HC Deb 25 July 1845 vol 82 cc1090-8
Mr. P. M. Stewart

rose, pursuant to notice, to call the attention of the House to the petition of the Rev. Patrick Macfarlan, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland (presented June 24), complaining of the refusal of sites to congregations of that Church. He stated that the petitioners represented that the General Assembly of the Free Church had the spiritual guidance of one-third of the population of Scotland; that 470 of the clergy of the Church of Scotland had left it for the Free Church, which now had 620 clergy and 800 congregations; that 726,000l. had been subscribed for the general purposes of the separation, of which 300,000l. had been appropriated to the building of churches. They further stated that the landlords refused to allow them to purchase sites for their churches. Owing to the land being in large quantities in few hands, this refusal operated as a great hardship upon them. The congregations had no place in which to meet for worship, so that they were obliged to go into the high roads or under the hedges to perform their devotions. All that the petitioners wanted was permission to purchase land for sites for their churches at a fair and equitable price, but this was refused to them. The hon. Member proceeded to mention some cases where the refusal of sites had operated as a hardship on congregations. In one place in Ross-shire, where the parish occupied an area of twenty miles, such was the spiritual destitution of a portion of the district, that the Government had gone to the expense of erecting a church. There was a case in point in a locality which must be known to the right hon. Baronet (Sir J. Graham), namely, Canoby; he felt certain, however, that the right hon. Baronet would never have been the author of such sufferings. The congregation consisted of 500 people, all of whom had been compelled to betake themselves to the high road in order to engage in religious worship. The hon. Member read a letter from the Rev. Mr. Guthrie, the minister of the congregation, who stated that the most sacred ordinances of religion had been dispensed in the open air; and that he had seen 500 persons at once, who, in consequence of exposure to sleet and snow, were as wet as if they had been dragged through the river Esk, which rolled at their feet. There were three men in particular, it was alleged, whose countenances bore the stamp of death; and indeed the weather was bad enough to hurry them to that place "where the wicked cease from troubling, and where the weary are at rest." Such were the sad statistics of many parishes and of thousands of parishioners in Scotland at this moment. It was only justice to those who were the proprietors of the districts where such scenes occurred, to suppose that they did not know the full extent of the miseries endured, for otherwise the remedy sought would surely come from them. He trusted that the House, the Government, and the proprietors, would assist in bringing about a better state of things. Viewing the matter simply as one of temporal policy, if districts twenty miles square in extent grew disorganized in consequence of the people not being able to attend church as they bad formerly done, what but calamity could be the result? He might refer to the city of Westminster as affording an illustration of what he meant. The House might not be aware that they were sitting at that moment in one of the most dark and destitute portions of the metropolis. It was, however, proved by statistics which had been verified, that the greatest evils had arisen in the parishes of St. John and St. Margaret, Westminster, from a State of things, unopposed, similar to that which then existed in many parts of Scotland. Were the Government aware that in those two parishes, for a population of 56,000 persons, there were sittings in the Established Church for only 7,000, and in the Dissenting chapels for 6,000, making altogether 13,000 sittings, of which 5,000 were never occupied? The obstacles to the Dissenters procuring building leases were so formidable that they could not obtain sites for chapels without incurring very great expense. Although the Dean and Chapter of these parishes received upwards of 30,000l. a year, they did not instruct daily as many as 3,000 souls out of a population of 56,000. There was a clause in their leases precisely similar to that with which they were threatened in Scotland, against the erection of any Dissenting place of worship, or the use of any tenement for Dissenting purposes. Freeholds were only to be obtained at very great cost. Within the last fortnight it had been ascertained by a city missionary, that there were 2,000 families, including a population of 10,000 souls, unpossessed of a single page of the Scriptures. Thousands of the children were uneducated; poverty, wretchedness, irreligion, and crime abounded; and he had been assured that day, by a most benevolent individual who strove to relieve this mass of misery, that such was the demoralized condition of the district, owing to the slumbering state of the Church and the exclusion of Dissenting aid, that there were various places where they would not be even personally safe. He merely mentioned this as an illustration of the effect of not giving a fair field to all denominations. Two Sundays ago there were 600 shops open in Westminster between the hours of nine and eleven in the morning, 200 of which were public houses. It must be remembered, too, that the leases which positively excluded Dissenting places of worship, contained no prohibitory clause against houses for immoral purposes; and there were, in fact, upwards of 130 such houses under the very eye of the Dean and Chapter themselves. Now, such, he repeated, was the state of things with which they were threatened in Scotland. The only reason which he could imagine as influencing those who refused to grant sites, was the expectation of a change in the feelings of the people; but to talk of change in a matter of that kind was proved by the history of Scotland to be absurd. He would recommend the Government to look at public opinion on this subject. As a Scotchman, he naturally felt warm and indignant on such a topic; but he would quote the opinion of two persons who might be in a better position to pronounce a judgment. The first was that of a distinguished East Indian friend of his, who had been engaged in the late glorious transactions in Cabul. That gentleman sai he could hardly believe the facts which were alleged. In the Punjaub, the Sikhs, who were a sort of degenerate Hindoos, although they hated the Mussulmans, allowed them to build mosques in every part of the country; and in Cabul itself, which was the focus of Mahomedanism, there were Hindoo chapels. Toleration prevailed to such an extent that those who hated each other most cordially, did not prevent the erection of temples by their adversaries for religious worship. The second opinion to which he would refer was that of M. Merle D'Aubigné, who having recently visited this country, was now on his way to Switzerland. In writing to Dr. Chalmers, M. D'Aubigné said— I will tell you frankly, dear and venerable brother, that this refusal of sites is, perhaps, the only painful impression which I carry away from Scotland. A foreigner comes into a land as into that of the gospel and liberty; and he sees there, things which are not to be met with under the most despotic Government of the Continent. How can this denial of religious liberty accord with the national character of Scotland? Such was the view taken of this matter by the historian of the Protestant Reformation. But he would not enter further into this painful subject. He had been asked why he brought this matter before Parliament? The General Assembly of the Free Church would not have come there had they not exhausted every other means of obtaining shelter and protection for those under their care. They came to that House as the guardians and representatives of the sufferers. He hoped that the result would be that the thousands and tens of thousands whom they represented would not be again exposed to the miseries which they had heretofore endured; but would be admitted to the free enjoyment of that toleration which was once a great element and a bright ornament of the Constitution under which they lived.

Sir J. Graham

said: The hon. Gentleman who has just sat down has rightly designated this subject as a painful one; and I cannot say that I think the hon. Gentleman at all to blame for calling our attention to it. It is quite clear that it is a subject on which legislation is not possible—one with which public opinion is alone competent to deal. The hon. Gentleman has mentioned certain facts with reference to the parishes of St. Margaret and St. John, in this immediate vicinity, showing that there is great spiritual destitution, great want of religious instruction in the district. I have not the means either of verifying or of contradicting his assertions; I can only express my deep regret if the statements are well founded, and my earnest desire that, in that case, a speedy remedy may be provided for evils so injurious to the welfare of society. I now apply myself to the subject matter of this petition. I am sure the hon. Gentleman and the House will do me the justice to remember that upon no occasion when the subject of the recent disruption of the Church of Scotland has been brought under our consideration, have I failed to express my heartfelt and deep regret at an event which I consider most deplorable, and which has made a fatal inroad upon the happiness and peace of that country. I deplore what has occurred as deeply and as earnestly as it is possible to lament any public event. I cannot but bear in mind that the great body of proprietors in Scotland are Episcopalian, and that there has never been on the part of the authorities of the Presbyterian Church before the disruption took place, any jealousy of Episcopalians, or any wish that they should not enjoy the utmost toleration in the exercise of their religion. I quite concur in the sentiment contained in this petition, that the meanest peasant in the country is equally entitled to all the benefits of toleration, and to the free exercise of his religion, without let or hindrance, with the proudest, the richest, and the most extensive proprietor. I must also mention another circumstance adverted to in this petition, which is, I think, very important. I mean the circumstance that this dissent, fatal and extensive as unhappily it is, after all, arises not from any difference with respect to the fundamentals or essentials of the Christian faith, but from a difference with respect to a matter of discipline, which, though important indeed in itself, is, as compared with doctrine, light as dust in the balance. Having expressed my opinion on these two preliminary points, I will own to the hon. Gentleman and to the House, that I have not been careful to examine the particular facts set forth in this petition with respect to the refusal of sites. I know not whether there has been any exaggeration in this petition; but I do fear that, in the heat, and, perhaps, I might add, the anger consequent on so sudden a breach in so great an establishment, there may have been, as the first not unnatural effect of such a disruption, a refusal in many cases to grant sites where, perhaps, a strict justification of that refusal might be difficult. But I must say, I do not think the blame is exclusively on one side; for, though, on the one hand, I cannot think that such a state of things as the hon. Member has described can, in a Christian country and in the present age be justified; on the other hand, many landlords have been publicly assailed, in the midst of the sacred ordinances of religion, with the most unseemly rancour; and, of course, in consequence of these attacks, their feelings have been excited to exasperation. But when it is remembered, that the cause of quarrel leading to these fatal results was originally light and trivial—trivial, I say, when compared with matters of faith and doctrine—hopes might have been entertained that the disruption might not have been permanent, and that the differences were capable of adjustment; but these hopes in the lapse of time have vanished; and, as these hopes have vanished, the necessity for toleration becomes greater; and it might have been expected by those who have gone out of the Establishment, that this indisposition to grant sites for places of worship would have passed away. However, the petition acknowledges that sites have already been granted in cases where they had been refused before. The evil, therefore, of itself is passing away. Of this petition I must say this, that the prayer is most reasonable. It states what is the desire of the petitioners. The petitioners desire that they may be at liberty to purchase sites for their churches, in order that their congregations may assemble together for divine worship in circumstances of decent comfort, without let or hindrance. Now, I must say, that if I were a Scotch proprietor I should feel disposed to grant this request. But I am bound in justice to state, that that is not the request which has been made in many cases to the Scotch proprietors. The demand has been made to obtain sites for the seceding Church in immediate proximity to the Church of the Establishment, for the purpose of ostentatious rivalry. Now if I were a Scotch proprietor, friendly to the Establishment, I could not grant that request. I should endeavour to restrain that spirit of hostility in its most offensive form, which seeks to place the Secession Church opposite to the Established Church; and I must say, I believe that sites offered with a view to general convenience have been refused, and it has been said, "We will have our sites close to the Established Church;" and if that was the claim, I say again, I, as a Scotch proprietor, should resist; but I am not a Scotch proprietor, and in what I am stating I should be very sorry to be supposed to speak in an angry spirit to the members of the Secession. Something has been said with respect to one of my Colleagues, the Lord Privy Seal. Now, I am sure that there is not a kinder, a more generous, or more noble person; and I know by experience that he is desirous, in all his decisions respecting his property, to do what is satisfactory to his neighbours. With respect to another of my Colleagues against whom the tide of religious dissent has set with violence—I mean Lord Aberdeen—I can only say, that within six weeks of the secession having taken place, and when hopes of reconciliation were no longer rational, my noble Friend did provide a site for one of these churches on his estate, without difficulty, and offered it in a manner most satisfactory to all; and this was the first site, I believe, that was granted in Scotland to the Secession Church by any landed proprietor. On the whole, I think each case must be decided with reference to its own peculiar circumstances—with reference to the number of Dissenters in the parish, and in some degree also with reference to the facilities for attending places of worship in the neighbourhood. Speaking generally, the prayer of this petition, I think, is reasonable; and although I am afraid the hope of a return to the Establishment is diminishing, still, taking all circumstances conjointly, I entertain the most sanguine hope that there will be no ground of complaint against the Scotch proprietors in future on account of the refusal of sites. I hope the hon. Gentleman will have no cause to regret having introduced this discussion, and I should be very glad that anything falling from me should have the happy effect of diminishing irritation on this subject. I cannot hope that reconciliation is any longer possible; but I do hope and expect that toleration will be practised, and every facility for public worship be afforded by the landed proprietors of Scotland to their dissenting brethren and neighbours.

Mr. Hawes

held in his hand a pamphlet containing statements of the most painful and humiliating character, in reference to the refusal of sites; but it did not appear that any of the proprietors who refused sites assigned the reason given by the right hon. Baronet. On the contrary, the factor or agent of the proprietor assumed to himself the right of fixing the place in which the church should be built, and in many cases sites were granted for Roman Catholic Chapels, while they were refused for the Free Church of Scotland. A petition from the people of Eigg, addressed to the proprietors, and worded in the most simple and touching manner, was answered by a long communication filled with cold and unpitying sarcasm, and denying their request. He thought it would be productive of great mischief to exasperate by such refusals the minds of the people of Scotland.

Mr. Cardwell

thought it his duty to vindicate the character of Dr. M'Pherson, the principal landed proprietor on the Island of Eigg, from the charge of religious intolerance; such feelings were wholly alien from his character. There were circumstances which rendered him unwilling to grant a site, but the unwillingness did not arise from religious intolerance.

Mr. Hume

expressed himself highly gratified with the statement of the right hon. Baronet, and hoped that ere long religious rancour and hostility would be entirely done away with in Scotland.

Mr. Sheil

understood from some of his Scotch Friends that the Seceders in Scotland were rapidly becoming the majority. It was incumbent on the Government to guard against the growth of disaffection among them. The Government should take into consideration whether it was not far wiser to prevent in time the great calamity which was impending over Scotland, and, instead of relying on the discretion, or, he should rather say, the caprice of individual proprietors, to take measures for providing for the religious worship of the majority of the Scottish people, and to attach them to the Slate by honourable bonds. If the regium donum were given to the Presbyterians of Ireland, it seemed to him anomalous to withhold a similar grant from the Free Church. The Government should make terms of the most satisfactory kind with the Scotch. He believed the Scotch Church did not refuse endowments. It might, perhaps, be considered indecorous in him to meddle with what was going on in Scotland; but he had seen so many disasters in his own country, arising from the alienation of the Church from the State, that he thought the Government should adopt some such expedient in reference to the Free Church as that he had mentioned. If houses and chapels were to be built for Roman Cathiolc priests, it was not right to allow the members of the Free Church to remain in a condition which excited feelings of religious rancour between them and the proprietors.

Mr. Pringle

said, the statements of his hon. Friend, the Member for Renfrewshire were entirely ex parte. The proprietors of land referred to, had strong reasons for refusing the sites required. The secession had not been near so numerous as had been stated. He would caution the House not to give any credit to ex parte statements on this subject.

M. Hindley

expressed his satisfaction at the separation that had taken place between the Free Church and the Established Church in Scotland. He thought that the results of that separation showed the power of the voluntary principle. He was glad to see the extension of the voluntary principle as well as its complete success, and he wished to see that principle extend to all parts of the United Kingdom. He regretted that some individuals had interfered in an unsatisfactory manner with respect to the Free Church. He was happy to say, that even in Westminster, schools in connexion with the voluntary principle were in a flourishing condition, and gave an excellent education to a large number of children. He was anxious to see the extension of the voluntary principle.

Mr. Borthwick

said, that when so much was stated with respect to the voluntary principle in educating the poor, the exertions of the Established Church ought not to be overlooked with respect to a question of this kind. He had taken a great interest in this subject, and had seen the useful and advantageous education which was given by the Established Church to the poor of this country. He regretted that any observations should have been made respecting the conduct which certain noble Lords had pursued on this subject. He thought, after the public statements that had been made by those individuals, it would be impertinent for him to make any observations on the subject. He was sure, that the defence which had been made by those noble individuals would be found perfectly satisfactory to the public.

Discussion terminated.