While there are many men and many matters of the last half century that I would like to remember and recall, the meetings of the General Assembly must ever be foremost in my memory and my interest, historical and personal. The Psalmist, expressing the feelings of the captivity, said that if he did not remember Jerusalem, let his tongue cleave to the roof of his mouth. With all my pleasant memories of the General Assembly, whose meetings, with two or three exceptions, have taken place in Belfast, and, naturally, come within the scope of my local recollections, I might join with the Psalmist in his sentiments regarding his unfaithfulness to Zion.
And yet I cannot say of it that my first memories of it, so far as Belfast is concerned, are very fresh or were very inspiriting. The first Assembly I attended in Belfast was the special Assembly held, I think, in Rosemary Street Church, Belfast, in the spring of 1866. It had been summoned to consider the question of the Supplemental Charter to the Queen's University, the earliest attempt made to bring denominationalism into that institution. It did not alter the fact that the proposal came from a Conservative Government, and it did not alter the relations of the University, as it came to grief. I was then a very apprentice hand at reporting, and I was too boyish and bashful to take my place at the reporters' table, and contented myself with burying myself in one of the capacious pews of that capacious Church. But as to the proceedings, I might as well have been projected into a meeting conducted in Gaelic or Greek. I did not know much of the subject or much of the speakers, and I could no more have summarised the arguments, which I was expected to do, than I could now penetrate into the recesses of Mr. Asquith's mind.
I have no memory of a single speaker or of a single word uttered. I dare say the words, Fathers and brethren, which have since become so familiar to me, were used, but I could not pledge ray memory to the fact. The only face and form that I can remember is that of my friend then, and my friend till his death, the late Mr. Wm. Gilliland. I can see him now in my mind's eye as he took his place at the reporters' table on that day, young, natty, well dressed, laying down his top hat and taking off his gloves and settling down to his note-taking work as if to the manner born. How I envied his coolness and daring, and wondered if the time would ever come when I could imitate him, not in his neatness, but in his coolness and confidence in such an august Assembly, and in the ease with which he recorded the, to me, inexplicable utterances.
How I envied his coolness and daring, and wondered if the time would ever come when I could imitate him, not in his neatness, but in his coolness and confidence in such an august Assembly, and in the ease with which he recorded the, to me, inexplicable utterances. In my after life I may have been able to imitate him in his coolness and in his understanding of the wisdom of ministerial utterances and in the mysteries of Assembly debates, but in no other respect. He lived to be for many years assistant Editor of the "Daily Telegraph" in London, from which he retired about a couple or three years ago. But he died only a few months after honourable retirement, leaving two sons, who have done their bit for the country, one being a prisoner in Bulgaria, and the other in active service in connection with the Navy, and two daughters, who are doing splendid educational work in London.
I was not present at the regular meeting in June – to say the truth, I had had enough of it for the time. But as I want to begin with fifty years ago I have looked over the Minutes to see in what way, if any, the Assembly of that time differed from the one fifty years after. The first thing that struck me was the change of personnel. I do not think there was one minister at that Assembly that was present in that of 1866, though I find that several of them, including the Moderator, figure in the list of students at that day. There was another difference. The Assembly of 1866 was held in May Street Church, and that of 1916 was held in the Assembly Hall. But I find an Assembly Hall Committee in existence and the subject of an Assembly Hall was discussed. I doubt, however, if any of those who were interested in that project ever contemplated such a magnificent Hall as the present -- it took nearly forty years to mature and complete the scheme. I am sure if some of these old worthies could return from the shades and visit the splendid hall they would be lost in the wondrous mazes of the building, and be thankful that the seed they had then sown had grown into such a splendid tree, under whose branches their descendants could rest and labour in dignity and safety.
There is one thing, however, that remains unchanged in form and character, and that is the "Minutes of Assembly," which are prepared in the same form and with the same scrupulous care – for the Clerk of that day, like the Clerk of the present, was a very careful and painstaking man – with the same coloured cover, and, I may add, printed in what may be described as the same establishment, for "The Witness" is the lineal Presbyterian descendant of the old "Banner of Ulster," which printed the Minutes fifty year's ago.
There was one point of difference which suggests a great change since 1866. The Assembly of that year stretched out a full fortnight, only concluding on the Saturday of the second week, while the Assembly for the year concluded on the Saturday of the first week. This means either more business and less discussion, or the absence of subjects that lead to long discussions. I am inclined to think, however, that while both may have had a part in the work, the business methods of the Assembly are better than those of fifty years ago, and the taste for long speeches less both on the part of speakers and hearers.
I find, however, that in the old days, even with the Regium Donum, the subject of ministerial support and sustentation was as prominent and as urgent as it is to-day, and that special attention had to be called to both then as now. The Rev. T. Y. Killen had charge of the subject in that Assembly, as he had it for many years after the Regium Donum was abolished. I also find that ministers as well as members required rousing then as now, and that laymen then as now were moving in the matter. At this very meeting a deputation of elders was present from a layman's meeting, consisting of Messrs. D. D. Leitch, John Lytle, and Robert Workman, urging greater exertions on the part of ministers in urging the question, and greater liberality on the part of the people in responding to it. So that even in the days of the Regium Donum the ministerial support was not extravagant, just as in the present day it is falling short of what it should be.
At this Assembly one of the resolutions passed was that no endowed congregation with more than 150 families, and no congregation that had an assistant and more than 500 families should receive aid from the State. The education question was a more burning question then than now, in part probably because the demands of the Church of Rome have been better satisfied or the education system improved. I find that it was at this period, after Archbishop (afterwards Cardinal) Cullen had got established, that the Church of Rome began its attempts to make inroads into both the university and elementary education of the country. It was then that the contest over the principle of united secular and separate religious education in connection with the elementary system began and continued for so many years; indeed, even to this day. The Church of Rome has got a firmer grip on National education than it had fifty years ago, and I am not satisfied that it has meant any improvement either in primary education or in the relationships between Protestants and Roman Catholics during the more impressive education age. And, in one respect at least, that education has, with the Roman Catholic section, been more calculated to lead up to such a rebellion as we had a few weeks ago than to lead to a contented or united Ireland, so far as its relation to the United Kingdom is concerned. I do not profess to be an expert on education, elementary or otherwise, but I will venture the opinion, comparing my own knowledge of fifty years ago with what I have heard from some old National school teachers of my own generation and others, that in soundness, thoroughness, and solidity the secular side of education is not as good as it was half a century ago, however much it may have done to satisfy the Church of Rome by promoting the spirit of denominationalism and division among the children, and its results in after life.
Apropos of education, there is a matter in connection with theological education in which there is a marked contrast between 1866 and 1916. I observe in the Minutes of former years that there were over eighty theological students attending the various classes at the Assembly's College, while there are not a fourth of that number now. No doubt, many things have happened since to account for the change, and, among others, the valuable openings that the interval has opened up in secular compared with theological life. This has been the case in the Civil Service, and in professional and commercial life, and, of course, the war will account for the falling off at the present time.
Still I must say that half a century ago the number of students not only was large, but the material was good. In the list of students of that time I find the names of William Park, Matthew Leitch, William M'Mordie, Samuel Prenter, J. B. Armour, W. H. Dodd, and J. B. Dougherty. All these and some others are still among us, though two of them did not follow up their early theological interests, with results most satisfactory to themselves. He who was W. H. Dodd is now the Hon. Judge Dodd, of the Irish Bench, and the J. B. Dougherty is now Sir James B. Dougherty, ex-Under-Secretary for Ireland, and member of Parliament for the City of Derry, where at one time he acted as a Magee Professor.
One of the few controversies on the subject of theology that have taken place in the Assembly took place in the year 1866. It arose out of some statements on the subject of "Assurance of Faith" in a sermon or pamphlet by the Rev. Robert Crawford, then of Loughbrickland, and afterwards of the Sinclair Seamen's Church. The Rev. W. Dobbin, of Annaghlone, took exception to the orthodoxy of some of the views expressed, and brought the matter before the Assembly, in which he was supported by the Rev. Isaac Nelson. The Assembly decided that while Mr. Crawford had in some matters expressed himself loosely, his teaching was not at variance with the standards of the Church. The dispute created great interest at the time, but the controversy, like all who were concerned in it, has now passed away. But at the time it created great interest both, in the Assembly and outside of it.
The Moderator of that year was the Rev. Dr. Wilson, of Limerick. He was a leader of the Church for many years afterwards. I remember him well; stately and dignified, able and earnest, sagacious and prudent, he was in more senses than one a strong pillar of the Church for many years. Mr. D. M. Wilson, K.C., one of the leaders of the North-East Bar, is son of the Moderator of 1866. The Acting Clerk for the year was the Junior Clerk, Rev. Robert Park, Ballymoney, the Senior Clerk (the Rev. T. Mayne Reid), not being able to be present. I never remember seeing Mr. Reid in the flesh, but Mr. Park I knew for many years.
I append a few statistical comparisons as I find them in the Minutes of the two years under review, which may prove interesting to my readers:–
|Stipend Payers|| |
|Paid Ministers by Congregations|| |
|Sabbath Collections|| |
|Mission Collections|| |
|Raised in Sabbath Schools|| |
To be continued...
From The Witness, 28th July 1916.
The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.