We left the Assembly of 1886, so far as this question was concerned, in a spirit of truce, and for three years there was peace in the Presbyterian Israel. Though the truce was for five years, there was a provision that the question might be again raised after three years. In the three years the committee appointed under the truce carried on their work of inquiring, reasoning, and influencing with more or less success. In 1887 it was announced that the congregation of Magheramorne, of which the Rev. D. G. M'Crea was minister, had arranged to abandon the instrument; and that while in some other cases the feeling was hopeful, there were others in which the hope was slight, if entertained at all. In the report of ’88 the spirit of hopefulness still prevailed; but no submissions were announced. In that of ’89 the congregations of Wicklow, Kilkenny, and Tullamore were added to Magheramorne as having submitted to the request of the committee, and abandoned their instruments. In summing up the work, the committee said, “During the past three years the committee have adopted the measures which, in their judgment, seemed likely to be most effective for the end in view. In several instances their efforts have prevailed. They regret that a number of congregations, for the reasons indicated [set out in full in the report] have not seen their way to yield. They are bound to add that by the brethren and the congregations generally the written communications and their deputations, where they have gone, have been treated with the greatest courtesy.”
Might I be allowed to interrupt the narrative of a movement toward union in the Church on a long vexing question, to call attention to a feature of real and actual union as represented in the Assembly of the year 1890. This was the Jubilee of the formation of the General Assembly. It was an Assembly looked forward to with great interest by the Presbyterians, and its character realised all the brightest hopes entertained respecting it. As it was on the 10th July, 1840, that the happy union of the Synod of Ulster and Secession Synod was completed, it was arranged that the meeting of Assembly should be held this year in that month. And a memorable month and a memorable meeting it was — interesting as a historic celebration, gratifying as a demonstration of Presbyterian progress, unity, and strength in Ulster, and stimulating as to the life and work of the future. An unusually large gathering of Presbyterians from all corners of the land came up to Belfast to witness and take part in the memorable proceedings, and many distinguished representatives of sister Churches and others manifested their interest in the jubilee and its associations. Rosemary Street Church was selected for the meeting, and as one of the few churches in existence at the union, and from its age, character, and associations, was specially appropriate. And to complete the ensemble the Rev. William Park, not then as now D.D., but then as now a leading ornament of the Church as preacher and pastor, and loyal Presbyterian, was elected Moderator. An additional element of appropriateness was the fact that the same year was the Jubilee of the Foreign Mission of the Church, which may be regarded as one of the first-fruits of the union, and he was at the time convener of this mission, and its most enthusiastic and able exponent and upholder. In his address after election Mr. Park, as might be expected, struck a fine keynote for the Jubilee Assembly and the loyalty of Presbyterians to Church and country, and incidentally alluded to the fact that Rosemary Street had a church history of two hundred and fifty years behind it.
I have witnessed many interesting proceedings in connection with the General Assembly and Rosemary Street, but never one more interesting than this. It was in Rosemary Street the historic Lay Conference was held in 1869 in connection with the change the Irish Church Act had brought about, and the proposal to raise £30,000 annually to enable each minister to receive £100 a year in lieu of the Regium Donum of £69,000. That was an interesting and important Conference, the greatest of its kind and time. But it had to do with the future, while this one was concerned with the past, and a glorious past. It was not only a jubilee celebration, but it marked an epoch in the history of the Church, and I refer to it now because I think that too many Presbyterians are inclined to forget the glories of the past in the troubles and struggles of the present. I well remember the sight of the celebration on that memorable Thursday, the magnificent spectacle that the church presented with the sight of so many of the older men who had lived through much of the period recalled, and of young men who were just entering upon their Presbyterian heritage. It was glorious to witness, and it is to me gratifying to recall, for it represented so much of the old vitality that had characterised the earlier history of our Presbyterianism and the a new vitality which has sustained it since, and will, I hope, continue to sustain it in the time to come. All those who were old have passed away, and of those who were young many have disappeared; but enough still remain to whom I hope it will be interesting to recall the memories of those days and the spirit, unity, and vitality they represented.
After the singing of the 146th Psalm, the Rev. Professor J. G. Murphy, of the Assembly’s College, a pre-union minister connected with the Synod of Ulster, read a portion of Scripture. A number of papers which had been specially prepared for the occasion were then read. These addresses were all published in full in a supplement to “The Witness,” which had a great sale, and copies of which were long cherished as special possessions. I came across one some time ago that had been preserved in the family of a good Presbyterian of the day. The following is a list of the authors of the papers and their subjects — Rev. Dr. H. B. Wilson, Cookstown, “Before the Union;” the Rev. President W. D. Killen, Assembly’s College, “The Story of the Union;” The Rev. Dr. William Magill, Cork, “The Baptism of the Holy Spirit;” the Rev. Thomas Lyle (convener of the Committee on Statistics), “Half a Century of Finance;” Rev. Dr. Lynd, “The Place and Work of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland;” the Rev. the Moderator (Rev. Wm. Park), “Progress of our Mission Work During the Last Half Century;” the Rev. Dr. John Hall, New York, on “Irish Presbyterians in Other Lands;” the Rev. T. S. Woods, “The Fathers and Brethren of the Union Still Spared Among Us.”
During the reading of Mr. Woods’ paper, a historic picture which he had been specially requested to prepare for the occasion by the Irish Jubilee Celebration Committee, was unveiled. The Rev. Frederick Buick, Ahoghill, pre-union minister of the Secession Synod, engaged in prayer. About a dozen pre-union ministers attended the celebration. The sederunt and the celebration, so far as the Church was concerned, was concluded with praise and prayer led by the Rev. J. K. Leslie, of Cookstown, a pro-union minister.
But that did not end there. In the evening a public reception was given to the Assembly, the delegates and friends, in the Botanic Gardens, where a special tent was provided, and to which eighteen hundred invitations were issued. It also was a unique and interesting meeting, and was addressed by several of the delegates. I referred above to the fact that sister Churches were represented on the occasion, and their delegates delivered addresses either in Rosemary Street or at the evening celebration, and some at both. These included the Church of Scotland, Rev. James Frazer and Rev. Thomas Martin; the English Presbyterian Church, the Rev. John Thompson (Carlisle) and the Rev. Dr. William M’Caw, himself a native of the North of Ireland; the Pan-Presbyterian Council, Rev. Dr. Marshall Lang; the Presbyterian Church of North America, the Rev. Dr. John Hall, New York, and the Rev. Dr. John Hemphill, then of Philadelphia, both Irishmen whom I well knew in their Irish days — the first as minister of Rutland Square, and the second as one of the earliest of the students of Magee College; the Southern Presbyterian Church of America, represented by the Rev. W. Campbell; the Presbyterian Church of Victoria, represented by Rev. W. M'Donald; the Rev. Dr. Blackie, father of the Pan-Presbyterian Council; Professor Comba (Florence), Sir George Brice, and others.
I think in these days, with so many other questions and interests to distract our attention, it is not out of place to recall this interesting episode in our Presbyterian history, and to keep before our minds something of the history, position, and responsibilities of our Presbyterian Church — “Lest we forget; lest we forget.”
From The Witness, 22nd March 1918.