The churches and the mobs in the battle for human freedom

Submitted by AWL on 23 November, 2021 - 9:04 Author: James Connolly
"One big union" fist coming out of crowd

This puncturing of the smug self-satisfaction of the Protestant Unionists in this article is valuable, not least in teaching socialists why we must fight religious bigotry in all its forms. The article is also an illustration of the limitations of the “but-what-about…” riposte in politics.

Connolly told the truth about the past of the Anglicans and the Scottish Presbyterians, but the horrors he recounts were by and large things of the past. Catholic clericalism was very much of the present... And the future. Some of the details were different, but Lecky’s-Connolly’s account of the Presbyterian clergy in Reformation Scotland is close to a description of the rule of the Catholic Church in the 26 Counties, then and for many decades to come.

Both the Six County and 26-County states were sectarian, though in different ways. In the Six Counties, the Catholics were a conquered people, physically repressed and systematically ill-treated and discriminated against. In the 26 Counties, Catholics — and non-Catholics — lived under a clerical domination akin to the domination of the Presbyterian clergy in Scotland, which Lecky-Connolly describe in this article. And it was the Catholic bishops who insisted on having their own denominational schools in the Six Counties, a central feature of Catholic-Protestant alienation from each other.

Sean Matgamna

A sudden outburst of strikes in the industries and districts under my supervision officially have rather disturbed my schedule of arrangements, and have seriously encroached upon my time for writing this week. Hence my notes this week will be short to compensate for their undue length on other occasions, and will consist for the most part of quotations — more or less apt.

The chief event in political circles in the North of Ireland since my last writing has been the meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Belfast. This was looked forward to with much interest, as it was expected that a big effort would be made to get it to make some pronouncement upon the vexed question of Home Rule. So it did. It pronounced heavily against that proposal.

But it did not cover itself with glory in the act. The political tacticians who are manoeuvring this fight against Home Rule first introduced a proposal that the voting should be open and no ballot should take place, thus leaving the menace of the boycott, and worse, over the heads of those who stood up for freedom against the Orange wirepullers. This reactionary proposal was carried, and of course the rest was plain sailing. Those whose consciences would not allow them to vote against the legislative independence of their country, but were not prepared to sacrifice their living, left the Assembly quietly, and the politicians had it all their own way, but for the determined fight of a small body of high-principled ministers and laymen.

When these few attempted to speak in defence of their position, the Assembly indulged in a series of cat-calls, howls and interruptions such as would have disgraced the frequenters of a penny “gaff.” Of course all this was in pursuance of the admonition “Be Christ-like in spirit.”

Not being of the same religious persuasion as the Assembly, I may be out of court as a critic, but as a commentary upon the claim that religious persecution is the monopoly of the Church of the majority of the inhabitants of Ireland, and religious toleration the peculiar heritage of their opponents, perhaps I may be permitted to quote the verdict of history upon this point.

In his History of the Rise and Influence of Rationalism in Europe, speaking of the influence of the Presbyterian clergy on the character of the Scottish people, Mr Lecky [1] says:

“There was one country, however, in which it attained an absolute ascendancy. There was one country in which the Puritan ministers succeeded in moulding alike the habits of the nation, and in disseminating their harsh and gloomy tenets through every section of society.


“While England was breaking loose from her most ancient superstitions, and advancing with gigantic strides along the paths of knowledge, Scotland still cowered with willing submission before her clergy. Never was a menial servitude more complete, and never was a tyranny maintained with more inexorable barbarity.

“Supported by public opinion, the Scottish ministers in overawing all opposition, in prohibiting the faintest expression of adverse opinions, in prying into and controlling the most private concerns of domestic life; in compelling everyone to conform absolutely to all the ecclesiastical regulations they enjoined; and in, at last, directing the whole scope and current of legislation. They maintained their ascendency over the popular mind by a system of religious terrorism, which we can now barely conceive, The misery of man, the anger of the Almighty, the fearful power and continual presence of Satan, the agonies of hell, were the constant subjects of their preaching.

“All the most ghastly forms of human suffering were accumulated as faint images of the doom of the immense majority of mankind. Countless miracles were represented as taking place as within the land, but they were almost of them miracles of terror. Disease, storm, famine, every awful calamity that fell upon mankind, or blasted the produce of soil, was attributed to the direct intervention of spirits; and Satan himself was represented as constantly appearing in a visible form upon the earth.

“Such teaching produced its natural effects. In a land where credulity was universal, in a land where the intellect was numbed and palsied by these awful contemplations, where almost every form of amusement was suppressed, and where the thoughts of men were concentrated with an undivided energy on theological conceptions, such teachings were necessarily the superstition of witchcraft.

“Witchcraft was but one form of the panic it produced; it was but the reflection by a diseased imagination of the popular theology. We according!y find that it assumed the most frightful proportions, and the darkest character, In other lands the superstition was at least mixed with much of imposture; in Scotland it appears to be entirely undiluted. It was produced by the teaching of the clergy, and it was everywhere fostered by their persecution. Eagerly, passionately, with a thirst for blood that knew no mercy, with a zeal that never tired, did they accomplish their task.

“Assembled in solemn Synod the College of Aberdeen, in 1603, enjoined every minister to take two of the elders of the parish to make ‘a subtle and privy inquisition’, and to question all the parishioners upon oath as to their knowledge of witches. Boxes were placed in the churches for the express purpose of receiving the accusations. When a woman had fallen under suspicion, the minister from the pulpit denounced her by name, exhorted his parishioners to give evidence against her, and prohibited anyone from sheltering her. In the same spirit he exerted the power which was given him by a parochial organisation, elaborated perhaps more skilfully than any other in Europe.

“Under these circumstances, the witch-cases seem to have fallen almost entirely into the hands of the clergy. They were the leading commissioners. Before them the confessions were taken. They were the acquiescing witnesses, or the directors of the tortures by which those confessions were elicited.” And to complete the picture for the edification of the reader who believes that the clerical gentlemen who now so loudly about being the sole repositories in Ireland of traditions of freedom, perhaps this picture from the same source bearing on and attesting the slavish spirit fostered by Episcopalianism may also be of value:

“Created, in the first instance, by a Court intrigue, pervaded in all its parts by a spirit of the most intense Erastianism [2], and aspiring at the same time to a spiritual authority scarcely less absolute than that of the Church which it had superseded, Anglicanism was from the beginning at once the most servile and the most efficient agent of tyranny. Endeavouring by the assistance of temporal authority and by the display of wordly pomp to realise in England the same position as Catholicism had occup ied in Europe, she naturally flung herself on every occasion into the arms of the civil power. No other church so uniformly betrayed and trampled on the liberties of her country.

“In all those fiery trials through which English liberty has passed since the Reformation, she invariably cast her influence into the scale of tyranny, supported and eulogised every attempt to violate the Constitution, and wrote the fearful sentence of eternal condemnation upon the tombs of the martyrs of freedom. That no tyranny, however gross, that no violation however flagrant, can justify resistance; that all those principles concerning the rights of nations on which constitutional government is achieved are deadly sins, was her emphatic and continual teaching.

“‘ A rebel’, she declared, ‘is worse than the worst prince, and rebellion worse than the worst government of the worst prince hath hitherto been’. ‘God placeth as well evil princes as good’, and, therefore, ‘for subjects to deserve through their sins to have an evil prince, and then to rebel against him, were double and treble evil by provoking God more to plague them!’

“St. Paul counselled passive obedience under Caligula, Claudius, and Nero, ‘who were not only no Christians, but Pagans, and also either foolish rulers or cruel tyrants’; nay, the Jews owed it even to Nebuchadnezzar, when he had slain their king, nobles, parents, children, and kinsfolk, burned their country — yes Jerusalem itself, and the holy Temple — and had carried the residue into captivity.

“Even the Blessed Virgin, being of the royal blood of the ancient natural kings of Jewry, did not disdain to obey the commandment of a heathen and foreign prince’; much more, therefore, should we ‘obey princes though strangers, wicked and wrongful, when God for our sins shall place such over us,” unless; indeed, begin anything contrary to the Divine command; but even ‘in that we may not in anywise withstand violently or rebel against rulers or make any insurrection, sedition, or tumults, either by force of arms or otherwise, against the anointed of the Lord, or any of His officers, but we must in each case patiently suffer all wrongs.”

These extracts, coupled with the well-known hostility shown by the Catholic Church towards all forms of intellectual freedom outside of its own rule, should convince all but the most bigoted or unreflective that accusations of intolerance do not come well from the lips of any religious body. Still less can we accept without a very substantial grain of salt and a bucket of sea water the claim of any body of ecclesiastics to be champions of political freedom or social advancement.


As our best comment on such a claim, permit me to quote from my answer to the learned Dublin Jesuit, Father Kane. The following will by found on pages 37-38 of the pamphlet, Labour, Nationality and Religion, stocked by the Reformers’ Bookstall, Glasgow:

“What is the political and social record of the mob in history as against the record of the other classes? There was a time, stretching for more than a thousand years, when the mob was without power or influence, when the entire power of the Governments of the world was concentrated in the hands of the kings, the nobles and the hierarchy.

“That was the blackest period in human history. It was the period during which human life was not regarded as being of as much value as the lives of hares and deers; it was the period when freedom of speech was unknown, when trial by jury was suppressed, when men and women were tortured to make them confess crimes before they were found guilty, when persons obnoxious to the ruling powers were arrested and kept in prison (often for a lifetime) without trial; and it was the period during which a vindictive legal code inflicted the death penalty for more than 150 offences — when a boy was hung for stealing an apple, a farmer for killing a hare on the roadside.


“It was during this undisturbed reign of the kings, the nobles, and the hierarchy that religious persecutions flourished, when Protestants killed Catholics, Catholics slaughtered Protestants, and both hunted Jews, when man ‘made in God’s image’ murdered his fellow man for daring to worship God in a way different from that of the majority; it was then that Governments answered their critics by the torture, when racks and thumbscrews pulled apart the limbs of men and women, when political and religious opponents of the State had their naked feet and legs placed in tin boots of boiling oil, their heads crushed between the jaws of a vice, their bodies stretched across a wheel while their bones were broken by blows of an iron bar, water forced down, their throats until their stomachs distended and burst, and when little children toiled in mine and factory for 12, 14 and 16 hours per day.

“But at last, with the development of manufacturing, came the gathering together of the mob, and consequent knowledge of its numbers and power, and with the gathering-together also came the possibility of acquiring education. Then, the mob started upon its upward march to power — a power only to be realised in the Socialist Republic.

“In the course of that upward march the mob has transformed and humanised the world. It has abolished religious persecution and imposed toleration upon the bigots of all creeds; it has established the value of human life, softened the horrors of war as a preliminary to abolishing it, compelled trial by jury, abolished the death penalty for all offences save one, and in some countries abolished it for all; and to-day it is fighting to take the children from the factory and mine, and put them to school. This mob, ‘the most blind and ruthless tyrant of all’, with one sweep of its grimy, toil-worn hand swept the rack, the thumbscrew, the wheel, the boots of burning oil, the torturer’s vice and the stake into the oblivion of history, and they who to-day would seek to view those arguments of kings, nobles, and ecclesiastics must seek them in the lumber room of the museum.

“In this civilising, humanising work the mob had at all times to meet and master the hatred and-opposition of kings and nobles; and there is not in history a record of any movement for abolishing torture, preventing war, establishing popular suffrage, or shortening the hours of labour led by the Hierarchy. Against all this achievement of the mob its enemies have but one instance of abuse of power — the French Reign of Terror — and they suppress the fact that this classic instance of mob fury lasted but eight months, whereas the cold-blooded cruelty of the ruling classes which provoked it had endured for a thousand years.

“All hail, then, to the Mob, the incarnation of Progress!”

• FromForward, 21 June 1913, and not previously reprinted. Original headline: “The Irish Presbyterians and Home Rule”. Subheads here are ours.

[1] Lecky: William Edward Harpole Lecky (1839-1903) was an Irish Protestant historian and an MP. Initially a Home Ruler, he ended as a Liberal Unionist. He wrote a great History of Ireland, triggered in part by the knowing dishonesty of J A Froude, a disciple of Thomas Carlyle, who wrote a three-volume history of The English in Ireland.

[2] Erastianism: the belief that the state has and should have supreme power over the church in doctrine, and all other ecclesiastical matters.

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