By David Steers
When the Attorney General for Northern Ireland came to give his excellent talk in Clough in May 2017 his topic was a piece of legislation that was a prelude to the Dissenters’ Chapels Act. This Act of Parliament is quite an obscure thing if you have not heard of it before but once upon a time our churches would have held special services of thanksgiving to celebrate its passing. It was so important to our ancestors.
It was passed following a major dispute at Clough which the Attorney General talked about. You can read about his visit here:
But to sum up the dispute we can say that a majority of our congregation at Clough wanted to call the Rev David Watson in 1829, but there were not quite enough voters in favour of him to have a two thirds majority. To cut a long story short the congregation left the Synod of Ulster and joined the non-subscribing Presbytery of Antrim but the whole matter went to law and the courts eventually decided to give the meeting house to the subscribing minority. As a result we had to build our own church which we should be rightly proud of although it only happened after a prolonged dispute which included some quite fierce controversy, including, on one occasion, having the militia called out to keep the peace.
Rev David Watson, Clough
But what happened in Clough could in theory have happened everywhere and so when on 19 July 1844 Royal Assent was given to the Dissenters’ Chapels Bill all our denomination in Ireland and co-religionists in England breathed a great sigh of relief. A day was set aside for special thanksgiving. It was, without doubt, the single most important piece of legislation to be passed in the nineteenth century concerning our churches, and without it they would have been dealt a blow that it would have been difficult to recover from.
Put simply if the Act had never been passed then nearly all of our churches at the time would have been confiscated. It seems amazing today yet it is quite true that others threatened to take away almost all the property in the hands of Non-Subscribing Presbyterians without compensation. We would have been ejected from our meeting houses and deprived of our trust funds.
This does seem a bit hard to believe in this day and age when although there might not always be complete friendship across religious divides no one ever tries to appropriate a religious opponent’s church. Even so it is well to remember that such things have gone on all over Europe and indeed might be said to still go on in some places. We might observe that every church in England and Ireland that was built before the mid-sixteenth century was once a Catholic Church until the government instituted the reformation. Admittedly that was a long time ago. Yet today if you go to Romania you can see Romanian Orthodox Churches that were confiscated from the Greek Catholic Church as recently as 1945 and which have never been given back. I am told that in Poland there are a number of Lutheran churches which were confiscated by the Catholic Church in the years following the Second World War and despite many protests will probably never be returned.
The background to the Act
So this kind of thing does still go on. In our case those who threatened to deprive our forebears of their inheritance were the Presbyterian church who in the early 1840s, seemed more than likely to be successful in legal actions that would allow them to take possession of our churches. The problem began in England in Wolverhampton when a Presbyterian chapel became the subject of a dispute between its liberal congregation and the Congregationalist Church. Because the congregation were Unitarian in their theology and this was actually illegal in England until 1813 and illegal in Ireland until 1817 it was said that they could not legally be owners of property that was built in 1701. The trust deed stated simply that the chapel was built “for the worship of God and the use of the Protestant Dissenters”. But their opponents, who had nothing to do with the congregation, tried to claim the property because they were not holding to orthodox doctrines. The matter went to court but before the final adjudication was given another similar dispute began over a trust called the Lady Hewley Charity. The English Congregationalists – who were orthodox and Calvinist – set out to seize this wealthy trust that was then 150 years old from the English Presbyterians who were liberal and Unitarian in their beliefs. The matter went to court and ultimately the verdict went in favour of the Congregationalists.
This was a serious decision because it meant that all the historic meeting houses which had been built in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and which had gradually become more liberal and open in their approach to faith could now be seized by others who claimed to be orthodox. Naturally this was very distressing to the people who had worshipped there for generations, their ancestors were buried in the graveyard and they had supported the place with their own efforts. On any moral basis it would clearly be unfair to take their churches away from them and give them to strangers but the legal judgment, on what was really just a technicality, allowed for precisely that.
At the same time exactly the same thing started to happen in Ireland. A similar dispute blew up in Clough and when the matter went to law the Non-Subscribers were deprived of the meeting house in which they had worshipped since 1736, again on the grounds that at that time the Non-Subscribers’ views were technically illegal and so they could not be the rightful owners. The same thing also happened at Killinchy where again they had worshipped for generations and were forced to build a new place of worship. So in Clough and Killinchy the Non-Subscribers built large new churches in the classical style, after being forced out of the old places which of course still exist today as the homes of congregations of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.
But the stage was clearly set for a colossal disaster for the Non-Subscribers. On the basis of the rulings already enacted they could lose virtually all the property they held if the orthodox Presbyterians chose to challenge them in the courts. Already this seemed very likely to happen for in Dublin a case was proceeding through Law that would deprive the Non-Subscribers of two of their most prestigious churches and all their endowments connected with the churches of Eustace Street and Strand Street which included schools and widows’ funds.
For all Non-Subscribers this was nothing less than an attack on liberty and an example of the pernicious nature of creeds which led to the expropriation of property from families that had worshipped in particular meeting houses for generations. Many leading Non-Subscribing ministers spoke out against what was happening. If the process was allowed to continue it would mean the destruction of the whole denomination. Almost every item of property owned by the Non-Subscribers would have been lost. According to Alexander Gordon – one of the leading historians of the period – the orthodox opponents had set their eyes on First Church on Rosemary Street and when they had gained control of it planned to turn the building into an assembly hall for their General Assembly.
The Non-Subscribers did not meekly accept the situation, however. They used every means at their disposal to get the law changed and fortunately in those days were not without influence in Parliament having some MPs among their supporters. A bill was produced which confirmed the ownership of church property in the hands of the worshippers irrespective of the doctrines they preached provided they had worshipped there for more than 25 years.
Support from Gladstone
Everybody from our churches in England and Ireland who had influence tried to bring it to bear on Parliament. Tremendous debates took place on the floor of the House of Commons as the two factions argued about the right to own church property. Eventually a key person was won over in the shape of W.E. Gladstone who was then president of the Board of Trade. The support of Gladstone – partly achieved through the lobbying of the Rev Henry Montgomery of Dunmurry who went over to speak to Members of Parliament, as did his own opponent Rev Henry Cooke – finally meant that the Bill was enacted and was passed in Parliament by comfortable majorities.
So this was the event that gave so much joy to our forebears 173 years ago. At the time it was a difficult struggle that seemed likely to end unfavourably for our churches. Yet through determination and vision they managed to win through in the end.
And we should note too that the principle which they upheld was not simply one of property rights although that was important. A terrible injustice would have been done if we had lost the right to our own meeting houses. They were ours as of right, passed from one generation to another without break and although the theological outlook had changed the same thread connected them with those who had begun the cause.
If they had been lost though it would also have been a terrible blow against religious freedom. For our churches represented newer ways of thinking, they displayed developing theological thought that took into account discoveries in different fields and the expansion of human knowledge. The church has always to grow if it is to be true to its vocation. Without the Dissenters’ Chapels Act the law would have been forcing the church to maintain the doctrines and beliefs that it had in the sixteenth century, and while they might have been true for then they do not necessarily hold the same for today. We can no more be limited in our theological or spiritual outlook by what was laid down in the sixteenth century than we would expect medicine or technology not to have moved on since that time.
Now this particular dispute lies a long way in the past. We deeply value our ecumenical friendships and inter-church connections today. More than one and a half centuries have passed since then. Yet the principles it exhibits still remain important today. The issue of religious freedom remains important. In our own age we should not be afraid to preach the gospel as we see it, of the “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” as St Paul says. We should not be afraid either to follow Paul’s advice and “maintain the truth in a spirit of love.” The circumstances may not always be easy and we may not always be popular but we inherit a sacred trust to continue to proclaim the message of hope and tolerance that our liberal tradition represents.
As Alexander Gordon observed 130 years ago:
Today we are, in one sense, outnumbered and outweighed; the masses are not with us. Yet we occupy a unique position, neither unimportant nor inglorious, and we cannot help doing so. We are the heirs and administrators and assigns of the true original Presbyterianism; of its liberty, its learning, its broad and beneficient aims. God, not we, has placed us where we are. He who planted the heavens, He who laid the foundations of the earth, it is He, and He only, who hath put into our mouths His words; who hath kept us, throughout our course, in the shadow of His hand; and who saith to us now, by the voice of His Spirit, ‘Thou art my people’.