20 July, 2020

"Heathenism" : The Maitland Riot 1860

The startling notice, which appeared in the local newspaper for the town of Maitland NSW, was an admirable attempt by the pastor of the West Maitland Catholic parish, Father Lynch, to prevent an outbreak of sectarian violence between his flock and a nearby congregation of Presbyterians.  Saint John the Baptist's Catholic church and the Free Presbyterian church were (and are) only a few streets away from each other, adjoining the main street of Maitland, and each went about its own business as a Christian community.  Their respective pastors, Father John Thomas Lynch and the Reverend William McIntyre shared a certain vision for Christianity in Australia, namely that it be marked by restraint or abstinence from intoxicating liquor - then (as now) a serious social problem.

Father John Lynch
Resident priest West Maitland
Any common vision or mutual tolerance was brought to an abrupt end on 29th March 1860 in a notorious incident known as The Maitland Riots.  The immediate spark for this was an unprovoked and inflammatory public statement by Mr McIntyre. (1)

On 28th February, 1860, Mr McIntyre preached in the Presbyterian church hall in Hinton on his favourite theme, the wickedness of the Church of Rome.  Apart from his own bigotry, there was a particular reason for this public attack.  Each Christian denomination received - directly or indirectly - some sort of assistance from the Colonial Government of NSW, roughly in proportion to its numbers, and in general, Mr McIntyre thought that the Catholics received too much and should, indeed be cut off from State aid altogether.  The system of government aid was, in fact, quite fair and apportioned funding commensurate with the size of the congregation of a particular church community and their capacity to raise their own money.

As a matter of fact, the various groups of Australian Presbyterians, being quite small in number, received far less government assistance than did Catholic communities, and this was something which did not sit well with them.  It seems in particular that it rankled the Reverend William McIntyre.  In his address in Hinton, Mr McIntyre was reported by The Maitland Mercury :
The Presbyterian Church is not opposed to the idea of State aid, the question is whether Roman Catholics should be regarded as a Christian sect, worthy of being recognised at all.  The Church of Rome treats Protestants as heretics; I question whether we in turn should regard Popery as anything better than a form of baptised heathendom.
With the use of this archaic word heathendom, McIntyre was making a particular assessment of Catholicism, namely that not only was it NOT part of Christianity, but that it was also polytheistic, offering to the Blessed Virgin and the saints that reverence which is reserved only to God. Obviously, this was in contravention of the commandment : Thou shalt not have Strange Gods before me.  This misrepresentation of Catholic belief has been a recurring motif since the so-called Reformation in the 16th century, and was a regular theme of the preaching of Scottish Calvinists (but not limited to them).  Not content to worship God according to their own beliefs, time and again the beliefs of the Catholic Church (and, by extension, the Eastern Orthodox) were attacked by such Protestants as being a degenerate form of Christianity, or even Heathendom.

The Reverend William McIntyre
Presbyterian Minister West Maitland
The meaning of William McIntyre's accusation was not lost on the Catholic inhabitants of Maitland in 1860. There was considerable outrage at the statement and, when it was announced that Mr McIntyre would give a further lecture in Maitland itself one month later, there were many Catholics who declared that they would be present.  The second lecture was advertised to take place in the Free Presbyterian Church in Maitland, under the title The Heathenism of Popery. Proved and Illustrated. The date set for the address was 29th March 1860. The lecture had been advertised for some weeks and there was no secret about it. There was no secret, either, that many Catholics had said that the lecture would never take place. The Police Magistrate, Edward Denny Day, had been warned of possible trouble.  And the Reverend William McIntyre knew about the brewing storm; but he would not be deterred.

The Maitland Mercury colourfully describes what occurred that evening :
The Rev. Mr. McIntyre, who lives at Pitnacree, near East Maitland, arrived at the church with his family in his carriage about dusk. The street and the church yard had long before this been filled by an expectant, angry, and excited crowd, and scarcely had Mr. McIntyre stepped to the ground from his carriage than he was attacked by the mob, but he succeeded in escaping to the High School adjoining. His brother, Mr. Donald McIntyre was not so fortunate, as he was struck several times and severely mauled before he could make his way into the school. Mrs. McIntyre, who had accompanied her husband, was rescued by some bystanders early in the proceedings and taken to a place of refuge unharmed. But a nephew of hers was struck down by a blow, and the coachman was attacked with walking sticks and other missiles, and was considerably knocked about. Then the crowd, which became every moment more excited, attempted to wreck the carriage, but the police assisted by Mr. E. D. Day, Police Magistrate, who were by this time concentrated on the spot where it was standing, managed to prevent this being done.  
The Presbyterian Church in Free Church Street, Maitland
Scene of the 1860 Maitland Riot.
Shortly after the crowd, which is said to have numbered about a thousand persons, although a portion of it only was active, made an attack on the church itself. The front palings were torn down to be used as weapons, the windows were smashed by stones, and an attempt was made to burst open the church doors. But fortunately the police were strong enough in numbers to frustrate this object. Stone throwing continued for some time, fighting was frequent, and the air filled with noise of shouting and threatening, but after a time there was a lull, when Mr. Day assured the crowd no lecture would take place. But still the crowd did not disperse until ten o'clock at night...
Mr. Donald McIntyre was the only one of the family seriously hurt, his head being a complete mass of bruises and wounds. It was midnight before the excitement cooled down, and order was eventually restored. No arrests were made, but the police took the names of the ring-leaders with the view to their subsequent prosecution. (2)
This ugly episode did not end on the night of 29th March, but continued in Maitland for most of the remainder of 1860; it would seem to indicate the depth of anti-Catholic sentiment prevalent in that community.  Rather than see the occasion as a reckless outburst in response to an arrogant provocation, the supporters of William McIntyre - and there were many - rallied around to denounce the episode as an infringement on freedom of speech.  Not everyone was taken in by such claims, as was further reported in The Maitland Mercury :
A public meeting of Catholics was held in St. John's School, "to take into consideration the proper means of obviating the threatened disruption from their fellow residents of the local Catholics, sought to be brought about by the delivery of a lecture at West Maitland, and to protest against the charge of Catholic hostility to freedom of speech and discussion." 
Fifty persons attended the meeting ... and the following resolutions were carried:— 
(1) That this meeting, seeing with the greatest alarm and regret the persistence by one individual member of the community in a line of conduct calculated both to disturb the peace and to propagate the worst of all social evils, namely, sectarian rancour and ill-will in this hitherto peaceful community, hereby protest against such conduct, and declare their anxiety to live in friendly union with their fellow-citizens.
(2). That this meeting indignantly repudiates the charge of Catholic hostility to liberty of speech and discussion, the Catholic portion of every British community having special reason to value and to protect for their fellow-citizens and themselves privileges which history shows British Catholics were for centuries deprived of, and which they only obtained after arduous and protracted struggles and penal disabilities. But at the same time this meeting protests against a disingenuous confounding in the matter of mere license with liberty; and declares that the attempt of any person or persons gratuitously to hold up to public scorn anything held sacred by any religious section of the community, and calculated by the very character of the attempt to provoke violence and disorder, is not comprehended within the nature of freedom of speech and discussion, as accepted by every peaceable, well-meaning, and well-intentioned citizen.
Amidst a sea of rancorous argument, one voice stood out from others, and that was none other than the Archbishop of Sydney, John Bede Polding OSB.  He wrote a Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Maitland, which also appeared in The Maitland Mercury.

Dearly Beloved,

We have heard with great pain of the recent disturbance at Maitland, caused by the outrageous insult offered to our Church by a speaker at a late [recent] public meeting. We do not wonder at your feelings of anger, for we know well - though perhaps the world does not know – that Catholics feel more acutely an insult to their faith and Church than an attack upon themselves personally. It is the natural result of a true, living faith. But, dearly beloved, we would fain have seen all of you choose the nobler part, and so shame your assailant by enduring your wrongs in silence. In truth, you little know to what extent ignorance of Catholic doctrine and practice prevails amongst even educated men who are not Catholics; and if you could see into the minds of our assailants, you would behold blunders and confusion, in their ideas of our Church, that would provoke your mirth rather than your anger.

Archbishop John Bede Polding OSB
The Collection of the State Library of Victoria.

However, we are not proposing to urge such considerations upon you; but at once to carry your thoughts back to the scenes which, during Holy Week last, have been occupying your thoughts, and to bid you overcome natural resentment by looking anew on the example of Him who bore with patience the extremity of wrong, and insult, and blasphemy, for our sakes, and that we might be imitators of Him. This imitation is what He would have from us – what He chooses as the proof of our love. Let no one say that Catholics have refused this proof. The very depths of worldly shame and degradation, the cross and its ignominy, resulted, you know, in the glories of Easter; and now every knee bows at the name of Him who was once the scorn and outcast of men. And the life of our blessed Lord is ever being lived over again in the Church. Only do not you mar God’s blessing by refusing to receive and to bear with patience this little Cross of insult. You may heaps coals of fire upon your assailant; by showing that you value, indeed, the external honour of your Lord’s Church, but that you embrace and value more highly, the mind of Christ, which he came to form in His true followers. “Jesus autem tacebat.” “Jesus held his peace,” this was written for your instruction, and to show what manner of men He would have you to be when misrepresentation, and wrong, and blasphemy are at their worst. Leave God to avenge His own cause. 

Let no one persuade you that any good, no, not even of worldly credit, can come of anger and violence. Peace, good order, Christian patience, these must be your watchword, so you are true Christians. Men are afraid, it is said, that there may be a breach of peace and good order in Maitland. We are not so afraid, for we feel assured that you will have nothing to do with such an outbreak, because you value too highly the honour of God and of His Church. We are followers of One who was called by names worse than heathen. Be you His true children; and the more anyone from ignorance, or malice, charges your faith and your Church with heathenism, do you so much the more compel all mean by your conduct, to acknowledge that you have the Christ-like tempers of peacefulness and love, and long-suffering patience in your hearts. May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the charity of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost be with you all. Amen.

+John Bede Polding OSB
Archbishop of Sydney
11th April 1860.

High Street Maitland, circa 1865.
The Collection of the State Library of Victoria.


1. William McIntyre (1805-1870) had been inducted as the the Presbyterian minister for West Maitland in 1841. Because of various quarrels over more than 20 years, there were in fact three distinct groups of Presbyterians in Australia and William McIntyre (who was a central figure in all the quarrels) led that group called the Free Presbyterians.

2. Even as recently as 2015, Presbyterian historian Rowland Ward perpetuated a myth that one of the McIntyre family was killed during the 1860 riot "by a Catholic mob"; cf The Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia 1846-2013. No one, in fact, was killed or was even in danger of death. Mr Donald McIntyre lived many years after the incident.


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