Exploring history of priests and judges

Hans Rollmann
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1729, an uneven year that does not appear at first sight to be a candidate for celebration, is nevertheless an important date for the history of Newfoundland.

In this year, rudimentary institutions of governance and law were instituted with the appointment of Henry Osborne as the island's first naval governor and local magistrates to administer law.

Jerry Bannister, who in a magisterial study, "The Rule of the Admirals" (2003), has explored the early institution and administration of law under naval government in Newfoundland, writes about the historic office of a magistrate or justice of the peace:

Magistrates were to ensure that those who broke the peace either found sufficient security or were imprisoned; they were empowered, for example, to convict those who committed fraud through false weights and measures or sold food contrary to English ordinances. They were also required to hold general quarter sessions according to common law. These provisions were essentially the same as those contained in commissions of the peace issued throughout Georgian England.

Ministers as magistrates

From the very beginning of its institution, several ministers of the Church of England became magistrates and judges throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries. Perhaps their assumed moral rectitude, their education and literacy, and the length of their stay in a community may have recommended them for the job, in which they often administered law together with a local merchant.

Yet the office and its added responsibilities could also create new tensions and conflicts for a minister, as Rev. Henry Jones in Bonavista would quickly discover. A civic-minded individual, Jones, who also opened the first school in English-speaking Newfoundland, was one of Gov. Osborne's appointments as a magistrate in 1729.

When the priest administered justice in the Newfoundland community, some of his parishioners did not like the outcome and withheld their previously promised support from the clergyman.

Reversing social hierarchy

Rev. Laurence Coughlan found magistracy even more precarious and, ultimately, fatal for his ministry in Newfoundland.

Coughlan, the so-called founder of Methodism in Conception Bay, was by no means a dull and dour clergyman or Wesleyan partisan. An Irish convert to Methodism, he had been a lay preacher under John Wesley in Ireland and England, but alienated the founder of Methodism through his questionable ordination by a Greek Orthodox bishop and by the company he kept among circles of Methodists who differed doctrinally and religiously from Wesley himself.

By the time Coughlan was approached by people who wanted a minister for Harbour Grace and Carbonear, he had separated from Wesley and was preaching as an independent "minister of God's Word" in Bermondsey, Surrey. After subsequent ordinations, this time as valid deacon and priest in the Church of England, Coughlan became the parson of Harbour Grace and within a few years also a justice of the peace for the district.

His original backers among local merchants did not, however, appreciate Coughlan's unorthodox evangelization and the ensuing revival with its highly emotional conversions.

They disliked even more the intimate religious cell groups that the minister formed in which women and people without substantial means and standing in the community held leadership roles, thus reversing religiously the social hierarchy that existed in 18th-century Newfoundland.

In fact, the changed behaviour of his parishioners, especially their turning away from alcohol and other vices, gave them greater independence in their personal and family life.

Coughlan wrote of his converts in "An Account of the Work of God in Newfoundland, North-America" (1776):

Before they received the Gospel, they spent much of their Time in Rioting and Drunkenness; but when the Word took place in their Hearts, many of them not only got out of Debt, but also had to spare. Here I would remark, how groundless is that Report, that those People who grow religious grow poor, or turn Beggers (sic).

Accused of withholding the sacraments from a merchant and attacking him publicly for his lack of morality, Coughlan had to defend himself before a naval surrogate judge whom Gov. John Byron - the grandfather of the celebrated British poet Lord Byron - had sent following a serious complaint against Coughlan.

He was accused of slander, irregularities in the performance of his ministry, and of taking a bribe when administering justice. In the end, Coughlan was not found guilty but he was, nevertheless, forced to resign his commission as a justice of the peace for "the quiet of the place."

After additional conflict in the community, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, his main financial supporter, withdrew its support and Coughlan was forced to leave Newfoundland.

After Coughlan's departure, other Anglican clergymen continued to serve the island's legal system. Lewis Amadeus Anspach, a Geneva-educated, literate Harbour Grace minister and magistrate, not only wrote an extensive History of Newfoundland, but also published in 1809 a legal treatise, "A summary of the laws of commerce and navigation, adapted to the present state, government, and trade of the island of Newfoundland." The actions of another minister at Harbour Grace, Rev. John Leigh, the first Ecclesiastical Commissary on the island, became an object of considerable public disapproval when, together with his fellow judge in the surrogate court system, David Buchan, he condemned in 1820 two Newfoundland fishermen to a Draconian flogging for contempt of court and non-attendance.

Response to that case contributed toward abolishing such surrogate courts and subsequent legal reform.

Organizations: Church of England, Society for the Propagation of the Gospel

Geographic location: Newfoundland, England, Bonavista Conception Bay Ireland Carbonear Bermondsey Surrey North-America Rioting Geneva

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Recent comments

  • James Eason
    August 13, 2012 - 06:50

    I wish there were more articles like this . I don't think the history of Newfoundland has been told fully,especially the first three hundred years. We know lots about the US early days but very little of our own.