Origins (Part II - The Early Years)
From its beginning, controversy was never far away from the work of ICM. One controversial aspect of ICM’s Gospel activity was its timing: ICM’s earliest missionary work coincided with the era of famine in nineteenth century Ireland. The charge of ‘souperism’ – offering soup to starving peasants in exchange for conversion – was strenuously refuted by ICM. Minute 202 records the policy of ICM, which was ‘never to employ any of its funds for temporal relief to any of the persons who are the objects of their missionary labours’. Of course, this left ICM open to the opposite charge of callous indifference to the physical plight of famine victims. However, many of the supporters of ICM, including Dallas himself, were deeply moved by the devastating effects of the Famine, and through their separate private giving, Dallas was able for example to open two orphanages in the worst affected region for children left destitute by the Famine.
The second controversial aspect of ICM’s work, which continued throughout the nineteenth century, was its method of evangelism. Co-operating closely with Irish churches, ICM set up local mission committees, which consisted of the parish clergy, ICM missionaries and Scripture readers, who not only preached the Gospel in towns and villages throughout Ireland, but also set up ‘controversial lectures’, which were aimed at exposing the unbiblical doctrines of Roman Catholic dogma in the light of the Bible’s teachings. This ‘controversial’ method wasn’t new, as the Church of Ireland had employed it in the early days of the Second Reformation, but the work of ICM intensified and extended the debate. It proved an exceptionally profitable method of evangelism, particularly in Dublin, where the first Superintendent of the Mission, the Rev. C. F. McCarthy of St. Michan’s parish, held a controversial class that had regularly 700 in attendance, most of whom were Roman Catholics, invited to the meeting by ICM workers who visited around the streets of Dublin.
Dublin and Connemara
In Dublin, the extent of ICM’s missionary activity can be measured by the fact that in 1850 between eight and twelve thousand handbills, advertising the text of the next sermon and controversial class, were distributed weekly. The increasing number of converts necessitated the establishment of a Mission Church, which was built and opened in 1853 in Townsend Street with the support of Dr. Whately the Archbishop of Dublin. At the opening service, eight hundred people were in attendance and the church was consecrated with the petition, “May many a poor soul now sunk in the ignorance and bondage of Rome, find the true light of the Gospel of Christ, and many a doubting, trembling enquirer, be guided into the way of peace, within the walls of the Mission Church of Dublin”.
The work of the Mission in Dublin was greatly aided by the wife of the Archbishop and her daughters as well as by Mrs Ellen Smyly, who helped to administer ICM mission schools and homes in Dublin, which were strategically located in the very poorest areas of Dublin. These schools were run by separate committees but ICM trained the teachers and many of the boys and girls regularly attended the Mission church. By the 1860’s, ICM had over eight mission stations in Dublin alone, and many more throughout the country
In Connemara, there were forty-six centres of activity by 1860 and mission stations were strategically placed throughout the Galway area. Much of the success of the work was due to the tireless work of Hyacinth D’Arcy and the support of the Bishop of Tuam. However, the large numbers of initial converts began to slow down by the time of the census of 1861. The explanation of ICM to their critics was that this was due to the large scale emigration that affected the west of Ireland, the young people who left for employment in England, and in the British armed forces, and the increasing bitter and violent opposition that many converts faced from their families, which often forced them to leave their own communities. Even so, in one area of Connemara, where in 1834 the registered number of Protestants didn’t even reach 100, the census of 1861 showed that above 2000 people voluntarily registered themselves as Protestants.
In assessing this period of ICM’s history, there is no doubt that the constant driving force behind ICM through all this era was the evangelistic zeal of Dallas. His own personal example and courage in preaching in the face of opposition the west of Ireland and in debate inspired many. Dallas was a Gospel strategist, who carefully planned and organised the preaching of the Gospel in key areas around Ireland. Above all, he was a man of prayer who never took a step in the work of ICM without praying for it intently. Following his death in 1869, his widow wrote a biography of his life and ended it with the prayer that Dallas constantly prayed, a prayer for all Gospel workers, “O God, for Christ’s sake, give me the Holy Spirit”.