The Society for Irish Church Missions to the Roman Catholics: Philanthropy or Bribery?

Article excerpt

The emergence of an Ireland where Roman Catholics had the right to participate in the electoral process on the same basis as Protestants (1829) and where Catholics had access to a state-funded elementary education system (1831) and even to a government-funded seminary at Maynooth (1795) engendered extreme horror and revulsion in many Protestants of England and Ireland. This consolidation and acceptance of a religion that some condemned as not scripturally based appalled many ultra-Protestants of Britain, who felt they could not stand idly by. The Fund for the Spiritual Exigencies of Ireland, founded in 1846 by Alexander Dallas, and a committee of clergy, London gentlemen, and English nobility came together formally in 1849 to establish the Society for Irish Church Missions to the Roman Catholics (henceforth ICM). It was centered in the evangelical wing of the Church of England, and its object was to convert the Roman Catholics of Ireland to what it held to be a scriptural faith. It perceived the Irish famine of 1845-47 not only as an opportunity to convert the Romanists of Ireland (1) but also as a judgment from God on Irish Roman Catholics for having stubbornly clung to their religion: "The truth of the Scriptures was verified in the groans of the dying, and their wails for the dead," (2) which the ICM saw as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy: "Son of man, when the land sinneth against me, by trespassing grievously, then will I stretch out mine hand upon it, and will break the staff of the bread thereof, and will send famine upon it, and will cut off man and beast from it" (Ezek. 14:13 KJV).

Potato Famine and British Anti-Catholicism

The ICM was in the right place at the right time. The already heightened anti-Catholic atmosphere of nineteenth-century Britain was augmented by the emigration to England of tens of thousands of illiterate Irish Roman Catholic peasants fleeing the famine; for Edward Bickersteth, it was "notorious that the poverty, idleness and vagrancies of the Irish are adding to the pecuniary burdens of our industrious classes." (3) It was suggested, however, that if these newcomers were converted to Protestantism, "an enlightened people will supply their place; and instead of demoralising the inhabitants of England, by the vices and deceptions of Romanism, and feeding the cravings of a vulture like priesthood, [they] will disseminate (if they are educated in Ireland in the truths and doctrines of vital Christianity) peace and goodwill amongst men." (4)

Other factors contributed to evangelical anti-Catholicism, from which the ICM drew its support. The emergence of a ritualist movement within Anglicanism, followed by the public conversion to Roman Catholicism of many of the Church of England's most able theologians, (5) coupled with the restoration of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England in 1850, brought together a pan-Protestant impetus to protect England, through the eradication of popery in Ireland, from Romish encroachment under any guise: "When you are thinking of the best method of repelling that aggression on our shores which has awakened so deep an interest in every Protestant breast and English heart ... the best method is to carry the war into the enemy's country," remarks by Alexander Dallas at an annual meeting of ICM that were greeted with applause" (6)

Besides fearing the spread of popery in England, many Protestants of the time eagerly awaited the second coming of Christ. Prophetic interpretations of the Scriptures stressed the urgent need to eliminate the Antichrist, then widely understood as referring to the Roman Catholic Church. Writings of many early committee members testify to this overwhelming conviction: "The time is perhaps close at hand, when the blast of the ram's horn, divinely placed at the lips of the Lord's people shall be heard, and then ... by the power of God, this wall of Jericho, the high wall of Romanism, shall fall flat down; and great will be the fall thereof! …


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