Origins (Part I - 1849)
The Society for the Irish Church Missions (ICM) was founded in March 1849, largely through the work of an English clergyman, the Reverend Alexander Dallas, Vicar of the parish of Wonston, Hampshire. A man of immense energy and organising ability, Dallas had been a supplies officer in Wellington’s army during the Napoleonic wars in Spain and was present at the battle of Waterloo in 1815. Following his ordination in 1821, Dallas served in a number of curacies during which time he was converted to a living faith in Christ, largely through the influence of Charles Sumner, who became Bishop of Winchester and a life-long supporter of ICM. It was thus his conversion that was the source of the evangelistic zeal that motivated his whole life and led to the foundation of ICM.
The missionary zeal of Dallas is evidenced in a letter to a friend in 1850, in which he described his reason for founding ICM as nothing less than to ‘Protestantize’ Ireland. In a sermon in 1851 he clearly outlined what he meant by this, saying that Evangelicals were without excuse if they did not ensure that the Reformation doctrines of grace were preached in Ireland. “The Society for Irish Church Missions … is one instrumentality, capable through the help and blessing of God, of carrying the Gospel to every part of Ireland.” The chief motivation of his life was the Gospel of Christ and the need to be constantly in the work of preaching it. The evidence of his zeal for the Gospel is seen in the monuments to his memory in St. Patrick’s Cathedral Dublin, in the parish church of Clifden in Connemara, and in the Mission building in Dublin, which state that ‘he was instrumental in having erected 21 churches, 49 schoolhouses, 12 parsonages, and 4 orphanages, in connection with the society’s operations.’
The Founding of ICM
The particular focus of his concern was the Roman Catholic people of Ireland. During visits to Ireland in the early 1840’s, when he preached to the annual April missionary gatherings of the Irish clergy on behalf of CMS and the Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews, he became increasingly convinced of the need to bring the Gospel to Irish Roman Catholic people. The Church of Ireland had been engaged for many years in Gospel outreach to Roman Catholics in a movement that came to be known as the ‘Second Reformation.’ Dallas gave fresh impetus to this work by his personal efforts at evangelism, sending Gospel literature by the recently established ‘penny-post’ to thousands of Roman Catholic homes in January 1846. With the help of Miss Fanny Bellingham in Dublin, Dallas was not only able to send literature but he was also able to recruit eight Protestant Gospel preachers in October that year to preach from village to village. Following his own successful preaching ministry in the west of Ireland in 1847, Dallas received the support of the Bishop of Tuam, Thomas Plunkett, to ordain a clergyman to work on behalf of ICM in Castlekerke, County Galway.
With the enthusiastic help of the Bishop and the support of an evangelical Landlord, Hyacinth D’Arcy of Clifden, Co. Galway, missionary schools began to spread in the west of Ireland. It was soon realised that if the work of the Gospel was to continue to prosper and grow, a new missionary society was needed. Thus, in March 1849, The Society for the Irish Church Missions to the Roman Catholics was founded and received the enthusiastic support of over 200 Irish Clergy who signed a resolution of support at the annual gathering of the missionary societies in April 1849. From its inception, Bishops and Archbishops of the Irish Church were constantly patrons of ICM, right up until the present day where two of our current trustees hold the office of bishop.
In our next instalment Rev’d Eddie Coulter will help us consider some of the more controversial aspects associated with the historic work of Irish Church Missions.