Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Fifty Years of the General Assembly – A Reminiscence in 1917 (pt 3)



In looking over the Minutes of Assembly for 1867 to recall some of the proceedings, I observed that in the form of presentation and in the marginal notes, the Minutes were the same as at present, with the difference that the statistical reports are now more detailed and the organisations more numerous. I observe also that the Minutes of 1867 were signed by the Rev. Robert Park, the junior Clerk, with the statement that the Rev. T. M. Reid, Rathfriland, the senior Clerk, was unable to be present. I cannot recall the appearance of Mr. Reid and I am not sure that I ever saw him, as Mr. Park was the only Clerk with whom I had to deal; and I have had much to do with all the Clerks in the interval. Mr. Reid was a member of a very able family, of which Captain Mayne Reid, the celebrated author of “The White Chief” and other American Indian tales, was a member. His tales were favourite reading of my youth and time. And he certainly was a great romancer. I remember the late Mr. Hugh M'Call, who was a great friend of Mayne Reid’s, telling me that the Captain told him that in his novels he had often to minimise some actual occurrences that had come within his own experience and adventures in order to keep them within the limits even of a romance writer’s play upon the credulity of his readers. One of these incidents related to the most sensational, and, as a reader, I would have said, most wildly imaginative incidents in “The White Chief,” which he had to minimise in order to give it even a semblance of feasibility. Then, no doubt, as now, truth was stranger than fiction — as, I believe, would apply to a truthful narrative of recent and present events in Ireland written half a century hence.

In looking over the names of the members present at that Assembly, I had the curiosity to note the names of those now living, and I could find only about twenty, and some of them would put to shame many men of half their age for virility and activity. Age may have withered some of them, but the spirit of loyalty to Church and truth remains. The names as far as I noted them are President Leitch, Professor Heron, Dr. Hamilton, Vice-Chancellor Belfast Queen’s University; Dr. Wm. Park, Dr. Geo. Magill, Dr. A. J. Wilson, Dr. Workman, Henry Osborne, E. F. Simpson, Ballymena; Dr. John Davidson, Glennan; S. Lindsay, then of Middletown, afterwards of Ceylon, and now retired; Jas. Meeke, Kingsmills; H. M. Butler, Magilligan; William Wylie, then of Ballyroney, later of Larne and Newry; W. Mitchell Ballyblack; E. M. Legate, Ballyclare; John Watson, Boyle. Dr. Wm. M‘Mordie happened to drop into the Assembly Office as I was poring over the Minutes, and he kindly assisted me in my research. I concluded that he would have been among the men of that Assembly but he told me he had only been ordained in the September of that year. The fact that I am myself among the survivors is nothing remarkable, as I did not require to be a reverend, and, therefore, mature as well as learned and grave before taking a seat in the Assembly. To be a reverend one needed more maturity and grace than I could have claimed then or, as to the graces I could claim now.

I also looked over the list of elders present; but the only one that I noticed who is now living is Mr. Archibald Murray, of Limerick. He was the representative elder of Limerick Church then, and I am sure is an elder still. I can vouch for it that he was alive and very active, as I saw him about a year and a half ago in the magnificent establishment of which he is the head in Limerick, and heard the praises of his goodness as well at his greatness from many lips, and chiefly from those of Roman Catholics. I met the present minister of Limerick at the Dublin Synod recently, and he told me that Mr. Murray was still up and doing, with a heart for any fate or any work.

It would seem that the same routine of procedure in regard to reports and other matters was observed as at present. There were deputies from other Churches, and deputies appointed to other Churches in, I think, greater numbers than at present. For example, there were interchanges of deputies between the Assembly and the Presbyterian Churches of America. In that year the deputies to the American Presbyterian Churches were the Rev. Dr. Denham, of Derry, and the Rev. John, Hall, of Dublin. The American deputy was the Rev. Dr. Field, one of the most prominent ministers of his time, and the Editor of a great Presbyterian newspaper in that country. We had some deputations from the Presbyterian Churches of the Western Continent afterwards, and I heard many brilliant speeches from them. But I have heard none for many years. It was in all probability that visit to the United States that led to John Hall’s translation to New York, and it may have been that the Irish Assembly was afraid to continue these deputations lest the United States should be tempted to commandeer all our best men, as even without that preliminary introduction they commandeered many. Certainly the removal of John Hall was a great loss to the Irish Presbyterian Church, as the transfer of Dr. M‘Cosh was to the old Queen’s College. But what was our loss was America’s gain. And therein were we content. It gave us a kind of Presbyterian alliance, as a foretaste of the political and military alliance we have now.

In this Assembly there were the reports of Synods as now, the reports of committees as now, and longer speeches than now, and less time is occupied though there are more committees and subjects to deal with. The committees on that occasion were represented by their Conveners as follows:– Dr. Kirkpatrick, State of Religion and Church Extension; John Meneely, Sabbath Observance; I. N. Harkness, Temperance; Dr. Morgan, Foreign Missions; Dr. Bellis, Board of Missions; John Rogers, Jewish Mission; Wm. M‘Clure, Colonial, and Continental Mission; T. Y. Killen, Ministerial Suport; L. E. Berkeley, Elementary Education; William Johnston, Sabbath-school Auxiliary. There was also the report of a Committee in Correspondence with the Government, and reports of the Assembly’s and Magee Colleges. In connection with the elementary education report, there were questions troubling the Church then as there are now, and in the same or similar lines — namely, the encroachments by the Roman Catholics on the principle of united secular and separate religious instruction, and the struggle of the Assembly to maintain it. Much water has run under the bridge since then, and the original principles of the Board are more and more departed from, with the addition that the teaching in Roman Catholic schools is not only more denominational, but more anti-British, the fruits of which are seen in many developments in the country, and not least in the late rebellion and in the Longford election of last week. The “Irish Times,” in its comments on that election, notes the fact that the National (in these cases it should be Nationalist) teachers were prominent in support of the Sinn Fein candidate, himself undergoing a sentence of three years’ imprisonment for the part he took in the rebellion. It says – “The Commissioners of National Education have denied that many National school teachers were in sympathy with the rebellion. They will hardly be able to deny that National teachers in South Longford gave public expression to their sympathy with the Sinn Fein candidate.”

The question of ministerial support formed as prominent a question as it does to-day, with this difference, that the contributions of the people were much smaller and their ideas of the necessities, owing to the Regime Donum, less liberal. Mr. T. Y. Killen (the D.D. to him and others came later), in presenting the report, pointed out that one of the difficulties of increasing the fund was the fact that large numbers of congregations could do nothing for a general fund, as it required all their efforts to qualify for the Regium Donum. With the substitution of the Sustentation Fund for the Regium Donum that is true to-day, though I must say that some of the smaller and less prominent congregations do marvellously well. Indeed, in many cases they set an example to the rich.

The Foreign Mission work of Dr. Morgan and the Church at the time was chiefly confined to India. But at this Assembly a star from the East appeared in the person of the Rev. W. S. Swanson, who was a missionary in China from the Presbyterian Church in England;, and he made such a starring appeal on behalf of China that led the Assembly, under his spell, to add China to the sphere of the Foreign Mission, with the result that we have now eighteen missionaries in China, who are playing a great part, as far as their numbers and scope will admit, in the new awakening of China. In 1867 there were ten missionaries in India and four to the Jews. The number of Indian missionaries has increased since to fifteen, while those to the Jews remain at four. But, of course, the war, has interfered with the activities of the latter. So that the addition of China to the field has not weakened the Church interest in India, but increased it. And then in addition to the male missionaries there are twenty-seven lady missionaries. And in connection with this work in the East the women of the Church now do a wonderful work, the records of which can be found from time to time in “Woman’s Work.”

There was then as now a Committee in Correspondence with the Government, but at that time it was not so much concerned with the state of the country as with the state of the Church, so far as chaplaincies and endowments were concerned. It was not easy at the time to secure recognition for Presbyterian chaplaincies, but the committee of the time was most zealous on the subject, and were able to report some success. It was at this Assembly the appointment of the Rev. James Speers as chaplain was reported. So far as the Regium Donum was concerned, great efforts had been made to get an increase from the £75 to the £100 — the Regium Donum was in Irish money, and not quite up to the British standard, but I am sure the Assembly would have taken the £100 in Irish money if they had got it. But they did not. A deputation had been appointed to wait on the Government on the subject. The Government then in power was a Conservative Government, of which Lord Derby was the head and Mr. Disraeli the Chancellor of the Exchequer and leader of the House of Commons. The question of the Irish Church was then in the balance, Mr. Gladstone having headed the Liberal forces against its perpetuation as an Establishment. The Government Committee, with that wisdom which always characterised it, selected as its deputies to the Government four or five ministers who would be most likely to commend the cause to the Government, and, of course, the cause was to get the Regium Donum increased to £100. The names were the Rev. John Rogers, who, if I remember aright, was convener; Dr. Wilson, of Limerick, Moderator for the year; Dr. Morell, Dungannon; Rev. Henry Henderson, of Holywood; and Mr. G. W. Slator, a fine old, sturdy Presbyterian elder, whom I remember well. I never remember Dr. Wilson's name in connection with politics, but of the Conservatism of the Rev. Henry Henderson and Dr. Morell there could be no doubt, save that Dr. Morell represented the principles in a mild form, while Mr. Henderson represented them in excelsis, and Orange to boot. The only name that could have offended the Government, so far as politics were concerned, Mr. Rogers, for he had been one of the advanced guard of Liberalism in the M‘Knight and early tenant-right times. But so far as the increase of Regium Donum was concerned, Mr. Roger's, then minister of Comber, was an out and outer, and regarded politics as nothing compared to the interests of the fund and the Church as affected by it. The deputation had interviews with Lord Derby and Mr. Disraeli. And their report of the result was a suggestion or promise that if the Conservatives would be returned at the election then looming they would increase the Regium Donum to £100 a year. The subject excited the greatest controversy at the time not only in the Church, but in the country. There were the two policies known as levelling-up which the Conservatives were supposed to favour, which included the increase of the Regium Donum and large subsidies to Roman Catholics in payment, either directly or indirectly, to the priests or to the Church. The Liberal policy was that of levelling down, which meant the Disestablishment of the Irish, Church and the withdrawal of the Regium Donum.

The report of the result of the deputation’s visit was considered by the Assembly in private, and the only thing made public was that it was agreed by a majority of 152 to 61 that the deputation should be sent again to ask for an increase. The defeated amendment was moved by Rev. L. E. Berkeley, and seconded by Rev. Geo. Shaw, and no doubt represented the feelings of the liberal section of the Assembly prepared to approve of Mr. Gladstone’s policy.

I may say that during this controversy the Rev. John Rogers and the “Northern Whig” were at daggers drawn, and in leaders and in letters Mr. Rogers was denounced for his betrayal of his Liberal principles and for supporting a policy that would have involved the endowment of the Roman Catholic Church implied in the levelling up policy of Mr. Disraeli, to which the minister of Comber had irrevocably committed himself. The result of the subsequent visits of the deputation will come into a later story. But what I have stated was the position of the time, and the vote to send their deputation again to interview the Government clearly indicated that the majority of the Assembly favoured not unnaturally, perhaps, not only the maintenance, but the increase of the Regium Donum. But I would not like to describe the old Liberals who supported that policy as hostile to Liberal principles or the Liberal party, for the Rev. Prof. Smyth was one of them, and a stauncher Liberal never lived.

The outgoing Moderator this year was the Rev. Dr. Wilson, of Limerick, a man of great strength and weight physically and intellectually. He was also strong in character and wise and sound in judgment, and for years wielded great influence in the counsels of the General Assembly. The Moderator of the year was the Rev. Robert Montgomery, who had just retired from a long and successful career as a missionary in India. He was the uncle of the Rev. Dr. Montgomery and Mr. S. G. Montgomery, of Bangor, and had proved himself an ideal minister in zeal and fervour and in energy and success. Neither the outgoing or incoming Moderator touched on public events of the time, and contented themselves with practical questions affecting the life and interests of the Church.

To be continued...

From The Witness, 18th May 1917.

The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle, editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.

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