History repeats itself, and the study of history is as important for the lessons it teaches in the present as for the Information or stimulation it offers of the past. I am not writing history. I am only writing memories. But when my mind was directed, as it specially was, this week to the approaching adjourned meeting of the Assembly to deal with the Sustentation Fund and the general question of ministerial support, it occurred to me that it would be an opportune time to recall the first great Lay Conference after Disestablishment, and, as a friend said, the greatest Lay Conference held in connection with the Church. The same question led to special or adjourned meetings fifty years ago, as it is doing now. The loss of the Regium Donum gave special interest and importance to these meetings and conferences, and led to natural anxiety. It was then known that the Commutation Fund, even with the bonus thrown in, no matter how well invested, would make a drop of at least £20 or £30 in the annual payment to each minister, but it was not known how far the people, who had been accustomed to regard the Regium Donum as a staple supply for the minister, would rise to make up the deficiency or advance upon it.
It was in these circumstances the Lay Conference was held in Linenhall Street Church on the 29th Sept., 1869 — exactly forty-seven years ago. I am quite aware that that Lay Conference and its figures, both as to its aspirations and the failure to realise them, have formed the subjects of discussion and controversy ever since. I only intend to present an outline of the position and proposals at the time, which may prove interesting and informative on the light of the coming meeting and the present position. And the first thing I will notice is the character and spirit of the men who took the leading part in it. It was the first meeting of Presbyterian laymen I had ever attended, and it was a large and inspiring meeting. From platform to pew every man seemed full of faith and hope, spirit and determination. Every Presbytery in the Church, was represented, and over three hundred congregations had direct representation, and in many cases two members from each. “The appearance of the meeting was very striking,” says a chronicler of the time in one of the newspapers. “Such a concurrence of the wealth, influence, and earnest zeal of our Church has rarely been witnessed. No one could look upon the eager sea of faces, in which hope and determination were equally depicted, without the conviction that God was leading His Church, and that He would guide her to a triumphant issue out of all her difficulties. . . . All who loved the Presbyterian Church left the meeting full of bright hopes and cheerful aspirations.” The members of the Sustentation Fund Committee who were present ex-officio, and took part in the conference, were — J. P. Corry, J.P.; John Lytle, J.P.; Thomas M'Clure, M.P.; Wm. Young, W. J. Alexander, Alex. Clarke, Robert Heron, D.L., J.P.; T. Sinclair, J.P.; T. A. Dickson, D. D. Leitch, J. S. Crawford, J.P.; W. L. Finlay, J. Adams, J.P.; Geo. M'Carter, Joseph Cuthbert. All these men represented great interests in themselves, and were the life of the country as well as the Church. All of these did work in their day and generation, and all have now passed to their rest and reward. The last of the group of these grand old Presbyterians to leave this earthly scene was Mr. Joseph Cuthbert, J.P.; and we all know up to the last the generosity and sympathy he displayed towards the Church.
It is impossible to deal with the Lay Conference without referring to what may be said to have constituted its basis, so far as the financial question affecting the Church was involved — namely, the letters and contributions of a young and loyal Presbyterian of the time, afterwards widely and honourably known as the Right Hon. Thos. Sinclair. Mr. Sinclair had entered into the whole question with the enthusiasm of a loyal Presbyterian, and the experience of a business man and mathematician. He was among the first to advocate not only commutation in the interests of the Church, but to show on an actuarial basis how it could be satisfactorily carried out. It must be remembered that when the Conference was held the ministers had not come to any decision on the subject of commutation in the interests of the Church, and the actual sum to be paid had not been definitely fixed, as the Act had not come into force. The question that at the time agitated the Church was the question of the commutation of the ministers in the interests of the Church. With the Church the question was as to future provision for the ministry; the question for the existing ministers was security against loss in the event of their commuting. This, however, must be said for the ministers of the time, that the general feeling was in favour of commutation in the interests of the Church; and that was ultimately carried out, only a dozen or so refusing to adopt the principle, insisting upon the direct payment of their annuities while they lived.
The task Mr. Sinclair set before him was to assure ministers by actuarial calculations, that the commutation, even with a much smaller Sustentation Fund than that contemplated, would provide ample security for the payment of all the annuitants to the very last their full £69; but with a Sustentation Fund of £28,500 the ministerial income of £100 a year, which was the aim of the Conference, would be secured. The second part of his proposal has turned out a beautiful dream in part, because the fund has not yet reached that amount, and in part because the interest of the Commutation Fund was unable, by reason of reinvestments at lower rates, to be maintained on the basis of his calculation. Mr. Sinclair supplied two tables, which showed that so far as the existing ministers were concerned the interest on the Commutation Fund would provide the full £69 for them all, and leave a surplus at the end of fifty-five years one at 3½ per cent., showing a surplus of over £90,000, and 4¼ rate of over £600,000 at the same period. According to his calculation, however, the interest in the case of commutation would fall £12,000 annually short of the amount necessary to secure each minister his £69; and it was to see how far the Church could raise not only that sum, but increase it 2½ times that the Lay Conference was called. It was an exciting time for the ministers and members as well; and I doubt if there was a Conference held since that had a weightier problem to consider.
My reason for referring to Mr. Sinclair and his proposals is that they formed the staple of much of the discussion, and from having looked over the report of the meeting I find that the soundness of his calculations was only called in question by those who were opposed to commutation in the interests of the Church, who were few and negligible. The resolution commended commutation in the interests of the Church, with a guarantee of separate trusteeship to secure the payment to the commuting ministers; and the establishment of a Sustentation Fund aiming at an amount which, with the interest on commutation, would secure to each minister at least £100 a year, independent of stipend. The names of those who took part in that meeting will enable readers of the present day who do not remember the old times or the old men to understand what spirit these lay fathers of Presbyterianism were. The chairman was Mr. John Lytle, J.P., an ex-Mayor of the town, a leading man in its business and public life, and one of the leaders of the political party prevailing in the town at the time. He was a very high-minded and honourable man, and if he had not left his name and character in the men and business which still bears his name, he left it in the Albert Memorial, to which he devoted the salary he had received as Mayor. Belfast was represented by Mr. Charles Finlay, who occupied a high position in connection with our staple industry, and was one of the most modest, gentle, and kindly men that ever lived, and a devoted, loyal, and generous Presbyterian of his day; Mr. Thomas Sinclair, to whom I have referred, whose name is inseparably associated with that great movement, as it has been in conjunction with all the great questions of Church, as well as State, in his time; Mr. Thomas M'Clure, who at the time was member for Belfast, a fine old gentleman of a fine old school, courtly and kindly, who received a Baronetcy from Mr. Gladstone in compliment to his political standing and service; Mr. J. P. Corry, J.P., who was afterwards M.P. for Belfast, and who, separated from Mr. M'Clure in politics, was like him, a leal-hearted Presbyterian, and who, like him, afterwards received honourable party recognition. Districts outside Belfast were represented by Mr. W. M. Kirk, M.P. for Newry, the head of a large and successful industry, and a Presbyterian of traditional and personal loyalty and enthusiasm; Mr. Wm. Tillie, Londonderry, afterwards Lord Lieutenant for Londonderry, a Scotchman who was one of the pioneers of the shirt-making industry in the capital of the North-West, and a Presbyterian to the core, and to the last of zeal and liberality; Mr. D. Drummond, of Dublin, a member of the famous Drummond family of Stirling, and one who upheld the honour of Presbyterianism in the Irish capital with fidelity and honour; Mr. J. D. Carnegie, being an authority on finance, and, with Mr. Drummond, one of the strong pillars of Presbyterianism in the South, and Mr. J. W. Steele, of Cork, of whom I entertain no personal recollections, but he made a very strong speech; Mr. Jas. Sharman Crawford, J.P., Crossgar, son of the great Wm. Sharman Crawford, and one of the pillars of Presbyterianism and Liberalism in the North; Mr. John Adams, J.P., Ballydevitt, who took a great part in the industrial and Presbyterian life of the province; and Mr. D. Leitch, Armagh, afterwards the head of a successful flax firm in Belfast, which is carried on by his son and grandsons, and who was as staunch a Presbyterian as he was a strong Liberal.
I had intended recalling some of the speeches, but, as I have indicated, they consisted largely of explanation of the financial schemes, which are now out of date. There are some sentences, however, which I should like to quote as having a bearing on the present situation as much as on the then existing one. Among Mr. Sinclair's strong sentences were the following:— “It seems to me that the Presbyterian Church is now upon its trial. We now occupy a position which is in the eye of all the world. I well know the indignant scorn with which we would repel any insinuation that the sons of our forefathers will not now vindicate their honoured ancestry and quit themselves like men . . . So surely as we make it [the new Sustentation Fund] of living stones, so surely as it is broad enough to embrace the whole membership of the Church, so surely shall it be stable, enduring, and honourable. Doubtless we shall have difficulties to contend with and disappointments to bear, but faith in our cause must be supreme. It may be that in their generations, in which the echoes of strife and contest have hardly died away, the structure we erect may not exceed a tabernacle of curtains, but still they shall be curtains of richest colours, and there shall be pillars of brass and sockets of silver and rings of gold. But we shall bequeath to those who come after us the pattern, of the temple which shall yet fill the land with glory.” Mr. M'Clure said:— “I trust they [the laity] will in their different congregations try to unite the people in an earnest desire and effort to make provision for the continuous teaching of the Gospel by an educated ministry in that pure and simple form we believe to be most consistent with Scripture, and to provide for the clergy a maintenance in some degree fitting their position.” Mr. Drummond said he did not think the ministers had done their duty in telling the people what they ought to do in the way of giving. If the people were told their duty he was sure they would come up to it and contribute far more largely than they have ever done towards the support of the ministry. Mr. Slator, of Edgeworthstown, a spirited Presbyterian from the Midlands, said that 1d a week from each communicant would raise a sum of £40,000 beyond all the Government ever gave them, beyond all subscriptions to their missions, and beyond all their stipends. Mr. Crawford referred to the number of young men present at the Conference, and said that as long as they had these young men, and so long as they were assisted by the fair sex, so many of whom had graced the meeting with their presence, he had no fear for the Sustentation Fund.
There was an apple of discord thrown into the meeting for a time by Mr. Hans M'Mordie and Professor Dill, M.D., who objected to committing the meeting to the commutation principle, but after some explanations and manifestations of disapproval the amendment was withdrawn. The entire resolutions were carried not only unanimously, but enthusiastically.
The speeches were all eminently practical and, unless, perhaps, in the case of Mr. Sinclair, given above, devoid of perorations. But if there were no rhetorical perorations, there were others, several of the speakers concluding with promises of an annual subscription of £100 each to the new fund.
The issue on which this article will appear, the 29th September, will be the forty-seventh anniversary of this Conference, which was held on the 29th September, 1869. So that it will be three years more before the half-century will be completed, and I hope by that time those who are alive will see a revival of zeal for sustentation such as followed the inauguration of the fund. We now know that faith has been kept with all the commuting ministers, and that by commuting they gained rather than lost. It is true those of them who survive, or their successors, have still to be passing rich on less than the £100 a year so hopefully anticipated by the Lay Conference, but they are more than half-way towards it, and the spur which it is hoped the adjourned meeting of the Assembly will give to the movement a further advance will be made. The total sum received from the State was a few thousand pounds less than was forecasted at the time. The actual amount was a little over £580,000. In the report of last Assembly the amount of commutation invested capital is put down at £585,705. The failure of the combined funds to realise the £100 a year has been twofold; about half in the shortage of interest from the original calculation, and the other in the shortage of the Sustentation Fund beyond anticipation. But it must at the same time be mentioned that there are considerably more ministers to be provided for. At the formation of the new fund the number of ministers was 550, and now it is about 600. The number of communicants then was 126,858. The number reported the last Assembly was 104,306. Mr. Sinclair's calculation was that with an increase of one penny per week more than was contributed £27,500 would be realised. For the first seven or eight years — at any rate, from 1872 to 1879 — the high-water mark both of interest and contribution was reached. For these years the dividends exceeded £28,000, and the contributions to the Sustentation Fund in three of the years exceeded £25,000. And in six of them the equal distribution in the form of bonus over the £69 was £22. The interest kept gradually falling, as was inevitable in the reduction of interest owing to the state of the investment market. In 1912 and 1914 the interest was, respectively, £20,681 and £20,622. For 1915 it was £21,878, and for the present year £21,189.
The Sustentation Fund in some of the earlier years exceeded £25,000; but in 1878 it fell to £24,832, and in the following year to £23,792, and kept within that line for several years (with some spasms at £24,000), till 1906, when it passed the £24,000, and has kept in that street since. In 1915 it was £24,268, and in 1916 £24,444. I am afraid that for some years to come we cannot look for much advance in the dividends, so that it will be chiefly to the Sustentation Fund we must look for any substantial advance.
Now, as I am making this contribution as much from the point of view of the future as the past, I wish to point out that as the Church was face to face with a crisis in 1869-70, it is no less face to face with a crisis now. Not politics, but war is now the cause. If the withdrawal of the old Regium Donum made the outlook somewhat dark for ministers and people, the war nowadays does the same. And in some respects it does worse. The prices of the necessities of life were not affected by the Irish Church Act, but they are affected by the diabolical act of the Kaiser. A pound sterling now would not purchase as much as fourteen or fifteen shillings would have done in the 'seventies; and, therefore, a larger sum would be required even to place ministers in the position they were then; and the objects of the old movement, as the new, were to put them in a better position. I admit the same applies to the laity; but, at the same time, if the war has brought financial losses to many of them, and especially to the working classes and farmers, it has brought gains.
At the same time, I am not one of those who believe in blaming the laity over much for the present position of this fund. I only blame the section of them, which is, unhappily, too large a section, who do little or nothing, or less than nothing, for everyone who does nothing is using his influence and example against the fund.
As I have pointed out, the number of our communicants has fallen, largely as the result of migration and emigration. There were larger numbers to appeal to in the first decade than in the last decade of the period under review. And not only so. We had princes in the Presbyterian Israel in the first decade, princes in the grace of liberality, an in all other Presbyterian graces, who have passed away, and in too many cases have left no successors at all, or successors who do not rise to the same height of generous enthusiasm, as those who went before. So that when I find that year is only a little over £1,000 less than it was in the fattest of these fat years, and this with a lessening of numbers to appeal to. I do not think our people have done badly according to the standard of the past. What has now to be done is to raise a new standard. Ten pounds additional annually from all the congregations of the Assembly would enable the fund to top the £30,000 and realise the dream of Mr. Sinclair and his colleagues of the early 'seventies. There are, I admit, many congregations in the Assembly from which, such an addition could not be expected, but there are others that might increase it by fives and tens. With the loss of large contributors some of our best congregations have reduced by as much as £100, and in some cases more than their early contributions to the fund. If more of our outstanding men would follow the example of their fathers in loyalty and liberality and all others do a little more this might be done.
I know it is easy to write this on paper and easy for the reader to forget it. But as I read from day to day of the growing spirit of liberality among our people to objects connected with the war I cannot but feel it will be equally manifested in the Church. We are labouring to keep up our armies at the highest pitch, and we are doing right. But it is no less a duty to ourselves and to those who come after us to keep up our ministry at the highest point of educational training and of freedom from the cares and worries of the world, without which it is impossible for any man, and especially any minister, to carry on his work. The importance of maintaining an educated ministry was one of the chief concerns of the fathers of the Lay Conference, and that is becoming more important every day. With the growth of education among the people, the education of the ministers who are expected to be leaders and guides as well as ensamples to the flock is a paramount necessity, and will become more and more so every day. The inducements and prospects held out to clever young men in other walks of life are now so many that our clever young men — and I cannot blame them — are seeking for careers in which appeals for sustentation will not be as necessary or as numerous. There is a marked decrease of students in all our theological colleges, and though that in part may be explained by the demands of the war and the spirit of loyal and patriotic enthusiasm and sacrifice, it is almost inevitable that new fields and almost new worlds will be opened up in the future to tempt our promising young men away from the Church.
We are proud of our educated ministry, and have every reason to be, but if the race is to be continued, the endowments will have to be increased if we are to retain that combination of ability with goodness, without which no minister can be of service to his congregation or his cause. And I cannot help thinking at times that what must be a deterrent to such young men is just the fact that such statements and appeals as I am indulging in are necessary. No man of the character and capacity for the ministry, or for any good and great work, would like the prospect that such appeals would have to be made from time to time to secure a "living wage," as if he were a quay porter or a mechanic — and in many cases not as well provided for in the end. It is in the hope of helping to end that state in the Irish Presbyterian Church that I am turning for a moment from the past to the present, and with an eye on the future, in the hope that now that the Church has arranged to make a special appeal at a special Assembly for establishing the question of ministerial sustentation on a sound, satisfactory, and permanent basis something will be planned, discussed, and decided that will render such writing unnecessary in the future. From the point of view of the Church it is discreditable, from the point of view of the ministry of the Church it is undignified, and from the larger interests of life and faith and Church in the future it is a blot that ought to be removed once and for ever.
To be continued...
From The Witness, 29th September 1916.
The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.