Wednesday 3 May 2017

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


Though I am not wearied in my efforts to recall some of my memories of Belfast life, I am getting afraid my readers may be. At all events change is good for the mind and body, and I have decided to turn my mind into another channel for a time, and return to the old as the spirit moves me. And yet, in some respects, the General Assembly is really a part of Belfast life, for the vast majority of its meetings have been held in the city, and the Assembly Hall now gives it not only a permanent local habitation, but a name. Belfast is to the Irish Presbyterians what Jerusalem was to the Jews of old, the place whither its tribes go up periodically to express and emphasise the concentration of their faith and energies. No doubt the Jews had local synagogues in Jerusalem as well as all over Palestine; but it was the Temple that emphasised and symbolised the unity of faith and worship of all. And in that respect the Assembly Hall may be regarded as the Temple of the Irish Presbyterian Church.

Yet while I am stating that, it is almost ironical that the first General Assembly of the Church that I attended officially was held in Dublin in Rutland Square, as that had only recently been erected, and which remains to this day as a monument to the memory of the founder and an emblem of Presbyterian vitality in the Irish capital. It is true I had been at two Assemblies — one as a child and one as an amateur reporter. As a child, the only memory I have of it is struggling among an interested crowd of adults to get a glimpse of the Moderator in the pulpit. It must have been a fine sermon, if I judge from my memory of the intense interest with which it was listened to by those who could understand it. And I later learned that it was a fine sermon from reading it. And no one who remembers Dr. Goudy or who has heard of him by repute can doubt that it was, for the Moderator was the Rev. Dr. Goudy, of Strabane, and the text was, “Buy the truth, and sell it not.” Dr. Goudy had passed away before I was mature enough to appreciate him; but he was one of the greatest Presbyterians of that generation (and it included Dr. Cooke), and in my humble judgment in every respect one of the finest of any generation. While not associating the Church then or now with politics, I may say that Dr. Goudy was the leader of what was termed the Liberal party in the Assembly, while Dr. Cooke was the leader of the Conservatives; and my juvenile associations and sympathies were with the Liberals, which may, to some extent, account for my appreciation. My second appearance was as a very juvenile reporter sent down from Derry to study, if not to report, the Assembly; but I am afraid both my study and my report were unsatisfactory. The subject under discussion was the supplemental charter, or something like that, in connection with higher education and the relation of the Assembly to it. I listened for a couple of days; but I could no more “get the hang of it” than an American Pressman whom I lately met could get the hang of the Irish question in three days.

I attended all the General Assemblies since save one, so that I think I can claim a record that could not be surpassed by anyone now living. I have learned much of its working and its workers; and I have enjoyed the acquaintance of large numbers who have come and gone since, as of those happily still among us. I have heard most of the great speeches and great speakers of the time, and followed its proceedings each year with more or less interest. What I propose to deal with in my usual loose and unsystematic way are some of the principal features of the Assemblies and with impressions of some of the leaders who took part in the proceedings. To some of these I may have referred in one connection, with another at different times in the past; but I hope I shall be excused for referring to them again in connection with their Assembly life and work. I hope I will not prove tedious, and that my personal impressions and recollections of them will awaken pleasing memories in the old and awaken interest on the part of the young, both of ministers and laity, of some of the departed worthies of the Church.

But first let me say that great changes have come over the Church as well as the country in these fifty years. Though faith and loyalty continue the same in many respects, the old order has changed, and given place to new. Fifty years ago the conditions of Church life, as, indeed, of all life, were different from the present. So far as recognition was concerned, religiously and politically, the Irish Presbyterian Church occupied a subordinate position. It was overshadowed by the Episcopal State Church, with its large endowments and social prestige; and it had no political representation. I well remember the time when Mr. Samuel M'Curdy Greer contested the County Derry as a Presbyterian, with as large a proportion of Presbyterians as at present, he was not returned. And, indeed, in some Episcopal quarters at the time it was regarded as something like impertinence for a Presbyterian to dare even in that way to come between the wind and Episcopal nobility and supremacy. And defeat afterwards awaited him when he contested the city of Derry some years later, where, I must say, some prominent Presbyterians were among his most prominent opponents.

The only place for which a Presbyterian sat at the beginning of the last half-century was in Belfast, where, by an agreement, tacit or otherwise, the representation was divided between a Presbyterian and an Episcopalian, with the preliminary requisite that the Presbyterian should be a Conservative. William Sharman Crawford, the father of tenant-right, was a Presbyterian; but he could not find a seat in Ulster, and it was as the representative of an English constituency he made his first Parliamentary effort on behalf of the cause with which his name has been so honourably and historically associated. In fact, so much social distinction was associated with the State Church that in many cases Presbyterians as they advanced in the world, or wanted to advance in the social world, shook the dust of Presbyterianism from their feet and became Episcopalians. One would not need to go very far to find among the members of the Episcopal Church of to-day men and women whose fathers and grandfathers were Presbyterians in the days of which I am writing. Indeed, it was one of the “gags” of the time that when a Presbyterian mounted a gig — there were no motors in those days — he went to the Episcopal Church. This State connection militated against Presbyterianism in two ways. The social dignity of the Established Church drew away some of the richest members of the Church, and the connection of the Presbyterians with the State through the Regium Donum, which, however, did a great deal for the Church in older times, did not encourage liberal giving in those who remained. In those days £70 was considered a large sum, especially in country districts, and many members, both in town and country, imagined that when a minister was sure of something approaching 30s or 40s a week he should not require much more. For that reason the standard of giving was low, just as the standard of living was, and the amounts paid for stipend or to mission or other collections was small. I am not quite sure that we have risen to the proper ideal yet; but we are getting on and up by degrees; and the time may come when the members of the Church will do their duty to themselves, to the Church, and to the ministry. At the same time, much has been done in that direction, as may be illustrated by the following figures. According to the Minutes of 1867, the total paid to 598 ministers was £33,836, to which must be added the £40,000 of Regium Donum. The Minutes of last year show that the total paid to 641 ministers was £130,322, including the Sustentation Fund and the interest on the Commutation Fund.

Then tenant-right had not been legally recognised, and the tenancies of the farmers were not secure as at present; and the danger of arbitrary periodical raising of the rents or the fear that rent would be raised kept the tenant-farmers, of whom the Church, at any rate in the rural districts, was chiefly composed, in a state of dread as to the future. And it is possible the feeling of that time, reproduced in their descendants, has given to the minds of the farmers a closeness and narrowness of financial outlook when circumstances do not so much demand it. I am bound in fairness to say, however, that in a vast number of cases the farmers of this generation are showing a more independent as well as a more liberal spirit than those of the older generation; and I hope both will continue to increase.

In these old days Presbyterians did not call their places of worship churches, but meeting houses. It was only Episcopalians who went to church, as Roman Catholics and Methodists went to chapel. Presbyterians simply went to meeting. And these meeting places were very dear to them. They were not so imposing as those of the present day. If, in these days, we aim at cathedral style in our architecture, our fathers seemed content with taking barns as their models, for plainness at all events. I have been in my time in many of these old churches, to which the only entrance to the gallery was by stone steps outside. Yet I question if half of us who attend the more modern and stately churches are half as much devoted to the walls, or to the service within the walls, or to the minister, as our fathers were to theirs. And not only so, but our fathers thought less of a walk of two or three, or even four, miles to “meeting” than their sons would do of a walk of half the distance; and while our fathers were glad to wait for two hours and more of a service, the greater part of it a sermon, their sons seem to think half the time enough, and, from their estimate of the minister not by the length, but the brevity of the service. And not only did our fathers enjoy these long services, but after one service they were indulged with an interval of an hour or so, and then returned to a second service. It was generally, however, the old people that remained for the second service; the young people were not supposed to have reached the perfection of a four hours’ service on one Sabbath, The method, however, of dual service was necessary, on account of the great distance travelled. No doubt, many of the farmers had jaunting cars or gigs of their own, and accommodation for these had to be provided near the church. I remember hearing of one case in which the peace of the congregation was disturbed for some time by the fact that the minister thought the congregation had made more costly accommodation for the horses and cars of the members than they had for the minister!

In these old times we sat during the praise and stood during the prayers, and the etiquette or custom was, when we stood, to turn our backs to the minister. I well remember when the Rev. Richard Smyth (afterwards D.D. and M.P. and professor) got up to introduce the “innovation” of standing during the praise and sitting during the prayer. I cannot, of course, remember all he said, and am not sure that I understood it; but the impression left on my mind is that he took a long time to explain it, as if it was such a daring innovation as would call forth all his powers for its justification. We had old and solemn tunes in those days – nothing would merit the term “lilting” which I heard applied by a lover of the old paths to some of the new tunes. We were content with the Psalms of David, with an occasional extension to a paraphrase. We had no hymns and no instruments — we regarded these as Episcopal or Papistical. And though I was never such an ardent adherent to the old use and wont as my friends, Dr. Petticrew, Dr. Corkey, and Dr. George Magill, I must say that the first time I heard of the introduction of a harmonium into public worship I was inclined to ask if I slept or I dreamt or if visions were about.

To be continued...

From The Witness, 4th 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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