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INTRODUCTION

 

This thesis is concerned with describing and understanding the theological and political ideas that were available to Ulster Presbyterians in the early nineteenth century. My starting point was a desire to examine the idea that the Arian controversy of the 1820s played an important part in the conversion of Ulster Presbyterians from radical republicanism in the 1790s to conservative unionism in the 1880s. Put at its crudest, this view argues a straightforward connection between theological and political views. Orthodox theology is identified with conservative politics; radical theology with radical politics. The triumph of orthodox trinitarianism in the 1820s can therefore be read as a triumph for political conservatism, especially since the leading apologist for the orthodox cause, Henry Cooke, emerged as a Presbyterian defender of the Church of Ireland and of the landlord interest, while a number of the Arians claimed that the theological attack being mounted on them was a covert attack on their support for Catholic emancipation. (1)

It is clear that the political and theological ideas of this period cannot be neatly disentangled. The mere fact of being a Presbyterian in a country where an episcopal church was established by law had political implications. And the differences within Presbyterianism itself were largely differences as to the correct relation that should exist between the church and the state. The view that religion is a private matter without political implications is one of the almost unquestioned assumptions of modern British culture. But, although it existed as a political ideal in the early nineteenth century, it could by no means be taken for granted as a political fact. Nor can it be taken for granted as a political fact either in the Republic of Ireland or in Northern Ireland today. This thesis can be read as a small part of the history of such religious 'indifferentism' in an area where conditions proved to be unfavourable.

There were two leading ideas which can be obviously identified as contributing to the secularisation of political life - 'latitudinarianism' and 'voluntaryism'. By latitudinarianism, I mean the tendency to reduce the number of theological doctrines which were seen as necessary to salvation, and to raise the importance of civilised behaviour as against 'faith'. It seems to me that Cooke's real target in the 1820s was not so much Arianism itself as the Synod's preparedness to tolerate it, thus devaluing its own authority in theological matters. His campaign has interesting similarities to the contemporary efforts of the Tractarians and of the Darbyites, who began with the ambition to persuade the church to take its own transcendental claims more seriously. While Cooke eventually secured widespread support for his view that the ability to define dogma was important, the issue of the church's role in society was complicated by wide divergences of opinion on the right relation between dogma, the church and the state; and since these disagreements turned on questions concerning relations with the Established Church and with the Roman Catholic population, they had distinct political implications.

Latitudinarianism was not necessarily unfavourable to the principle of Church Establishment. In fact, it was widely argued that an established church was peculiarly favourable to the spread of latitudinarian ideas (since a church which claimed to encompass the whole nation had to encompass a wider variety of religious ideas than a church which people joined voluntarily on the basis of a clearly defined constitution). Nonetheless, latitudinarianism facilitated a secular approach to politics since it accorded little importance to differences in religious belief, drew no political conclusions from particular religious beliefs (other than the need for toleration) and was therefore free to concentrate on other matters without reference to religious belief.

'Voluntaryism' was the view that churches should be voluntary societies that were not in any way financed or otherwise supported by the state. Governments should have no say in religious matters, which should be entirely the business of individuals in civil society without reference to law. The main impetus for the distinct voluntaryist campaigns in Scotland in the 1830s and in England in the 1840s came from people who were orthodox in their theology and who argued that establishment sapped churches of their seriousness and commitment. They had a much more optimistic view of the vitality of Christianity than the advocates of establishment who tended to argue that mankind left to its own devices without a commitment on the part of the state would fall into barbarism and irreligion. Marx has commented on this, and on the connection between voluntaryist ideas (which took North America for their model) and the emphasis laid by the political economy of the period on free economic activity:

'Just as industrial activity is not abolished when the privileges of the trades, guilds and corporations are abolished, but, on the contrary, real industry begins only after the abolition of these privileges; just as ownership of the land is not abolished when privileged landownership is abolished, but, on the contrary, begins its universal movement only with the abolition of privileges and free sale of land; just as trade is not abolished by the abolition of trade privileges, but finds its true realisation in free trade; so religion develops in its practical universality only where there is no privileged religion (cf. the North American states). . .

"The state declares that religion, like the other elements of civil life, only begins to exist in its full scope when the state declares it to be non-political and therefore leaves it to itself. To the dissolution of the political existence of these elements, as for example the dissolution of property by the abolition of the property qualifications for electors, the dissolution of religion by the abolition of the state church, to this proclamation of their civil death corresponds their most vigorous life, which henceforth obeys its own laws and develops to its full scope.' (2)

A successful voluntaryism would mean that religion was no longer a matter for governments, and it would therefore constitute a separation of theology and politics to the extent that 'politics' is seen as simply a matter for governments. But it was of course a highly political movement, basing itself on theological arguments, but aiming for a radical change in the nature of the state. Marx's view of the voluntaries is based on their own view of themselves. The abolition of privilege in religion would liberate the most energetic and deeply committed of the religious tendencies which had evolved within civil society against the opposition of the state, and enable them to become the determining factor in the religious life of the nation.

If Ulster Presbyterians are considered simply as a community dissenting from an established church, then it is very surprising that the voluntaryist movement of the 1830s made so little impression. The Scottish Secession, among whom the movement began, were dissenters in relation to a Presbyterian establishment. Leaving aside the fact that the Scottish Secession was itself organised in Ulster, the Synod of Ulster, living under an episcopal establishment, had all the more reason for discontent, and voluntaryist ideas had been widespread among them in the late eighteenth century.

Obviously, the fact that they themselves received financial assistance from the state was of crucial importance. I also draw attention to the fact that the conversionary theology which played an important part in voluntaryism had not struck deep roots in Ulster in the period of this thesis. But the most important element determining the peculiarities of Ulster Protestant political development was the fact that Roman Catholics constituted the great majority of the population in Ireland (and even in the nine counties of Ulster itself). This Catholic population was embarking on a period of rapid intellectual and social development whose starting point and general direction were alike incomprehensible to the British political culture in which the Ulster Protestants were developing. Thus the conflict between 'progress' and 'reaction', democratic civil society and aristocratic privilege, liberalism and conservatism -whatever terms are used - did not develop fully in terms of the society itself. It had to a large extent to develop in terms of attitudes towards an element that was foreign to the society and potentially much more powerful, a problem which became especially acute with the emergence of the Catholic Association in the 1820s.

This thesis begins with the radical ferment of the 1790s and ends with a defeat for self conscious latitudinarianism through the imposition of unqualified subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith in the Synod of Ulster in 1836. The finishing date also sees the failure of the Belfast Voluntary Church Association. It would, however, be a mistake to see the extraordinary period of the 1790s as a norm from which subsequent developments are a deviation. It would be even more absurd to see 1836 as marking the end of the history of secularisation in Ulster Presbyterianism (or indeed the end of voluntaryist sympathies). And it would be wrong to treat the development of Presbyterianism as identical with the development of the Ulster Protestant community as a whole. It is certainly possible to argue that the historiography of Ulster Protestantism has suffered from too much emphasis on precisely the subject of this thesis.

Finally, I should stress that I am concerned principally with understanding ideas - and principally ideas held by ministers. This is not a sociological study and does not describe the changing nature of the laity - the economic activities in which they were engaged or, in anything other than a superficial manner, the relations between ministers and their congregations. I started with the intention of working along these lines but came regretfully to the conclusion that it would require at least as much work again as the job of clarifying ideas and arguments. Faced with a choice between the two approaches, I chose the latter, partly because it was more congenial, but also because it was more practicable, granted that I was based for much of my time in Cambridge rather than in Belfast. I recognise that the absence of any account of the popular base of Presbyterianism is a serious limitation.

Peter Brooke, Belfast, April 1980.

 

Notes

 

(1) This thesis can be found in its crude form in e.g. A. Boyd: Holy War in Belfast, New York 1972, pp.4-6; and L. da Paor: Divided Ulster, Harmondsworth 1971, pp. 45-46; it can be found in a more developed form in e.g. J.L. Jamieson: The Influence of Rev Henry Cooke on the Political Life of Ulster, unpubl MA thesis (QUB) 1950; and in J.M. Berkley: 'The Arian Schism in Ireland', 1830 in Studies in Church History vol IX, Cambridge 1972 Back

(2) K. Marx and F. Engels: The Holy Family or the Critique of Critical Criticism, Moscow 1975, pp.136 and 138. Back