Theodosia, Lady Powerscourt

Theodosia Anne Howard (1800-1836) was the daughter of Col. and Mrs. Hugh Howard of County Wicklow, Ireland. She was converted to God in 1819. A staunch evangelical clergyman, Robert Daly, the rector of Powerscourt, led her to Christ. Daly wrote, “I can testify that a great change took place in her views, in her tastes, in her life, in her conversation.”

Her cousin, Francis Theodosia Bligh, was married to Richard Wingfield, the fifth Viscount Powerscourt. After Francis died, Richard took her younger cousin as his second wife on June 29, 1822. Richard Wingfield was a devoted Christian, and both he and Theodosia maintained close ties to Daly, who saw in her, “the strongest mind that I ever met in any woman–uncommon masculine strength, combined with the extremest feminine gentleness.” This young lady became the remarkable hostess and warmhearted mystic who “seemed as if she lived in heaven, and barely touched the earth.”

Sadly, Viscount Powerscourt died on August 9, 1823, just over a year after their marriage. A month after her husband’s death, Theodosia wrote, “I do not suppose there could be a stronger lesson on the vanity of everything earthly, than to look at me last year, and this. The prospects of happiness I seemed to set out with! And now, where are they? A living monument that man in his best estate is altogether vanity; and see how my heart, without my knowing it, was on earth. I could not have thought, that one who professes to believe in the joys of heaven, and had tasted the realization of them by faith, could so mourn, as one without hope–could so willingly call him back again.” The following February, she wrote, “I have the promise I want: Let Thy widows trust in Me.” At this same time, Theodosia wrote:

Jesus, my sorrow lies too deep for human ministry;
It knows not how to tell itself to any but to Thee.

At that time, much of the prophetic passages of Scripture, which believers commonly rejoice in today, were an untracked frontier to the Christian community. Lady Powerscourt discussed future events with the best prophecy students in the land, and consulted whatever books on the topic were available; above all, she read the Scriptures attentively.

While visiting London, Lady Powerscourt went to hear Edward Irving, and also attended prophetic meetings held in  1827 at Albury Park in Surrey, England, in the home of the banker and member of Parliament, Henry Drummond.  About this time, she began to speak of Christ’s return in her letters. Edward Irving visited Ireland during September, 1830, and stayed at the Powerscourt mansion for about 8 days. In his sweeping oratorical fashion, he spoke in Dublin on “The Second Advent and the Everlasting Kingdom of our Lord.” Later, Irving would be excommunicated for heresy. But his excesses were not yet in the open. Irving can be credited with bringing the idea of Christ’s second coming before England. But the spirit and real substance of his preaching bore almost no resemblance to what was taught at the Powerscourt Conferences.

In 1829, Lady Powerscourt initiated discussions of prophecy at Powerscourt Castle on the second Tuesday of each month, where Robert Daly would field hard questions. All who were interested were invited. Serious Bible students gravitated to Powerscourt Castle.

She then sponsored week-long conferences at Powerscourt Castle (the first was October 4-7, 1831). The hall in the castle could hold audiences of over 100 people. She invited men from England, Scotland, and Ireland to stay at her house for a week. Among the eminent Christians were J. G. Bellett, Henry Craik, J. N. Darby, Edward Denny, Anthony Norris Groves, Captain Percy Hall, J. L. Harris, George Muller, B. W. Newton, W. G. Rhind, Henry Soltau, Dr. Tregelles, and G. V. Wigram. Meetings were held morning and evening; all the neighborhood was invited. Robert Daly presided at the first two conferences.

The second conference on Bible Prophecy was held on September 24-28, 1832. Brother Darby wrote to the editor of the Christian Herald, of the “solemnity which characterized the meeting…The progress in knowledge and exposition of Scripture was decided, but the practical apprehension of the subjects treated, yet more so…There was but one individual who introduced anything which could have given pain to any on these subjects; and that was a reference to the reception of ‘the gifts.'” Evidently Edward Irving’s teaching did not have any reception at the Powerscourt conferences.

Here are some notes recounting the daily subjects at the meetings:

“Monday Evening, September 24, 1832: Examining quotations given in the New Testament from the Old. Fifty-five different passages were referred to.

“Tuesday: The prophetic character of the three great feasts of the Jews, Jacob’s prophecy of his sons, the parables in the Gospels, and the epistles to the seven churches in Revelation.

“Wednesday: Should we expect a personal Antichrist? If so, to whom will he be revealed? Will there be one or two great evil powers in the world at that time?

“Thursday: What are the connections between Daniel and the Revelation?

“Friday: What does Scripture say about present events? What should we look for next? Is there a prospect of a revival of Apostolic churches before the coming of Christ?”

It is remarkable that their understanding of prophecy was so mature at such an early date. Long buried truths brought out at those meetings would be repeated in the most important works on prophecy the world over.

The 1832 conference was the watershed. It marked a divide not only for the cause of truth, but also in the personal histories of many there. Amid the conference’s controversy, Darby wrote, “The conference took a very marked and decided character and…evil and good came into great conflict, the Lord holding the reins.” Lady Powerscourt spent a night in tears over the decision of whether to remain in, or leave Anglicanism. Critics said the subjects were difficult to understand. “Extravagant assertions” were made, and contradicting dogmas insisted on “with the greatest pertinacity.”

B. W. Newton directed his frown at his hostess, “A lady who never apprehended the force of an argument. I never saw a person so devoted and pious and so unfit for discriminating as to what was to be taught [in divine things]. Lady Powerscourt once said to me: O that I had guidance from God! O that I could see God and He would direct me in the way I should walk! I replied to her: O Lady Powerscourt, if I could see you only giving heed to Scripture!” Newton diverged on certain points. He imagined the Church would go through the coming “tribulation,” whereas Sir Edward Denny and others, including Darby, taught the Church would, like Enoch in his day, escape that ordeal by being “caught up” first (see 1 Thess. 4:13-18; 1 Cor 15:51-54).

On the last day of the conference, Daly said he “certainly felt this evening a more awful sense of coming evil” than ever before. But he felt that the views being expressed were extremely “anti-church.” Daly remained in the established church and could not go all the way with his friend Darby, on the prophesied apostasy of Christendom and the need for separation. Darby asserted that we all have a duty “arising out of the pres- ent events” to leave Christendom and meet together in New Testament fashion. By the end of the conference, Lady Powerscourt joined with the small assembly.

Daly went on to become bishop of Cashel, and so was not present at the 1833 conference. At Powerscourt Castle in September of 1833, Lady Powerscourt arranged for a small, informal Lord’s Supper on her estate. At the 1833 conference, the rapture of the saints was openly taught by Darby. The last prophetic conference in Dublin was held in 1836 or 1838.

Did Darby almost marry her? It was rumored that, around 1831, Darby contemplated marriage to the widowed Lady Powerscourt: but that the engagement was broken off by mutual agreement when his commitment to a traveling ministry became obvious. Lady Powerscourt likely knew John Darby before the Powerscourt conferences began. Robert Daly was a close friend of both Darby and Lady Powerscourt. Also Darby had held meetings all through the vicinity of Powerscourt.

When some of the Christians in Dublin got wind of Darby’s engagement, they asked the Lord to keep him from taking this step. They feared that a wife would limit his ministry.

And they did more. William Kelly related that a certain brother Hargreaves, and others, urged Darby to break the engagement. Darby gave them his ear.

The engagement was mutually broken. It was said that the letters that they wrote to one another to end the engagement crossed in the mail. Lady Powerscourt implied that she took the lead in the break, speaking of being “the means of crushing one who loves you–for the happiness or misery of one dear to you, to hang upon your yes or no, and yet to have to pronounce no…it is very painful, especially when to this is added a long never.” So did she decide it would be better for Darby not to marry?

Years later, Darby said, “I turned down a marriage and broke a heart by doing so.” When Darby was eighty-one, he wrote to a newlywed, “You have a helpmeet, and I have trod it alone; but all is lost, so to speak, in His grace and faithfulness.”

Did she die of grief? If Theodosia’s heart was broken, the anguish was not divulged in her letters. Either she triumphed, or she had a very high pain threshold. To read her letters requires a pair of binoculars, as you watch an eagle soaring in the upper stratosphere.

In 1833, Lady Powerscourt decided to relinquish her mansion for a more humble abode. Her stepson had come of age and so took control of the castle and title of Viscount. How much wealth she retained is not known. After 1833, the conferences were also moved, at Darby’s suggestion, to a hotel in Dublin. William Pennefather wrote, “Lady Powerscourt is living at present in Dublin: through a mutual friend, Susan and I were invited to attend a meeting for reading the Scriptures, which she has established once a week: I found it very profitable, and so did Susan; everyone is allowed to give an opinion, or to ask questions. Mr. [Darby] and two or three clergymen were present. The former read 1 John 1, and spoke beautifully on the Christian’s hopes and present comforts. Lady P. is a lovely-looking creature, pale, elegant, dignified, and retiring; her face looks as if she were much in prayer and communion with God. We were introduced to her, and her address is very pleasing.”

Living in Dublin, she attended the meeting at Aungier Street until her death on December 30, 1836, at age 36. Darby continued his travels, often alone. He died at the age of 82 after virtually living out of a suitcase for decades.

Much of the material for this article taken from:

Letters and Papers of Viscountess Powerscourt: edited by Robert Daly
The History of the Brethren: Napoleon Noel
John Nelson Darby: Max S. Weremchuk
The Origins of the Brethren: Harold Rowden