History of the Irish (Presbyterian) Church from the Reformation to the Great Revival of 1625 (6)

From Scotch and Irish Seeds in American Soil by Rev. J. G. Craighead

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CHAPTER VI.concluded

Such liberality on the part of the ecclesiastics left the preachers with the necessary freedom to prosecute their work successfully. Their labors for the instruction of the people were indefatigable. With singleness of purpose, with intensity of desire and with untiring diligence, they gave themselves to their sacred duties. Through their instrumentality the Church of Christ increased rapidly, and far and wide a marked change was visible in the character of the whole population.

While carrying forward this work of reform, Blair and his brethren were careful to maintain Presbyterian discipline. “In my congregation,” writes Blair, “we had both deacons for the poor and elders for discipline, and so long as we were permitted to exercise it the Lord blessed that ordinance.” Livingstone adopted the same method, and speaks of his session meeting weekly, adjudicating cases of discipline and debarring unworthy persons from the communion-table. The communion was observed twice a year in each church, and it was customary for the people of the neighboring parishes to attend with their pastors. The same custom was afterward transferred to America, and memorable scenes were witnessed here also in connection with these communion-seasons. Nearly all the clergy of the north of Ireland were nonconformists, and generally strict Presbyterians.

While comprehended within the pale of the established Episcopal Church, its liberality toward them was then such that they were enabled to exercise their office without violence to their scruples, and to introduce and maintain, as we have seen, the peculiarities both of discipline and worship of the Scotch Church. For their firmness and zeal, our grateful regard is due to them as the founders of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

Though these Presbyterian ministers were for a considerable period unmolested by Episcopal prelates, yet was the progress of the gospel impeded by other obstructions. The first opposers were Romanists. Two friars from Salamanca, Spain, challenged the clergy to a public dispute; but when Blair and Welsh accepted the challenge and appeared at the appointed time and place, the friars shrunk from the contest. Again they were assailed by Separatists from London, allured to Ireland by the promise of religious freedom, and subsequently by English conformists zealous for Arminian tenets. All these in turn were discomfited and were obliged to withdraw, and these several trials were overruled for good, and finally served to exhibit more clearly the eminent piety, learning and prudence of these remarkable men.

But other and more formidable difficulties were soon to be encountered by these honored ministers. From being their friend and patron, Bishop Echlin became their determined opponent. This change was caused by jealousy and dislike, arising from the great success attending their labors. His animosity was first manifested by a refusal to ordain any more ministers unless they would promise strict conformity to the English Church. He next set a trap to catch Mr. Blair, hoping either to silence him or impair his influence. But one of the lords-justices interposed, and he escaped. Disappointed in this scheme, the bishop suspended both Blair and Livingstone for their alleged irregular preaching at the kirk of Schotts. These brethren were visiting their friends in Scotland, and being present on the Sabbath assisted at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and, on Monday, Livingstone preached with great power to a vast concourse of people. The envy of the prelatical clergy was excited; and charging these Irish ministers with uncanonical and schismatic conduct, they prevailed upon Bishop Echlin to suspend them from the exercise of their offices. This was the first open blow directed against the Presbyterian clergy of Ulster.

The suspended ministers at once applied for relief to Archbishop Usher, and not in vain. He immediately interested himself in their behalf, and, convinced of their piety and prudence, wrote to Echlin “to relax his erroneous censure.” And in a conference with Blair, after expressing the fear that there were those who would endeavor to mar their ministry, he added “that it would break his heart if our successful ministry in the north were interrupted.”

Though foiled in their endeavor, the enemies of these devoted pastors did not cease their opposition. The next resort was to the English court, for they feared that an appeal to the civil powers of Ireland might result no more favorably to their wishes than had their representations to Primate Usher. Their charges were laid before the king himself, and they depended upon his co-operation, knowing as they did that he was guided in religious matters by Laud. The infatuated sovereign gave ready ear to their charges, and sent letters to the lords-justices of Ireland, directing them to enjoin the bishops of Down and Conner to try, and if found guilty censure, the alleged “fanatical disturbers of the peace of his diocese.” Accordingly, Blair, Livingstone, Dunbar and Welsh were cited to appear before the bishop; and upon their refusing to conform, on the ground that there was no law or canon requiring it, they were deposed from the office of the ministry.

Again application was made to Archbishop Usher. “But he told us,” says Blair, “that he could not interpose, because the two lords-justices had an order from the king respecting us.” And when the justices were applied to, they referred them to the king, who alone could remedy their grievance. But from this source they had little to expect by a direct appeal. Yet so anxious were they for a reversal of their unjust sentence in order that they might engage in their loved work that they resolved to make one more effort. Living-stone visited Scotland and obtained recommendatory letters to their friends at court from several of the Scotch nobility. Taking these, with others, which he himself had procured from his Irish friends, Blair visited London, and was granted the privilege of laying his case before the king. A favorable letter was written in his behalf by King Charles, which, though it did not take off the sentence of deposition, enabled these ministers to labor unmolested among their people under certain restrictions. These Livingstone could not endure; and seeing no hope of relief, he left the country and retired to Scotland.

The other clergymen continued to teach their flocks as before, only refraining from entering their pulpits when they preached. This they did with the expectation that on the arrival of Lord-Deputy Wentworth, the famous earl of Strafford, to govern Ireland, he would put an end to their privations. In this, however, they were grievously disappointed, for a more unfortunate choice of a deputy, as respects Presbyterian interests, could not possibly have been made. Haughty in manner, vindictive in temper and intolerant in his religious opinions, he was incapable of the least sympathy for those who suffered for any scruple of conscience. Soon after his arrival in Dublin, Blair laid before him the king’s favorable letter, but in place of the relief expected the overbearing deputy replied “that he had His Majesty’s mind in his own breast,” and began at once to “revile the Church of Scotland” and upbraid Blair, “bidding him come to his right wits, and then he should be regarded.” This was all the answer he deigned to give to the petition. Blair went with this intelligence to Usher, who, as he listened to the reply of the bold, vindictive man, shed tears.

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