By “The Man in the Street.”
As I have indicated, the feeling of excitement throughout the Church was great at the time, and we had many pamphlets on the subject, the only one of which I can recall being one by Professor Wallace, but I know there were others. The subject was discussed in the papers, though, perhaps, less at this time than since “The Witness” came into existence two years afterwards, of which I shall have something to say by and bye. It was the chief topic in congregations and among Presbyterians, either corporate or individual. “Liberty” and “Purity” had become watchwords at that time as descriptive of the two parties. There was scarcely a Young Men’s Association connected with the Presbyterian Church that did not debate the question at its meetings. We debated it in Duncairn, where, apart from other reasons, the prominence into which Mr. Thomas Sinclair had sprung in the Church, as well as that attained by its minister, the Rev. T. Y. Killen, special interest attached to the subject. I was myself for the first time caught in the vortex of debating excitement. Our young men’s society arranged a debate on the subject, with Mr. Sinclair to lead off on the “Liberty” side. At the last moment he was called away on business, and I was asked to take his place. The honour was as great as the responsibility was appalling. I had never taken a leading part in a debate before, and thought I would prepare a speech for the great occasion. I kept writing away, but only to find that my introduction would have occupied as much time as was allotted to me altogether; and so had to trust to a hesitating tongue and inadequate thought and information for giving the lead. And a poor lead it was. I boggled through for a quarter of an hour with a consciousness of having made a poor exhibition of myself and my cause. But worse was to follow. I had only arranged for one or two speakers to follow me on my side. But to my surprise my friends the enemy, and chief among them my best friend and companion, Hugh Jamison, brother of the minister of Rasharkin, had a whole relay of speakers arranged for. The result was that while I believe the majority of the audience were on my side, the majority of the speakers were on the other side, and, I am afraid, the best speaking, too. There were nearly two speeches on the “Purity” side for one on mine. It was after ten o’clock before the time came for my reply. Between shame at what I regarded as my failure both of speech and organisation, and a resolute determination to make amends at the finish, I could scarcely keep my seat for the previous half-hour. When my time came I rattled off all I knew as rapidly and confidently as I could. Beyond the fact that I kept harping on the harp and kept watching the clock for time and the faces of my audience for signs of weariness, I was conscious of nothing when I sat down but that I had been talking. I could no more have reconstituted that speech than I could have converted Hugh Jamison or Mr. Petticrew. How the vote went I cannot remember. But I fought shy of debates on that question, or, indeed, any other of the kind, afterwards.
It was different with the Assembly of 1872 so far as perfection and the marshalling of forces were concerned. There were no end of speakers and no end of speaking and no end of marshalling forces. Attempts were made to have the speeches limited, and I think a limit was fixed, but, like many other rules, it was, I suspect, more honoured in the breach than in the observance. According to form, the question arose on the report of the committee of which Rev. Dr. Knox was convener, and the moving of the reception of the report should have fallen on Dr. Knox. But, as a matter of fact, the report in committee had been carried by a majority against him and his friends. Professor Wallace, Rev. W. F. Stevenson, Rev. Jas. Gibson, and Mr. Wm. Shaw, elder, with Dr. Knox himself, had dissented from the report. Dr. Knox had given the name of the dissenters in his report, and the Rev. Archibald Robinson protested against that, and this led to some heated remarks, in the midst of which the Moderator (Rev. Dr. Richard Smyth) said — “May I request that you will not allow feeling to get up so soon.” In the end Dr. Knox did not move the reception of the report — only presenting it, and this duty fell to the Rev. Francis Petticrew, who at the first and till the end was the acknowledged leader of what was known as the Purity party. Tall and dignified, straight as an arrow and firm as steel, solid and scholarly, Dr. Petticrew (he was not D.D. at the time, but in his and other cases I shall continue to use the names that were more familiar to the present generation) was an ideal leader of any cause. He was not only a man of principle, but a man of consistency, a man of intense earnestness, to whom truth and duty were more than life. If Dr. Petticrew had lived in the days when men were sent to the stake for their principles, he would have faced the stake with the heroism of a martyr and the hopefulness of a saint. He was not as ready in extemporised debates as some others, but when he prepared a speech it was a complete and perfect speech. I could not recall even the number of speeches he made in the Assembly and elsewhere, or the number of articles he wrote during this controversy. II It was remarkable, however, that while the bases of his speech were always the same, the superstructure was different, forceful in argument, unsurpassed in its sincerity and earnestness, and finished in style. And as he filled so large a share in the controversy, let me say here that at the end he was the same noble, high-minded Christian gentleman, as noble and dignified in defeat as he was high-minded and honourable in victory.
Setting out with the Assembly resolution, of which, I think, Dr. Cooke was the father, that the common law of the Church excluded instrumental music, he appealed to the Old and New Testament, holding that it was only for the temple that instrumental music was prescribed, and that there was no example of it in the New, and argued that those who proposed a change were bound to justify the change, which they had hitherto failed to do, and thus he claimed that, even if lawful, a practice should not be introduced which would offend the consciences of many worshippers.
I need not say that the speech created great enthusiasm among the Purity party, and was listened to with great respect by the other side, a courtesy which that leader always received, as was his due. The Rev. James Rogers, Glascar, seconded the resolution. Then Mr. Thomas Sinclair, known to this generation as the Right Hon. Thos. Sinclair, mounted the platform. Mr. Sinclair was then a young man on the right side of thirty, but he had already taken the place of leadership as by natural selection. His brilliant service in the financial settlement of the Church, as well as his high Christian character, Presbyterian loyalty, and statesmanlike sagacity and cultivated eloquence, had secured for him a respect and influence which grew with his growth and remained to his death. Dr. Petticrew and he were honoured graduates of the same — Queen’s — University, and in personal and ecclesiastical relations it might be truly said that each loved the other more than himself. These two withstood each other face to face all through this controversy, and their relations to the end were those of the truest Christian affection, Christian brotherhood in the highest and best sense of the term. It was my privilege to have known both very intimately, and to have had opportunities of knowing how each regarded the other, the respect and affection each had for the other, and the regret each felt that there should be any differences between them in regard to the services of a Church they both loved so dearly. I have heard the majority of the speeches of Mr. Sinclair on questions of Church and State, and I could not say there was any difference in tone and character or ability from one period to the other. His early speeches had a literary tone and feeling begotten of his university training, but they were never the flamboyant speeches of a young man. Large views, a high sense of duty in Church and State, a high sense of individuality, responsibility, and of public duty animated him in youth as in age. If polish might be regarded as a speciality of youth, it was as marked a characteristic of Mr. Sinclair’s age. In the memorable speech on this occasion, a cultured speech, the youth was father to the man, loyalty to Church above all and before all. His declaration at the close of a magnificent speech was like the man — “If the issue of this question be the use of an instrument or the peace of the Church. ‘Perish the instrument, but God save the Church.’ ”
Professor Wallace, who carried the weight of great learning and a philosophic mind into this controversy, seconded Mr. Sinclair’s amendment, which was as follows — “That the report be received and the committee discharged, and that the General Assembly believing it to be the duty of Christian people to offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of the lips giving thanks unto His mine, do not feel called upon to legislate regarding certain ‘circumstances’ concerning the public worship of God in this ordinance, such as the employment of precentors and choirs and the use of instrumental aid, believing that these circumstances are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.”
The debate was continued for the whole forenoon sederunt on Thursday, the whole forenoon sederunt on Friday, and from nine o’clock on that evening till cock crowing in the morning. Amongst those who took part in the debate were Rev. Dr. Gardner Robb, of Clogher; Rev. Dr. Killen, Comber; Rev. J. L. Rentoul, Garvagh; Rev. G. H. Shanks, Boardmills; and Rev. W. Kirkpatrick, Dublin, in support of Dr. Petticrew; and Rev. Dr. Watts, Rev. Professor Macloskie, Rev. L. E. Berkeley, and others contra.
It was not till after three o’clock on Saturday morning that the vote was taken. There was an electric feeling in the House at the time, as, indeed, there was during the whole night. This was the first occasion on which the subject was discussed on its merits. And it was a memorable discussion. I cannot say how many debates, both in day and night, that I heard in May Street and elsewhere on this subject. But none impressed me more than this. One thing these debates did for me was to enable me to realise as I never had done before the great ability, and, especially the debating ability, of the Assembly of those days. The newspapers gave very full and fair reports of the debates, but no effort to represent in black and white the speeches, whether in full or in summary, could give any adequate idea of the character and effect of the speeches. It requires the living voice, the crowds, the atmosphere, and the feeling and spirit of the moment to enable one to fully appreciate tho character of a speaker or its effectiveness. Oft times the speeches that read best in the Press are not the most effective on the platform. It was not only in the ranks of the Presbyterian Church but outside them that the speeches and debates left an impression. It is true some captious outside critics commented on the strength of the language at times used and the excitement that prevailed, but I question if any other body of the time, ecclesiastical or lay, could have produced, an equal number of men to make an equal number of able speeches; and the heat and excitement that prevailed were simply indications that the debates were not academic displays, but discussions that went to the heart and life of the Church.
While the first debate left the deepest impression on my mind, the longer the discussion lasted the greater my admiration grew, and if as a Presbyterian I felt gratified at the manner in which harmony developed out of what was a critical and divisive controversy, I retain a general sense of pride and satisfaction at the high character of the oratory the subject developed. And what was true of the first debate was true of others. Some of the best speeches, delivered in the middle of the night, seldom saw the light of day, except in the baldest summary. The newspapers had to go to Press before the debates closed, and sufficient for the work of the day was the reporting thereof. I re-read, however, the published reports of this first debate, and found them still readable, though many of the arguments have an old world ring about them now, and some of the phrases rather an archaic character.
It was towards the close of the debate that one of the exciting incidents or scenes of the debate took place, and it is indicative alike of the attention and the tension. While the Rev. L. E. Berkeley was speaking he referred to the fact that Dr. Robb had looked scornfully at the tuning-fork he had in his hand. Dr. Robb waxed indignant at this and at a comparison the minister of Lurgan had drawn between him and Goliath attacking David. This intervention raised a mild storm, but the Moderator allowed Mr. Berkeley to finish in peace.
The vote was then taken by the old and tedious process of calling the roll, and occupied the greater part of an hour, which was an hour of intensely suppressed interest and excitement. In the end 145 voted “amend,” and 180 “not,” which meant the defeat of the “liberty” party by 35 votes. The cheering of the victorious party was loud and vociferous. It was the first real test vote on the merits, and the first victory I went to Dr. Petticrew and his party,
The Rev. Dr. Charles Morrell, of Dungannon, whose portly presence and genial and moderating humour often relieved the dulness of the House or the tension of a moment, then came forward to move as a second amendment that the report be received and the committee dissolved, and that the Assembly declare that vocal music is the only music in the public worship of God authorised by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. Mr. J. P. Corry seconded the amendment. There was another roll call and another vote on this amendment, which had the extraordinary and unexpected result of ending in a tie — 152 on each side. If the excitement was great before, it was, if possible, greater now. It was suggested that the Moderator should give a casting vote, but he said while he would be prepared to do so if necessary he would prefer to refrain. He was not pressed, and after some discussion he suggested that it would be better to let the question remain as before for another year, with the understanding that no action be taken during the year either to put out or put in an instrument. In this way the first great instrumental debate ended.
To be continued at a later date...
From The Witness, 12th October 2017