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.

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