A Narrow Sea - Episode 33
‘Jet-black Prelatic Calumny’
Written by Dr Jonathan Bardon
The 1704 ‘Act to Prevent the Further Growth of Popery’ was by far the most comprehensive of a series of statutes depriving Catholics of their rights. After its passage, a senior judge observed:
The law does not suppose any such person to exist as an Irish Roman Catholic.
The 1704 Act also included penal legislation directed at Presbyterians.
Across Ireland, Presbyterians, nearly all of Scots origin, now almost certainly outnumbered Protestants of the Established Anglican Church - that is, the Church of Ireland.
Presbyterian congregations nearly doubled in number between 1689 and 1716. Because they were concentrated in Ulster, the authorities in Dublin feared their power. In addition, Queen Anne (succeeding her cousin King William) had come to the throne in 1702 and the ‘High Tories’ were in office in London (these aristocratic Conservatives were in favour of traditional institutions). Monarch and government were united in their determination to enforce conformity to the Anglican Church.
The 1704 ‘Popery Act’ restored the ‘sacramental test’: this stated that any person holding public office must produce a certificate that he had received the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper ‘according to the usage of the Church of Ireland…immediately after divine service and sermon’.
Since Catholics were already disqualified from public office by previous penal laws, this sacramental test was really directed at the Presbyterians, who now could no longer be members of municipal corporations or hold commissions in the Army or Militia.
Ulster Presbyterians were now in something of a quandary. They were outraged by the sacramental test but at the same time they heartily approved of the Popery Act. They found an ally in Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, who launched a fierce attack on the test. Defoe declared that since the Williamite War Ulster Presbyterians…
instead of being remembered to their honour have been ranked amongst the worst enemies of the Church, and chained to a Bill to prevent the further growth of Popery…Will any man in the world tell us that to divide Protestants is a way to prevent the further growth of Popery, when this united force is little enough to keep it down? This is like sinking the ship to drown the rats, or cutting off the foot to cure the corns.
Sure in the knowledge that Presbyterians would always rally to the Protestant cause in time of danger, the Church of Ireland continued to harass dissenters - that is those Protestants who were not Anglicans. Dr William Tisdall, Vicar of Belfast took the view that Presbyterians were more to be feared than the Catholics themselves and composed a pamphlet attacking them.
The citizens of Belfast, overwhelmingly Presbyterian, reacted by obstructing the vicar’s collection of ‘house-money’ to support his clergy. They also brought back their Presbyterian minister, John McBride, who had been forced to flee to Scotland in 1708 when Tisdall accused him of being a Jacobite. Tisdall was quite unable to suppress pamphlets he condemned as scurrilous, including John McBride’s denunciation of the vicar, entitled A Sample of Jet-black Prelatic Calumny.
On the 10th of December 1712 ten Presbyterian ministers and two Probationers drawn from all over Ulster gathered at Belturbet in County Cavan to set up a new congregation. Hearing of the meeting, the Dean of Kilmore in Cavan, Dr Jeremiah Marsh, rallied the local Anglicans -
‘to stop these pernicious designs… to pervert the people’.
The Ulster ministers were arrested and a county grand jury ruled that these Presbyterians were guilty of disturbing the peace. A couple of months later Robert Wodrow, an agent of the Scottish Presbyterians visiting Ulster congregations, reported:
I find our brethren there are in very ill circumstances. High church is rampant and flaming.
But events in Scotland suddenly brought an end to this persecution!
On the 16th of January 1707 the peers and commoners of the Estates, that is the Scottish Parliament, had voted in favour of a Union between Scotland and England. But this Union was deeply unpopular with large sections of the Scottish people.
Then, when Queen Anne died without an heir in 1714, George, Elector of Hanover, was invited to become the King of England. He was Anne’s closest living Protestant relative (Catholics being prohibited from inheriting the British throne under the sacramental test).
Enraged, Catholics in Scotland now called for Anne’s Catholic half brother – the son of the deposed James II – to be recognised as James III.
In 1715, led by the Earl of Mar, Scottish Highlanders rose in furious revolt in support of James. Ten thousand Jacobites swept south but on the 13th of November they were halted at Sheriffmuir by troops under the command of the Duke of Argyll. The Jacobite rebellion in Scotland was effectively over.
It was all over when James, later known as the Old Pretender, disembarked at Peterhead from a French vessel on the 22nd of December. He sailed away a few weeks later.
Meanwhile, Ulster Presbyterians had unhesitatingly stood by their Protestant King, George I. For their loyalty they were rewarded by an ‘Act of Toleration’ in 1719. Yet Catholics, collectively branded as Jacobites, continued to be oppressed by the Penal Laws.