History of the Irish Church from James II. to Emigration of Presbyterians to America, 1725 (5)

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

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CHAPTER VIII.concluded

The history of the many endeavors of the Irish Presbyterians to secure a legal toleration, and to have the numerous grievances under which they suffered removed, differs but slightly from what has been already narrated. Their efforts were largely directed to correcting the misrepresentations of their High Church adversaries, and to assuring the court of their loyalty and their desire to lead quiet and peaceable lives as good citizens. Strange as it may appear, they were not unfrequently charged with persecuting members of the Established Church, and with deliberate attempts to infringe upon the rights of its clergy. Easy of refutation as were these baseless accusations, they yet show to what lengths their adversaries were willing to go in order to prejudice them in the estimation of the persons who were in authority in the government.

For more than half a century longer the Presbyterians were subjected to many civil disabilities and to unfounded suspicions of a want of loyalty, and in every attempt to secure their rights they were successfully resisted by the adherents of Episcopacy. It was not until 1780 that the Test Act was repealed, and this was followed two years later by an act declaring that marriages solemnized by Presbyterians were valid in law. Temporary relief for short periods was enjoyed, as at the accession of George I. to the throne, but the liberal projects of sovereigns and their ministers were in the end thwarted by the bigotry and narrow-minded jealousy of the Irish Established Church, and the indulgence extended at times to dissenters was so curtailed as to be of little use to them. Against all these illiberal influences and these evils of intolerance the Presbyterian Church of Ireland was obliged constantly to contend.

Notwithstanding their many hindrances and hardships, and the various inducements held out to both pastors and people to unite with the Episcopal Church, Presbyterianism during all this period was steadily on the advance in Ireland. New congregations sprang up, houses of worship were erected, vacant congregations were gradually supplied with ministers, principally from the Church of Scotland, and increased facilities for education were afforded young men desirous of preaching the gospel in their native land. The congregations in 1709 had increased to more than one hundred and thirty, and it became so inconvenient for their ministers and elders to meet annually in one Assembly, to attend to the business of the Church, that proposals were made to make it a delegate body, and to limit the number of attendants. The five original presbyteries had been divided into two particular synods, and some of the presbyteries, having grown too large for the proper discharge of their duties, were also divided. In this way two new presbyteries were formed out of Tyrone, and one out of that of Lagan.

Much difficulty was now experienced in obtaining an adequate supply of ministers to keep pace with the rapid growth of congregations. This, however, did not lead the Church to lower the standard of qualifications demanded of its ministry. It required that all candidates for licensure should have studied divinity for four years after they had completed their course of philosophy; and to prevent candidates from entering the Church who were not sound in the faith, the synod of 1698 enacted that all persons licensed or ordained should subscribe the Westminster Confession of Faith as their Confession. By these means the ministry of the Presbyterian Church became yearly more respected for its literary and theological attainments, and by these wise and continued efforts most of the congregations enjoyed the services of pious and educated men.

At the same time, the missionary operations of the Church were carried on with vigor and success. To meet the necessities of the scattered and neglected members of its communion, the synod in 1706 established a GENERAL FUND, and appointed a number of persons in each presbytery to solicit subscriptions. With the means thus obtained labor was actively begun among the Irish-speaking population—a class which had been wellnigh neglected since the time of the revered Bishop Bedell. That commendable progress was made in this needed work is seen from the statement, by the synod of 1710, that seven of its ministers and three of its probationers were able to preach in the Irish language, and that a plan had been formed for employing these men in this work and supplying them with Bibles, Confessions of Faith and Catechisms, all in the Irish language. With this missionary fund, to which large additions were made by wealthy members of the Church, the principles of Presbyterianism were much extended and the ordinances of religion provided in many destitute parts of the country.

Though the government and worship of the Presbyterian Church were finally legalized in 1719, its members still endured many privations. Episcopalian landlords possessing large estates refused to permit Presbyterian churches to be built upon them. Others exacted higher rents from Presbyterian than from Episcopalian tenants. By the sacramental test Presbyterians were still excluded from all places of public trust under the Crown. Presbyterian teachers could with difficulty keep open their schools, and private members were subjected to prosecution in the ecclesiastical courts for their marriages by their own clergy.[8] Is it any wonder they should grow weary of being thus constantly harassed, and should be led to look elsewhere for the relief they sought in vain in their native land, or that there should have been a growing desire among Presbyterians to emigrate to America?

When the lord-lieutenant, the duke of Shrewsbury, reached Dublin in 1713, several ministers laid before him a paper in which they stated the evils that both ministers and people yet suffered from the continued imposition of the sacramental test. They stated also how discouraged they were by the frequent disappointment of their hopes of relief, and assured him that “the melancholy apprehensions of these things have put several of us upon thoughts of transplanting ourselves into America, that we may there in a wilderness enjoy, by the blessing of God, that ease and quiet to our consciences, persons and families which are denied us in our native country.” But it was in vain that they petitioned for redress. If, through a change in the office of lord-lieutenant, or in those of lords-justices, the severity of the penal statutes in force against dissenters was not inflicted, the relief was but temporary, and rested mainly upon the pleasure of those in authority, and not on legal enactments. The dissatisfaction felt at this state of affairs naturally increased from year to year, and determined many persons either to return to Scotland or to seek refuge in America. In 1729 the disposition to emigrate received a new impulse.

After the Revolution the landed proprietors, anxious for the cultivation of their waste lands, had granted favorable leases, under which the Presbyterian tenantry had been stimulated to improve their holdings and extend their cultivation. But as these leases, usually for thirty-one years, expired, the rents were so raised that the farmers became greatly discouraged, and many were obliged to relinquish their farms and find a home in some other country where they might improve their condition. To add to their discouragement, there was proportionate increase in the demand for tithes, while the three successive harvests after that of 1724 had proved so scanty that the price of food in 1728 far exceeded what it had been in the memory of that generation. Added to all was the disqualification for office created by the SACRAMENTAL TEST. In these circumstances the thoughts of many were turned to the New World, not only as promising a better and a surer reward for their labor and capital, but relief also from the civil and social evils which they had so long endured.

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[8] Mr. Froude shows how the bill for the repression of popery in 1704 was used against dissenters by the prelates: “The bishops fell upon the grievance, which had so long afflicted them, of the Presbyterian marriages. Dissenting ministers were unsanctified upstarts, whose pretended ceremonial was but a license for sin. It was announced that the children of Protestants not married in a church should be treated as bastards, and, as the record of this childish insanity declares, ‘many persons of undoubted reputation were prosecuted in the bishops' courts as fornicators.'”—Froude, vol. i., p. 392.