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A dispute in the Reformed Presbyterian Synod in Ireland, 1830­40


This essay was written, I suppose around 1977, as an offshoot of my thesis, Controversies in Ulster Presbyterianism, 1780-1836, (1980). My first intention was to unravel the complicated archive concerning this dispute in the Theological Hall of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Ireland (at the time when I was working on it, this was situated above the Covenanter Bookshop on the Lisburn Road in Belfast). The article is therefore rather technical, and does not do justice to the humour and intellectual intensity of the debate, involving as it did, Rev John Paul of Loughmorne, whom I regard as one of the great polemical writers of the nineteenth century.

The question of the right and duty of the civil magistrate to punish heresy had agitated the Protestant world from its beginnings in the fifteenth century. By the time the conservatively inclined RP Synod had got round to discussing it, it had already been resolved nearly everywhere else in favour of toleration. Nonetheless the right to suppress heresy was clearly stated in the seventeenth century Westminster Confession, and this should be borne in mind when we want to understand our own intellectual heritage and in particular if we want to find in it parallels and lessons for our own time.

The revolutionary, reforming 'fundamentalists' of Islam, for example, present many parallels with the revolutionary reforming Protestants of England and Scotland in the seventeenth century. Based on this European Protestant analogy (which could be extended to include the Netherlands and Geneva) I am quite persuaded that Iran, for example, will in time - and probably quite a short time at that - become a much more liberal society, IF it is left to its own devices.

Footnotes will be found at the end. I have not created links to notes that only give sources without any additional information. I recommend (as I always would) that anyone who has fallen upon this text and thinks it may be interesting, should print it out. I should also say that it is some time since I have been involved in these studies and I am not up to date with more recent dvelopments in the field.


The Arian schism in the Synod of Ulster (1830) was followed by a more obviously politically motivated schism in the Reformed Presbyterian Synod in 1840.

The Reformed Presbyterians were the 'Covenanters' or 'Cameronians', who argued that the national covenants of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were still binding on the nations which had subscribed them, and that the government which did not acknowledge them could not be regarded as legitimate.

There had been Cameronians in Ireland from the seventeenth century, but it was not until 1763 that a presbytery [1] was established and even then it only lasted about sixteen years. A presbytery was established on a permanent basis in 1792. The Reformed Presbytery in America was established in 1798 by ministers from the Irish presbytery forced to emigrate through the part they had played in the organisation of the United Irish Societies. [2] In 1810, the Irish church was strong enough to formk into a Synod, divided into four presbyteries ­ the Northern, Southern, Eastern and Western.

The best known Reformed Presbyterian minister in the 1820s was John Paul of Loughmorne, near Carrickfergus, who had been active in defending the principle of subscription to creeds and confessions of faith, and in opposing Arianism in support of the orthodox militants of the Synod of Ulster. In this controversy, Paul had defended the right of the Synod of Ulster to impose subscription on the grounds that any private society had a right to impose its own terms of membership; he specifically disclaimed the right of the nation to impose a particular form of religious observance upon its members. Montgomery had the right to propagate his views, and Paul had the right to regard them as "soul poison". [3] In the Tenth Letter of his Creeds and Confessions Defended, he replied to the charge that the principles of the Reformed Presbyterians were persecuting. His antagonist, the anonymous author of the Battle of the Two Dialogues, had quoted the Act and Testimony of the Reformed Presbytery in Scotland (1761) as saying:

"It is most wicked, and what manifestly strikes againt the authority of God for any power on earth to pretend to tolerate and by sanction of civil law to give licence to men to publish and propagate with impunity whatever errors, heresies and damnable doctrines Satan and their own corrupt and blinded understandings may prompt them to believe and to embrace."

Paul in reply quotes the Explanation and Defence of Terms of Communion issued by the Irish Presbytery, which says:

"While dissenters testify against toleration, they are not to be understood as meaning a merely passive toleration, implying nothing more than simply permitting men to exist unmolested to hold their different opinions, without using external violence to make them change or to exterminate them from the face of the earth if they do not."

The passage in the Act and Testimony, according to Paul, refers solely to "authoritative toleration" by which the magistrate sets himself up as a judge in religious matters. The scripture references given "were quoted to prove that no man or magistrate has a right to assume the character of a judge in matters of religion ­ that he has no right to license men to publish and propagate whatever doctrines he may think proper and to prohibit by law the publication of others". Either the views he licensed were true or they were not. If he licensed error he would sin; if he licensed truth, he would be presumptious: "What would be thought of the President of the United States if, coming over to Ireland, he were to issue proclamations tolerating us to obey the laws of our country". [4]

Divine and civil authority were thus regarded as different realms and for the civil magistrate to interfere in any way with religious observance was a form of Erastianism (the term used in Calvinist circles to describe the system under which supreme authority in the church was vested in the civil power). There is, however, a gap in the Reformed Presbyterian standards as Paul describes them, between the "passive toleration" of the Explanation and Defence, which permits men to hold whatever views they like, and the right or duty of the magistrate to prevent the propagation of error. The dispute on this issue in the 1830s led to Paul's secession from the church in 1840.

The first public notice of the dispute occurred in 1830. In January, the Synod issued a Causes of a Fast, which lamented "the admission of Roman Catholics to places of power and trust in the British Empire ... We have reason to mourn that Britain, instead of discovering her subjection to the Mediator by appointing able, upright and pious men to places of power and trust, has openly disclaimed His mediatorial supremacy by admitting to her most influential offices the intriguing and idolatrous vassals of the Roman pontiff". [5]

In July 1830, a new committee of the Synod issued a Causes of Thanksgiving, prepared by John Paul, which celebrated, together with the spread of evangelical ideas, the advance of civil and religious liberty. [6] Thomas Houston, Paul's major antagonist, subsequently said, in his The Covenanter's Narrative and Plea, that Paul and his supporters had prevented the emission of further Causes between 1830 and 1835 because of the "full and faithful exposure of the evils of Roman Catholic emancipation which was made in the committee's Causes of Fasting for 1830, which were prepared by Rev James Smyth" [7] (in fact, Causes of Fasting and Thanksgiving were issued in 1831 and 1832 [8]). In December, 1830, the first issue of The Covenanter, edited by Houston, appeared.

Houston had proposed the publication of a periodical at the July 1830 Synod and, three months later, called a meeting to appoint a committee to manage its affairs. Unfortunately for him, he was minister of Knockbracken, near Belfast, and the minister able to attend this meeting were all members of the Eastern Presbytery, which was dominated by Paul. [9 ]Houston had himself been installed in Knockbracken by the Eastern Presbytery in 1828 but in 1829 had recieved permission from the synod to transfer with his congregation to the care of the Northern Presbytery. [10] Paul was subsequently to say that while Houston had been a member of the Eastern Presbytery he had been highly disruptive. [11] This seems to be related to a dispoute in the congregation of Linen Hall St, Belfast, where a minority had refused to accept John Alexander, a close ally of Paul's, as their minister and seceded to join Knockbracken. [12]

The commitee, according to Houston's account, displaced him as editor of the periodical and tried to ensure that certain issues would not be discussed in it. He therefore resolved to proceed without them. In 1831, Paul published two letters in the Belfast News Letter attacking The Covenanter and in the synod in July, he secured a motion that "the synod does not hold themselves responsible for the contents of The Covenanter". [13] Between the 1831 and 1832 synods, Paul published the Covenanter Reviewed and was condemned by Houston in the Northern Presbytery, which invited him to appear before them. Paul considered this an impertinence since he was not under their jurisdiction, and refused. Houston issued a libel against him and other members of the eastern Presbytery for the next synod, 1832, at which He (Houston) was elected moderator. [14]

The libel, together with the dispute between Paul and the Northern Presbytery, was held in retentis until 1833, but the Eastern Presbytery demanded unsuccessfully that Houston hold a pro re nata meeting of the synod to discuss the matter owing to the fact that the heads of the libel had been published in The Covenanter. Houston in 1832 published The Christian Magistrate, a sermon giving the views with which Paul disagreed in some detail; Paul published A Review of Rev Thomas Houston's "Christian Magistrate" in 1833; and Houston replied, also in 1833, with The Reviewer Reviewed.

In the 1833 synod, Paul's complaints against Houston for calling him before the Northern Presbytery, for taking over management of The Covenanter and for using it to publish the heads of libel were upheld; Houston's libel was discussed and an equivocal resolution drawn up on the subject of the magistrate's power. Paul and Houston were requested to drop the controversy. [15] In 1834, however, a breach on a related subject occurred in the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America, between those whom Houston characterised as the "New Light" party (the term had been used to characterise the Non­subscribers in the dispute in the Synod of Ulster in the 1820s), who maintained that the American constitution could be recognised as a "moral ordinance of God" and those who refused it on the grounds that it failed to recognise the supreme headship of Christ. Paul managed to postpone Houston's effforts to have the "New Light" party condemned until the 1835 synod, when the verdict of the Scottish Refomed Presbyterian synod could be heard. This held that the American constitution could not be directly "homologated" because it did not recognise the sovereign rights of Christ, it authorised slavery and it "gives support to the enemies of the Redeemer and admits to its honours and emoluments Jews, Mahometans, Deists and Atheists." [16] Nonetheless, the Scottish synod continued in communion with both sides in the American dispute. the Irish synod adopted the Scottish synod's report but declined Houston's motion formally to condemn the "New Light" Americans.

"The year 1835 and part of 1836" according to Houston, "were signalised in the North of Ireland by various keen and embittered assaults on the Westminster standards". [17] The 1830s were indeed a period of lively debate on church/state relations. It was the period of the Tithe War in Ireland and of the spread of Voluntaryism ­ the view that the churches should be voluntary societies, independent of the state ­ especially among ministers of the United Secession in Scotland. Cooke in 1834 had proclaimed "the bans of sacred matrimony between the Church of Ireland and the Synod of Ulster" and was engaged in an energetic defence of the establishment principle. He had also joined Mortimer O'Sullivan's "itinerant mountebanks" [18] in Scotland to expose the dangers of resurgent popery in Ireland. In 1835, an Independent minister, Rev James Carlile, founded The Christian Liberator in Belfast to promote voluntaryism in Ulster and "to prove that there is no necessary because no natural connection between orthodoxy in religion and illiberality in politics". [19] Also in 1835, the Synod of Ulster began to negotiate for a restoration of communion with the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, which entailed the introduction of unqualified subscription to the Westminster Confession, incluiing those parts of it which dealt with the rights of the civil magistrate. [20]

In the middle of all this, towards the end of 1835, the Eastern Presbytery published a Causes of Fasting and Thansgiving, written by Paul. According to Houston: "Nothing at all resembling this production, either in language or sentiment or spirit had ever been emitted by any judicatory of the RP Church, or we might say of any church in existence." [21] It was a fierce attack on the Church of Ireland and on all the existing state endowments of religion. It argued that prelacy (in the form of the established Church of Ireland) was the major cause of the strength of popery: "A popish ascendancy is prophesied by the enemies of civil and religious liberty, and they themselves are doing everything in their power to fulfil their own predictions." [22] Presbyterian quiescence had been bought by the Regium Donum (a government grant given to the ministers of the different Presbyterian denominations in Ireland): "Seceders in Scotland are attacking the Presbyterian establishment; whilst in Ireland they are not attacking the Episcopal establishment ... Now what is the reason? Can any satisfactory reason be assigned but this: in Ireland, Seceders receive a Regium Donum, in Scotland none"; [23] and it envisaged a Reformation "more glorious" than both the preceding ones: "The former reformations may be compared to the light of the moon; the approaching reformation to the light of the sun". [24]

Among causes for thanksgiving, Paul cited the evangelical activities of the major Protestant churches, the abandonment by Catholics of their persecuting principles and their involvement in "the battles of civil and religious liberty":

"We cannot but admire both the wisdom and goodness of God in putting them into such a position at the very time that He is putting the sacred oracles into their hands and that these holy scriptures are making rapid progress amongst them." [25]

In state affairs, he welcomed the 1832 Reform Bill, the abolition of slavery, the abolition of church rates and acceptance of the principles of free trade and of peaceful international relations.

In 1836, after a 'soirée' at which Paul was present, an enlarged committee was formed to manage The Christian Liberator. Although the names of the committee were never published, the periodical claimed that it included Covenanters and said of the Eastern Presbytery's Causes: "To the influence of this pamphlet do we owe the large and influential committee under whose auspices this periodical now appears." [26]

It is tempting to compare the position of Thomas Houston in the Reformed Synod in the 1830s with that of Henry Cooke in the Synod of Ulster in the 1820s. Both were defending the written standards of their respective churches against innovations which had crept in more by way of shifts of emphasis and assumptions than by open debate. Cooke saw himself as attacking an indifference to basic church doctrines which revealed itself "by defect rather than by declaration"and Houston too compained of an absence in Paul's teaching: "In none of Dr Paul's pamphlets had there ever been exhibited or defended a single covenanting perculiarity ..." [27] In both cases, the weight of conservatism in the respective bodies was against them and they were regarded as unnecessarily stirring up trouble. The weight of the Synod of Ulster began to move to support for Cooke when the Nonsubscribers, Porter and Montgomery, in their evidence to the Education Commissioners of 1826/7, moved from a noncommittal position on the doctrine of the Trinity (a position which said in effect that no-one had any right to ask them their opinion on the matter) to a position of avowed Arianism. 1835/6 can be seen as a turning point in the attitude of the Reformed Synod in Ireland towards John Paul, and the determining factor in the change was his determination to alter the Church's terms of communion. [28]

The Eastern Presbytery's Causes, heralding the third reformation, declared:

"The reformed churches reviewed their creeds frequently; some of them evey year; they altered their creeds; they amended their creeds. Their presbyteries met monthly and held public discussions. Do we follow their example? Do we not rather act on the principle that the reformers of the sixteenth century did everything and of course left nothing for us to do?" (p.25)

At the 1836 Synod, Houston challenged Paul on the right of a man to canvas a truth to which he had already subscribed, and was supported in the argument by Rev James Dick:

"Mr Dick: ... After a man has once vowed adhesion to the cause of the reformation, he has no right, but the right of committing absurdity, to pretend that he may call in question the doctrines of that testimony to which he has pledged himself ­ This, said Mr Dick emphatically, I will oppose for ever.
Mr Paul: And I, on the contrary, will maintain such a sentiment to be popery while I live." [29]

Because of Paul's association with The Christian Liberator and of John Alexander's presence at the great debate held in Belfast on the Voluntary question in March 1836, [30] a memorial was submitted from Knockbracken congregation calling on the Synod to reassert its commitment to the principle of a national establishment (Houston, while supporting the memorial, claimed to have been ignorant of its preparation). Dick argued that "the Causes of Fasting and Thanksgiving by the Eastern Presbytery had got an extraordinary circulation and was rejoiced in by the advocates of the voluntary principle and hence an expression of adherence to the testimony was incumbent upon the Synod." [31] A motion was proposed by Messrs Dick and Smyth that "we cannot make common cause with any of the political parties of the day, or with such as deny and oppose the principle of a national establishment of the religion of Jesus Christ." [32]

Paul argued in reply that he was not opposed to the principle of church establishments but that, granted that there was now a chance of reforming the evils of the existing establishments this was not the time to give them encouragement by vigorously defending the abstract principles by which they justified themselves. [33] He proposed an amendment to the motion which included the clause:

"We believe that prelacy, so far from being a bulwark between us and popery, is in reality a principle support of popery in Ireland. In no country in the world do Roman Catholics cling to their religion with so much tenacity, and tithes we believe to be one principle cause." [34]

The amendment was defeated by thirty one votes to eight, and a committee was appointed to draw up a declaration of the Synod's views on the church establishment principle.

Paul was also defeated in opposing the report of the committee appointed to ordain Thomas Nevin, which regretted that he had qualified his subscription to the Acts of the Assembly and the Testimony of the Church by invoking the Scottish Explanation and Defence. [35]

The 1837 Synod was mainly taken up with discussion of a petition from the Linen Hall Street congregation, in Belfast, This was cautiously worded but, in the context of the continuing dispute, it had radical implications. It came in three parts, the first two requesting that the terms of communion and ordination should be altered according to changes already made by the Scottish Synod, and the third requesting clarification on the manner in which the Westminster Confession of Faith was to be received. Discussion of the first part of the petition took up virtually the whole of the time of the Synod, and the second two parts were postponed to an adjourned meeting later in the year.

In 1821, the Scottish Synod had changed its fourth term of communion, which dealt with the obligation to renew the national covenants and which, in its unchanged form, involved a renewal of the "Auchinsaugh Renovation" of 1712, one of the basic founding documents of Reformed Presbyterianism as distinct from general Presbyterianism. The new Scottish formula had avoided any specific commitments, simply saying "that it is the duty of a minority to renew their solemn covenants when the nation has made defection." [36] The Linen Hall Street congregation objected that the Auchinsaugh Renovation included paragraphs which regretted that the laws against Roman Catholics passed by the 1638 Scottish Assembly were not executed; that there was an unlimited toleration of religious belief which even extended so far as to include "a pestilent generation of Quakers"; and that there was a preparedness to co-operate with enemies of the Covenant. It also held that paying taxes and prosecuting in civil courts were sinful and that (with special reference to James VII) Roman Catholics had no right to be in places of government. These examples, according to the Belfast commissioner, John Newell, showed "that our practice contradicts the principles advanced in the Auchinsaugh Deed." [37] Paul, supporting the Belfast petition, rather showed that he felt the weight of the Synod to be against him when he proposed that it should be left up to the discretion of congregations whether they adopted the Irish or Scottish forms of the fourth term.

James Dick, moving that the terms of communion should remain unaltered, declared that "In this bond, there is one grand principle strongly asserted ­ the principle of magistratical restraint in matters of religion ... To this principle, he [James Dick ­ PB] considered all who embrace our standards solemnly pledged; and for his part, he was ever prepared to defend it." [38] Houston agreed. The scots, he argued, had dropped the mention of the Auchinsaugh Deed because it merely reasserted doctrines already found in the covenants. Unlike the Scots, the Belfast petitioners were anxious to change those doctrines and, if their objections were valid, "we should at once give up with the binding obligation of the covenants and say, like those in America who boast of superior light, not that we recognise the moral obligation of the covenants, but that 'we highly appreciate' the federal deeds of our forefathers." [39] Dick's motion was passed by twenty eight votes to the by now usual eight.

Commenting on the arguments used by the radicals, the Moderator, W.J.Stavely, said that "If we and our fathers are charged with persecuting principles, and if these charges are to be reiterated, it would be better at once to turn out backs on each other and separate." To which Paul replied, unrepentantly, that "he wished to free himself from the principles by which members of the church were sworn to extirpate papists and put to the sword Arminians and Quakers every time they go to the Lord's Table." [40]

The issue of the persecuting principles of the Church of Scotland was being widely canvassed outside the Synod, owing to the Synod of Ulster's decision to introduce unqualified subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith. Early in 1836, James MacNeight, editor of the Belfast News Letter, had published, anonymously, A Letter to those Ministers and Members of the Church of Scotland who have lent themselves to the Dens Theology Humbug. [41] This was an attack on Cooke's part in helping to publicise the persecuting tenets of a handbook of theology by the Roman Catholic theologian, Peter Dens, which was being used as a standard textbook in Maynooth. MacNeight argued that exactly the same arguments which were being used against Roman Catholics on the strength of Dens' theology could be used against Presbyterians on the strength of the standards of the Church of Scotland. In the course of the pamphlet, he referred to Paul, "whose 'praise is in all the chuches' on account of his able philosophic defences of the doctrines usually denominated orthodox, in opposition to the Arminian and Unitarian systems", and he said:

"Mr Houston's Christian Magistrate, his defence of that publication in reply to Mr Paul, and especially the pages of his periodical The Covenanter ought to be consulted by the 'Protestant Associators' before they bring forward Dens as a purely popish anomaly in the nineteenth century." [42]

After the Synod of Ulster adopted unqualified subscription in 1836, MacNeight published Persecution Sanctioned by the Westminster Confession. In it, he contrasted the Synod of Ulster unfavourably with the Covenanters who "have at least in that official document [the Expanation and Defence ­ PB] shown their willingness to put upon their tenets a sense as nearly as possible coincident with modern views of religious freedom. It may be doubted whether the mitigated statements made by the Covenanters in this authoritative exposition of the standards of original Presbyterianism are strictly in accordance with historical fact, but no matter; if their fathers were wrong, they do not adopt the errors of their fathers, though they may have lacked the moral courage to put their disclaimer into a direct form." [43]

The Covenanter, reviewing the pamphlets, merely asserted that "genuine Protestants, when possessed of political power, have never persecuted" ­ an assertion made rather easier by the definition of persecution offered in The Reviewer Reviewed that it is "pursuit with malignancy" and "suffering for righteousness' sake": [44]

"Bad as the spirit of the age is, we rejoice to think that it is yet far from having reached that stage of degradation and baseness that the malignant designs and numerous perversions of this anonymous pamphleteer will pass current. Indeed we cannot believe that there is the least danger of any candid Protestant, of whatever name, being misled by their statements or reasoning. Papists, infidels and perhaps a few others who disrelish a faithful profession may readily receive them; but we feel perfectly assured that there is no genuine friend of truth who will not say that it is an enemy to Protestantim and Presbyterianism who hath done this." [45]

In the Narrative and Plea he states that the author of the pamphlets "is generally suspected to be a certain intimate associate of Dr Paul" and accuses Paul of having promoted them. [46] The Belfast News Letter had published a very full account of the 1836 Synod by a 'Special Reporter' whom Houston identified as Macneight, accusing him of being a "political apostate". [47] One of the charges Houston advanced against paul was that he was continually attacking the Reformed Synod in the public press, and that the News Letter and Northern Whig were being given copies of the Synod's internal documents. [48]

At Cullybackey, consideration of the remaining points of the Belfast petition was again deferred, and the Synod devoted its time to discussing the Declaration on the Subject of Civil Government, drawn up by the committee appointed in 1836. This declared that the civil magistrate had the duty to encourage reformation "by holding ineligible to places of power and trust infidel, heretic and immoral persons; and placing under civil restraint and disabilities all who are, at once, the enemies of the religion, fundamental laws and liberties of the commonwealth ...

"Just provision for the defence of the Protestant religion and liberty, especially in critical and dangerous emergencies, must not be stigmatised as intolerance and persecution; nor are the standards to be left ­ and no sincere adherent to them would leave them ­ under a vague, injurious allegation, which every enemy may turn against them as it pleases him."

Persecution is defined as punishment of those whose guilt is not proved, excessive punishment or (most importantly) punishment for adherence to God. "Authoritative restraint of the open violation of the first, second, or any other commandment of God is not persecution; for, as no man has a right to violate the Divine Law, no right is invaded." [49]

Paul and his supporters refused to take part in the discussion of the Declaration on the grounds that it had been improperly introduced before discussion of other material which lay before the Synod. The other material consisted of the remainder of the Belfast petition; the charges brought by Knockbracken congregation against the Eastern Presbytery's Causes; a petition from a minority in Newtownards against their minister, Dr Henry (one of Paul's supporters), and a memorial from Paul's congregation in Loughmorne against Houston's views on the nature of the Christian magistrate. [50] The Loughmorne memorial was read to the Synod before it finished and was published in the News Letter and Whig, as was what Houston claimed was an inauthentic version of the Declaration, given to the Whig, according to Houston, by the son of Clarke Houston, Clerk of the Synod and a member of the Eastern Presbytery. [51]

The Loughmorne memorial took up much of the 1839 Synod, but was rejected. There was an attempt to heal the breach through a motion that nothing was to be done against the "life, property, common liberty or peace of persons differing in opinion who are otherwise inoffensive members of society," but Paul's amendment which would have read "holding different opinions, or avowing or defending them" was defeated as being in contradiction with the Westminster Confession, Chap xx art iv. [52]

In 1839, the Eastern Presbytery proposed the adoption of the Scottish Terms of Communion and formula for the ordination of licentiates; and also that the New Scottish Testimony, which had been published by the Scottish Synod in 1837, should be handed down for discussion to the inferior courts. The first two parts of this proposal were simply a repetition of the Belfast petition. The major change in the terms of the communion would have been the removal of any mention of the Auchinsaugh Renovation. The major change in the formula for licentiates would be that the phrase "ratifying and approving the Reformation" would be added as a qualification to the question which required approval of the Acts of Assembly of 1638­49, so that it would not necessarily imply approval of the Acts for the suppression of popery and heresy. [53 ]

The Synod resolved that the Terms of Communion had already been decided in the 1837 discussion of the Auchinsaugh Renovation, and that a committee was already in existence looking into the terms of ordination in response to the Belfast petition. It was, however, agreed to send the New Testimony to the lower courts, leaving the remaining papers that had been submitted ­ principally the Knockbracken and Newtownards memorials ­ in retentis until a decision had been reached. The Eastern Presbuytery complained that these memorials contained calumnies against its ministers and that, under this resolution, these caluminies could be allowed to stand for a long time. The Scottish Synod had taken eighteen years to approve its New Testimony. [54 ]

Three months after the Synod had met, Paul presented the Northern Presbytery with three libels against Houston, mainly repeating the criticisms already made of The Christian Magistrate, Reviewer Reviewed and The Covenanter. They were rejected, and the 1840 Synod, sitting as a Committee of Bills, also refused to receive them. Henry and Paul again put motions that the Scottish terms of communion and ordination should be adopted, which were again rejected. "At the conclusion, Mr. [Clarke ­ PB] Houston and Dr Paul declared that they would agitate this subject from year to year and that the peace of the Synod would never be restored till an alteration had taken place in the existing laws of the church in relation to the formula for ordination and the terms of communion." [55 ] Henry tabled the same motion for consideration at the next Synod. But the following day, Paul, Henry, C.Houston, Alexander and Nevin handed in a "Protest and Declinature" disowning the authority of the Synod.



(1) A body of ministers with fixed parishes meeting regularly to discuss the affairs of the church as a whole. The problem was to find ministers, given that, according to the principle adopted by the Reformed Presbyterians, the presence of two regularly ordained ministers was necessary if an ordination was to be valid. Back

(2) Reformed Presbyterian Testimony, pt II, Historical, Belfast 1939, p.99. For the American church, see the history by Rev W.M.Glasgow.

(3) Rev John Paul, D.D.: The Speech of Rev Henry Montgomery Reviewed, Belfast 1828, p.10.

(4) Paul: Creeds and Confessions Defended, Belfast 1819, pp.66-72.

(5) Reformed Presbyterian Synod of Ireland: Causes of a Fast, Belfast 1830, p.8.

(6) RPSI: Causes of Thanksgiving, Belfast 1830.

(7) Rev Thomas Holmes Houston: The Covenanter's Narrative and Plea, Belfast 1841, p.35.

(8) There is a bound collection of the Synod's Causes in the Library of the RP Theological Hall in Belfast.

(9) Narrative and Plea, pp.3­6. See also Houston: The Reviwer Reviewed, Belfast 1833, Appendix, and Speech delivered at the meeting of the RPSI, 1833, Belfast 1833, pp.22­3. For Paul's account see Paul: A Review of Rev Thomas Houston's "Christian Magistrate", Belfast 1833, pp.160­176.

(10) RPSI: Abstract of Minutes of the RPSI, 1831, p.13.

(11) Paul: Persecution Indefensible, a series of letters in reply to Rev T.Houston's "Narrative and Plea", Belfast 1842, Part 1, p.26.

(12) RPSI minutes, 1826­29. See also the Minute Book of the First RP Congregation, Belfast, 1825­9 (ms in RP Theological Hall). The Belfast minority supported a call to Rev James Dick, subsequently a leading opponent of Paul's. Their dissatisfaction may not have been entirely theological in nature; Alexander had asked to leave his congregation in Derry after his stipend had been unilaterally reduced ­ see RPSI Minutes, 1811­1825, p.217 (ms in RP Theological Hall). Matthew Meek's Letter to the Rev Thomas Houston, Ballymena 1832, advises Houston "to examine, lest there be a little of the old leaven of the Belfast dispute at the bottom of the lump, marring the peace and unity of the church, with doing which you so clamourously charge your brethren." Back

(13) RPSI minutes, 1831, p.13.

(14) Houston: Narrative and Plea, p.10; RPSI minutes, 1832, pp.11­12; Paul: Review of the Christian Magistrate, pp.160­176; Houston: Speech, 1833, p.4.

(15) Narrative and Plea, pp.10­22; RPSI Minutes, 1833; Persecution Indefensible, pp.17 and 21.

(16) RPSI Minutes, 1835, p.9. For the American dispute see Glasgow op.cit. and account of speech by Robert Gibson to the RPSI, 1837, in The Covenanter, vol IV, no.xxii (July), pp.149­154.

(17) Narrative and Plea, p.32. The "Westminster standards" are of course the basic defining principles of the Scottish Presbyterian tradition worked out at Westminster in a joint conference with representatives of the English Presbyterian tradition during the 1640s. Back

(18) The phrase used in A Member of the Synod of Ulster: A letter to those ministers and members of the Church of Scotland who have lent themselves to the Dens Theology Humbug, Edinburgh 1836, p.9.

(19) Carlile to Robert Tennent, 20/12/1833, Tennent mss, Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, D1748/C/94/2.

(20) The Synod of Ulster had long allowed candidates qualifying for the ministry to express reservations about certain passages in the Westminster Confession, usually those on the rights and duties of the civil magistrate to suppress heresy. For the negotiations with the Church of Scotland see e.g. Robert Allen: James Seaton Reid, Belfast 1951, ch.7. The requirement of unqualified subscription led to a dispute between Rev James Carlile (Presbyterian minister in Dublin, not to be confused with the editor of The Christian Liberator) and Henry Cooke. See Rev James Carlile: Use and Abuse of Creeds and Confessions of Faith, Dublin 1836; Rev J.Carmichael: Defence of the Westminster Confession of Faith in reply to James Carlile's Use and Abuse, Belfast 1837; Rev John Dill: The Power of the Civil Magistrate in the Church, a familiar letter to Rev J.Carmichael, Belfast 1837. See also the discussion of James MacNeight, below. Cooke himself had declared in the synod held in Ballymena in 1826 that "he knew there were things in the Westminster Confession to which neither he nor any member of that house could subscribe; such as the parts relating to the power of the civil magistrate in religious matters", quoted in The Christian Moderator, vol I (1826), p.144. Back

(21) Narrative and Plea, p.37.

(22) Eastern Reformed Presbytery: Causes of Fasting and Thanksgiving, or the Signs of the Times, Belfast 1835, p.10.

(23) ibid, pp.18­19.

(24) ibid, p.25

(25) ibid, p.31

(26) Christian Liberator, vol II, p.23, quoted in Houston: Narrative and Plea, pp.47­8 (fn). I have been unable to find a collection of The Christian Liberator, though there is a prospectus for it in Tennent mss, PRONI D1748/B (uncatalogued at the time of writing), together with Vol III, no ii, March 1837. The prospectus mentions the co-operation of Covenanters and the March 1837 issue contained an article by Paul on The Blinding Influence of the Regium Donum. Back

(27) Cooke in evidence given to the First Report of the Commissioners of the Irish Education Inquiry, PP1825 xii, and Houston in Narrative and Plea, p.6. Paul, in his Remarks on the RP Synod's Judgment, pt II, ch iv, Belfast 1844, defends himself against the charge by quoting the passage cited above from his Creeds and Confressions Defended.

(28) Houston claimed that the Synod had long been dominated by "a knot of violent men" from the Eastern Presbytery (Narrative and Plea, p.2). Paul and his supporters claimed that the bias of the Synod had been liberal until Houston started his campaign, see e.g. Remarks, ch. ii: "Twenty years ago, they were quite as liberal as the Eastern Presbytery. The reputed writer of the Judgment, a few years ago, was far more liberal. The times have changed ­ the Synod have changed ­ they have abanoned the liberal principles of the Scotch ­ they have abandoned their own liberal principles." Back

(29) Repoort of the proceedings of the Reformed Presbyterian Synod at its meeting at Moneymore, July 19, 1836, Belfast (News Letter Office) 1836, p.9.

(30) See account in The Voluntaries in Belfast, Belfast 1837

(31) Report of the Proceedings, 1836, p.15.

(32) RPSI minutes, 1836. p.15.

(33) Report of the Proceedings, 1836, esp. pp.16­18 and p.27.

(34) RPSI minutes, 1836, p.16.

(35) Report of the Proceedings, 1836, pp.7­10; Houston: Narrative and Plea, pp.58­9.

(36) RPSI minutes, 1811­25, pp.198­9 (1821). In 1820, a committee of the Irish Synod, which included Dr Henry, had decided against adopting any similar change (ibid, p.74) and a committee had been appointed in 1825 ­ also including Henry ­ to write an explanation of the Synod's view of the Auchinsaugh Deed (p.221). In 1826, the job was taken over by John Alexander and John Paul (RPSI minutes, 1826, p.11) but they never reported. In 1828, Paul was asked to prepare a synopsis of the church's principles (RPSI minutes, 1828, p.8) but he "declined the honour. My principle reason was my knowledge of your [Houston's ­ PB] intolerant and persecuting principles. I dreaded a collision of sentiment and therefore judged it better to write no synopsis at all than run the risk of dividing our church" (Paul: Persecution Indefensible, pp.30­31). Back

(37) Report of 1837 Synod in The Covenanter, vol II, no xxii (July 1837), p.156.

(38) Ibid, p.164.

(39) Ibid, pp.169­70.

(40) Ibid, p.175

(41) Pamphlets in Magee University College Library, Londonderry 1971, attributes both the Dens Theology Humbug and Persecution Sanctioned to 'James MacKnight' (which is how MacNeight's name was usually spelt in the political controversies of the 1840s). McIlwham's Letter to James MacNeight, Editor of the Belfast News Letter, reviewed in The Covenanter, vol IV, no xix, Jan 1837, pp.41­3. was written on the assumption that MacNeight was the author.

(42) Dens Theology Humbug, p.36.

(43) A Member of the Synod of Ulster: Persecution Sanctioned by the Westminster Confession, Belfast 1836, pp.70-71.

(44) The Reviewer Reviewed, ch.iii.

(45) The Covenanter, Vol IV, p.42.

(46) Narrative and Plea, p.35.

(47) The Covenanter, Vol IV, no.xxiv (November 1837), pp.255­6. MacNeight had been active in the Belfast Society, formed to support James Emerson Tennent as candidate for Belfast in the 1832 election, in opposition to his cousin, Robert James Tennent. R.J.Tennent was identified as a liberal and a reformer, but the opposition to him from MacNeight and others seems to have been personal, and possibly linked to the Arian controversy since R.J.Tennent's power base, the old Belfast Reform Society, was largely dominated by Nonsubscribers. J.E.Tennent's programme was not particularly conservative but he associated with the conservatives after the election (becoming, after a time, governor of Ceylon). MacNeight and others resigned from the Belfast Society when it became the Belfast Conservative Society. Back

(48) e.g. Narrative and Plea, p.61: "The inconsistency and disorder of a minister thus writing against a part of the declared basis of fellowship in the church to which he himself, as well as others, were at the time pledged must be apparent to the most inattentive observer." See The Covenanter, Vol IV, p.255 for identification of MacNeight with the "Special Reporter", and for an intriguing comparison between MacNeight and Archbishop Sharp, who had presided over the restoration of episcopacy in Scotland in the 1660s.

(49) Declaration of the Principles of the Reformed Presbyterian Synod in Ireland on the Subject of Civil Government, reproduced in The Covenanter, Vol IV, no. xxix (November 1837), pp.265­271. The parts referred to can be found in paras V,XI,XII and XV.

(50) The Covenanter, Vol IV, pp.242­4; RPSI minutes, October 1837, pp.5­10; Narrative and Plea, pp.66­8 [A confusion starts here in the footnote order. Should be checked ­ PB]

(51) Narrative and Plea, p.72 [check]

(52) Ibid, pp.74­81. Houston claims that newspaper accounts of the Synod were read by Roman Catholic priests to their congregations. [check]

(53) RPSI minutes, 1839, p.5; Narrative and Plea, pp.87-9.

(54) Eastern Presbytery of the Reformed Presbyterian Church: , Belfast 1840, p.22.

(55) Report of the Reformed Presbyterian Synod of Ireland, 1840, in The Covenanter, Vol VII, no xi (July, 1840), p.189.