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Explanation of Terms


The table below (3) gives the percentage of Presbyterians, Roman Catholics and members of the Church of Ireland in each of nine counties of Ulster, extracted from the 1834 Report of the Committee on Public Instruction (which was widely accused of underestimating the proportion of Presbyterians):

 County % Church of Ireland   % Roman Catholics  % Presbyterians  Total
 Antrim  18.4  26.6  53.3  355,575
 Fermanagh  39.63 57.99 2.34 188,383
 Tyrone  22.08 54.84 22.64 333,614
Londonderry 13.49 45.67 39.94 200,439
Armagh 29.25  50.05 19.96 212,739
Monaghan 11.9 74.6 13.4 180,884
Cavan 14.5 82 3.82 261,192
Donegal 14.46 68.88 15.84 294,168
Down 16.68 36.2 45.89 360,794
Ulster 19.48 53.07 26.73 2,387,788

By 1790, Presbyterians were divided into five connections: the Synod of Ulster, the Presbytery of Antrim, the Seceders - who were themselves divided into Burghers and Antiburghers - and the Reformed Presbyterians.

Of these, by far the largest was the Synod of Ulster, with about one hundred and eighty congregations. The Seceders had about sixty seven - twenty-five Antiburgher, forty-two Burgher. The Presbytery of Antrim had nine, the Reformed Presbyterians had seven (though they also had a number of 'societies' without regular ministers). (4)

The Synod of Ulster had been formed on a regular basis after the Williamite Revolution, in 1690, from ministers ejected from their livings at the Restoration of Charles II for refusing to recognise the authority of Bishops. They were, for the most part, Scottish in origin. The Presbytery of Antrim had originally been formed by the Synod after disputes over whether or not ministers should be expected to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith. Those ministers who were opposed in principle to making subscription to creeds a condition of joining the ministry were put into it and, in 1726, the whole presbytery was expelled. By the end of the eighteenth century, however, relations between the two bodies were close, especially since support for the principle of non-subscription had grown throughout the Synod. (5)

The Secession Synods originated through disputes in Scotland both over theological questions and over the relations between the Church of Scotland and the state. The Seceding ministers felt that not enough emphasis was being put on the Calvinist doctrine that good works could do nothing towards the work of salvation (the doctrine of 'justification by faith alone'). They also objected to the power vested by law in 'patrons' (usually local landlords) to appoint ministers, which denied the right of congregations to elect them. This second grievance did not apply in Ulster (though the Synod of Ulster had a method of election which the Seceders opposed and which favoured wealthier members of the congregation, who were, of course, contributing more to the minister's stipend).

An 'Associate Presbytery' was formed by dissidents within the Church of Scotland in 1733 and its ministers were formally expelled in 1740. The Presbytery was soon invited to organise in Ulster but, before this happened on any large scale, a 'breach' occurred over whether or not it was lawful to take the 'Freemason's' or 'Burgess' oath in use in Scotland at the time. The Scottish Presbytery split into Antiburghers (who thought the oath was sinful) and Burghers (who thought it could be taken) and both sides organised in Ulster. The Burghers formed an Irish Synod in 1779, the Antiburghers in 1788. (6)

Prior to the 1790s, the Reformed Presbyterians had a fitful existence in Ulster. They also originated in Scotland, where they went under a variety of names - 'Cameronians', 'Mountain Men', 'Society Men', 'Macmillanites', 'Covenanters'. They developed out of 'societies' formed in the reign of Charles II under the leadership of Richard Cameron to oppose the re-imposition of an episcopal church establishment. While a number of such Society men (including all their ministers) felt able to join the Church of Scotland when it was re-established through the Williamite revolution, a 'suffering remnant of the true Presbyterian Church in Scotland' refused to do so, on the grounds that the Williamite settlement did not recognise the perpetual obligation of the sixteenth and seventeenth century national covenants of Scotland, and the Solemn League and Covenant (which included, for example, the obligation to 'endeavour the extirpation' of popery and prelacy in England).

In 1706, the suffering remnant was joined by a minister, Rev John MacMillan and in 1743, a second minister enabled them to form a presbytery and conduct their own ordinations (Presbyterian church government requires the presence of more than one minister at an ordination).

There had been equivalent Irish societies since the seventeenth century and these put themselves under the care of the Scottish Presbytery in 1743. A presbytery was formed in Ireland in 1763, but collapsed owing largely to the emigration of ministers to America in 1779. It was formed again in 1792. (7)

Outside Ulster, there was the 'Southern Association', which was formed from non-subscribing ministers in Dublin at the time of the expulsion of the Presbytery of Antrim in 1726. It was divided into the Southern Presbytery of Dublin and the Presbytery of Munster (the subscribing ministers formed a Presbytery of Dublin which came under the authority of the Synod of Ulster). There was initially an Independent element in the Southern Association but in 1809, the two presbyteries joined in the Synod of Munster. (8)

All these bodies held in common the Presbyterian form of church government under which ministers were equal in authority and met regularly to exercise joint sovereignty over the church. Congregations were grouped together in 'presbyteries' and presbyteries grouped into 'synods'. Students for the ministry were put under the care of presbyteries and educated until they qualified as 'licentiates'. Then they were allowed to preach but did not become full ministers until they received a 'call' from a particular congregation. Each congregation was ruled by a 'session' consisting of the minister together with the lay elders, who were nominated by the session and approved by the congregation. Elders were represented at meetings of presbyteries and synods. (9)

Finally, the 'Regium Donum' was a grant of money given by William III at the time of the Revolution. It was suspended for a time under Queen Anne, and renewed with the Hanoverian succession. It was originally given as a lump sum to the Synod of Ulster and distributed as the Synod saw fit. The Presbytery of Antrim continued to be a part of this scheme after its expulsion. A smaller sum was given to the Seceders in 1784. The Reformed Presbyterians, who did not recognise the government as legitimate, never received it.




(3) Extracted from the First Report of the Cormmissioners of Public Instruction, Ireland, PP 1835 xxxiii. Back

(4) For Synod of Ulster, see list of congregations in RGSU, pp.288-90 (June 1804); figure for Seceders extracted from congregational histories in David Stewart: The Seceders in Ireland, Belfast 1950; there are references to nine congregations prior to 1820 in the Records of the Presbytery of Antrim, 1783-1834, PRONI T1053/1; Reformed Presbyterians from Adam Loughridge: Fasti of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland, Belfast 1970 Back

(5) Account of Synod of Ulster based on James Seaton Reid: History of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, 3 vols, Belfast 1867. Back

(6) Account of Seceders from Stewart: Seceders Back

(7) Account of Reformed Presbyterians based on Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland: Reformed Presbyterian Testimony Part II: Historical, Belfast 1939. Back

(8) Account of Synod of Munster based on J,M. Barkley: A Short History of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Belfast 1959, pp.25-26. Back

(9) Account of Presbyterian church government from e.g. G.D. Henderson: The Church of Scotland, Edinburgh N.D., pp.59-61. Back