HC Deb 11 March 1834 vol 22 cc9-15
Mr. Sinclair

presented a Petition from the City of Edinburgh, against the system of Church Patronage in Scotland, and two petitions from other places in Scotland, upon the same subject. The hon. Member said, he perceived that the national cemetery for petitions was prepared for the reception of the important document, which he had the honour to present; but in consigning it to the leathern mausoleum under the Table, he could not rest satisfied with acting the part of a mute. He had often admired the alacrity which Irish Members evinced when laying petitions before the House, to vindicate the motives of their constituents from misrepresentation, or to enforce their sentiments by argument. He should imitate their zeal, though he could not equal their eloquence; and he would venture to claim the indulgence of the House, whilst he brought under its notice a petition against Church Patronage, from the metropolis of Scotland, signed by several thousand inhabitants, comprising ministers and elders of the Church, and other persons most ardently attached to its doctrines and institutions. He took that opportunity of noticing an aspersion which had been cast on the petitioners, and others who held similar opinions. They had been charged, not only within the House, but in many influential quarters out of doors, with maintaining principles repugnant to the constitution of the Established Church, which had been uniformly opposed by its most distinguished champion, and must lead, if triumphant, to its subversion. In justice to those who had honoured him with the care of their petitions, and against whom no accusation could be more painful to their feelings, more injurious to their character, or more unmerited by the line of conduct which they had adopted, he should not express any sentiment of his own, but submit to the candour of those who had attacked them, the recorded opinions of a very few amongst the cloud of witnesses whom he might cite in justification of their views. A pamphlet was written on the subject, by Lord Dreghorn, an eminent Judge of the last century, who said, that "an opportunity of knowing the particulars of most of the violent settlements for ten years past, had given rise to its publication." His lordship observed, 'that it is plain to common sense, that the right of patronage is incompatible with the Presbyterian religion. One of them must yield; by endeavouring to keep up both, we run into much absurdity, contradiction, and indecency.' He maintained that 'it has a manifest tendency to bring religion into contempt with the common people. What can be more shockingly absurd, than to see a minister of the Gospel settled by a troop of dragoons? what more disgusting, than to see a minister of the Gospel, though disregarded and despised by every person in the parish, sit down contented, because, nevertheless, he enjoys the manse, the glebe, and the stipend? The common people are too sensible not to discover that the object which patrons, and others in power, have, is not the advancement of religion, nor the comfort and instruction of the people, but the subsistence of a friend or dependent, and that what this intruding pastor has in view, is not to tend the flock, but to shear the golden fleece.'—'It will not,' says Dr. M'Crie, 'be denied by any who understand and love the principles of the Church of Scotland, that patronage is a grievance.' And again, 'Is there a minister of the Church of Scotland—I speak not of elders—but is there a minister, except one who has pledged himself in the cause beyond the hope of redemption, who will stand up in defence of lay patronage, who will deny that it is a grievance, or plead that it is a method of admitting persons to the charge of souls honourable to the individual nominated; conducive to the spiritual interests of the people; consistent with the due freedom of the Church Courts; or, what is of still higher moment than all of these, pleasing in the eyes of the Chief Shepherd?' 'The great complaints,' says Dr. Chalmers, 'of our more ancient assemblies—the great burthen of Scot- tish indignation—the practical grievance which, of all others, has been hitherto felt the most intolerable and galling to the hearts of a free and religious people,—is the violent intrusion of ministers on parishes. An effectual provision against this enormity, this unfeeling outrage, which, in the exercise of a reckless and unprincipled patronage, has so often been perpetrated in our beloved land—an outrage, by the appointment of an ungodly party, on the rights of conscience, and the religious sensibilities of a sorely aggrieved people—a provision against so deep and so wide a moral injury as this to the families of a parish, I should feel the most valuable of all the legislative expedients or devices which could be proposed on the present occasion.' To the same purpose, it was maintained by another divine, Dr. Macfarlan, of Greenock, in a very able and temperate pamphlet on this subject, that this system of lay patronage is utterly indefensible; and, in point of fact, has not been defended by any one, except by the vituperations of the opposite system of popular elections. No attempt has been made in the present day, so far as I know, to defend the principles of an absolute and unmodified patronage, at least by any man who has thought seriously upon this subject, or is capable of reasoning and judging with respect to it. By the silence of its friends, it is virtually admitted to be erroneous." The power is so great, the duty of a patron so arduous, and the consequences of an unwise or a corrupt election are so injurious, that the right of patronage ought not to be vested as a patrimonial right in any one individual. By this system, the happiness of hundreds or perhaps thousands of our fellow-men, their religious and moral improvement, their usefulness as members of society, and their spiritual welfare, are placed in the hands of one person, and in so far as the means of salvation are concerned, are entirely at his disposal.' With what force, and what justice did he afterwards proceed to observe, that 'by possessing the right of presentation irresponsibly and as a kind of property, patrons are under strong temptations to employ it for private purposes. If they have no fear of God before their eyes, no hope of their responsibility to Him, and none of the spirit of a pure and enlightened benevolence, they will infallibly regard the right of patronage as nothing more than the means of gratifying a friend, or bribing a political opponent, or rewarding the services of a useful and active adherent. This temptation is felt to be peculiarly strong in those cases where the patron has no property in the parish or does not reside in it. There is no tie of affection or interest binding him to the inhabitants; and if he be, as we are now supposing, a stranger to the principles and feelings of an enlarged philanthrophy, their religious and moral improvement will be forgotten or wilfully disregarded amidst the calls of private friendship, or the mean and despicable considerations of political expediency.' Dr. Brown, of Langton, a divine of great learning and ability, after contending that the Church of Scotland never recognised the right of the people to elect their ministers as founded in Scripture, or in principles of ecclesiastical polity, added, that 'she looked upon patronage as an evil and a grievance, and submitted to it from necessity, and looked forward to the day when she hoped that it would be abolished.' He should only further trouble the House by referring to three periods in the ecclesiastical annals of Scotland, which illustrated the effects of patronage, and might enable them to apply the great Christian principle of trying a system by its fruits. The following was the account given of the state of Scotland in 1648, in the 'Acknowledgment of Sins,' printed with the 'Confessions of Faith.' Patronage had at that time existed, partly in conjunction with episcopacy, and partly without it, during a long course of years, and the consequences were stated as follow:—


We have refused to be reformed, and have walked proudly and obstinately against the Lord, not valuing his gospel, nor submitting ourselves unto the obedience thereof; not seeking after Christ, not studying to honour him in the excellency of his person, nor employ him in the virtue of his offices, nor making conscience of public ordinances, nor private nor secret duties, nor studying to edify one another in love. Ignorance of God, and of his son Jesus Christ, prevails exceedingly in the land. The greatest part of masters of families, amongst Noblemen, Barons, Gentlemen, Burgesses, and Commons, neglect to seek God in their families, and to endeavour the reformation thereof; and, albeit, it hath been much pressed, yet few of our nobles and great men, even to this day, could be persuaded to perform family duties themselves, and in their own persons, which makes so necessary and useful a duty to be misregarded by others of inferior rank. Nay, many of the Nobility, Gentry, and Barons, who should have been examples of godliness and sober walking unto others, have been ringleaders of excess and rioting.

It were impossible to reckon up all the abominations that are in the land; but this blaspheming of the name of God, swearing by the creatures, profanations of the Lord's Day, uncleanness, drunkenness, excess of rioting, variety of apparel, lying and deceit, railing and cursing, arbitrary and uncontrolled oppression, and grinding of the faces of the poor by landlords, and others in place power, are become ordinary and common sins.

In 1649 this system was abolished, and ceased to be in operation for several years; and Kirkton thus described the condition of the Church at the Restoration, when a more popular system of elections, decreed by the assembly, to which the power had been delegated by Parliament, had for some time prevailed:— At the King's return every parish had a minister—every village had a school—every family almost had a Bible, as in most of this country, all their children of age could read the Scriptures, and were provided with Bibles, either by their parents, or by their ministers. Every minister was a very full professor of the reformed religion, according to the large confession of faith framed at Westminster by the divines of both nations. Every minister was obliged to preach thrice a-week, to lecture and catechise, besides other private duties, in which they abounded, according to their proportions of faithfulness and abilities. None of them might be scandalous in their conversations, or negligent in their office, so long as a Presbytery stood, and among them were many holy in conversation and eminent in gift; nor did a minister satisfy himself unless his ministry had the seal of a divine approbation, as might witness him to be really sent of God. Indeed, in many places the Spirit seemed to be poured out with the word, both by the multitude of the sincere converts, and also by the common work of reformation upon many who never came the length of conversion. After a communion, there were no fewer than sixty aged people, men and women, who went to school, that even then they might be able to read the Scriptures with their own eyes. I have lived many years in a parish where I never heard an oath; and you might have ridden many a mile before you heard any; also, you could not, for a great part of the country, have lodged in a family where the Lord was not worshipped by reading, singing, and prayer. Nobody complained of our Church Government more than our taverners, whose ordinary lamentation was, their trade was broken, people were become so sober. Marchmont, who had been a witness and partaker of what had passed in his own time, gives his testimony to the truth of what is here narrated.

Such was the state of this Church, by irrefragable evidence, proved to have been during that important period. Dr. Chalmers says:— It was when a high-handed patronage reigned uncontrolled, and without a rival, that discord and dissent multiplied in our parishes. The seasons immediately succeeding to 1649 and 1690, when the power of negation was lodged with the people, not, however, as a force in exercise, but as a force in reserve; these were the days of our Church's greatest prosperity and glory, the seasons both of peace and righteousness. Persecution put an end to the one period, and unrestrained patronage put an end to the other.

Without adverting to the intermediate periods, what, he would ask, was the statement of Dr. M'Cire, as to the state of the Church in 1784, when the Act of Anne had been in operation for seventy-years? From the Revolution down to the Present day, never were the interests of religion sunk lower within her pale than they were in the year 1784. Truth and godliness sickened and pined away under the influence of false philosophies and a specious moderation. Socinianism had notoriously infected the minds of not a few of the clergy, and we know, from the highest authority, that some of the most active managers in ecclesiastical affairs could with difficulty be restrained from bringing forward a Motion for discarding the confessions of faith and all texts of orthodoxy—a fit Motion to accompany its predecessor, which virtually declared, in the face of the unanimous judgment of the Church of Scotland form the beginning, that patronage was no grievance! None more fit for wreathing an oppressive and degrading yoke about the necks of the people than those who would release themselves from the obligations of the most reasonable bonds, into which they had themselves voluntarily entered. But no minister will now choose to recall that melancholy era, and I scarcely think that even a ruling elder, honourable or simple, will be found so bold as to appeal to the act by which the light of the Church of Scotland was put under a bushel, and her glory turned to shame. If our rowers wish to shipwreck the vessel, of which they have obtained the management, they will steer it by the lurid star of 1784.

He had made these extracts in vindica- tion of many respectable petitioners. No imputation was more grievous to them, than to be taxed with hostility to the Church Establishment of Scotland. He had endeavoured to show, that they were borne out in their opinions by the concurrent testimonies of many persons, whose names were associated in Scotland with everything that was true, honest, and of good report—that when the system, for which they contended, was practically tried, it produced the happiest results—and that the reign of uncontrolled patronage was, at least, not uniformly referred to as the season when dissent was silent, the people satisfied, the doctrines of the Church most faithfully preached, and its ministers possessed in the highest degree the confidence, respect, and affection of their parishioners.

Petition laid on the Table.