We took leave last week of the Assembly of 1885 in the midst of one of the most grave end critical developments of its life within, at least, my memory. The word secession has ominous significance in Church or State, and while at the time few of us imagined that there would be secession — we regarded the friends who had temporarily retired, either from pique or principle, too good and loyal Presbyterians for that — still, the situation was critical, and many great secessions have sprung from similar outbursts of feelings or determination. I well remember the excitement that was created when the Rev. Mr. Jeffrey entered the excited Assembly, and himself in rather an excited state, and announced that the withdrawn brethren were holding a meeting in the schoolroom below the church. It was evident before the withdrawal that there was a strong spirit of determination on the part of a large section of the Assembly, perhaps assisted by those in the gallery, that a vote should be taken at once. No doubt they felt that after seventeen years of debate and determination little could be added to the light on the question, or to the influence of even one voter. On the other hand that hope that springs eternal in the human breast had a strong hold on Dr. Petticrew and has very earnest followers, and they felt that they were entitled to a further hearing. Their departure certainly filled the Assembly with a desire to hear them further, and the statements of one or two strong Liberty men that they had heard enough did not meet with a general response, though many extremists on that side cheered it.
At all events, the Assembly adjourned in the afternoon with feelings of excitement and apprehension seldom paralleled in my experience. All that was known was that a certain number of the brethren had gone out, and whether, when, or under what circumstances they would come back was a matter of speculation, though they would come back was a matter of strong hope. On the Assembly resuming in the evening the attendance was vast, and excitement intense. It transpired that simultaneously with the meeting of the Assembly the withdrawn brethren were holding a meeting in the Assembly Hall, The feeling in the Assembly was one of constraint as well as restraint. The rights and dignity of the Assembly had to be considered, as well as the rights and dignity of the party that had withdrawn.
At the opening the Rev. Dr. Gray said that a decision by vote there would create a painful impression, and suggested a policy of conciliation. In reply to a suggestion of the Rev. Mr. Boyd, of Ramoan, that the amendment should be withdrawn, Dr. H. B. Wilson said he would withdraw the amendment if the motion was also withdrawn. Rev. Dr. T. Y. Killen stated that he, with Drs. Morrell, Johnston, and Rodgers, had waited on the brethren, and found them exasperated at the way they had been treated, and the right of freedom of discussion destroyed. He moved that Drs. Wilson (Limerick), N. M. Brown, and himself, with the Rev. Oliver Leitch (Letterkenny) and Sir David Taylor should wait on the brethren. Dr. Brown declined to act, but the other members departed, the Assembly meanwhile being led in prayer by Rev. Dr. Jackson Smyth. After some time Dr. Killen returned, and said they had been most respectfully received, but that the only terms on which they would come back would be that the motion and amendment should be withdrawn, and that Dr. Petticrew's notice of motion should lie on the books for another year. Dr. Killen said there were at least 400 people at the meeting though he rather startled the Assembly by first stating that there were 400 ministers and elders. Rev. Dr. Wilson stated that the brethren had asked the deputation the following question — “Is the General Assembly prepared to act on the suggestion that the motion and amendment be withdrawn, and that Dr. Petticrew’s notice of motion lie on the books for the year?” Rev. Dr. Fleming Stevenson asked if that was done would the agitation cease during the year? and Dr. Wilson said he had asked that, but could get no answer. It was then moved by Mr. M‘Elderry, Ballymoney, and seconded by Rev. Dr. Morrell that the proposal should be accepted; but Dr. Stevenson moved, and Rev. A. Patton seconded, an amendment that it z should only be accepted on the condition that agitation would cease during the year. Dr. Johnston said one of the brethren had told him, “We did not go out on a point of order; we went out to resent the organised tyranny behind it.” It was felt that the condition imposed by the amendment would militate against a settlement; and it was withdrawn, and the motion adopted. Thereupon a message was dispatched to the Assembly Hall, and in a few minutes the deputation, sent out like the dove from the ark, returned with the ministers and elders who had gone out. This was one of the most dramatic scenes I have ever witnessed in any Assembly. In some respects the deputation was tragic in its suddenness and in its suggestiveness. But this was purely dramatic in its characteristics and in its happy ending. It was said of someone that nothing in his life became him like his leaving of it. Of this moving column of men it might be said that nothing became them better than their returning. We all felt, as we felt this week when we heard that Sir Wm. Robertson had accepted the Eastern Command, that the ministerial (and elder) crisis was over, and we rejoiced accordingly and exceedingly. There was great cheering, the cheering of relief and satisfaction.
I do not suggest that there ever was serious danger of secession for the reason I have stated; but there had been separation, and the Rev. A. Robinson said afterwards that they were sorry at the departure and sorry that there had been a separation for a moment. The returning members brought with them a protest, which Mr. Robinson said had been agreed to before the offer had come from the Assembly; but the Clerk and others thought as there had up till then been no record there could be nothing to protest against, and it was arranged that the protest should lie on the table till the following morning, when it could come up in the minutes. Accordingly, on the Saturday morning the minutes were read, and some alterations or emundation made, after which the protest was read, and a committee appointed to answer it. The protest, which was signed by 200 names, stated that after the motion and amendment had been moved and seconded the advocates of the introduction of instruments, apparently by consent, refused to allow any discussion whatever on their own amendment, and by persistent clamour and turbulence utterly unbecoming a Court of Christ carried a demand for an immediate vote, not a single word of discussion on it from their opponents being heard. The answer to the protest, which was a long one, was brought up on the following Tuesday. In reference to the allegation in the sentences quoted, the “Answer” denied that there was any concert, and that the clamour’ and turbulence referred to consisted in the persistent and general cry of ‘Vote.’ The Assembly’s own minutes accepted by the protesters testified that ‘a loud and general demand arose for an immediate vote, and the Moderator declared this to be, in his opinion, the manifest sense of the House.’ . . . Certainly the Assembly in its action had no desire to interfere with the freedom of debate, and had no wish to hurt the feelings of any members of the Court or any section of our people.” Dr. Petticrew and some of his friends took exception to some of the statements in the answer to the protest, and a vote was taken as to its reception, when 105 voted in its favour and 55 against it. And the “Answer” passed into the “Minutes” and history.
A report of the proceedings of the “Anti-instrumentalists” was published in the Press at the time. The Rev. Archibald Robinson, however, had not concluded his opening speech until first the informal and afterwards, the formal deputation from the Assembly arrived. He complained that the memorials, with 16,000 signatures, had been practically ignored by the Assembly, and that the convictions of the Presbyterian people had been misrepresented and their rights trampled on. They were not going to secede from the Presbyterian Church, but all he would advise would be that they should keep their tempers cool and organise themselves for the maintenance of Scriptural worship. After the Assembly resolution was read, and each of the members had addressed the meeting in a conciliatory spirit, and inviting them to return to the Assembly. Dr. Petticrew said there had been no premeditation about their action, and then made the suggestion as stated above of the condition on which they would return, namely, the withdrawal of both motion and amendment. Mr. Robinson wished to impress on the deputation that they had not seceded from the Church. When the deputation who had conveyed their condition to the Assembly returned with the announcement of their acceptance, devotional exercises were engaged in, and the members who had signed the protest returned bodily to May Street Church as stated above. Thus ended happily and calmly what on the surface suggested storm and tempest if not division.
From The Witness, 22nd February 1918.