, however, are but three of a large group of middle-class, educated, influential, intelligent and articulate men who made up the leadership of St John’s church. An analysis of the membership of the Glasgow Education Society reveals that Stow’s fellow Elders, Deacons and Sabbath-School teachers included William Collins the printer and bookseller, William Brown who became a magistrate, George Lewis the first editor of The Scottish Guardian and latterly a minister of the Free Church of Scotland, William Alexander, an influential missionary to China, King the minister of St Stephens, and a clutch of merchants (James Playfair and two Buchanans, William and James), a banker (Paul) and an accountant (Cuthbertson). The subsequent impact on Stow’s life and work is unmistakable.

Stow’s evangelical faith

As a member of the Church of Scotland, we can surmise that Stow was of the Evangelical tradition17from the twin standpoints of personal faith and church politics.18Indeed, the GES Third Annual Report states that the directors of the society ‘were composed of clergymen and laymen of all the Christian denominations usually termed ‘Evangelical’.19

Chalmers’ influence on Stow is again clearly at work. While Chalmers began his church career as a Moderate, during a prolonged illness in 1809-10 he experienced a ‘conversion’ to the Evangelicals. This was partly influenced by the works of leading English Evangelicals,20partly by Whig Evangelical politicians and partly by a religious conviction of sin and consequent need of salvation. While the former directed his political writings, speeches and projects, it was the latter that empowered and impassioned the sermons absorbed by the young Stow. Bebbington 21has surveyed the common beliefs (as opposed to church management and organisation) among the nonconformist denominations including Baptists, Independents, Methodists, one wing of the Episcopal church and Presbyterians. While his analysis is based on English churches, Presbyterianism differed in central Scotland only by its higher social and political status.

In Bebbington’s analysis, three features, relevant to this discussion, characterised evangelical conviction. The first was an experience of conversion. While such an occurrence did not necessarily mirror the single, unique, ‘Damascus Road’ event of St Paul, the outcomes in observable Christian faith and behaviour were similar. What distinguished the Christian, as opposed to the non-believer, was a personal belief in the historical Jesus which consequently influenced conduct. Furthermore, since only the confessing Christian was ‘saved’, conversion was a matter greater than life or death – but of eternal life or death. Stow was only too aware of the frailty and brevity of life. ‘For myself have 12 (months) before buried in the tomb the representatives of three generations all near and dear to me’22he wrote to Chalmers on the death of his brother-in-law and business partner. ‘The grave has been stripped of almost anything like terror to me’ he added.23

But beyond the grave, for an Evangelical, lay eternal life – or damnation. The conversion of others was therefore a powerful motivator. This emphasis on conversion dominated sermons, written tracts and stimulated missionary endeavour among the young, the old, the poor and the ‘heathen’ at home and abroad. Before death, souls must be saved for eternity and, given the infant mortality rate, the sooner the better. Letters and conversations are littered with references to the need for decision-making in the Christian life and parents anxiously pressurised their children. Writing to one of his children (who, by the date, must have been William) Stow admonishes:

‘You are this day thirteen years old. A birthday is a solemn memento that time is fast fleeting on, and that eternity draws nigh. How near death may be to you, is only known to Him who knows all things past, present and future. At all events, it is high time now for you seriously to inquire of yourself, and in the presence of God and on your knees: Am I, or am I not, a child of God?’24 while he reflected in correspondence with his first wife:

‘Our conduct (if we be spared), will very soon be narrowly watched by our children and imitated; and although we are strictly moral let us inquire if we are, in conversation, sufficiently spiritual; for should our family conversation, in future, savour little or nothing of Christ, how do we know but that the best blessing may be with¬held from our dear offspring, and, like Eli’s sons, they may be cast away. Oh, how could we bear an eternal separation from any that on earth we tenderly loved!’25

The sentiment is also expressed in the emphasis on training teachers for the ‘mission field’, and in widely used catch phrases, for example the education of children as ‘citizens of earth and candidates for heaven’. It is also the stuff of lessons: the moral story of Tommy and Mary Wellwood tells of children visiting their mother’s grave:

One day, when seated thus on their mother’s grave, their father came up to them unperceived. ‘It is right,’ said he, ‘my dear children, that we should mourn over the loss of your mother. She will not however, return to us; but if we live holy lives, we shall go to her. We know not how soon we may be called hence, and therefore we should be making busy preparation for death, and judgment, and eternity. I hope, my dear children, that you do not think you are too young to die. See, here are little graves; and oh! what shall become of you if you die in your sins? You would never see your mother any more.’26

Bebbington’s second feature of evangelical belief was assurance: evangelical Christians were abundant in self-belief in the rightness of their cause. From a twenty-first century stance, such self-confidence appears arrogant: to the Georgian or Victorian merchant, entrepreneur, explorer or activist such certainty led to self-evident success. A sense of purpose, initiative, creativity, determination and collaboration with others are all products of self-confidence. This under-pinned Stow’s faith in the rightness of providing schools for children and training colleges for their teachers, despite the recurring obstacles of lack of money and staff, the absence of public and parental support, and dispiriting relationships with the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and the Committee of Education of the Privy Council. As we shall see, to literally slam the door on all that had been achieved in one college and march up the road to found another under trying circumstances demands an uncommon belief that it was right to do so.

The assurance of the Christian arose from the interpretation put on Christ’s death.27While future generations of Christians might regard the crucifixion as the inevitable outcome for a principled radical, the nineteenth-century evangelical believed that Christ died for the expiation of man’s sin. Thus God was just, and man’s offences must be punished, but through the crucifixion Jesus had atoned for them. The concomitant gratitude in the sinner led to Bebbington’s final characteristic of the evangelical, activism. Man might be saved from eternal damnation by faith, rather than good works, but it was right to show gratitude through Christian involvement and endeavour. Evangelicals as a group were noted for their social action. Thus when Chalmers invites Stow to become, in turn, a Sunday-School teacher, a deacon, and an elder, Stow does not refuse. And it is Stow’s Christian thankfulness to his ‘Saviour’ which fuels his membership, and subsequently leadership, of educational action groups and his concern for the underprivileged, whether boys in Parkhurst Prison, the unfortunate in the Poor Law Unions or the recently-released white, and later black, slaves in the West Indies under The Mico Charity.

To these attributes identified by Bebbington might be added another – the emphasis on personal godliness. Stow’s letters to his first wife (from 1825-1829) and later to his dying son, William, (from 1851-1852) are characterised by an intense piety founded on a knowledge and understanding of Scripture. The Scripture lessons described in detail in his own books28 along with the list of subjects recommended for Biblical training 29 show a breadth and depth of Biblical knowledge and considerable understanding of its concepts and precepts. He clearly appreciated, for example, the figurative, flexible, allegorical and emblematical nature of religious language which remains an essential accompaniment if not prerequisite to religious understanding. In his ubiquitous ‘As…… So’ approach to Christian teaching, Stow provided a method by which Scripture lessons focused on the tangible, identifiable, material constituents of the subject before relating these to the abstract spiritual and/or moral conclusions which might be drawn: ‘As – (the Natural) – so – (the Spiritual or Moral)’.30

Stow and church politics

Fraser is at pains to argue that Stow was ecumenical in outlook.
‘Although a Free Church elder, and zealously interested in that Church, he honoured the religious convictions of others, and never hesitated to appoint qualified trainers to the best schools, irrespective of their denominational connections. This catholicity enabled him to enjoy religious services with any Christian congregation, if incidentally associated with some of its members. He always looked with admiration on the Church of England, and often spoke with gratitude of the good which many within her pale were accomplishing. He therefore never hesitated to join in her services on Sabbath, when circumstances indicated the propriety of so. Nor was he less reluctant to worship God in fellowship with His people in either Wesleyan or Congregational chapel.’31

The schools opened under the aegis of GISS had strong links with the parish churches. Stow later recalled, when defining school catchment areas, that the normal arrangement was to include only the children of the immediate congregation (the Congregational Plan) or, if necessary to attract greater numbers, the wider parish (the District Plan). Under these arrangements the children would, by definition, be ‘gathered’ members only of the Church of Scotland.32

Stow expressed a preference for a third approach, the Local Plan, partly because the children would be drawn from all and no denominations. Indeed, perhaps Stow’s passion for inter-denominationalism has been overlooked in the stampede to disparage his commitment to Bible teaching. Respect amounting to worship of the Bible was one uniting factor among the multi-fragmented protestant denominations of the nineteenth century. When the Bible was taught not ‘in a technical scientific way, as a system of dogma and law, but instilled drop by drop, by parable and simile, by allusion and incidental application, by a general tone and spirit of teaching’33a whole a range of Christians could sign up including Independents, Methodists, Baptists and Wesleyans. Conversely, the insistence on the ‘Bible hour’ by Wilderspin 34and later the Committee of the Privy Council and the Irish National Government, conducted by chaplains/priests along sectarian lines, caused endless grief.

Fraser argues further 35that while the basis of the Normal Seminary was evangelical there was no interference with the religious opinions of the students and that this was rigidly adhered to, since to object to any one ‘form of belief or shade of opinion’ was to negate the tolerance on which the College was founded. The students were ‘unfettered by restrictions: they chose their own residences, paid their own way and attended, on Sabbath, such places of worship as were most acceptable to them’. He continues that there was never any attempt to proselytise, there were no controversies over church government or polity and life-long friendships were established across the denominational divide. He is, of course, defending the College twenty years later, from the point of view of a clergyman and lecturer in the Free Church tradition, but his claim that it was a ‘national’ institution, albeit non-representative of the Roman Catholic tradition,36appears just. Fraser claims that it was the Disruption which forced both the Colleges down the denominational route.

Stow and the Free Church of Scotland

The schism in the Church of Scotland, which had such an immediate, material and adverse effect on Stow’s work, was instigated by the controversy over patronage. Briefly, the issued concerned the right of the individual congregation to call their own minister as opposed to the right of the landowner who often had endowed the church, and continued to pay the minister’s stipend. Both arguments had a long political and pecuniary pedigree and the Moderates in the Church of Scotland, for much of the eighteenth century, had preferred to maintain stability within the realm and church.37

In 1834, however, the Evangelical Party attained a majority in the General Assembly and almost immediately introduced the ‘Veto Act’ which gave parishioners the right to reject a minister nominated by their patron. The ‘Auchterarder case’38is generally considered to have brought the issue to a head. The local presbytery refused to ordain Robert Young who was the patron’s, but not the congregation’s, nominee. Young appealed to the Court of Session who, by a slim majority, accepted that the church had acted beyond its powers in curtailing the rights of the patron. Both the issues and the conflict itself then escalated, since patronage questioned not only the rights of individual ministers and congregations but also the relationship between church and state. On 18th May, 1843, following a statement read by David Welsh, 450 ministers led by Chalmers, left the General Assembly and held the first meeting of what was to become the Free Church of Scotland in Tanfield Hall.

From the more limited perspective of those interested in Stow’s involvement in the Disruption there are a several interesting aspects. His experience of selecting a new minister began with Chalmers’ replacement. Since St John’s Parish Church was a creation of Glasgow Town Council, they held the right, normally that of the landowner, to appoint its ministers. On Friday, 29th August 1823 39Chalmers wrote to Stow from Anstruther (where his mother was ill) asking him to attend the Deacon’s Meeting 40the following Monday between seven and eight prior to the meeting of the Kirk Session. Stow’s brother-in-law and Kirk Treasurer, John Wilson, would also be absent and Chalmers had appointed a Moderator, Mr Muir, in his own and Wilson’s absence. He must have been aware of the unsettling effect of his proposed appointment to the chair of moral philosophy at St Andrews since he acknowledges that many considered that the success of the St John’s Experiment was due to his own ‘mysterious energy’ and not to the system itself. He was also aware of the debate in appointing his successor since, in the same letter he expresses his concerns: ‘There is nothing that now presses upon my spirit more than the need of universal peace among the various members of my agency’.

By 1st December, 1823, Chalmers had left Glasgow and Stow took the opportunity of a friend’s intention visit to him in St Andrews to hurriedly pen a few lines. The contents are less measured as a result:
‘At this moment we are awkwardly placed no Individual Minister having yet appeared that seems likely to unite every party. Tho’ the most of us are exceedingly desirous for unanimity or something like it, a few are determined for Mr Russel (sic). I certainly admire him much as a Preacher but whether from all I have heard whispered and from some physiognomical observation, his tempers may lack that soothing cast so as to preserve the Agency together I do not know. I would sacrifice taste in a Preacher if single in his aim and provided he was a localist in its true and rigid forms. Mr Brown of Ferguslie is a favorite (sic) with many. I think we would commit no mistake in choosing him.’41

Three weeks later Stow wrote again to Chalmers, somewhat covertly (‘as some of them are hostile to the idea of asking you’):
The Deacons met last week twice. At the 2nd meeting there was found 12 or 14 for Mr Brown, 5? for Mr. Russel & 5 or 6 did not vote. At a subsequent meeting all voted for Mr Brown but one. At our meeting on Monday (of Elders) it was approved that only one petition should be sent to the Magistrates and that in favor of the two clergymen principally spoke of Messrs Russel & Brown in order to avoid division in the Session. However it would not do & we divided when it found that 8 were for Mr Russel & 7 for Mr Brown & 4 did not vote but who expressed themselves favorable to Mr Brown, but would have liked Mr Greig.42

It was a nice sleight of hand to leave the Magistrates to take a decision rather than split the church session. However, by the time it was agreed to take only the two names of Brown and Russel to the Council, Russel had been made aware of the controversy and withdrew his candidature. Whereupon, Russel’s supporters in St John’s withdrew the Elder’s recommendation to the Council. In his description of this debacle, Stow tells Chalmers ‘if 1 or 2 plodding Members do not think quick I fear the majority will very quickly take the matter into their own hands’.43

Eventually the Rev Thomas Brown was appointed: while he went on to a successful pastorate (until the Disruption in 1843), Stow must have been, to quote a good Scot’s phrase, ‘fair scunnered’ with the whole process. Sometime after 1826 Stow moved to Ashfield House in Sauchiehall Street.44

The journey to St John’s was no doubt onerous and between 1837, when the church was opened, 45 and 1842, when he was admitted as Elder, he ‘lifted his lines’ to St Matthew’s Parish Church on the corner of Bothwell Street and North Street. In April 1843, a month before the ‘Disruption’, Stow and three other Elders;’ 46 became concerned that their minister was failing to give a lead over the issue of patronage:
‘In the month of April, we became more and more disturbed on considering our position in reference to the proceedings of the evangelical party in the church. Mr. M’Morland, our minister, had kept back from any decided declaration of his views in regard to the approaching disruption, and it seemed more certain every day that he would adhere to the moderate party, at least to that party which was prepared to accept the emoluments offered by the State, on the footing that it will submit to compulsion by the patrons and civil tribunals in the ordination of ministers and the performance of their spiritual acts.’47

What happened next must be considered alongside the desperate attempt (recorded in the article on Stow and the Glasgow Education Society) to keep the Glasgow Normal Seminary neutral. The four elders met together on several occasions and requested a Session meeting with their minister to discuss the issue. When Mr M’Morland dithered, they published a list of four resolutions in the ‘Scottish Guardian’. Not surprisingly, ‘Mr. M’Morland hastened to summon the desired meeting of Session’48 when the four, after having laid their resolutions on the table and ensured that they had been duly recorded in the minutes, withdrew. A meeting of all those in sympathy with the resolutions was called in Free St Peter’s Church 49 in Oswald Street. About 200 signed up, and began meeting in a schoolroom in Bothwell Street. With typical organisation, the ‘parish’ was divided into four, a collector assigned to each and Allan Buchanan appointed treasurer. By 24th May, while the ‘Historic Assembly’ was still taking place in Edinburgh, sufficient funds had been collected to warrant the setting up of a committee to look for the site of a new Free Church. This was found in Kent Road (just across North Street) and the foundation stone was laid on 11th October. ‘Building operations were continued through the winter, the small congregation being meantime most kindly accommodated by the minister and people of Free St. Peter’s’.50

In the meantime a new minister was urgently sought and Rev Samuel Miller was eventually persuaded to leave Monifieth. The church in Kent Road was opened on 14th April 1844: it cost £1200 and could seat 900. The first recorded meeting of Free St Matthew’s Session was held on October 30th, 1844: Stow is listed as one of the Elders and Philip (1898) includes his photograph as one of the founding fathers.51

By 1845, a Female School of Industry had been set up in Anderston and a female teacher appointed at £25 per annum with a free house. The following year, the congregation established a Free Church School in Main Street, Anderson ‘under the charge of Mr. Robertson, teacher, and seventy children were very soon reported as in attendance’. Philip adds: ‘Mr. David Stow (along with) other members of Session strongly sympathized with this benevolent enterprise’.52

The congregation quickly outgrew the original building 53and by 1849 a site for a larger church was proposed on the corner of Bath Street and Elmbank Street, highly convenient for Stow’s new house. It was opened on 12th October 1851. As Philip notes it was an ‘heroic age of deacons’ courts’, and, indeed, of fund-raising. Among the extensive inventory of funds to be raised ‘The ‘New Normal Seminary’ is listed.

A further, if minor, manifestation of Stow’s involvement in the Disruption concerns his position in the well-known painting of the event: ‘The Signing of the Deed of Commission’ 54 by David Octavius Hill. Stow is number 297, in section E, behind a group of Edinburgh educationists and alongside a row of women.55

He is clearly not sitting with the leaders, the theologians nor the ministers who were his friends and colleagues. Nevertheless, among the 450 portraits are twenty-five individuals who figured in Stow’s story.56 Of course, Chalmers, McFarlan and Brown are present, with William Collins and John Blackie the publishers and Fraser, soon to be a lecturer in the new Free Church Training College (FCTC). There were seven others who were directors, committee members and/or benefactors of GISS and GES. In addition, Thomas MacLauchlan, a member of the Highlands Committee is represented. He must surely have had contact with John Wilson, Stow’s business partner and brother-in-law, who was also actively involved in the Highlands Mission. Tantalisingly, James McCosh of Brechin was present: one of the earliest prospectuses 57 for an infant school, modelled on Stow’s approach, is for the town of Brechin. So, too, is Rev John Anderson of the Madras Mission. A student from Madras attended the FCTC: Andrew Bell’s Monitorial system is often referred to as ‘The Madras System’. There appears to be more for Stow to talk about as he processed down to the gas factory at Tanfield on May 18th, 1843 than the issue of patronage.

Paradoxically, however, whatever the demerits of patronage, Stow was not above seeking help for members of his own family and friends.58

His son, William, sought preferment in the Church of England. On the death of the incumbent Vicar of Avebury, William had a reasonable claim to the position but he was young and untried and needed the support from the local landowner and patron, the third Marquis of Lansdowne, who was conveniently also a Whig friend of his father. Fraser unashamedly notes that William was appointed ‘through the kindness of the Marquis of Lansdowne’.59

And, in a very curious incident, Stow appointed Mr Elihu Body to the Parish church of Wonersh, in Surrey, three miles from Guildford. Whether Stow was simply acting on behalf of the patron, the 3rd Lord Grantley, or whether he had actually leased the tithes which entitled him to appoint the vicar is currently unknown. At any event, Rev Body, who had previously been a teacher, who continued his post as Chaplain of the Grammar School, Clapham, and who held the office for the next 39 years, was given the preferment under Stow’s patronage.60


What are we to make of these scraps of historical trivia? Was Stow naïve or overtaken by events or simply realistic? A decision to resist the movement towards separation would have entailed resigning his membership of the Evangelical wing of the Church of Scotland and going over to the Moderate Party. He would have lost the respect and support of Chalmers, his erstwhile mentor, and David Welsh, a founder member of GISS, who were leading the campaign. Perhaps, most convincingly, to have remained with the Church of Scotland would have caused unnecessary controversy within GES, most of whom were Evangelicals, at a calamitous time in the financial management of the Glasgow Normal College. Perhaps Stow was more pragmatic than theological.

Nevertheless the outcome for Stow’s work in the Glasgow Normal School turned out to be disastrous. Suffice it to say, at this point, that with the Church of Scotland now in charge of the Glasgow Normal College and the Free Church of Scotland about to be in charge of the Free Church Training College, any attempt at inter-denominationalism within a national college was at an end. While the student registers show that Wesleyans and the occasional Independents and Baptists attended the latter, the students were predominantly Free Church. As Fraser noted,61 the colleges were now both sectarian and provincial and, while their main purpose of pupil and teacher education continued, the ethos of religious tolerance was lost.

Stow’s emphasis on moral education

Stow’s insistence that the all-encompassing purpose of education was the formation of character based on moral values has a most contemporary tone. Even 160 years later, few would argue with his list of the moral attributes he praises or condemns:
‘A few of the evil propensities and habits may be mentioned, which it is the duty of the trainer to restrain and suppress as they are developed; whether mental, in the school gallery, or practical, in the school play-round, viz., rudeness, selfishness, deceit, indecency, disorder, evil speaking, cruelty, want of courtesy, anger, revenge, injustice, impatience, covetousness, and dishonesty, so fearfully general in society.

On the contrary, all the amiable feelings and Christian virtues must be cultivated, such as speaking truth, obedience to parents and all in lawful authority, honesty, justice, forbearance, generosity, gentleness, kindness, fidelity to promises, courteousness, habits of attention, docility, disinteredness, kindness to inferior animals, pity for the lame and the distressed, and weak in intellect, and, in general, do unto others as we would wish to be done by.’62

The ground for debate, then as now, was the source of those moral values. The caricature of ‘Stow’s ideal pupil being an infant saint with some knowledge and Wilderspin’s an infant prodigy with some religion’63sums up the arguments about educational provision and religious proselytism which ravaged all attempts to establish a system of national education in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Wilderspin argued that religion was an essential subject for study; Owen and Cobden that it was an interesting subject for study; and Stow, and the religious denominations, that all subjects of study are pointless without it. Given the dominance of the contemporaneous Christian Church, opponents of this view had a hopeless if indisputable case.64

Both their arguments that religion is a personal rather than a societal/political matter, and that the vicissitudes of religious controversy stymied action, were but faintly heard. Owen, for example, took his disappointment to New Harmony while Cobden lost his eminently reasonable debate in the House of Commons by 90 votes.65

This account, however, concerns Stow’s views, and he single-mindedly believed that the purpose of education was the moral development of the child and that this was inseparable from religious education:
‘We acknowledge the power and the usefulness and the necessity of this physical training 66

as an important part of the system of every training school; but, unless it is founded on and accompanied by an equally intellectual, and, above all, religious and moral training, it will, on the first application of the external pressure of circumstances, fall, like a whip-cream, into its original nothingness.’67

Inevitably, given their foundation, the majority of directors of existing schools agreed with him: religious instruction was the raison d’etre for the existence of the school. This was the case in denominational schools (for example Nonconformist, Wesleyan, Church of Scotland and the odd Baptist and Independent); and in schools set up by religious organisations, for example The National Society representing the Church of England and the Society for the Propagation of the Christian Gospel representing the non-conformists. Parental expectations and pressure ensured that local provision, such as Dame and Adventure Schools, would also embrace religious instruction which included, besides knowledge, – belief, faith and practice. Indeed, such expectations were the foundation of some national systems not least in Scotland where Knox’s concept of a school in every parish assumed that their basis was religious instruction, as so defined. And in Stow’s experience such religious instruction was at the heart of the Sabbath-School movement.

However, Stow went further, arguing that religious instruction, while an important basis of moral behaviour was insufficient to generate moral behaviour itself. Since the purpose of schooling was to change the moral behaviour of the individual and, in time, the local and national community, religious instruction without moral training was futile. He quotes two types of supporting evidence for this view. Firstly, as with his educational theory in general, he argues that knowing is not doing: teaching is not training:
‘We only know a thing when we do it, whether the doing be an act of the understanding, the conscience, the affections, or a bodily movement of tongue, hand, or foot. This is the grand reason why religious instruction, alone, fails in morally elevating society to anything like the extent we might expect.’68

In common with other examples of secular education, he contends that being shown how to ‘make a watch or hem a frill or paint a landscape’ is hardly the same as doing them.69

Secondly, he reasoned that religious instruction alone did not necessarily produce moral behaviour. In the examples given under the heading ‘Moral statistics of general society’70

Stow is quick to point out that the most religious are not necessarily the most moral. He illustrates the respectable lady who defrauds the Excise man; the sharp business practice of a ‘highly respectable silk mercer’, the unjust use of weights and measures, and the gentleman who supplied his house with fuel by encouraging canal boatmen to aim lumps of coal at a bottle expressly provided for the purpose. His particular ire is reserved for unprincipled church-goers.71

Stow takes his thesis further by arguing that where individuals have not been morally trained, in addition to receiving religious instruction, then they cannot be held responsible for their actions. Significantly, this adjunct accompanies the story of a barrister who, in his youth, attended a boarding Academy and was involved in stealing two geese ‘for fun’, in conjunction with viciousness and lying in court to escape punishment:
‘Could this advocate for truth and justice ever afterwards professionally be disposed to punish the poor neglected, uninstructed, untrained boy who might steal a fowl or his neighbour’s pocket handkerchief from want, until the poor fellow had first been trained to know the evil of such conduct? Is any government at liberty to punish the guilty, until they first furnish the means or moral and intellectual training? Restrain, no doubt, they must and ought to do, but have they a right to punish?’72

While an analysis of Stow’s curriculum implies a belief in moral absolutes, as defined and illustrated in Christian Scripture, his examples and comments suggest a deep understanding of situational ethics. Thus as a statement of moral principle, stealing is wrong: but determination of responsibility depends on both an understanding of the wrongness in principle; and the reason for the theft. Hence his opprobrium for the wealthy church-goer who defrauds his customers compared with the morally uneducated father with children to feed who steals bread and the youngsters who vandalise property because they do not have enough to do.73

And a knowledge of right and wrong, and its application to particular circumstances, also depended on the development of an individual’s conscience.

The development of conscience

Paradoxically, Stow took a practical rather than a theological view of the development of conscience: that is, the knowledge of what was right behaviour came, not so much from God, but from three human sources – precept, example, and the respect or shame shown to the individual by others. Precepts had to be identified and taught explicitly. Many were unambiguously defined in the teaching of Jesus and in the lives of Biblical characters, stories and events. Some could be inferred from general lessons drawn from Scripture or from life; all had to be illustrated, and made relevant and appropriate for young children.74 Examples of right behaviour drawn from Scripture parables include mercy shown by one debtor to another (‘The Two Debtors’); kindliness towards a foreigner (‘The Good Samaritan’); the importance of developing individual talent and potential (‘The Fig Tree’ and ‘The Talents’) and forgiveness (‘The Cruel Servant’).75

Secondly, examples of right behaviour, modelled by adults to be imitated by children, were provided by the home, supplemented by the school. Stow acknowledged that not all parents had a sufficient understanding of right behaviour, since they themselves had not been ‘morally trained’. Nevertheless, he strongly believed that the home provided the primary (both chronologically and chief) source of a moral paradigm. Where the school was to either take over the moral development of children (if the parents utterly failed) or at least supplement their moral development then teachers, unlike parents, must be carefully selected for their moral values and behaviour. Hence all candidates for teacher-training had to provide recommendations as to their moral behaviour, usually from the supporting religious body, and were subject to continuing moral investigation. Indeed, some candidates did not qualify on one or both counts. The moral quality of the teacher, given their status as role models, remains a valid if contentious issue.76

And thirdly, conscience was based on self-respect shaped by the praise and blame of others. For children, such praise and blame for their actions came, not from the teacher (although he/she constructed the context, channelled the discussion and analysed the outcome), but from the children. This principle, which Stow called the ‘sympathy of numbers’ is probably the most well-known of his strategies, even in his day.77

The approach required a playground, ‘the child’s little world’, where children could play freely; an intelligent, hard-working and empathetic teacher whom the children loved and respected;78 and a gallery where upwards of 100 children (later reduced to 40) could be seated together. The children were encouraged to play, free from external restraint, before and after school, and during the frequent intervals between lessons, observed by the teacher. At some point later (not always immediately) the teacher described any misdemeanours and encouraged all the children to discuss relative guilt and suitable punishment. In all the cases quoted the public examination was sufficient punishment although Stow quotes two instances were he was almost driven to use corporal punishment.79

The intention was not only to castigate the offender, but to develop values of justice, mercy and generosity of spirit in the judges. In one incident, for example, a girl had lost the penny she had brought to school for her lunch. She enquired of the teacher if it had been handed in and when it was not, the teacher (presumably Stow) taught a lesson on theft at the beginning of the following day:
‘Towards the end of the lesson I observed a troubled, hesitating face in the gallery. I asked (the children) what they would think of the boy that had taken it, if he rose and came just now to return it. ‘That he is a good boy’, ‘That he is a bad boy’, That he has done what’s right’ were the various answers given. ‘Do you think that his coming and restoring the penny makes him a bad boy?’ ‘No sir’. ‘Well if he don’t come, what’s the difference?’ ‘It makes him worse still’. ‘It is his duty then to restore it’. …..
Suffice it to say that, after some time, the guilty boy stood partially up. I asked him if he had anything to say. No answer. I asked him to come and see me. He came and restored a halfpenny, as he had spent the other as soon as he had found the penny. Another difficulty presented itself. The little girl did not wish to make him pay the other halfpenny. About sixty – who happened to have a penny for their bread and milk – offered one of their halfpennies to the little girl, and vied with each other in their solicitations to be allowed to give it. I gave him a halfpenny, that he might complete the sum. He would have done it himself, I have no doubt, but he takes his luncheon at home, and is allowed no money for bread. He since offered me a halfpenny as payment of his debt. Here was a triumph over a bad principle, which harsher means could never have so effectually secured.’

Given the criticism by several sources81 of the apparent strain placed on children by this approach it should be emphasised that the teacher was expected to select the incidents for such treatment, decide if they should be dealt with publicly or privately, immediately or later, and respond sympathetically to individual needs. Stow writes, with reference to a particularly difficult boy:
‘There is, assuredly, a key to every mind, and to find which it is the duty of every trainer to use all the means in his power. There is in this no undue condescension, no unnecessary lowering of status; there is a dignity and responsibility in searching through the arcane of mind, and examining its various laws and phenomena for the purpose of more effectually developing and directing all the energies of intellect, and moulding the whole character.’82

Inevitably some teachers lacked the time and patience for the approach and some children might have preferred a more immediate punishment than that of being subject to the praise and blame of their peer group. Stow himself was aware that, once resources allowed it, the strategy worked best when children were in smaller, age-related groups. On the one hand, children were less likely to respond to those who were not in their peer group; on the other, to be publicly castigated in front of younger children would only cause resentment. In these circumstances, such criticism that the approach was hurtful is well-founded.

From this study of the three bases of the knowledge of right and wrong we might infer that for Stow the conscience was not created absolute but could be developed and matured. There were two means of doing this – one was what Stow called ‘force of habit’: and the other, the intellectual analysis and establishment of moral principle. ‘Force of habit’ worked for good or ill. ‘We must remember’, Stow wrote, ‘that no man becomes a criminal, any more than a drunkard, at once. The first steps, the littles, (sic) are the dangerous points’.83

But force of habit also positively extends the conscience. ‘The man that can be persuaded to pull out and part with a shilling, and again a half-crown, gets his conscience and his habits in better condition for afterwards parting freely with the pounds’.84

With children, there were fewer bad habits to undo (a point Owen noted), more time to form good habits, and praise and the intrinsic reward of right feeling reinforced the habit. ‘The child that can be induced to part with a penny, or half his bun, or to call on a poor neighbour, will very shortly feel a pleasure in the act, and the doing will eventually form a habit which, coupled with principle, he will carry with him through life’.85

The phrase ‘coupled with principle’ is essential since conscience was not merely about feeling good, but acting upon a moral code.

This article has attempted to summarise the personal qualities which motivated Stow as a private individual and provided the impetus for his challenge to improve society at large.


  1. Fraser. (1868) op cit, p. 9.
  2. Stow. (1854) The Training System, op cit, 10th ed. ‘Moral Statistics of General Society’, p. 132.
  3. Dr John Love (1657-1750), Church of Scotland minister. Love Street in Paisley is named after him. Love was founder/secretary of the London (and Glasgow) Missionary Society and the Church of Scotland’s first important missionary station in Africa, at Caffaria (established in 1830), was named Lovedale in his honour. A student from Caffraria attended the Normal Seminary.
  4. ‘Item pew or seat number thirty five in the Laigh Church of Paisley on the east of the area and north of Baillie Cochran’s seat, with the ground right timber table and pertinents thereof’ from the will of William Stow.
  5. McKechin, William J. (2000) Schools in Paisley before 1872. Paisley: University of Paisley.
  6. John Stow’s will.
  7. Margaret Stow’s will.
  8. Fraser (1868) op cit, p. 227.
  9. From the ‘tron’ or public weighbridge nearby.
  10. The last extant letter from Stow to Chalmers is dated 2nd December 1846, a year before Chalmers died.
  11. Even if Stow was unable to attend the lectures he surely read Chalmers’ ‘Astronomical Discourses’ published in 1817 which sold 20,000 copies in nine months.
  12. GISS First Annual Report.
  13. GISS Visitors’ Book, January 28th, 1830.
  14. GISS Visitor’s Book, October 21st, 1829.
  15. St John’s-Renfield Church, author unknown, published Glasgow, Pillans and Wilson, 1969, p.7.
  16. Fraser, op cit, also states that Stow was an Evangelical, p.153.
  17. It is worth noting Wallace’s (1889) analysis that previous to Chalmers’ arrival, evangelical doctrines ‘nauseated’ the upper classes and the Town Council was determinedly anti-evangelical. p. 207.
  18. GES Third Annual Report, p. 5.
  19. For example, William Wilberforce (1759-1833); Thomas Scott (1747-1821); David Brewster (1781-1868); and Andrew Thomson (1779-1831) all quoted by Stuart J. Brown, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: OUP, 2004-2008 and related entries.
  20. Bebbington, D. (2004) ‘Evangelicalism in modern Britain’. (London. 1989) quoted in Smith, Mark. ‘Religion’ in A Companion to nineteenth-century Britain, Edited by Chris Williams, Oxford, Blackwell.
  21. William Stow, his father (05.09.1831); Agnes, his daughter (26.07.1831). John Wilson, his brother-in-law (1832).
  22. Letter from Stow to Chalmers: 19th September, 1832.
  23. Fraser. (1868) op cit, p. 242. Given the date, this must be addressed to William.
  24. Fraser. (1868) op cit, p. 233.
  25. Caughie, David. ‘The Glasgow Infant School Magazine’. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1875.
  26. Bebbington uses the term ‘Crucifixionism’ in his analysis.
  27. The eleven editions of ‘The Training System’; four editions of ‘Bible Training for Sabbath and weekday schools for parents and teachers and the books of ‘Bible Emblems’. For details of Stow’s moral and Biblical curriculum, see Appendices 3/3 and 3/5.
  28. Stow. ‘Bible Training: A Manual for Sabbath School Teachers and Parents’, nine editions with various titles; and examples in ‘The Training System’, see Bibliography of Stow’s work.
  29. Fraser. (1868) op cit, p. 275.
  30. Fraser. (1868) op cit. p. 288.
  31. Stow. (1859) Bible Training: A Manual for Sabbath School Teachers and Parents 9th ed. (enlarged) Edinburgh: Thomas Constable and Co., ‘ 3: The Local System of Establishing Sabbath Schools. The four types of catchment area were Congregation, General, Parochial, and Local.
  32. The Chronicle, January 18th, 1868 p. 62. Unattributed article.
  33. In Wilderspin’s system there were twenty-four Bible lessons. Although he attempted to ‘avoid any of the points on which sects of Christians differ’ (Bache, 1839, p. 160), this paradoxically drew attention to the differences while hardly constituting a programme of work.
  34. Fraser. (1868) pps. 153, 4.
  35. Stow was, unfortunately, a signatory of the ‘Glasgow Clerical Petition’ against the government grant for St Patrick’s College, Maynooth in 1831. Cf. ‘The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette’, Vol. 1. Glasgow: Muir, Gowans and Co. 1831, pps 196-200.
  36. See the Patronage Act, 1712; The Secession from the Church of Scotland led by Ebenezer Erskine in 1734; and the formation of the Relief Church by Thomas Gillespie in 1752. By the beginning of the nineteenth century there were about 150,000 ‘seceders’ of various descriptions.
  37. Followed by the similar ‘Marnock case’.
  38. Letter from Chalmers to Stow: 29th August, 1823.
  39. As an Elder, Stow would not expect, or be expected, to attend the Deacon’s meeting.
  40. Letter from Stow to Chalmers: 1st December, 1823.
  41. Letter from Stow to Chalmers: 20th December, 1823.
  42. Ibid.
  43. ‘Closed record in multipoinding and exoneration (1901) Stow and others, Trustees of the late David Stow against Agnes Graham Stow or Silvester and others’. By 1872, Ashfield House was in use as a boarding house. The students paid £18 pa in return for which they were provided with desks in the communal study and dormitory accommodation; see Cruikshank (1970), p. 80.
  44. Herren, Andrew. (1984 and 2007) ‘Historical Directory to Glasgow Presbytery’ available online at the Presbytery of Glasgow website (as of May, 2010)
  45. Allan Buchanan, a strong supporter of Stow’s work; Mr James Keyden; and Mr Peter Lawson
  46. Note appended before the Minutes of St Matthew’s Free Church and recorded in Philip, George E. (1898) Free St Matthew’s Church, Glasgow, A record of fifty-five years. Glasgow: David Bryce and Son.
  47. Philip. (1898) op cit, p. 22.
  48. ‘Free’ is an historical anachronism added later: at the time it was a Chapel of Ease which opted to become ‘Free’ following the Disruption.
  49. Ibid, p. 24.
  50. Ibid, p. 21.
  51. Ibid p. 36.
  52. Which was sold to the ‘Free West Church’ congregation.
  53. Dr Gunn of the High School, Edinburgh; Mr Dalgleish of Dreghorn College; Mr Gibson, Head of Merchiston Castle School; Mr Oliphant, Rector of the ‘Free Church Training College; and Professor Patrick MacDougall (at the extreme right of the Picture), of the Chair of Moral Philosophy, Edinburgh University, who was the bosom friend of Dr Chalmers’. Extract from the Book of the Picture: the signing of the Deed of Commission by David Octavius Hill.
  54. Mrs Dingwall Fordyce of Bruckley; Mrs Lundie Duncan; and Miss Abercrombie (at the extreme right of the picture). The first two were generous promoters of Mr MacDonald’s School Schemes, and the third was the Secretary of the Ladies’ Schools in the Highlands and Islands. The Book of the Picture, op cit.
  55. See Appendix 3/8.
  56. 1835. Prospectus of an Infant School for the town and suburbs of Brechin.
  57. Patronage, preferment and the ‘presentation of a living’ by estate owners was common in the Church of England. Stow appears to accept this. He would certainly be aware of the ‘Clapham Sect’, for example, through their common acceptance of Evangelical beliefs and politics; through articles in ‘The Edinburgh Review’, through Wilberforce’s contribution to the anti-slavery movement, and possibly through Rev Elihu Body as above. Stow also contributed at least one article to ‘The Christian Observer’ which was instigated by members of the Clapham Sect.
  58. Fraser, op cit, p. 246
  60. Fraser, op cit, p. 156.
  61. Quoted by HM Mr Symons in his Report on Parochial Union schools, MCCE 1847-8-9, 258-259.
  62. Salmon, D. (1904). Infant schools, their history and theory, Longman, Green and Co.
  63. Cf. The Crosby Hall Lectures on Education. (1848) London: John Snow.
  64. Cobden, R. (1908). Speeches on questions of public policy. London, T. Fisher Unwin.
  65. By ‘physical’ Stow meant ‘by habit’.
  66. GES Third Report, 1836, p. 10.
  67. Stow. (1854) The Training System, op cit, 10th ed., p. 143.
  68. Stow. (1854) The Training System, 10th ed., p. 137
  69. Stow. The Training System, op cit, 8th, 10th and 11th eds.
  70. Stow. (1854) The Training System, 10th ed., p. 141.
  71. Stow. (1854) The Training System, 10th ed., p. 146.
  72. See Stow (1854) The Training System, op cit, pps.112.113 for a most relevant discussion the causes of vandalism.
  73. See Appendices 3/3 and 3/5.
  74. Stow. (1859) The Training System, op cit, 11th ed., p. 428-429.
  75. In recent research, for example, Hay McBer (2000) identified sixteen ‘professional characteristics’ which make an observable difference to the quality of the classroom experience. These included respect for others, telling the truth and the following: ‘Even when it is difficult to do so, or there is a significant personal cost, the teacher acts consistently in accordance with her/his own stated values and beliefs’.
  76. See for example: ‘The life of the schoolroom is an artificial life; what the children are there, they are not when they have crossed the threshold. Their characters develop themselves under new and unexpected forms in the playground. And it is for this reason that the care of the teacher over the children in their play-ground constitutes an essential part in the training system of Mr Stow, who more successfully than perhaps any living man has laboured to impress on the public mind the great principle that the education of the school should include ….. their religious and moral training and nurture.’ Rev H. Moseley’s report on ‘Male Training Schools’ in the Minutes of the Committee of Council on Education, 1853-54, p. 446.
  77. ‘Whilst the pupils sympathise with each other, it is im¬portant that the children sympathise with their master. For this purpose, it is necessary that he place himself on such terms with his pupils as that they can, without fear, make him their confidant, unburden their minds, and tell him any little story, or mischievous occurrence. Teachers and parents, desirous of gaining the confidence of their children, must in fact themselves, it were, become child¬ren, by bending to, and occasionally engaging in, their plays and amusements. Without such condescension, a perfect knowledge of real character and dispositions cannot be obtained.’ Stow. (1850) 8th ed., Chapter X ‘The Sympathy of numbers’.
  78. Children enrolled from other schools where they had been trouble-makers; and the occasional boy who, initially, did not succumb to this form of peer pressure.
  79. Stow. (1846) The Training System, 7th ed., p. 404.
  80. For example, Wood, Henry P. David Stow and the Glasgow normal seminary. Glasgow, Jordanhill College of Education, 1987, p. 22.
  81. Stow. (1846) The Training System, 7th ed. p. 405-406.
  82. Stow. (1850) The Training System, 10th ed. p. 147.
  83. Stow. (1850) The Training System, 10th ed. p. 143.
  84. Stow. (1850) The Training System, 10th ed. p. 145.