Saturday, May 11, 2019

Browsing a Bygone Blue Book - a look back at the Presbyterian Church in Ireland in 1927

Worries about a decline in the number of students for the ministry and theological education structures; examination of relationships with other denominations; a repair fund for Assembly Buildings; a prevailing worldliness and demoralisation of the country; Irish language protests; appeals about heresy; and a letter from a Scottish sister denomination.

While the topics feel quite contemporary, this isn’t a post about this year’s General Assembly ‘blue book’ of reports for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. Instead, it’s a look back the Assembly’s business in June 1927, some 92 years ago. This is an extended version of an article first published in the May 2019 edition of the Presbyterian Herald.

The death of my mother in June last year triggered a clearing out of cookbooks and sporting biographies from the shelves of the house I grew up in. One book seemed older and more tattered. At first, I expected it would be Sadie’s choral score for Handel’s Messiah. But when I lifted it down, it was the Minutes of June 1927’s General Assembly.

A good neighbour from across the road must have given it to Mum when she was ordained as an elder in Railway Street Presbyterian Church. The minutes and reports may have originally belonged to representative elder James Hasley who attended the 1927 General Assembly on behalf of Cargycreevy congregation, and then, somehow, the book made it into the hands of the Gillespie family and most recently the Mebans.

Flicking through the pages provides a sense of the social and political history of the time. The scale and size of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, its overseas missions and ministries across Ireland is astounding.

Back in 1927, PCI had 560 congregations across 35 Presbyteries. The largest churches were all in Belfast, some more sizeable than whole presbyteries put together. McQuiston Memorial was home to 1,450 families, closely followed by Great Victoria Street (1,434), Agnes Street (1,320), Newington (1,170), Westbourne (1,100) and Townsend Street (1,000).

Beginning at 7pm on Monday 6 June, General Assembly wouldn’t finish until 9.20pm the following Tuesday, 14 June. 523 representative elders and more than 500 ministers were on the roll.

On the opening night, Rev Dr James Thompson was called to the chair and addressed the House as the new Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. He’d scooped all but one of the presbytery nominations. Rev W.J. Lowe was the Clerk of Assembly, and Rev W.A. Watson the Junior Clerk.
A table in the reports shows that since 1840, General Assembly had met outside Belfast on 14 occasions, in Dublin (9), Londonderry (4), Armagh (1).

After Tuesday morning communion in Rosemary Street Church, delegates gathered in the three-storey Assembly Hall and received corresponding members from the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of England (now part of the United Reformed Church). Some early business granted permission for the 61 congregation-strong Belfast Presbytery to erect a new church in the Castle Hill area of the city.

The previous General Assembly in 1926 had taken the decision to ordain women to the ruling eldership. Only two newly-ordained female elders seem to have been chosen to represent their congregation: Miss E.A. Harbinson (Rostrevor) and Mrs Robert Small (Warrenpoint). The ordination of women to the ministry of Word and sacrament wouldn’t be agreed until 1973.

The business, reports, and committee membership were thus very masculine, with the exception of “an interesting and inspiring address on the subject of Temperance” delivered by the first female MP, Viscountess Astor (Plymouth Sutton), and the thanks recorded for “the ladies who gave most valuable help” to the Arrangement Committee by providing hospitality during the Assembly.

Education and training

The Belfast Presbyterian College had a cohort of 16 students, while in Londonderry, the McCrea Magee College was home to 33 students studying Catechetical Courses (benefitting from 26 scholarships and bursaries) with a further five students in its Divinity School. Seven students were recommended to their respective Presbyteries to be licensed.

A Presbyterian deputation from the Commission on the McCrea Magee College Scheme had lobbied James Craig, the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, along with the Ministers of Finance and Education, to request “a substantial grant from Government funds, on the grounds of the valuable educational work [the College] is doing”. Their statements were “received with courtesy and sympathy”. However, the politicians outlined issues that would need to be surmounted before state grant aid could be given to the College.

The Belfast Presbyterian College reported expenditure “incurred by the cost of installing electric light in the houses of two of the professors”. Its Trustees agreed “under protest and without prejudice” to take over liability of the annual sum of £100 from the General Purpose’s Fund “towards house rent for one of the professors of the college”, a matter which they describe as “little short of a breach of faith”. The Belfast College Committee reported that 723 volumes had been added to its library in the previous 12 months. Its Elocution class was being taught with “unbounded enthusiasm”. With the College’s Botanic Avenue building hosting the Parliament of Northern Ireland (1921-1932), lectures took place in a house on University Square.

Meanwhile, negotiations were ongoing with Queen’s University “with a view to establishing a Theological Faculty”. The application for ‘recognition’ had been submitted, and it was hoped that “regulations under which examinations will be conducted and the affairs of the Faculty administered” would be completed in time for General Assembly in June 1928.

The Committee on the Students’ Bursary Fund responded to a memorial from the Synod of Dublin seeking the cause of the “serious decline in the number of students for the Christian Ministry” to be addressed. The Committee noted a 1921 statement circulated across the denomination that identified “the secularising tendency of the age, lack of sufficient religious instruction in the home and in most Secondary schools in Ulster, and the practical elimination of Greek from the Academic course.”

Other factors cited included “possible spheres of faithful and well-remunerated service demanding a shorter period in preparation” and “a loose popular attitude towards doctrinal essentials on the one hand and a too minute insistence of belief in non-essentials on the other”.

The report also looked at financial barriers, noting that: “The supply from the wealthier homes has failed. The time has come for our Church to take a step which will make it possible for any suitably gifted boy to enter her Ministry … no matter how obscure the place of his birth or how destitute of friends he may be.”

Church relations

Negotiations between the Church of Ireland and the Presbyterian Church in Ireland “with regard to Church Union” were to be kept in abeyance until after the World Conference on Faith and Order in Lausanne later that summer, to which PCI would send an augmented four-minister deputation.
The House agreed that the week in which St Andrew’s Day falls should be a week of “united intercession [prayer] on behalf of our Presbyterian Brotherhood throughout the world”.

A report from the General Presbyterian Alliance – a precursor to the modern World Communion of Reformed Churches – reported on a “touching request” for membership “from an isolated congregation in Russia seeking recognition as a distressed and remote member of the Presbyterian family”. The agenda of a conference of the ‘Eastern Section’ in Budapest promised to look at the “Spiritual Independence of the Church: Relations of Church and State” as well as Protestant unity across Europe, and relationships with the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches.

A donation of £3 was made to the United Council of Christian Churches in Ireland (now known as the Irish Council of Churches).


The Committee on Church House and Assembly Hall reported that £835 had been spent on upkeep with “the building debt … further reduced, and it is hoped that by the end of the present year it may practically disappear”.

The ministerial mileage rate for Home Mission was set at sixpence per mile, with no travelling expenses for journeys under six miles.


The 1926 Assembly decided that newly-ordained ministers and those accepting a call to a new congregation would “cease to have a right to the use of the manse … when they retire from active duty”. A committee assessed the potential “grievance” given the expectation of accommodation that had been created upon ordination. They proposed a Manse Surrender Fund which would benefit ministers willing to surrender their life interest in a manse at the time of retirement in return for a “satisfactory annual grant in lieu thereof”, with this central funding supplemented by the congregation. A 2d in the £1 assessment was suggested. The overture was submitted to the House, but subsequently withdrawn.


The third Sabbath of January was to be “observed as Temperance Day” with a Special Sermon preached in all our churches, and special Temperance lessons given in all our Sabbath Schools” as well as an appeal for “a large collection”.

South of the border, the Assembly wished the “beneficial results produced by the Free State Intoxicating Liquor Act (1924)” would continue despite “deplorable compromises and surrenders” as the 1927 Bill passed through the Dáil. They still hoped that it would “fulfil its intended purpose of lessening the stranglehold of drink upon the people of Ireland”.

General Assembly desired the amendment of the licensing of pubs and clubs in Northern Ireland to synchronise common “hours during which intoxicating liquor may be supplied”. Every one of the 3,000 licensed houses in the north was deemed to be “a source of impoverishment and demoralisation to the country”.

Heresy trial appeal

After lunch on the Thursday, the House sat in private to “hear the appeals of the Rev James Hunter [Knock] and others against five decisions of the Presbytery of Belfast in relation to the five charges brought against the Rev Professor Davey for holding and teaching doctrines contrary to the Word of God and the subordinate standards of the Church”.

Belfast Presbytery had acquitted the college professor after a lengthy and somewhat unusual process, often referred to as the ‘Davey heresy trial’. The charges, evidence and Professor Davey’s defence had been published, sealed, marked as confidential and circulated to all members of General Assembly in advance.=

After four hours of debate, the business lapsed until the next morning when Davey himself addressed the House. Having considered the charges “with the utmost care … [along with] Professor Davey’s avowal of his own beliefs, together with his defences and his expressions of regret that statements in his books and lectures have been misunderstood, and also his pleas of justification”, each of the five appeals was dismissed and presbytery’s finding of not guilty of heresy was sustained. A division was forced for the first decision (707 for, 82 against); the remaining decisions were upheld by a show of hands.

An anti-Davey group who opposed modernism seceded from PCI after the appeals failed, forming the Irish Evangelical Church in October 1927 with 10 congregations. Twenty-six years later, Professor Davey would be elected Moderator of the General Assembly, in the year that marked the centenary of Assembly’s College.

Other business

The Presbyterian Historical Society Committee reported that larger accommodation was “urgently required” as “the work of this Society is being handicapped for want of room”. They hoped that with Assembly Building finances in a better position, they would be able to extend into a room that had been commercially let. [Today, the society is based on the ground floor of Assembly Buildings, opposite the denomination’s main entrance.]

Preparation of a revised Church Hymnary had been ongoing for four years across five denominations, and publication of the new volume containing 728 pieces was expected in September the following year. As ever, a spread of musical ability and style had to be catered for with “as many tunes as possible adapted for use in churches where the musical resources are slender, the requirements of churches with cultured choirs and skilled organists have also had special attention”.

Protestant denominations organised conferences and lobbied against the Irish Government's policy of the compulsory teaching of Irish in all schools, including ones under Protestant management.
Back in 1927, Rev Dr Bain was the editor of the Missionary Herald, discharging his duties with “great efficiency and acceptance” according to one report.

Scottish correspondence

Whilst not in official attendance, the General Assembly of the United Free Church of Scotland sent greetings by letter to the “honoured brethren” meeting in Belfast, reciprocating the message PCI had posted to them. The two reformed denominations cooperated in the evangelisation of Manchuria (north-east China): China was a major focus of missionary activity. During 1927, the Free Church congregation in Dublin chose to unite with PCI. The United Free letter finished with an observation and a prayer:

“As we are in Scotland, so you in Ireland are faced by the same great tasks in the presence of the prevailing worldliness and indifference that constitute a challenge to every Christian Church. It is our earnest prayer that God may bless Ireland, and give you peace and settled government; and that your Church may ever be a centre of light and truth in the land …”.

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