From The Newfoundland Quarterly, June 1984, Volume 14, Number 4, pp. 23 - 27. Published by The Newfoundland Quarterly Foundation, St. John's, NF. Reprinted by permission.

John Jones, James O'Donel, and the Question of Religious Tolerance in Eighteenth-Century Newfoundland:
A Correspondence

Hans Rollmann


On the 17th of April 1785, the small congregation of Dissenters that had gathered in St. John's for the six o'clock evening worship was rudely disturbed by a mob of angry men, women, and children hurling rocks at their meeting house.{1} When a sergeant from the garrison appeared at the entrance, he was struck on the head with a stone thrown by the Catholic rioters. And although the frightened worshippers several times before had been the object of pranks by Navy soldiers pouring gunpowder down the chimney,{2} this disturbance appeared to be more serious. Only the utmost efforts of John Livingston, an influential citizen, succeeded in dispersing the mob and restoring calm.{3}

When the congregation brought a grievance before the local judges, it in turn was accused of inciting anti-Catholic feelings through the sermons of its minister John Jones. The Rev. Walter Price,{4} a local Anglican clergyman, had accused the Congregationalist minister and former paymaster at the garrison of preaching "against the Roman Catholick's Religion and thereby mak[ing] dissentions in this place." In a petition to the justices, Jones defended himself by stating that although he considered "the Church of Rome to be repugnant to Scripture," he "never used the words Roman Catholic or Papist, Pope or Popery in any of [his] public Preaching, either in St. John's or elsewhere." Nor did he wish, the minister assured the court, "to give offence to any, but to live at peace with all men, well knowing that true religion does not consist in Sects and Parties but in righteousness and Godliness and peace." Having himself experienced persecution at the hands of the governor and the Established Church earlier in his career as a minister, he now desired "that his fellow Citizens of the Catholic party should enjoy with himself the full liberty of Conscience." Although the staunch Calvinist disagreed with Roman Catholicism on many points and was always ready "to assert and prove Scriptural truths according to his several oaths taken in this Court," he most happily concurred "in whatever his Majesty and the Parliament might think proper to do for their [i.e. Catholics'] relief in the Toleration of their Religious Principles, and this not only from a motive of duty and Loyalty, but of equity and Justice, that what he would men should do unto him, the same he would do unto them."{5}

If any among the Catholic rioters felt that their assault might receive the blessing of the Church, they were quickly told differently by the new superior of the Catholic mission in Newfoundland. The Reverend James Louis O'Donel{6} publicly repudiated the mob action in no uncertain terms. Just the year before, he had come to the island, following a request made by Irish merchants, to serve among the largely Gaelic-speaking Irish Catholics. By his presence, it was hoped that the behaviour of what the merchants in their letter to Bishop Talbot of London had called "unruly and scandalous priests" might be checked and the influx of unlicensed ones from Ireland be controlled.{7} When the former teacher of theology at Prague arrived in St. John's on 4 July 1784,{8} even the hard-to-please Rev. Price quickly called him "a sensible, well-disposed man."{9} And John Jones, to remember the event, wrote in his journal: "This year 1784 the Romish Priest came to the Harbour, got full toleration and exercise [of] the Popish Religion in all respects, obtained leave to build a chapel and laid the foundation thereof."{10}

The days of gubernatorial fiat, when the heavy-handed, governor Dorrill tore down dwellings and fishing places in which itinerant priests had said mass,{11} were now all but memory. Presumably, the relaxation of the penal laws in England in 1778,{12} the subsequent removal of the discriminatory "except Papists" clause from the instructions to governors of Newfoundland in 1779,{13} the realities of Irish population growth in the island,{14} the trouble with Methodists in Conception Bay,{15} perhaps even the benign example of a changed legal situation for Catholics in Quebec{16} and Nova Scotia,{17} and, more recently, the 1783 permission for Catholics to build a chapel in St. John's{18} - all of this had finally culminated in a more general public announcement of religious liberty in 1784 by Governor John Campbell,{19} the son of a Scotch clergyman.{20} The governor, by a vaguely worded instruction, even allowed Catholic priests to solemnize marriages.{21}

Already by the end of 1783, Irish merchants had approached the ecclesiastical authorities in Ireland,{22} and through them Bishop Talbot, the Vicar Apostolic of the London district, who was responsible for the Roman Catholics of Newfoundland.{23} Bishop Egan of Waterford had also speedily informed the Sacred Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith in Rome.{24} When on 30 May 1784 Pope Pius VI approved O'Donel's appointment and raised Newfoundland to an independent ecclesiastical territory under the direct control of the Holy See,{25} the establishment of institutional Catholicism in the island had begun in earnest. One of the first public actions of the new Prefect Apostolic was to reproach the rioters.{26}

John Jones persuaded the judges of his innocence; and when three offenders were found, convicted, and sentenced to lashes, he successfully pleaded for a remission of these Draconian penalties.{27} What followed the mob action and subsequent trial was a remarkable exchange between the Congregationalist minister and the future Catholic bishop of Newfoundland, which is contained in the manuscript history of the Dissenting Church of Christ in St. John's, now in the possession of St. David's Presbyterian Church.{28}


John Jones was a survivor of religious intolerance, who with Calvinist confidence stressed the socially redemptive qualities of organized religion. His letters revealed few nuances of his "thought," and one may doubt whether, beyond the ten articles of his denominational creed and a passion for religious liberty and the Scriptures, he even had a clearly articulated "theology." One can also argue that the tumultuous history of Catholicism and Congregationalism in English and English-dominated society and the recent relaxation of penal laws for Catholics and Dissenters helped shape Jone's and O'Donel's contention that tolerated religion promotes morality, peace, and public welfare.

While both men shared this background and attitude, O'Donel's letter permits us further glances into his philosophy of religion. Several streams converge here. He has inherited a fundamentally Augustinian anthropology, which conceives religion as a moral regulative for fallen humankind. And yet he is quite the child of his time when, in opposition to the Deist battle cry "Religion not mysterious," he asserts with Bishop Butler that religion, at bottom, is an opaque and ineffable mystery. This, in turn, legitimizes for O'Donel conceptually and institutionally distinct interpretations of the Sacred and relativizes creedal absolutism and a normative metaphysic, even though the Logos Christology of the Greek fathers and the natural theology of the Thomist tradition may have been on the mind of O'Donel and contributed toward this inclusive attitude as well. Such limits to knowing ultimate mysteries and apology for religious pluralism underlay ultimately even the philosophes' notion of religious tolerance. For they had argued that "since men are all hopelessly ignorant of the ultimate mysteries shrouding the universe, it would be the utmost in barbarity and absurdity to constrain, let alone persecute, those who hold views divergent from the dominant one: certainty is the mother of intolerance, disdain for metaphysical construction is an inducement to toleration."{29} And with the melioristic optimism of the Enlightenment, O'Donel judges the faintest presence of the Divine conducive to "the benevolent support and benefit of society." O'Donel sees in all human beings a striving towards perfection, and, like the wise judge in Lessing's Enlightenment drama Nathan the Wise, refuses "to be so foolish as to fall out with a man for not saying his prayers in the manner I do."

Even if the latitudinarianism of this letter could not have been expressed half a century later, something of its spirit was still alive at a time when No Popery Protestants and Nationalist Irishmen, Ultramontane Catholics and Tractarian Tories clashed head-on. For on 30 January 1833 Bishop Fleming, an uncompromising apologist for Roman Catholicism as the exclusive saving institution, submitted to the first session of the Newfoundland legislature a petition "to repeal this unchristian and unwise law, and to extend to the Dissenters and Methodists of this Island the privilege of solemnizing marriages in their own church, and by a clergyman of their own establishment."{30}

In the letters, we meet two men who can disagree over theological issues, but who are committed to a spirit of civility and mutual respect. Frightened by the absolutism and intolerance of the past, they find a common ground in the formal exercise of what may be judged as one of the great human achievements of the modern era: religious freedom and denominational pluralism.


The Letters




1) I am grateful to the Kirk Session of St. David's Presbyterian Church in St. John's, its former minister the Rev. James Armour, and its Interim Moderator, the Rev. Dr. Sheldon MacKenzie, for permission to consult and print passages from the 18th- and 19th-century manuscript history "Notes Concerning the Dissenting Church at St. John's, Newfoundland" (hereafter: "Notes"). The "Notes," which also contain the following documentation, are part of a larger volume of church records bearing the title: "Congregational Church/Saint John's/Newfoundland,/Instituted/1775/John Jones/Pastor." For a history of the Congregation see The Dissenting Church of Christ at St. John's 1775 - 1975: A History of St. David's Presbyterian Church, St. John's, Newfoundland ([St. John's]: n.p., [1974]). I am also grateful to my colleague Prof. John R. Williams for reading and commenting on this edition.

2) "Notes," 15.

3) "Notes," 20 - 21.

4) Cf. Ruth M. Christensen, "The Establishment of S.P.G. Missions in Newfoundland, 1703 - 1783," Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church 20 (June 1951), 223.

5) For the preceding, see "Notes," 22 - 25.

6) Anonymous, "James Louis O'Donel", Dictionary of Canadian Biography: Vol. 5: 1801 to 1820 (Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 1983), 631 - 634.

7) Archives of the Sacred congregation of the Propagation of the Faith (Vatican), hereafter: "PF"; PF/SOCG, Vol. 867 (1784), 31rv, 32rv - 33rv, 38rf. Cf. the useful indices provided by Luca Codignola for the Public Archives of Canada (Ottawa).

8) PF/Congressi (AA), Vol. 2 (1763 - 89), 562rv - 563rv.

9) Manuscript Journal of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (London), hereafter: SPG; SPG Journal, Vol. 23 (Friday 17 December 1784), 423.

10) "Notes," 20.

11) Cf. already the documentation in Charles Pedley, The History of Newfoundland: From the Earliest Times to the Year 1860 (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts & Green, 1863), 90 - 96. These documents, drawn from C.O. 194, have been reprinted many times since.

12) 18 George III, cap. 45, and 18 George III, cap. 60, Great Britain: The Statues at Large: George III 1778 - 1779 (Washington, D.C.: Microcard Editions, n.d.), Card 2, 74 - 75 and 152 - 154.

13) Whereas Article 21 of Governor Palliser's instructions of 1764 (C.O. 194/17) had read: "You are to permit a free exercise of religion to all persons except Papists [emphasis my own] so that they be contented with a quite and peaceable enjoyment of the same, not giving offence or scandal to the government," the clause "except Papists" is absent from the instructions to governors since Governor Edwards in 1779, presumably because of the liberation of the Penal Laws; cf. Raymond J. Lahey, "Religion and Politics in Newfoundland: The Antecedents of the General Election of 1832" (St. John's: Unpublished Lecture, Newfoundland Historical Society, 15 March 1979), 3 - 4.

14) E.g., Mr. Price to S.P.G., 30 November 1784; SPG Journal, Vol. 23 (Friday 18 February 1785), 43; "The Harbour of St. John's contains between 2 and 3000 Winter-residents, three fourths of whom are Roman Catholics, and one half of the remainder are Methodist."

15) Jacob Parsons, "The Origin and Growth of Newfoundland Methodism 1765 - 1855" (St. John's: M.A. Thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1964), 26, 32.

16) John S. Moir, Church and State in Canada 1627 - 1867, The Carleton Library, Vol. 33, ed. by Robert L. McDougall (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1967), 92 - 110.

17) John Garner, "The Enfranchisement of Roman Catholics in the Maritimes," The Canadian Historical Review 34 (1953), 203 - 218. I am grateful to Prof. T.M. Murphy for acquainting me with this article.

18) See fn. 7.

19) Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador, GN 2/1/A, Vol. 10, p. 138: "Pursuant to the King's instructions to me, you are to allow all persons inhabiting this island to have full liberty of conscience, and the free exercise of all such modes of religious worship as are not prohibited by law, provided they be contented with a quiet and peaceable enjoyment of the same, not giving offence or scandal to Government"; cf. also Public Record Office, C.O. 194, Vol. 35 (1780 - 1784), p. 631 ("Extract of Newfoundland Instruction"):" 12. To allow the Exercise of Such Modes of Religious Worship as are not prohibited by Law"; SPG Journal, Vol. 23 (18 February 1785), 43: "The Late Gov[erno]r Campbell left behind him a paper, which signified, that it was his Majesty's pleasure to grant his Subjects in Newfoundland, of all persuasion (as by Law tolerated,) equal authority and privilege in the exercise of their religion."

20) William Garden Blaikie, "John Campbell," The Dictionary of National Biography (London: Oxford University Press, 1921/23), Vol. 3, 829 - 830.

21) Cf. the vague formulation in C.O. 194, Vol. 35 (1780 - 1784), 631: "No man to administer the Sac[ra]m[ents] that [sic] is not in Orders, and respecting the conduct of ministers." I am grateful to Mrs. Barbara Crosbie for having located this instruction.

22) See fn. 7.

23) PF/Acta, 154 (1784), 294r; PF/SOCG, 867 (1784), 34rv - 35rv and 36rv - 37rv; PF/Lettere 244 (1784), 480 - 481r.

24) PF.Acta 154 (1784), 294rv.

25) PF/Acta 154 (1784), 294rv; PF/Lettere 244 (1784), 477v - 479r and 480rv - 481r.

26) "Notes," 27.

27) Ibid.

28) The letters were copied in the end of the 18th century/beginning of the 19th century by a church member, in the case of O'Donel's letter with less literary skill than the original writer. Thus spelling and punctuation have been tacitly corrected in some cases. The documents can be found in "Notes," 27 - 33.

29) Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation: Vol. 2: The Science of Freedom (New York: W.W. Norton, 1977), 399.

30) M.F. Howley, Ecclesiastical History of Newfoundland (Boston: Doyle and Whittle, 1888), 273.

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