Some friends who have expressed an interest in my reminiscences have asked me if I could give them a fuller explanation of the position and vote of the Assembly when at the cross roads of Establishment versus Disestablishment, with a reference to those who took part in the historic debate at the meeting of 1868. This is a large order in these days of "snippets," and with my snippetty and unconventional manner and methods. Up till fifty years ago, and for a year or so afterwards, the Irish Presbyterian Church enjoyed an endowment of about £30,000 a year from the State, which was called the Regium Donum. This provided an endowment of £75 Irish, £69 odd British annually for each minister. That was not a very large endowment, and did not, in the opinion of many Presbyterians of the time, represent either the duty of the State to the Irish Presbyterians, or the necessities of the Church or the ministry. A Sustentation Fund was necessary then as now, and it required a great deal of special energy and effort to enable it to provide with anything like decency or adequacy for the ministry of the Church.
No doubt the cost of living and the taste in living were not then anything like what they are to-day, and the ideas of giving on the part of the people were much more narrow and limited. To some of them the Regium Donum seemed to be a magnificent endowment, and in too many cases they did not appear to think it necessary to do as much as they ought to supplement it, and did not feel inclined to astonish the ministers or the Church by their liberality. Attempts were made from time to time to get the endowment increased, and these became stronger and more urgent at the very time Mr. Gladstone was threatening to put his axe to the root of the endowment tree.
A stimulus was given to that by indications on the part of the Irish Chief Secretary, Earl Mayo, that levelling up was to be the Conservative policy, and that the extension of endowments to all the Churches, with a possible increase to the Regium Donum, was to be the policy of the then Government. The Conservative party, with Lord Derby at its head, was then in power, and Mr. Disraeli was his Chancellor of the Exchequer. In '67, a letter in response to appeals made on behalf of the Church, was sent to the authorities of the Church, signed by one of the Treasury officials, to the effect that as the Estimates for that year had been made up nothing in the way of increase could be given that year, but the matter would be borne in mind in the following year. But by that time many things had happened. Lord Derby resigned in consequence of ill-health, and Mr. Disraeli achieved the summit of his ambition; and became Prime Minister. And not only that. Mr. Gladstone carried his memorable resolution decreeing that the Irish Establishment must cease to exist.
During the year the deputation representing the Church had interviews with the then Lord Lieutenant, the Duke of Abercorn, the handsome Duke as he was called, the Duke whom Disraeli afterwards immortalised in "Lothair," and the Chief Secretary, the Earl of Mayo, both of whom promised support to an increase, and Colonel Taylor, the member for Dublin, who was Government Whip, pledged the Government to propose, an increase of the Regium Donum "if the leaders of the Opposition would be willing to support it." They also saw Mr. Disraeli after he became Premier. That astute statesman expressed the greatest esteem for the Irish Presbyterians, who, he said, were second to none for intelligence and character. He admitted the inadequacy of their endowment, and said nothing would give him greater pleasure than, to increase it "as soon as he felt in circumstances to do so." The same deputation saw Earl Russell, the Opposition leader, who told them that he thought Presbyterian ministers should be placed in a position equal to those of the Established Church. The deputation also saw several of the Ulster members, at that time all Conservatives, who promised to support them in the matter.
It was in these circumstances, and on the report of the committee which sent the deputations, that the question came up in the Assembly of 1868. It must also be remembered that the political atmosphere was electrical, for it was known that the then Parliament had had its day, and would cease to be, and that the whole question would be threshed out in a General Election in a few weeks. While the Assembly was not, and is not, supposed to touch politics, in this case politics touched the Assembly, and I suspect influenced most of the speaking and the voting. As the threatened issue in the country was Disestablishment or not, so it was in the General Assembly. It was men who were well known for Conservative leanings who proposed the resolutions, which ultimately carried, and which were interpreted as supporting the Conservative policy, which was for maintaining the Irish Church and the Regium Donum as well, to say nothing of Maynooth and the priests, while the leaders of the contra resolutions were, in the main, supporters of the Liberal party.
But I must make this clear. While I believe that none of the ministers recognised as Conservatives, supported what I may term the Liberal policy, a great number of Liberals supported the Conservative policy. And when I mention the names of Richard Smith and N. M. Brown and Mr. S. M. Greer, as three out of many — I might say dozens — I do not think I am far astray in my statement.
And, further, I am not astray in stating that, apart from the support of the principle of Establishment, which they did not desire to disavow, there was a feeling among many of these ministers that the leap into the future was rather risky for the Church, and that they did not feel disposed to inflict on their successors a deprivation which they and the Church could ill bear. It must be remembered that the standard of giving was not very high, not anything as high as at present. And these men had not had works to justify the faith to the extent that later generations have seen. And yet, let it not be forgotten that we are to have an adjourned meeting of Assembly in the course of a few weeks to endeavour to raise the present standard higher still. While the fears of many of these fathers of the Church were not justified, it is only fair to them to say that many of those of Liberal politics put what they regarded as the interests of the Church before the interests of party in voting in favour of the levelling-up policy. My own personal conversation with several of them would justify me in making this statement, and give this explanation of their votes on the occasion.
As would naturally be expected, the selection of Moderator for such an Assembly would be an indication of the trend of the Assembly. The candidates were the Rev. Chas. L. Morrell, of Dungannon, who had been nominated by twenty Presbyteries, and the Rev. J. R. M'Allister, of Armagh, nominated by four. Mr. Morrell was elected by a majority of. twenty-one votes — 133 voting for him and 112 for Mr. M'Allister. In so far as one dare venture to associate politics with the holders of such an office, I think I would be justified in describing Mr. Morrell as a Conservative. At any rate up till that time, and I think afterwards, Mr. Morrell had been one of the chief nominators of and speakers for Colonel Stuart Knox as member for Dungannon — the Colonel and Dungannon disappeared as direct political factors some years later. That Colonel Stuart Knox was a Conservative there could be no doubt. It was about this period, or a little later, an incident occurred that made the gallant Colonel a sensation for some days. He got up on one occasion, and astonished the House of Commons and Mr. Gladstone by reading a quotation as from a speech of Mr. Gladstone in regard to the Irish Church which was in eloquent opposition to the policy he was advocating.
The House was amazed, and Mr. Gladstone was noticed slipping out. He shortly afterwards returned with a volume of Hansard, and explained that what the hon. gentleman had been quoting was not a speech of Mr. Gladstone, but one of Mr. (afterwards Chief Justice) Whiteside, who was a politician of another calibre. It appeared that Mr. Gladstone's name stood at the head of the page, but Mr. Whiteside's speech began in the middle, and the Colonel had read as if it was all a part of Mr. Gladstone's speech. It was in connection with that incident the "Daily Telegraph," then in its palmy and young born days, wrote an article, of which I remember this sentence — "Colonel Stuart-Knox is neither a clever nor a thoughtful man, but he is as God made him, and it ill becomes us to sneer at want of intellect in one of His creatures."
Mr. Morrell was one of the most popular men of his day in or out of the Church; sturdy, vigorous, genial, and humorous, of large build and large heart. His very presence on the platform was a delight, and his humorous sallies and suggestions often did more to win support than did the serious arguments of many other men. I am unable to spy from recollection what the private politics of Mr. M'Allister were, but I presume they were not those of Mr. Morrell. He was a man of great earnestness and activity in the Church, and was convener of one of its most important funds — I believe it was the Sustentation Fund. He was a very active member of the Court, and worked both for his congregation and the Church.
The outgoing Moderator for the year was the Rev. Robert Montgomery (uncle of the Rev. Dr. Henry Montgomery), one of the earliest and most respected Indian missionaries of the Church. As he had spent all his mature life in India he took little save an official part in home controversies during his year of office, and in his retiring address he carefully avoided any reference to them. His successor contented himself in part with general references expressing his adherence to the, principle of Establishment, but there was nothing committal in that, as both sides seemed to be at one on that point. But some of his subsequent references showed, even though in a glass darkly, that he was on the side of Mr. Disraeli, as Mr. Disraeli had previously declared that he was on the side of the angels.
There was a little preliminary storm over the report of the committee, which was read by the Moderator, and some expressions of ridicule indulged in when Mr. Disraeli's promises were referred to, but the Rev. John Rogers, who seemed to take a leading, if not the leading, part in these negotiations, resented these, and said that it was due to Mr. Disraeli to say that Mr. Disraeli had never repudiated the document [the letter promising consideration of the increase of the Regium Donum in the next estimates], and his whole demeanour left the impression on the deputation that it was a promise. We did not know so much in those days as we do now as to the valuelessness of a scrap of paper; but the view of Mr. Rogers' opponents was that this letter was of no more value than the German scrap of paper is regarded to-day. Mr. Rogers, however, resented that, and repeatedly asserted that the pledge was genuine and definite. In the light of subsequent events, if not, indeed, in the light of many at the time, it was a safe promise, as the chance of redeeming it was slight, for at the time a wave of opinion had set in that was destined to overwhelm Mr. Disraeli and his party for a time.
It was the Rev. Professor Dill, of the Magee College, Derry, uncle of the Rev. Dr. S. M. Dill, Alloway, and father of Sir Samuel Dill, of. the Belfast University, and Mr. R. F. Dill, of the Foyle College, Derry, who led the forces of the Establishment, or, to be more strictly accurate, the forces that protested against the withdrawal of the Regium Donum, for many who did not love the Establishment or desire the continuance of its special privileges voted with the Professor. Professor Dill was one of the ablest theologians of his day, one of the most clear-headed ministers, and one of the most eloquent speakers in the Assembly, a man of fine culture and fine manner. The resolutions he presented were seven or eight in number — in those days the resolutions of the Assembly were as voluminous as the speeches, accepting the principle of State Establishment, justifying, the conditions and conclusions under which the Regium Donum had been received, asserting that it had been beneficial to the State and advantageous to the Church, and protesting against its threatened withdrawal. The union had been honourable to both Church and State, and the latter had no right to take it away. They should hold to it till it was wrenched from them, and to, relinquish it would be to throw the weight of their influence into the scale of Cardinal Cullen, He warned them to keep clear of all political complications.
Rev. Dr. Cooke, who was old and feeble, but still with the fire of battle in his eye, seconded the resolutions, as they represented principles which he had always maintained. Rev. Alex. Gray, afterwards Rev. Dr. Gray, College Square, supported the resolutions in a vigorous and argumentative, speech. If they cast the Protestant ministers without a day's notice on the voluntary givings of the people no tongue could describe the evils that would ensue. He would pluck up Prelacy by the roots if he could plant Presbyterianism in its stead, but he would never blot out any form of Protestantism to put Prelacy in its stead.
The issue was joined when the Rev. Dr. Kirkpatrick, of Rutland Square, a fine old veteran of the Church, who had long sustained the banner of Presbyterianism in the capital and in the Church, got up to propose the amendment. His amendment was fully as long and as forcibly expressed as the resolution. But while approving of the establishment of truth and protesting against the endowment of error, the amendment declared that the full and impartial Disendowment of all religious denominations in Ireland is to be preferred to a scheme of general endowment by which truth and error are treated indiscriminately. They had, he said, a right to have the Regium Donum, and to contend for it, but not a right to do that if it compromised them. In rejecting the Regium Donum they would have the sympathies of all the Free Evangelical Churches of the world, whose praise and sympathy they should court. The Rev. John Macnaughtan, who was then in the plenitude of his rhetorical powers, seconded the amendment, maintaining that the only alternative to religious equality, which they supported, was the Endowment of the Church of Rome. As long as wood grows and water runs, and the Pope remains in his place, the man of sin not destroyed, and riches in the British Exchequer, Rome will find some way to encroach; but he would take away that which is the ostensible ground of grievance they have in the Irish Established Church.
The debate continued for six or seven sederunts, and was kept up with great heat, and in the midst of great heat. I intended to give some note of the various speakers, but find space would not permit. I may say, however, that the Rev. John Rogers, Mr. S. M. Greer, who had contested Derry in the Liberal interest; Rev. Richard Smyth (afterwards Prof. Smyth, M.P.), Rev. Prof. Porter, Rev. Hugh Hanna, Rev. Henry Henderson, Mr. J. P. Corry, M.P., supported Dr. Dill's resolution; and Rev. L. E. Berkeley, Rev. A. Robinson, Broughshane; Rev. Professor Wallace, Rev. T. Y. Killen, Mr. John Eagleson (elder), Mr. (afterwards Sir) Thomas M'Clure, Dr. M'Cosh, Rev. J. B. Rentoul spoke in favour of the amendment.
Rev. John Macnaughtan closed the debate. The roll was then called, with the result that 180 voted for Dr. Kirkpatrick's amendment, and 210 against, and Dr. Dill's resolutions were afterwards carried by the same vote and the same majority — 30. The ministerial vote was 182 for Dr. Dill's resolution, and 134 for Dr. Kirkpatrick's amendment — clerical majority, 38. The vote of the elders was 46 for the amendment and 28 against — a majority for the amendment of 18. This reduced the majority of the entire Assembly to 30, as stated.
I have read over the reports of the speeches delivered on the occasion. They were on the whole able and brilliant speeches, some of them among the finest ever delivered in the Assembly. But time has worked such changes in me or in the perspective that the perusal of them now does riot fire the blood of rouse the feelings as they did when first delivered or first read. One reads them now as history, not as polemic, and wonders how people were stirred so much by them. The whole question of the relation of the Church to the State, and especially of the relation of the Presbyterian Church, were all discussed with great fulness, and with what was regarded as great freshness and force.
The whole question of the establishment of truth and the duty of the State to establish it, and along with it the wickedness of endowing error; while both sides were at one in regard to the establishment and endowment of truth, the line of cleavage was as to the endowment of error, which would be involved in the levelling up policy of Mr. Disraeli and the Conservatives of the time. It was contended on the part of the majority that it would be time enough to discuss the latter point when it was reached, but that in the meantime the Assembly should only concern themselves with the Regium Donum, that had only been threatened, and not wrested from them. But perhaps the most remarkable faults about the speeches were the prophecies of both sides which have not been fulfilled. The veil that then hung over the future has been removed. On the one hand it has been proved that the Disestablishment and Disendowment have not brought the ruin to the Church or to religion that its opponents anticipated, and that the liberality of the people, while it has not been by any means ideal, has not failed to the extent anticipated; but that on the contrary, both the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church are stronger in all that makes for life and spirit in the Church and in the country. On the other hand, the prophecies and hopes of the supporters of that policy, that the Disestablishment of the Church would end the Roman Catholic and Nationalist grievances, and prepare the way for a new era of peace and unity, have been completely falsified; and it has been established that after these and other grievances, old and new, real or fancied, have been removed, the hostility to the British, and to British rule is tenfold greater, if possible, than it was then, and a more real danger to the country and to the Empire.
There was a very noisy and excited scene after the division, some clamouring for a new amendment, and others content with things as they were. In the end, however, the majority had their will, and many of the resolutions were passed amid, hilarious delight on the one side and a sense of depression and disappointment on the other.
But the vote did not save the Irish Church or carry the Presbyterians into the Establishment camp. The Liberals won in Belfast, Armagh, Derry, and Carrickfergus, and for the first time broke the Ulster Conservative phalanx; and the election over the country followed, giving Mr. Gladstone the majority that enabled him to introduce and carry the Church Bill, the Ballot, and the Irish Land Bill of 1870, which for the first time legalised Ulster tenant right, and opened the way for further land reform, which, however, while it greatly benefited the Ulster and Irish farmers, has not completely satisfied the Irish Nationalist horse-leach, which is ever crying for more.
To be continued...
From The Witness, 1st September 1916.
The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.