HC Deb 01 June 1835 vol 28 cc209-20
Mr. Cutlar Fergusson

, on presenting the petitions in favour of the Church of Scotland, said, the petitioners uniformly prayed for the extension of the benefits of religious instruction, which they considered to be at present not sufficiently distributed to the great majority of their poorer countrymen, nor capable of being effectually secured to them by the adoption of the voluntary principle. They observed that it was, therefore, the more necessary that the Church of Scotland should be enabled to extend its salutary influence by means of a limited aid from the public funds, for the purpose, not so much of enabling her to build new fabrics, as of endowing such new churches as might be built by public subscription. Never had there been so much misconception or misinterpretation on any question brought before Parliament within his recollection, as on this. It had been said that 1,000,000l., 2,000,000l., and even 6,000,000l. were needed for this purpose; whereas the whole extent of the grant required would not exceed 10,000l. In his opinion if the poorer classes of the people of Scotland or England could obtain religious instruction by means of a moderate grant of public money, the Parliament of Great Britain ought not to turn a deaf ear to such an application. Though the Dissenters of England, and the seceders of Scotland might petition against this grant, they had themselves justified the principle upon which this appeal was made; for the Dissenters paid towards the Roman Catholic College at Maynooth, and other Roman Catholic schools in Ireland, and were often called upon to contribute to the expenses of the Establishment in England. He contended that wherever there really existed a want of church accommodation in this kingdom, there the public were bound to give it. If the people of Scotland would be at the expense of building these edifices, Parliament might fairly be called upon for a small grant, in order to support the minister. There were large towns in Scotland, where the mass of the people were without religious instruction. There were other parishes possessing churches, but which were so extensive that it was im- possible for more than a small proportion of the population to obtain religious aid. He was a steady friend to the Established Church of Scotland; it was the religion of his ancestors,—it was the religion which had made his country happy; and he was satisfied that no other church ever diffused so much consolation as this had done. Nothing in the conduct of that church had ever tended to destroy the confidence which the people felt in its efficiency. True, there were at present many able and perhaps influential persons arrayed against it, for the purpose of destroying it; but the spoils of that church would not prove to be very attractive plunder. If the present application were simply for the benefit of extending religious instruction, or for the specific purpose of extending it to a large portion of the people of Scotland, he meant the seceders, he should not object to a Parliamentary grant to facilitate the attainment of such an object. Religious instruction ought to be given to every person. Every man was entitled to a Christian education, based on religious and moral principles; and every man who was unable to obtain it by his own means, ought to have it at the public expense. He did not mean to say that the House of Commons should go to the extent which they were called on by the petitioners to do, without being previously satisfied that the money to be advanced was required for the public good. When the case should have been established—as no doubt it would be—the Parliament of Great Britain would, surely, never refuse the means of extending religious instruction to the poorer classes, for whom it was as much intended as for the rich.

Major Cumming Bruce

rose to entreat the indulgence of the House, and in particular, to request the attention of the hon. Gentleman, the Member for Falkirk, while he alluded to the discussion which had taken place in the House on Wednesday last, on the presentation of a number of petitions relative to the Church of Scotland. He should do so as shortly as possible. The hon. Member, on presenting some petitions on the same subject, before the recess, had indulged in observations by which a distinguished and estimable clergyman of that Church, considered himself, and the body of men to which he belonged, deeply aggrieved. He had remonstrated by letter with the hon. Member, and after explaining to him in what respect he considered his statements erroneous or unfounded, had called on the hon. Member to acknowledge in his place in Parliament, that he had been misinformed and led into error, as the fair and candid and direct way of counteracting the injurious tendency of his grievous observations. The clergyman to whom he alluded was Mr. Buchan, the minister of Hamilton, who had every right to expect that confidence would have been placed in any statements for the accuracy of which he vouched; for in the correspondence which had taken place between them, and which had since been published, the hon. Member thus expressed himself of Mr. Buchan,—"I have, when in Hamilton, heard of your zeal in diffusing the Gospel, and truth compels me to declare, that had there been more clergymen of the Establishment as zealous as yourself, there would have been fewer Dissenters." Notwithstanding this favorable opinion, the hon. Member, though, in the correspondence alluded to, he professed his willingness to acknowledge that he had to a certain extent mis-stated the circumstances on which his observations were founded, declined to make that full retraction of his injurious charges to which Mr. Buchan considered himself and his brother clergymen, and the cause in which they were engaged, entitled; and Mr. Buchan had in consequence written to him on the subject, requesting that if the hon. Member persevered in refusing what he considered a claim of strict justice, he would endeavour to explain to the House and the public, the real facts of the case. Mr. Buchan felt that this was all that was necessary to his triumphant vindication. He (Major C. Bruce) had indulged the hope that the hon. Member, would on reflection, have felt himself called upon to accede to the request of the reverend Gentleman in its fullest extent; but the hon. Member having thought fit to reiterate his charges, and, as it appeared to him with considerable aggravation, he (Major C. Bruce) considered himself called on, however reluctantly, by a sense of public duty, and of what was due to a respectable and estimable individual, to state, as briefly as possible, the real circumstances of the case, according to the information which had been furnished him—information on which he relied, and which appeared to him to be confirmed by the facts themselves. He was not in the House when the hon. Member, on Wednesday last, presented certain petitions against the present claim of the Church for the means of extending the sphere of her usefulness, and did not hear the observations with which the hon. Member had prefaced the presentation of them. He had, however, heard the few words which fell from the hon. Member at the close of that discussion, in which he specified a number of places at which, he said, the most improper, and unfair, and oppressive means had been used to obtain signatures to petitions in favour of the Church—so far confirming part of the charges of which Mr. Buchan complained. Anxious to know what the hon. Member might have stated in his first speech in allusion to those charges generally, he had looked over the different papers which professed to give a report of the proceedings of that House. With one exception, they were entirely silent as to the first observations of the hon. Member: no word of abridgment, however short, made to them the slightest allusion; and had he found that there was no exception to that silence, he should have been content to have allowed the matter to rest, relying that the speech of the hon. Member complained of before the recess was by this time gone to repose in the "Tomb of all the Capulets." But in looking at the Courier newspaper, a journal which had deservedly a great circulation in Scotland, as containing the fullest and most accurate reports of all their proceedings relative to Scotland, he found that ample justice had been done to the hon. Member, and that the ingenious reporter, by blending the first speech, which he had not heard, with the last, which he had, into one connected and harmonious whole, had produced an oration which occupied a whole closely printed column. That column he had thought it his duty to read; and in it, as he had stated, he found nearly all the statements of which Mr. Buchan complained reiterated and with aggravation. Now, the charges complained of were of a very serious nature; if true, highly disgraceful to the parties implicated, and such as, if allowed to pass uncontradicted, would naturally excite a strong prejudice against the claim now made by the Church. He, therefore, trusted the House would indulge him while he attempted to refute and remove them, as he trusted he could shortly do: they were threefold—First, in the particular case of Hamilton, with which, as representing that town, the hon. Member professed himself to be particularly well acquainted, it was stated that, in a circular issued by the Committee of the General Assembly in June last, professing to give an account of the Church-accommodation in Hamilton, they had entirely omitted one Church in connexion with the Establishment in their calculation—Next that, there and elsewhere they had purposely and knowingly kept out of view the Church-accommodation in the places of worship of the Dissenters—and, lastly, that every sort of improper means had been used to get up petitions in favour of the Church, and every sort of deception recommended and practised to swell the amount of the signatures attached to those petitions. Now, with regard to the first charge, Mr. Buchan distinctly stated, that at the time the circular of the Assembly's Committee was issued, the Church in question was not in existence. The hon. Member, as reported in the Courier, admitted that in so far his previous statement was erroneous; but instead of a candid and explicit avowal and retraction of his error, he asserted that the authors of the circular knew, or should have known, that it was in contemplation, and that in failing to mention, in a document purporting to give the actual Church room this prospective increase, they were in fact attempting to deceive the public. Mr. Buchan distinctly stated that the authors of the circular were in absolute ignorance of the fact that such increase was contemplated, and that there were circumstances which rendered it impossible for them to know it. So much for that first charge—he might say ex uno disce omnes. Then as to the second charge, that the General Assembly's Committee intended to mislead the public by suppressing the amount of Church-accommodation furnished by the Dissenters, it might be sufficient to state that the circular referred to, professed to give an account of the accommodation in the Established Churches only; but he conceived he could prove to the House, and even to the satisfaction of the hon. Member for Falkirk, that no concealment was for an instant, intended.—Why, concealment was impossible, for the existence of such accommodation to a considerable extent was notorious. But the hon. Member was not entitled to assume, as he had done, that all the room in the Dissenting places of worship in Hamilton, was applicable to the limited population of that town, because he had been made aware that there, as elsewhere, the Dissenting congregations were gathered from several parishes adjoining the place of worship, and any account which, did not refer to this circumstance in comparing the amount of such accommoda- tion with the population of a particular parish, was partial and calculated to mislead. But let the House look at the questions put by the Assembly's circular in June last. The second asks "how many places of worship are there in your parish, and to what denomination of worshippers do they respectively belong?" Did this show a desire to conceal their existence? But he would read one of the replies to that circular, which would show that those to whom it was addressed were at all events not participant in the intention to mislead the public. No. 2 of these replies was in the following words:—"There are the parish kirk, a chapel in Airdrie, and four Dissenting meeting houses in Airdrie, two of which belong to the New-Light burghers, one to the Old-Light, and one to the Cameronians." It goes on to state that the congregations in the Dissenting meeting houses in Airdrie are composed of people from the surrounding parishes. "Were they all well filled, they might contain among them 2,000 sitters, but several among them are very poorly attended." So far from seeking to suppress the facts as regarded the Dissenting Church-accommodation, the Clergy of the Church have been forward to acknowledge and point out the extent to which the dissent had supplied the deficiency complained of. In a pamphlet, published by Dr. Chalmers, whose name is a sufficient guarantee against intentional incorrectness, entitled "Specimens of Ecclesiastical Destitution in Scotland," is a table exhibiting the results of the inquiries made in reply to the Assembly's circular. The table includes expressly the number of seats rented in the chapels of all denominations of Dissenters, and the following inference is drawn from those results. Dr. Chalmers says, "Our second inference respects the amount of contribution made by the Establishment, and by Dissenters, respectively, to the amount of Christian education in any given district. For example, in district No. 27 there is a population of 253, with twenty sittings, or less than one in twelve upon the whole. Of these seven belong to the Establishment and thirteen to the Dissenters. Take away the Dissenting seat-holders, and the proportion is reduced to one in thirty-six." Now, was there the shadow of a foundation for the charge made by the hon. Member against the Church when he said that the amount of accommodation furnished by the Dissenters, or the actual good done by them in the cause of religious education, was kept out of view? There remained the last accusation relative to the improper means used to obtain signatures to petitions favourable to the Church. The hon. Member had reiterated this charge. On examination he believed it would prove as destitute of foundation as the other two charges. Mr. Buchan indignantly denies its having any truth in his own parish, or, as far as his knowledge extended, in any other; and the hon. Member was in fairness bound to have stated that denial, which as reported in the Courier, he had omitted to do. His own belief was, that the hon. Member, who was incapable of intentional misrepresentation, had been grossly deceived. He was professedly a collector of grievances, and like the collectors of other curiosities, he was likely to be imposed on. He believed his curiosities were genuine; he would not knowingly even exaggerate their value; but then he always looked at them through coloured spectacles, and his powers of vision, enfeebled by too constant exercise, had come to require immense magnifiers. As far as his (Major Bruce's) own experience went he could confirm, in the fullest manner, the denial of Mr. Buchan. He had presented a number of petitions in support of the Church—he had examined the signatures attached to them; in general the designation and residence of the individuals were attached to the names, and proved them to be highly respectable; and there were no names of children or of women, as he was informed, which was one of the charges of the hon. Member; though in such a matter, he did not see why women should be precluded from signing such petitions. But could no charges of improper practices and undue means, be brought against the petitions adverse to the Church. It was, indeed, not worth while to bring them, because a question of this kind should not be decided by the number of signatures for or against it, but by the reason and justice of the case made out. But as the friends of the Church were taunted in this way, what was the case with the Edinburgh petition, the monstre-proces, he might call it, presented on Wednesday by the hon. and learned Attorney-General? Why, he was in Edinburgh at the time, and saw the streets placarded with invitations to the people, "to make haste and sign the petition against new taxes in support of the Church,"—and the whole radical army of placard-bearers was in motion, to the great hindrance of the lieges, groaning beneath the weight of the standards and banners of that unholy and disgraceful warfare. In other places, in Nairn and Forres, as he was informed, petitions against the Church, purporting to come from those towns, had been hawked about through all the surrounding parishes in the country, and lads dragged in on market days from the streets, and, indeed, in a state of half intoxication, to sign them. It made one sick and sorry to see the miserable shifts to which the enemies of the Church had recourse, to obstruct the fair claims of the humbler classes from being properly considered—and still more was it to be deplored, that learned and hon. Gentlemen should lend the sanction of their great names to keep up and foster the delusion. As to the assertion which seemed to weigh so much with the hon. Member for Kilmarnock, that the petitions for an increased grant did not emanate from public meetings, was it to be contended, that no petition was deserving of attention, which did not originate in that way? But, in the first place, it was not true that these petitions did not, in several instances, emanate from very numerous meetings. He had attended one such in Edinburgh, where the objects of petitions favourable to the Church, were received with unanimous and marked enthusiasm. No petition was proposed, because the gentlemen who took the lead at that meeting, were aware that petitions were contemplated, or in actual course of signature in the different parishes of the city, and they were unwilling to originate a petition which might be signed by parties who might have signed, or be called on to sign, similar petitions in other places. Was there anything like deception in this? Was it not in the highest degree fair and honourable? He had also attended a public meeting at Forres, where the subject was fully discussed, and the object unanimously approved of; and he had, as a consequence, presented a petition, numerously signed, from that place. At Glasgow a similar meeting had been held, on a requisition signed by about 1,000 persons. One had but to look at the names attached to that requisition, to see that the wealth and respectability of Glasgow, was heart and soul favourable to this great and good object; and yet hon. Members had ventured to talk of hole and corner meetings. In extensive country parishes, to be sure, and where the mere extent proved the reasonableness of such petitions, it was absurd to expect that people should waste their time in travelling to attend public meetings. There they had no popularity to hunt after—no agitation to promote. He had presented a petition from a parish sixty miles long by twenty-five broad; it contained, scattered over this extent of muir and mountain, a population of 8,000 souls. Would the hon. Member, the friend of civil and religious liberty all the world over, deny to these 8,000 persons the right by petition to make their wants and wishes known to this House? He had presented another from the island parish of South Uist, extending forty miles in length, by twenty-four in breadth, intersected by lakes and arms of the sea. Was a public meeting to be expected there? Why, the day fixed might happen to be tempestuous, and even the practised voice of the hon. Member might be drowned amid the roaring of the waves, and the moaning of the tempest, on those wild and storm-beaten shores; but was that a reason why we should aggravate the geographical infelicities of their position, by telling them that because it was inconvenient, or dangerous, or impossible for them to indulge in public meetings, that, therefore, their petitions should not be held entitled to as much attention, as those of the carters of Tranent, or the nailers of Carron and Falkirk? The House, he was sure, would not sanction any such injustice. It would receive and consider the petitions of all classes of the people, and deal with them in a dispassionate and enlightened spirit, in the way which it judged best calculated to promote the general interests of the empire. He begged pardon for having trespassed so long on the attention of the House. He had carefully abstained from touching the general question involved in the petitions he held in his hand from Nairn, Avoch, and Brimisgarry, in support of the Church, but he thought that when the question did come before the House, some time even would be saved by his thus endeavouring to clear away some of the rubbish with which it had been sought to encumber the plain ground on which so important a matter should stand before the House.

Petitions laid on the Table.

Mr. Gillon

Having been personally alluded to by the hon. Gentleman, the House would, he was sure, allow him the opportunity of explaining. In presenting some petitions against any additional grant for the Church of Scotland, he did make certain statements with respect to the rev. Mr. Buchan, which, in some respects, were misrepresentations. He had been led into an error, when he asserted that the Church alluded to, as being in connexion with the Establishment, had been purposely kept out of view. It was at that time unfinished, but it was now so far completed, as to be sufficient for the accommodation of 640 persons, while the galleries were calculated to hold 400 or 500 more. The second charge he had made was, that the Committee of the General Assembly had purposely and knowingly kept out of view the places of accommodation provided by the Dissenters of Hamilton. It appeared that, in Edinburgh, although there might be a deficiency in the Church accommodation, strictly speaking—yet, that when the actual accommodation afforded by the Dissenters, was taken into the account, there was a surplus of accommodation. It also appeared, from a statement of the Church accommodation in several towns, among which Hamilton was included, that, at the latter place—although there was a deficiency of accommodation, if the dissenting places of worship be left out of the account—yet, being included, there was, as at Edinburgh, a surplus. With respect to his third charge—that improper means had been used to get up petitions in favour of the Church—he merely repeated what was stated to him, on most respectable authority—namely, that in the great majority of the towns much misrepresentation had been made use of, in order to obtain signatures to these petitions. In one case, in a parish in the town of Dumfries, sixteen individuals stated, in a petition to the House, that they had been misled in being induced to sign a petition in favour of additional endowment to the Church of Scotland; and that they had since signed a counter-petition. He was responsible for these statements, and would produce his authority, if called upon. With respect to what the hon. Gentleman had said as to the rev. Mr. Buchan, he was ready to believe that he deserved credit for his zeal in the discharge of his duties. As to what the hon. Gentleman had said respecting the means resorted to, in Edinburgh, in order to obtain petitions against the grant; surely, if the people felt themselves aggrieved by the proposition, to impose new taxes for the enlargement of the Church accommodation, they were right in resorting to whatever fair and legitimate means were within their reach, in order to obtain signatures to petitions, against what they conceived to be a scandalous act of injustice. It was said that 7,000,000l. or 8,000,000l. will be necessary to accomplish the object, and he could not think that they were very wrong who went upon that calculation; for, if the intended measure was carried into effect to the extent desired by some of the petitioners, less than 800 Churches could not be required; and they could not be erected under that enormous sum. Certainly parties differed as to the amount. When the Tories were in office, the demand, which was formerly 5,000l. a-year, was increased; to what amount it might have been increased, had that state of things continued, he could not tell—but they now asked for 8,000l. a-year—to be gradually increased. He protested against the rank injustice to the public and to the Dissenters, which was implied in the grant of this money. He had yet to learn that the Church of Scotland had increased in usefulness. He had always considered that the voluntary system was the great advantage of the Church of Scotland. It was in full operation, as was evidenced by the fact, that even the poorest classes subscribed to the maintenance of the ministry. He had yet to learn, moreover, that there was any ground for providing any additional Churches, where there was already sufficient accommodation. It was not by such means that the influence of religion would be advanced in Scotland. In the Highlands there was, in many places, a deficiency of accommodation; but, such was the nature of the country, and so situated were the population, that unless there were to be a chapel in every farm-house, full and universal accommodation could not be provided. Such, however, was the zeal of the people of Scotland, that they came forward, of their own accord, with money for all these purposes. The right hon. and learned Member for Kirkcudbright, the most liberal of the Members who had spoken on the other side of the Question, had expressed an opinion to the effect, that the Dissenters, also, would be entitled to benefit by the interference of the House; but the Dissenters of Scotland did not wish for any such intervention. They were ready to come forward, according to their means, with the funds necessary for the diffusion of the Gospel; and it was much better that there should be a generous rivalry between them and the Establishment, than that either should come down to the House with petitions for money. It had been said that the object of the Establishment was to undersell the Dissenters in the market. What would the House think of a company of fishmongers who undersell other salesmen with the money of the public? He would like to see competition, but not with the public money.