In 1824 Sir Robert Peel instigated the setting up of a Royal Commission on Education, and the subsequent Select Committees of the Lords and Commons to: inquire into the nature and extent of the instruction afforded by the several institutions established for the purposes of education, and to report as to the measures which can be adopted for extending generally to all classes of the people the benefits of education.
Henry Cooke and the Synod of Ulster opposed the recommendations which came from the Royal Commission. His opposition centred around the exclusion of the Bible from the system of education being proposed.
The Government had fallen into the error of their predecessors, of making Catholics parties in the
negotiations. Instead of treating with Catholics or Orangemen, they ought to have adopted a plan founded on the principles of truth, and not departed from it to serve either party. His view of what was right was, that a daily Bible class should be made part of the system.
The demand for a free Bible in the National schools, held by Henry Cooke and other within the Synod of Ulster were frequently assailed within the Synod, on various platforms and through the press. His views on this point were often misunderstood or misrepresented by those opposed to him.
At a meeting of the subscribers to the Brown Street School in Belfast, Cooke took the opportunity to explain what he meant by a free and unfettered Bible in the schoolhouse:
In seeking the privilege of the free and unrestricted use of the Scriptures in schools, we have been described, no doubt, as seeking a thing most Utopian and absurd; and, indeed, I confess that, if by free and unrestricted use of the Scriptures I mean constant and uninterrupted, the attempt would be chargeable with all the absurdity alleged.
The Government seemed willing to listen to the objections of the Synod of Ulster as they felt that the consent of the Presbyterians was necessary to the success of any scheme of national education for Ireland.
Discussions opened between the two bodies. In deference to the views of the Synod, certain explanations were published by the Board of Education which, in some degree, removed the objectionable points. However, the Church was still not fully satisfied.
Accordingly, at the meeting of Synod in July, 1832, the Government Committee of Synod were instructed to correspond with the Government upon the subject. A submission was made which demanded, on behalf of the Synod, a right to read the Bible, by such as might desire it, during school hours. This was laid down as the necessary basis of all negotiation.
Should this all important point be granted, the Synod Committee had power to come to agreement regarding other points at issue; should it be declined, the Synod would refuse its sanction to the proposed plan of education.
The views of the Synod had been embodied in seven propositions. The Government initially declined to accede to them; but it became evident from the conversation and correspondence which ensued, that, if the phraseology of the resolutions were changed, and certain modifications introduced, a satisfactory arrangement might be effected.
With this hope Dr. Cooke, on behalf of the Synod's committee, reduced the seven original propositions to three, as follows:
I. That persons of all denominations shall have the right, either jointly or separately, of applying to the Board for aid.
II. That patrons of schools, on making application for aid, shall fix the ordinary period of school hours, and shall have the right of setting apart such portion or portions of said school hours as they may deem sufficient, for reading the Holy Scriptures.
III. That all children, whose parents or guardians may so direct, shall daily read the Holy Scriptures during the time appointed by the patrons ; but that no compulsion whatever be employed to induce others to read, or remain during the reading."
These revised propositions were presented to His Majesty's Government in London, in May 1833, by a deputation, of which Dr. Cooke was a leading member. They were again rejected with the Government's Chief Secretary for Ireland stating: It will be impossible for me to recommend to His Majesty's Government any modification of the established system that would strike so entirely at the principle of that system as would the adoption of these propositions.
Dr. Cooke strongly opposed the motion. He criticised with his customary cutting irony the strange and crooked policy of the Commissioners. He showed that they were attempting to gain over the Synod by a trick. He denounced the whole transaction as unworthy of a public body, and deserving the reprobation of the country. He moved, as an amendment, the following resolutions :
1. That ever since the blessed Reformation, in all the common schools of Evangelical Protestants, but especially in the schools of the Church of Scotland, and in those of the Synod of Ulster and other Presbyterian bodies in Ireland, children have enjoyed the free and unrestricted use of the Holy Scriptures, and have been, until lately, generally accustomed, where their parents so directed, to learn to read in the sacred volume.
2. That the authoritative exclusion of the Bible from the National schools during ordinary school hours, seems to have originated, not from any desire of Protestants, but out of deference to the opinions and objections of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, who have always discovered such jealousy and dread of the sacred Scriptures, that wherever they have had the power, they have denied their unrestricted use to the laity in general, and to children in schools in particular; and farther, that experience demonstrates, that, in whatever country the use of the Scriptures has, in any wise, been restricted, the progress of Protestantism has been proportionably retarded, and the domination of the Church of Rome extended and confirmed.
3. That for the above, amongst other reasons, the Synod, as a witness for the Lord Jesus, and the Word of His Truth, did, in the years 1832 and 1833, most explicitly declare their disapprobation of the system of national education, and did earnestly seek to have it reformed; but that, from the correspondence of our committee with the Commissioners, and from their report to the Government, it appears that the original system remains unchanged, and, consequently, the reform sought by the Synod still unattained.
The plan of education provides that the Bible shall be free in all the Synod's schools during every school hour. It shall, like the light of heaven, be open for every eye that is not shut against it; and all who attend the schools may read in it as much, and as often during the day, as may be thought consistent with their advantage and the other duties of the school.
If it be anti-scriptural to exclude the Word of God from our schools, it is maintained that the Church is ignorant of duty, and lamentably deficient in the service of the Lord, if it content itself with merely making provision for the scriptural instruction of the members of its own communion.
While pleading the cause of the scheme, Dr. Cooke continued, wherever he went, at home and on the British mainland, to expose the false principles and strange acts of the Irish National Board. At meetings held in Liverpool and Manchester Cooke denounced the National system as opposed to the Word of God, and to the fundamental principles of Protestantism.
By now the National scheme of education was in real difficulty. The Synod of Ulster refused to support and Roman Catholic support for it in Ireland was waning.
To address the issue Committees of Inquiry were appointed by both Houses of Parliament in 1837. An immense mass of evidence was collected and printed. Dr. Cooke was examined at great length. His stedfast objection to one of the principles of the Board, which was represented to be fundamental and unalterable.
As a result of these discussions and others an application for funds was drawn up on the 24th January 1840, for Curren school, which was under the patronage of Dr. Stewart. The School constitution read as follows:
The school opens in the summer at half-past nine, a.m., and continues till half-past five, p.m., with the interval of one hour, from one till two, for dinner. In the winter it opens at ten and continues till three. In both summer and winter it is held during six days of the week.
2. The Query-sheet, of which several of the questions and regulations were exceedingly offensive to Protestants, has been totally withdrawn; and aid for our schools is granted simply on our own statement of their constitution and regulations.
4. The Bible is free during school hours, and the extent of its use subject to no control but the will of the parents expressed through committees of their own free choice, and the greatest convenience of the attending scholars.
Henry Cooke was thus at last triumphant after a long and hard struggle. He had won the battle for a Bible based education system. It was stated that: