In the book of my memory and in the history of Belfast the year 1874 forms an interesting page. It was in that year “The Witness” first saw the light, and it was in that year the Belfast Corporation purchased the Gasworks from the English company, and could claim the gas light of the town as their own. In this way Belfast possessed two new lights, neither of which has been extinguished yet. “The Witness” has grown and expanded, and the Gasworks has grown and extended; but while the Corporation light for the time become dim, the light of “The Witness” continues to shine stronger and brighter than ever. With the thought of the last-mentioned light in my mind, I turned up the file of “The Witness,” and cast my eye over its pages for the year to see what they should recall or suggest. The first thing they suggested was the modesty and the excellence of the earliest issues, and I can say this without egotism, as I had nothing to do with them. But while the matter and the arrangement were excellent, I was greatly struck with its modest size as compared with the present sheet. It was almost like an infant in arms compared with a full-developed youth; but it was a fine, strong, healthy infant, full of promise and potency of stalwart manhood. But it had a good beginning, and its latter and has increased so that its present and future are assured both in position and influence, and in the increasing support it is receiving from our kind friends the readers and the advertisers.
Though I only intended to make this date a starting point for other subjects and other persons than those with which I have dealt, I have found in the incidents of the year as recorded in “The Witness” sufficient material to make what I hope will be an interesting column. And first, I will refer to the General Election of the spring of that year, which ended in the rout of Mr. Gladstone and the return of Mr. Disraeli to power. It was in view of that election that Mr. Gladstone made his first experiment in Irish education by offering a bribe to Roman Catholics in connection with Trinity College. The bribe failed in its purpose. Mr. Gladstone was defeated, and he retired in high dudgeon and with no kindly feelings towards the Vatican authorities, who had refused to accept this proposals. His indignant feelings found expression in his celebrated pamphlet on the “Vatican Decrees,” in which he [?]aliminated against the Vatican and its interference with rights and liberties in terms which led to recrimination and controversies for months, if not for years. Indeed, it was difficult to imagine that the author of that pamphlet was the man who afterwards launched his Home Rule schemes which would have established Vatican rule in Ireland. But, then Mr. Gladstone was a great opportunist, and when tempted by the alluring prospect of power through Nationalist votes he fell like Mother Eve when tempted by the serpent.
Belfast from 1868 to 1874 had been repressed by Messrs. M'Clure and Johnston; but at this election Mr. Johnston was in virtual alliance with Mr. J. P. Corry — I was living in Dublin at the time, and, therefore, cannot write from personal recollection, but, at any rate, the polls for Mr. Corry and Mr. Johnston were only within about a couple of hundred of each other, and were over 8,000 – Mr. Corry heading the poll, while Mr. M'Clure's vote was only a few over 4,000, and John Rea, who had projected himself into the contest received about 500. But if Mr. M'Clure lost a seat in Parliament, he gained a baronetcy, which Mr. Gladstone conferred on him at a subsequent date. At that time Mr. M'Clure must have been advancing in the seventies. I am indebted to the late Mr. Thomas M'Knight, Editor of the “Whig,” for the information that in a private letter to Mr. M'Clure covering the offer of the baronetcy Mr. Gladstone showed his taste and tact by stating that Mr. M'Clure would appreciate the honour all the more as it was a hereditary one.
So far as Presbyterianism is concerned, Belfast had one representative still; but Mr. Corry represented the Conservatives, while Mr. M'Clure was a Liberal. But in Ulster at large Presbyterians secured a large share of members, more than before or since, and the majority of them were Liberals. Mr. Chas. Lewis shared with Mr. Corry the Conservative honours, while Prof. Smyth, the first minister returned; Mr. Sharman Crawford, and Mr. Thos. A. Dickson were Liberals.
Lest I should forget, let me, however, note, though not specially of local or Ulster interest, that I observed that the Budget demand for this year was seventy-two millions. What a drop in the ocean that is compared with our Budgets of to-day, and those we have had are nothing to those we will have.
I observe that the Moderator of Assembly that year was the Rev. Wm. Magill, afterwards D.D. of Cork, who succeeded Rev. Wm. Johnston, afterwards D.D. There were many interesting features of that Assembly, which was held in St. Enoch’s, to which I might refer, and I will content myself with a reference to the year's proceedings as regards the instrumental music question. The subject had been several years before the Assembly, and it had been proved that, I think, seven, eight, or nine congregations had used the instruments. It was this year that the ex-Moderator (Mr. Johnston) brought forward his series of resolutions which, while expressing sympathy with the local difficulties that had led these congregations to take this step, appealed to them to fall into line with the majority in the matter. This resolution, which was much of a compromise, did not meet with the
approval of the instrument users, who protested vehemently; but the desire to stave all action was so general that the resolutions were adopted. We had some more excited debates before the Assembly bade farewell to the controversy.
The two outstanding local features of the year, after a strike of millworkers that lasted for over six weeks, and a financial disturbance arising from the failure of the firm of Lowry, Valentine, & Kirk, were the visit of the British Association and the visit of Messrs. Moody and Sankey in the autumn. There could have been no greater contrast between the characteristics and objects of these two meetings/ Though the British Association was supposed to deal with science alone, its President, Professor Tyndall (and his fellow-philosopher, Prof. Huxley, with him), made it the occasion of one of the most deliberate attacks on revealed religion in the history of the Association.
It is difficult for the present generation to realise the furore this Presidential address created, not only in Belfast, but throughout the Christian world. The address was delivered in the Ulster Hall to one of the most brilliant and intellectual audiences that ever assembled within its walls. There were the members of the British Association, and among them the greatest lights in the world of science, and there were all that the hall could contain of Belfast citizens attracted by the dignity and character of the savants, the world-wide interest and importance of the meeting, and not least by the brilliant reputation Tyndall had achieved, not only in science, but in its literary exposition. Huxley may have surpassed him as a popular expositor, but Tyndall was unapproachable in his own sphere and in his own methods both of investigation and exposition. I well remember the lecturer and the lecture — Tyndall, with his white hair, his clear-cut intellectual features, and the grandeur of his periods, the reference to the work and the writings of scientists, the illuminating and far-reaching character of his exposition of scientific developments, and the startling development of his address when he announced definitely and dogmatically that in matter he found the promise and potency of all life.
During the weeks and months that followed, the pulpit and the Press, even the talk of homes and dinners, were concerned with the great issues that had been raised. Sermons were preached, articles written to confide the materialistic teachings of the scientists. Among those who made perhaps the greatest contributions on this subject that I remember and heard were our own Professor Watts, of the Assembly’s College, and Dean (afterwards Bishop) Reichel, of I the Irish Episcopal Church, a former professor in the Belfast Queen’s College. But nearly all bur professors and preachers and publicists dealt with the subject and if at the end the arch-materialist was not pulverised he ought to have been. No doubt there were those, as there are still those who affected a superior knowledge, and believed that sceptical utterances indicated higher intellectual gifts than those possessed by others and who expressed contempt for the efforts of the religionists to overthrow the scientist. I was not, and am not, yet sufficiently acquainted with the higher thinking on religious or scientific subjects to express an opinion; but I will say this, if they did not defeat him and leave him on the field as David left Goliath, they made great dents in his armour, and to a very great extent lowered his pretentions.
After some time and many orthodox blows and knocks, Tyndall wrote a kind of apology or explanation, in which he said that the address had been written piecemeal in the Alps, under great disadvantages, and in regard to the charge of material atheism that had been freely levelled against him, said that “it was not in, the hours of clearness and vigour that this doctrine commends itself to my mind.” It is true that, in the language of the time, he afterwards “recanted his recantation.”
Though the controversy then raised, as the great scientist said of himself and of those whom he addressed, has “mingled with the infinite azure of the past,” I hope it will not be uninteresting to recall a man and a controversy that raged long and strong in Belfast and the world.
It was a strange coincidence that before the echoes of the controversy between religion and science had died out we had a visit that created as much excitement and inspiration for religious truth as the visit of Tyndall and the Association tended to produce [----------------] This was the visit of Messrs. Moody and Sankey, which lasted several weeks, and awoke the dry bones of indifference and secularism as it never witnessed before or since. These American evangelists had been doing a tremendous work in Scotland and England, so that when they appeared in Belfast the ground was prepared for them. These men and their work were a revelation, and though scoffers described them as American sensationalists, they certainly sensationalised – if I may coin a word – to good purpose. The principal Presbyterian churches of the city – May Street, Fisherwick Place, Rosemary Street, and St. Enoch’s — were thrown open to them, and thrice daily meetings were held, not so much crowded, as over-crowded. Mr. Moody was a strong, rugged, energetic personality, in whom the fires of evangelism seemed always burning. There was a novelty and freshness about his manner and his matter. He was unconventional and familiar in his form of address, quaint and original in his illustration and language with a rich vein of humour, which often produced a laugh — but I will admit even the laugh was not vacant or the result of vacancy in the speaker. Words flowed from him in an incessant stream; but they all had a purpose and an aim, and seldom failed to serve the one and attain the other. The “after meetings” for personal talks, which were so characteristic of his movement and methods, were a new feature to all, and criticised by some; but many ministers and others who took part in them assured me and assured the public at the time that these personal talks and personal appeals bore much fruit. In addition to meetings in churches, there were open-air meetings at the Botanic Gardens, at Agnes Street, at the Queen’s Island, and other centres, and huge crowds gathered at all the meetings, and a spirit of sobriety and earnestness prevailed.
If Mr. Moody’s preaching was a powerful factor at these meetings, Mr. Sankey’s singing and that of the choir with which he was associated was no less potent as a drawing and an inspiring force. If ever there was a sweet singer on earth I think Mr. Sankey was that. He had special hymns, special tunes, and his solo singing was most wonderful, most enchanting, most inspiring. Certainly as a combination these two men were complete and harmonious, and none who heard them could ever forget them, however little they might have been impressed by the simple Gospel they preached and sang — for the singing as well as the preaching was directed to and by Gospel feeling and Gospel teaching. It is not for me to deal with the temporary or permanent results of these meetings from the purely religious side; but I can say this, that for the time the hearing and talking about them and their Gospel were universal, and that those in positions competent to judge held the opinion that the fruits of their labours were great, and in a vast number of cases permanent. Of course there were scoffers who, as such people do, judging others by themselves, declared that the love of the dollars rather than the love of souls inspired the evangelists; but I will say this from what I saw and heard of Mr. Moody, that if he had loved dollars alone he could have made them in plenty in business life, for such an energetic, active, resourceful, and go-ahead man could have succeeded in any walk of life and I believe with less mental and physical strain.
I often wondered how Mr. Moody could maintain the freshness of his illustrations and arguments, his heart-searching and soul-searching appeals. I learned something of the secret of this as I travelled in the carriage with him from Belfast to Derry. I doubt if he spoke a dozen words during the journey. He had a large Bible with him and sheets of white paper. He kept looking over the Bible for passages here and there. He would in the intervals turn his head toward the window, not so much to see as to think, and then he would jot down his thoughts on the paper. And he covered many sheets of paper on the journey. But he only put a few lines on each page, his handwriting being very large, no doubt to easily catch his eye while speaking, but as steady as could be expected on a train. Between his two or three discourses daily he must have spent a good deal of time in this way so that I fancy there was much working as well as praying to maintain the interest and secure the success of his meetings, the memory and effect of which remain for many a day.
To be continued...
From The Witness, 15th December 1916.
The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle, editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.