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Chapter One
Presbyterian Politics in the 1790s


(Notes are given at the end. Links to the notes from the text are given in groups of five, 1 - 6 - 11 etc)



In his Present State of the Church of Ireland in 1787, the Bishop of Cloyne declared:

'Most of the leading Presbyterians in this kingdom (indeed all whose opinions the author has been able to collect) differ essentially from their brethren of Geneva, Switzerland Holland, Germany and Scotland, as they reject the idea of any national church. If the Church of Scotland, to which they have an hereditary attachment, and to which they adhere, were established in this kingdom, they would still dissent. They are Independents in a civil view; though they are Presbyterians as to ecclesiastical discipline. Their principles do not, like those of the Roman Catholics, tend to set up, but merely to pull down, an ecclesiastical establishment.' (1)

William Campbell, Presbyterian minister of Armagh, in his reply, argues that Presbyterians were not opposed to the principle of a national church, but confirmed Cloyne's view by saying that they did not regard it as essential to the maintenance of civil order. Campbell's argument does not suggest any disagreement with the Bishop over the theological doctrines taught by the respective churches; his main concern is to defend 'the freedom of our constitution' (meaning the civil constitution) from the encroachments of the existing ecclesiastical establishment. The superiority of the Presbyterian church as a national church lay, in his eyes, in its greater commitment to civil and religious liberty. Prelacy was too closely associated with Toryism and with an ambivalent attitude towards Popery, Jacobitism and the Divine Right of Kings. (2)

Campbell judges the questions of ecclesiastical polity and interdependence with the state in entirely secular political terms. He doesn't argue from scripture, and he certainly doesn't invoke the Solemn League and Covenant. He argues in favour of tithe commutation, not because a heretical church should not be supported by the government, but because the distribution of clerical wealth in the Church of Ireland was arbitrary, and because the Church was not fulfilling its obligations to repair churches and feed the poor. He praises 'moderate churchmen' who were prepared to defend the rights of Presbyterians, and ends by arguing for the reincorporation of Presbyterians into the established church, without saying how this could be done, granted Presbyterian objections to episcopacy, and his own objections to the presence of Bishops in the House of Lords.

His argument thus seems more located in the tradition of English than of Scottish Presbyterianism, and it is interesting that the main historical precedent he holds up for admiration is the Long Parliament:

'Shall we say with you that the Church is so essentially incorporated with the State that the subversion of one must necessarily involve the overthrow of the other and consequently that this religious establishment is friendly to civil liberty? or shall we agree with the Long Parliament that the ecclesiastical establishment is in no sort essential to the existence of the state and to the freedom of our constitution?' (3)

Despite its aggressive tone, Campbell's 'Vindication' represents the moderate end of the scale of Presbyterian opposition to the established Church. On the other end of the scale was the Act, Declaration and Testimony of the Reformed Presbytery, published in Scotland in 1761. This took the view that the Revolution settlement was 'a turning aside like a deceitful bow' since it had established prelacy and the supremacy of the state over the church. In contrast to Campbell's view that 'there should be an universal toleration of religion', the Reformed Presbytery maintained that:

'no less wicked is it for a magistrate to protect by a promiscuous toleration, all heretics, heresies and errors. . . Experience has in every age taught that a toleration of all religions is the cut-throat and ruin of all religion - it is the most effectual method that ever the policy of Hell hatched to banish all true godliness out of the world.'

They regard the Synod of Ulster as 'unworthy of their regard or notice in these papers' since they were 'rather to be termed a synagogue of libertines, a club of Socinians, Arians, Pelagians etc. banded together against Christ and the doctrines of his cross, than a Synod of the ministers of the Gospel.' But they testified at length against the Seceders, mainly on the grounds that by maintaining their loyalty to the civil establishment, they were thereby endorsing the religious establishment with which it was inextricably connected. (4)

The Seceders took the view that rendering unto Caesar the things that were Caesar's and unto God the Things that were God's meant that a full testimony against the evils of the religious establishment was compatible with a full profession of loyalty to the civil establishment. They interpreted Rom XIII, 1 - 8 (the key passage in the debate on the relations of Christians with the civil power) as 'inculcating loyalty to the government whatever its nature, so long as it was supported by the people' (a qualification not found in St. Paul). In opposition to this view, the Reformed Presbyterians argued that the Bible contained objective standards by which magistrates and their right to rule could be judged:

'the Christians have a right to set a King over them, yet it is evident they are not left at liberty to choose whom they please but are, in the most express and positive terms, limited and circumscribed in their choice to him whom the Lord their God shall choose.'

Evidently, God would not choose prelatists and covenant-breakers:

'It is full of contradiction, and a mocking both of God and the world, to pretend to own and defend the destroyers of the true religion in the defence of religion, as Seceders do in their mock acknowledgement of such as are sworn to maintain prelacy, in opposition to the reformed religion.'

The Seceders were guilty of confusing the 'preceptive' and the 'providential' will of God. Obviously, anything that happened was the will of God, but this did not mean that Christians should submit to everything that happened. That would entail recognising the lawful sovereignty of the Devil as the Prince of the World, since he holds his power by God's providential will 'with. . . the consent and goodwill of all the children of men while in a natural state. . . . The like may be said of the Pope of Rome, the devil's captain-general, to display his hellish banner against the King of Kings and Lord of Lords with respect to those nations where he is acknowledged in his diabolical pretensions.' (5)

The dispute between the Associate and Reformed Presbyteries also turned on the nature of the obligation to renew the Solemn League and Covenant. The Covenant seems to have been abandoned by the Synod of Ulster in the 1670s, but its renewal was an obligation for both of the dissenting Presbyterian connections. The Seceders took the view, however, that it could be altered to take account of altered circumstances. The effect was to turn it into a statement of obligations for a particular religious community rather than for the nation as a whole. This abandonment of the political obligations of the Covenant enabled the Seceders to adopt a 'loyalist' position in the late eighteenth century which was not available to Covenanters. We shall see that in the nineteenth century, the further theoretical separation of religious and civil polities led the Scottish Seceders to adopt a radical voluntaryist opposition to all church establishments. (6)

Thomas Ledlie Birch - a Synod of Ulster minister implicated in the United Irish rising - writing against the Seceders in 1796, praises 'the little despised Presbyterian body termed Covenanters. . . as they endeavour to maintain a profession in some degree conformable to their Covenants' and, of the two Secession bodies, he regards the less compromising Antiburghers as the 'most rational upon Secession principles and more regular in their church discipline'. He felt that the loyalty of the Seceders was 'like a mushroom sprung up in a day, in the hot-bed of the Royal Bounty', which had been extended to include Irish Seceders in 1784. He attributes this to the gratitude of Lord Downshire, since Seceders had supported the Downshire interest in the 1783 election against Robert Stewart (Lord Castlereagh's father). Stewart was standing on a platform of parliamentary reform, but was opposed by the Seceders on the ground that the political ferment of the period was distracting Presbyterians from their religious duties. In 1784, they went further and opposed a petition from the electors of Co Down calling for a reform of Parliament. One of the local Secession ministers at this time was Rev Francis Pringle who was later forced to emigrate when he supported the government in opposition to his congregation at the time of the United Irish rising. (7)

Birch's fellow United Irishman, Jemmy Hope, also attributes Secession loyalty to the Regium Donum:

"One day I heard Mr Patton explaining the 83rd Psalm and prating for the downfall of Turk and anti-Christ, and for the purging of the blood that lay unpurged on the throne of Britain and also for the downfall of Pope and Popery, which latter prayer composed part of his devotions every Sabbath. But when the Royal Bounty was extended to our ministers, then the destruction of Pope and Popery became the principal supplication of the poor northern sinners to the throne of divine grace; the throne of Britain, according to the fanatical notions of those times, was purged and purified in the smoke of the blood then beginning to be shed in the woods of America, and in fairs and markets in Ireland, particularly in the County of Armagh.' (8)

The American reference is to the American Revolution, and the Armagh reference is presumably to the Hearts of Steel risings, both of which occurred in the 1770s, before the bounty had been extended. Hillsborough was indeed responsible for the extension, though his gratitude to the Seceders was not great, since he complained in private correspondence that the government had been too generous. As we have seen, the Reformed Presbyterians were attacking the Seceders' preparedness to pray for success to an uncovenanted King in 1761, at least ten years before Patton was praying for 'the purging of the blood that lay unpurged on the throne of Britain' so that the ambivalence of a loyalty based on submission to the providential will of God was already well established before the extension of the Regium Donum. (9)

The Reformed Presbyterians thus argued for a covenanted state in which the Church would be in a large measure sovereign over civil society but with an authority distinct from that of the secular government. They refused to recognise any other mode of government as legitimate. The Seceders shared this political ideal, but felt that Presbyterians should be loyal to whatever government had been established by the providential will of God which was by implication identified with popular consent, carrying the further implication that the government could be overthrown if it lost that consent. Campbell wanted to see Presbyterianism established, either in its own right (as in the case of the Church of Scotland) or as part of the Church of Ireland (citing the loose structure of the early seventeenth century as a precedent) but believed that such a church should have no political power: 'Churchmen, of whatever denomination, should, as a body, have no political, existence.' (10)


In December 1783, when Campbell, together with Dr Benjamin McDowell of Dublin, was petitioning for an increase in the Royal Bounty for the Synod of Ulster, the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Northington, 'told him he was fully satisfied of the justness of our principles - that they were the true old Whig principles which he revered. . . ' Campbell's 'Vindication' says that Presbyterians 'have always been persecuted by the Tories and always protected by the Whigs and moderate churchmen,' a process which is described for the early eighteenth century in J. C. Beckett's Protestant Dissent in Ireland. The term 'Whig' of course originally referred to the Scottish Covenanters, the sense in which it is used in Sir Walter Scott's Old Mortality and The Heart of Midlothian. It would be safe to say that there was no traditional Toryism on the English model among Ulster Presbyterians. Apart from the fact that the period of Tory ascendancy under Queen Anne, was remembered as a time of persecution, defence of the established church was obviously an important part of Toryism, and the fact that Irish landlords were overwhelmingly Anglican prevented the religious bond between squire and tenant from which English rural Toryism derived its strength. (11)

Ulster Presbyterianism differed from English dissent both in its theoretical claim to the rights of an establishment, and in its numerical strength. The most numerically strong of the English dissenters in the eighteenth century (outside Methodism) were the Congregationalists, but by the 1851 Census, there were still very few areas in which they made up more than eleven per cent of the population (and this was after something of a revival in the early nineteenth century). Their adherence to the idea of independent congregations consisting only of the visibly saved worked against any claims to the status of a national church incorporating the whole population. English Presbyterianism on the other hand wasn't organised on a national scale until the nineteenth century, and in the eighteenth century its main distinctions from the Independents lay in its insistence that more than one minister should be present at ordination and in its greater tendency towards Unitarianism. The substance of the English Whig ideal of religious tolerance lay not in the strength of dissent so much as in the strength of the 'moderate churchmen' prepared to defend the rights of dissenters. (12)

In Ulster (the nine counties) on the other hand, the 1834 Report of the Committee for Public Instruction revealed a majority of Presbyterians over Anglicans of 27% against 19% of the whole population (the Roman Catholics having a majority over the two Protestant groups combined). This did not prevent Presbyterians from complaining that the Report - based on returns made by Anglican clergymen - had underestimated their strength. Campbell in 1787, and William Steele Dickson in 1792, claimed that the majority of Irish Protestants were Presbyterians. They could also feel themselves to have a more substantial ecclesiastical organisation than the Church of Ireland in that all their ministers met annually in Synod to decide the affairs of the Church, while the sovereign body of the Church of Ireland was the Irish Parliament where its bishops were only represented as a minority in the House of Lords. As Beckett argues, they were, however, inhibited from using this numerical and organisational strength to pursue their own political interests in opposition to the Church of Ireland, by the overwhelming numerical preponderance of the Roman Catholics. It was recognised that the position of Protestants - both Anglican and Presbyterian - was precarious and depended on the strength of Protestant ascendancy. (13)

Although nineteenth century Liberalism was largely defined by its support for Catholic claims, the Whig 'toleration' of the eighteenth century was for the most part confined to Protestants. Its principal theorist, Locke, excluded Catholics on the grounds that theirs was the religion most favourable to tyranny. Whiggery had after all been initially distinguished from Toryism by its more uncompromising anti-Catholicism, and the Williamite revolution had been a Whig victory.' Civil and religious liberty' was seen as a Protestant slogan in opposition to Catholicism and, as late as the 1780s, the 'Protestant interest' was a toast acceptable to radical Whigs, including some who were later involved in the United Irish rising. (14)

There was a strong tendency towards theological latitudinarianism among the moderate churchmen who supported Whig political ideals in England and Ireland and in both countries they were closely associated with latitudinarian Dissent. English Presbyterianism, with its tendency towards nonsubscription and Unitarianism, was closely associated with the Church of England, and aimed more at reforming than at rivalling it. The victory for nonsubscription at the Salter's Hall conference had been welcomed by Anglican latitudinarians, most notably by Bishop Hoadly; and the ideal of a minimal doctrinal standard and the free exercise of a reason which was assumed not to be innately corrupt was also embodied in the Anglican 'Feathers Tavern Petition' of 1772. The failure of the Feathers Tavern Petition helped towards the formation of distinct Unitarian congregations in England by both Anglican and Dissenting clergymen who were closely associated with the more radical Lockean Whigs. (15)

There was a link between this English Unitarian Whiggery and the Irish Patriot Party in the person of John Jebb, who had resigned from the Church of England following the failure of the Feathers Tavern Petition and who, in December 1779, addressed a pamphlet to a meeting of Middlesex freeholders calling for a national convention which would have authority to dissolve the House of Commons - the assembled nation having the authority to dissolve the social contract. Jebb was one of the 'Knights of St Patrick' or 'Monks of the Screw' which had been formed in Dublin in 1779 with Flood, Grattan, Charlemont, Daly, Burgh and Yelverton, pledged to secure greater independence for the Irish legislature. The conventions of the Irish Volunteer movement, in which he played an active part, came close to realising his ideas in practice. He was also tutor to the United Irishman, Archibald Hamilton Rowan who subsequently became a Presbyterian and sided with the putatively Unitarian Remonstrants in the 1820s. Grattan's attitude towards religious disputes was succinctly summed up in a speech he made in 1782 (against the penal code): 'when men begin to differ upon principles of religion, it is because they have no greater object to engage their attention.' (16)

This is not to suggest the intrinsic connection between Unitarianism and irreligion seen by their orthodox opponents. There was in this period a greater theological seriousness among Unitarian Whigs than among High Church Tories. But while Unitarian conclusions might be regarded as true, they were not regarded as necessary to salvation. Latitudinarian Christianity, which tended towards agnosticism on the question of the Trinity, was characterised by an indifference to doctrinal distinctions, and this facilitated a secular approach to politics.


Although there was very little explicit Unitarianism in Ulster in the late eighteenth century, there were several Synod of Ulster ministers who argued publicly against the use of creeds and in favour of latitudinarian principles, most notably Rev John Cameron of Dunluce. Cameron had been a Reformed Presbyterian who joined the Synod in 1752. In 1769, he published The Catholic Christian, or the True Religion Sought and Found under the pseudonym "Theophilus Philander'. In it, a Christian resolves to hold communion with all the major denominations, since he is convinced that there is goodness in all of them. He visits a Roman Catholic priest, a Church of England minister, and ministers of the Synod of Ulster, Associate Presbytery and 'Mountain Men' (Reformed Presbyterians). In each case he finds that he cannot hold communion with them without renouncing communion with the others. Finally, he finds a non-subscribing clergyman, who explains to him that creeds provide the basis for the intolerant and persecuting spirit of the major churches and that free inquiry is the best preservative against religious error. The scriptural use of the word 'heresy', he argues, refers not to mistaken opinion but to hypocrisy: 'No mistaken opinions will render a man an Heretic in the sight of God while his heart is sincere and his life such as becometh a Christian.' (17)

Cameron was quickly replied to from inside the Synod by Benjamin McDowell, who argued that 'The Catholic Christian' raised no serious theological objection to the Westminster Confession of Faith and therefore advanced no good reasons for refusing to subscribe to it. When Cameron said: 'I am persuaded that it would be much more to the honour of the Christian religion if men's characters were made the terms of admission to ministerial and Christian communion rather than their opinions', he was falling into the doctrine of justification by works rather than justification by faith:

'It is oft times remarked that betwixt what is called new light in this kingdom and Popery there is a greater affinity than the generality are aware of: that the former contains the essence of the latter, the merit of works, and naturally leads to it.'

Cameron aims 'to spread indifference about all doctrines in order to make way for the most pernicious ones', substituting human righteousness for Christ as the agent of salvation. (18)

In 1781, the Presbytery of Armagh declared that they had abandoned subscription to the Westminster Confession as a condition of entering the ministry, and in 1782 McDowell tried to tighten up the Synod's regulations on subscription, arguing that it was necessary to prevent the spread of Unitarianism. His main opponent was William Campbell, who thought that most ministers were Trinitarians, but some questioned what he called 'the metaphysical doctrine of the Trinity'. The Synod resolved in 1783 to leave the matter to the discretion of presbyteries, thus in effect weakening the application of the Pacific Act of 1720 under which subscription (albeit allowing for qualifications and exceptions) was an obligation imposed by the Synod. (19)

It is important to note that the doctrine of the Trinity as such was not the central cause of disputes over subscription in the eighteenth century. The Presbytery of Dromore was formed in 1743 out of the Presbytery of Armagh because of the latter's loose attitude towards subscription. The immediate cause of the split was the Synod's refusal to allow the licensing of Richard Arprichard in 1737, because he scrupled subscription. Arprichard's objections were that he couldn't accept that invincibly ignorant heathens were necessarily damned, nor that the civil magistrate had a right to interfere in religious matters. There was a small pamphlet war on the question of the magistrate's power at the time. When the Presbytery of Bangor split with the secession of the rigidly subscribing Presbytery of Belfast in 1774, the proximate cause was the ordination of Rev Samuel Martin Stephenson, despite his scruples over subscription. But Stephenson's grounds were that the Presbytery's formula for subscription - 'I believe that all the important doctrines of the Christian religion are contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith' - was absurd and could not exclude heretics since Unitarians could easily subscribe to it. His main doctrinal objection was to the view (in Chap XXIX para VII) that there was a real presence of Christ's body and blood in the Communion service. Robert Allen thinks that Stephenson was probably an Arminian and that the main worry of the orthodox was not Unitarianism so much as the elevation of human rationality and capacity for goodness as against reliance on the saving power of revealed truth and Christ's atonement. (20)

McDowell's reduction of new light theology and popery to a common denominator of justification by works is misleading. The 'works' condemned by Calvin as ineffective were primarily devotional, and participation in the Church was necessary to their fulfilment. The human qualities admired by John Cameron and William Campbell were rationality and liberality, qualities assumed to be discoverable in a natural man who could belong to any or no religious faith at all. What was shocking was not that these qualities were admired but the argument that no-one who possessed them could possibly be damned, thus rendering the Church as an engine of salvation superfluous. (21)

This theology of human virtue was linked to reformist politics in 1782, when the Presbytery of Killyleagh published an advertisement in the Belfast News Letter against the penal code in which they said that 'to continue penalties against obedient children for the disobedience of their ancestors' was 'a black branch grafted upon the blasphemous doctrine of imputed sin.' They were rebuked in the Synod for the reference to 'imputed sin' which was presumably intended to be provocative since the connection between the penal code and the doctrine of imputed sin is tenuous. One of the ministers in the Presbytery of Killyleagh was William Steele Dickson who was later involved in the United Irish agitation, and who supported Robert Stewart and his son - later Lord Castlereagh - in the Hillsborough elections of 1783 and 1790. (22)

In a sermon on 'Scripture Politics' preached before the Synod of Ulster in 1781, Dickson adopted an interpretation of Rom XIII, 1 - 8 similar to that of the Covenanters: 'religion admits that disobedience is criminal only when the power of the magistrate is exercised "for the punishment of evil-doers and the praise of them who do well".' When this order was inverted, 'resistance becomes not only lawful but necessary and honorable'. The great object of religion was the happiness of men, which was also the great object in politics, so that 'in this important particular, religion and politics are inseparably connected'. Politics, however, was only a part of morality, while religion comprehended the whole:

'Yet the part assigned to religion is subordinated to policy and the dependence to which she hath been reduced truly humiliating. She hath been shackled by forms of human device, as if the parent of happiness was in danger of destroying her favourite issue; bedizened with ceremonies, as if such tawdry ornaments could add to her native beauty; fortified by penal statutes and guarded by gibbets, racks and flames, as if the solid arguments on which she rests her claims, and the power of God - the only power which she acknowledges - were not sufficient to protect and support her.' (23)

The part assigned to religion by Steele Dickson was to 'inculcate the generous affections'. This could only be done freely, without the corrupting aid of the civil power. In Sermons preached before his congregation in Portaferry in December, 1792 and January, 1793, he traced the decline of Christianity from the time of Constantine, when it was incorporated into the state. Presbyterians themselves, he said, had been guilty of intolerance and he particularly attacked the penal laws against Roman Catholics. Thus, he would differ from the Covenanters in defining the good which both politics and religion were to promote not as a particular theological system but as a morality presumed to be a known quantity common to all Christian denominations. Insofar as the government was oppressing the great majority of its citizens (Presbyterians and Roman Catholics) by penal laws and excessive taxation for purposes of bribery, a struggle for radical reform (which was preferable to violent revolution) was a religious obligation. (24)



In 1779, Steele Dickson preached a sermon to the Echlin Volunteer in Company, attacking them for refusing to allow Catholics into their ranks. He subsequently regretted that friends had persuaded him to water down his sentiments in the published version. Rev Samuel Barber of Rathfriland, who was also active in supporting Stewart in 1783, and imprisoned on suspicion of United Irish sympathies, preached a sermon to the Castlewellan Rangers and Rathfriland Volunteers in 1779, in which he said: 'I have the honour this day to address a Protestant audience. Let the sounds Derry, EnniskiIIen, the Boyne and Aughrim rouse us to an imitation of our worthy fathers.'

He reminded them that their French enemy was Roman Catholic, but stressed that they were to be distinguished from Irish Catholics, who had remained peaceful despite the penal laws. He looked forward to a time 'when every creature of God may worship him in sincerity and truth in the mode agreeable to their consciences, without any to make them afraid. . . " (25)

Catholic Emancipation was first advanced as a realisable political ideal in the 1780s, but was hardly regarded as an immediate possibility until the 1790s. Support for Catholic claims is sometimes treated by modern historians as a natural position for Presbyterians to adopt, and the extent to which they deviated from this natural position after the 1790s then becomes a problem to be solved. But this natural position is itself problematic: Catholic emancipation, granted the existence of an independent Irish Parliament, implied the possibility of Catholic majority rule, and this could hardly be justified even on the grounds of a disinterested political morality when the Roman Catholic Church was widely associated with Anti-Christ. The spread of the United Irish system in the 1790s required as a precondition either a separation of religion and politics (together with an assumption that the latter would be more important in determining social behaviour); or a confidence that the nature of Roman Catholicism was radically changed - that Roman Catholics could behave, in Wolfe Tone's phrase: 'like other people .' (26)

Catholic emancipation was not an inevitable concomitant of a demand for Parliamentary reform. William Drennan's Letters of Orellana, an Irish Helot (1785) argue strongly for reform but against the extension of the franchise to include Catholics. He saw this, not as a strengthening of the demand for reform by bringing the weight of Catholic opinion to bear on the subject, but as a weakening:

'I assert it as a fact that the leading men among the Catholics did not begin to agitate this unhappy question. It was forced upon them by men whose goodness of intention is the best excuse they can make for their want of foreknowledge; and who have unconsciously supplied the enemies of reform with the means of warding off the otherwise irresistible impulse of public opinion. Let, then, every man among you know that the Catholics have withdrawn their claim of civil franchise, and that they do it because the business of reform must be retarded rather than promoted by their interference."

He goes on to say that he thinks that 'a reform, attended by an equal participation of civil rights with the Catholics' would be worse 'than to continue without a reform', his reason being 'that the plurality among them are placed, as it were, in an earlier stage of society than the rest of the island.' This was a temporary state of affairs until they could acquire 'self estimation, conscious dignity, and in short that republicanism of soul which will announce to the world that the people who possess it are stamped by the hand of Heaven, heirs of independence.'

Drennan's argument was wholly secular, and he regarded the absence of distinctively religious considerations as a virtue. The objection to Catholic emancipation was not Catholicism as such but the absence of 'men of weight and estimation to sweeten that leaven of intolerance and persecution which in other persuasions is not perhaps less in quantity, but is well tempered by numbers in the middle ranks of life; who gently instil into the minds of those beneath them, the milk of human nature. . . . ' It is interesting that Drennan, the son of a non-subscribing Presbyterian minister, attributes this civilising function to the wealthier sections of society rather than to a religious ministry - a view which one would associate more easily with Anglicans than with Presbyterians. (27)

In the Belfast Town Debate of January 1792, Rev William Bruce, minister of the First Presbyterian Church, Belfast (non-subscribing) argued against immediate emancipation on similarly secular political grounds. The principle was granted (as it was by Drennan) that government should be indifferent to religious belief and that eventual emancipation was desirable; but 'no man would assert that the Roman Catholics (taking them in the aggregate) are in their present state as well informed, or as capable of holding the reins of government with wisdom and moderation, as the Protestants.' Gradual emancipation was necessary to overcome the prejudice and bitterness left by years of oppression. He also used Fitzgibbon's argument that the only right by which Protestants held their property was a right of conquest which it would be unreasonable to expect Catholics in a position of power to respect. (28)

The Belfast meeting, however, endorsed immediate emancipation by 'a very considerable majority'. Drennan himself had changed his views and had been involved in the foundation of the United Irish system in 1791. In answer to a number of 'strictures' on the United Irish test in the Belfast News Letter, he explained that a Catholic middle class had emerged on the basis of commercial interests:

'and produced that enlargement of mind, that energy of character and that self dependence which men acquire whose interests do not hang at the mercy of this or that individual, but on general and necessary consumption. . . . The Catholic mind has thrown off its feudality. . . ' (29)

The ineffectiveness of the reforms achieved by the Volunteer movement in 1782 by Protestant strength alone was advanced by Robert Thompson as an argument for immediate emancipation:

'all that we have obtained has been to benefit the aristocracy, not the people. What have been the advantages of your free constitution, as it is called? why, an advance in the price of boroughs: £3,000 instead of £1,000 for a seat; but how does the point stand in respect to the people? an increase of taxes to bribe our own countrymen to oppress us, which was formerly done by the English gratis. In every step we took to obtain our trade and constitution, our own aristocracy and borough mongers (being chiefly interested) warmly supported us. But is it in their interest to support us in reform? Do they not almost to a man warmly oppose us?How then can one million of Irishmen obtain their rights, in opposition to Irish aristocracy - to English influence - to three millions of their own countrymen?' (30)

But the most decisive influence in popularising the ideal of immediate emancipation was probably the French Revolution, which impressed not only those who were attached to secular politics, but also those who were attached to definite dogmatic statements as not only true but necessary to salvation.

The French Revolution proved that it was possible for Roman Catholics to oppose papal power and absolute monarchy. It changed the balance of world power between 'tyranny' and 'liberty'; and it raised doubts as to the completeness of the Glorious Revolution in England. Wolfe Tone's Argument on Behalf of the Catholics in Ireland pointed to the significance of the Revolution for Protestant attitudes towards Irish Catholics:

'It is not six months since the Pope was publicly burned in effigy at Paris, the capital of that Monarch who is styled the eldest son of the church. Yet the time has been when Philip of France thought he had a good title to the Crown of England from the donation of the Holy Father. The fallacy lies in supposing that what was once true in politics is always true. I do believe the Pope has now more power in Ireland than in some Catholic countries or than he perhaps ought to have. But I confess I look on his power with little apprehension, because I cannot see to what evil purpose it could be exerted; and with the less apprehension as every liberal extension of property or franchise to Catholics will tend to diminish it. Persecution will keep alive the foolish bigotry and superstition of any sect as the experience of five thousand years has demonstrated. Persecution bound the Irish Catholic to his priest, and the priest to his Pope; the bond of union is drawn tighter by oppression; relaxation will undo it. The emancipated and liberal Frenchman may go to mass and tell his beads; but neither the one nor the other will attend to the rusty and extinguished thunderbolts of the Vatican, or the idle anathemas, which indeed his Holiness is nowadays too prudent and cautious to issue.' (31)


Such a Catholic rebellion against the Pope was naturally seen by distinctively Calvinist Presbyterians as a very significant event. In 1791, the Burgher Synod issued a Reasons for a Fast which ended by referring to the Synod's continual petitions to God for the downfall of Antichrist, and said that 'the wonderful revolution in France seems to hold out that event as a hastening m the holy Providence of God.' In 1792, the newly established Reformed Presbytery issued a Causes of Fasting, which declared that 'the signs of the times loudly call upon all who have any interest to employ it with God that he would hasten the downfall of Popery, Prelacy, Judaism, together with Mahometan delusion.' It regretted that those working 'for the abolition of tyranny and oppression from the whole earth, and especially from the lands of our nativity, that have long groaned under the unrelenting jaws of cruel despots' did not appreciate 'that God's covenant interest in his Son and in his Church is the surest pledge the world has for overturning oppression and introduction of universal liberty.' The signs of the times indicated however that the period of the pouring out of the last vial on the Beast and his kingdom was imminent. This was written by James McKinney who went to America in 1793 after he had, according to M. Hutchinson, 'barely escaped from the hands of the Government for his connection with the troubles in Ireland.' (32)

1793 saw the publication in Edinburgh of Robert Fleming's Discourse on the Rise and Fall of the Papacy, written in 1701, which argued that the period in which Fleming was writing coincided with the pouring out of the fourth vial in Revelation , which represented the rise and fall of France as a Catholic power, France being symbolised by the sun. He argued that the judgement on France would occur in 1794. This was reprinted in Belfast in 1795, and Miller shows that the duty on it was paid by 'the projectors of the Northern Star' - the journal of the United Irishmen. In 1793, the Northern Star published a set of queries 'humbly submitted to the divines and the religious in Ireland, Great Britain and elsewhere by A Believer in Prophecy, Saintfield, 14/4/93:

'Querie 1. In what period was to take place the fall of Antichrist, or the two beasts spoken of in Revelation (termed in the original Wild Beasts), which, by comparing Revelation with Dan, 7th chapter and 17th verse, appears to signify Tyranny in the Christian and Mahometan worlds?

'Querie II. Has the present contest in which the World is about to be engaged any of the striking features of the battle in which the beast and his party were to be totally over thrown, as a prelude to the flowing in of Jew and Gentile into the Christian Church: and an introduction to the peaceful reign of a thousand years - described in Revelation , chapter 12, from the 11th verse?. . . ' (33)

The believer in prophecy from Saintfield is almost certainly Rev Thomas Ledlie Birch, who was accused of preaching an inflammatory sermon at the United Irish rallying point of Creevy Rocks on the 10th June, 1798 (though he denied the charge). He was also active in supporting Stewart in the 1783 election. In June 1793, he preached a sermon before the Synod of Ulster, with Dickson as moderator, in which he declared:

'We must think that the final overthrow of the Beast, or opposing power, is almost at the door; and especially as we may observe in a certain contest the seemingly literal accomplishment of the prophecy of the Battle of Armageddon, in which the Beast and his adherents are to be cut off, as a prelude to the peaceful reign of 1,000 years.' (34)

The coy reference to 'a certain contest' suggests the war between Britain and France, in which Birch clearly sympathised with the French. Dissenting ministers in Belfast were accused in a report of the Lords' Committees in March 1793, of praying for the success of French arms. This was firmly denied by the nonsubscribing ministers, Bruce and Vance, and by the orthodox James Bryson; it was rather more equivocally denied by the orthodox Sinclaire Kelburn, who was later imprisoned for complicity in the rebellion. (35)

Birch's interpretation of prophecy is interestingly different from that of Fleming, but closer to McKinney's. For Birch, the Battle of Armageddon was to last until 1848, when the Millennium would begin; Fleming postponed the opening of the seventh vial to about the year 2/000, but thought the Pope would suffer a direct, though not final, attack in 1848. Both reached the year 1848 by adding 1260 years (adjusted to take account of the difference between the 'prophetic' and the Julian calendar) to the year 606. But their interpretations of the significance of that year differed. For Fleming, it was the year in which the Emperor Phocas gave Pope Boniface the title of Universal Bishop. For Birch, it was the year in which the Pope confirmed Phocas' title as Emperor. Fleming identified Antichrist directly with the papacy, but Birch equated it with 'the love of worldly power', which included the papacy but also included all persecution, which was a refusal to recognise that Christ's kingdom was not of this world, and a usurpation of His right to change the hearts of men. The progressive removal of penal statutes against Roman Catholics and Dissenters was, for Birch, part of the assault on Antichrist's power. (36)

Fleming was referred to in War Proclaimed and Victory Ensured by Rev William Stavely, who, however, preferred an interpretation more like Birch's by which the present period represented the sixth vial, which included the Battle of Armageddon, and the flowing of Jew and Gentile into the Christian church. Stavely was the most energetic of Reformed Presbyterian ministers in Ireland at the time, and he was imprisoned on a charge of taking part in the rebellion. The involvement of Covenanters in the rebellion is particularly problematic since they were distinguished by their refusal to recognise the authority of an uncovenanted magistracy and certainly couldn't recognise the authority of a magistracy which included papists or prelatists. (37)

This view, already stated in the Auchinsaugh Renovation of 1716 (when they constituted themselves as a distinct church) and the Act, Declaration and Testimony of 1761, is repeated very strongly in a pamphlet called Two Sons of Oil (after Zechariah Ch IV v 14), written in America by Rev Samuel Brown Wylie who was forced to emigrate at the time of the Rebellion, while he was still a licentiate. His main complaint against the American Constitution is that 'the government gives a legal security and establishment to gross heresy, blasphemy, idolatry, under the notion of a liberty of conscience.' A specific grievance he cited was the licensing of a Roman Catholic society in Philadelphia. (38)

A more equivocal account of covenanting politics can be found in James McKinney's View of the Rights of God and Man, also published in America. He identifies the covenanting cause with the cause of liberty, but evades the question of the magistrate's right to punish heresy by assuming that the Christian religion revealed in its purity would be so attractive that all men would wish to subscribe to it. The major obstacle to this happy outcome was tyranny, and its support by the churches:

"There is nothing of which natural men are better judges than of the common rights with which humanity has been endowed by its bountiful author. When, therefore, they hear the nominal representatives of Jesus standing up in the face of the sun, tell the Christian Church that it has nothing to do with the political movements of the earth, it is not wonderful that a religion which is conceived to be so slavish should become the object of derision to men just escaped from the dreary dungeon of gallish oppression.' (39)

The reference to 'natural men' indicates the extent to which Lockean ideas were taken for granted even among strict Calvinists as the means by which politics were to be thought about; Wylie refers to 'the social compact, in which mutual protection is solemnly stipulated.' (40)

Infidelity, in McKinney's view, was less objectionable than hypocrisy, and could even play a role in furthering God's work:

'It is a piece, perhaps, of the most shameless effrontery that has ever been practised when the despots of the earth pretend to sigh and sob at the growth of infidelity, while their own wretched and abominable principles have been the true cause of at least nine tenths of all the evil which at present threatens the interest of Immanuel upon earth. . . . The roaring lion of infidelity, with all its yelping whelps, is not so offensive to the ears of a pious, honest hearted Christian as the melancholy croakings of these devouring ravens*. . In the name of wisdom, let even infidelity, if heaven will have it so, tear in pieces the charm of hypocrisy, superstition and domineering pride rather than that they should longer remain a scourge either to the Church or to the world."(41)

A particular infidel McKinney probably (as the title of his essay suggests) had in mind was Tom Paine. In 1796, Stavely wrote an Appeal to Light as a reply to the Age of Reason, in which he said in the Introduction: 'Was my arm long enough, I would stretch it over to the Gallic shore and take you by the hand as a friend of the liberties of men and a pointed opposer of despots.' He was present at the execution of the first United Irish martyr, William Orr, an old friend of his according to Samuel Ferguson, though he is supposed to have held New Light views. He was also at the execution of another United Irish martyr, Daniel Eglish. However, in a letter written shortly after his arrest in June, 1798, he denied having been a United Irishman himself:

'nor did I ever say with my lips or write with my hand or signify by any instrument whatever that I would join with Roman Catholics, and I now declare that I would not join with the United Irishmen because their principles are deistical, their practice very immoral, such as I mean as I have any acquaintance with.'

After his release, he changed congregations because of suspicion over his part in the rising and, together with Rev Hans Boggs, he submitted to a censure from the Presbytery. The congregation which he left - Knockbracken - was later (in the 1830s) associated with political conservatism, while the congregation he joined - Cullybackey - was associated with political liberalism. (42)

The United Irish leader, Thomas Addis Emmet, claims that Covenanters joined the United Irishmen 'in numbers', and Miller comments on this:

'Emmet's own explanation of their conduct - that they became convinced that the Presbyterian aims of the Solemn League and Covenant "could only be accomplished by the efforts of reason, which could best be promoted by mixing with the misled (that is with the Catholics - DM) and gradually convincing them of their errors" - betrays the usual naivety of the Dublin intellectual. His account of the visit of Father Quigley, a United Irish leader, to a Covenanting district, however, unwittingly provides a clue to their motivation. When "they learned that this Romish priest was so sincere a lover of liberty as to have been actually fighting at the capture of the Bastille" he writes "their joy was almost extravagant." The real key to their behaviour is not reason but joy: if popish priests themselves were taking a hand in dismantling the outworks of Babylon, the promised deliverance must indeed be at hand'.' (43)

However, the evidence of McKinney and Stavely, and the later politico-theological arguments of the Eastern Presbytery, suggest that Paine's ideas had made a considerable impact on Covenanters. The United Irish argument that 'persecution, in itself unjust, had also been found insufficient for reclaiming Catholics' is the argument continually repeated by Rev John Paul of the Eastern Presbytery in his dispute in the 1830s with Rev Thomas Houston over the power of the Christian magistrate. In the course of that dispute, Houston referred to a longstanding 'ungodly leaven' in the Church 'at least since the political disturbance of 1798. About that time, and soon after, a number of individuals entered the membership of the Church, distinguished by little else than their hatred of the British government. . . ' In repelling the charge on a personal level, Paul nonetheless indicated the strength of United Irish sympathies at the time:

'no man living was under stronger temptation to join that body and to imbibe their principles than myself. If the influence of my pastor and my preceptor and my neighbours; if the influence of friendship and affection and hope and fear; if the influence of the tide of public opinion sweeping all before it; if all these influences united and combined had been capable of making me a United Irishman, I certainly would have been one.' (44)

Paine's attack on toleration as the counterfeit of intolerance - 'the one assumes to itself the right of withholding Liberty of Conscience, and the other of granting it. The one is the Pope armed with fire and faggot and the other is the Pope selling or granting indulgences' - may have provided Paul with the means of explaining away the attack on tolerance in the Act, Declaration and Testimony (that it was an attack on the magistrate's pretentions tpo having any rights in the matter at all). And his account of the origin of civil society as 'a compact between God and man, from the beginning of time' is closer to covenanting political theory than Locke's free association of natural man. (45)


While it is quite probable that Reformed Presbyterians such as Stavely and Wylie could not co-operate with Catholics or with the generally latitudinarian United Irish leadership, their inclusion of the government among the forces of Antichrist, together with the view that the times were ripe for radical change, may well have been important in helping the tiny handful of Belfast and Dublin radicals to find a mass base in Presbyterian Ulster - especially in Antrim, where the Covenanters were strong. The simplified confrontation between the forces of Christ and Antichrist was confused with the equally simplified confrontation promoted by the United Irishmen between the forces of liberty and the forces of despotism. The Volunteer movement had familiarised Protestants with the idea of achieving political change by popular armed pressure. As Samuel Barber preached in 1779: 'those who resign the sword must also give up the sceptre and permit those who wear the sword to govern them.' John Jebb and others involved in the Volunteer movement had drawn out of Locke the conclusion that the associated people had an authority greater than that of their supposed delegates in Parliament, and it was a common view among Presbyterians that the Church - which was also made up of the associated people - had a similar authority. The problem lay in the fact that the overwhelming majority of the 'nation' were Catholics, who were an unknown quantity politically, identified both with the papal Antichrist and with gallic despotism. The French Revolution was seen as combining an attack on the Catholic establishment with an attack on secular tyranny, and it had been conducted by Catholics. This, combined with the emergence of a secular and non-aristocratic centre to Catholic politics in the reformed Catholic Committee, which held a convention in Dublin at the beginning of 1793, suggested that Roman Catholics were changing their nature. In declaring war on France in 1793, England was siding with the forces of Antichrist and despotism and, through its wartime measures, government was assuming an increasingly despotic aspect in Ireland. Nonetheless, it is hardly surprising that a union with Catholics on this basis was tenuous and short-lived, existing chiefly as a notion in areas where there were relatively few Catholics, and suffering a severe shock when news came of the sectarian nature of the rising in Wexford. (46)



(1) Richard Woodward, Lord Bishop of Cloyne: The Present State of the Church of Ireland, Dublin 1787, p. 19 Back

(2) William Campbell: A Vindication of the Principles and Character of the Presbyterians of Ireland, Belfast 1787.

(3) Ibid, pp. 31-32.

(4) Reformed Presbytery: Act, Declaration and Testimony for the Whole of Our Covenanted Reformation, Belfast 1832, quotations from pp.83 and 93.

(5) Ibid, quotations from pp.99, 122, 104 - 107. For the Seceders' views, see e.g. The Present Truth: A Display of Secession Testimony, Edinburgh 1774.

(6) On the Synod of Ulster's abandonment of the Solemn League and Covenant see David Miller: Queen's Rebels, Dublin and New York 1978, p.21; for alterations introduced by the Seceders see Acts of the Associate Presbytery, Edinburgh 1744; and for the R.P. response: Act, Declaration and Testimony, pp. 136-138. Back

(7) Thomas Ledlie Birch: Physicians Languishing under Disease, Belfast 1796, pp.22 and 27-28; for the Seceders and the 1783 election see e.g. Stewart: Seceders, pp. 89-90, and for the County Down petition, ibid pp. 166-168 and W.T. Latimer: A History of the Irish Presbyterians, Belfast and Edinburgh N.D. (c1893), pp. 169-170; for Pringle, see Stewart, pp. 103-4.

(8) R.R.Madden: The United Irishmen, Their Lives and Times, 3rd Series, Vol I, London 1846, pp. 226-227 and British and Irish Communist Organisation (ed): The Memoirs of Jemmy Hope, Belfast 1972, pp. 10-11.

(9) Earl of Hillsborough to Lord Nottingham, 1/3/1784 in PRONI Pelham MSS T755/2, pp.59-60.

(10) Campbell: Vindication, p.72.

(11) RGSU, p.65 (June 1784); Campbell: Vindication, p.69 Back

(12) For congregationalists, see John Gay: The Geography of Religion in England, London 1971, p. 301; for English Presbyterianism, see H.S. Ross: Some Aspects of the Development of Presbyterian Polity in England, Presbyterian Historical Society Journal

(13) See table in Explanation of terms above, p.viii and fn.; Campbell: Vindication, p.36; William Steele Dickson: Three Sermons on the Subject of Scripture Politics, Belfast 1793, p.39; J.C. Beckett: Protestant Dissent in Ireland, 1687-1780, London 1946, pp. 13-19.

(14) John Locke: Second Treatise of Civil Government, Chicago 1955, pp. 175-6; R.B. McDowell: Irish Public Opinion 1750-1800, London 1943, pp.68-69.

(15) See e.g. Bolam, Goring, Short, Thomas: The English Presbyterians, London 1968, esp pp. 228 -229.

(16) See e.g. G.H. Gutrridge: English Whiggism and the American Revolution, Berkeley and Los Angeles 1963, p. 114; D.H. Smyth: The Volunteer Movement in Ulster, 1745-85, unpubl Ph.D. thesis (QUB) 1974, p. 99; W.H. Rowan (ed): Autobiography of Archibald Hamilton Rowan Esquire, Dublin 1840, pp.26 and 126-136; speech by Grattan in the Irish Parliament. 20/2/1782. in Daniel Owen Madden (ed): The Selected Speeches of the Rt Hon Henry Grattan, Dublin 1845, p,65; Bolam etc: English Presbyterians, p.229, for Jebb resigning Anglican orders after Feathers Tavern petition. Back

(17) 'Theophilus Philander' (John Cameron): The Catholic Christian, Belfast 1769, p.54.

(18) Benjamin McDowell: Requiring Subscription... Defended, Glasgow 1770, pp. 35-37. Quotation from Cameron: Catholic Christian, p. 56.

(19) William McMillan: The Subscription Controversy in Irish Presbyterianism, unpubl MA thesis (Manchester University) 1958, pp. 17

(20) McMillan: Subscription Controversy, pp. [not given]; Robert Allen: The Principle of Nonsubscription to Creeds and Confessions of Faith as Exemplified in Irish Presbyterian History, unpubl Ph.D. theses (QUB) 1944, pp. 478-479 for Arpri chard, and pp. 487-490 for Stephenson.

(21) For Calvin's view on justification by works, see T.H.L. Parker: John Calvin, London 1975, p. 36. Back

(22) Belfast News Letter, 17/5/1782; RGSU, p. 45 (June 1782).

(23) Dickson: Three Sermons, quotations from pp.14,12,15.

(24) Ibid. pp.8, 33-34, 63-64.

(25) William Steele Dickson: A Narrative of the Confinement and Exile of William Steete Dickson, D.D., Dublin 1812, p. 10; Samuel Barber: Sermon before Castlewellan Rangers and Rathfriland Volunteers, 24th October 1779 in Ulster Museum MSS 602-1914; for Barber in 1783 election, see An Historical Account of the Late Election, 1784, e.g. pp.49-50.

(26) William Theobald Wolfe Tone (Ed).: Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone; Washington 1826, p. 187. Back

(27) (William Drennan): Letters of Orellana, Belfast, 1785, pp.30-32.

(28) British and Irish Communist Organisation (ed): Belfast Politics by Henry Joy and William Bruce, Belfast 1974, pp.14-18.

(29) Ibid., p.51.

(30) Ibid., pp. 19-20.

(31) British and Irish Communist Organisation (ed): An Argument on behalf of the Catpotics of Ireland by T.W. Tone, Belfast 1973, pp.25-26. Back

(32) Stewart: Seceders, pp. 182-184; Reformed Presbytery: Causes of Fasting and Thanksgiving, 1792, pp. 6-8 (attribution to James McKinney in copy from collection of Josias Chancellor, Strabane, now in possession of RP Theological Hall, Belfast); M. Hutchinson: The Reformed Presbyterian Church in Scotland, Edinburgh and Glasgow, 1893, p.404.

(33) Robert Fleming Jr: The Rise and Fall of the Papacy, Edinburgh 1846, pp.46-49; David Miller: Presbyterianism and "Modernisation" in Ulster, Past and Present, LXXX, p.81; Northern Star, vol ii, no 33 (24/4/1793).

(34) For Birch at Creevy Rocks, see Charles Dickson: Revolt in the North, Dublin and London, 1960, p. 143; for Birch in 1783 election, see Historical Account, e.g. pp. 50-51. Thomas Ledlie Birch: The Obligations upon Christians, Belfast 1794, p.31.

(35) BICO (ed): Belfast Politics, p. 45; NS vol ii, no 21 (9/3/1793).

(36) Birch: Obligations, pp.27-30; Fleming: Rise and Fall, pp.22-24. Back

(37) William Staveley: War Proclaimed and Victory Ensured, Belfast 1795, pp. 35-36; for Staveley's career, see Samuel Ferguson: Brief Biographical Sketches of Some Irish Covenanting Ministers, Londonderry 1897, pp. 26-62.

(38) Samuel Brown Wylie: The Two Sons of Oil, Paisley 1806, pp.47 and 50.

(39) Extracts reprinted from The Covenanter Vol i, Belfast 1831, pp.245-246.

(40) Wylie: Two Sons, p.45.

(41) Covenanter Vol i, p.401. Back

(42) Ferguson: Biographical Sketches, pp. 38-40, 49, 53- 55; Dickson: Revolt, p. 177. Back

(43) Miller: Presbyterianism and "Modernisation", p. 82, quoting from Thomas Addis Emmet in W.J. McNeven (ed): Pieces of Irish History, New York 1807, pp. 119-120. Back

(44) McNeven: Pieces, p. 99; Thomas Holmes Houston: The Covenanter's Narrative and Plea, Belfast 1841, p. 2; John Paul: Remarks on the Reformed Presbyterian Synod's Judgement, Part 11, p. 70. For Paul/Houston dispute, see pp.225-241 below. Back

(45) Thomas Paine: Rights of Man, Harmondsworth 1971, pp.107 and 135. Back

(46) Barber: Sermon before Castlewellan Rangers Back