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Chapter Five

THE ARIAN CONTROVERSY

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

 

THE COURSE OF THE CONTROVERSY

Before discussing the reasons for and the effects of the major dispute which dominated the Synod of Ulster in the 1820s, it will be useful to give a short outline of the course of events. (1)

In 1821, the Unitarian Fund in England sent a minister, John Smithurst, on a preaching tour of Ulster, apparently at the invitation of Rev W.D. H. McEwen, who had recently (in 1817) transferred to the Presbytery of Antrim, and who, in the same year, became a teacher of elocution in the Belfast Academical Institution. Smithurst had the use of several Presbyterian pulpits, including those of McEwen himself and of Rev Fletcher Blakely of the Synod of Ulster. He also preached in Killyleagh, though not in the church, at the invitation of Archibald Hamilton Rowan, the former United Irishman, who had been allowed to return to Ireland and who had become a Presbyterian. Killyleagh had formerly been McEwen's meeting house, but there hod been dissatisfaction over his latitudinarianism and, after he left, he was succeeded by the orthodox Henry Cooke. Cooke was prompted into debating with Smithurst by Rowan's son, Captain Sidney Hamilton Rowan, who was an elder in his church. Subsequently he followed him on his tour to denounce his doctrines. Smithurst was a 'Humanitarian' or Socinian, who believed Christ to be fully human (as distinct from the 'Arian' view that he was divine but still subordinate to God). He was also a 'voluntaryist', who ascribed what he saw as the theological timidity of Ulster latitudinarian ministers to the influence of Regium Donum. (2)

The same year, Rev William Neilson, headmaster of the Classical School and Professor of Greek, Latin and Hebrew in the Belfast Academical Institution, died. His post was divided, and Rev Thomas Dix Hincks, formerly Principal of the Royal Cork Institute, was appointed to the Classical School. Rev William Bruce was elected as Professor of Greek, Latin and Hebrew (though he relinquished Hebrew to Hincks in 1822). Bruce was the son of Dr William Bruce, whom we have seen as a prominent opponent both of radical politics in Belfast since the 1790s and of the Belfast Institution. It was hoped that his appointment would help to defuse opposition to the Institution and to facilitate the restoration of the grant. He had an overwhelming majority, and his supporters included Hanna and Rev Edward Reid, then Moderator of the Synod of Ulster (who travelled from Donegal specially to cast his vote). There was nonetheless strongly felt opposition. Rev Samuel Edgar, the Professor of Divinity appointed by what was now (since the union of the Burgher and Antiburgher Synods) the Secession Synod (or Presbyterian Synod of Ireland) complained of his Arianism, and he was also opposed by John Barnet , one of the Board members who resigned in 1816 but who had since been re-elected. Barnet was a Seceder, but he was also opposed to the motives of political expediency which had dictated the appointment. In the hope of stirring up opposition to Bruce, he wrote to Cooke, describing the circumstances of the election. (3)

In response to Edgar's queries about the dangers of Arian influence, the Board of Masters (for the School) and the Board of Faculty (for the College) signed declarations that they would not interfere in any way with the religious principles of their pupils. But in the Secession Synod of July 1822, a motion was passed that:

'the Synod have learned with deep regret and alarm the appointment of Professors in the Belfast Institution who hold Arian or Socinian principles and, considering the opportunities which teachers of Greek and Hebrew have of instilling their peculiar principles into the minds of their pupils, they agree to consider at their next meeting whether this does lay a just ground for discontinuing their connexion with the Institution.' (4)

Cooke raised the issue of Bruce's election in the Synod of Ulster in Newry in June, giving notice of a motion calling for an enquiry into the orthodoxy of the Synod's Professors. He was seconded by Rev James Carlile of Dublin but, receiving no support, had to withdraw. A second attempt to raise the issue in Armagh, in June 1823, was also unsuccessful, though he seems to have had more support. The Secession Synod resolved that the declaration of the Boards was a sufficient guarantee 'deeply as the Synod regret the Introduction of Professors reputed to be of Arian principles into the Institution and strongly as they detest such principles.' One minister, Robert Rentoul, dissented because he objected to 'our students studying the Hebrew language under Rev Mr Hincks.' (5)

In December 1823, a Committee of the Synod of Ulster met at Moneymore to discuss a Code of Discipline which had been prepared largely by Cooke. This had been projected in 1810 on a proposal from Horner, McDowell's coadjutor in Dublin. Cooke became involved in it in 1819, assisting John Thompson of Carnmoney, who was ill. Montgomery claims that a section drawn up by Dr A.G.Malcolm on the superiority of the Presbyterian system of church government had been dropped because of 'an evident courting of Orthodox and High Church approbation' following Bruce's election. He says that Cooke had been largely responsible for the section on doctrine but that he had been keen to introduce what would have been a new clause which would require subscription to the Westminster Confession, to be imposed by the Synod as a condition of ordination. A compromise was reached whereby presbyteries had the right to ascertain the 'soundness of faith' of licentiates 'either by requiring subscription to the Westminster Confession, or by such examinations as they shall consider best adapted for that purpose.' Killen asserts that this confirmed the right of the church to exhaustively explore the theological opinions of its licentiates; at the time the New Light view was that it at last freed the Synod from the Pacific Act which required subscription to the Westminster Confession to be imposed by presbyteries with latitude given to candidates to explain any objections they might have to particular passages. (6)

The new Code was approved by the 1824 Synod in Moneymore, only James Elder of Finvoy, who wanted full subscription, dissenting. In the meantime, Dr William Bruce (Senior) had published his Sermons on the Study of the Bible - the first published avowal of Arian opinions in the history of Ulster Presbyterianism (an anonymous pamphlet in defence of Unitarian principles had been published at the end of the previous century), in which he claimed that 'Arian principles were making extensive, though silent, progress in the General Synod of Ulster.' Cooke secured a condemnation of this passage. (7)

In 1824, the Government announced a Commission of Enquiry into Education in Ireland, and the Institution was anxious to be examined by it, in the hopes of securing a restoration of the grant. They reported to the 1824 Synod that their chances would be greatly increased by an expression of confidence on the Synod's part. Cooke secured a resolution that when the Moderator voted at elections for the Institution's professors (as he was entitled to do by the Act of Incorporation) his choice should be determined by a Synod's Fixed Committee, who should be shown all the candidates' testimonials. This motion was seconded by the Synod's clerk, William Porter, whose Arianism was soon to be at the centre of the dispute; it was also supported by the Institution's representatives (McEwen and Hancock) though it caused resentment among the Joint Boards.

Cooke was elected Moderator in 1824 and thus gave evidence to the Commissioners for Education and also to Committees of the Lords and Commons enquiring into the state of Ireland, in response to the agitation of O'Connell's Catholic Association. His evidence provoked a great outcry when it was published in 1825 (prior to the 1825 Synod), in particular because of his views that most Presbyterians were opposed to Catholic Emancipation and that the Belfast Academical Institution risked becoming a 'great seminary of Arianism.' In reply to this criticism he published an Illustration and Defence of Rev Mr Cooke's Evidence in which he attacked Bruce's election (secured 'by overshadowing patronage and tickling promises') and the principle of non-interference in the religious principles of the pupils:

'O, the "feast of reason and the flow of the soul", the "Noctes Ambrosianae" when all mention of the supreme dignity of the Redeemer, his atoning blood, the sinful state of man by nature and the power of the eternal Spirit to enlighten and renew are excluded by "holy alliance".' (8)

At the 1825 Synod in Coleraine, Cooke preached his sermon as outgoing Moderator on the importance of orthodoxy to evangelical endeavour and church discipline. He attacked the Presbytery of Armagh for ordaining Rev S.C. Nelson, a licentiate of the Presbytery of Antrim, as minister to the congregation of Dromore (the ordination was upheld but the Presbytery of Armagh was censured). A resolution was passed which, without indicating agreement with Cooke's evidence, affirmed the Synod's confidence in his integrity (it was passed as an amendment to a motion of James Morell of Ballybay, deprecating the 'unwarrantable attacks' that had been made on him). On the Belfast Institution, the Synod resolved, on Cooke's proposal, that when a Professor was to be elected, the Moderator should collect a committee with one minister and one elder from each presbytery to choose which candidates should be considered eligible; that the committee should only recommend orthodox candidates; and that the Institution should be expected always to take their opinion into account.

He also secured a motion stating that there had been no ecclesiastical connection in doctrine, discipline or jurisdiction with the Presbytery of Antrim since 1726.

A deputation from the Synod met the Joint Boards of the Institution in October 1825 to persuade them to incorporate the Synod's Overtures into a set of bye laws. The Joint Boards felt that there was no need for a bye law since they had already agreed to facilitate the Moderator in consulting with a Committee through their acceptance of the 1824 Synodical Overture. Montgomery's biographer, J.A. Crozier, says that Cooke put up a half hearted resistance at this meeting, but Holmes suggests that he wasn't in fact present at it. (9)

It was soon after this meeting that the Commissioners of the Irish Education Inquiry began their examination of the Belfast Academical Institution, and the questions turned mainly on its supposed Arianism. The Report was not published until early in 1827.

The 1826 Synod represented a setback for Cooke (it is not mentioned in the account of his biographer, J.L. Porter). The outgoing Moderator, James Carlile, delivered a sermon in favour of freedom of religious opinion. When the report of the deputation to the Joint Boards was discussed, Dr Wright, the new Moderator, said he regretted the 1825 Resolutions on the Institution and thought the 1824 overture sufficient. The Synod resolved that, though they would like the Institution to incorporate the resolution into some sort of permanent bye-law, they were generally satisfied with the present state of affairs. They resolved, however, on a proposal from Rev Henry Montgomery of Dunmurry, the Institution's English master, that the electors should be recommended not to appoint any minister holding a pastoral charge to any of its professorships (a major orthodox argument having been that an Arian refraining from expressing his opinions in the school could still exercise influence from a nearby pulpit).

James Elder of Finvoy, who had opposed the Code of Discipline, proposed that no candidate should be licensed or ordained without subscribing to the Westminster Confession. Cooke moved an amendment saying that 'He knew there were things in the Westminster Confession of Faith to which neither he nor any other member of the house could subscribe, such as the parts relating to the power of the civil magistrate in religious matters' - a sentiment that was brought up against him with great glee later when he called for unqualified subscription in the 1830s. He proposed that a Committee should draw up 'a new confession, to be called, if you will, that of Ballymena. . ..'. Elder's motion and Cooke's amendment were both negatived, the main argument for nonsubscription being advanced by the 'moderate Calvinists', led by Carlile. In the meantime a Unitarian journal had appeared, published in London by Rev John Kitcat, with the help of John Scott Porter, son of the Synod's clerk, William Porter. It was called The Christian Moderator and took a very close interest in the Synod's affairs. It also provided a forum for a debate that was long overdue among Ulster Unitarians as to whether or not they should continue to conceal their Unitarianism.

The debate on the Institution had not turned on whether or not Arianism was deplorable, but on whether or not the Institution would inculcate it; the assumption remained that it was deplorable. Smithurst had been the first Unitarian missionary Ulster had ever seen, the Christian Moderator was the first aggressive Unitarian journal, though in relation to English Unitarian journals, it was intended, as the title suggests, to be moderate. The Northern Whig was edited by a Unitarian and sympathetic to the Arians, but this was argued on the general ground of religious liberty not on the basis of the truth or otherwise of Arian doctrines.

Cooke seems to have been depressed and ill after the 1826 Ballymena Synod, and spent the Summer on the estate of Lord Mountcashel, a prominent Anglican evangelical to whom he had been introduced by Sidney Hamilton Rowan (Holmes, following Porter, says that he visited McDowell in Dublin at this time, but McDowell died in 1824). A second edition of Bruce's Sermons was published and replied to by the Reformed Presbyterian, Rev John Paul of Loughmorne, in his Refutation of Arianism, which was to prove a mine of arguments for the orthodox. In 1827, the Fourth Report of the Commissioners of the Irish Education Inquiry was published. In it, both William Porter and Henry Montgomery avowed their Arianism and Porter claimed that Arianism was widespread throughout the Synod. (10)

The 1827 Synod began with a debate on a motion from Rev Robert Magill of Antrim that Porter should be discontinued as Clerk to the Synod on account of his evidence. In the course of the debate, Cooke for the first time proposed a division of the Synod (Barkley attributes this to the influence of Mountcashel). Porter claimed that the real reason for the attack on him was his support for Catholic Emancipation. Eventually an amendment was passed disapproving of Arianism but continuing Porter in office. Cooke, and forty-one other ministers, protested. Then, as Crozier says, 'the real struggle' began. Cooke proposed that all members of the Synod should, there and then, declare their belief in the Trinity. He was seconded by Robert Stewart of Broughshane. Montgomery claimed that it was clearly unconstitutional to bring forward such a motion without any notice. (11)

There was a long debate as to the form of words in which the doctrine of the Trinity was to be expressed. Cooke went on to say that he would like to see positive measures taken against those who did not subscribe to the test. Eventually, when the roll was called, 117 ministers declared their belief in the Trinity, two ministers declared their disbelief, and eight abstained. Ministers not present were told to declare their views in person or in writing at the next Synod. The ten dissenters lodged a protest.

Archibald Hamilton Rowan published Montgomery's speech against the test and in August he unsuccessfully tried to organise a public debate in Cooke's Killyleagh congregation, while Dr Armstrong of the Synod of Munster published a letter attacking Cooke's view that the Southern Association had no connection with the Synod of Ulster. In the Autumn of the same year, Fisherwick Presbyterian Church was opened in Belfast, with James Morgan as its minister (though a section of the congregation had supported a call to Cooke). Thomas Chalmers from Scotland preached a sermon at the opening against the agitation of religious controversies which was widely interpreted as a criticism of Cooke.

The beginning of 1828 saw the introduction into Ulster of the New Reformation Societies for the conversion of Catholics, which became a target for the liberal press since they were seen as an indirect attempt to counter Catholic emancipation and provide an outlet for Orangeism (the Orange Order had been banned in 1825, together with the Catholic Association. The ban was lifted in 1828). At the end of 1827, the Ulster Guardian, edited by James Stuart, a former editor of the Belfast News Letter, had appeared with the explicit aim of supporting the Reformation Societies. It also supported Cooke in the Arian dispute and opposed Catholic emancipation.

A dinner was held in Montgomery's honour in Belfast, shortly before the 1828 Synod. Cooke published an open letter calling for rigorous tests of the orthodoxy of both ministers and elders, and, as the Synod opened, a poem was circulated by Rev Robert Magill, who had opened the attack on Porter in 1827. It was called 'The Thinking Few' after Porter's remark in his evidence that Arianism was making progress among the thinking few.

After the ministers who had been absent from Strabane had been asked to declare their views on the Trinity, Morell of Ballybay proposed resolutions by which a committee of Synod could investigate the theological views of candidates for the ministry and of ordinands, this being at the time the responsibility of presbyteries. He was supported by Carlile, and Crozier interprets the move as a cunning ploy to disarm the 'moderate Calvinists' and prepare the way for the more rigorous test proposed by Cooke. Cooke, again calling for a separation, proposed amendments which specified the doctrines which candidates were expected to hold ('the Trinity, Original Sin, Justification by Faith, and Regeneration by the Holy Spirit'). After several days debating, Cooke's amendments were passed. Twenty-one ministers signed a protest against the Overture and against the Examining Committee which was appointed in consequence of it.

After a dispute over the election of James Morgan in Fisherwick (in which the decision of the committee was upheld against those who supported the call to Cooke), Cooke gave notice of a motion demanding an enquiry into the state of the Synod, which provided him with an opportunity to reply at length to a long speech Montgomery had made in opposition to his amendments. It took the form of an appeal for separation, was widely circulated, and inspired a series of memorials supporting him from congregations all over the Province.

Finally, there was a dispute over James Simms, who was a candidate for the ministry under the (Calvinist) Presbytery of Route. After the Presbytery had objected to a sermon he gave which contained 'something very like the Romish doctrine of purgatory' he wanted to be transferred to the more latitudinarian Presbytery of Bangor. Permission was refused and he withdrew from the ministry, later to become editor of the Northern Whig.

In September, those who disagreed with the overtures establishing the theological committee met in Belfast to discuss tactics and agreed to draw up a 'Remonstrance' containing their complaints. This was presented to an open meeting in October at which it was attacked by Cooke and Stewart. In November, there was a special meeting of the Synod to discuss the government's proposals to renew its grant to the Belfast Institution. These included giving the Synod a veto over the appointment of the 'religious professors' - of Hebrew, the Classics and Moral Philosophy. The Synod - at Cooke's suggestion - agreed not to demand this right but to remain content with the 1824 agreement if the Institution agreed to make it one of their bye-laws. The Northern Whig at the time, and Crozier and Robb subsequently, argue that this was because they were afraid that the Institution might not accept the grant on these terms, thus maintaining their independence and endangering the existence of the collegiate faculty and its Divinity professorships.

Montgomery at the turn of the year made a speaking tour of Unitarian chapels in England and in January attended a public meeting in Belfast in favour of Catholic Emancipation. Peel and Wellington introduced their Catholic Emancipation bill in March and the Presbytery of Ballymena called for a special meeting of the Synod to discuss the political state of the country. A special meeting could only be summoned on a call from three presbyteries. Cooke was unsuccessful in trying to persuade his own Presbytery (Dromore) to support the call from Ballymena. (12)

As if on purpose to complicate matters, Dr John Young, the Institution's Professor of Moral Philosophy, died in March 1829. The Synod's committee recommended James Carlile as his successor, but listed a number of other candidates, including Dr John Ferrie from the University of Glasgow, as eligible. Ferrie was elected, and doubts were immediately cast as to his orthodoxy.

When the Synod met at Lurgan, Magill again proposed the deposition of Porter as Clerk to the Synod. Carlile and Horner proposed a trial of Montgomery on the grounds that he had once, as was revealed in earlier debates, travelled to Dublin on a Sunday. A letter was received from the Trustees of the General Presbyterian Fund in Dublin withdrawing support from the supposedly Joint Mission of the Synods of Ulster and Munster, on the grounds that the Ulster Synod had excluded the latitudinarian Munster Synod from its operations.

When the Report from the Joint Boards of the Institution was heard, Cooke launched an attack on the bye-law introduced in response to the 1828 agreement with the Synod over the restoration of the government grant, arguing that the clause of the Synod's 1824 overture requiring that the Institution take note of the Moderator's recommendation was missing. But the main attack was on Ferrie's appointment to the Chair of Moral Philosophy, and on the Synod's committee for having declared him eligible. Carlile supported Cooke. To quote Robb: 'the debate was adjourned until the next day, and on that day Montgomery and Cooke delivered two of the greatest speeches ever heard in the Synod, the personal antagonism of the two orators altogether obscuring the real point in dispute.' Montgomery finished his speech by suggesting that there would have to be a separation.

As representative of the Institution, Montgomery produced a number of testimonials in favour of Ferrie's orthodoxy. Cooke claimed to have been ignorant of them, but secured a resolution calling for a Committee of Synod to consult with the Joint Boards and with the Secession and Reformed Synods to investigate the matter. This was followed by a cross examination of witnesses Cooke had ready to prove that Ferrie was a 'rank Socinian'. Stewart successfully proposed, against the protest of the Remonstrants, that discussion of the overtures establishing the Theological Committee should be postponed until a special meeting in August to be held at Cookstown.

Finally, there was a dispute over the congregation of Clough which, on the death of its minister, William Campbell, had elected his assistant, David Watson. The election had been short of a synodical majority. His supporters wanted him to be reheard on the grounds that underhand measures had been used against him. A countermemorial wanted the congregation to be removed from the care of the Presbytery of Bangor and put under the care of a committee of Synod, which was to find an orthodox minister for them. The Synod supported the minority in a vote from which the Bangor Presbytery was excluded. Sixteen ministers protested in what Crozier calls 'the last personal act of the Remonstrants in the Synod of Ulster.'

Later in July, the Clough congregation put itself under the care of the Presbytery of Antrim. On 30th July, the Remonstrants met and agreed to separate from the Synod.

In early August, the proprietors of the Belfast Institution met the Synod's Committee. The General Synod's Committee agreed that if Ferrie were to renew his subscription to the Westminster Confession (which he did) this would be a sufficient guarantee of his orthodoxy. In fact, the controversy was renewed in the 1830s.

Only a handful of ministers appeared at the Synod's special meeting in August to discuss the Remonstrance. Porter, who was still Clerk to the Synod, presented it, and an Address drafted by Montgomery. Cooke announced the principle that wherever a minority, no matter how small, in a separating congregation remained orthodox, it should be regarded as the true congregation, entitled to the meeting house and to Regium Donum. Porter resigned.

 

TRINITARIANISM AND CHURCH ORGANISATION

The clearest statement of Cooke's argument for the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity can be found in his sermon as outgoing Moderator to the Synod of 1825. It is based on the text: 'Thou hast a name to live and art dead. Be watchful and strengthen the things that remain' (Revelation 3.1-2) and is a plea for the revitalisation of the Synod of Ulster as a coherent church. The Bible, he argues, supplies the element of religious truth which cannot be found by the unaided intellect. 'Natural religion' - the truths about God which are discoverable through the study of nature - was sufficient for man while he was in a state of grace [Dr Paisley, of Martyr's Memorial Free Presbyterian Church in Belfast, has pointed out to me that, referring to the period before the Fall, I should have said 'state of innocence' - PB]; but man is in a state of alienation from God, is aware of this through a diffuse internal feeling of guilt, but can find no evidence in nature that God will pardon him:

'While obedient to God, man knew God loved him - but where has God told him he will love him though an enemy? While he remained in innocence, he felt God's protection - but where has God told him he will save him though guilty? And even if God can love and pardon the guilty sinner - where shall the sinner look for evidence of that pardon?' (13)

There was thus a need for 'a new manifestation of God': 'Let us then hold steadily in view that the object of God was to reveal himself to man in a character not discoverable in nature - that of the "sin-pardoning God".' Man of his own nature is incapable of deserving pardon: 'There can be only two possible grounds for the pardon of a sinner - his own works of repentance or the free grace of God in Christ.' But scripture assures us that human works are inadequate to salvation and that "the blood of Jesus Christ his son cleanseth us from all sin" (I John1.8). The sinner is thus wholly dependent for his salvation on the Redeemer.

The Redeemer, however, cannot be wholly dependable if he is a creature - particularly if, as in the Socinian system, he is fully human; but also if, as in the 'high Arian' system, he is a very high order of created being:

'still, though the Saviour were an angel, man is but a little lower than the angels and would therefore have to depend on an arm little stronger than his own. Nay, as all but God himself is liable to change; as God is declared to have even charged his angels with folly; this Saviour, this Redeemer, might fall from God and be banished into that misery from which the Gospel, by him, proposes to rescue sinful man.'

The doctrine of the divinity of Christ was thus essential to the doctrine of the atonement, which was essential to salvation. So that, without a belief in the divinity of Christ, the Church could not participate in the work of salvation. It could not offer the 'pardon' - the element in religion that was not available through the unaided power of individual effort.

The rest of the sermon is taken up with suggestions for tightening the discipline of the church, enabling ministers and elders to exercise a close supervision over the religious life of their congregations. Many congregations were too large for their ministers to do anything other than perform the basic ordinances; licentiates (of whom there was a superabundance) could be employed as assistants to visit the sick and catechise the young. There was a need for 'a spiritual eldership, ruling their families in the fear of God; attending to the situation and wants of the poor; ready to exhort the young to their duty, or to rebuke the wanderer for the error of his ways; often by the bed of sickness with the voice of exhortation or prayer; attending upon Church courts to watch over the interests of the Redeemer's kingdom.' There was a need for more discipline in excluding the children of the profane from Baptism and the profane themselves from the Lord's Supper. Presbyteries should exercise more vigilance over the ministry and should keep statistics on 'the number of families in each congregation; the number of Bibles in each family; the state of family religion as evidenced by family prayer; the state of attendance upon catechisings; the state of attendance upon public worship.'

In short, the Church was to become 'a temple unprofaned by the foot of the enemy - a building of God amidst the ruins of the universe.'

This emphasis on discipline is consistent with the Code of Discipline largely written by Cooke - which the Synod approved in 1824 and finally adopted in 1825. The acceptance of the Code indicates that a need for a more rigorous and consistent discipline was generally felt. In the Presbytery of Templepatrick, for example, visitation questions at the turn of the century were perfunctory, merely ascertaining if the minister and congregation approved each other. In 1821, they became more detailed, and in 1825, a Committee was appointed to work out a fixed set of questions. It produced a large number of questions going into considerable detail, which was accepted in 1827. This was one of the less orthodox presbyteries, losing five of its sixteen members to the Remonstrants in 1829. What was controversial in Cooke's insistence on discipline was his view that it should include doctrine. (14)

Cooke emphasised that the doctrines of the Trinity, original sin and the atonement were essential to 'the church'. Montgomery, on the other hand, denied that the Synod of Ulster was a church:

'The root of the error into which those fall who advocate the power of Ecclesiastical Courts, lies in mistaking the meaning of the word church as it is used in the New Testament. They seem to think that it was some kind of clerical conclave or synod; whereas it never has any such meaning, but either signifies the whole body of believers or a particular congregation. Whatever power therefore was originally vested in the church "to try spirits", or in other words to judge of the doctrines of teachers, is now solely vested in distinct worshipping societies and not in presbyteries or synods. To the Synod of Ulster I owe no allegiance in matters of faith....' (15)

By the 1820s, the Synod was indeed an extraordinary amalgam - Presbyterian in its organisation, but largely Congregationalist in matters of doctrine. The Pacific Act required subscription, but the responsibility for enforcing it lay with presbyteries, who could choose their own formula (Barkley has found sixteen different formulae between 1774 and 1800). The formula could be quite meaningless, as for example, 'We believe the Westminster Confession of Faith contains the essential doctrines of Christianity and as such we subscribe it'; and most presbyteries had dropped the practice of subscription by 1820. This informal arrangement was sanctioned in the 1824 Code of Discipline, which gave presbyteries freedom to decide their own methods for ascertaining a licentiate's 'soundness in faith'. The Synod had decided in 1816 to exclude doctrine from the terms of reference of the committee appointed to compile the Code, though Cooke tried to introduce it in 1823. De facto authority in the matter lay with the congregations themselves, since, if they did not like a particular presbytery's practice, it was not difficult to transfer, and it was even possible to erect a new presbytery (Dromore and Belfast had both been formed by congregations dissatisfied with nonsubscribing presbyteries). (16)

Thus it was not clear where doctrinal authority lay: in the Synod, in the presbytery or in the congregation, but in practice it lay in the congregation, it being rare for the Synod or presbytery to overrule a congregation's choice of minister. That ministers were in general satisfied with this state of affairs is shown by the difficulty Cooke had in persuading the Synod that it had the right to exercise doctrinal authority, even though there was no problem in securing assent to the proposition that Arianism was wrong, or even that it was wicked. In 1826 and 1827, Cooke's main orthodox opponent, James Carlile, referred favourably to the example of the Independents, whose church structure was such that bitter doctrinal disputes outside the ambit of individual congregations were impossible (since there was no church structure outside individual congregations). (17)

This 'nonsubscription' was not just a matter of convenience to facilitate heterodox ministers. It was a positive ideal in its own right -an ideal which abolished church boundaries (for any purpose other than administrative convenience), thereby abolishing disputes between churches with their resultant wars, persecutions etc. Both Montgomery and A.H. Rowan praised the Presbyterian system in Ulster because it was the system most conducive to the principles of civil and religious liberty. Carlile's moderatorial sermon of 1826 can be seen as a reply to Cooke's in 1825. Cooke had argued for the tightening up of the internal discipline of the church. Carlile (who was closely involved with the Irish Evangelical Society, a largely Independent body) was more interested in the 'evangelisation of the world' - a missionary movement that was not concerned with the extension of particular church structures. The mere fact that the church structure of the Synod of Ulster was little more than a matter of convenience was in his eyes a positive virtue:

'I exult in the liberty we have of declaring our sentiments unreservedly on all subjects, without any other apprehension than that of being convinced of error; and I declare it to be the conviction of my own deliberate judgment that the compulsory measures that have been invented and employed by various ecclesiastical bodies for securing uniformity of doctrine, have increased the error which they intended and, I doubt not. honestly intended to prevent.' (18)

He counterposed an emphasis on internal discipline to missionary endeavour:

'When a Christian church becomes satisfied with attending to its own internal edification and uses no endeavours to disseminate its principles, so far from really providing for its own spiritual interest, it sinks itself into a lifeless attendance on outward forms.'

and during the 1826 debates, he said that:

'it was impossible to draw a distinction between those doctrines necessary to salvation and those that are not. To some, more is necessary, to some less; and God alone can judge - he alone knows our opportunities and circumstances - and to him alone we owe an account.' (19)

To some extent, Carlile's views resemble those of Alexander Carson, who had become an Independent on the grounds that participation in a corporate church inhibited evangelical endeavour; and who opposed subscription on the grounds that it was a meaningless formality and was an imposition on the freedom of a Christian. Like Montgomery, Carson argued that 'the Church' was the individual congregation. But for Carson, membership of that individual congregation was impossible without visible evidence of regeneration, and he shared Cooke's views that salvation was impossible without the saving work of Christ in the atonement and of the Holy Spirit in regeneration; and that Christ and the Holy Spirit were to be conceived of as co-equal with God the Father. Certain doctrines were therefore necessary to salvation, but salvation was an experienced process, not a system of belief.

Cooke did not emphasise such an observable process of individual conversion. For him, the church was a voluntary society with definite, publicly known principles, capable of corporate action. It was the duty of ministers to keep watch over each other and over their flocks, but what they were watching for was not signs of regeneration but the more easily measurable signs of a disciplined life and a good grasp of the church's doctrines. This clearly suggested the need for some authoritative statement of what those doctrines were. We have seen that he wanted to introduce some form of subscription in 1823 and in 1825 he told the Commissioners of the Irish Education Inquiry that he was in favour both of subscription and of a separation from the Arians. The fact that he did not formally propose either subscription or separation to the Synod at any time during the dispute indicates his awareness of the strength of feeling against him. This was not the strength of Arianism itself but of the 'moderate Calvinism' of Carlile and Hanna. The strength of Arianism lay in the common ground it shared with trinitarian opinion. (20)

 

ARIANISM AND MERE MORALITY

The clearest statement of what was understood in Ulster as 'Arianism' was the Sermons on the Study of the Bible by Dr William Bruce, which played a crucial role in clarifying the terms of the dispute. In the 1820s, Bruce was in correspondence with a Dublin Anglican, Robert Perceval who argued that there was no point in openly avowing a high Arian position, since the high Arian conception of Christ was so elevated that it was nearly the same as the Trinitarian position, and that most Trinitarian formulations for the nature of Christ (that he was divine, the Son of God etc) were quite acceptable, Indeed, Montgomery declared in 1828: '1 have heard nothing but Arian prayers since I came to this Synod' and in 1825, the Presbytery of Templepatrick, under Arian influence, asked its licentiates if they believed:

'that this ever blessed Saviour is the brightness of the Father's Glory and the express image of his person, that is (crossed out: the delegated representative) of divine majesty, the only head of the church on earth, the Mercy Seat or medium through which divine mercy is tendered to man and through which man's sincere and perseveringly righteous endeavours are accepted instead of perfection and that he is the constitutional judge of the quick and the dead.' (21)

Much of Bruce's book is taken up with deprecating religious controversy and stressing the 'obvious' points of Christianity about which there could be no disagreement: for example, that there was One God who was pleased by charitable deeds and a holy life. He encourages a selective approach to religious literature, basically excluding anything that could arouse 'a discordant emotion in the sublime tenor of our devout affections.' Books of controversy were useless and the Bible itself could not be regarded as equally edifying in all its parts. The most useful parts of the Bible were the words of Christ himself as recorded in the Gospels, while 'the moral and devotional Books' (Job, the Psalms and the Prophets) were the most useful parts of the Old Testament, The basic tendency of the Bible was towards moral edification: 'there are many things, then, of a spiritual nature in which we are most deeply interested of which, nevertheless, it is not at all necessary nor possible that we should be informed.' There was no virtue in speculating on the precise nature of Christ: 'it is enough for the humble believer to be assured that he was invested with divine authority and that he made known the nature and will of God.' There was no virtue in speculating on the nature of eternal punishment, since sin was self evidently odious. Nor could the precise nature of God's covenants or secret decrees, or the nature of the atonement, be known. Only what was easily comprehensible by the 'humblest rustic' could be regarded as essential. (22)

Nonetheless, certain ideas were incompatible with the basic and most obvious fact of religion: the goodness of God. These included: the imputation of Adam's sin, the requirement of a sacrifice to satisfy God's wrath, the vicarious atonement, predestination (by which God becomes the author of sin), the damnation of mankind prior to individual sin and (though here he becomes more tentative) the eternal nature of punishment. In contrast to the Calvinist view that mankind was naturally sinful, Bruce saw mankind as essentially capable of goodness and the Bible as a means of developing that inherent capacity. Natural man was capable of rejecting sin as self-evidently odious. There was therefore no need for a vicarious atonement and the strength of Christ was not indispensable to overcome the natural state into which man had fallen.

The Arian dispute was not simply, therefore, a matter of disagreement about the nature of Christ considered as a question in itself isolated from other theological issues. It involved the whole question of the function of religion - whether religion was to be seen as a means of edifying and civilising human society, or as the indispensable means of salvation from sin. Under Bruce's scheme, the Bible and the church were useful civilising agents, but it was possible - if dangerous - to live without them, and other religions could provide a similar function (he cites the Hindu, Rammohun Roy, as an authority). (23)

Bruce's minimalist religion was ridiculed by the Reformed Presbyterian, John Paul, in his Refutation of Arianism which argued that Bruce had treated the apostles as commentators (on the words of Jesus Christ recorded in the Gospels) whose commentary was more obscure than the text. Christ, he maintained, was the author of the whole Bible so that, if all parts were not equally important, they were equally authoritative and were interdependent and all necessary to a complete understanding of the whole. According to Bruce's view 'from a creed drawn from the gospels all blessings would flow; but from creeds drawn from the whole Word of God all evils, natural and moral, have ensued.' 'Have not such "safe rules" and liberal maxims a direct tendency to stop the march of mind, to arrest the progress of Reformation and to lead us back into darkness and popery?' It was only through intense controversy over every passage in the Bible that truth could be revealed and Bruce, in abusing Calvinism, was engaging in controversy despite all his disclaimers. (24)

The Refutation of Arianism was also an attack on Bruce's 'Arminianism' the view that man could contribute by his own efforts to the work of his salvation (and Paul's book prompted an anti-unitarian reply by the Arminian Methodist, Samuel Tucker). Arminianism provided a common ground between Trinitarians and Unitarians, so long as the Unitarians were not prepared to declare themselves unambiguously (the Presbytery of Templepatrick's question to licentiates quoted above is Arminian in its reference to man's 'sincere and perseveringly righteous endeavours'). From an Arminian point of view, the cultivation of human virtue and brotherly affection seemed incompatible with the abrasive and jeering tone adopted by Paul and Cooke. As long as the Synod served the function of mutual edification such quarrels over details seemed degrading and trivial.

Paul, a liberal in politics, described this as a spurious liberality, allowing the blind to fall into the ditch. It was only by rigorous separation from heretics that they could be shamed into seeing their error, while giving them power and influence in the church merely undermined the church's foundations: 'The Church of God, mingling with the excommunicated offspring of Cain, rapidly degenerated until the earth was filled with violence and till (Noah and his family excepted) all flesh was corrupted and the flood came and swept them all away.' Under a scheme whereby man was fully dependent on a force outside himself, precise theological truth became a matter of great importance, white matters of opinion could not be regarded as secondary to polished manners and civilised behaviour. A self conscious uncouthness has been characteristic of Scottish orthodoxy since the days of John Knox. It came into its own in Ulster in the 1820s. (25)

 

THE ARIAN DISPUTE AND CATHOLIC EMANCIPATION

We have already seen how slow the Synod was in responding to the evangelical initiatives which were coming from within the Church of Ireland, and we have seen that even the evangelicals were attached to the principle of the Bible without note or commentary - the very principle of 'sufficiency of scripture' which the nonsubscribers took as their slogan. The most active promoters of evangelical activity prior to the 1820s - Carlile and Hanna - were the leading spokesmen for the moderate Calvinist opposition to Cooke.

In national (all-Ireland) terms this non-dogmatic evangelicalism was due to the anxiety to incorporate Catholics into a broadly Protestant culture - an anxiety which overrode divisions within Protestantism itself. But, as Desmond Bowen points out, the 1820s saw a much greater emphasis on doctrine within Anglican evangelicalism, which he attributes largely to the influence of William Magee, Archbishop of Dublin from 1822 to 1831, and especially to his 'charge' published in October 1822. The pace of controversy was forced by a more militant sectarianism on the part of Roman Catholics. One sign of this had been the emergence of John Lawless in Belfast as a distinct Catholic voice in contrast to the liberal Protestants who had previously almost monopolised the articulation of Catholic interests. (26)

In 1824, a series of quasi-formal controversies began between local priests and local auxiliary Bible Societies, one of the earliest of which (in November) resulted in a riot in the Presbyterian meeting house in Carlow. Where evangelicals had previously tried to concentrate on similarities between Catholicism and Protestantism, and had tried where possible to cooperate with priests, attention was now very much focussed on differences and the controversies became like tournaments. The 'New Reformation Society' was formed, largely on the initiative of the Anglican landlord. Lord Farnham, in order to promote such controversies as the best means of exposing Romish errors and winning Catholics into the Protestant fold. It claimed an astonishing (and rather improbable) number of conversions. Bowen comments on the lack of impact this development had on Ulster Presbyterians: 'They steadfastly ignored the Catholics wherever they could in order to continue the purifying of their communion and of Ulster society' but the very concentration on doctrinal purity within the Synod entailed an abandonment of the view that religious divisions in Ireland could be overcome by a doctrinal minimalism along the lines proposed by Bruce and Montgomery. (27)

The Arians, and to some extent the moderate Calvinists, certainly interpreted Cooke's theological aggressiveness as an attack on efforts to obliterate the political effectiveness of religious differences. That, after all, had been one of the proclaimed functions of the Belfast Academical Institution, which was Cooke's first target. The publication in 1825 of Cooke's evidence in the First Report of the Commissioners of the Irish Education Inquiry was seen as confirmation of this point of view and John Jamieson comments that 'it was only after the uproar made by the liberal Presbyterians that Cooke began in earnest his campaign to kill their influence in the Synod.' In 1827, Porter complained that the efforts to have him dismissed as Clerk to the Synod were due, not to his Arianism, but to his support for Catholic Emancipation. And in 1828, when the New Reformation Society was extended to Ulster, an article in the Christian Moderator complained that:

'the grand object of the promoters of the northern reformation is not to pull down the Romish hierarchy, but to foster political bigotry against the Roman Catholics now petitioning the legislature for relief and to stir up religious animosity against all Protestants who are so audaciously honest as to profess their belief in what are here called new light doctrines.' (28)

Cooke several times commented on the increased zeal of ministers from the Church of Ireland, saying in 1827 that 'the numerous conversions it has made through the outpouring of the glorious gospel of God have cast a stigma on us and on our labours.' By 1825 he was on friendly terms with a number of landlords involved in the Anglican evangelical movement, most notably Dufferin (the major landlord in the Killyleagh area), Roden and Mountcashel. Montgomery was subsequently to argue that on the defeat of Black's opposition to the Belfast Academical Institution in 1816, he set about cultivating the evangelicals as a likely source of loyalist fermentation in the Synod. Some small corroborative evidence can be supplied in the general support Black received from the evangelicals McDowell and Horner, who seem to have influenced Cooke when he was helping to supply Carlow; and in Cooke's apparent presence at a dinner given to Black in 1816 to console him in his defeat. After 1830, Cooke was active in trying to promote a 'Protestant Union' of Anglicans and Presbyterians against the steadily increasing social and political power of the Catholic leadership. (29)

But while the negative side of liberal policy - reluctance to engage in religious controversy - was strongly felt in the Synod, there was very little sign of any commitment to promoting positive liberal politics (Catholic Emancipation or parliamentary reform). Montgomery attended a dinner held in honour of the Catholic parish priest, Dr Crolly, in May 1825, mainly as a protest against Cooke's evidence. McEwen and Montgomery attended a dinner in favour of Catholic Emancipation in January 1828. In January 1829, Montgomery toured some Unitarian congregations in England speaking in favour of Catholic Emancipation and later in the month he attended another Emancipation dinner in Belfast, when he commented on the fact that he was the only Protestant minister present. He also commented on the fact that he was the only minister of any denomination present at a meeting held in support of parliamentary reform in Belfast in December 1830. While there may have been more sympathy for Catholic interests among the Remonstrants than among the orthodox, that was about the extent of their public agitation on the matter. Protestant support for Catholic claims was in any case upstaged by the activities of O'Connell's Catholic Association which most Protestants - Montgomery included -found very upsetting. The main initiative for what Presbyterian support there was came from laymen, notably Dr Tennent and John Barnet both of them Seceders and therefore theologically orthodox. (30)

Nor can it be said that there was much agitation among ministers against Catholic Emancipation. Cooke's evidence on the subject was far from being a 'vicious outburst' (as Jamieson describes it). He supported the admission of Catholic MPs to Parliament but thought that it should be accompanied (as in the event it was) by an increase in the property qualification. The reason he gave was that after Emancipation, Catholic freeholders would be reluctant to vote for their own Protestant landlords who would therefore be tempted to replace them with Protestant tenants. He made it clear that he had an aversion to elections in themselves and that, even without Emancipation, he would be in favour of raising the qualification: 'I think he (the forty shilling freeholder) would lose a strong temptation to sin; he would lose the temptation to get into bad company every five or six years and to commit perjury and other crimes.' He also felt safeguards had to be introduced because of the extra territorial allegiance of Catholics to the Pope and because of the power of the priests over the consciences of their flocks. (31)

There was a need to preserve 'a distinct and visible superiority of the Protestant power, so that the state may be decidedly Protestant.' He thought that most of the Catholic peasantry involved in the agitation for Catholic Emancipation saw it as a means of restoring forfeited estates into Catholic hands, and that the ultimate intention of Catholics was to overthrow the Protestant state. Protestant hostility to Catholic Emancipation, he said, had been greatly increased by recent events, particularly the agitations of the Catholic Association and a recent papal encyclical which had reasserted, albeit 'in a much more genteel manner', the view that there could be no salvation outside the Catholic Church.

The view that caused most offence was his statement that most Northern Protestants, and indeed most Presbyterians in the lower orders, were opposed to emancipation, while most educated Presbyterians would prefer a limited emancipation. Those Protestants who argued for a full emancipation without safeguards really wanted 'to enable the democratic part of the constitution to overwhelm the aristocratic.'

Nonetheless, he thought that a limited emancipation, introduced by 'the present government' in which Protestants had great confidence, would do good:

'I think it a tolerably general opinion with thinking men that since the union between Great Britain and Ireland, the Protestantism of the state is so fully protected that there would be no danger from the introduction of a number of Roman Catholics to office; while by this limited advancement a subject of complaint would be taken away and a legitimate object presented for the ambition of leaders of learning and property. Many men consequently indulge the hope that the country would sink down into peace, when the agitators of it had been removed to a high employment, by which they think they would be converted into better men.' (32)

While he shared many of the fears which he attributed to 'the less informed' Presbyterians 'the hope of benefitting a miserable population, and confidence in the measures of the administration could alone reconcile my mind to it under present circumstances.' Cooke's proposals for an increase in the franchise qualification and for payment of the Roman Catholic clergy (he thought they should be paid more than Presbyterian ministers) were almost identical to those in the bill submitted to Parliament by Sir Francis Burdett at the time he was giving his evidence (March 1825) - conditions with which O'ConneII was prepared to comply (it was rejected in April by the Lords). Crozier complains against his statement that most Presbyterians were opposed to emancipation, but this was a straightforward statement of fact which Crozier himself confirms later in his book. The only attempt Cooke made to agitate the question outside his evidence was his unsuccessful effort to support Stewart's call for a special meeting of the Synod in March 1829, when the Emancipation Bill was tabled. Holmes comments on the confused nature of this proposal, in which Catholic Emancipation was only one of a number of political topics proposed for discussion. He was defended on this occasion by R.J. Bryce, by this time principal of the Belfast Academy, a supporter of Catholic Emancipation and opponent of Regium Donum (he was James Bryce's son), who pointed out that his evidence had actually supported Emancipation. From the inception of the Ulster Guardian in 1827, it continually complained that Presbyterians were not tabling petitions and organising meetings as Presbyterians in opposition to Emancipation. (33)

Cooke's evidence - or rather, the denials of the liberal press that he was accurately representing Presbyterian opinion - did provide the opportunity for some congregations (Jamieson has counted fifteen) to publish advertisements opposing Emancipation in 1825, and Montgomery accused him of having created the opposition he described. The Ulster Guardian which supported Cooke in the Synod, and the Belfast News Letter, which took a more neutral position, opposed emancipation, while the Northern Whig and the Belfast Commercial Chronicle, which opposed Cooke, supported it. On the whole, we can say that the most remarkable characteristic of the Synod's response to Catholic Emancipation was the lack of agitation on either side of the question, but that orthodoxy was still popularly associated with opposition, or at least caution, while Arianism was associated with support; and that this may have contributed to the popularity of Cooke's position. (34)

 

THE UNITARIAN OFFENSIVE

The clarification of points of theological disagreement was not just a matter of a new militancy on the part of the orthodox. Unitarians were also becoming more 'evangelical' - in the sense of willing to propagate their views. Paul was later (1828) to accuse the Arians of being the aggressors:

'In the present controversy between Trinitarians and Antitrinitarians, Dr Drummond charges the orthodox with being the aggressors.... Were this charge of aggression true, I do not see that the crime would be great. To attack error, wherever we find it, is not a crime but a duty. The charge, however, is not true. In this controversy, it is not the Trinitarians, but the Antitrinitarians that have been the aggressors. Did not the Antrim Presbytery republish Price's sermons? Did not Dr Bruce publish a volume of controversial sermons? Did not the Arians republish, or import, Channing's sermons? Did they not attack the divinity and atonement of Jesus Christ through the medium of a public journal (probably the Christian Moderator, but possibly the Northern Whig - PB)? Did they not display their illiberality by refusing to insert a reply? Was not a missionary (Smithurst - PB) sent from England for the express purpose of attacking the Trinitarian creed? Were not tracts circulated, gratis, for the same purpose? Were not all these public acts mode by the Arians prior to any controversial publication on the part of the orthodox (Paul's own Refutation, or possibly James Stuart's Reply to Channing - PB)?' (35)

Smithurst had been invited over by Rev W.D.H. McEwen of the Presbytery of Antrim and, as we have seen, had also been invited by Rev Fletcher Blakely of the Synod of Ulster to preach at Moneyrea. His appearance at Killyleagh, which started Cooke's campaign, seems to have been intended as a direct attack on Cooke's influence, though Smithurst himself was probably unaware of this.

McEwen had preceded Cooke as minister in Killyleagh. Sidney Hamilton Rowan subsequently told the Synod that during his ministry the congregation 'had very nearly been destroyed... in consequence of its members not having had the doctrines of their religion truly preached and explained to them.' When McEwen left (to join the Presbytery of Antrim), Sidney's father, Archibald Hamilton Rowan, wrote to Lord Dufferin to complain about the new mood of intolerance in the congregation, and particularly about the hostility to one of the candidates - David Davison. Davison was thought to be preaching 'new doctrines'. Dufferin, who subscribed money to the congregation, had been told about this and his disapproval was being used as an argument by the orthodox party. Rowan wrote that Davison: 'did not, nor do I believe would he, thunder out damnation to those who did not think as that intollerant (sic) faction think or pretend to think of the complete efficacy of faith and the total inefficacy of good works in an hereafter.' (36)

He warned Dufferin against 'a second brood of roundheads, who excel all in holiness; and who in their zeal for seeking the Lord and re-establishing their holy Zion would trample over the same obstacles as their brethren have done in the last century' and complained against 'my son's brother-in-law, Mr Johnson or another gentleman... who might, as they did, call down damnation in express words by one and logically the other, upon all those who thought that good works had any right with a just and omnipotent God in the world to come' (the reference to 'Mr Johnson' is to John Johnson of Tullylish, who was closely involved with Cooke in the Arian dispute, though Montgomery was fond of calling him an Arminian). (37)

Davison was defeated by the intolerant faction (later, in 1825, becoming the minister of a Unitarian chapel in London) and Cooke was elected. It was Archibald Hamilton Rowan who invited Smithurst to Killyleagh. Smithurst was a 'Humanitarian', believing Christ to have been solely human. Although Blakely was reputed to be a Humanitarian, this was a substantially new doctrine in Ulster, which drew attention to the Trinitarian question in a much more radical manner than did high Arianism with its proto-Trinitarian formulae. Most Presbytery of Antrim pulpits were closed to him and, according to Alexander Gordon, one of Bruce's reasons for publishing his Sermons was to distinguish his position from Humanitarianism. (38)

It had only recently become legally permissible to impugn the doctrine of the Divinity of Christ (the Act of 1813 exempting Unitarians from the Blasphemy Act of 1699 had accidentally overlooked Ireland, and this had been rectified in 1817). But Humanitarian doctrines had been openly preached in London since at least 1773 (the establishment of Lindsey's chapel in Essex Street) while the Unitarian Fund Society, which promoted Smithurst's tour, had been founded in 1806. Granted that the Synod had no reputation for a rigorous Calvinism, it is difficult to account for the apparent absence of distinct Unitarianism prior to the 1820s except on the grounds that the non-subscribing ideal, with its opposition to doctrinal controversy, was a more appealing cause than Unitarianism would have been. Paul, opposing non-subscription in 1819, had asked Blakely what was the principle of cohesion in the Synod. Blakely might have replied that it was non-subscription itself and the refusal to agitate on controversial matters - hence Carson's view that the Synod was an obstacle to the work of individual ministers in disseminating theological truth. The agitation of such a distinct controversial position as Unitarianism would have threatened the cohesion of the Synod on the basis of what many ministers regarded as its main raison d'etre: that, in Montgomery's words: 'the principles of our Church (are) essentially favourable to the great cause of Civil and Religious liberty' and, in Hamilton Rowan's, that the 'essence' of Presbyterianism was that it was 'established on the indefeasible rights of private judgment as declared in the Word of God and recognised by the laws of our country....' (39)

Thus, all the cases of Unitarian 'aggression' cited by Paul came from outside the Synod, and it was not until 1827 that Trinitarian agitators were able to point to any published avowal of Arianism by a Synod of Ulster minister. The effect of a Synod whose cohesive principle was the desire not to offend the religious principles of other ministers was not only to inhibit evangelical endeavour, but also to inhibit the development of theological radicalism.

Smithurst felt that Cooke had done a service to the Unitarian cause by so dramatically drawing people's attention to it. In August, 1827, Rev Hugh Hutton, who had been trained in the Belfast Institution but was now a Unitarian minister in Birmingham, preached a sermon to the Second Congregation, Belfast, in which he argued that the zeal of the supporters of creeds was a praiseworthy example, and that a united body of the friends of private judgment was necessary to complete the work of the Reformation. Although he begins by attacking attempts to achieve 'harmony of opinion' he goes on to argue in terms not unlike those used by Cooke that a house divided against itself cannot stand and that the opponents of creeds needed unity to create 'a spirit of noble daring.' Since he condemns 'abstruse and mystical tenets, by whose teaching the Glory of Jehovah is divided among three, and the parental relation which he sustains in the Gospel towards his earthly family given up for a different representation of his proceedings, which holds him forth as a despotic, vindictive and partial sovereign' - it is clear that Trinitarians and Calvinists could not be included among the friends of private judgment. (40)

A reviewer in the Christian Moderator suggested that, given the Presbyterian system in Ulster, Hutton's scheme was impossible:

'the rigid adherence to the presbyterian or rather Scotch model of church government, to which all Dissenters in Ulster are accustomed, and from which some even of the better informed among them would perhaps think it sinful to depart, would frustrate any attempt that might be made of present to form the advocates of private judgment into a united body...' (41)

The coarse majority would always be able to trample on the more individualistic minority: "Hardly can any system, even popery itself, work better for keeping the bulk of the people in ignorance and the greater part of the ministers in trammels.' A reply from 'A North of Ireland Arian' called for a 'straightforward, open and manly course' of Unitarian agitation, and the establishment of an association along the lines proposed by Hutton 'now that a conclave of persecuting bigots have called the attention of the people to polemico-theology.' He accepted that the logic of his position entailed a separation but he thought that this was unproblematical, granted the existence of the Presbytery of Antrim. Such views, however, remained untypical and largely of English inspiration. The more typical view was outlined by William Porter, explaining why most of the Synod's Arian ministers preferred to keep a low profile:

'I vindicated them by adding that they did not consider the points in dispute essential to salvation; therefore they did not wish to perplex the minds of their hearers by introducing topics of discussion which the great bulk of congregations were incapable of comprehending. ...' (42)

Even after the separation had taken place, James Martineau in Dublin was to complain that Irish Unitarians were "marvellously slow in all their movements'. Montgomery did not publish a straightforward account of his views until 1830, and it concluded that 'Perhaps some who have been taught by clamour and misrepresentation to look upon Arianism with horror may find it (Montgomery's 'creed' - PB) very like their own and fully as much resembling the truth of the Bible as even Calvinism itself.' (43)

The divine character (as distinct from the deity) of Christ, and the literal truth and infallibility of Scripture (which had not actually been denied in Bruce's Sermons) continued to be taken for granted among the nonsubscribing connections until the 1840s, when the challenge mounted to them under the leadership of Rev David Magennis of York Street resulted in a bizarre replay of the Synod of Ulster's schism, with Montgomery attempting to impose doctrinal standards at Synod level and Magennis quoting his earlier speeches and the Fundamental Principles of the Remonstrant Synod against him. The controversy prompted from Cooke the remark that:

'You may break, you may ruin the vase as you will
But the scent of the rose will be found in it still.'

It lasted from 1848 (when a committee was appointed to draw up a new code with doctrinal standards) until the early 1860s, when the radicals began, one by one, to transfer to the Presbytery of Antrim. The result was a split in the Presbytery of Antrim when the conservatives formed the Northern Presbytery of Antrim in protest against the Presbytery becoming (in Classon Porter's phrase) 'a degraded receptacle into which the Remonstrant Synod was to be allowed, whenever the occasion required it, to shunt its rubbish.' It became clear that Presbyterian church organisation and freedom of religious speculation were indeed uneasy bedfellows, and that the success of a nonsubscribing Presbyterian church depended on a lack of definiteness or militancy in the doctrinal views of its individual ministers. (44)

 

THE COURSE OF THE CONTROVERSY - AGAIN

The most satisfactory explanation for Cooke's attack on Arianism seems to be his own - that he saw it as a soul endangering sin and that the Church, in countenancing it, was forfeiting its right to any authority over its people. It was difficult for an orthodox Calvinist not to view Arianism in this light. The problem then is not why the Arian dispute occurred in the 1820s, but why it didn't occur earlier, and at least part of the explanation lies in the fact that it was only in the 1820s that a distinct Arian position was clarified. Previously it had been known, as Cooke put it, 'by defect rather than by declaration.' (45)

The clarification of a distinct Unitarian position in Glasgow by James Yates resulted in attacks from Ralph Wardlaw and John Brown of Biggar between 1814 and 1816. George Harris's Unitarianism in 1824 prompted the 'Manchester Socinian controversy'. Since Yates and Harris were effectively Congregationalists (if nominally Presbyterian) these disputes occurred between churches rather than within a particular denomination. They therefore could not result in a schism, as occurred in Ulster, though the Wolverhampton case which started in 1816 could have triggered a widespread challenge to Unitarian property were it not for Lord Eldon's decision that trusts disputed among dissenters could be claimed by the established church. A policy of challenging trusts in Unitarian hands was advocated in Hadfield's Manchester Socinian Controversy and attempted in the wake of the Lady Hewley Trust decision of 1833, when some Irish properties were implicated. (46)

In Ulster, the open promulgation of Unitarian ideas occurred outside the Synod - Smithurst's mission, the activities of the Presbytery of Antrim, and the importation of English and Scottish Unitarian journals -the Christian Reformer, the Christian Pioneer and, especially, the Christian Moderator. What Carlile called 'our modification of Presbyterianism' - its doctrinal Independency - discouraged doctrinal dispute at Synod level, and the desire to preserve it discouraged the agitation of new theological ideas. The material interest ministers had in their continued membership of the Synod through Regium Donum also probably - as Paul, who was not in receipt of government money, was fond of pointing out - contributed to the 'harmony' which Montgomery so much admired.

The points at which this newly vocal Unitarianism touched directly on the Synod were the Presbytery of Antrim, which had an ambiguous relationship with it, and the Academical Institution. The Institution had been formed on lay initiative on the latitudinarian assumption that there was a common rational and moral ground to all the varieties of Christianity, and that education - including training for the ministry - was largely a secular affair with 'divinity' a specialist subject. In some ways, the Institution remarkably anticipated the non-sectarian Benthamite University of London of 1828. Although it was hoped that other denominations would supply divinity professors, only the Synod and the Secession Synod actually did so and, as we have seen, the Fourth Report of the Irish Education Inquiry found that 'the Institution must be viewed as essentially Presbyterian.' In both the Church of Ireland and the Roman Catholic Church, it was taken for granted that the clergy required an education fully under church control, and both had colleges in Ireland (TCD and Maynooth) to fulfil the need.

The Synod's approach to education was indeed quite secular. At an examination of students under its care, held in Cooke's meeting house in Donegore in 1816 (before the Synod began its arrangement with the Institution), the Presbytery of Templepatrick set as subjects for examination: 'What is conscience?', 'Liberty and necessity'; 'In what does virtue consist?' and 'Taste and the best method for improving it', while in 1817 at Ballyeaston, papers were again read on 'Liberty and necessity' and 'Conscience' as well as on 'A historical and philosophical account of mechanical powers' and 'Magnetism'. (47)

The Academical Institution, in providing the only theological college that was available to the Presbyterian ministry in Ireland, was in a position to dictate the nature of the ministry's education and was doing so from the standpoint of a largely fictitious interdenominationalism, which complemented and appeared to favour the Synod's doctrinal agnosticism. To attack this was certainly a breach of the Synod's tradition of leaving doctrinal matters to presbyteries and congregations and it seems to have been regarded and dismissed as such in 1822 and 1823. John Barnet, one of the Institution's managers, and himself a Seceder, complained that the Moderator in 1823 had wanted the Presbytery of Antrim to be given the same voting rights as himself in the election of Professors other than the Professor of Divinity; but had opposed the Secession Synod being given similar voting rights unless the General Synod was given five votes. Barnet certainly did not see the Synod's Moderator as a guarantor of orthodoxy. (48)

Despite the declaration of 1822 by the Institution's professors that they would not interfere with the religious tenets of their pupils, Cooke's view that the Institution was promoting Arianism was not unreasonable. McEwen, who invited Smithurst, was a lecturer at the Institution and he later gave some volumes of Dr Price's Sermons as prizes to his pupils (he was not a member of either of the Institution's faculty boards and therefore hadn't signed the 1822 agreement). Smithurst's visit had been followed by the appointments of Bruce and Hincks, both Unitarians. Cooke's attention had been drawn to this by John Barnet, who was a radical in his politics and who objected to Bruce's appointment not just because he was an Arian, but also because one of the reasons had been to conciliate the government, and one of the reasons for the rejection of the orthodox candidate - R.J. Bryce - had been his opposition to Regium Donum. Barnet was later to repent of his folly, but the incident makes it more difficult to see Cooke's campaign against the Institution as motivated simply by his aversion to radical politics. (49)

The declaration of the professors that they would not interfere with the religious tenets of their students was hardly reassuring in the case of professors teaching subjects such as Classics, Hebrew and moral philosophy, which related to religion. It merely meant that pupils were to be deprived of an important part of their religious education, while teachers were not to be allowed to declare what they believed to be true.

Nonetheless, the Synod as a whole did not join Cooke in his attack. He had to withdraw his motion of 1822, in contrast to the Secession Synod, which formally condemned Bruce's and Hincks' appointments. The 1824 resolution that the Moderator should consult a committee of Synod before voting in the institution's elections was entirely an internal affair for the Synod. Cooke in 1825 drew the government in on his side, but this was an individual initiative which he was able to take by the accident of his being Moderator when the Education Inquiry was being held. Although the 1825 Synod supported him and demanded that the Institution incorporate the substance of the 1824 resolution into a bye-law, the 1826 Synod was very apologetic about the whole affair. Despite all the noise Cooke made about Ferrie's election in 1829, the Synod merely agreed to consult with the Secession and Reformed Synods on the matter.

John Barnet pointed out to the Education Commissioners the anomaly of Cooke's concern about the doctrinal purity of the Institution when he himself 'belongs to a body (the Synod - PB) as mixed as the Institution yet continues to commune with them.' He suggested that the Seceders were less worried about the Institution than Cooke because the Secession Synod practised subscription and that therefore its own discipline was sufficient to guarantee it against heterodox ministers. Indeed, Paul, though involving himself in the attack on Arianism and advocating subscription, did not involve himself in the attack on the Institution until the Ferrie case was revived in the 1830s. Although the Reformed Presbyterians had no Divinity Professor in the Institution they did use it for subjects other than divinity and even seemed to be flattered by the attention paid to them by the Joint Boards. (50)

But the effect of the agitation against Arianism in the Institution was to force a clarification of doctrinal views in the Synod itself, and it opened up the possibility of the Synod being able to act as a corporate body untrammelled by the restrictions on the free expression of particular doctrinal opinions which had been imposed by the etiquette of non-subscription - the refusal to cause offence. The new self confidence and sense of direction given by the ability to promote certain doctrines as true and reprobate others as false put an end to the long period of demoralisation over which Black had presided. It restored to the church the feeling that it was an engine of salvation, and prepared the way for reunion with the Secession Synod and restoration of communion with the Church of Scotland. Although it entailed the rejection of a non-sectarian 'ecumenism' based on doctrinal minimalism, it had, by the 1820s, become almost impossible, granted the increasing vigour of Irish Catholicism, to believe that that ideal could overcome the religious divisions in Ireland.

The Volunteer movement had offered the possibility of substantial secular advance for the Presbyterian community as the members of the church whose constitution was most favourable to 'civil and religious liberty'. Doctrinal disagreements were subsumed into disagreement over the rival options of respectability or revolution. When revolution ceased to be an option, the Synod achieved respectability, at some cost to the pride of the sect, through government patronage. Civil and religious liberty proved to be outside the Presbyterian ministry's power to grant, and the emergence of the Catholic Association in the 1820s ended once and for all the dream of the Protestant radicals that they could take charge of the political development of Ireland and direct it into secular democratic channels. The Arian schism restored to Presbyterianism the pride of the sect through the possession of doctrinal truth. It remained to be seen whether this new sectarianism would remain primarily Presbyterian, or whether it would extend into a common Protestantism in alliance with the Church of Ireland in response to the newly militant Catholicism.

 

Notes

 

CHAPTER FIVE: THE AR1AN CONTROVERSY

(1) I include this account to keep an outline of events in mind for the discussion. It is extracted from the best known secondary sources, of which the most useful is still Crozier: Montgomery. See also Reid: History; J.L. Porter: The Life and Times of Henry Cooke, Belfast, 1875; Holmes: Henry Cooke; Jamieson: History; Fisher and Robb: Centenary. The remaining footnotes for this section - fns (2-12) - will refer to particular points not usually emphasised. Back

(2) The role of McEwen and S.H Rowan is discussed in Holmes: Cooke, pp. 79-80 (McEwen} and 71-73 (Rowan). Account of Blakely in DNB; A.H. Rowan's role is discussed later in this chapter; Smithurst*s voluntaryism in The Christian Reformer vii, London 1822, p.220.

(3) Barnet's role in Holmes: Cooke, pp.78-80.

(4) Seceders' resolution in Secession Minutes, p.65 (July 1822).

(5) Secession Minutes, p. 77 (July 1823).

(6) Montgomery's views in Crozier: Montgomery, pp.91-94. Back

(7) William Bruce: Sermons on the Study of the Bible, London and Belfast 1826, p. vii.

(8) Quotation from Henry Cooke: Illustration and Defence of Rev. Mr Cooke's Evidence, Belfast 1825, pp. 19-20. 140

(9) Crozier: Montgomery, p.99; Holmes: Cooke, pp.130-131.

(10) For visit to McDowell see Porter, p,93; Holmes, pp. 135-136; McDowell in Fasti.

(11) William Porter's view in CM vol II, p. 185. Back

(12) There is an interesting discussion of this in Holmes: Cooke, pp.202-206.

(13) Henry Cooke: A Sermon Preached at the Opening of the General Synod of Ulster, Belfast 1825. Quotations in this discussion from pp.8, 9, 21, 5-6, 34, 39, 46.

(14) Minutes of Templepatrick Presbytery, PRON1 MIC IP/85.

(15) Cooke*s view in account of 1826 Synod in CM vol I, p. 144; Montgomery's in Henry Montgomery: Letter of the Rev Henry Montgomery in Reply to Rev Henry Cooke, in Crozier, p.513.

(16) J.M. Barkley: The Westminster Formularies in Irish Presbyterianism, Belfast 1956; committee's 1816 decision in letter from 'C.D.' CM vol I, p.110. Back

(17) Carlile's speeches in CM Vol I, p. 144 (Ballymena 1826) and Vol II, p.248 (Strabane 1827).

(18) Rowan in Porter, pp. 111-116; Montgomery in Crozier, p.437; Carlile in review of his 'General Diffusion of Christianity the Duty of the Churches' in CM Vol I, pp.219-223.

(19) CM Vol I, p.144.

(20) First Report of the Commissioners on Education in Ireland, PP 1825 xii, p.826.

(21) Bruce/Perceval correspondence in Bruce MSS, PRON1 T3041/1/E24-41; Montgomery in Crozier, p. 486; Templepatrick Minutes, October 1825. Back

(22) Bruce: Sermons. Qotations in this discussion from pp.140, 108, 26, 364.

(23) Ref to Rammohun Roy in Bruce: Sermons, p. 305 (fn).

(24) Paul's 'Refutation' in Bates (ed): Works of the late Rev. John Paul, D.D., Belfast 1855. Quotations from pp.50 and 60.

(25) Paul's 'Creeds and Confessions Defended' in Works, pp. 347-349; for an example of the orthodox polemic against polished preaching, see Gavin Struthers: History of the Rise of the Relief Church, Edinburgh and London 1848, p.189.

(26) Bowen: Protestant Crusade, esp pp. 88-96. Back

(27) Ibid., pp. 98-101; claims for conversions in e.g. letter from 'McG' in The Record, 18/1/1828, and Ulster Guardian, 9/10/1829; Bowen on Presbyterians in Protestant Crusade, p. 33.

(28) Jamieson: Henry Cooke, p.74; Porter as in fn (11) above; CM Vol III (1828), p.17.

(29) Cooke as in CM Vol 11 (1827), p. 187; Montgomery in NW 27/5/1830; Cooke and Carlow in chapter two above; Witherow: Memorials, p.271, for account of dinner 'told me in conversation by Dr Cooke.'

(30) NW 19/5/25; Crozier, pp.167-168, 232-244, 246-250, 420-422 and (Montgomery on Parliamentary reform) p.567; for Montgomery on O'Connell see ibid, pp.581-599.

(31) Jamieson: Cooke, p.24; Cooke's evidence in Minutes of Evidence on the State of Ireland, PP 1825 ix, pp.206-221 and 268-271; and Report from the Select Committee on the State of Ireland, PP 1825 viii, pp. 341-380. Back

(32) PP 1825 viii, p.366.

(33) Burdett's bill in Halevy: History 1815-1830, pp. 221-223; Crozier pp.95 and 230; Holmes as in fn (12) above; Bryce's letter in NW 30/4/1829; e.g. UG 17/3 1828.

(34) Jamieson: Cooke, p. 72; Montgomery in Crozier, pp.533-534.

(35) Paul's 'Review of a Speech by Dr Montgomery' in Works, pp. 483-484.

(36) S.H. Rowan in CM Vol 14 (1827), p. 245; A.H. Rowan to Dufferin in Dufferin MSS, PRONI D1071B/C/41/5. I am grateful to A. Harrison of PRONI for drawing this to my attention. Back

(37) Montgomery on Johnston in Crozier, pp.478 and 519-520.

(38) John Smithurst and Fletcher Blakely in DNB; Alexander Gordon in Christian Life, Vol 12, p. 601; quoted in McMillan: Nonsubscribing Church, p. [?]

(39) Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1911: 'Unitarianism'; Bernard Lord Manning: The Protestant Dissenting Deputies, Cambridge 1952, esp. pp.53 and 63; for extension of 1813 Act to include Ireland see article by B[ruce?] on "The Progress of Nonsubscription to Creeds' in CM Vol II (1828), p.458; Paul: Creeds and Confessions Defended, Works, p. 377; Montgomery and Rowan as in fn (18) above.

(40) Smithurst as in fn (2) above; Hugh Hutton: The Duty and Benefits of Cooperation among the Friends of Scriptural Christianity, London 1827. Quotation from p.26.

(41) CM Vol II (1827), pp.382-383 Back

(42) Letter in ibid, pp. 542-545, Porter in report of 1827 Synod in ibid, p. 231.

(43) J. Estlin Carpenter: James Martineau, London 1905, p. 72 (fn); Montgomery: 'The Creed of an Arian' in Crozier, p.565.

(44) Dispute with Magennis in McMillan: Nonsubscribing Church, pp. [?] Quotations, pp. [?]

(45) Cooke in PP 1825 xii, p.822.

(46) Alexander: Wardlaw, pp. 150-161; Manning: Dissenting Deputies, pp. 64-66 (for Manchester Socinian Controversy) and p. 58 (for Wolverhampton case). Back

(47) Templepatrick Minutes, 7/5/1816 and May, 1817.

(48) Barnet's evidence in Fourth Report, PP 1826-7 xiii, p.123.

(49) For James Bryce (R.J. Bryce's father) see chapter 3 above.

(50) Barnet in Fourth Report etc., p.121; RP attitude to the Belfast Academical Institution in RPSI Minutes, 1811-1825, pp.40 (July 1816), 51-52 (July 1818), 188 (July 1821); for pleasure at BAIs 'respectful address' see pp.166-167 (Appendix: Letter to RP Synod of Scotland, 31/7/1821).