History of the Irish (Presbyterian) Church from the Accession of Charles I. to the Irish Rebellion (2)

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

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CHAPTER VII.continued

The Presbyterians of Ulster were soon made to feel the power that had been thus entrusted to the deputy, and their condition grew worse day by day. The four ministers suspended by Echlin were denied a fair trial, which they had requested, and were reproached for their unwillingness to conform. For a brief period, and as a matter of public policy, and not because of any favor entertained for these pastors, their sentence of suspension was relaxed. They were restored for six months to the office of the ministry, with the hope that this might allay the irritated feelings of the Scotch planters, whose lands had been threatened with confiscation. But at the expiration of this period their license was revoked, and at the instigation of Bramhall they were formally deposed.

Bishop Echlin, dying in July, 1635, was succeeded by that violent bigot, Henry Leslie, who immediately began the work of persecuting non-conformists. On his requiring from the clergy of his diocese their subscription to the canons, five of the most zealous and influential of them refused to comply. For this reason alone these faithful ministers were summarily deposed from their office, deprived of their support, and finally obliged to leave the kingdom. These unjust and arbitrary proceedings still more fully convinced Presbyterians that there was no liberty to be expected by either pastors or people so long as they were subjected to prelacy, and that it was their duty to abandon a country in which their religious privileges were so flagrantly violated. Accordingly, they determined to carry out their previous design to remove to New England, and commenced work at once on a ship called the Eaglewing, in which they proposed to embark in the spring. After many disappointments and much delay the preparations for the voyage were completed, and one hundred and forty emigrants, accompanied by Blair, Livingstone and Hamilton, set sail from Loch Fergus in September, 1636. But contrary winds and a fierce tempest, that caused the loss of the rudder and the ship to spring aleak, compelled them to return to Ireland, and convinced them “that it was not God’s will that they should go to New England.”

But there was no rest for them in Ireland while the Episcopal authorities, through the power of the High Commission, could arrest and imprison all persons at their pleasure. Numbers were committed to prison or forced to fly the country. Armed with extraordinary powers by the English court, Wentworth pursued his rapacious schemes with new energy. He subjected the titles of the Ulster colonists to a rigorous examination; and where they had failed to fulfill in any particular the numerous and expensive conditions of their grants, he obliged them to renew their patents, for which he extorted large sums of money. Not only were the rights of property violated, but the personal liberty of the people was invaded and the lives of the highest in the realm endangered if they dared to oppose the deputy’s authority. Severe and unwarranted punishment was inflicted at his mere caprice. He authorized the bishop of Down to arrest and imprison in a summary manner all who refused to subscribe to the canons.

Suffering under these great grievances, both civil and religious, many of the Presbyterians of Ulster fled to the west of Scotland, where a number of their former pastors, who had preceded them, were settled over parishes. This served to keep up frequent communication between the two countries, and enabled the people to be of mutual service to each other in the common struggle for civil and religious liberty. Not a few of these Ulster Presbyterians, when visiting their native country, had subscribed the Covenant. Witnessing the beneficial results of the victory which had been obtained over prelacy by their Scotch brethren, they were the more dissatisfied with the tyranny under which they were living, and the more determined in their resistance.

Such was the spirit manifested that Wentworth became alarmed lest the people of Ulster should openly resist his authority. He, therefore, took measures to cut off all correspondence with Scotland, and to collect an army either to invade Scotland in co-operation with Charles, or to hold in subjection the Scotch residents in Ulster. He also called to his aid the prelates, and directed them to enforce conformity, to preach against the Covenant, and to obstruct the settlement of any more Scotch ministers within their dioceses. His final expedient was the imposition upon all the Scots of North Ireland of an oath called THE BLACK OATH, from the terrible evils it occasioned. It was a suggestion of Charles I. to his obedient deputy, and it is scarcely possible to conceive of anything more objectionable than this oath, or more in conflict with the principles of the civil and religious rights of subjects. It compelled the party to swear never to oppose any of the king’s commands and to abjure all covenants and oaths to the contrary. All the Scotch residents in Ulster over sixteen years of age were required to take it on their knees and swearing “upon the holy evangelists,” without even the privilege of perusing it in most instances. Women as well as men were sworn; the only exception was in favor of those Scots who professed to be Roman Catholics. In administering the oath the commissioners were required to proceed in the most expeditious manner possible, and permit no one to evade them from any want of vigilance on their part. The ministers and churchwardens were obliged to make a return of all the Scots who resided in their parishes. If any refused to take the oath, their names were forwarded to Dublin, when officers were dispatched by Wentworth to execute his pleasure on the recusants.

The deputy supposed that the people would generally, through fear, take the obnoxious oath. They had no objection to pledge their allegiance to their king, but very many refused to yield unconditional obedience to all that he might command, whether just or unjust. On these the highest penalties of the law, short of death, were frequently inflicted. Many were fined, others were cast into dungeons, while multitudes deserted their homes and fled to the woods, leaving their valuable properties to speedy ruin. So many of the laboring population fled to Scotland that it was found very difficult to gather the ripened grain in the fields. The severity of the sufferings endured by these Christian patriots may be inferred from the punishment meted out to a Mr. Stewart, who refused to swear to the unconditional terms of the oath. He and his family were dragged up to Dublin, placed in close confinement, speedily brought to trial in the Star-Chamber—a court in which even the forms of law and justice were despised—and fined in the sum of sixteen thousand pounds, and were ordered to be imprisoned at their own charges until the exorbitant fine was paid. This sentence they were told to consider as an act of leniency on the part of their judges, for had they been punished as they deserved they would have been declared worthy of death for treason. Among their judges was Primate Usher, who, while evincing more moderation than the other prelates in the trial, was swept along by the power and fear of royal prerogative, and led to concur in the judgment required by the cruel Wentworth, who then and there expressed his determination to prosecute “to the blood” all who declined the oath and drive them “root and branch” out of the kingdom; and he was as good as his word, for he imposed it with the greatest cruelty upon all ages, ranks and sexes of the nonconformists in Ireland.

For the time being the power of the deputy was irresistible. No one dared to oppose his oppressive measures. If any person evinced the least sympathy for those persecuted for their religious scruples in taking the oath, it was sufficient to incur his severest censures. Archibald Adair, bishop of Killala, having expressed his contempt of the conduct of a renegade Scotchman who had reviled his brethren for their attachment to the Covenant, was committed to prison and tried before the High Commission court. At the instigation of Bramhall, and with the consent of the other bigoted and sycophantic prelates, he was deprived of his see, fined two thousand pounds and ordered to be imprisoned during the pleasure of the court. Bishop Bedell was alone in his opposition to this despotic measure, and by an able argument founded on the scriptural qualifications of a bishop sought to befriend his calumniated and injured brother.

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