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Ch. 10: The Bill for the Clergy






In the note to the tract, "Some Arguments against enlarging the Power of Bishops in letting Leases" (p. 219), it was pointed out that the Bill against which this tract was written was an attempt on the part of the bishops to get back a power which they once had abused. Failing in this attempt, in 1723, they renewed the attack in 1731 by promoting two bills, one called a Bill of Residence, the other a Bill of Division.

The ostensible object of the Bill of Residence was to compel the clergy to reside on their livings. By this bill, any person taking a benefice, with cure of souls, of the annual value of 100, was forced, if the land attached to that benefice had no house fit for residence, to build one thereon, in any situation the bishop might think suitable, this house to cost one year and a half's income, and to be completed within a time fixed by the bishop. It will at once be seen that the power over the inferior clergy which this bill placed in the bishops' hands was by no means insignificant; and Swift felt that to make such a bill law would not only tend to impoverish, the inferior clergy, but would place them in a position of subjection at once degrading and dispiriting. He opposed the bill, with the consequence that the House of Commons rejected it.

By the Bill of Division "it was intended to be enacted that whenever a church should become vacant, although the incumbent should refuse his consent, it might be lawful for the chief governor, with the assent of the major part of the Privy Council, six at least consenting, by and with the consent of the ordinary and the patron, to subdivide any parish into as many portions as they might think fit, provided that, after such division, the church of the old parish should continue worth, at the least, 300 per annum." This bill, which passed the House of Lords two days after the Bill of Residence, Swift opposed in a spirited and somewhat bitter manner. His opposition largely influenced the Lower House in rejecting it. The two tracts which state the grounds of his opposition to both bills are the present one, and the following tract, "Considerations upon two Bills, sent down from the House of Lords to the House of Commons in Ireland, relating to the Clergy."

Scott notes that the "tone of aigreur," which is more distinctly felt in the second of these tracts, intimates a "deep dissatisfaction with late ecclesiastical preferments, which may perhaps be traced as much to personal disappointment as to any better cause;" a statement which it was hardly worth making; since, however deep may have been Swift's personal feelings, he never allowed them to be the impelling motive to his work. It should suffice us to know that the cause which Swift espoused was a disinterested one. As Vicar of Laracor he knew what it was to make a shift of living on an insufficient income; and it may have been, this experience as much as "personal disappointment" which gave pungency to his criticism. It is easy enough to find questionable motives for a satirist, especially when that satirist is Swift; let us not, however, forget that in his case the personal element was never permitted to overweight the impersonal purpose. Other men when they reach prosperity often forget or ignore the hard conditions of their previous state; to Swift these conditions were always existing factors in his considerations for the amelioration of his fellow-men. This it is which gives to his writings so much of the "tone of aigreur."

In his letter to John Stearne, Bishop of Clogher, dated July, 1733, which is one of Swift's most characteristic epistles--characteristic, because the embodiment of truthful candour--he gives no equivocal expression of opinion on these two bills. He calls them, "abominable bills, for enslaving and beggaring the clergy, (which took their birth from hell)." "I call God to witness," he adds, "that I did then, and do now, and shall for ever, firmly believe, that every Bishop who gave his vote for either of these bills, did it with no other view (bating further promotion), than a premeditated design, from the spirit of ambition, and love of arbitrary power, to make the whole body of the clergy their slaves and vassals until the day of judgment, under the load of poverty and contempt."

About the same time, 1732, appeared another pamphlet entitled, "The Reconciler ... shewing how all the good ends proposed by either of those bills, may, by a more gentle and easy method, be attained, without injury to the rights of my lords the bishops; or rigour and violence to the inferior clergy." In the main, the writer agrees with Swift; but the tract is valuable as showing that the controversy was no small one, and it furnishes also what is, apparently, an impartial history of the whole affair. Three Irish prelates voted against the bills on a division--Theophilus Bolton, Archbishop of Cashel, Charles Carr, Bishop of Killaloe, and Robert Howard, Bishop of Elphin.

The text of this tract is based on that which appeared in a volume of "Miscellanies in Prose and Verse" in the year 1789. It has been collated with those given by Scott, Hawkesworth, and other editors.


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Those gentlemen who have been promoted to bishoprics in this kingdom for several years past, are of two sorts: first, certain private clergymen from England, who, by the force of friends, industry, solicitation, or other means and merits to me unknown, have been raised to that character by the mero motu of the crown.

Of the other sort, are some clergymen born in this kingdom, who have most distinguished themselves by their warmth against Popery, their great indulgence to Dissenters, and all true loyal Protestants; by their zeal for the House of Hanover, abhorrence of the Pretender, and an implicit readiness to fall into any measures that will make the government easy to those who represent His Majesty's person.

Some of the former kind are such as are said to have enjoyed tolerable preferments in England; and it is therefore much to their commendation that they have condescended to leave their native country, and come over hither to be bishops, merely to promote Christianity among us; and therefore in my opinion, both their lordships, and the many defenders they bring over, may justly claim the merit of missionaries sent to convert a nation from heresy and heathenism.

Before I proceed farther, it may be proper to relate some particulars wherein the circumstances of the English clergy differ from those of Ireland.

The districts of parishes throughout England continue much the same as they were before the Reformation; and most of the churches are of the gothic architecture, built some hundred years ago; but the tithes of great numbers of churches having been applied by the Pope's pretended authority to several abbeys, and even before the Reformation bestowed by that sacrilegious tyrant Henry VIII., on his ravenous favourites, the maintenance of an incumbent in most parts of the kingdom is contemptibly small; and yet a vicar there of forty pounds a year, can live with more comfort, than one of three times the nominal value with us. For his forty pounds are duly paid him, because there is not one farmer in a hundred, who is not worth five times the rent he pays to his landlord, and fifty times the sum demanded for the tithes; which, by the small compass of his parish, he can easily collect or compound for; and if his behaviour and understanding be supportable, he will probably receive presents now and then from his parishioners, and perhaps from the squire; who, although he may sometimes be apt to treat his parson a little superciliously, will probably be softened by a little humble demeanour. The vicar is likewise generally sure to find upon his admittance to his living, a convenient house and barn in repair, with a garden, and a field or two to graze a few cows, and one horse for himself and his wife. He hath probably a market very near him, perhaps in his own village. No entertainment is expected from his visitor beyond a pot of ale, and a piece of cheese. He hath every Sunday the comfort of a full congregation, of plain, cleanly people of both sexes, well to pass, and who speak his own language. The scene about him is fully cultivated (I mean for the general) and well inhabited. He dreads no thieves for anything but his apples, for the trade of universal stealing is not so epidemic there as with us. His wife is little better than Goody, in her birth, education, or dress; and as to himself, we must let his parentage alone. If he be the son of a farmer it is very sufficient, and his sister may very decently be chambermaid to the squire's wife. He goes about on working days in a grazier's coat, and will not scruple to assist his workmen in harvest time. He is usually wary and thrifty, and often more able to provide for a numerous family than some of ours can do with a rectory called 300l. a year. His daughters shall go to service, or be sent 'prentice to the sempstress of the next town; and his sons are put to honest trades. This is the usual course of an English country vicar from twenty to sixty pounds a year.

As to the clergy of our own kingdom, their livings are generally larger. Not originally, or by the bounty of princes, parliaments, or charitable endowments, for the same degradations (and as to glebes, a much greater) have been made here, but, by the destruction and desolation in the long wars between the invaders and the natives; during which time a great part of the bishops' lands, and almost all the glebes, were lost in the confusion. The first invaders had almost the whole kingdom divided amongst them. New invaders succeeded, and drove out their predecessors as native Irish. These were expelled by others who came after, and upon the same pretensions. Thus it went on for several hundred years, and in some degree even to our own memories. And thus it will probably go on, although not in a martial way, to the end of the world. For not only the purchasers of debentures forfeited in 1641, were all of English birth, but those after the Restoration, and many who came hither even since the Revolution, are looked upon as perfect Irish; directly contrary to the practice of all wise nations, and particularly of the Greeks and Romans, in establishing their colonies, by which name Ireland is very absurdly called.

Under these distractions the conquerors always seized what lands they could with little ceremony, whether they belonged to the Church or not: Thus the glebes were almost universally exposed to the first seizers, and could never be recovered, although the grants, with the particular denominations, are manifest, and still in being. The whole lands of the see of Waterford were wholly taken by one family; the like is reported of other bishoprics.

King James the First, who deserves more of the Church of Ireland than all other princes put together, having the forfeitures of vast tracts of land in the northern parts (I think commonly called the escheated counties), having granted some hundred thousand acres of these lands to certain Scotch and English favourites, was prevailed on by some great prelates to grant to some sees in the north, and to many parishes there, certain parcels of land for the augmentation of poor bishoprics, did likewise endow many parishes with glebes for the incumbents, whereof a good number escaped the depredations of 1641 and 1688. These lands, when they were granted by King James, consisted mostly of woody ground, wherewith those parts of this island were then overrun. This is well known, universally allowed, and by some in part remembered; the rest being, in some places, not stubbed out to this day. And the value of the lands was consequently very inconsiderable, till Scotch colonies came over in swarms upon great encouragement to make them habitable; at least for such a race of strong-bodied people, who came hither from their own bleak barren highlands, as it were into a paradise; who soon were able to get straw for their bedding, instead of a bundle of heath spread on the ground, and sprinkled with water. Here, by degrees, they acquired some degree of politeness and civility, from such neighbouring Irish as were still left after Tyrone's last rebellion, and are since grown almost entirely possessors of the north. Thus, at length, the woods being rooted up, the land was brought in, and tilled, and the glebes which could not before yield two-pence an acre, are equal to the best, sometimes affording the minister a good demesne, and some land to let.

These wars and desolations in their natural consequences, were likewise the cause of another effect, I mean that of uniting several parishes under one incumbent. For, as the lands were of little value by the want of inhabitants to cultivate them, and many of the churches levelled to the ground, particularly by the fanatic zeal of those rebellious saints who murdered their king, destroyed the Church, and overthrew monarchy (for all which there is a humiliation day appointed by law, and soon approaching); so, in order to give a tolerable maintenance to a minister, and the country being too poor, as well as devotion too low, to think of building new churches, it was found necessary to repair some one church which had least suffered, and join sometimes three or more, enough for a bare support to some clergyman, who knew not where to provide himself better. This was a case of absolute necessity to prevent heathenism, as well as popery, from overrunning the nation. The consequence of these unions was very different, in different parts; for, in the north, by the Scotch settlement, their numbers daily increasing by new additions from their own country, and their prolific quality peculiar to northern people; and lastly by their universally feeding upon oats (which grain, under its several preparations and denominations, is the only natural luxury of that hardy people) the value of tithes increased so prodigiously, that at this day, I confess, several united parishes ought to be divided, taking in so great a compass, that it is almost impossible for the people to travel timely to their own parish church, or their little churches to contain half their number, though the revenue would be sufficient to maintain two, or perhaps three worthy clergymen with decency; provided the times mend, or that they were honestly dealt with, which I confess is seldom the case. I shall name only one, and it is the deanery of Derry; the revenue whereof, if the dean could get his dues, exceeding that of some bishoprics, both by the compass and fertility of the soil, the number as well as industry of the inhabitants, the conveniency of exporting their corn to Dublin and foreign parts; and, lastly, by the accidental discovery of marl in many places of the several parishes. Yet all this revenue is wholly founded upon corn, for I am told there is hardly an acre of glebe for the dean to plant and build on.

I am therefore of opinion, that a real undefalcated revenue of six hundred pounds a year, is a sufficient income for a country dean in this kingdom; and since the rents consist wholly of tithes, two parishes, to the amount of that value, should be united, and the dean reside as minister in that of Down, and the remaining parishes be divided among worthy clergymen, to about 300l. a year to each. The deanery of Derry, which is a large city, might be left worth 800l. a year, and Rapho according as it shall be thought proper. These three are the only opulent deaneries in the whole kingdom, and, as I am informed, consist all of tithes, which was an unhappy expedient in the Church, occasioned by the sacrilegious robberies during the several times of confusion and war; insomuch that at this day there is hardly any remainder left of dean and chapter lands in Ireland, that delicious morsel swallowed so greedily in England, under the fanatic usurpations.

As to the present scheme of a bill for obliging the clergy to residence, now or lately in the privy council, I know no more of the particulars than what hath been told me by several clergymen of distinction; who say, that a petition in the name of them all hath been presented to the lord lieutenant and council, that they might be heard by their counsel against the bill, and that the petition was rejected, with some reasons why it was rejected; for the bishops know best what is proper for the clergy. It seems the bill consists of two parts: First, a power in the bishops, with consent of the archbishop, and the patron, to take off from any parish whatever, it is worth above 300 a year; and this to be done without the incumbent's consent, which before was necessary in all divisions. The other part of the bill obligeth all clergymen, from forty pounds a year and upwards, to reside, and build a house in his parish. But those of 40 are remitted till they shall receive 100 out of the revenue of first-fruits granted by Her late Majesty.

Jonathan Swift