Friday, February 17, 2017

"We didn't know that Presbyterians had suffered too"

William harris covenanters 1887


Last Friday evening I had the privilege of speaking to West Belfast Historical Society on the subject of the Covenanters in the 1600s. I tend to stick to doing talks in my own local area but one of the Society’s members had heard me give the talk in Newtownards about 18 months ago, and invited me to give it to WBHS. As the date approached I was a bit apprehensive; demographically West Belfast is overwhelmingly Catholic, and the meeting was to be in a Catholic church parish centre. So I made doubly sure that everyone understood the ground I’d be covering, a few weeks beforehand.

Stories of the Reformation, of standing up against successive monarchs (the great majority of whom were 'Established Church'), of defying the state, of being arrested and imprisoned and executed. Of ‘18,000 martyrs” as it says on the grand memorial at Greyfriars Kirkyard. It all went really well, and the conversations afterwards were great. A comment that a number of people made to me at the end, independently of one another, was "We didn't know that Presbyterians had suffered too”. 

There is a lesson here. It is critically important to share stories beyond our own communities. We need to rethink how the 1600s are discussed and understood.

• In 1689 no Presbytery meetings were held from March until September, and when these resumed it was to hold 'a solemn day of thanksgiving for the great mercy of a begun relief from bondage' (source here).

• A deputation of ministers was sent to London to bring a message to the new King William "former and present sufferings, well known to those who lived amongst them ... that all sufferings for nonconformity may be for the future prevented" (source here)

The more I read the more I am convinced that the 'innumerable crowds of people' who greeted William at Carrickfergus 'with continual shouts and acclamations' were expressing their great relief that at least 50 years of struggle against previous monarchs and parliaments had finally come to an end.

Maybe there will one day be scope to re-frame these important stories.