The Presbyterian Church in Douglas, Isle of Man
A Neglected Chapter
There are two main published sources, known to me, which provide information about this congregation.
The one is a booklet entitled, The First Century of Presbyterianism in Douglas, Isle of Man, 1825-1925. The method adopted by the researchers and authors of this material as laid out in the foreword of the booklet seems impeccable: “The credit for this booklet is very largely due to Mr. J. B. Whyte, one of the managers of the Church. He has been indefatigable in research amongst ancient letters and documents and has pored over the dusty volumes of old minute books. He has interviewed everyone on the Island and the Mainland whom he thought could throw light on the obscure points, and has written to people far and near for information. The result of this praiseworthy diligence is a mass of valuable material which has been sifted, systematized, and cast into the following mould by the Rev. John Davidson, and Mr. Cuthbertson, Deputy Town Clerk of Douglas, for thirty-five years Treasurer of the Church, and for thirty-three years Session Clerk. Mr. Davidson is responsible for the period between 1825 and 1895.” This brief work tends to focus attention on the lives of the ministers who served in the church. For ease of reference we shall refer to this booklet as “Cuthbertson”.
The other printed source of information is a paper entitled Presbyterianism in the Isle of Man, by Rev. John Davidson, published in The Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society of England, p.186. The part of this paper referring to the church in Douglas also gives prominence to the lives of the ministers settled there. For ease of reference we shall refer to this source as “Davidson”.
Both these accounts tell the same story regarding the origin of the Presbyterian work there. They give special place to the initiative of James McCrone. He was a Scot, and amongst other things, agent for Duke John, 4th Duke of Atholl who was governor of the Isle of Man. McCrone, it is said, worshipped in an Independent congregation whose minister was another Scot by the name of Samuel Haining, but McCrone separated from that congregation when there was some disagreement. He called out the other Presbyterians there and founded the Presbyterian congregation. McCrone, according to Cuthbertson was, “the founder, and, we might say, the patron saint of our church during the first fifteen years of its existence”.
This article develops the thesis that this description of the situation needs adjusted. It needs to take into consideration the facts that there had been earlier attempts to conduct a Presbyterian Church there and that these efforts had not been entirely unsuccessful; and that there was in fact a Presbyterian Church in existence in Douglas some years before the 1825 date normally given for the founding of the Church. It also raises questions about the accuracy of certain aspects of the standard account as contained in Cuthbertson and Davidson.
In the beginning
On 26th August, 1763, an address was directed by six Scots to the Duke of Atholl, who was the hereditary lord of the Isle:
“We your Grace’s most humble & faithful servants of the Presbyterian persuasion residing in this town and other parts of this Island, do hereby with becoming submission signify to your Grace ; that we have long had thought of having a Clergyman of that profession among us; and to accomplish the design, after entering into articles of agreement among ourselves for his subsistence, we apply’d to certain friends in Scotland, for such a Preacher as they should think proper, and could recommend for our Minister in the Work of the Gospel: as this request has been granted to our entire satisfaction, nothing is now wanting to compleat what we have for a long time so much wished for but your Grace’s most gracious indulgence & consent.
“We entertain the greater hopes of your Grace’s concurrence in this matter, as it would be indulging us in the principles in which we were early educated; as we have always lived (and determine to live) in the warmest amity with the members of the established Church; and as not the smallest opposition seems to be made to our design, by any office bearer (civil or sacred) under your Grace, in this Isle: In short as your Grace will easily forsee, that, in the ordinary course of things, no bad consequence whatever can flow from this scheme; we humbly hope and sincerely beg, that your Grace may be pleased to permit our introducing a Presbyterian Clergyman into this Island.”
This address is found in the Isle of Man Archives: Atholl Papers, AP X17-15.
This was forwarded to Humphrey Harrison, the Duke of Atholl’s agent, by Basil Cochrane, brother of Thomas Cochrane, 8th Earl of Dundonald, and a former governor of the Isle of Man. With it, Basil Cochrane sent a covering letter dated 29th September, 1763, in which he suggests that the address should be ignored: the request was a “foolish scheme” that “will not subsist long” (MS 09707/2/841) .
They seem to have got a minister for a short time but this was followed by a vacancy of 23 years. They called another minister in 1788 and about that time they make another Address to the Duke of Atholl:
“The Memorial of the Members of the Scotch Presbyterian Church in Douglas
“That your memoralists, influenced by their attachment to the principles and establishment of the Church of Scotland, and with zeal to promote mutually their Interests as Brethren, and to discharge the Offices due to the community at large with credit to themselves and their country, they have form’d into a Church Society: That after a vacancy of the Presbyterian Chapel for twenty three years, in the year 1788 they called a Minister; that the public cause is supported by annual subscription which is made equal to their abilities, but which they are sorry to observe, is still below what they think a due support to their Minister, and what is necessary to give a solid and permanent Establishment to the Society.
“Your memorialists therefore most humbly submit it to the considerations of your Grace, whether there exist any funds in England, or in Scotland, applicable to their situation : and if your Grace should judge that there are any, praying the favor of your Grace’s generous attention, in that time and manner that your Grace shall judge most fit, to procure such annual assistance as may be thought expedient to bestow.
“It is with sincere regret your memorialists have had to witness in this country, a violent opposition excited by the party spirit of a few prejudis’d selfish men, carried on against the laudible measures of your Grace’s noble family. It is with infinite pleasure that they are sensible of your Grace’s disinterested views and public spirit – and that they are assured that the interests of this country, its laws, privileges, and commerces, have so sure a support as the patronage of your Grace” (Atholl Papers, AP 145(3d)-17).
This memorial is signed by 12 men of which four are elders and one, John Colquhoun, a minister. This invites the question as to who this minister was and what part he played in the life of the Presbyterian Church there.
John Colquhoun was a minister of the secession church. He had been associated with the Nicolson Street Church, Edinburgh, and was ordained on 14th April, 1773, as minister of Whitehaven, Cumberland, England. He resigned in 1785. According to McKelvie, he moved to the Isle of Man and died there (William McKelvie, Annals and Statistics of the United Presbyterian Church, p.119). A John Colquhoun died in the Isle of Man in 1807. What part he played in the life of the congregation, we cannot say. But I don’t think that, given the circumstances, his status as a secession minister would debar him from, at least, occasional ministry in the Douglas Presbyterian Church.
However weak and impermanent this Presbyterian work was it simply is not accurate to date the inception of the Presbyterian church in Douglas to 1825. It is not simply that there were Presbyterians on the Island before then. These Presbyterians were organized; they had made arrangements for funding a ministry; they had elders appointed over them.
We know nothing further of the congregation in Douglas until the appearance of Robert Steven. An obituary of him appears in its due place below. Facts stated here without an acknowledged source come from this obituary.
Robert Steven was the son of John Steven, who became minister at Mochrum, Wigtownshire, in 1787. According to Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae (FES), Robert was born on 13th November, 1783 (FES, Vol.2, p.370). However, the Old Parish Records show Robert Steven, the son of John, baptized in Inch, Wigtownshire, on 17th July, 1783. There is an unexplained discrepancy in the dates, but the place of birth is not surprising. John became minister of Mochrum only in 1787; Inch was his parental home.
He studied Arts and Divinity at Edinburgh University. He was then licensed by Wigtown Presbytery. According to the Minutes of the Presbytery of Wigtown, on 26th March, 1805, John Garlies Maitland of Fairgirth, minister of Monigaff “proposed Mr Robt Steven Student in Divinity to be taken on trials – he having produced regular certificates of his attendance at the Divinity Hall. The Presbytery being satisfied of the same and of his moral character appointed a Committee of their number to examine him who reported that they were satisfied with his answers. Whereupon the Presbytery appointed the Clerk to write his circular letters.” It would be normal that a man be proposed for licence by his minister – in this case, by his father. This is not done on this occasion, probably because his father was in the chair at that meeting.
These “circular letters” mentioned, included one to the Synod of Galloway. This Synod met on 3rd April, 1805, and, according to its Minutes, raised no objection: “The Synod object not to the Presbytery of Wigtown proceeding in the trials of Mr Robt Steven to the Holy Ministry.”
On 11th June, 1805, the Presbytery appointed his trials: Exegesis[?] An Jesus Christus sit vere Messias? [Is Jesus Christ truly the Messiah?]; Exercise and Addition: Hebrews 10:29; for a lecture, the Beatitudes; for a homily, Matthew 11:29; and for a popular sermon 2 Corinthians 5:1. On 9th July, 1805, Steven appeared at Presbytery and delivered a Homily, lecture and exegesis, as prescribed to him at the previous meeting; and on 27th August, 1805, “Mr Robt Steven having gone through his several pieces of trial with approbation and being suitably exhorted was licensed to preach the gospel”
He was then assistant to John Graham, minister at Kirkinner, Wigtownshire. We do not know the exact timing of Robert Steven’s ministry there. Graham was born in 1732 so was already an old man at the time of Steven’s licensing, but he continued in Kirkinner till his death in 1815. He also had an ordained assistant from 1810 till 1812 – which makes it unlikely that Steven was serving there at that period (FES, Vol.2, p.365).
The next information we have of Steven is that he was in the Isle of Man. If that seems to be far from home, then remember that the closest land to the Isle of Man is Burrow Head in Wigtownshire and that in those days sea in many cases did not separate but unite. In other words, the Isle of Man was a relatively short sea trip from Wigtownshire.
We have various references to him and the Presbyterian Church there in Isle of Man newspapers. These are accessible via Isle of Man Newspapers (1792-1960).
He seems to have been in Ramsay and, on moving to Douglas, started off there as a teacher.
“N. B. Further Particulars may be learned, by Application to Mr. S. or D. at the School House. Ramsay, 18th August, 1816” (Manks Advertiser, Thursday, August 15, 1816; p.3).
The first reference to him preaching is in the Manks Advertiser, Thursday, April 17, 1817, p.3, where it is announced that a sermon would be preached for the benefit of the poor of Douglas, on Sunday next, the 20th April, 1817. This would be preached by the Rev. Robert Steven, at his school-room, opposite to Major Vinell’s House, Atholl Street, commencing at 6 o’clock. This tells us that he was a teacher: “his school-room”; and that he was well established there – unknown, newcomers would not be encouraged to preach a charity sermon for the good of the community. Charity sermons were common in these days. The normal method of raising funds for charities was not by sales of work – which came later; nor by coffee morning and sponsored walks – which came later still, but by a collection taken up at a special charity sermon.
The occasion was a good one as the same newspaper tells us the following Thursday:
The work seems to have developed rapidly for the Manks Advertiser (Thursday, November 13, 1817; p.7) contained the following notice:
The following Thursday the Manks Advertiser gives notice that the seats of this Chapel will be let, by auction, on the 25th November, at 7 p.m. What the results of this auction were, we do not know, but a notice a year later again advertises the letting of seats for another year, and those already letting seats can renew their let on the same terms as the previous year. The Presbyterian Church is again up and running.
For a continuation of the story, we must go back to Scotland. On 9th June, 1818, the Minutes of the Wigtown Presbytery refer to the situation in the Isle of Man: “Tabled a Call from the Scots Inhabitants of the Isle of Man to Mr Robert Steven, Preacher of the Gospel, to be their Minister, as also Mr Steven’s letter of acceptance of the same. The Presbytery appoint the ordination of Mr Robert Steven to take place in the Church of Wigtown next Tuesday and the Minister of Glasserton to preach and preside on that occasion.”
On the 16th June, 1818, Mr Clanachan preached from Titus 2:7 – In all things shewing thyself a pattern of good works: in doctrine shewing uncorruptness, gravity, sincerity – and Mr Steven was duly ordained. “At the same time a Bond from certain Members of the Congregation, inhabitants of Douglas in the Isle of Man, was produced, binding themselves to give Sixty Pounds per annum to their Minister.” This was a common way of doing things in unendowed congregations – as the Isle of Man one clearly was. The Presbytery usually insisted on a Bond that would provide some sort of guarantee for a minister’s financial well being. The congregation in Douglas was sufficiently strong to provide such a Bond.
What does this tell us about the state of Presbyterianism in Douglas?
It is worth noting that Steven did not go to Douglas as a preacher but as a teacher. He did not find a Presbyterian Church there. We deduce that from the fact that, when he started preaching, it was in his own school room that he preached. But the work rapidly developed. He starts with an evening service in his own premises in April, 1817, and by 16th November a Presbyterian Chapel is opened. Moreover, by 25th November seats in this building were let by auction. We will make no comment on the fact that the congregation is being financed by seat rents – a, sadly, common enough occurrence in those days. But why do this by auction? It gives the impression that the opportunity of hearing the gospel will go to the highest bidder. Presumably that was not the impression the managers of the chapel intended to give. I can only think that this would be done if the demand for seats exceeded the supply. In selling by auction, the cost of seats will rise in accordance with market forces. This suggests that the Presbyterian church is well supported. This is confirmed by the fact that by the following June they can pay for a minister of their own and they provide a bond of £60 for the support of the minister.
Now it was possible that an outstanding preacher in those days could build up a church very quickly from nothing. But in this case it seems more likely that there was a pool of Presbyterian people waiting to be tapped. Perhaps they went to other churches – perhaps they went nowhere, but they were Scots; they were Presbyterians at heart and so they responded so positively to the initiative shown by Robert Steven. He starts his service on a Lord’s Day evening. That may be significant. It allows people already going to another church to continue going to their own church in the mornings and to associate themselves with the Presbyterians in the evenings. Then, when a core group was gathered, morning services could be held as well.
The idea that there were Presbyterians waiting to be gathered into a Presbyterian Church may also be deduced from the fact that a news item in the paper, mentioned above, which contained the advert for the opening of the Presbyterian Chapel states: “A new Presbyterian Chapel will be opened in this town on Sunday next.” Steven is not entering on an unploughed field: already there has been a Presbyterian Chapel. This is not in the dim and distant past but sufficiently recent as to make it meaningful that the newspaper calls this a “new” Presbyterian Chapel. Eight years before the Presbyterian Church in Douglas was founded according to Davidson and Cuthbertson, there was a Presbyterian Church, built, it would seem, on an older Presbyterian work.
It would seem that everything is ready for a solid Presbyterian cause to be established, given the settling of a minister, the provision of a place of worship and the existence of a good number of supporters. But it was not to be – Steven’s ministry there comes to an abrupt end – as the Isle of Man Weekly Gazette tells us (Thursday, January 28, 1819, p.3): “Death: In this town, on Friday last, aged 33 years, the Rev. Robert Steven, son of the Rev Mr. Steven, Minister of Mochrum, in Galloway, and officiating minister in this Island of the Established Church of Scotland; in which capacity a strict attention to his duties both as a divine and an instructor of youth, aided by talents not generally possessed, and enforced in language both classical and chaste, he obtained the regard and respect of many by whom his premature death will be sincerely regretted.”
If this death notice can be described as fulsome, how much more a full obituary published in the Manks Advertiser, on the same day:
“On Friday last (the 22d inst.) in this town, in the 33d year of his age, the Rev. Robert Stevens, son to the Rev. Mr. Stevens, the present incumbent of the parish of Munchram, in the Presbytery of Wigtown.
“He was educated at the University of Edinburgh, where he gave early proof of genius and application. His extensive and correct knowledge of the Classics, and his love of polite learning, soon acquired him the regard of his teachers, as well as the esteem of his fellow students. With a mind naturally vigorous, improved by science, a memory uncommonly retentive, and a taste equally correct, he was one of that few, who, among their fellows, were distinguished for abilities. Having gone through the ordinary course of education prescribed by the rules of the church, he was received upon trials, found duly qualified, and licensed to preach the gospel, by the Presbytery of Wigtown, by which he was some time after appointed assistant to the late Dr. Grahame, of the parish of Kirkinner; and also lately ordained minister of the Scotch chapel in this town.
“Regarding his character, as a man, suffice it to say, that it was such as became a minister of the gospel. In the esteem of all who regard humility unfeigned, modesty the most unassuming, and brotherly affection, as characteristics of a good man, he will stand inferior to few; for these virtues he possessed in a degree seldom found united, and could not fail to endear him to all with whom he was acquainted. As a preacher, his character was equally respectable; his sermons uniformly discovered the most correct taste, for neatness and elegance of composition; his style was easy, fluent, and chaste, and he well knew how to vary and appropriate it to the subject, so that sometimes there were a pathos and a loftiness in his periods extremely rhetorical. He carefully guarded against the introduction of extraneous matter, or topics foreign to the subject. Clearness of arrangement, aptness of illustration, and cogency of reasoning, conferred upon all his discourses, not only an air of elegance, which influenced the heart and warmed the affections, but gave them the superior property of convincing the judgment; they were so plain as to be easily comprehended by the most illiterate; yet so correct, both in accuracy of style and propriety of method, that they could not be censured by the most fastidious. The sacredness of the pulpit he uniformly maintained by its rightful appropriation to its noblest purpose, “the support and ornament of virtue’s cause.” Above the vulgarities of party spirit, and averse to that petulant officiousness which delights to indulge in expatiating on the dissensions which divide the different denominations of Christians, he never prostituted its dignity by making it the vehicle of declamation against any persuasion; for his ambition was, not to proselyte from one sect to another, but from vice to virtue. His clear apprehension of the unchangeable nature of moral duty and Christian obligation, and his sense of the awful responsibility of his office, made him censure vice with freedom and inculcate virtue with boldness; and his gentle and amiable manner eminently qualified him for reproving without offending. In the pulpit, his manner was unaffectedly grave, and solemn without ostentation; his address was easy, warm, and pathetic; his piety was untarnished with superstition, and his zeal had no tincture of enthusiasm. He possessed a correct imagination, a sound judgment, and strong understanding.
“The tedious illness which terminated his mortal existence, he bore with that manly fortitude and Christian resignation, which religion and philosophy never fail to inspire. As he lived greatly respected, so he died equally lamented by all who knew him.”
[Notice that “the support and ornament of virtue’s cause” is a quotation from William Cowper’s Poem, The Task.]
Robert Steven had clearly made a real impact on the Douglas population.
There is just one final reference to him in the Manx press: “We understand that the Rev. Mr. Murray, from Wigtown, will preach in the Presbyterian chapel in this town on Sunday next; and in the evening of that day, he will deliver a funeral sermon on the death of the late Mr. Steven, pastor of said chapel” (Manks Advertiser, Thursday, February 25, 1819; p.7)
This serves as an introduction to out next subject: Mr Murray from Wigtown.
Thomas Murray – Background
Thomas Murray began to write the story of his life in his Autobiographical Notes but got no further than his student days. However, his manuscript has been preserved in the National Library of Scotland. In fact, it was taken up by John A. Fairley who printed it, with a brief, but not entirely accurate, account of the rest of his life, in The Transactions and Journal of Proceedings of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society, Vol. XXII, Session 1909-1910, Published by the Society, Dumfries, 1911, pp.162-191. This is a major source of information for what follows.
Thomas Murray was born in the parish of Girthon, Kirkcudbrightshire, on 16th February, 1792. After attending the parish school, he, as a teenager, taught a school of his own, and it was not till the relatively advanced age of 18 that he went up to Edinburgh University. He stopped the first night in Moffat where he met up with a student from Dumfries-shire going up to Edinburgh at the start of his second year. He became a close friend of this man – Thomas Carlyle, later “the sage of Chelsea”. They lodged together and in their younger days, they corresponded with one another when apart and their correspondence has been preserved in the National Library of Scotland. Carlyle’s letters to Murray, edited and annotated, are also available on line: Carlyle Letters Online. Any of his letters mentioned below are accessible through that web-site. One of Murray’s letters to Carlyle is the key source of information for this part of this article.
Murray, for economic reasons, left Edinburgh before the end of the first session, but persuaded his professors to give him a certificate for the year. He struggled homewards and arrived at a relative’s house in his home County with ½ d in his pocket. However, he taught a school during the long vacation, and got the friendship and support of Alexander Brunton, then minister in Urr and later Professor of Oriental Languages in Edinburgh University. He returned to Edinburgh armed with introductions to various people. Soon he was tutoring pupils, his economic problems were at an end and he completed the four year Arts programme and began his divinity course.
In June 1815, he moved to the home of the Tweeddales in Wigtown and he was there till the completion of his divinity studies. James Tweeddale was collector of customs in Wigtown. Murray had a good reception: “I find Mr and Mrs Tweddale to be genteel agreeable and friendly. They have done all they could to make myself comfortable. They have ten of a family of whom six are under my tuition.” For this letter, see NLS MS 1764.58.
The children were at first too playful and rather disobedient – “but,” he writes, “by using the proper means I have them more corrigible.” He doesn’t leave us in doubt about what he considers to be the proper use of means: “The very first day of my tutorship I used the rod.”
Murray is at first well pleased with the general setting in which he finds himself: “I am become a good deal acquainted in the town and feel myself in every regard content and comfortable.”
He was duly licensed by the Presbytery of Wigtown on 16th June, 1818. Thereafter he was resident in the home of Elliot Davidson, minister at Sorbie, Wigtownshire (FES, Vol.2, p.377). It was from there that he made a visit to the Isle of Man.
Thomas Murray in the Isle of Man
On 19th February, 1819, Carlyle writes to Murray: “Except the few & brief notices, which I receive from our Galloway friends, I have no information respecting your proceedings.” This implies, firstly, that Murray has not written to him recently; and, secondly, that the news which he has of Murray is neither private nor recent – the news has filtered through to Carlyle through Galloway friends.
The news is this: “It is known to me, only, that you have become a Preacher—a popular one, I trust—and that you have some thoughts of accepting a charge in the island of Man.” And writing to Margaret A. Carlyle, his mother, on 29th March, 1819, Carlyle says: “The young man Murray (with whom I used to correspond) informs me that he thinks of going to teach and preach in the island of Man: and invites me to spend a month or two with [him]. Perhaps it would be well to go. But we shall talk about all this afterwards.”
This settlement in the Isle of Man seems a most definite possibility, for Carlyle writes Murray on 14th April, 1819: “I congratulate you, my Friend, on the prospect which you have of obtaining a settlement that in some degree meets your wishes. The despicable wretchedness of teaching can be known only to those who have tried it; and to Him who made the heart, and knows it all.
“Few things could give me more pleasure than to spend a month with you in the healthful breezes of Man. But it depends upon so many contingencies, that the prospect is too remote and uncertain for being calculated on. We shall see.”
However, a couple of months later, the situation seems much less definite, for Carlyle writes Murray on 7th June, 1819: “Since the arrival of your letter, I have received no manner of intelligence respecting the Manx negociation. Are you to go and preach in the island? My ignorance of the circumstances would render my counsel of no value.” Nothing else is heard of the matter – so plainly Murray didn’t settle in the Isle of Man. So what do we know of this incident?
Murray visited the Isle of Man for about two weeks at the end of February and the beginning of March, 1819. He went by sea, of course. There was, for example, the vessel Henrietta (Skipper Michael) which sailed from Stranraer and arrived in Douglas on 19th February (Manks Advertiser, Thursday, February 25, 1819; p.3). On the way back there was the Marquis, (Skipper McDonnell), which sailed for the Isle of Whithorn on 4th March (Manks Advertiser, Thursday, March 11, 1819; p.3). But we don’t know the exact dates of Murray’s journeys, nor how long it took, nor indeed if there were other vessels besides those mentioned in the Manks Advertiser.
From Murray’s letter to Carlyle on 20th March, 1819 (NLS MS 1764.137), we have the following information.
This proposal originated from an invitation from a Scotch congregation who were “in the way of looking out for a minister”.
This statement is puzzling. When Murray plans to go to Douglas, Steven was still alive and minister of the congregation so why were the congregation looking for a minister? Steven died of a “tedious illness”, which I take to mean a prolonged illness. Having called Steven in June, 1818, have the congregation, six or seven months later, so despaired of him living that they are already looking for a successor? This is unlikely. Rather we may conjecture that Murray is reading back into the past the situation which obtained at the close of his visit. By that time, they were seeking a new minister, because Steven had died in the meanwhile.
However, that still begs the question why he went to Douglas in the first place. If they weren’t seeking a minister, why did he go? The clue may be that Steven’s work was both educational and pastoral. His work as an educator of youth as well as a Presbyterian minister are recognized in his obituaries. Did he feel the need of help with his school? Carlyle, after all, does speak of Murray teaching and preaching there. Steven and Murray knew each other – both were probationers under the one Presbytery – not to mention the fact that they were of a similar age and both had studied at Edinburgh University. Murray calls Steven “my acquaintance”. The most likely explanation of why Murray went there was that on the invitation of his friend Steven, he went out to help him in his school and to give him an occasional hand in preaching duties. When he got there, the whole situation changed with the death of Steven.
Murray’s visit to the Isle of Man was short, for this is what he did while there: “I preached before the congregation two sermons – one of which was a funeral service occasioned by the death of their late pastor, my acquaintance who died in the very prime of life.”
He seems well pleased with the building in which the congregation worshipped: “The Chapel, which was once a Theatre, is finished in a most neat and handsome manner.” This description fits well the situation in Douglas. As noted above, the chapel was located in Fort Street and there are references in the local press of the time to the Theatre (formerly the Old Assembly Room) in Fort Street. The last reference I have found to the theatre in use there for dramatic presentations was on 12th May, 1814. There was plenty time for a change of use.
Murray tells of the nature and origin of the congregation: “The members of the congregation are very respectable and they erected this Presbyterian Chapel in opposition to the Methodism which has obtained a very general reception among them.”
On the whole, he seems to view the situation favourably: “The town is large – as much so as Dumfries and the inhabitants as far as I could ascertain from a fortnight’s residence are hospitable, liberal and intelligent. They have not the character of being very pious – they walk a good deal ‘after the counsel of their own hearts and in the sight of their own eyes’ – Does this not savour of Sectarianism and professionality? – This account however does not apply to the native Manks but to the strangers – for half-pay officers and men of shattered or small fortunes resort to the Island on account of the cheapness of provisions.”
The financial situation, however, is the problem for Murray. This is not a parish church within the Church of Scotland, receiving the support of the heritors. It is a Chapel situation where the financial arrangements are made locally, and, apparently, are open to negotiation: “The late minister accepted the Charge on this precarious footing – that his income shd consist entirely in the weekly collections and the seat rents.” This system of paying the minister makes the minister’s position precarious. It doesn’t bring a guaranteed income; it puts the minister at the mercy of the congregation. If they don’t like their minister, they simply starve him out, by not contributing to the weekly collections.
Murray doesn’t like a proposal of that nature: “This plan is not uncommon, and in the case just mentioned it was tolerably advantageous. This principle, tho’ probably in general not bad, is objectionable in particular instances – and no young man who is at all comfortably situated and has hopes in his own district at home will emigrate to Man without a certainty of independence.”
Given the way he describes the situation, it is not surprising that he “declined the acceptance of the Chapel on their terms – I made them an offer (which the Presbytery here recommended).” He tells us what these terms were: “I wished a minimum sum fixed, and secured by a bond, and the overplus, if the House yielded any, to fall to the Minister.” This offer did not immediately go down well: “At this offer they hesitated – and craved a short time for consideration – and the thing is yet unsettled.”
He still has hopes of the situation; he is still drawn to it: “I think, I hope to go [that is, to go to live on the Island] – I hope so for I wish to be independent – I wish to have my own fire and my own table however poor. … The Douglas Chapel I think I cd make worth about 150L – an income not despicable in Man” – where the expense of living is cheap, as he has already said. “I am sure I think of the situation, if no young man appears and engages with them on easier terms.”
This provides us with an interesting insight into the minds of Murray and of ministers like him. The ministry is viewed in economic terms not in spiritual terms. A proposal of this nature would cause some ministers to pray for guidance. They would analyse the spiritual needs of the situation and view such a proposal as a call from God to work for a spiritual harvest. The uncertain financial situation would be a minor consideration – a matter to be committed into the hands of the Lord, believing that he would provide whatever would be necessary. Not so with Murray – and, no doubt, many others as well. The financial situation is all important, the over-riding consideration: financial independence and security.
This is interesting, too, because it shows what his real hopes are: “no young man who is at all comfortably situated and has hopes in his own district at home will emigrate to Man without a certainty of independence.” He basically still wants to settle amongst his own folks. He has good hopes there. Although it was easier to get to the Isle of Man in those days than it was to travel to Edinburgh, it still involves “emigration”!
This approach to Murray comes to nothing so what now happened to the Presbyterian cause in Douglas? We don’t know, but certainly, a year later, they gave up the use of their building for a time, according to this notice: “Presbyterian Chapel to Let. To be LET, until the 24th of October, 1822 —The PRESBYTERIAN CHAPEL. Fort-St. which is neatly fitted up, with a Room adjoining. Immediate Possession will be given. Apply to Mr. ROBERT FELL, Painter, or to Mr. A. COKNACK, Duke-Street (Manks Advertiser, Thursday, May 11, 1820; p.3). It looks likely that the Presbyterian Church disbanded for a time. The letting of their premises “until the 24th October, 1822”, I suggest, represents the time remaining on the Church’s lease of the building. That they took the building on a five year lease in October, 1817, seems a reasonable possibility – but they are not needing it for that time, hence they seek to let it.
Thomas Murray – thereafter
It may be of interest if we briefly outline the future career of Thomas Murray. He never becomes a parish minister. He at first gives himself to literary work. While in Wigtownshire, he was working on The Literary History of Galloway: from the earliest period to the present time, Waugh and Innes, Edinburgh, 1822. This is a collection of biographies of people with connections in the area who had distinguished themselves mainly in the literary world. He then moved to Edinburgh and tutored boys from wealthy families who were sent to Edinburgh for their education. At the same time, he engaged in writing – The last and heavenly speech and glorious departure of John Viscount Kenmuir, with an introductory memoir of that nobleman, and notes, Waugh and Innes, Edinburgh, 1827; The life of Samuel Rutherford, one of the ministers of St Andrew’s, and Principal of the College of St Mary’s, with an appendix, William Oliphant, Edinburgh, 1828; and others of a similar nature.
Murray’s interests then take a new direction. He gives himself to the study of Political Economy – a relatively new-comer to the academic curriculum. This interest finds expression in two ways. Firstly, he writes on the subject – for example: A catechism of political economy: in which the principles of the science are explained in a popular form, Oliver & Boyd, Edinburgh, 1835; Summary of lectures on political economy, delivered [before the Edinburgh Philosophical Association], Edinburgh, 1837; and Corn Laws; the nature and effect of these oppressive Statutes, published by the Anti-Corn Law Association, Edinburgh, 1840.
Secondly, he also takes an interest in the education of working men who had been deprived of the opportunity to study for economic reasons. For a few years his course of lectures on Political Economy proves very popular and he goes around giving these courses in Mechanics Institutes and the like – in Edinburgh and Glasgow, Hawick and Dunfermline and Leven and so on. Some of these lectures were presented before huge audiences. This lecturing activity gives him the funds to invest in a printing business, Murray and Gibb. Through this investment he gains the kind of financial independence that he had been seeking.
He was, for 22 years, honorary Secretary of the Edinburgh School of Art. This was a sort of Mechanics Institute – its full title was “The School of Arts of Edinburgh for the Education of Mechanics in such branches of Physical Science as are of Practical Application in their Several Trades”. The institution became the Heriot Watt Institute and that was the basis of Heriot Watt University. He also served on the Edinburgh Town Council for eight years in the Liberal interest and in general took an interest in public concerns.
In 1826, he married Janet Murray. They had at least seven children; of whom at least four survived into adulthood, but only two of these outlived their father: the son predeceased him in 1859 and the youngest daughter dying in 1870. Latterly, Murray lived in Colinton and then in Lasswade where he died in 1872.
Testing the Traditions
There are two stories about the origin of the Presbyterian Church in Douglas, Isle of Man: there is the “traditional account” represented by the published sources mentioned at the beginning of this article; and there is the “neglected chapter” sketched out above and culminating in the ministry of Robert Steven and in the visit of Thomas Murray. The two stories don’t mesh well. If the “neglected chapter” is a true picture of what happened then how come it is not acknowledged in the “traditional account”? In seeking to come to some understanding of the situation, we can begin with some assessment of the reliability of the sources used.
In regard to the sources for the neglected chapter, we can say that they are thoroughly reliable. The basic story told comes from contemporaneous written sources: the Atholl papers; the records of the Presbytery of Wigtown; the Manx newspapers and the letters that passed between Murray and Carlyle. All these are readily available online – except the letters of Murray to Carlyle which are held in the National Library of Scotland. These sources are solid and dependable. The story of the neglected chapter is undoubtedly true. But it is far from complete. These sources provide shots of the state of the Presbyterian church in Douglas at certain points of its history. They tell us next to nothing of what happened between 1788 and 1817; or of what happened after 1819.
On the other hand, the same cannot be said about the reliability of some of the sources underlying the traditional account. In so far as the account is based on “ancient letters and documents” and “dusty volumes”, we can have no quibble with the story told, because these too are contemporaneous materials – albeit not readily accessible to the general public. But we do not know what material comes from these contemporaneous sources and what comes from memories or reminiscences. There is some material which is presented with a measure of uncertainty and which clearly does not come from reliable old records. A key element in the traditional account is James McCrone’s connection with the Independent Church and his leaving it to form the Presbyterian congregation. Yet this is not presented with any great degree of certainty.
Cuthbertson says: “From the time that Mr. McCrone came to Douglas until 1825, he doubtless worshipped in the Independent Chapel under the ministry of the Rev. S. Haining.”
There is something strange about this statement. It is not given with any conviction: “doubtless” probably means the opposite of what it seems to mean. It is assumed to be a fact but no authority is given for the statement. It is worth reflecting, therefore, on the accuracy of the scenario which Cuthbertson presents.
If it is true that he worshipped in the Independent church from the time of his coming to the Isle in 1817, it is very strange, for that is the year in which Presbyterian services started and the Chapel in Fort Street was opened. If he was such a great Presbyterian why did he not support that work instead of going to the Independent Chapel? But the truth is that he didn’t go to either of these churches – at least, if the baptism of his family is anything to go by. His family were baptized in an Anglican setting – Marion was baptized in Kirk Michael, Isle of Man, on 30th January, 1819; Janet was baptized in St George’s Chapel, Douglas, on 25th June, 1820; Jane Gilfillan was baptized at Castle Mona, on 27th July, 1921, in the presence of the Right Reverend George, Bishop of Sodor and Man; and Jemima was baptized on 15th February, 1825, also in St George’s Chapel, Douglas. (These records may be accessed via this website). Moreover, it must be remembered that McCrone initially came to the island to be the Bishop of Sodor and Man’s Proctor before being made the Duke’s land agent a few years later (Manx Manuscript Archive MS 09707/7/2627-2926).
If his connection with Mr Haining’s congregation cannot be established with clarity, it calls in doubt the alleged split in the congregation that led to the formation of the Presbyterian Chapel. That split is meant to have happened in 1825 – but one of his daughters was baptized in the Anglican church that very year. The difficulty can be overcome by saying: he attended Haining’s church but got his children baptized in the Anglican church. Without further evidence, that theory does not sound very convincing.
That leads us to ask whether there is any evidence of a split in Haining’s church, which may have contributed to the formation of a Presbyterian congregation in 1825.
Davidson describes the story of the split with Haining as a tradition – no more than that. “There is a tradition,” he says, “that Mr. Haining, the Independent minister, and Mr. McCrone differed widely on certain points (whether personal or ecclesiastical, I know not), but there was an open rupture. Mr. McCrone called out his fellow-Presbyterians in 1825, and services were started in Fort Street.” Such a public rupture might well have left its mark on the local press but no such contention between these two men is found. Indeed, McCrone, though a man of standing in the community, is hardly mentioned in the local press during the years he was on the Isle.
It may be relevant to point out that this tradition, at least as it is expressed in this form, does not necessarily imply that McCrone was a member of Haining’s congregation. It is compatible with that scenario that McCrone, an attender at the Anglican church, was so incensed at something that Haining had done, perhaps involving Presbyterians in the Independent church, that he called them out to form a Presbyterian Church with him. If that is the scenario, then it may be significant that the tradition speaks of him “calling them” out rather than “leading them” out, which might be the more natural way of speaking if he were himself a member of Haining’s congregation.
Although there was no obvious dispute between McCrone and Haining, there was, a controversy between Haining and Dr Henry Robert Oswald. Dr Oswald was a Scotsman, born in Fife, and a graduate of Edinburgh University and a medical practitioner on the Isle of Man – the Governor’s physician. He produced a work entitled: On the stratification of alluvial deposits, and the crystalization of calcareous stalactites: in a letter to John Macculloch. An advert for this publication appeared in the Manks Advertiser (Thursday, June 12, 1823; Section: Front page, p.1). Over this publication, a sharp dispute arose. It is not our purpose here to trace the course of the dispute in detail – just to show that it existed and to assess its significance for our purpose.
Oswald’s work is criticized by Crito, a correspondent in the Rising Sun (Tuesday, July 15, 1823; p.3). Crito is severely critical of the work, as may be judged by the concluding paragraph of his letter: “My opinion of the work is that no author ever presented to the public so much enigmatical doctrine in the same number of pages, for I know of no work in the English language so destitute of perspicuity and simplicity—those essential requisites of good composition and for the understandings of general readers.”
Oswald takes exception to this criticism and publishes a reply both in the Manks Advertiser (Thursday, July 17, 1823; p.3) and in the Rising Sun (Tuesday, July 22, 1823; p.3). But Crito comes back at him in the Rising Sun (Tuesday, July 29, 1823; p.7) and in the conclusion of a long letter says: “I am much deceived if he will ever forget the castigation which he has received; and the name of Crito will make him tremble when he again offers to the public such a crude, ill-digested, and chaotic work. And I do assure him most positively, that what he has received is only an earnest of what is reserved for him.”
Oswald replies in the Manks Advertiser (Thursday, August 07, 1823; p.3): “Dr. OSWALD desires us to say, that on perusing tbe letter signed CRITO, in a newspaper of this week, his greatest surprise is, that any Editor of a public print would condescend to give a place to anonymous insinuations so grossly personal. He has no answer but that of open defiance.
It is then that Oswald finds out from the Editor of the Rising Sun that Crito is actually Samuel Haining.
So has this dispute any bearing on our theme?
It certainly shows that Samuel Haining was a man of blunt speech. Before the above dispute, an Editorial in the Manks Advertiser (Thursday, January 30, 1823; p.2) remarked: “CRITO is intolerably personal, and must not be indulged; we recommend it to him to be a little more considerate ere he presume to play with edged tools.” It would not be surprising if such speech might cause disruption in his congregation. If he used these “edged tools” in the pulpit, it would not be surprising if he got hurt by them – that is by people leaving his congregation because of his manner of speech.
On the other hand, although Dr Oswald was a Presbyterian, we do not know that he attended Haining’s church prior to the establishment of the Presbyterian congregation. We do not know that there was a split in the church over his disagreement with Haining. Nor can we see that a dispute in 1823 would necessarily result in a new congregation being formed by McCrone in 1825. The idea that this is the dispute that led to a disruption of the Independent congregation is a possibility – but, at the moment, an outside possibility. All that we can say is that the sharp speaking of the minister makes a split in his congregation seem a real possibility.
Finally, in assessing the different accounts of the founding of Presbyterianism in Douglas, we may ask if there is any continuity between the congregation of Steven’s day and that which began in 1825. The first place to look for such a continuity is their place of meeting. Both churches met in Fort Street. Was it the same building? The two descriptions given of the building do not agree. According to Murray: “The Chapel, which was once a Theatre, is finished in a most neat and handsome manner.” But Cuthbertson says: “They met in apostolic fashion in an upper room in Fort Street.” It was an “unpretentious place … the room only measures 27ft. by 15ft.” Such a building could never have been a theatre. In regard to locale, the 1825 was a fresh start. There is no visible continuity.
Tidying up the Loose Ends
There are sources which just do not acknowledge the existence of the Presbyterian Church in Douglas prior to 1825. The two histories which were mentioned at the beginning of this article are two such. Also, in 1822, Samuel Haining wrote A Historical Sketch and Descriptive View of the Isle of Man; Designed as a Companion to those who Visit and Make the Tour of it. There is no mention of a Presbyterian Church ever having been in existence in his chapter on A brief Sketch of the Civil and Ecclesiastical History of this Island, from, the earliest period to the present day. Again, on the occasion of the opening of the Presbyterian church in Mellis’ time as minister the Manks Advertiser (Tuesday, April 24, 1832; p.3) wrote: “New SCOTTISH CHAPEL.—This is the first Chapel erected in this Island for Presbyterian worship, under the pastoral charge of an ordained minister of the National Church of Scotland …”.
Reasons which might well be adjudged feeble might be offered for the failure of these sources to mention previous Presbyterian work. In regard to the newspaper remark, why speak of a “New Scottish Chapel” unless there had been a previous one? The newspaper report is not saying that there hasn’t been Presbyterian work before but that there has been no work of this nature before. Perhaps there was a misunderstanding about the status of Robert Steven. He came to the area as a teacher. Perhaps it was not appreciated that he was an ordained minister of the National Church of Scotland.
In regard to Haining’s failure to mention Presbyterian work, he might be thought to have given an incomplete picture because he was prejudiced. He, at some length, gives the theological outlook of his own church while speaking disparagingly of others. Certainly some Methodists were not very happy with what he says about them. An “Injured Methodist” wrote in the Manks Advertiser (Thursday, April 11, 1822; p.3): “I shall not waste time in pointing out the grammatical errors in that feeble attempt at history, styled A Historical Sketch and Descriptive View of the Isle of Man, which you, in the title page, avow yourself to be the author of, but go immediately to the consideration of that part of it on which I mean to remark. In it you tax the founder of Methodism with disinclination to obey the authority of his diocesan, when, at the same time, he required implicit obedience to his rules from his followers. Your remark here is puerile and ridiculous in the extreme.” And much more in a similar or stronger vein. Haining’s account of church life is biased. He is not the sort of man to go out of his way to draw to people’s attention the existence of a small fluctuating Presbyterian, which, at the time he writes, may not even have been in existence.
As for Cuthbertson and Davidson, what can be said? They saw 1825 as the date at which the Presbyterian Church that they were associated with began – and what happened before then didn’t come under their consideration. Could we suggest that the perceived brilliance of their “patron saint” caused previous efforts to establish Presbyterian work fade into obscurity?
The standard histories of the Presbyterianism in Douglas are manifestly incomplete. A wider perspective needs to be adopted. There are big blank spaces in the history of the pre-1825 church but that Presbyterianism was a reality some of the time is clear. Moreover, the story of a Presbyterian church, emerging through a dispute in the congregational church, may be true but it lacks details and validation from the historical record.
This omission on the part of Cuthbertson and Davidson was in marked contrast to what was said in Brown’s Directory: “In a printed document, dated November, 1830, it is stated “that from time immemorial, the Isle of Man. from its contiguity to Scotland, has been the residence of several Scotch families, who, as well as others, natives of the Island, and elsewhere, have been attached to the Doctrine, the Discipline, and Forms of Presbyterian Worship.” True, it does not speak of a Presbyterian Church being in existence throughout that period – but how are these Presbyterians going to express their attachment to Presbyterian worship and doctrine unless there had been a Presbyterian Church to meet in for at least part of that time. And how are these natives of the Island and others non-Scottish people to become attached to Presbyterianism unless there had been a Presbyterian Church established among them?
The bottom line is simply this: wherever Scottish people went they took Presbyterianism with them and looked for the foundation of a Presbyterian Church. The story of the “neglected chapter” shows that, despite failed attempts, they kept trying until success eventually crowned their efforts.