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

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

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DURING the first half century of its history, American Presbyterianism was largely indebted for its growth and efficiency to the pious and worthy immigrants who sought refuge in this country. Holland, France, England, Scotland and Ireland all made liberal contributions of their very best people. These colonists, while diverse in their origin, were singularly harmonious in their political principles and their religious faith. Doubtless this was owing to the fact that they were persecuted heroes who had suffered in common for their resistance to despotic power; and as exiles for conscience’ sake, they were agreed in their wishes to found a commonwealth where civil and religious freedom could be enjoyed.

To no one of these countries was the Presbyterian Church in America, in its origin and its rapid growth, so largely indebted as to the north of Ireland. A large proportion of those who composed its membership, and of those who occupied its pulpits, were previously connected with the Presbyterian Church of Ireland. To form a just estimate of their character, their spirit and their influence—a work which it is here proposed to do—it will be requisite to pass in review the prominent circumstances and features in the history of the Irish Church.

It would appear from the most ancient records that Ireland was visited with the gospel as early as the second century. Nor was it planted there by the agents of the Romish Church, as is commonly claimed. On the contrary, the evidence is abundant and clear that the Irish people for ages resisted all the encroachments of the papacy. The forms of Christianity that prevailed in Ireland were those of the Eastern churches, and were introduced, it is probable, by Greek, and not Roman, missionaries. “I strongly suspect,” says Dr. O’Halloran, a Roman Catholic historian of high authority, “that by Asiatic or African missionaries, or, through them, by Spanish ones, were our ancestors instructed in Christianity, because they rigidly adhered to their customs as to the tonsure and the time of Easter. Certain it is that Patrick found a hierarchy established in Ireland.” So much for the claim that St. Patrick was the first gospel missionary in Ireland.

Archbishop Usher has adduced convincing evidence that until the twelfth century, when popery was first introduced, the bishops and clergy of the Irish Church were married men; that the communion service of Rome was not in its liturgy, and that the Lord’s Supper was received by it in both kinds; that auricular confession and the doctrine of transubstantiation were unknown to it; that image-worship was not permitted; that it neither prayed to dead men nor for them, and had no fixed service for the dead; and that it refused to pay tithes to the Romish see.

History assigns the first place among the early propagators of a pure faith, in the ancient Irish Church, to Columba, who died at Iona, Scotland, in 597, a distinguished missionary of the gospel in Scotland and England as well as in his own country. The people were simple in their mode of life and evangelical in their religious faith and methods of worship. For nearly seven hundred years more, and until the twelfth century, in the reign of Henry II., the Irish Church remained independent.[1] It was by the latter sovereign, and by the aid of a council of clergy assembled at Cashel in 1172, that the Church of Ireland was brought into obedience to the Roman pontiff—a disastrous day for that country, followed by a series of calamities rendered only the more painful by contrast with its prosperous career from the days of St. Patrick to the council of Cashel. Most of its members continued to practice the rites of their ancient religion, and to resist as best they could the bondage of Rome. But the latter, with the help of English money and English arms, finally succeeded in making Ireland a chief stronghold of “the man of sin,” and for three centuries Rome there maintained an almost undisputed dominion. Large numbers of monasteries were erected and liberally endowed, and nothing was left undone that power and money could effect, to obliterate the cherished associations of the people for their more simple faith and worship, and to reconcile them to the spiritual supremacy of the pope. This state of things continued to the period when Henry VIII., with the consent of its nobles, was proclaimed “king of Ireland and supreme head of the Church.”

Most deplorable was the condition of the entire country at this time. It is described by Froude “as shared out between sixty Irish chiefs of the old blood and thirty great captains of the English noble folk, who lived by the sword and obeyed no temporal power, but only himself that was strong. The cattle and human beings lived herded together, even in the latter half of the sixteenth century.” Without education and but partially civilized, enslaved by error and debased by superstition, the dupes of designing monks and the slaves of bigoted priests, the people were in the grossest ignorance and irreligion. Even the heads of clans and the feudal lords were raised but little, if at all, above the common level of the community. They were turbulent, irreligious, vicious, and constantly engaged in scenes of violence or dishonorable conspiracies. If it suited their purposes, or in any way was conducive to their personal ambitions, they did not hesitate to destroy the temples of Religion, or to gratify their revenge upon those who ministered at her altars. The unsettled and distracted state of the island was, of course, very unfavorable to anything like a reformation in religion.

Such was the social and religious condition of the people when Henry VIII. sent his commissioners to Ireland to proclaim the royal supremacy and demand the subjection of the Irish prelates to his own ecclesiastical control. In this he was not influenced by any love that he cherished for the doctrines of the Reformation, but by a desire to overthrow the power of the pope. Hence but little was accomplished for Protestantism besides the establishment of English supremacy and the suppression of some of the numerous monasteries. The chief agent employed by the king was an Augustinian monk, George Browne, on whom the king, in 1535, had conferred the title of archbishop of Dublin. His selection for this delicate and important work was due to his previous opposition to some of the doctrinal errors of the Romish Church while provincial of his order in England. His zeal against popery seems to have been fervent and sincere. Charged with the royal commission, he repaired at once to Dublin, where, in a conference with the principal nobility and clergy, and in obedience to his royal instructions, he demanded that the Roman Catholic prelates should acknowledge the king’s supremacy.

Cromer, archbishop of Armagh, and his suffragan clergy, met this demand with prompt and spirited opposition. Thus matters remained for nearly a year, until the calling of a Parliament in 1537. In the mean time, the vigorous means adopted by the clergy to excite the nobility to resist the attempted usurpation were so far successful that the question was with great difficulty carried in the Irish Parliament. The laws necessary for the required alteration of the national faith were, however, passed. Among these were enactments declaring the king supreme head of the Church; renouncing the authority of the pope and declaring his supporters guilty of high treason; forbidding all appeals to Home, together with the payment of dues and the purchasing of dispensations; also, several of the religious houses were dissolved and their revenues vested in the Crown.

The exercise of this authority had but little influence on the advancement of the great truths of the Reformation. While public opposition was silenced wherever British power prevailed, the attachment of the Romish clergy to their Church continued as strong as ever. Acting under injunctions from Rome, they steadfastly resisted the claims of the king, and the archbishop declared those accursed who should acknowledge any power superior to that of the pope. The change was merely nominal, and the order sent from England to the archbishop of Dublin, to purge the churches of his province of their images, relics and superstitious rites, was successfully evaded. As new bishops were elevated to the vacant sees they were prompt to promise obedience to the king, but were powerless to carry out the views of the new government. The people and the inferior clergy continued ignorant and bigoted in their religion, and were indignant at the orders of Lord Cromwell, whom they called, in derision, “the blacksmith’s son.”

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[1] “Celtic Ireland was neither papal nor inclined to submit to the papacy till Henry II. riveted the Roman yoke upon it.”—Froude, vol. i., p. 30.