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

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

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CHAPTER VIII.continued

No trustworthy record remains of the number of Protestants who perished in the rebellion by the sword, or from famine and pestilence. Suffice it to say that the lowest possible estimate to be made presents an awful sacrifice of human life.

In Ulster the devastation produced by the exterminating warfare, which was carried on for months, was so terrible that the Presbyterian interest was well nigh destroyed. Yet the Presbyterians, as a body, did not suffer so severely as the Episcopalians. The reason for this was that the previous persecutions of Wentworth, by his agents Leslie and Bramhall and the court of High Commission, had compelled many of the most influential Presbyterian clergy and nobility to retire to Scotland, where the pastors had been joined by many of their parishioners, who were induced to go mainly by a desire to attend upon their ministry. Thus multitudes were providentially preserved, and what was designed to ruin the Presbyterian Church proved in the end its preservation. But those who did remain and were saved from the terrible carnage were rendered poor in property, and were destitute of the public ordinances of religion. They, however, continued steadfast in their love of their Church; and when the rebellion was finally subdued and peace restored, they heartily united with their brethren who returned from Scotland in re-establishing the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

After the devastation had continued several months, Charles, by reason of the intelligence conveyed to him at Edinburgh, was induced to issue commissions for the raising of regiments to defend the kingdom, and the lords-justices adopted measures to furnish arms to the levies that were ordered. These regiments were commanded by men who had the respect and confidence of their soldiers. This was especially true of Sir William and Sir Robert Stewart, who had command of the forces raised in the counties of Derry and Donegal, which were afterward known as the LAGAN FORCES. With these the insurgents were held in check. Learning more fully the dangerous situation of the Protestants in the north of Ireland, the Scottish Parliament offered a supply of three thousand stand of arms and ten thousand men for their relief. Before these, however, could become available, it was necessary to obtain the sanction of the English authorities, and their aid in supporting the army. This was promptly given, and the English Commons not only voted a liberal supply of money, but an additional levy of men. Still, owing to many vexatious delays, it was some months before these latter regiments arrived in Ireland and joined the forces operating against the insurgents. After their junction an active warfare was prosecuted, but it was not until several fierce conflicts had taken place that the rebellion was subdued. Finding that they could not oppose successfully the combined forces of the Scotch and English, the principal leaders resolved to disband their followers and seek safety in flight.

The cessation of hostilities, though partial and temporary, prepared the way for the re-establishment of religion. The Episcopal Church, which had been so arrogant and intolerant in the day of prosperity, was now overthrown. Not a single bishop and but very few of her clergy continued to live within the province. Most of the Protestant laity who remained and had survived the rebellion were not in heart friends of the Irish Episcopal Church, having been constrained by penal laws to conform to its service. Consequently, when previous restraints were withdrawn, the great majority of them naturally returned to the Church of their choice—the Scottish Church, with whose forms they were familiar. Others, who were from preference Episcopalians, forsook the Establishment, because they had seen that their prelates and clergy were hostile to the cause of civil liberty. Thus out of the ruins, and largely from the incongruous fragments temporarily incorporated into the Episcopal Church of Ireland, arose speedily the simpler fabric of Presbyterianism. The Presbyterian element increased rapidly by the return to the country of the original Scottish settlers who had fled from Ireland; and being largely in the majority, they at once began the re-establishing of Presbyterian churches in Ulster. In this they were assisted by the chaplains of the Scottish regiments, who were strongly attached to the doctrines, worship and government of their national Church, the characteristic features of which were preserved in the Irish. These chaplains were ordained ministers and having received calls from congregations to settle, they remained in the country after the return home of their regiments. By their prudence and zeal they rendered valuable aid in the organization of the Irish Presbyterian Church upon the scriptural foundation which it has ever since maintained.

It was by these clergymen that the first regularly constituted presbytery was held in Ireland, which met at Carrickfergus, June 10, 1642. Five ministers and four ruling elders were in attendance, the elders representing the sessions previously constituted in four of the regiments. Correspondence was opened with Lords Claneboy and Montgomery, the commanding officers of two other regiments, requesting permission for their chaplains to attend the meetings of presbytery. This privilege was freely granted, and was accompanied with the assurance that they would support the measures of the presbytery in establishing anew the Protestant Church in Ulster.

Intelligence having gone abroad that a presbytery had been formed, applications immediately began to be received from destitute parishes, for the organization of churches and for the supply of ministers. These requests were granted so far as the presbytery had the ability to comply. It was soon found, however, that it was impossible to provide ministers for all the places destitute of preaching, and where the people were desirous of enjoying the regular services of a pastor. A petition for aid was sent to the Scottish Assembly; and in response to the request of their Irish brethren, it commissioned six of its best-qualified ministers, giving them instructions to proceed to Ireland and labor for a period of four months each, “there to visit, comfort, instruct and encourage the scattered flocks of Christ, to employ themselves to the uttermost, with all faithfulness and singleness of heart, in planting and watering according to the direction of Jesus Christ, and according to the doctrine and discipline of this Church in all things.”

In compliance with the appointment of the General Assembly, Rev. Messrs. Blair and Hamilton returned to Ireland in September, 1642, and were very warmly received by the brethren of the presbytery. The commission which they bore from the Assembly was ordered to be preserved among their records and inserted in their minutes. For three months they itinerated, performing missionary labor, organizing churches and preaching almost daily. Through the efforts of these experienced ministers, who were intimately acquainted with the circumstances and needs of the country, Presbyterianism rapidly revived. The seed previously sown now began to spring up with a vigor and a fruitage that gladdened the hearts of the laborers. Everywhere the people received these ministers with the utmost respect and gratitude.

Multitudes who formerly belonged to the Episcopal Church declared themselves in favor of the Presbyterian, and asked to be permitted to join her standards and partake of the privileges of her communion. In a brief period numerous Presbyterian congregations were gathered, and many of the Episcopal clergy came forward and united with the newly-formed presbytery. These were received into fellowship, but not until they had openly professed repentance for their former evil ways, and particularly for taking the Black Oath, and for their persecutions of the nonconformists. In all these proceedings we are to notice and admire the overruling providence of God. These ministers, restrained by Scottish prelates from the exercise of their ministry in their native country, removed to Ireland, and there introduced Presbyterianism. Banished from their adopted country, they returned to Scotland, where they were the chief instruments in overthrowing prelacy and re-establishing the Presbyterian Church; and now, the sword of the rebels having either slain or driven away the most noted and violent of their persecutors, they are recalled to Ireland to accept the acknowledgments and repentance of the few remaining conformists, and to aid for the third time in reconstructing the Presbyterian Church on the ruins of prelacy. This duty they discharged with eminent prudence and faithfulness, and with such success that a peaceful and prosperous career now seemed open to the Presbyterian Church of Ireland.

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