What would happen if I were to discuss the concept of God and Satan with one of my ancestors at the turn of the seventeenth century? Would there be any commonality in our thinking in any form or would it merely be like two ships passing in the night? In this blog I have selected one of my forefathers by the name of Reverend Francis McCleland with whom I will engage in this hypothetical discussion.
Main picture: Would we even agree on such aspects whether God was a divine being with a human appearance or even whether it is a loving caring God and not as Leviticus implies, a vindictive God?
The Life and Times of Reverend Francis McCleland
The Reverend Francis McCleland was my great-great-great grandfather. He is a mere footnote to history not so much because he was an 1820 Settler, or the fact that he was the first Minister of the original St Mary’s Anglican Church in Port Elizabeth, but because his house, Number 7 Castle Hill, is the oldest extant house in Port Elizabeth.
It is for that reason only & no other, that I am aware of his existence. He & I live(d) in worlds apart yet all that separates us apart from the bloodline, is 200 years. I am unable to imagine what type of life that he would have lived but can hazard a guess on some points. This is what I could surmise.
He was born in Longford County in southern Ireland in what is today part of the Republic of Ireland. Being Protestant, he would have been living in a sea of Catholics which would have caused tension. Later he moved to Country Cork. He probably would have sung the song “The Banks of my Own Lovely Lee” as this song is traditionally associated with this county.
Despite his home language being English, Cork County still has two “Gaeltacht” areas where the “Irish language” is the primary medium of everyday speech even today. These are Muskerry in the north of the county, especially the villages of Coolea and Ballingeary, and “Cape Clear Island” , an island in the west. There is no doubt that the Irish Language was more widely spoken in the early 19th century & as such, Francis probably knew a smattering of it through common use.
In 1820, that was all to change when, due to the deprivations arising from the lack of jobs after the Napoleonic Wars, the British Government encouraged the emigration of the starving people. Those in Cork mainly used Cobh, the port where many Irish emigrants boarded for their voyage to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa or the United States and it was also the last stop of the RMS Titanic” , before departing on its ill-fated journey to the abyss.
Being part of the Parker Party, they were not destined for Algoa Bay like the rest of the contingents. Instead they were to be settled in Clanwilliam in the Cedarberg Mountains of the Western Cape. On arrival in Clanwilliam, what did these anxious people find? There was no reception party with meat sizzling on a barbeque. Instead it was verdant untilled bush. Many were townspeople without any experience at farming. After vociferous complaints by Parker, they were relocated to Albany in the Eastern Cape. Francis however relocated to Port Elizabeth where he was as Colonial Chaplain.
Differing religious convictions
If I ever had to meet my forefather, amongst the many questions that I would quiz him on relate to his religious beliefs. The ones that are of most interest to me would relate to his perceptions of heaven & hell. Of all the questions relating to religion, why would I request that information? Not to be churlish, I have no interest in religious dogma at all but it is rather peoples’ perceptions of religion that interests me.
His world view would have been vastly different from mine from a religious point of view. With religions still playing a decisive role in people’s lives on a daily basis, it was not something that one did on a part-time basis on Sunday only. It was intrinsic to one’s whole life & being.
He probably would have described God – he would have been implying a male Christian God – as a loving God, one that was omnipotent, all-seeing & all-knowing. He would be conflicted when discussing the fact that free-will overrode or superseded the will & the purpose of God. A debate on why God had allowed tragedies such as the recent Napoleonic Wars to create such suffering for mankind, would have been stilted, to say the least.
N.T. Wright is one of several scholars who are arguing that
Christianity’s accepted notion of heaven, which came into
being during the Middle Ages, is not in accord with the
Tens of thousands died not only from their wounds but in the retreat from Borodino in Russia where half of Napoleon’s Army had died of exposure, starvation, disease & other privations. Closer to home I would have pointed out the effect of the famines in Ireland between 1845 & 1852, aided & abetted by the high-minded British Ministers comfortably ensconced in Whitehall oblivious to the havoc caused by their inane policies. He would sanctimoniously have shrugged, “That’s God’s Plan.”
I would rightly have pointed out that it could not have been God’s Plan to cause so much agony & suffering, but to no avail. Would not a loving God have ameliorated the situation? By now, he would probably have been apoplectic with rage at my unreligious demeanour. How did I have the temerity to question whether it was God’s Will or Plan or lack of action or even concern?
Then I would have proceeded to the subject of whether God was a loving God or not. Instead of engaging in a polemical discussion on various Books of the Old Testament like Leviticus, I would have queried the concept that 70% of the world’s population who had never heard of the Bible would a priori be condemned to a fiery eternal life of damnation. Surely if God was a loving God, he would still accept us, the non-believers, into Heaven & forgive us our trespasses.
The sole consolation that the church can offer
in time of tragedy is the platitude,
“It is God’s Will.”
What type of hell would he have envisaged? The classic version with satanic creatures with spear like tails & tridents as swords standing guard over a scene out of Dante’s Inferno would encapsulate his reply. How else could the church keep the laity on the straight & narrow but by such visions of perdition, a hell of unspeakable cruelty & privations? Not only that, it was not a temporary phenomenon serving as punishment but for all of eternity.
The frightening of the populace into church and a life of peity was the norm.
Instead what do we have today? Today’s loving God is probably an accurate description of what my forefathers would have liked him to be instead of this cantankerous vindictive old man who would subject one to the most despicable punishment for eternity if one had the temerity not to acknowledge him as the omnipotent God that he was supposed to be.
Hell today would also be a far kinder and gentler place. In most people’s visions, with all the sinners congregated in one location, visions of free sex, alcohol & sunshine abound. Isn’t that a vast improvement on the saccharine version of insipid sweetness & light that is supposedly heaven?
In just 195 years since my forefather Reverend Francis McCleland boarded the vessel East Indian on the 12th February 1820 at the port of Passage West 10 miles outside the town of Cork with a new wife, 20 year old Elizabeth, bound for a far-off land at the southern part of Africa populated by atheistic natives who had never hear the Word of God & as such, they would be condemned to eternal perdition.
From fire and brimstone to a naughty resort for sinners is what Hell has become.
In spite of Francis’ bachelor’s degree from Trinity College, Dublin University obtained in 1817, he would not have convinced me of the error of my ways.
I know that Hell beckons me but with the attractions available, hasn’t it become a desirable eternal holiday destination?
Let’s have a drink to that.