Three days before the departure of Lieutenant Governor Arthur from Hobart on 31 October 1836, Lieutenant-Colonel Kenneth Snodgrass arrived from Sydney to take up the position of interim acting lieutenant governor until the arrival of Sir John Franklin. He was sworn in on the same day as Arthur’s departure and administered the colony for two months and six days. According to the historian John West he was well received by the colonists, but his tenure was too brief to leave any impression on colonial affairs.
However his cameo appearance in the pages of the history of Van Diemen’s Land did lead to a day of drama, with undertones of farce, some three months later. Members of the Presbyterian community in Hobart, knowing of the Colonel’s connections to, and sympathies with the Church of Scotland, were able to convince Snodgrass to issue a Proclamation convening a synod of ministers and elders on 5 April 1837, with the aim of establishing a firm foundation for their church in Van Diemen’s Land. The Proclamation was issued on 5 January 1837, and Sir John Franklin arrived on the barque Fairlie the following day to begin his term as Lieutenant Governor.
Fast forward to Wednesday 5 April when the Ministers, Elders and a considerable number of the Presbyterian congregation meet in St Andrew’s Church in compliance with the January Proclamation calling on them to:
Form a Synod and adopt the necessary steps for the future regular government and discipline of the Presbyterian Church in this Colony, in conformity with the rules and discipline of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
Following a sermon, delivered by Dr Anderson of Launceston, the meeting was about to commence when Captain Maconochie, Private Secretary to Lieutenant Governor Franklin, advised those present that he had been sent by his Excellency to inform the meeting that there was a technical objection to the constituting of a Synod under the Proclamation issued by Colonel Snodgrass. It was the opinion of the Crown lawyers that the Acting Lieutenant Governor did not have the power to convene a Synod in the Colony without the sanction of the Legislative Council. Therefore it was the request of his Excellency that the meeting should not be constituted as a Synod, under the authority of the January Proclamation.
He then went on to say because of circumstances not under his control (the severe indisposition of the Attorney General) he could not positively declare the meeting was illegal, and disannul it. He asked for one hour’s postponement of their proceedings as he was expecting to receive a document enabling him to speak more decidedly. This request was accompanied by the strongest reassurances of Sir John Franklin’s desire to do everything in his power to favour the interests of the Presbyterian body in the Island, and stated it was more a technical difficulty than any other which required to be overcome.
The favour requested, after an exchange of sentiments between both parties, was positively refused. Scarcely was this done, and a moderator chosen and the meeting about to proceed when a messenger made his appearance with a Proclamation from his Excellency the Lieutenant Governor, which dissolved the meeting.
Captain Maconochie again most politely assured the meeting of the desire of Sir John to promote the interests of their church and of his readiness to receive every suggestion which the members of the Synod could offer in furtherance of this end, even saying that were they to frame an Act themselves in reference to the Presbyterian Church, it would be received, and if on consideration approved by his Excellency and the Legislative Council, passed.
It was, however, argued that promises on paper, were preferable to oral ones, and Captain Maconochie readily agreed to providing a written confirmation of the promises he had made on the part of his Excellency. The reference to “promises on paper” probably arose from the Presbyterians’ less than satisfactory dealings with Lieutenant Governor Arthur.
A Statement by the Provisional Meeting of Presbyterians, published in the True Colonist on 2 June 1837 sets out their reasons for believing the Proclamation issued on 5 January 1837 to be legal and that they were bound to carry out the instructions in that document. They believed that their church and ministers took direction from the General Assembly in Britain and there was no need for approval by the Legislative Council in the Colony. The advice of the Crown law officers, however, was that the Proclamation of Colonel Snodgrass was illegal because it was not ratified by the Legislative Council.
This incident is little more than a side show to the wider discussion on the development of the relationship between Church and State in Van Diemen’s Land as well as the legislation that laid the foundations for State assistance to religious bodies in the Colony. A future post is planned to explore this topic further.