ULSTER - NORTHERN IRELAND
It appears that the Church in Ireland was one of the first in Europe. In the third century, the ‘Annals of the Four Masters’ tell us that Cormac, the chief - king of Ireland, provoked the wrath of the Druids by turning from them ‘to the adoration of God.’ In the fourth century, an Irishman named Coelestius, the companion of the celebrated Pelagius, was by no means an inconspicuous figure in the controversies of the day. Early in the fifth century, we read in a chronicle of the period about 'the Irish believing in Christ.'
Obviously, the most famous name of this period is Patrick. It is very difficult to sift fact from fiction with regard to his life. However, if one adheres to the two works of Patrick, his ‘Confessions’ and his ‘Letter to the Christians,’ one should be on safe ground regarding factual information.
Patrick came from a village in Britain called Bonavem Taberniae where he was captured at the age of sixteen. At that time he was sold as a slave, probably to the Slemish Hills, near Ballymena, in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. He became a cattle herder and it was here that he gave his life to Christ. He wrote, 'I knew not the true God, and I was carried in captivity into Ireland . . . and there the Lord opened the sense of my unbelief, that even though late, I should remember my sins and be converted with my whole heart unto the Lord my God.'
After six years of captivity, Patrick escaped from Ireland and made his way home. He had not been home long before he had a dream which helped him to decide to return to Ireland. In the dream, in the dead of night he saw a man coming to him as if from Ireland, whose name was Victoricius, ' bearing innumerable letters. And he gave me one of them, and I read the beginning of it, which contained the words, "The Voice of the Irish." And while I was repeating the beginning of the letter, I imagined that I heard in my mind the voice of those who were near the wood of Foclut, which is near the Western Sea. And thus they cried—"We entreat thee, holy youth, to come and walk henceforth among us.’’’
Patrick’s legendary work in Ireland is well known. He moved in a vibrant Christianity which many would recognise today, and not the Roman Catholic variety that was to cover Ireland in the coming centuries. ‘I am greatly a debtor to God,' he says in the Confession, 'who hath vouchsafed me such great grace that many people by my means should be born again to God, and that clergy should be ordained everywhere for them.' But he adds with beautiful humility— 'I pray those who believe and fear God, whosoever may condescend to look into or receive this writing, which Patrick the sinner, though unlearned, wrote in Ireland, if I have done or established any little thing according to God's will, that no man ever say that my ignorance did it, but think and let it verily be believed that it was the gift of God.'
Patrick died sometime in the second half of the fifth century. His theology was as far from Roman Catholicism as you can get; it is very like Evangelical Protestant theology of today, and he moved in Miracles, Signs and Wonders such as the Charismatic arm of the Protestant Church would recognise. He summarises his theology as follows: ‘I am not able, nor would it be right, to be silent on such great benefits and such great grace as [God] hath vouchsafed unto me in the land of my captivity, for this is our recompense, that after we have been corrected and brought to know God, we should exalt and confess His wondrous works before every nation which is under the whole heaven : that there is none other God, nor ever was, nor shall be hereafter, except God the Father, unbegotten, without beginning, from whom is all beginning, upholding all things, as we have said: and His Son, Jesus Christ, whom we acknowledge to have been always with the Father before the beginning of the world, spiritually with the Father, in an ineffable manner begotten before all beginning: and by Him were made things visible and invisible; and being made man, and having overcome death, He was received into heaven unto the Father. And the Father hath given unto Him all power, above every name, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and God. Whom we believe and we look for His coming, who is soon about to be the Judge of quick and dead, who will render unto every man according to his works, and hath poured into us abundantly the gift of the Holy Ghost and the pledge of immortality, who maketh the faithful and obedient to become the sons of God the Father and joint heirs with Christ. Whom we confess and worship, one God in the Trinity of the sacred Name. For He Himself hath said by the prophet, “Call upon me in the day of thy tribulation and I will deliver thee, and thou shalt magnify me."'
Patrick set up between 365 and 700 churches, appointing an elder (bishop) for each one. There was no hierarchical Church in his time. Patrick would have been remarkable in any age, but he was certainly a marvellous man for his times and environments. In reading his life and works one cannot but be impressed by his prayerfulness, his humility, his strong belief in a guiding and overruling Providence, his deep and accurate knowledge of the Bible, his firm grasp of the doctrines of grace, his steadfast faith, his love to Christ, his devotion to His service, and his fine evangelistic spirit. By the time Patrick died Christianity had been established across Ireland.
Fifty to 100 years later Columba began to minister in Ireland. He made a dreadful mistake politically which resulted in hundreds being killed on the battle-field and, as a result, he left for Iona with 12 followers. His remarkable story can be read elsewhere on this website. Many great men arose out of Ireland during this period; men who brought the saving knowledge of Jesus to much of Europe. They were brave, anointed, godly men who changed many nations. Ireland was known as the ‘Isle of Saints’ in the 7th Century.
Sadly, this wonderful situation did not last for long. Over the decades Roman Catholicism, with its lies, superstition and ritual, crept into Ireland, culminating in 1110 with the Synod of Rathbreasail, which had the Pope’s legate as its president. The whole country was placed by the Synod under the government of twenty-three bishops and two archbishops. This decree was not wholeheartedly accepted, because 40 years later another Synod had to be convened to deal with those ‘bishops’ who had not put themselves under the Roman bishops. Even this Synod was not obeyed, as in 1155 the English Pope, Adrian IV, issued a ‘bull’ to Henry II, the King of England, that ' His Holiness held it right that for extending the borders of the Church, restraining the progress of vice, for the correction of manners, the planting of virtue, and the increase of the Christian religion, you enter that island and execute therein whatever shall pertain to the honour of God and the welfare of the land, and that the people of that land receive you honourably, and reverence you as their lord, the rights of their Churches still remaining sacred and inviolate, and, saving to St. Peter the annual pension of one penny from every house.' In this way the Pope handed Ireland over to England for the next 750 years. Henry landed in Ireland in 1171 and took over sovereignty with little resistance.
As Henry took control, so did the Roman Catholic bishops. Over the centuries they became more and more immoral and greedy. The Bible more or less disappeared and in its place came rampant superstition. Simony was extensive and the priests were ignorant and immoral, much like their superiors.
Ireland was not different to anywhere else in Europe; the Church was in the same dreadful state in each country. However, the Reformation began to change the Church in the first quarter of the sixteenth century. The first step towards accepting the Reformation in Ireland was taken in May 1537, when the Irish Parliament threw off the authority
of the Pope and declared the King supreme head on earth of the Church of Ireland. But the change was little more than a change of authority. No reformation worthy of the name can be propagated by mere royal proclamations or Acts of Parliament, and it was to the misfortune of Ireland, not only in the era of the Reformation, but for centuries after, that no wise effort was made to win the people over to Protestantism. The Irish viewed Protestantism as the religion of their oppressors and so resisted it.
It appears that Ireland did not have the Reformers that England or Scotland did. In England they were mostly in Oxford and Cambridge, and those reformers became the bishops under Edward VI and Elizabeth. There was no equivalent University in Ireland for the new religion to propagate. Protestantism made great strides in the short reign of Edward VI in England, but only a little was done in Ireland, and Mary easily reasserted the authority of the Pope during her reign. An Act of the Irish Parliament, passed in June 1556 declared that 'all persons, preaching or teaching, or evidently suspected of preaching or teaching, against the Catholic Faith' might be arrested by the bishop of the diocese, and, on their refusal to abjure, delivered to the secular arm, and ’burnt for the terror of others.'
With the death of Mary and the enthronement of Elizabeth everything changed in England, and Protestantism was established forever. However, all the Irish saw was the same bishops persecuting the new faith, then supporting it. Unfortunately, there was no change in Ireland to the excesses and ignorance of the clergy that had existed for many decades. Adding to the woes of the Irish people during Elizabeth’s reign was a constant stream of uprisings against England. By the end of her reign in 1603, the last insurrection had been put down and Trinity College, Dublin had been established. One of the first students in this first Irish University was James Ussher, the future archbishop of Armagh.
In 1607 the Earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnel went into voluntary exile. These two men were behind most of the insurrection that occurred during Elizabeth’s reign, and with their leaving peace ensued. The earls leaving Ireland, together with the overthrow of other rebel leaders, left the way open for an ambitious scheme. The project was the establishing in Ulster bodies of Scottish and English settlers, who would at once be valuable inhabitants, developing the resources of the country by their hard work and enterprise, as the natives had failed to do, and who would, at the same time, faithfully guard 'the back door of the kingdom,' as Ireland was then.
The forfeited lands, having been carefully surveyed, were divided into proportions of 1000, 1500, and 2000 acres each and these tracts of country were granted to approved settlers on certain conditions. 'The occupiers of the largest proportions were bound within four years to build a castle and bawn (i.e. a walled enclosure, usually with towers) and to plant on their estates forty-eight able men, eighteen years old and upwards, of English or Scottish descent. Those of the second class were obliged to build within two years a strong stone or brick house and bawn; and those of the third class a bawn; while both were bound to plant a proportionable number of British families on their possessions, and to have their houses furnished with a sufficiency of arms.'
The people who came built homes, villages and towns. They were adventurers who were able to buy land very cheaply. They were there to prosper, so they worked hard and developed Ulster into a prosperous, peaceful area. The southern counties had more natural advantages than the north, but the north developed much more quickly.
Many came from Scotland where Presbyterianism was under threat from James I. You can read about James’ persecution of Presbyterians under the ‘Scotland’ part of this website. Ireland was therefore a place where these religious people could escape persecution and find peace. So, despite the economic benefits these people brought to Ulster, they also brought the seeds of religious tension that are still around today.
The Irish Presbyterian Church dates from the beginning of the seventeenth century, although there were Presbyterians in Ireland before that time. The Irish Established Church in 1615 adopted Articles of Religion that were thoroughly evangelical, very moderate, and their theology distinctly Calvinistic. It is therefore understandable why Calvinistic Presbyterian ministers felt safe coming to Ireland. Some of the early ones were great men; John Livingstone, Josiah Welch (son of John Welch of Ayr and grandson of John Knox (for both see this website), Robert Blair and Edward Brice (Bruce). Some of these ministered as Presbyterians and some joined the Established Church. There were others too; ministers who came to Ireland to escape persecution, to minister the Gospel in the name of Jesus and in the power of the Spirit.
James Glendinning was the minister of Carrickfergus, the largest town in the North of Ireland at that time. He was a man of limited gifts, so Robert Blair advised him to move to a country parish; advice which he took, moving to Oldstone near Antrim. He preached the law and the wrath of God if the law was broken, and a writer of the time commented that this was about all he was capable of preaching. Not on the face of it a very good mix for the Lord to pour out His blessings, but pour them out He did in 1625. (I believe that when the atmosphere of revival is present subjects can be preached which would not be successful at other times.) ‘Multitudes’ became convicted of their sin through his teaching, with ‘a dozen in one day carried out as dead.’ The preaching of the law opened peoples eyes to their sinfulness, with many crying out ‘what must I do to be saved?’ Many lay on the floor, convicted of their sin, but not knowing how to find Jesus.
Fortunately, the neighbouring ministers were skilled at preaching the Gospel and came to help. At this time the Antrim Monthly Meeting was created. All the ministers came, including Glendinning, who remained until ‘he was smitten with a number of erroneous and enthusiastic opinions, and embracing one error after another,' ended by setting out 'on a visit to the Seven Churches of Asia.' Ministers came from Antrim and Co Down, including Livingstone, Welch, Blair, Hamilton and Dunbar. There were four sermons at the summer meetings and three in the winter, and crowds came from all over to hear the Word of God. The revival, known as the Six Mile Water (a valley from Larne to Antrim) Revival, spread to the surrounding areas and it ended around 1634.
In the midst of revival persecution began. It began with Echlin, bishop of Down. He firstly told Blair to preach at the Archbishop’s visitation. Blair took up the challenge; he preached on how Prelacy was not biblical. Archbishop Ussher did not take any action against him, so Echlin suspended Blair and Livingstone from ministry in September 1631; however, Ussher ordered Echlin to withdraw the suspension. The case was appealed to London where the intolerant Laud was Archbishop of Canterbury. Through Laud’s influence Blair, Welch, Livingstone and Dunbar were brought to trial, but they refused to conform to Episcopacy so they were deposed from ministry in 1632. Blair went to London to appeal to the King and Charles ordered the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Wentworth, to retry the case.
The four ministers continued to preach until Blair met with Wentworth in the latter half of 1643. Wentworth spoke against the Church of Scotland and upbraided Blair. The situation became so dark for the Presbyterians of Ulster that they began to look towards America to escape persecution. Livingstone and another were commissioned to go to America to find a place for settlement, but whilst in Plymouth some things deterred them from completing their mission and they returned home. For political reasons, in May 1634 Wentworth instructed Echlin to withdraw the suspension of the four men for six months. The bishop of Derry appealed to Wentworth as to the danger of allowing Presbyterians to preach and they were suspended again in November. Soon after this Welch and Echlin died.
On the 11th/12th August 1636 the bishop of Down tried Bruce, Hamilton, Cunningham., Ridge and Calvert at the old Belfast Parish Church in front of bishops, nobles, gentry and clergy. They were all banned from preaching in the diocese, for the sin of not accepting Episcopacy. In response to their sentence Cunningham said, ‘I have now lived these twenty years amongst you in this kingdom, serving the Lord in His holy ministry, and thought so to have spent the rest of my days, which cannot be very long, for my body is very crazed, in the same employment. My doctrine and life for that time are known to most who are here present. I appeal to all their consciences if they can say anything against me in either of them. Yea, I ever kept me close to the commission of my Lord. But now I am required to receive impositions upon my ministry which are against my conscience. I rather lay down my ministry at the feet of my Lord and Saviour Christ, of whom I did receive it, than to live with an evil conscience in the free liberty of it.'
Bruce returned home heartbroken and he died before the end of the year. In desperation 140 built a ship at Groomsport to take them beyond persecution to America. They sailed in November in the ‘Eagle Wing’, but a fierce storm damaged their ship so much that they had to return. Blair, Livingstone and others, having failed to get to America, went instead to Scotland. The Lord Deputy issued a commission to the bishop of Down to summarily arrest Presbyterians in his diocese. Some were imprisoned and some went to Scotland. A court of High Commission was set up in Dublin where many, high and low, were sent to jail for their faith. Then all Presbyterians were made to swear the ‘Black Oath’ or suffer the uttermost and most severe punishments which may be inflicted.' According to this oath they were required not only to swear allegiance to King Charles, but to swear also that they would never at any time oppose anything he might be pleased to command; and further, that they would renounce and abjure all covenants, such as the National Covenant, which had been the means of saving Presbyterianism in Scotland. The authorities ensured that every Presbyterian was registered, so all were made to take the oath.
Large numbers refused to take the oath, with many paying the penalty. The rich suffered huge fines and the poor imprisonment. Some fled into the woods to escape Wentworth’s men, some to caves and some left the country all together. Wentworth even planned to ship all Presbyterians out of Ulster, planning to set aside ships especially for the purpose. Wentworth however was sacrificed by his King to the Long Parliament which the King had to call to raise money. He was beheaded in 1641, and within eight years Laud and King Charles lost their lives in the same manner. It is a credit to the strong faith of the Presbyterians, most of who came to the Lord during the revival that they refused to take the Oath even though they realised the penalty they faced.
A much bigger problem for the Settlers arose on the 23rd October 1641. For whatever reason, anger over the Plantation, economic problems, fears of an invasion from Parliamentarian forces, taking advantage of the Civil War in England or anger against the Protestants; some of the Catholic gentry carried out a rebellion. The plan to take Dublin Castle by surprise did not work, but the rebellion in Ulster was much more successful. Many of the Settlers were slaughtered, large numbers of homes and farms were burned and people were driven out into the countryside naked, during one of the coldest winters on record, with many dying as a result. It appears that about 30% of the Settlers in Ulster lost their lives, with many more losing their homes. This bloody rampage was probably set off by something; possibly a brutal repression of the rebellion in some part of Ireland, but whatever happened countless atrocities were perpetrated against the people of Ulster, many of them recorded in thirty-two volumes of depositions which are in Trinity College, Dublin.
In addition to the massacres of Protestants, there were also massacres of Catholics. However, the Catholics were the initial instigators so it is no surprise that Protestants in Ulster remembered October 23rd for two hundred years after the event. Remembering atrocities and lack of forgiveness occur time and time again in the history of Ireland and Northern Ireland. To add to their problems, many died from disease which spread as a result of dead bodies not being buried quickly enough.
In February 1642 the first of 10,000 troops arrived from Scotland to quell the rebellion. These troops were Presbyterians, and as such they set up the first Presbytery in Ireland, composed of five regimental chaplains and four elders. After the rebellion there was a great dearth of ministers, so some had to be sent from Scotland even though they had a shortage themselves.
The Long Parliament called the Westminster Assembly in 1643. This body of Episcopal, Presbyterian and Independent divines came together to agree on a form of Church Government that was more in line with that laid out in the Bible. This was to be common to England, Scotland and Ireland. In the same year the Solemn League and Covenant was signed between Scotland and England, which agreed to bring the religions of the three countries into as much uniformity as possible. In 1644 ministers went to Ulster from Scotland to administer the Covenant. It was widely accepted, spreading Presbyterianism all over the area. It also brought a second Reformation to the area.
In 1645 Parliament sent over three governors of the province of Ulster. By 1647 there were 30 permanent ministers, as well as the regimental chaplains. In 1649 Charles was executed, much to the horror of the Presbytery which had a ‘Representation’ read from every pulpit condemning the event. This clearly did not find favour with Oliver Cromwell, who was now firmly in control of Parliament. He arrived in Ireland later that year to quickly put down the remains of the Royalist forces.
Because of the Presbytery’s support of the exiled Charles II, who they thought was still the legitimate government, whatever the excesses of his father; they were told that they had to give the ‘Engagement Oath,’ which involved their renouncing allegiance to Charles. The Irish Presbyterian ministers refused to take the Oath; as a result they were thrown into prison unless they had already hidden in the woods or fled to Scotland. A few ministers continued to hold services in secluded spots. Parliament sent over in their stead Baptist and Independent ministers. In order to finally to remove the influence of the Presbyterian ministers, a proclamation was issued that leading Presbyterians of Antrim and Down would be removed to Munster. However, by this time Cromwell felt completely in control of his ‘kingdom’ and recognised that the Presbyterians in Ireland were peaceful, so he withdrew all restrictions on them; in fact, any minister could apply for a State endowment without any conditions attached.
During the Commonwealth the Presbyteries grew to five, and there were 80 congregations with seventy ministers. However, Cromwell died in 1658 and in 1660 Charles was invited back to take the throne. This perfidious monarch promised freedom of worship as a condition for his taking the throne, but almost immediately he brought persecution to all parts of his kingdom. Despite the suffering the Presbyterian ministers had experienced because of their support for Charles, the king brought persecution against them. Prelacy was re-introduced to Ireland, meetings of Presbytery were abolished with cavalry used to scatter the people if there was any sign of one being held. Ministers had to adhere to the Prayer Book and accept the bishops or be thrown out of their homes.
Jeremy Taylor, bishop of Down and Connor declared 36 churches vacant in one day; ministers were deposed from their parishes and forbidden to preach. Of 68 ministers only seven sold their principles. The 61 ministers who held out were ejected in 1661; the first of the three kingdoms to experience the persecution that was rife in the years ahead. In 1663 there was a rebellion planned in Dublin which included a Presbyterian minister. The plotters approached ministers in the north to join with them, but they received no support. The plot was ended through an informer, but on reading the papers of the conspirators, the authorities discovered that ministers in the north had been contacted. Seven were imprisoned in Carlingford Castle and others elsewhere, even though they had nothing to do with the plot. However, after a while they were allowed back to their churches. Bishop Leslie of Raphoe imprisoned four ministers for six years, just for being Presbyterians.
Despite the persecutions Presbyterian meetings did not stop. As in Scotland and England, the persecuted church met in secluded valleys and woods; wherever they could not be discovered. There were guards around and about to give warning of the approach of any enemy of the Church. By 1668 they became bolder and began to raise up rudimentary churches. The Government had found no proof against their loyalty, so were less and less inclined to support the persecution of the bishops. The people were still required by law to attend the Episcopal Church, but many refused and were brought before the bishops’ courts where they were heavily fined. In 1684 the Presbyterian churches were again closed and preaching prohibited. Again they had to have services in secret, and all the while many had to pay ruinous fines for not using the Prayer Book.
It was in these troubled times when many Presbyterians left Ireland for America, where they mainly settled in Maryland and Virginia. It was these men and women who brought Presbyterianism to America.
On the death of Charles in 1685 his brother James II came to the throne. James wanted Catholicism to rule in Ireland, so he appointed Tyrconnel, a Catholic, to head up the Government there. He put Catholics into the judiciary, the Privy Council and Municipal Corporations. Protestant officers in the army were replaced by Catholics and priests became chaplains. In 1688 James fled the country; raising an army in Ireland with the help of the French, he marched to Ulster. Meanwhile, William of Orange became king of England, although the Irish Parliament declared that James was still king. Many towns were captured, but Londonderry held out 105 days until relieved. In 1690 William beat James at the Battle of the Boyne, then James fled to France where he lived out the rest of his life.
All the tremendous work the Presbyterians had done to save Ireland from James and the Catholics should have deserved great favour, but sadly it was not to be. There was an opportunity at this time, with a Presbyterian king, for Episcopalians and Presbyterians to unite, but Episcopalians would have none of it. In 1692 the Presbytery sent a probationer to Hillsborough, but an archdeacon reported him for not using the Book of Common Prayer so he was arrested and imprisoned. Then later, the Irish House of Lords; Religious Committee declared that there should be no tolerance towards Presbyterians until the Test Act, which banned holding of public office unless they were a communicant of the Episcopal Church, was brought into force in Ireland. However, William would not support the bishops’ plans.
The bishops should have been worrying about their own diocese. The bishop of Down and Connor was removed for selling livings and ‘many other crimes’, an archdeacon was suspended for gross neglect of duty, the dean of Connor was removed for adultery etc. William did not change the laws that were responsible for the persecution of past years, but he did try to protect the Presbyterians from their enforcement. However, he was not able to stop all persecution, there being several instances in the years following right across Ireland.
Persecution usually brings growth in the Church and so it proved yet again. A letter written in 1712 reports that congregations in the north-west could be 1,500 or 1,800 strong, with the local Episcopal church having maybe seven attend services or even three. During this time the Presbyteries grew to nine.
In 1698 it became law that no young man could become a minister without signing the Westminster Confession of Faith. In 1703 a minister was deposed for Arianism; in fact, he was indicted for blasphemy and imprisoned for two years. In 1704 the bishops finally got what they wanted – the Test Act. By this act everyone who held a public office must take Communion in an Episcopal Church within three months of their appointment or they would lose their office. Considering the support that the Presbyterian Church had given to the Government in recent years this was an iniquitous act and few Presbyterians bowed the knee to it. In Londonderry, for instance, ten out of twelve Alderman and 14 out of 24 Burgesses were Presbyterians and all were removed. During the entire reign of Queen Anne (1702-14) Irish Presbyterians were downtrodden under the feet of the Episcopal Church. A Presbyterian was not even allowed to teach in a school. Landlords would often refuse to let properties to them or they would be charged higher rents. The press wrote dreadful articles against Presbyterians and the church did what it could to persecute them. In 1708 a minister who preached in Drogheda was imprisoned. In Antrim, Downpatrick and Rathfriland the doors of the Presbyterian churches were nailed shut.
George I made life easier for the poor Presbyterians. A Toleration Act was passed in 1718 which took away penalties for worshipping, but the Test Act remained. In 1705 trouble was brewing from within the Presbyterian Church. It began in an innocuous way with the forming of ‘The Belfast Society’. This was a clerical club for the discussion of theological and other matters. In 1719 there was a sermon in the club called ‘Religious Obedience founded on Personal Persuasion.’ This caused a furore amongst orthodox ministers, but the Synod failed to take a strong line which opened more doors to unorthodoxy. In July the following year a member of the Society refused to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith on his induction to a Belfast Church. The General Synod again did not deal with the situation in a firm manner, and instead of demanding all present to sign the Confession of Faith they asked all to. Nearly all signed, but a few did not, so from that time the parties became known as the Subscribers and the non-Subscribers. The controversy rumbled on for a few more years. In 1725 the non-Subscribers were all put into one Presbytery in Antrim and the following year they were banned from any Church Courts.
A loosening in the orthodoxy of the Presbyterian Church was not only happening in Ireland, but also in Scotland. This soon developed into full-blown ‘Moderatism,’ which was to be the scourge of Scotland, until the turn of the century. It was a very liberal version of Presbyterianism which believed more in morality than Jesus. Ebenezer Erskine was dismissed from his Scottish congregation for saying that the Scottish church required reform. This led to him and some others leaving the Church and setting up their own ‘Associate Presbytery.’ They became known as Seceders and men who supported sound evangelical doctrine.
In 1746 the people of Lylehill near Templepatrick required a new church and minister, and a Seceder from Dunfermline was appointed. Over the next few years Seceder congregations popped up around Ulster. There was a split amongst the Seceders in Scotland over an oath, so they became the Burghers and anti-Burghers; and their congregations in Ireland had to also choose which side they were on, even though they had nothing to do with the oath.
The next fifty years saw Moderatism taking over the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. The Synod’s theological students went to Glasgow College, a centre for Moderatism, for training; and new ministers no longer had to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith. As time progressed, the stalwarts of the Church retired; giving way to these new ‘Moderate’ ministers who eventually became the majority in the Synod, resulting in the ‘Moderate’ or ‘New Light’ doctrines gaining complete ascendancy. The fire had left the Church. There was little evangelisation and few new congregations. Fortunately, the people had the Seceder churches to fall back on, as they still had the fire in their bellies.
As far as the Episcopal Church was concerned, there was not even one minister in each county who preached evangelical doctrines, and scarcely one bishop who cared about the spiritual interest of his flock; one of them was even a Unitarian. The whole of Protestantism in Ireland was in a dire state with the possible exception of the Seceders.
Due to the persecution of Presbyterians by Church, Government and Landlords, and due to some poor harvests, thousands of Presbyterians left the North. It is estimated that 12,000 left for America every year from around 1729. Indeed, it is estimated that from 1768-73 the North lost 25% of its trading cash to America, as well as 25% of its manufacturing. Most of these emigrants were Presbyterians. Ironically, these Northern Irish were a significant force in the American War of Independence.
Around 1780 some of the persecuting laws against the Presbyterians were withdrawn, such as fines imposed for ministers marrying a member of their congregation. In 1778 most of Britain’s troops were in America, so the Northern Irish started a volunteer force to protect her shores. This group became very popular, growing to 100,000 men. This body soon realised that it held a lot of potential power, as the Government could not really ignore such an armed body while it was fighting a war in America. In February 1782 the representatives from 143 corps, most of them Presbyterians, met in Dungannon Episcopal Church. They voted for an independent Irish Parliament, a demand which was granted a few months later, and for 18 years there was a form of Home Rule. The experiment was a complete failure due to the corrupt nature of the body.
Disaffection had been growing for years in Ireland, and people were encouraged by the revolutions in America and France, and the fact the Volunteers were armed and trained. The ‘Society for United Irishmen’ was formed, and each parish organised. In June 1798 Wolfe Tone and others began the insurrection. Three counties in the North were involved, but it was a fiasco; the whole thing ending there in one or two days. In the South it was a much more bloody affair. In some places it was an ecclesiastical war with Roman Catholics carrying out atrocities against the Protestants. Eight out of over 200 members of the Synod of Ulster were implicated in the rebellion, with one being executed and the rest were imprisoned or fled to America. No Seceder minister was implicated in the rising. Once the insurrection had been put down a legislative union with Great Britain was hurried forward, so that in 1801 the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was ruled from one Parliament.
1799-1801 was a time of general revival around Ireland. Accounts in ‘History of Methodism in Ireland’ by Crookshank records many instances of the Lord pouring out His Glory. Unfortunately, the accounts do not cover the north or east of Northern Ireland, probably because the Methodist missionaries in those areas did not keep diaries. I have only included on the website instances which are fairly clear, but there were many other places where revival came; where there is not a clear account in the book I have omitted it from the website.
The Methodist preachers were indefatigable. Apart from John Wesley, who came to Ireland 21 times, spending 31/2 years of his life there, other men constantly toured the island. Men like Adam Averall (previously a Church of Ireland minister) and Gideon Ouseley travelled all over Ireland year after year, although they tended to concentrate on the south more. Unfortunately, the accounts of Averall’s ministry in the north are so brief that it is difficult to tell if revival occurred, although I am certain it did.
The tide began to turn from about 1810. In 1815 a new Academical Institution was opened where people wanting to become ministers in the Presbyterian Church could go to be trained. A thoroughly orthodox man taught Divinity and Church History, which was a blessed change from the Moderatism of Glasgow College.
Within the ‘New Light’ movement was a section of people who were Arians (did not believe in the Trinity). By 1818 Arianism was declining, so their leaders brought over a J Smethurst from England to bolster their cause. In the course of an itinerant tour he came to speak at Killyleagh, where Henry Cooke was the Presbyterian Minister. Cooke went to the meeting and then invited Smethurst to his church to hear him refute Arianism. A great crowd gathered in the church to hear Cooke tear Arianism apart, and announce that he would follow Smethurst from village to village, refuting his doctrines as soon as they were uttered. Smethurst finally gave up and returned to England. For the next seven years Cooke attacked Arianism at the Annual Synod. In 1822 he pointed out that Arianism was in the Academical Institution, but at this stage he was a lone voice.
Over the next few years the debate heated up until the Synod of 1827 in Strabane Church. Here Cooke asked for every member of the Synod to declare if he believed in the Trinity or not. After a heated debate of over two days the motion was passed, and each member had to declare himself. 117 ministers and 18 elders supported the Trinity, two ministers declared that they did not believe in the Trinity and eight abstained. The following year the remainder of the members declared their position, with four ministers and fourteen elders opposing the Trinity.
The following year Cooke got a resolution passed that all candidates for ministry be examined for their beliefs and any Arians rejected. At the Synod following the Arians fought back, but they were defeated by Cooke. In the end, 17 ministers split away to form the ‘Remonstrant Synod’ and Arianism was eradicated from the Ulster Synod. The Arian Synod declined over the years until virtually nothing was left, but over the next ten years the Ulster Synod, now with a majority of evangelicals, grew more than in the last 100 years. In 1836 it became a pre-requisite that all ministers and elders sign up to the Westminster Confession of Faith.
1829 brought the first Temperance Society in Europe. An Irish Presbyterian Minister came from America and mentioned the Temperance Societies there to a minister friend. Since the consumption of intoxicating liquors in the three kingdoms had doubled in ten years, the minister immediately saw the vision behind the movement and started a Society. This movement grew and grew, having a tremendous effect on the drinking habits of many.
In 1840 the Ulster Synod and the Seceders (which had united in 1818) Synod combined. As Moderatism had been eradicated, they could now join together again. The ministers and elders from the Ulster Synod left May Street Church and those of the Secession Synod left Linen Hall Street, and at some point they joined up, walking side by side to Rosemary Street Church. Present at the service were three well-known ministers from the mother Church of Scotland, including McCheyne, who was soon to die. One of the first things the Assembly did was to establish a Foreign Mission to India. Neither body had sent any missionaries abroad before, just internally in Ireland. This was followed by Jewish and Colonial Missions.
In 1846 a Presbyterian minister, Dr Edgar, was on an evangelistic tour of the South when he noticed the devastation of the potato blight. He wrote to appeal to the people of the North to help and thousands of pounds were raised to help those who were starving.
In 1853 it was decided to create a fund for the building of churches and Manses. (Ten years earlier the Free Church did the same thing in Scotland with remarkable results.) David Hamilton was in charge of raising the money. It was originally suggested that £5,000 be raised, but in the end the amount raised was over £100,000.
In 1859 a great revival came to Ulster. It came at the same time as a revival in America and was followed by revivals in Wales, Scotland and England. About 100,000 came to the Lord in Ulster. There is a report on the revival on this website under Revival in N Ireland 1859.
In 1869 the Irish Church Act disestablished the Episcopal Church and also took away the money that was used to give a stipend to ministers. At that time, the ministers were offered their stipend till they died, or a capital sum immediately. At the Assembly meeting all but there ministers agreed to take the capital sum and give it to the Church so that future ministers could be paid out of it. This was a remarkably self-sacrificing action.
By the 1880s the Presbyterian Church was flourishing. Presbyterians had contributed massively to the prosperity of Ulster. The difference in prosperity was very noticeable to travellers as they went from South to North. The situation can be seen clearly through the payment of taxes; Ulster paid 46% of all of Ireland’s taxes.
The Six Mile Water stretches from Larne on the east coast of Ulster to Antrim on the shores of Lough Neagh. The state of religion in Ulster at the start of the seventeenth century was dreadful. The Reformation had failed due to the Bible not being translated into Gaelic until 1602, and to the ministers who were appointed being of poor quality.
During the first twenty years of the century private landowners sold and rented their land to immigrants from Scotland and England; with most of the Scots being Presbyterians and most, from both nations, were from the lower echelons of society; indeed, many were felons.
A few Presbyterians were appointed ministers in the district. In 1613 Edward Brice was appointed to Ballycarry; Robert Cunningham was appointed to Holywood in 1615 and in 1619 John Ridge, an English Puritan, became vicar of Antrim. Other Presbyterian ministers came from Scotland from 1621 to avoid persecution there. Robert Blair was vicar at Bangor; George Dunbar vicar at Larne; Josiah Welch (Welsh) was at Templepatrick, and John Livingstone at Killinchy (details of their lives can be seen on this website at each of the towns mentioned). In Ulster, at this time, these ministers were beyond the reach of the persecution of James I, but this situation would change later. They were all nominally Anglicans, but in their hearts they were Presbyterians; believers in rule by Presbytery, rather than bishop, and in a modified liturgy.
James Glendinning was the minister of Carnmoney and a lecturer at Carrickfergus, the largest town in the North of Ireland at that time. He got quite a reputation as a preacher, so Robert Blair went over to hear him. He wrote, "About that time I heard of one James Glendinning, lecturer at Carrickfergus, who got no small applause there, for a learned man. I longed to hear him, and in a morning I passed from Bangor to Carrickfergus by water. Hearing him, I perceived he did but trifle citing learned authors whom he had never seen nor read. After sermon I waited on him and communed with him, freely asking him if he thought he did edify that people? He was quickly convinced, and told me he had a vicarage in the country, to which he would retire himself quickly." Glendinning was a man of limited gifts, and Robert Blair thought that he was incapable of ministering to the sophisticated people of Carrickfergus.Taking Blair’s advice Glendinning moved to a country parish, Oldstone, just south of Antrim, where he was amongst his own kind.
In Oldstone he preached the law and the wrath of God if the law was broken; a writer of the time commented that this was about all he was capable of preaching. It was not on the face of it, a very good mix for the Lord to pour out His blessings, but pour them out He did in 1625. (I believe that when the atmosphere of revival is present subjects can be preached which would not be successful at other times.) Multitudes became convicted of their sin through his teaching, with “a dozen in one day carried out as dead.” The preaching of the law opened peoples’ eyes to their sinfulness, with many crying out “what must I do to be saved?” Many lay on the floor, convicted of their sin, but not knowing how to find Jesus. However, Glendinning could not apply the Gospel to the sin-burdened hearts of the colonists. He could awaken them to their sin, but not show them the way to forgiveness through Jesus.
Fortunately, Josiah Welch had recently come to Ulster and he was skilled in doing what Glendinning couldn’t, so he went to help with the joyous work. Sadly, the success of the work went to Glendinning’s head and he began to go into doctrinal error. His friends sent for Robert Blair to try to get him back on track. Blair wrote, ''The day being then at the shortest, and the journey considerable, I made such haste to obey their desire; that I stayed not so much as to break my fast, and yet, ere I could reach them, the night was fallen." Glendinning and his wife were in the care of a religious family, as their own house had been burned down some time previously. He refers to his vain efforts to convince Glendinning of his errors and foibles, concluding, "he, falling from error to error, did run away at last to see the seven Churches of Asia."
The revival spread from Antrim into Down and even beyond the borders of these counties. John Livingstone gives an account of the effect of the revival. "Many of those religious professors had been both ignorant and profane, and for debt and want, and worse causes, had left Scotland; yet the Lord was pleased by His word to work such change. I do not think there were more lively and experienced Christians anywhere than were these at that time in Ireland, and that in good numbers, and many of them persons of a good outward condition in the world.” All classes were changed, and the reformation of society was noticeable for some time. Part of the reformation was a desire of the converts to learn more about God, so a Monthly Lecture Meeting was started in Antrim.
The Meeting was held on the last Friday of each month. Ministers came from Antrim and Down, including Welch, Blair, Hamilton, Cunningham, Dunbar, and later, Livingstone. They met at Antrim Castle on the Thursday to discuss matters that concerned them, in effect a Presbytery meeting. Then on the Friday they taught at what was really a Bible school. There was prayer and fasting, with four sermons at the summer meetings and three in the winter, and crowds came from all over to hear the Word of God. These meetings carried on until at least 1634, helping spread the Gospel through the whole country. These Meetings proved to be vital, in the long term, for the continuing faith of the people of Ulster. When persecution removed from them all their leaders, they were able to continue in small groups, teaching and encouraging one another.
Communion was usually served in a neighbouring parish on the Sunday following the Meetings. This was a three-day event, with preparation on the Saturday, Communion on the Sunday and Thanksgiving on the Monday. John Livingstone writes about the Communion, "I have known them that have come several miles from their own houses to communions; to the Saturday sermon and spent the whole Saturday night in several companies, sometimes a minister being with them, sometimes themselves alone in conference and prayer; waited on the public ordinances the whole Sabbath, and spent the Sabbath, night likewise; and yet at the Monday sermon not troubled with sleepiness . . In these days it was no great difficulty for a minister to preach or pray in public or private, such was the hunger of the hearers." People flocked to these services. Josiah Welch wrote as late as 1632 that he had around fifteen hundred at the services.
In the midst of revival there was, as usual, persecution. Attacks came from conforming Anglican clergy, Catholic friars, Baptists and an Armenian. It was usually Blair who went forth to defend the revival and he always won the argument. Disputes also arose over the manifestations that occurred in some of the services, especially in Ballycarry. Most of the ministers were against the manifestations; wanting to conduct the services in an orderly manner. Now some of these manifestations will undoubtedly have come out of the flesh, others from the Holy Spirit, but they did not recognise these as such. Many were ‘slain in the Spirit’ and one observer notes, "I have seen them myself stricken and swoon with the word — yea, a dozen in one day carried out of doors as dead…the power of God smiting their hearts for sin." Blair attributed the manifestations to the work of Satan. “In the midst of the Public Worship these persons fell a-mourning and some of them were afflicted with pangs like convulsions, and daily the number of them increased. At first both the pastor and people, pitying them, had charitable thoughts, thinking it probable that it was the work of the Lord; but thereafter in conference they could find nothing to confirm these charitable thoughts —. they could neither perceive any sense of their sinfulness, nor any panting after a Saviour. So the minister of the place did write some of his brethren to come thither and with him to examine the matter. Coming and conferring with these persons, we comprehended it to be a mere delusion and cheat of Satan to slander and disgrace the work of the Lord."
One of Archbishop Laud’s followers, Henry Leslie, Dean of Down, wrote in 1631 about the revival, not surprisingly in an uncomplimentary way. "The people in that place are grown into such frenzies that the like is not to be found among Anabaptists, for there is set abroad a new piece of divinity that no man can be counted converted unless he feel the pains of his new birth such as St Paul felt. So that at every sermon, 40 or so people, for the most part women, fall down in the church in a trance; and are (as it is supposed) senseless, but in their fits they are grievously afflicted with convulsions, tremblings, unnatural motions. After they awake they confess that they have seen devils (as who may not see a factious and a cheating devil among them) and from thenceforward they put on such a mark of austerity that they are never seen to laugh, and never talk of anything but God, though so idly that they always take his name in vain." One needs to take this statement with a pinch of salt as Leslie is trying to turn things to his own advantage.
Robert Echlin, bishop of Down, though at first supportive of the Presbyterian ministers, changed his attitude towards them. The Irish archbishop, James Ussher was also supportive of them; refusing to bow under pressure mounting against them.
In 1630 Blair went to Scotland where he visited John Livingstone. They ended up at Kirk of Shotts where they conducted a service which became known as the Kirk of Shotts Revival. (I believe that the revival here spread to a significant part of Scotland, but I can find no proof.) Two Scottish ministers accused them of ‘exciting people to ecstasies and teaching the necessity of bodily pains to attest the reality of the new birth’ and reported them to Leslie, who passed the accusations on to Echlin. In late summer 1631 Blair, Livingstone, Dunbar and Welch were suspended. Their friends appealed to Ussher who ordered Echlin to withdraw the suspension. The case was appealed to London where the intolerant Laud was Archbishop of Canterbury. Through Laud’s influence Blair, Welch, Livingstone and Dunbar were brought to trial, but they refused to conform to Episcopacy so they were deposed from ministry in 1632. Blair went to London to appeal to the King and Charles ordered the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Wentworth, to retry the case.
The four ministers continued to preach until Blair met with Wentworth in the latter half of 1634. Wentworth spoke against the Church of Scotland and upbraided Blair. The situation became so dark for the Presbyterians of Ulster that they began to look towards America to escape persecution. Livingstone and another were commissioned to go to America to find a place for settlement, but whilst in Plymouth some things deterred them from completing their mission and they returned home. For political reasons, in May 1634, Wentworth instructed Echlin to withdraw the suspension of the four men for six months.
During this time the ministers carried on their work in any place they could. Welch stood at the back door of his house to preach to the people in his house and in the garden. The bishop of Derry appealed to Wentworth as to the danger of allowing Presbyterians to preach and they were suspended again in November. Soon after this Welch and Echlin died and Dunbar returned to Scotland.
On the 11th/12th August 1636 the bishop of Down tried Hamilton, Cunningham., Ridge and Calvert at the old Belfast Parish Church in front of bishops, nobles, gentry and clergy. Brice died before he could be tried. They were all banned from preaching in the diocese for the sin of not accepting Episcopacy. In response to their sentence Cunningham said, “I have now lived these twenty years amongst you in this kingdom, serving the Lord in His holy ministry, and thought so to have spent the rest of my days, which cannot be very long, for my body is very crazed, in the same employment. My doctrine and life for that time are known to most here present. I appeal to all their consciences if they can say anything against me in either of them. Yea, I ever kept me close to the commission of my Lord. But now I am required to receive impositions upon my ministry which are against my conscience. I rather lay down my ministry at the feet of my Lord and Saviour Christ, of whom I did receive it, than to live with an evil conscience in the free liberty of it.”
In desperation, 140 built a ship at Groomsport to take them beyond persecution to America. They sailed in November in the ‘Eagle Wing’, but a fierce storm damaged their ship so much they had to return. Blair, Livingstone and others, having failed to get to America, went instead to Scotland. So the Presbyterians in Ulster had all their leaders taken from them, but their faith sustained them.
The revival went on for at least ten years, and may have gone on beyond 1636. When you think that most revivals in the UK have lasted less than a year, the effect of the Six Mile Water Revival must have been very great. Through it Presbyterianism was firmly rooted in Ulster and despite extreme provocation and persecution it lasts to this day
Much of the above was taken from ‘The Six Mile Water Revival of 1625’ by W D Baillie, published by The Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland.