by Hans Rollmann



Conception Bay in 1766 was the most populous area in Newfoundland. From its principal towns of Harbour Grace and Carbonear merchants carried out an active cod fishery and thriving trade with England and the major ports in Europe. After the collapse of earlier seventeenth century experiments with colonization, settlement had been less ordered, even officially frowned upon but conceded nonetheless, lest a neglect might expose the area to French dominance. Also the immigration of Irish from the Southeast of Ireland employed in the Fishery reached a new height in the 1760s. The demographic equilibrium was not threatened, but a good third of the population was now Roman Catholic, the rest West Country Englishmen or traders and planters from Jersey and elsewhere. To deal with DE FACTO settlement without formal colonial status, rudimentary institutions of law, commerce, and administration had come into place, notably a magistracy in Harbour Grace, the capital harbour in the area. The relative prosperity of the area generated a great optimism about the island's future, and with it hopes for a more ordered society. But also the downside of population growth asserted itself, such as occasional riots by disenfranchised Irish Catholics. The need for the building of a public gaol in Harbour Grace in the 1760s reflects the tensions in the growing outport. Both the optimism of residential growth and concern over controlling the Irish Catholic population may have contributed to the erection of a church and a petition by the Conception Bay locals to secure an Anglican minister.

The beginning of a continuing Anglican presence on the island dates from the arrival of the Rev. John Jackson in 1701, following a private subscription by local residents. Jackson's support in 1703 through the newly-founded Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts initiated an enduring relationship between Newfoundland Anglicans and the S.P.G., which, for better or worse, made the missionaries on the island dependent upon an agency far removed from their field of activity. The Anglican missionaries of Newfoundland were especially hampered by a colonial policy that exhibited ambivalent and often hostile attitudes toward settlement. This policy prevented the establishment of a successful glebe and vestry system prevalent in other colonies and so important for an effective ecclesiastical presence in the Americas. And the absence of a local legislature robbed Anglicans of the constitutional entrenchment of preferences characteristic of the "Established Church" elsewhere and made the local ministers precariously dependent upon the favours or disfavours of the many and often changing governors. Although Newfoundland had been the example quoted by Thomas Bray in 1700, when seeking public support for his plan of a Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, the same Newfoundland throughout the eighteenth century became an exception to the initial S.P.G. design of establishing within a short time self-supporting parishes in the colonies.

In 1764 there were two S.P.G. supported clergymen in Newfoundland: the Reverend Edward Langman, a St. John's veteran minister, and the Reverend James Balfour, a convert from Scotch Presbyterianism, who was stationed in Trinity. Although Governor Palliser was greatly responsible for the retarded colonization of Newfoundland during the eighteenth century, he considered the presence of religion a controlling mechanism for pacifying the masses and was thus not opposed to a minister in the most populous region of Newfoundland. In Labrador he encouraged the Moravian mission among the Inuit for similar reasons, so that the natives would not interfere with the trade in Southern Labrador. In 1764, the year in which a church was being built in Harbour Grace, Palliser may very well have had the Conception Bay area in mind when he observed that the inhabitants of Newfoundland "live as mere savages without religion, without marrying or christening their children ... who spend the Lord's Day in idleness and debauchery, every one living as he likes." The call for a third minister, to serve the Conception Bay communities, followed a predictable pattern: private subscription for the building of a church and the maintenance of a minister by the merchants and inhabitants. Not common, however, was that the religious initiative came from a Calvinistic dissenter. It explains, however, the subsequent choice of minister: the Rev. Laurence Coughlan.

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