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.

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