Back to Contents

 

CONCLUSION

 

At the beginning of this period, Presbyterians in Ulster were a population out of sympathy with the political establishment. Their disaffection was not just a matter of the legal disabilities they suffered. It was also a matter of their commitment to Presbyterianism as a superior system to Episcopacy, which was established by law. Some believed that Presbyterianism should replace Episcopacy as the form of the establishment, others that there should be no established church.

As members of a church with conclaves that met regularly, the Presbyterians could function as a coherent community in a way that was not so easily available to English Independents. They were aware of themselves as a community that was increasing in wealth and influence - a wealth and influence that was based on individual industry, not on hereditary wealth or state protection. Through their participation in the Volunteer movement they had experienced themselves as a potential military power, capable of bringing about radical constitutional change. They had, however, been inhibited from forming into a distinct political force by the fact that the very power they would have to oppose - the power of the Anglican landed aristocracy - was also their protection against the Roman Catholic majority, who, though they had been prevented throughout the century from any possibility of coherent political organisation, were still seen as alien and antichristlan.

When Roman Catholics overthrew papal power and despotism in France, many Presbyterians believed that radical change was possible and that a self confident Protestant leadership could determine political developments after the overthrow of the existing government. Those who had been pressing for constitutional change through the Volunteer movement were divided according to the degree of their confidence that Catholics were harmless.

The defeat of the 1798 rebellion rendered the 'revolutionary' viewpoint nonfunctional and inhibited the reformers. The Act of Union was seen as little more than the removal of an obnoxious tier of government. Though the seeds of a modern nationalism were undoubtedly present among Presbyterians in this period, they fell on stony ground, and there is little connection between the Drennans, Tennents and Neilsons of the 1790s and the Catholic nationalism which developed in the nineteenth century.

Castlereagh had the conscious aim of dissolving sectarian loyalties in Ireland into a common British identity. But his proposals with regard to Catholics entailed a weakening in the connection between the state and the established churches of England and Scotland, which was still seen as an essential component of national unity in Great Britain. The increase in Regium Donum and the conditions attached to it may, however, have had a tendency to elevate Presbyterian ministers into more of a clerical caste, possessing a respectability with regard to the community at large, not just with relation to the Presbyterian community itself. It may thus have helped towards breaking down the exclusivity of the Presbyterian community.

Such a lessening in sectarianism was, however, implicit in latitudinarianism, which was widespread in the explicit and self conscious form of nonsubscription. Latitudinarianism contributed to an ability to discuss politics without reference to theology or to the rights of the church; and the political leaders of the period tended to be latitudinarian. But this applied to the leadership of the reformist/constitutional element as well as of the revolutionary element. A lack of emphasis on sectarian peculiarities obviously facilitated a claim to national - as opposed to sectarian - political leadership. And it facilitated an advance into respectability, which was, of course, largely defined by the political establishment. Thus Castlereagh's chief allies in his attempt to dissolve Presbyterian sectarianism and respectabilise the ministry were the latitudinarians. Black and Bruce.

There had been an orthodox element in the radicalism of the late 1790s, sharing the generalised slogan of 'liberty' but taking the view that the great changes that were imminent were a working out of prophecy, and that the end product would be the universalisation of Christianity as they understood it. This has led David Miller to see the period as one of transition from a 'prophetic' orthodoxy (the church as the means of revolutionising the world) to a 'conversionary' one (with an emphasis on individual experience of salvation). He treats this as a product of pressures internal to the Presbyterian community. I am unable to find this conversionary emphasis, except in the influence of the evangelical movement occurring outside the Synod; and millennarianism seems to me to be a continuous strand in Presbyterian thinking which simply acquired a greater degree of urgency in the 1790s. Nonetheless I would agree with Miller in seeing a decline in Presbyterian sectarianism after the Act of Union.

The evangelical movement was far from being simply an orthodox revival. To the orthodox it appeared itself to be latitudinarian in that it argued for a common cross-denominational Christianity. The emphasis on education and primarily on education of Roman Catholics carried with it a latitudinarian emphasis on the Bible alone 'without note or comment.' The emphasis on experience of salvation - Miller's 'conversionary' emphasis - carried with it an indifference to sectarian boundaries. It favoured, and was largely promoted by Independency. Neither emphasis was taken up by the Synod at its centre in Ulster though both had influence on the periphery among Southern based ministers. They were both strategies for trying to overcome the alien nature of Roman Catholics, but by the 1820s, they were meeting resistance from within the Catholic population in the highly coherent and well organised form of the Catholic Association.

The evangelical movement outside the Synod can be seen as an attempt to establish organic connections in a society - both in Britain and in Ireland - in which there was still a powerful and chaotic element, 'the mob', which had not been incorporated as a working class, into a coherent economic system. The problem was acute throughout most of Ireland, where there was not even the tenuous bond of a common church between the landed aristocracy and their tenants. It was not, however, strongly felt among Ulster Presbyterians, who existed as a largely self-contained community with numerous economic links among themselves that had little reference to their Anglican landlords.

Although the Arian controversy has been represented as a triumph for the evangelical perspective, it lacked the missionary dynamic of the evangelicalism that surrounded it, and Cooke was opposed by the more missionary minded ministers such as Carlile and Hanna. It can be seen as an attempt to reassert the coherence of the Presbyterian community itself, threatened as it was by the advance in social respectability and consequent diminution of the sense of being a disaffected sect. Latitudinarianism was the language appropriate to this development, but it had become so much a habit of mind that no attack on it was likely to be successful (both Benjamin Dowell in Dublin and James Elder of Finvoy had tried). Unitarianism was a more vulnerable target and, though the latitudinarians in the Synod were careful not to express Unitarian sentiments, the Presbytery of Antrim had no such inhibitions. The clarification of a distinct Unitarian theology in the Presbytery of Antrim provided the occasion for Cooke's struggle for theological coherence within the Synod; even so, it was only when ministers in the Synod were finally induced to reveal their Unitarianism that the struggle was successful.

The controversy coincided with the emergence of the Catholic Association. Latitudinarianism, for which human virtue was of prime importance, was less immediately upset by this than orthodoxy, for which dogma was all important. The missionaries - anxious to win Catholic hearts and minds - tended to sympathise with Catholic politics. But the emergence of a coherent and politically purposeful Catholic community, increasingly impervious to missionary penetration and - by the 1830s -committed to Repeal of the Act of Union, which would necessarily result in a Catholic ascendancy, was a real and alarming problem. Cooke saw it in straightforward terms of a struggle for power, and wanted the newly coherent Synod to throw its political weight behind the Protestant establishment. But his own efforts in the Arian controversy had strengthened the sectarianism of the Synod - its awareness of itself as a true church - and consequently its preparedness to assert itself in opposition to the Church of Ireland. Thus, ministers who shared Cooke's vision of the Synod as a walled city defended against heresy, Arian or Papist, were divided on the alliance with prelacy. They could to a large extent co-operate in opposition to the latitudinarians and evangelicals on the questions of the National Education System and unqualified subscription. They could not agree on the policy of Protestant Union.

The 1832 Reform Bill cemented the Union as far as Presbyterians were concerned, insofar as British politics ceased to be a game played in a far off place, and began to require local organisation, holding out the prospect of real changes, whether they were seen as desirable or undesirable. The radical caucus in Belfast had had a loose existence as a pressure group for the promotion of certain vaguely formulated values. With the achievement of their main demands - Catholic Emancipation and parliamentary reform - Westminster was confirmed as the centre of their political ambitions. But Westminster was dominated by the discussion of the church question. An alliance of radicals (who saw the established church as an expensive pensionary of government, and as an agent of aristocratic privilege) with conversionist evangelicals (who saw it as an obstacle to the job of working up the need for experienced salvation) were anxious to find whatever means they could to weaken the connection between the Church of England and the state. The easiest target was the Church of Ireland, which could not by any stretch of the imagination be said to incorporate the religious life of the nation; and the attack on the Church of Ireland brought with it the support of O'Connell and the Irish Catholics.

Despite their opposition to tithes, the Belfast radicals were ill-equipped to make political gains from this dispute. Their major venture - the Belfast Academical Institution - had had ironic consequences. It had been a real service to Irish Presbyterianism, and had helped to develop the sense of independence and sectarian self importance which finally triumphed with the departure of the Arians. But the intention had been to develop that sectarian independence in favour of 'patriotism' and political liberalism (opposition to aristocratic privilege and government-supported monopolies). An elaborate pretence was maintained that the Institution was not a Presbyterian college, but the consequence of this was not that it became a 'national' (i.e. cross denominational) Institution, but that it embodied a compromise between the main parties within Ulster Presbyterianism - the latitudinarians and the orthodox. This compromise naturally favoured the party of compromise - the latitudinarians - and the Institution therefore found itself on the losing side in the Synod's dispute.

The Belfast Reform Association in 1832 presented itself as a patriotic party, equally appealing to all denominations. Again, this was misleading. They were principally a Presbyterian party, whose non-sectarianism identified them with the defeated latitudinarians. The sectarianism of Presbyterians in the 1790s had been the sectarianism of a disaffected community and it therefore favoured political radicalism. The sectarianism of the early 1830s was based on a clarification of dogmatic truth, without reference to the political claims of the church, and it was therefore suspicious of the reformers' religious indifferentism. The reformers therefore could not gain the monopoly of Presbyterian politics which they had expected. The liberals could not appeal to the strength of Presbyterian sectarianism until they could identify with Presbyterians as a community bound together by an orthodox theology. The arguments by which this could be done were provided in a hard form by the voluntary movement which, however, existed outside the centre among the small marginal groupings which did not receive Regium Donum.

Despite its marginality, Cooke recognised voluntaryism as a substantial danger. But it was the Voluntaryists' argument in the softer, apparently more abstract, form of opposition to the power of the civil magistrate in religious matters, that provided the means for a more substantial opposition. While it was unsuccessful in opposing unqualified subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith in 1836, it provided reformers with a language in which to appeal to the new sectarianism. Its subsequent history - largely concerning involvement in the tenant right movement on the part of ministers from the traditionally orthodox areas west of the Bann - lies outside the scope of this thesis.

Finally, it may be useful to add a brief word on the importance of the controversies described in this thesis for the development of Irish society as a whole. Regretfully, I do not think they were very important. The mere fact that a Presbyterian community existed in Ulster was of course of crucial importance, and I hope this thesis has made some useful observations as to its nature. But I do not think that the ideology of Presbyterianism changed greatly during this period. It is true that Presbyterians were less disaffected in the 1830s than they were in the 1790s, but I do not think this can be ascribed to changes in their own thinking so much as to changes in their political circumstances. The major changes demanded in the 1790s took place with the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, Catholic Emancipation and the Reform Bill. The national separatism which developed at the end of the eighteenth century had been little more than a means of securing reforms from an already separate Parliament. Its withering away after the Act of Union was remarkably speedy and painless.

The imposition of unqualified subscription in the Synod of Ulster certainly marked a change. But the Westminster Confession had been a standard of the Synod since the beginning of the eighteenth century, and unqualified subscription was taken for granted in the Secession and Reformed churches. The objections raised by MacNeight in the 1830s on the power of the civil magistrate were the same objections that had been made in the eighteenth century and acknowledged by Cooke in 1826. The only new ideas introduced into Presbyterian controversy were Unitarianism (in the 1820s) and Protestant Union (in the 1830s), neither of which struck deep roots.

I have suggested that Cooke in the 1820s was fighting for the coherence of the Synod, threatened by an advance into social respectability. There is room here for an examination of session records, since on the superficial examination I have made, it appears that there was a marked change in the nature of the discipline exercised by the sessions between, say, 1810 and 1830, and Cooke's synodical sermon of 1825 seems to be addressed to this problem. It may be that if the Synod had been unable to assert a theological authority, it would have degenerated and Presbyterianism would have been a more divided and less potent factor in the nineteenth century than it was. The apparent purposelessness and demoralisation of the first two decades of the nineteenth century suggests that this was a possibility, but it remains entirely speculative. To my mind, Cooke's victory preserved the Synod's sense of its own importance when this seemed to be threatened. But if anything this conservative achievement was inimical to the innovating policy of Protestant Union for which he later fought.

The major changes occurring within the Presbyterian community in this period were social and economic and lie outside the scope of this thesis. The context in which political (and theological) discussion took place was greatly changed by the Act of Union, the 1832 Reform Bill and the political organisation of Irish Catholicism. But the Presbyterian Synods did not initiate changes with substantial consequences outside their own community; and the controversies within the Synods registered shifts of emphasis within a fairly constant body of ideas, rather than major changes of direction.