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

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

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GLOOMY in the extreme were the prospects of Presbyterian ministers in Ireland on the accession of Charles I., and little or no hope remained that those deposed would ever be restored. The policy of the king, both in England and Scotland, favored a rigid imposition of Episcopal forms. Nor could it reasonably be expected, therefore, that the mean and truckling Wentworth would show any leniency to nonconformists. So far as it was thought politic to do so, Romanists were recipients of kingly favors. They were encouraged to exercise their former ecclesiastical jurisdiction, new religious houses were opened, and even in the metropolis a college was founded for the training of priests. On the other hand, Protestants were so impeded in their work, and their freedom of worship so restricted, that large numbers of the people, together with their pastors, began to turn their attention toward a home in the New World.

The visit of a son of Governor Winthrop of New England, at this time, afforded them an opportunity to learn of the prospects which America offered to emigrants who wished to enjoy religious freedom. So impressed were they by his statements that they resolved to send a minister and a layman thither to report upon the country, and, if desirable, to select a place of settlement. Livingstone and Wallace set out upon this mission, but were prevented from leaving England. On their return to Ulster their brethren determined to endure these privations with what patience they could, and await the further developments of the policy of the government.

Charles, by reason of his expensive wars with Spain and Austria, found it difficult to secure the funds necessary to maintain an adequate army in Ireland, and had recourse to the landed proprietors for assistance. As many of these were Roman Catholics, who were aware of the king’s pecuniary embarrassment, they conceived that it would be a favorable opportunity to secure the abolition of the penal statutes which were in force against them. The king was disposed to yield to their demands, and on their proffering a large voluntary subsidy he promised to grant them the solicited privileges. Under the impression that the toleration of the Romish faith was about to be purchased by a contribution to the State, Archbishop Usher and the most influential of the Irish prelates protested strongly against the measure. This retarded for a time the proposed project.

But as the sovereign’s needs were pressing, and the Romanists firm in their demands for concessions favorable to their religion, the execution of the penal laws was still further relaxed. This indulgence both offended and alarmed the Protestants, and led to a tumult in Dublin, where an attempt was made to disperse a meeting of Carmelite friars, and afterward instructions were sent to the English consul to suppress all such assemblies and to dissolve their religious houses.

At the instigation of the sycophantic and despotic Laud, the deputy turned his attention from civil to ecclesiastical affairs. The former had encouraged the introduction of superstitious rites into divine worship in the English Church, such as changing the communion-table into an altar and adorning it with candlesticks and crucifixes, and placing pictures and images in the churches. He now solicited the willing aid of Wentworth to carry forward like changes in the Irish Church, so as to have its service approximate as nearly as possible to that of the Romish ritual. The first and most important measure was to fill the sees with men who would be in sympathy with the scheme, and who would be ready to obey the orders of Wentworth as he received them from Archbishop Laud. The place of the mild and tolerant Knox was filled by the violent churchman John Leslie. The pious Downham, bishop of Derry, was succeeded by Bramhall, a servile creature of Laud’s, whom he so resembled in spirit and in his intolerance of Puritans that he was styled “the Canterbury of Ireland.”

Usher was compelled to do the bidding of these bad men, who ordered him to call in and suppress a work on the covenant of grace which had been issued by the bishop of Derry, condemning Arminianism. Rather than comply, and thus stain his own fair fame by evincing so timid and irresolute a spirit, he should have maintained and defended the standards of the Church of which he was a custodian. Bedell, the saintly bishop, who resigned his office the better to promote reform in his diocese, and whose earnest Christian efforts to spread the gospel will ever be memorable in Ireland, was constantly thwarted in his self-denying labors. In preparing young men to preach in Irish to the natives, in establishing schools in every parish, in compiling and printing scriptural books, and in translating the Bible into the language of the country, he displayed an untiring zeal. These benevolent and valuable services for his adopted countrymen, in connection with his well-known liberal sentiments toward nonconformists, made him a shining mark for the poisoned arrows of Laud and Wentworth. They resolved that the work of reformation, which he was carrying forward so successfully, should be brought to an end, and to accomplish their purpose suits at law were instituted against him. Though of too frivolous a character to justify his suspension, they served to place obstacles in the way of his work of evangelization. When thus oppressed by the civil authorities, he turned for sympathy to Usher; but Usher declined to extend to him the friendly assistance which he had a right to expect, assigning as a reason that “the tide went so high against him.” Bedell replied nobly “that he was resolved, by the help of God, to try if he could stand by himself.” Still, his solitary efforts could accomplish but little for the Church.

Attention was next directed to the University of Dublin. There was too large a Puritan element in its management to suit the Romanizing party in England. Laud had already introduced innovations at Oxford in favor of popery, and was resolved that a similar change should be made at Dublin. Its provost, Dr. Robert Usher, a relative of the archbishop, and holding the same liberal sentiments, was removed, and a violent Arminian from England was put in his place. The statutes of the university were subjected to the revision of Laud and altered to suit his wishes, and under his direction the new provost urged conformity with unsparing intolerance.

One thing more was needed in order to accomplish the work on which the archbishop and the deputy had set their hearts. This was to bring the Church of Ireland into a more perfect conformity to the English Establishment. The latter undertook the task, and accomplished it in a summary manner. By his order a convocation of the clergy was summoned to meet in November, 1634, and in furtherance of his designs he did not hesitate to employ intrigue, deception and menace. The Calvinistic confession, prepared by Usher, adopted by the Irish Church, and ratified by Parliament twenty years before, was the chief obstacle in the way of the deputy. In order merely to manifest the agreement between the Churches of England and Ireland, he proposed to Usher that the Thirty-nine Articles of the former should be received and recognized, and promised that this should not displace or in any way interfere with the Confession of the Irish Church. Obtaining the assent of Usher, the Thirty-nine Articles were received. But no sooner were they adopted than it was claimed that they were the sole accredited standard of the Church’s faith, and that the Irish articles, by construction, had been wholly abrogated.

The deception was discovered too late to correct the error, though an effort to do so was immediately made by attempting to amend the English canons. The convocation was overruled by Wentworth in the most arbitrary and insulting manner. He sent immediately for the chairman, and commanded him to bring the book of canons, together with the draft of the proposed changes, and as soon as he had read these he began to pour out on him the vials of his fierce wrath. He told him that “certainly not a dean of Limerick, but, an Ananias, had sat in the chair.” He was “sure an Ananias had been there in spirit, if not in body, with all the fraternities and conventicles of Amsterdam.” Hamilton was the boldest champion of the independence of the Church. But his influence, with that of kindred men in the convocation, was crushed by the despotic will of the deputy, ably seconded as he was by Bramhall and Leslie. In this violent and summary manner was the constitution of the Irish Episcopal Church finally settled. The Thirty-nine Articles of the English Church became the standard of the former, and the clergy were forced to accept them with their Arminian interpretation.

Having carried out his plan with such wonderful success, it might be supposed that Wentworth would be content. But not so. He desired increased power. Accordingly, he applied to Laud and Charles for authority to erect a High Commission court in Dublin. In his letter he says: “I hold it most fit that there were a High Commission settled here in Dublin to support ecclesiastical courts and officers, to bring the people here to a conformity in religion, and in the way of all these to raise perhaps a good revenue to the Crown.” In this proposal the wily statesman bids for the sanction of the prelate by his expressed intention of persecuting nonconformists, and for that of the king by the hope of augmented revenues. The authority sought was granted, and with this unconstitutional tribunal he subjected the freedom and property of every individual to his arbitrary will and pleasure, and by its summary processes, from whose judgment there was no appeal, he was enabled to crush out the slightest opposition to his tyrannical measures.[1]

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[1] “A High Commission court sat in Dublin, canons were passed for ecclesiastical government, and dissent, under any Protestant form, was utterly prohibited. All who refused to obey the bishops and introduce and use the English liturgy, were deprived of their cures.”—Froude, vol. i., p. 77.