Wednesday, 31 May 2017

A Letter from the Cat

Dear Editor, I hereby take
My pen in paw to say:
Can you explain a curious thing
I found the other day?

There is another little cat
Who sits behind a frame,
And looks so very much like me,
You’d think we were the same.

I try to make her play with me;
Yet, when I mew and call,
Though I see her mew in answer,
She makes no sound at all.

And to, the dullest kitten
It’s plain enough to see
That either I am mocking her,
Or she is mocking me.

It makes no difference what I play,
She seems to know the game;
For every time I look around
I see her do the same.

And yet, no matter though I creep
On tiptoe lest she hear,
Or quickly dash around the frame,
She’s sure to disappear.

Poem: The Witness, 25th April 1917.
Painting: Fairest of them all, Frank Paton.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

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



I have just been reading in that journalistic world’s wonder, the “Ladies’ Home Journal,” of America, wonderful for its literature by women, for women, and for its extensive and artistic advertising, a story of an American mother of seventy, who had, after fifty years’ absence, paid a visit to her native home, chaperoned by her daughter of twenty-five. The daughter, who tells the story, makes careful note of the directions she had received from her elder sister about the attention she should bestow upon the old lady in regard to her health and comfort. To her surprise, when her mother found herself in her old home and amid the friends of her youth who remembered her as she had been then, and who looked upon her and themselves as still in their heyday, the old lady discarded the garments and the feelings of age, and joked and jaunted with the gaiety and flamboyance of youth, so that the daughter felt that she was old and staid and her mother young and frivolous.

Something of this old lady’s spirit comes over me as I wander in thought back to the ’seventies and ’eighties of the last century. And this is specially so as I think of the General Assembly of that now remote period and its ministers with whom I was so much associated. I sometimes forget that they are almost all gone, in Tyndall’s words, to mingle with the infinite azure of the past, but according to higher authority, to be “For ever with the Lord.” I think of them as alert and active, as grave and reverend or bright and jocund, full of the joy of living and working. I think of the then venerable President Killen, of Professor Watts, paying me frequent visits to my sanctum; and cheering me with their bright looks or helping me with their sage counsel. I think of the Rev. T. Y. Killen, the Rev. Thos. Hamilton, and the Rev. Henry Osborne coming out and in every week, and often several days in the week; and assisting me in “The Witness” with their wise judgment and facile pens. I think of Dr. Petticrew and Dr. Corkey, of the Rev. Dr. George Magill, of “Archy” Robinson and Professor Smyth, of Dr. Todd Martin, of Wm. Irwin, of Castlerock, and of Thos. Croskery, of Dr. Johnston, and a host that I could not number — with whom I had intimate associations, and whose memories I cherish. Of these the only three remain. They are Thomas Hamilton, now D.D., and Chancellor of the Belfast Queen's University, who is not only very much alive, but still doing ----------- work for the University to -------- of his life have been so loyally and successfully devoted; and the other is the Rev. Henry Osborne, who though well advanced in his eighties, is still, I am glad to learn, in the enjoyment of wonderful strength of body and mind for his year. And the third and most wonderful of all is the Rev. Dr. George Magill, who, despite his long years of active service is still able to go out and in amongst us with an alertness of body and mind marvellous for his age, and with all his old interest, and his strong convictions on questions affecting Church and State.

I seem, while reflecting on these old times, to feel as if my youth had returned, and the old faces and the old voices were meeting and greeting me. I feel, too, that the old interests and the old questions have revived with all their freshness, and that I am looking on or participating in old conflict or controversies, and that age has given place to youth. This may explain why an d how I dwell on incidents or questions or persons that our moderns may regard as ancient history. And yet even ancient history has its uses both as lessons and warnings; and if some of us would study the past more we would understand the present better, for, after all, life is a mingled farm, and made up not only of good and ill, but of old and new.

The years from 1867 to 1870 were notable years in the life and histoy of the General Assembly. The first two might be said to have been years of destruction so far as the Regium Donum represented the life work of the Church, and the two second years of construction and reconstruction. There were those who held that the loss of the Regium Donum would be a death-blow to the Church; and there were others who felt that its loss would open up a new life of effort and energy on the part of the Church, and what the Church might lose the country would gain in the removal of what was then regarded as the outstanding grievance of Roman Catholics, and bring about concord in the country. The prophecies of the reawakening of the Presbyterians to the necessity of greater effort and greater lib-----lity have been largely fulfilled; but prophecies that the religious quality which the Disestablishment of the Irish Church brought about would remove or mitigate the Roman Catholic discontent have been -------------- with painful and baneful results. Those who only know of the present can hardly realise what this resolution meant to the Presbyterian Church and the General Assembly representing it. The Conservative party were in oower in 1867, and in the May of that year Mr. Gladstone carried his famous resolutions pronouncing the doom of the Irish Establishment, and with it the Regium Donum and the Maynooth grant. Upon this, the Government, in which Mr. Disreali was Chancellor of the Exchequer and leader of the House of Commons, tendered its resignation; but her Majesty Queen Victoria declined to accept it, and Lord Derby, who was Prime Minister, agreed to carry on the Government on the understanding that an early appeal would be made to the constituencies, and with that decision of the majority of the HOuse of Commons staring them in the face, that the General Assembly met in 1868. The political issue before them and the country was Disestablishment or not; and so far as the Assembly was concerned the main issue was was whether the Regium Donum should follow the fate of the Irish Church and perish with its Disestablishment, or continue with the prospect of an increase. The Assembly deputation, of which the Rev. John Rogers was the most active leader, had obtained a promise from Mr. Disraeli, or what was regarded as a promise, that if his party was returned to power they would adopt what was called the “levelling up” policy, which involved the preservation of the position and endowments of the Irish Church and increases of the Regium Donum and the grants to Maynooth. (I should mention that there had been a project on foot by the Conservatives for granting a charter to a Roman Catholic university; but that while the Assembly was in session Lord Mayo announced that all negotiations on that subject, which had caused great interest and anxiety in the Assembly, were at an end.) As I have in previous issues referred in some detail to the discussion and decision of this Assembly, I do not propose to do more now than explain that the majority of the Assembly voted in favour of the principle of Establishment and the maintenance of the Regium Donum. But though the issue was for or against Mr. Gladstone, I should not suggest for a moment that the vote represents the political leanings of the members of the Assembly at all events, for, to my personal knowledge, several of the ministerial supporters of the resolution were among the most ardent Liberals of the time. In fact, the Conservatives out and in the Assembly were comparatively few, Liberalism, attributed to the broadening influence of the Queen’s University, having become the badge of the majority.

I may, however, state that the resolution was moved by Rev. Dr. Dill, then of Ballymena, and the amendment, protesting against “the indiscriminate endowment of truth and error” as implied in the resolution, was moved by the Rev. Dr. Kirkpatrick, of Dublin. In the division which took place after a long, stormy, and somewhat heated debate, 180 voted for the amendment and 211 against it, and the resolution was afterwards carried as the deliverance of the Assembly by the same vote. Practically the entire minority signed reasons of protest against the resolutions, some few against special paragraphs; and the fact that one of these protestants was a great friend of my own, and a strong Conservative, would add to what I have indicated, that the decision had not a political significance. Of these protestants, the following, so far as I could notice, are all that are alive to-day — Revs. Thos. West (Moderator), Dr. George Magill, A. J. Wilson, Wm. Wylie, E. F. Simpson, John Davidson, J. Watson.

I remember one stirring incident in the Assembly as indicating the delicacy of the situation as affecting both politics and the Irish Church. It was reported in the Press that the Rev. Henry Henderson had told Mr. Disraeli in his interview that there was a difference of opinion among Presbyterians as to the Irish Establishment, but a great majority of the members of the Church had stood forth boldly in defence of it. Attention was called to this statement, the accuracy of which was vigorously assailed by many; but a letter was read from Mr. Henderson denying that he had made the statement attributed to him, and thus what threatened to be a great storm ended in a teacup.

The Assembly of 1869 was largely a transition Assembly, while that of 1870 was a reconstructive one. The Irish Church Act came into force in 1870, and it was at a special meeting of the Assembly in that year that the great decision in favour of commutation in the interests of the Church was carried by 246 against 25. It is true that before that the great scheme of the Laymen’s Conference was before the Church, with the prospect — a very distant one as it has proved — or a Sustentation Fund to give £100 per year to each minister, and was undergoing a preliminary trial, and a sum of £22,800 had been raised There were those then, as there may be some still, who gave the commuting ministers little credit; but I can well remember the time and the feeling. The old saying of a bird in the hand being worth two in the bush was as true then as to-day; and it was also as true then as now that a promise or a pledge is one thing, and its fulfilment another. What this meant to the commuting ministers was the giving up of a certainty for an uncertainty, and to more conservative or doubting spirits this seemed a strong reason. And I felt at the time, and feel still, that the ministers of the Church who cast their financial interests into the common fund of the Church, thereby providing a permanent endowment for the future, rendered a noble service to it, and that their memories and their actions — I will not use the word sacrifice — deserve to be held in the highest respect.

From The Witness, 25th May 1917.

The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle, editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Fifty Years of the General Assembly – A Reminiscence in 1917 (pt 3)



In looking over the Minutes of Assembly for 1867 to recall some of the proceedings, I observed that in the form of presentation and in the marginal notes, the Minutes were the same as at present, with the difference that the statistical reports are now more detailed and the organisations more numerous. I observe also that the Minutes of 1867 were signed by the Rev. Robert Park, the junior Clerk, with the statement that the Rev. T. M. Reid, Rathfriland, the senior Clerk, was unable to be present. I cannot recall the appearance of Mr. Reid and I am not sure that I ever saw him, as Mr. Park was the only Clerk with whom I had to deal; and I have had much to do with all the Clerks in the interval. Mr. Reid was a member of a very able family, of which Captain Mayne Reid, the celebrated author of “The White Chief” and other American Indian tales, was a member. His tales were favourite reading of my youth and time. And he certainly was a great romancer. I remember the late Mr. Hugh M'Call, who was a great friend of Mayne Reid’s, telling me that the Captain told him that in his novels he had often to minimise some actual occurrences that had come within his own experience and adventures in order to keep them within the limits even of a romance writer’s play upon the credulity of his readers. One of these incidents related to the most sensational, and, as a reader, I would have said, most wildly imaginative incidents in “The White Chief,” which he had to minimise in order to give it even a semblance of feasibility. Then, no doubt, as now, truth was stranger than fiction — as, I believe, would apply to a truthful narrative of recent and present events in Ireland written half a century hence.

In looking over the names of the members present at that Assembly, I had the curiosity to note the names of those now living, and I could find only about twenty, and some of them would put to shame many men of half their age for virility and activity. Age may have withered some of them, but the spirit of loyalty to Church and truth remains. The names as far as I noted them are President Leitch, Professor Heron, Dr. Hamilton, Vice-Chancellor Belfast Queen’s University; Dr. Wm. Park, Dr. Geo. Magill, Dr. A. J. Wilson, Dr. Workman, Henry Osborne, E. F. Simpson, Ballymena; Dr. John Davidson, Glennan; S. Lindsay, then of Middletown, afterwards of Ceylon, and now retired; Jas. Meeke, Kingsmills; H. M. Butler, Magilligan; William Wylie, then of Ballyroney, later of Larne and Newry; W. Mitchell Ballyblack; E. M. Legate, Ballyclare; John Watson, Boyle. Dr. Wm. M‘Mordie happened to drop into the Assembly Office as I was poring over the Minutes, and he kindly assisted me in my research. I concluded that he would have been among the men of that Assembly but he told me he had only been ordained in the September of that year. The fact that I am myself among the survivors is nothing remarkable, as I did not require to be a reverend, and, therefore, mature as well as learned and grave before taking a seat in the Assembly. To be a reverend one needed more maturity and grace than I could have claimed then or, as to the graces I could claim now.

I also looked over the list of elders present; but the only one that I noticed who is now living is Mr. Archibald Murray, of Limerick. He was the representative elder of Limerick Church then, and I am sure is an elder still. I can vouch for it that he was alive and very active, as I saw him about a year and a half ago in the magnificent establishment of which he is the head in Limerick, and heard the praises of his goodness as well at his greatness from many lips, and chiefly from those of Roman Catholics. I met the present minister of Limerick at the Dublin Synod recently, and he told me that Mr. Murray was still up and doing, with a heart for any fate or any work.

It would seem that the same routine of procedure in regard to reports and other matters was observed as at present. There were deputies from other Churches, and deputies appointed to other Churches in, I think, greater numbers than at present. For example, there were interchanges of deputies between the Assembly and the Presbyterian Churches of America. In that year the deputies to the American Presbyterian Churches were the Rev. Dr. Denham, of Derry, and the Rev. John, Hall, of Dublin. The American deputy was the Rev. Dr. Field, one of the most prominent ministers of his time, and the Editor of a great Presbyterian newspaper in that country. We had some deputations from the Presbyterian Churches of the Western Continent afterwards, and I heard many brilliant speeches from them. But I have heard none for many years. It was in all probability that visit to the United States that led to John Hall’s translation to New York, and it may have been that the Irish Assembly was afraid to continue these deputations lest the United States should be tempted to commandeer all our best men, as even without that preliminary introduction they commandeered many. Certainly the removal of John Hall was a great loss to the Irish Presbyterian Church, as the transfer of Dr. M‘Cosh was to the old Queen’s College. But what was our loss was America’s gain. And therein were we content. It gave us a kind of Presbyterian alliance, as a foretaste of the political and military alliance we have now.

In this Assembly there were the reports of Synods as now, the reports of committees as now, and longer speeches than now, and less time is occupied though there are more committees and subjects to deal with. The committees on that occasion were represented by their Conveners as follows:– Dr. Kirkpatrick, State of Religion and Church Extension; John Meneely, Sabbath Observance; I. N. Harkness, Temperance; Dr. Morgan, Foreign Missions; Dr. Bellis, Board of Missions; John Rogers, Jewish Mission; Wm. M‘Clure, Colonial, and Continental Mission; T. Y. Killen, Ministerial Suport; L. E. Berkeley, Elementary Education; William Johnston, Sabbath-school Auxiliary. There was also the report of a Committee in Correspondence with the Government, and reports of the Assembly’s and Magee Colleges. In connection with the elementary education report, there were questions troubling the Church then as there are now, and in the same or similar lines — namely, the encroachments by the Roman Catholics on the principle of united secular and separate religious instruction, and the struggle of the Assembly to maintain it. Much water has run under the bridge since then, and the original principles of the Board are more and more departed from, with the addition that the teaching in Roman Catholic schools is not only more denominational, but more anti-British, the fruits of which are seen in many developments in the country, and not least in the late rebellion and in the Longford election of last week. The “Irish Times,” in its comments on that election, notes the fact that the National (in these cases it should be Nationalist) teachers were prominent in support of the Sinn Fein candidate, himself undergoing a sentence of three years’ imprisonment for the part he took in the rebellion. It says – “The Commissioners of National Education have denied that many National school teachers were in sympathy with the rebellion. They will hardly be able to deny that National teachers in South Longford gave public expression to their sympathy with the Sinn Fein candidate.”

The question of ministerial support formed as prominent a question as it does to-day, with this difference, that the contributions of the people were much smaller and their ideas of the necessities, owing to the Regime Donum, less liberal. Mr. T. Y. Killen (the D.D. to him and others came later), in presenting the report, pointed out that one of the difficulties of increasing the fund was the fact that large numbers of congregations could do nothing for a general fund, as it required all their efforts to qualify for the Regium Donum. With the substitution of the Sustentation Fund for the Regium Donum that is true to-day, though I must say that some of the smaller and less prominent congregations do marvellously well. Indeed, in many cases they set an example to the rich.

The Foreign Mission work of Dr. Morgan and the Church at the time was chiefly confined to India. But at this Assembly a star from the East appeared in the person of the Rev. W. S. Swanson, who was a missionary in China from the Presbyterian Church in England;, and he made such a starring appeal on behalf of China that led the Assembly, under his spell, to add China to the sphere of the Foreign Mission, with the result that we have now eighteen missionaries in China, who are playing a great part, as far as their numbers and scope will admit, in the new awakening of China. In 1867 there were ten missionaries in India and four to the Jews. The number of Indian missionaries has increased since to fifteen, while those to the Jews remain at four. But, of course, the war, has interfered with the activities of the latter. So that the addition of China to the field has not weakened the Church interest in India, but increased it. And then in addition to the male missionaries there are twenty-seven lady missionaries. And in connection with this work in the East the women of the Church now do a wonderful work, the records of which can be found from time to time in “Woman’s Work.”

There was then as now a Committee in Correspondence with the Government, but at that time it was not so much concerned with the state of the country as with the state of the Church, so far as chaplaincies and endowments were concerned. It was not easy at the time to secure recognition for Presbyterian chaplaincies, but the committee of the time was most zealous on the subject, and were able to report some success. It was at this Assembly the appointment of the Rev. James Speers as chaplain was reported. So far as the Regium Donum was concerned, great efforts had been made to get an increase from the £75 to the £100 — the Regium Donum was in Irish money, and not quite up to the British standard, but I am sure the Assembly would have taken the £100 in Irish money if they had got it. But they did not. A deputation had been appointed to wait on the Government on the subject. The Government then in power was a Conservative Government, of which Lord Derby was the head and Mr. Disraeli the Chancellor of the Exchequer and leader of the House of Commons. The question of the Irish Church was then in the balance, Mr. Gladstone having headed the Liberal forces against its perpetuation as an Establishment. The Government Committee, with that wisdom which always characterised it, selected as its deputies to the Government four or five ministers who would be most likely to commend the cause to the Government, and, of course, the cause was to get the Regium Donum increased to £100. The names were the Rev. John Rogers, who, if I remember aright, was convener; Dr. Wilson, of Limerick, Moderator for the year; Dr. Morell, Dungannon; Rev. Henry Henderson, of Holywood; and Mr. G. W. Slator, a fine old, sturdy Presbyterian elder, whom I remember well. I never remember Dr. Wilson's name in connection with politics, but of the Conservatism of the Rev. Henry Henderson and Dr. Morell there could be no doubt, save that Dr. Morell represented the principles in a mild form, while Mr. Henderson represented them in excelsis, and Orange to boot. The only name that could have offended the Government, so far as politics were concerned, Mr. Rogers, for he had been one of the advanced guard of Liberalism in the M‘Knight and early tenant-right times. But so far as the increase of Regium Donum was concerned, Mr. Roger's, then minister of Comber, was an out and outer, and regarded politics as nothing compared to the interests of the fund and the Church as affected by it. The deputation had interviews with Lord Derby and Mr. Disraeli. And their report of the result was a suggestion or promise that if the Conservatives would be returned at the election then looming they would increase the Regium Donum to £100 a year. The subject excited the greatest controversy at the time not only in the Church, but in the country. There were the two policies known as levelling-up which the Conservatives were supposed to favour, which included the increase of the Regium Donum and large subsidies to Roman Catholics in payment, either directly or indirectly, to the priests or to the Church. The Liberal policy was that of levelling down, which meant the Disestablishment of the Irish, Church and the withdrawal of the Regium Donum.

The report of the result of the deputation’s visit was considered by the Assembly in private, and the only thing made public was that it was agreed by a majority of 152 to 61 that the deputation should be sent again to ask for an increase. The defeated amendment was moved by Rev. L. E. Berkeley, and seconded by Rev. Geo. Shaw, and no doubt represented the feelings of the liberal section of the Assembly prepared to approve of Mr. Gladstone’s policy.

I may say that during this controversy the Rev. John Rogers and the “Northern Whig” were at daggers drawn, and in leaders and in letters Mr. Rogers was denounced for his betrayal of his Liberal principles and for supporting a policy that would have involved the endowment of the Roman Catholic Church implied in the levelling up policy of Mr. Disraeli, to which the minister of Comber had irrevocably committed himself. The result of the subsequent visits of the deputation will come into a later story. But what I have stated was the position of the time, and the vote to send their deputation again to interview the Government clearly indicated that the majority of the Assembly favoured not unnaturally, perhaps, not only the maintenance, but the increase of the Regium Donum. But I would not like to describe the old Liberals who supported that policy as hostile to Liberal principles or the Liberal party, for the Rev. Prof. Smyth was one of them, and a stauncher Liberal never lived.

The outgoing Moderator this year was the Rev. Dr. Wilson, of Limerick, a man of great strength and weight physically and intellectually. He was also strong in character and wise and sound in judgment, and for years wielded great influence in the counsels of the General Assembly. The Moderator of the year was the Rev. Robert Montgomery, who had just retired from a long and successful career as a missionary in India. He was the uncle of the Rev. Dr. Montgomery and Mr. S. G. Montgomery, of Bangor, and had proved himself an ideal minister in zeal and fervour and in energy and success. Neither the outgoing or incoming Moderator touched on public events of the time, and contented themselves with practical questions affecting the life and interests of the Church.

To be continued...

From The Witness, 18th May 1917.

The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle, editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Fifty Years of the General Assembly – A Reminiscence in 1917 (pt 2)



Last week I attempted an outline of some of the changes in Ulster Presbyterian life and outlook during the last half-century as they presented themselves to my memory and observation. But in the matter of change Ulster, or Ireland, did not stand alone, for every nation in the world has changed in the time, and some of them almost beyond recognition. The last half-century has been a period not alone of change, but of revolution, in Church and State, in life and thought, in literature, science, and art, and in ideas, religious, political, and social. Old things in many cases, if not in all, have passed away, and are become new. And the greatest change of all is passing before our eyes, the full results of which only future generations will be able to estimate and realise. If our own Church has changed in some of its outward forms and ceremonies, it remains the same still in all essentials, holding to the same truths, aiming at the same objects, and making for the same great ends. Some tell us that the Church has broadened, as the poet has told us that the thoughts of men are widening with the process of the suns. And that is possibly true. But, as one of the old school, but I hope not unsympathetic with modern ideas, I can only say that I am doubtful if we have in the present day, especially on the part of the young, as much earnest loyalty to the Church its ideals as existed in my younger days. But I must resume.

Taking the statistics of the General Assembly fifty years ago and now there is much on which we have to congratulate ourselves. We have lost in the interval by emigration and migration that often meant lapsing. The war, too, has removed many thousands of our sons to the war front and many hundreds from the roll of time. But despite all, the records of last Assembly as compared with those of the Assembly of 1867 show a considerable increase in the number of families connected with the Church. — 86,446 as against 81,312. The number of ministers has increased from 598 to 641, while the number of congregations has only increased by two — namely, from 560 to 562. That, of course, is explainable by the fact that in the Regium Donum days any congregation that could raise a stipend of £35 could call a minister and secure the Regium Donum, and ministers in those days were content with very little. The withdrawal of the Regium Donum involved greater demands on the purses of the people, and with it a limitation or amalgamation of congregations, a process that seems to be necessary still. The amount of stipend paid ministers in 1867, as I mentioned last week, was £33,836, divided among 594 ministers. The amount paid by congregations last year was £120,322, among 641 ministers. Of course, the Regium Donum (£40,000) served as a substantial supplement fifty years ago, whereas now the only money the people have not to provide directly is the interest the Regium Donum Commutation Fund produces.

The number of elders that in ’67 was 2,117 was last year 2,319, and the number of stipend-payers has increased from 68,535 to 77,321. There is only falling off in two departments. One is in the number of communicants, which has fallen from 129,320 to 104,306, which is possibly to be in part accounted for by the fact that the youth of the present day do not seem to have been as well trained in their duty, or not as well inclined to perform it, as fifty years ago. The other is in the number of Sabbath-schools, which is noW only 969 as compared with 1,132 in 1867. But the curious fact is that while there is a reduction in the number of schools there is an increase in the number of teachers and scholars, the teachers last year having been 7,661 as against 7,250 in ’67, and the average number of scholars 89,254 as against 57,914.

But the most marked change of all is in the givings of the people. These have gone up leaps and bounds. And this has been most remarkable in the case of missions. The total raised in 1867 for missions was £11,109. Last year it was £35,075, including £15,135 for the Foreign Mission, and a little missionary bird has whispered to me that it will be larger still. The general Sabbath collections have increased almost in the same ratio from £11,721 fifty years ago to £33,959 last year. So that whatever else may be said about the changes either for better or for worse in our Presbyterianism, the Christian grace of giving has been developed to an extent highly creditable to the liberality as well as the loyalty of the people. It shows that the General Assembly represents not only a living but a giving Church. And the most interesting and remarkable fact is that the war, with the many financial burdens it has cast upon the people, has called forth a spirit of liberality that is as refreshing as it is inspiring.

My first regular acquaintance with the General Assembly was made in the year of pace 1867. The meeting took place that year in Dublin, in Rutland Square Church, which had only been opened a very short time, and in all but acoustics was the gem of Irish Presbyterian churches. As to whether it has been equalled or surpassed since I shall be silent. But I may say that as I first surveyed its stately proportions and its fine site could not help feeling that Dublin led in the perfection of the churches up till that time. I have done my best to recall some personal incident in connection with the meeting, but I can remember none save the startling surprise I gave some of my brother reporters on one morning in which the Rev. William M'Clure opened the Assembly by finishing a great many of his sentences sotto voce before he had completed them himself. The reason for that, of course, was that in Derry days I had often listened to Mr. M'Clure’s prayers, and though he did not use my formal ritual, a great many of his petitions, with what I might call reasons annexed, were in the same terms. One of these was an expression of hope that none of his hearers would be among those who after their death would have towering monuments and lying epitaphs telling of virtues they never possessed.

Here let me pause to notice another change the last fifty years have brought about to regard to the General Assembly. In the olden time the local newspapers, outside “The Banner of Ulster,” took comparatively little interest in the General Assembly. The “Northern Whig” was more Unitarian and less orthodox than it is to-day, and the “News Letter” represented the Established Church, which did not look upon the General Assembly or what it represented with much toleration o» admiration. Two, three, or four columns a day were considered sufficient to represent the interest of the papers or their leaders in the reports of the General Assembly. In later years these newspapers vie with each other in showing respect and appreciation for the body, and make special provision for a descriptive or analytical sketch as well, written by their own clerical correspondents. This is satisfactory evidence of the increasing interest in and the influence attaching to the proceedings of the General Assembly. “The Banner of Ulster” fifty years ago was the only local newspaper that had any claim or made any effort to represent Presbyterianism. It is true that paper at the time had somewhat fallen from its high estate, for which, no doubt, lack of capital and lack of enterprise in its proprietors were mainly responsible. When the “Whig” and “News-Letter” developed into daily papers, the old “Banner” remained tri-weekly, and in consequence fell behind in the race. And yet its Editor was one of the most able and rigorous writers of the day, Durham Dunlop, whose brilliancy was only weakened by his tendency to strong writing and a total indifference to the law of libel. It was this characteristic of Mr. Dunlop that led John Rea on one occasion, to tender advice to Mr. S. E. M’Cormick, the managing proprietor, as to the means of increasing its circulation. It was that he should get Durham Dunlop to write a lot of libels, and get “Davy” Dunlop — the David Dunlop a retired minister of strong evangelistic and open-air preaching enthusiasm — to go into the witness-box and swear a lot of lies about the circulation. The possibility of such an action on the part of Mr. Dunlop was, of course, absurd, but respect or reverence for anything or anybody was not one of Mr. Rea’s characteristics, and he believed that the road to newspaper success lay through libels, and especially his own libels. I well remember that after we started “The Ulster Echo” he came to me one day and told me that I had now get the chance of a lifetime — if I would just, without regard to the law of libel, expose all his enemies he would defend me and the paper free of all cost, and the fortunes of both would be made. As events proved, I did not accept the risk, and the paper and myself lost our fortunes.

It was in order to give a more full and complete report of the Assembly that I, with all my youth, inexperience, and nervousness on my head, was sent to Dublin to report this Assembly. My colleagues of the “News-Letter” and “Whig” were both experienced and exceptionally gifted reporters, William Gilliland and T. W. M‘Ninch, the former of whom died only a few years ago after serving for a generation as assistant Editor of the “Daily Telegraph,” and the latter of whom went to an early grave a generation ago. I was fully impressed at once with self-importance and self-insufficiency, and entered on my task with fear and trembling. And I hope I will be excused if I give a brief account of my first baptism into the General Assembly. That body sat, as it does now, from half-past ten to four o’clock, and again from seven to ten or generally eleven. And that for ten days or a fortnight. This Assembly, I think, lasted fourteen days and adjourneyed to Belfast, where it continued for three or four days more. And oratory was more a feature of the Assembly in those days than in these. By oratory I mean elaborately prepared speeches, without which few of the leading spirits came up to the Assembly. We have less of that kind of oratory now and more business and, I will add, with all respect to the memory of the Rev. Robt. Park, who was an excellent officer, a more hustling and business-like clerk, with the result that the Assembly now does as much work and as well in one week as it did in the olden time in a little short of two.

Here was I with this flow of oratory for eight, nine, and sometimes ten hours a day, obliged to produce many columns a day, and have it all written up and sent off each day. I had to listen to what I could and write up a report of one speech while listening to another, and then to fill up the interval of adjournment by writing up. And then when the fathers and brethren adjourned to their hotel to keep on writing up till generally three o’clock in the morning, and then getting called at eight o’clock to get my despatch off by the train. This continuing for nearly a fortnight, with the only interval part of Saturday and Sunday, was, to say the least, trying, so that it is no wonder I remember it.

But I do not mean to suggest that I wrote out all the speeches. In those days, as I have hinted, the members came up well stocked with manuscript speeches, and I got these, the only difficulty being the “cutting down” of the supplied speeches to keep them in some proportion of the unsupplied speeches — a process not always carried out, to the detriment of that balance and proportion which all good reports should have, and I must say then — I would not say a word as to the present — that very often second-rate speeches occupied greater space in the paper than first-rate speeches which the reporter had to manipulate or mangle in his haste or leisure. I have an impression that with this combination I flooded the sub-editor with enough copy to fill two newspapers, and that his task in cutting down was as heavy as mine in writing up. But he was an Edgar and a gentleman, and all he said on my return was that we both had had a very busy Assembly.

But I was young in those days. It was only in youth that reporters err in this matter of conscientious overwork. When they get older they become wiser, and, like the “conscientious objectors” of the present day, keep their sense of duty and service within bounds. But lest I should be supposed to reflect on my brethren of the Press, I may here say that we have most excellent reporters in this day, but they are not expected to do as much work as those of the olden time. Then one reporter was expected to do a whole day’s General Assembly or a whole day’s City Council, whereas the work is now done in relays. But, no doubt, it is much better done, for even reporters can do more careful work by having time to condense their reports, and thus a shorter report now is likely to be more satisfactory than a fuller report in the olden time. I have even heard orators express themselves better satisfied with a condensed report than a full one of their own speech. I may here remark as an aside that orators are the betes noirs of reporters, who often find that they can obtain more reportable matter from the spontaneous speaker than the more elaborate orator. If they do not contain so many finished sentences, they often contain more comprehensible ideas. This may explain why at times orators do not secure as much space in proportion as mere speakers. I remember in my young days a most flamboyant orator who carried everything before him at a debating society. A young friend of mine was in the habit of attending these debates, and always came away with the song that this orator was the hero of the evening. But when he was asked to give an account of what was said he was able to tell something that all the other speakers had said, but not a word or idea could he remember of the pseudo Demosthenes of the occasion.


My good friend Mr. Thomas Meek, J.P., Moneymore, reminds me that I was in error in stating that Mr. Greer had never been returned for County Derry. He was returned once, and Mr. Meek gives the following explanation, which he says he had been reminded of by an old friend now deceased — “Mr. Greer first contested County Derry in 1852. The second time was a bye-election, in which the voting lasted for two days and ended in nothing owing to a dissolution of Parliament. He was returned at the General Election that followed owing to an incident that had occurred at the previous contest. The Rev. Mr. Gamble, of Castledawson, brought the Liberals from his district together, doing all he could to keep up their courage, as they had to face the landlords and agents, who were taking notes of the voting. The result was he was arrested and imprisoned, but I do not remember the circumstances of his release. This roused the Presbyterian blood, and it had not time to cool till the General Election came, and Mr. Greer was returned. He afterwards contested it for the fourth time, including the two days. The blood had cooled. Some of the leaders had suffered, and others had to think of the last part of the old motto, ‘Our faith and our firesides,’ for there was force in it at that time in a literal sense in connection with the turf bog from which all farmers were supplied with fuel, and the old hearthstone made so comfortable.”

To be continued...

From The Witness, 11th May 1917.

The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle, editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.

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.