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'When Ulster joined Ireland': anti-popery, presbyterian radicalism and Irish republicanism in the 1790s.

The birth of Irish republicanism in the 1790s has long been celebrated by nationalists as a brief inspirational moment when Irishmen of all religious persuasions joined together in opposition to British rule. The United Irish movement -- the radical coalition of Protestant and Catholic reformers which emerged in the wake of the French Revolution -- represents a unique departure from the confessional alignments that have shaped modern Irish history. Given the apparent intractability of sectarian identifications in Northern Ireland it is not surprising that the juncture `when Ulster joined Ireland'(1) has retained its fascination, nor that the Presbyterian radicals who constituted the backbone of organized republicanism for most of that pivotal decade have been annexed by later generations of nationalists. Following the partition of the island, the 1798 rebellion was cited as proof that Ulster Unionism was an artificial obstacle to Irish unity, and its supporters actually republicans in heavy disguise.(2) In nationalist polemic the Presbyterian martyrs William Orr and Henry Joy McCracken joined the mythical Red Branch Knights and the O'Neills as exemplars of Ulster's essential Irishness, a refutation of the lie that `the Protestants of the North are not members of the national tradition'.(3)

By the 1960s this crude nationalism was losing its potency, as the United Irishmen were subject to detailed research by professional historians for the first time. As early as 1965 a suggestive article by Maureen Wall portrayed the alliance of Protestant reformers and Catholic emancipators as a loveless marriage of convenience, plagued by the persistence of suspicion and distrust on both sides.(4) Following Thomas Pakenham's The Year of Liberty (1969), scholars emphasized the continuing depth of sectarian antagonisms in revolutionary Ireland, demonstrating the gulf which separated the enlightened, cosmopolitan ideals of the middle-class reformers of Belfast and Dublin from the `gut Catholic nationalism' which mobilized the plebeian Defenders.(5) In Partners in Revolution (1982), Marianne Elliott portrayed the United Irishmen as `real whigs', rooted in the older `colonial' variety of nationalism, a verdict confirmed by her definitive biography of Wolfe Tone.(6) Elliott's pioneering research also extended to the radical underworld of the Defenders, where she found French revolutionary slogans grafted onto a more conventional, Catholic revanchism, a volatile compound later analysed by Thomas Bartlett, Nancy Curtin, Jim Smyth and others.(7) By 1989, when the bicentenary of the French Revolution inaugurated a wave of anniversary conferences, historians were increasingly aware of the profound contradictions at the heart of Irish republicanism -- a creed which apparently combined a new secular language of citizenship with old religious animosities. The United Irish radicals, it was generally agreed, has failed to replace denominational allegiances with `the common name of Irishman'; the divisions within the movement and the sectarian character of Defenderism revealed that republicanism rested on `an unstable foundation of conflicting aspirations'.(8)

As we approach the bicentenary of the 1798 rebellion, however, the historiographical wheel is beginning to turn once more. A counter-revisionist reaction, crystallized by the controversial celebrations held to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, has turned historiographical fashion back towards an explicitly present-centred and pro-republican reading of the modern Irish past.(9), Thus, Kevin Whelan, one of the most distinguished Irish historians of the current generation, expresses the hope that the 1990s may see the completion of the United Irish project, the creation of `a non-sectarian, democratic and inclusive politics adequately representing the Irish people in all their inherited complexities'.(10) A new consensus has established itself with surprising speed: recent scholars agree on the secular, Francophone nature of the United Irish ideology, the depth of popular politicization and the integrity of the national coalition. The blame for the inter-communal violence of the 1790s is laid squarely at the door of the Duplin Castle administration, the Orange gentry and the British state itself. Evidence of sectarian motivations within the republican movement is dismissed -- too hastily -- as `a polemical, post-rebellion falsification',(11) and revisionist historians are chided for slavishly following the reductionist, popish-plot interpretation of 1798 peddled by loyalist propagandists such as Richard Musgrave.(12) The centrepiece of the new interpretation is an ambitious attempt to reclaim the Wexford insurrection by reasserting its `forward looking, democratic dimension'. And, finally, we are urged to emphasize `the essential unity of the 1798 insurrection: what happened in Wexford was of a piece with what happened in Antrim and Down'.(13)

The following article turns back to Antrim and Down to explore the development of Presbyterian disaffection before 1798 and to re-examine the conversion of the northern radicals to the Catholic cause. More specifically, it examines the central role of the Presbyterian clergy in the articulation and diffusion of republican ideology, a role generally acknowledged both by contemporaries and historians. In the columns of the Belfast News-Letter and the Northern Star, Presbyterian congregations, Volunteer companies and Masonic lodges thanked local clergymen for preaching sermons `wherein the nature of civil liberty and civil government were explained'.(14) In 1797, the Revd William Steel Dickson of Portaferry delivered evening lectures which, according to one hostile source, `were calculated for no other purpose but to disseminate republican principles'.(15) A year later, when Thomas Ledlie Brich was tried by court martial after the Battle of Ballynahinch, one of the charges brought against him was that his preaching and prayers were of a seditious nature, `setting forth from scripture prophecy the extension of the redeemer's kingdom over the whole earth'.(16) And when the long-awaited rising finally began, many of these political evangelists did not hesitate to practice what they had preached. A careful, though far from exhaustive, trawl of the sources suggests that as many as sixty-three Presbyterian ministers and clerical students may have been involved in seditious activity between 1795 and 1798.(17) By drawing on a study of the polemical literature of the various factions within the Presbyterian church, this essay seeks to further our understanding of radical ideology in two ways.

First, it attempts to establish the religious framework within which radical political thought developed. Over the last twenty years, our picture of republican ideology has been transformed, as the United Irishmen have been restored to their eighteenth-century context. The existing literature, however, has focused overwhelmingly on the ideological contributions of Lockeian contract theory and the `real whig', or classical republican, tradition.(18) That these political languages, to which we might add the myth of the ancient constitution and Jacobinism, can all be found in United Irish propaganda is indisputable. Equally important, however, are the theological and ecclesiological allegiances which sustained, complemented and overlapped with these `secular' patterns of thought. British and American scholars have shown the importance of religion in shaping eighteenth-century ideologies; indeed, they have demonstrated that the Commonwealth paradigm itself was directed against priestcraft and clerical influence, as well as the political structures of the Whig oligarchy.(19) In Ireland, despite some promising research by A.T.Q. Stewart and others, these lines of enquiry have not been pursued.(20)

Secondly, this essay tries to elucidate the place of anti-popery in the development of Presbyterian radicalism. The persistence of traditional perceptions of the Church of Rome as oppressive and degenerate is now generally accepted, but their significance has often been underestimated. Thus, Marianne Elliott recognizes `lingering Protestant prejudices' among late eighteenth-century reformers, but highlights their `growing conviction of the fundamental injustice of excluding Irish Catholics from the political life of the nation'.(21) In Nancy Curtin's view, anti-Catholicism was `suppressed, if not entirely eradicated' in the attempts to create a union of Irishmen. While David Miller drew our attention to Ulster millenarianism in a pioneering article published twenty years ago, he preserved a distinction between the popular prophetic Calvinism of the rural farmers and the rationalist philosophy of the revolutionary elite. And in a similar vein, Jim Smyth has observed ironically that the promotion of politicized prophecies by the Northern Star came as `strange advice' from an organization which prided itself on having rejected superstition.(22) In fact, as this article attempts to demonstrate, biblical revelation and enlightenment rationalism were not only compatible, but also intimately related.


Ulster Presbyterianism in the late eighteenth century was divided along both theological and organizational lines. By far the greatest number of congregations -- about 180 -- belonged to the General Synod of Ulster, established in 1690. Like its mother church in Scotland, the Synod was originally Calvinist in theology and had adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith as its official creed. The distinctive religious identity of the Scots in Ulster was derived not so much from theology or liturgy, however, but from their form of church government. There was little room in this tradition for the emotional appeal of the evangelical and revivalist brands of Protestantism which emphasized the experience of `new birth'. Instead, the Presbyterian polity, with its democratic committees, popularly elected clergy, and its insistence that church and state constituted two separate, self-governing spheres, was regarded as the hallmark of a true, scriptural church. It was only in the aftermath of the 1798 rebellion that evangelical preachers first established a foothold in Presbyterian Ulster.(23)

Between the 1720s and the 1820s the General Synod was divided over the question of subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith.(24) Objections to the requirement that all ministers sign the Confession were first raised by the Belfast Society, a coterie of minister and laymen founded by the distinguished divine, John Abernethy, which discussed such issues as the rights of conscience and nature of church authority, the philosophical foundations of the Christian religion, and the twin dangers of superstition and enthusiasm. With the benefit of hindsight it can be seen that these enquiries were part of a wider shift away from orthodox Calvinism towards a more latitudinarian position. During the 1720s, the machinery of the church was paralysed for seven years as the exponents of this `New Light' divinity argued that the practice of subscription of the Confession had no scriptural foundation and infringed upon the fundamental right of private judgement. This first convulsion was ended by the erection of an independent, non-subscribing body, the Presbytery of Antrim, in 1726. The New Light continued to spread within the Synod, however, with the result that by the 1770s over two-thirds of its fourteen presbyteries had quietly dropped the rules on subscription.(25)

The case for non-subscription was structured around the rights of individual conscience. At the centre of Abernethy's theology was `a self-determining power' or `a power of choosing or refuting', which he defined as `a liberty of mind, of will, and conscience, whereby men are not under a foreign yoke, but restored to themselves, to rule over their own spirits, the inferior affections being subjected to the sovereignty of reason and conscience'.(26) Salvation lay not in conformity to articles of faith, but in the scrutiny of scripture and in personal conviction.(27) If these beliefs were rooted in the original Reformation impulse, they were also nurtured by the rationalism of early Enlightenment thought. The non-subscribers were deeply indebted to John Locke's classic defense of religious toleration, which had contended on grounds of scripture, natural rights and human psychology that neither church nor state had the power to compel professions of religious belief. They drew further inspiration from the fierce controversy over ecclesiastical authority sparked off in 1717 by Bishop Hoadly's radical interpretation of the text `My kingdom is not of this world' (John 18:26). In his efforts to legitimate the Erastian supervision of a Tory church by a Whig government, Hoadly took the view that Christ had appointed no judges, either civil or ecclesiastical, over the consciences of his people. Pressed to their logical conclusion, his arguments undermined the intellectual foundations of the union of church and state; more immediately, they supplied vital ammunition for the non-subscribers in their struggle against the Synod of Ulster.(28)

On the face of it, then, the subscription controversy turned on the conflict between the right of private judgement and the authority of the church courts. To the Old Light or pro-subscription party, however, it seemed that opposition to man-made creeds arose from the heterodox notions regarding the doctrine of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ which were then surfacing across the Irish Sea. Such fears were largely unfounded: in Ireland, doctrinal differences were neither as well-defined nor as public as in England.(29) The language of the nonsubscribers was certainly Arminian in tone, laying great stress on the individuals's capacity for moral improvement, and placing sincerity of belief rather than the redemptive work of Christ at the centre of their theology.(30) Yet Abernethy and his nonsubscribing colleagues gave repeated assurances of their soundness on the Trinity, and while later generations did incline towards heterodox views, it was not until 1820 that a distinct, Arian party of around thirty-five ministers appeared in the Synod. In the eighteenth century, the progress of the New Light concealed a diversity of theological views: heterodoxy, as one Calvinist leader later commented, had been known by `defect rather than declaration'.(31)

At another level, the battle lines drawn up over the subscription issue reflected profound social and cultural divisions within the Presbyterian population. Opposition to the Westminster Confession began with the Belfast Society, and the non-subscribing party always drew its support from the wealthier meeting-houses in towns like Belfast, Londonderry, Newry, Armagh, Strabane and Dromore.(32) In the countryside, meanwhile, orthodoxy remained largely unchallenged, and congregations barred their doors to preachers suspected of heresy. The New Light message was pitched primarily at polite society; the ideal minister according to the Ulster-born philosopher, Francis Hutcheson, must be a man of learning, manners and taste, `who not only knows books but men and good company'. Benevolence, freedom of enquiry and the pursuit of virtue were the keynotes of New Light teaching; doctrinal disputation was frowned upon. Unfortunately, as Hutcheson noted, the populace was drawn to those preachers who `use the most violent action and gestures; or such as declaim most against superiors in Church and State, and shew the warmest zeal about little things'.(33)

At the other end of the theological spectrum stood the Synod's two conservative offshoots, the Seceders and the small Reformed Presbytery (whose members were popularly known as the Covenanters). These bodies had their origins in Scottish schisms, and both combined a rigid orthodoxy in doctrinal matters with uncompromising opposition to episcopacy and Erastianism in the state church. They began to flourish in Ireland in the middle decades of the century as the New Light party demonstrated its power and influence. Particularly strong among recent scots immigrants and along the Ulster frontier, they were able to exploit popular alienation from the polite Presbyterianism of the non-subscribers and resentment against the wealthy oligarchies who managed ecclesiastical affairs in an increasing number of congregations.(34) They played upon popular fears of heterodoxy, cataloguing that `medley of errors, commonly called New Light'.(35) And while the Synod looked with distaste upon the traditional festivity of Presbyterian worship, the Seceders and Covenanters were more in tune with lay feeling.(36)

These two sects also fed on popular attachment to the militant Presbyterian programme set out in the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643, which called for the extirpation of popery and prelacy, and the extension of the Presbyterian revolution throughout the three kingdoms. Whereas the non-subscribers were to all intents and purposes independents in matters of ecclesiastical polity, both the Secession and the Reformed Presbytery confirmed their belief in the divine origins of Presbyterian church government. Subscribing to the doctrine of the two kingdoms associated with the Scottish reformer Andrew Melville, they held that Jesus Christ alone was governor of the Church and denounced the attempts of statesmen to regulate religious affairs as infringements of His kingly rights.(37) At the Glorious Revolution, complained one Irish Covenanter, `the Government did usurp and arrogate an Erastian and Antichristian Supremacy, encroaching upon the prerogative of the Lord Jesus Christ, his incommunicable Headship and Kingship'.(38) Those who remained faithful to the Covenanting ideal therefore censured the Church of Scotland for submitting to the Erastian control of an uncovenanted king and settling for Presbyterianism in one kingdom. The Synod of Ulster was likewise criticized for its betrayal of the Covenant and its acceptance of the regium donum, a small subsidy granted by the crown.

Despite their small numbers, the Seceding and Covenanting missionaries sent from Scotland built up considerable popular support. In the absence of Old Light leadership within the Synod, the defence of orthodoxy fell to these sects. By 1792 the Secession possessed forty-six ministers, but each served several congregations, and they commonly attracted a gathering of `occasional hearers' in addition to their own people.(39) The Secession, moreover, was the most rapidly expanding sector in the Presbyterian church, and its ministers kept a high profile. The Reformed Presbyterians, on the other hand, could muster only six regular clergymen, but they too collected large crowds in the countryside, and in the revolutionary crisis of the 1790s their potent amalgam of democracy and sectarianism would mobilize larger sections of the population.(40) Thomas Emmet recalled that the Covenanters became `the most active promoters' of the United Irish system in Antrim and Down, and when Thomas Russell attempted to call out the northern rebels in 1803, the core of his supporters came from Covenanting congregations.(41)

How were these theological and ecclesiological beliefs translated into political commitments? When the duke of Rutland travelled north on his viceregal tour of 1784, he observed that although the Presbyterians were divided into `many sects -- Old Light, New Light, Seceders, etc.', they were `in general very factious -- great levellers and republicans'.(42) The Lord-Lieutenant's comments were typical of the blanket hostility of a landed elite who automatically associated Presbyterianism with political disaffection and social subversion. A closer examination reveals that although the overwhelming majority of Presbyterians were in favour of parliamentary reform, there were profound disagreements over the question of Catholic enfranchisement, and some Seceding ministers had even identified themselves publicly with the government. These differences of opinion were accentuated in the 1790s -- though the more cautious reformism of many Ulster ministers stopped well short of the overwhelming endorsement of the status quo offered by their brethren in Scotland.(43) Of the minority of Presbyterian clergymen who made the transition from constitutional agitation to armed rebellion, the orthodox and latitudinarian parties were present in roughly even numbers, with the Seceders once more isolated in their vocal loyalism. Although united by a common intellectual inheritance, Presbyterian radicalism was more complex and diverse than most historians have assumed; and these doctrinal conflicts had important implications for attitudes to secular and spiritual authority, the French Revolution and, above all, the threat posed by `popery'.


Since the early decades of the eighteenth century, the Synod of Ulster had looked to the House of Hanover as the protector of its civil and religious liberties. The New Lights who dominated the Synod had quickly adopted the language of whig constitutionalism to make sense of their position following the Revolution Settlement. Thus, James Kirkpatrick's An Essay upon the Loyalty of Presbyterians (1713), regarded as the official history of Irish Presbyterianism throughout the eighteenth century, sought to dissociate the Synod of Ulster from the extremism and enthusiasm which had disfigured religion in the previous century. Instead, he demonstrated Presbyterian adherence to the principle of limited monarchy throughout the upheavals of the Stuart period and claimed that there was a natural affinity between `Revolution Principles' and the representatives constitution of the Presbyterian church.(44) Unfortunately, Presbyterian loyalty remained unrequited: between 1704 and 1780 dissenters in Ireland were excluded from public office by the that `Badge of Slavery', the test clause, which required that all office holders take the sacrament according to the rites of the Church of Ireland.(45) Denied the full benefits of the constitution, Presbyterian controversialists were forced to examine the ideological basis of the established order in both church and state.

Early in the 1730s, John Abernethy led an assault on the test in a series of pamphlets which earned him widespread and lasting popularity on both sides of the Irish Sea.(46) In part, these writings were simply an extension of the theological arguments fashioned by the Belfast Society in its campaign against subscription. It was argued that the sacramental test was an infringement of Christian liberty, for the limitations imposed by the state on religious belief conflicted with freedom of conscience. Relying heavily on Locke, Abernethy asserted that `a diversity of opinions in matters of Religion is utterly unavoidable in the present state of Imperfection', and posed no threat to the public good.(47) He also had recourse to secular arguments based on natural rights theory (again derived from Locke), contending that the penalization of Protestant dissent was inconsistent with the principles of civil liberty and constituted a violation of the original compact whereby men had entered civil society. The authority of the magistrate existed to protect the life, liberty and property of the subject; he could not interfere with religious beliefs unless they were dangerous to the community.(48) In a passage which sums up his whole case, Abernethy later explained:

Conscience must be exempted from human jurisdiction, because its ends,

and interests, in our nature, are superior to all the ends of civil association,

and subjecting it to the power of man is inconsistent with the very being

of religion; and for the exercise of the liberty of private persons in

pursuing their interests in this world, it is ... only subordinated to the

interest of the whole community. When these limits are exceeded by civil

government, it degenerateth into usurpation and tyranny; and the right

of self-defence is, in the oppressed, under no other obligation than that

of prudence.(49)

Whereas previous Presbyterian apologists had relied predominantly on historical and scriptural arguments, Abernethy's defence of Protestant dissent had led him into a much wider enquiry into the origins and nature of civil society, the contractual basis of government and the rights of the subject. His views on the nature of political obligation and the right of rebellion were echoed by later generations of New Light ministers, well versed in the political theory taught in the Scottish universities, who set out systematic explorations of the relationship between magistracy and ministry. Only a small minority of these sermons ever found their way into print, but taken together with other evidence from correspondence and the press they testify to important continuities between the first generation of non-subscribers and the (mainly New Light) clergymen who began to articulate a critique of the Irish political system after 1775.(50)

Over the next fifty years the spokesmen of the General Synod kept up their offensive against the civil penalties imposed on Protestant dissent while confirming their traditional identification with the Hanoverian Succession. Although the test was eventually repealed in 1780, the shared experience of exclusion from the political structures of eighteenth-century Ireland left a legacy of bitterness. At the same time a new generation of `Rational Dissenters' were emerging in England who took a more aggressive stance towards the confessional state. Throughout the 1770s, they agitated for relief from subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles required of English dissenting ministers and schoolmates under the Toleration Act; in the 1780s, they would turn to the Test and Corporation Acts which debarred their followers from public office. Many of these Rational Dissenters, and especially their most outspoken leader Joseph Priestley, were much more open about their belief that the ties between church and state should be severed. Significantly, Priestley was also the first English dissenter to suggest that toleration should be extended to Roman Catholics, a view taken up by younger Unitarians like Theophilus Lindsey.(51) Through the writings of new, more combative, dissenting spokesmen like Priestley and Richard Price, the intellectual debt which English dissent owed to the Irish divines John Abernethy and his successor James Duchal was repaid in full.(52)

The renewal of the English dissenters' campaign for relief in 1786-7 coincided with the uproar in Ireland sparked off by Bishop Woodward's best-selling restatement of Protestant Ascendancy in The Present State of the Church of Ireland (1786). In the pamphlet war which followed, the task of vindicating the Presbyterians fell to the Revd William Campbell of Armagh, then the Synod's chief representative. Following in the moderate whig tradition of Kirkpatrick, he concentrated predominantly on the services of the Ulster Scots to the British crown since the plantation. On the question of church-state relations he linked the growth of ecclesiastical authority with the rise of Rome, but he stopped short of the conclusion that established religion was inherently antichristian. While he pointed out that Presbyterianism was compatible with a national church as could be seen in Geneva and Scotland, he also insisted that the church should be free from state interference, and that the priesthood should have no political role.(53) This objection to the blending of religion and politics was clarified in a second pamphlet, when he acknowledged that `my opinion is most decidedly against ecclesiastical establishments'.(54)

Although Campbell's pamphlets received the official endorsement of both the Synod of Ulster and the Presbytery of Antrim, his approach was thought too tame in some quarters. The influential layman Dr William Drennan, disgusted that Campbell had leaned so far towards church authority and had not taken the opportunity to condemn the alliance of church and state, branded him a `high-church Presbyterian'. `The truth is', he wrote after Campbell's second tract, `that the Church of England is absolute monarchy, the Church of Scotland, a Presbyterian aristocracy, and the [non-subscribers] alone form the true Christian republicanism which is perfect freedom'.(55) More to Drennan's taste were two replies to the bishop of Cloyne published by the Revd Samuel Barber of Rathfriland, which offered a more thoroughgoing critique of establishment Anglicanism. Barber, a Volunteer and future United Irishman, maintained that the partnership of church and state inevitably produced religious persecution. `The business of religious establishments', he declared, `has been to extirpate by fire and sword every sincere enquirer into the word of God; to set up an inquisition to bind down the soul for ever, and to destroy all who dare doubts the national faith'.(56) Barber's pamphlets mark the completion of the process whereby New Light protest against all human creeds and confessions, moulded in the subscription controversy and restated during the pamphlet war over the sacramental test, was turned against the union of church and state itself. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that he took his objections to established religion to their logical conclusion by condemning the persecution of Roman Catholics, thus becoming the first Presbyterian clergyman to openly attack the penal code.(57)

The same rejection of state religion underpins one of the classic texts of Ulster radicalism, William Steel Dickson's Three Sermons on the Subject of Scripture Politics (1793). Dickson had been encouraged to go to the press after a celebrated appearance at the Ulster reform convention of 1793, when he had set the tone for the proceedings with a sermon recommending parliamentary reform and Catholic emancipation on biblical grounds.(58) Taking as his text, `My kingdom is not of this world', he bevan with the assertion that `religion and politics are inseparably connected', since Christianity and good government were geared towards the same end, `the happiness of mankind'.(59) All states ought to be guided by biblical principles, he believed, but the conjunction of secular and spiritual authority had distorted this relationship:

no sooner was their religion connected with the politics of kingdoms, and

the intrigues of statesmen, and their priests seated among nobles, and

ranked with the princes of the earth, than the bond of union was broken,

the mild spirit of religion swallowed up by ambition, and the light of the

gospel converted into a firebrand of discord.(60)

In line with dissenting tradition, Dickson traced the perversion of Christianity to the attempts of statesmen to regulate modes of worship beginning with the creation of an ecclesiastical establishment under the emperor Constantine. In Ireland, he continued, priestcraft had manifested itself in the form of penal laws against three-quarters of the inhabitants, and Dickson reminded his readers that the Protestant Ascendancy which continued to punish the Catholics was their heir of the high-church party which had imposed the test on the dissenters.(61) All sects were equally prone to this disease, as demonstrated during the convulsions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when `Catholic burned Protestant, Protestant persecuted Catholic, and the Presbyterians in their momentary triumph, denied toleration to both'. Only when this persecuting spirit was abandoned, and all penal statutes were abolished, would the divine prophecies be realized, Dickson concluded.(62)

The rationalism of the New Light dissenters, their defense of the right of private judgement in opposition to church authority, and their increasing confidence in human perfectibility, reinforced and intersected with the case for parliamentary reform. At the same time, however, the non-subscribers were subject to powerful pressures pulling them in more conservative directions. Heavily dependent on the mercantile and professional people of the towns, they took price in the social respectability and cultural refinement of their congregations. Although many viewed established churches as inherently antichristian, New Light Presbyterians found much in common with latitudinarians in the Anglican communion. Moreover, they recognized that the enthusiasm of the lower orders represented as great a threat to freedom of thought as the ecclesiastical hierarchy. It is this social conservatism that explains the pro-government stance taken in the 1790s by many well-known New Light clergymen, such as William Bruce of Belfast, Robert Black of Londonderry, Andrew Craig of Lisburn and Thomas Cuming of Armagh.(63) While a commitment to religious pluralism, and in some cases an inclination towards theologies, made them especially sensitive to the articles of faith imposed by the Anglican church-state, their progressive integration into polite, propertied society tugged them towards the relatively safe channels of constitutional whiggery.

While the Synod of Ulster regularly affirmed its attachment to whig principles, the Secession and the Reformed Presbytery maintained their testimony against the errors of the Glorious Revolution, condemning William III, Anne and, in more moderate language, the Hanoverians, for their refusal to uphold the true, covenanted faith. Moreover, the royal supremacy in ecclesiastical affairs was regarded as a species of popery, a violation of the prerogatives of Jesus Christ, the sole lawgiver in His own kingdom. As the Hanoverian succession demonstrated its durability, however, an extensive, arcane literature was generated, in which their heirs of Scotland's `second reformation' sought to reconcile the obligations of the Solemn League and Covenant with the political and religious order established by the Revolution Settlement. An important fault line emerged concerning the question of political obedience to an unconvenanted state.

On the one hand, the members of the small Reformed Presbytery rigidly adhered to the apocalyptic vision of a convenanted kingdom where the primary goal of all government, civil and ecclesiastical, was the reformation of religion and the punishment of heresy and superstition. Since their renunciation of allegiance to the British monarchy in the Sanquhar Declaration of 1680, the Covenanters had theoretically lived in a state of war with the civil authorities. Their official Testimony proclaimed them to be `an oppressed people, brought under the power of a conqueror, and no better than captives in their own land'.(64) After the Restoration a popular right of resistance against an episcopalian regime was asserted in a series of works, including Alexander Shield's notorious A Hind Let Loose (1687). Ultimately, however, this literature of resistance and rebellion rested on a sense of divine mission rather than the principle of popular consent.

The political canon of Reformed Presbyterian, which originated with the Covenants themselves and with Samuel Rutherford's Lex Rex (1644), resembled radical whiggism in its conception of civil society as a compact made by ruler and ruled for the common good, and in its defence of the people's right to depose tyrannical kings. At the hearty of this tradition, however, was a peculiarly Calvinist theory of popular sovereignty which was profoundly offensive to Whig and Tory alike. According to the Covenanters, civil magistrates should be elected by the people `in whom is the radical right or intermediate voice of God's: government was therefore subject to a compact between the sovereign and his subjects.(65) But they also insisted that magistracy was a divine institution, and that the people were to chose magistrates who possessed certain `scriptural qualifications', that is, those who would uphold the Covenants and the Confession of Faith.(66) While the immediate end of civil society was the good of the commonwealth, its ultimate purpose was the advancement of glory of God, the king of nations. The contract theory of the Covenanters thus operated within the parameters set by sectarian theology.(67)

Like their New Light opponents, then, these hardline Calvinists possessed their own sources of opposition ideology. But whereas the non-subcribers rejected all civil jurisdiction over religious belief and practice, the covenanted kingdom of the Reformed Presbyterians would be a repressive regime in which the coercive powers of church and state were joined in the enforcement of religious uniformity. As the boundaries of political debate were rapidly expanded in the 1790s, they therefore insisted that constitutional reform was merely a means to the religious ends prescribed in the Solemn League and Covenant.(68) Although they were implicated in the 1798 rebellion more heavily than the other Presbyterian bodies, they took great pains to distinguish the Presbyterian programme outlined in their Testimony from the broader aims of the United Irish organization. Some insight into their position was provided by the Revd James McKinney's A View of the Rights of God and Man (1793). As the title suggests, this treatise attempted to reconcile Paineite politics with Calvinist theology: `were it not for the persuasion I entertain, that Christianity will purify and support the rights of man', the author explained, `I do not believe I would give a shilling to bring about a revolution in any nation upon earth'.(69)

In the mental world of the Covenanters, political affairs were thus strictly subordinated to religious imperatives. There was evidence too of political turbulence among the adherents of the Secession, particularly during the early decades of the movement. In 1752, the grand jury of Donegal reported that there were already several thousand Seceders in the north whose clergy denounced as sinful the oaths of allegiance and abjuration, the Anglo-Scottish union and the sacramental test, as well as the supertitious worship of the Church of England.(70) By this stage, however, the Secession authorities in Scotland had begun to distance themselves from the militant demands of their seventeenth-century forebears. When they drew up an act for the renovation of the Covenants in 1743, the Seceders explained that it was possible to acknowledge the civil authority in `lawful commands' while still repudiating the English church.(71) They therefore condemned the `anti-government' principles of the recently established Reformed Presbytery, declaring that `it was not suitable to their present circumstances, to blend civil and ecclesiastical matters in the oath of God'.(72) By playing down the political aspects of Covenanting, the Seceders were thus able to offer a sort of de facto recognition of the Hanoverians. After all, as one of their number pointed out, the early Christians who lived under the pagan emperors of Rome had obeyed `far worse princes and addresses resorted to the standard passages of scripture which urged obedience to the powers that be.(74)

After the accession of George III, prayers for the king and the royal family began to appear in the minutes of Secession synods and presbyteries, and their public addresses adopted a more conciliatory tone towards the Glorious Revolution and the Hanoverian Succession.(75) In 1784, they secured a share of the regium donum with the assistance of the earl of Hillsborough in return for countering the influence of parliamentary reformers in County Down.(76) Opposition to reform proposals, moreover, was part of a wider reaction against the political activities of the Synod of Ulster. Whereas ministers like Steel Dickson argued that the clergy had a duty to preach against oppression, and that politics could not therefore be excluded from the pulpit, the Seceding presbyteries had often condemned members of their communion for parading with Volunteer companies on the sabbath day, and for indulging in `carnal converse about worldly affairs'.(77) Only tow of their ministers succumbed to the republican contagion in the 1790s, while others took a public stand against popular disaffection.(78) Indeed the pro-government sermons of one Seceding clergyman, Francis Pringle, provoked so much acrimony among his congregation that he was forced to emigrate to the United States.(79) The annual fast-day addresses drawn up by their presbyteries and read from each pulpit denounced the discussion of political subjects on the sabbath, the spread of sinful, oath-bound associations, and the greed which drove men to rebellion.(80) They also specifically denounced the religious indifference which had `procured so many advocates for the superstition of Rome as a harmless thin in a Protestant society'.(81) It was even claimed that Seceders had joined Methodists and high churchmen in the lodges of recently formed Orange Order.(82)

How can this change of political direction be explained? Opponents of the Secession contended that its ministers had simply been bought off by the regium donum. The radical Seceder and United Irishman, James Hope, recalled that his minister had prayed every week for `the purging of the blood that lay unpurged, on the throne of Britain' until the grant of the royal bounty, when he began to concentrate on `the destruction of Pope and Popery'.(83) Since many Secession ministers had to survive on meagre stipends, and since their congregations were often in arrears, a regular payment from the state was an important prize. Yet it is remarkable that a denomination so sensitive to state interference, and so prone to fissiparous tendencies, should have accepted the royal bounty without any public controversy.

Part of the explanation for Seceders' conservatism may lie in their theological development. Although their main objections to mainstream Presbyterianism focused on matters of church polity, they were also distinguished from their rivals by their fervent attachment to the doctrine of grace and, unlike the other Presbyterian bodies, they produced a considerable devotional literature.(84) In their political quietism, it might be suggested, the Seceders were anticipating the more otherworldly, evangelical tone of nineteenth-century Presbyterianism.(85) As the example of Francis Pringle suggests, however, this theological shift may have opened a gap between clergy and laity; one radical clergyman observed that the Seceders had moved towards a loyalist position `by more rapid strides that their people are prepared to follow them'.(86) While their preaching turned away from politics towards a concern with inward salvation, then, other Presbyterians continued to work for the outward transformation of a state religion which preserved within itself the remnants of popery.


The ideas of civil and religious liberty generated by the clash of church and dissent remained firmly fixed within the traditional framework supplied by the Prostestant confrontation with Rome. It was not just that the primary allegiance of Catholics to a foreign power was believed to be incompatible with loyalty to a Protestant sovereign, nor that Catholicism and absolutism seemed to rise and fall together in the history of Europe. Liberty was regarded as the defining principle of the Protestant religion, while Catholicism was synonymous with persecution. Such views were often reinvigorated, rather than eroded, by the forces of Enlightenment. For those Rational Dissenters who aimed to restore Christianity to its original purity, the anti-church of Rome was the archetype of all those institutions which stood in the way of human progress by stifling freedom of thought, perpetuating superstition, and polluting the word of God with human rites and customs. In a sermon preached to mark the anniversary of the 1641 rebellion, John Abernethy had refrained from the anti-Catholic invective customarily served up on that day, claiming that the best way to defeat popery was by `undissembled kindness and forberance towards Papists themselves'; but he also justified the penal laws on grounds of self-defence, and repeated the standard view that Roman Catholicism was an antichristian system founded upon tyranny.(87)

It is true that there had been rumours in the 1780s of an alliance of parliamentary reformers and Catholics, and a couple of New Light clergymen had made favourable overtures towards their disenfranchised countrymen.(88) It was events in revolutionary France, however, which provided the essential context for the reappraisal of traditional attitudes towards Catholic Ireland. For the radical pamphleteer, William Drennan, the overturning of the ancien regime constituted `proof that a great Catholic country know liberty and practice it better than any here'.(89) Henry Joy, editor of the moderate Belfast News-Letter, later recalled that the Presbyterian radicals had reassessed their approach to Roman Catholicism following `the overthrow of the degrading yoke of priestcraft and despotism in France'.(90) Like their brethren in Britain and America, Irish Presbyterians had long seen the expansionist French monarchy as the chief instrument of the papacy. Now they saw the House of Bourbon humbled, the French clergy reorganized on a more equal, democratic basis, religious minorities granted full toleration and tithes abolished. The apocalyptic expectations triggered by the assault on institutional Catholicism received a further boost from the French military victories in Italy in June 1796, which the Northern Star hailed as the overthrow of the papacy. `It is a long period of time since the Gallican Catholic Church threw off the Roman Yoke', the editors commented, `and why should the Irish Catholic Church wish to hug her chains in this enlightened period?'(91)

Throughout the western world the collapse of the ancien regime produced a spectacular explosion of apocalyptic speculation. Millenarianism in the early modern period is now a well-research phenomenon, commonly explained as a product of the social displacement experienced during the first stages of industrialization. Historians of the 1790s have concentrated on the popular cults which surrounded exotic prophets such as Richard Brothers and Joanna Southcott, but it should be emphasized that there was also a respectable, scholarly tradition of eschatology in which the study of the prophetic writings was not at all incompatible with the idea of Christianity as a rational, scientific system of belief.(92) In England the two leading dissenting intellectuals, Joseph Priestley and Richard Price, believe that the one-thousand-year reign of Christ on earth was about to commerce, while in the United States Calvinist clergymen also welcomed the outbreak of revolution as a great blow against the Antichrist.(93)

In Ulster a number of ministers from across the theological spectrum turned to the explication of biblical prophecy. The diary of Samuel Barber, the heterodox minister of Rathfriland and a leading light in the parliamentary reform movement, reveals that he eagerly followed the ecclesiastical reforms introduced in France.(94) At the annual meeting of the Synod of Ulster in June 1791, Barber was chosen to preach the keynote sermon which traditionally began the proceedings. Taking his text from Revelations 18:20, he described how French Catholics had thrown off the shackles of civil and religious thraldom, and urged his hearers to prepare for the collapse of all religious establishments and the imminent `fall of the great city Babylon'.(95) Two years later it was the turn of Thomas Ledlie Birch, a member of the staunchly orthodox Presbytery of Belfast and the founder of a United Irish society in Saintfield, to inform the Synod that the admission of French Protestants to full citizenship was the last in a long line of liberal victories in the struggle against Antichrist.(96) It was at this synod that the Presbyterian clergy passed a resolution congratulating `their Roman Catholic countrymen on their being restored to the Privileges of the constitution'.(97) In later years Birch would be troubles by the evidence of growing infidelity in the new republic, but he adhered to the view that the French had adopted a more rational form of worship, while in Ireland, he believed, the Catholics had become `as enlightened as others.'(98)

Since the Reformation, Protestant readings of the prophecies had turned on the identification of the pope with the Beast of Revelation.(99) Catholicism was considered as a corruption of genuine Christianity, and the linchpin of the system was the papacy itself, which had appropriated the authority of Jesus Christ as head of the church. Ecclesiastical historians shared a basic historical narrative in which Christianity passed from the golden age of the apostolic church through the popish corruptions of the medieval period to the gradual recovery of primitive purity. Within this broad framework, however, there were many differences of interpretation. Anglican writers naturally praised England's success in restoring the gospel and portrayed the monarchy as a bulwark against Rome. Scotland, on the other hand, had been reformed from below rather than above; consequently, the Presbyterian legacy was not only more populist, but insistent upon the independence of the church from the civil authorities. Many dissenters took the view that the Reformation had stalled when the Protestant churches, having thrown off papal control, had turned to their princes for protection.(100) The British monarchy, seen from this perspective, had fused spiritual and secular authority together in one single entity.

As a result, Presbyterian interpretations of the prophetic books, while differing in important respects, identified the unity of church and state as the key to the antichristian system. Barber defined the Beast in abstract terms as any interference with the sacred and unalienable right of private judgement, and he denounced all those mortals who had usurped Christ's authority by making new laws and terms of communion.(101) He dated the rise of Antichrist to the reign of Constantine, when imperial Rome had been transformed into a Christian power, citing the Council of Nicaea of AD 325 as the moment when secular rulers had first dared to legislate on church matters. Birch, on the other hand, favoured AD 606, when Pope Boniface had established his claim as God's representative on earth, and when tithes had first been claimed;(102) but his interpretation also revolved around the confessional state:

by the name Anti-christ we do imagine, that not any man, or class of

men, is designed in scripture, but a system now known in the world

(particularly under the name of church establishment) planned and carried

on, under various agencies, which (as occasion served) has persecuted all

religions, and opposed all reformation.(103)

Predictably it was the Covenanters who were most explicit in their claim that the usurped power of the papacy had merely been transferred to the crown, whose assertion of supremacy over the church was an affront to the sovereignty of Christ. In an eschatological work entitled War Proclaimed and Victory Ensured (1795), the leader of the Reformed Presbytery, William Stavely, identified the European monarchies which had risen from the Roman empire as the ten crowned horns of the beast whose fall was predicted in the coded chronologies of Daniel and Revelation. By taking upon themselves such titles as `eldest son of the church' and `defender of faith', the rulers of Europe had implicated themselves in the usurped and oppressive claims of the Roman church.(104) For Stavely, the struggle with France was in the most literal sense a war of religion in which England had elected to join a coalition of antichristian power in propping up papal tyranny. The implication, that the French had been chosen as God's instrument for toppling the currupt and tyrannical priests and princes of Europe, was spelt out by other Covenanters who itinerated through Antrim and Down at this time preaching to large crowds and predicting `the immediate destruction of the British monarchy'.(105)

Not all Presbyterians, of course, were so well versed in the Books of Daniel and Revelation. But millenarian theories merely articulated in dramatic form common assumptions about the providential role of Presbyterians in history and the nature of Roman Catholicisms. Moreover, the sudden reappearance of old prophecies aimed at a more popular audience has been well documented by historians. William Stavely produced annotated editions of three millenarian tracts at the Northern Star office in Belfast. The titles speak for themselves: John Owen's The Shaking and Translation of Heaven and Earth (1794); Robert Fleming's A Discourse on the Rise and Fall of Antichrist: Wherein the Revolution in France and the Downfall of the Monarchy in that Kingdom are Distinctly Pointed Out (1975); and James Bicheno's The Signs of the Times: Or the Overthrow of Papal Tyranny in France (1795). Josias Wilson, the Seceding minister of Donegore, appended the predictions of Fleming, Christopher Love and Richard Brothers to a sermon published in 1796, while a pamphlet published in Strabane the previous year contained prophetic extracts from ten divines, including John Knox, James Ussher, Christopher Love and Pierre Jurieu.(106) Most popular of all was the Life and Prophecies of the seventeenth-century Covenanting outlaw, Alexander Peden, which foretold a French invasion of the British Isles. In an effort to bridge the gap between the Enlightenment ideology of the Belfast radicalism and the grievances of tenant farmers and artisans, the United Irishmen arrange readings of these prophecies in the Ulster countryside, recalling Presbyterians to their historic role in the establishment of Christ's kingdom on earth.(107)


The polemical literature produced by the Synod of Ulster and its rivals attests to the predicament of Presbyterians in eighteenth-century Ireland. Loyal to the British crown, and yet excluded from the privileged circles of the Ascendancy, Presbyterian controversialists were driven to defend liberty of conscience against the spiritual claims of the confessional state, and against that model of all ecclesiastical establishments, the Church of Rome. Of course, the network of discourses open to eighteenth-century radicals was wide-ranging and diverse: the religious ideas discussed here can be found alongside natural and common law traditions, real whig ideology and the language of freemasonry, as well as appeals to custom and convention. It is clear, however, that this eclectic radical tradition was formed on a pre-existing pattern of attitudes and allegiances shaped by Presbyterian doctrine. It is difficult, otherwise, to explain why the storming of the Bastille was greeted with such enthusiasm in the north-east of Ireland, or why Paine's Rights of Man was so well received there. Similarly, it is hard to account for the shift in dissenting attitudes towards the penal code without considering the theories of religious tolerance elaborated by the non-subscribers. Presbyterian radicalism was rooted in conceptions of liberty constructed in the conflict between the various Presbyterian parties and the Anglican establishment in Ireland, an establishment which, as Bishop Woodward and other conservative apologists insisted, was an integral part of the `Protestant Ascendancy'.(108) Once removed from this context, those conceptions of liberty quickly begin to dissolve.

While all the Presbyterian groups maintained an intellectual offensive against the established church, a vital secondary theme is supplied by the internal fractures which divided them. These conflicting theological and ecclesiological positions did not determine political alignments in any straightforward sense, but they produced manifestly different emphases, particularly on the crucial question of Catholic rights. It was the unique contribution of New Light ministers to act as a channel for the absorption of enlightenment theories, to recast traditional theology in a new latitudinarian mould, and to extend their criticism of the Anglican establishment to the establishment principle itself. Popery was thus redefined to signify the use of force and compulsion in religion; in this more abstract and institutional sense it became possible to condemn the anti-Catholic legislation as an instrument of antichristian tyranny. For other Presbyterians, however, the ideal of religious freedom co-existed uneasily with more conventional denominational allegiances. The most extreme example is the Reformed Presbytery, which looked forward to an authoritarian regime where religious uniformity would be policed by both civil and ecclesiastical authorities. It is instructive to find that, at the same time as he was publishing radical tracts for the Belfast republicans, the Revd William Stavely was calling for a revival of the blasphemy laws against those who denied the doctrines of orthodox Christianity.(109)

As a new, counter-revisionist orthodoxy on the 1790s takes hold, it is thus necessary to sound a note of caution. More than anyone else, it was the Presbyterian radicals of the late eighteenth century who supplied a non-sectarian, universalist vocabulary for a political tradition which derives much of its force from Roman Catholicism and cultural particularism. But this new, inclusive nationalism should not be detached from its intellectual context -- a world where political principles often cohered with an merged into theological presuppositions. The social and political conflicts of the 1790s were interpreted within a familiar historical framework which centred on the struggle between pure, scriptural religion and the forces of priestcraft and superstition. Anti-popery should not be viewed as a spent force, displaced by a new liberalism; rather, Enlightenment was seen as a logical extension of Reformation. This providential sense of historical progress carried within it a millenarian current which was reactivated in the 1790s by the outbreak of the French Revolution. With the collapse of papal dominion apparently imminent, Ulster Presbyterians seized the opportunity to shape a new Irish nation in their own image. The attempts of northern republicans to replace sectarian allegiances with a common sense of nationality should not blind historians to the fact that the United Irish project was itself profoundly religious in inspiration. Ulster's decision to join Ireland was predicated upon millenarian hopes for the withering away of `popery' and the final triumph of rational, reformed Christianity.

(1) The phrase first appeared in J. W. Good, Ulster and Ireland (Dublin, 1919), ch. 3.

(2) Clare O'Halloran, Partition and the Limits of Irish Nationalism: An Ideology under Stress (Dublin, 1987), 21-2, 24, 36-7.

(3) Aodh de Blacam, The Black North: An Account of the Six Counties of Unrecovered Ireland (Dublin, 1938), ix, 287.

(4) Maureen Wall, `The United Irish Movement', Hist. Studies, v (1965), 122-40.

(5) Thomas Pakenham, The Year of Liberty: The Story of the Great Rebellion of 1798 (London, 1982). The quotation is taken from Jim Smyth, The Men of No Property: Irish Radicals and Popular Politics in the Late Eighteenth Century (Dublin, 1992), 183.

(6) Marianne Elliott, Partners in Revolution: The United Irishmen and France (New Haven, 1982); Marianne Elliott, Wolfe Tone: Prophet of Irish Independence (New Haven, 1989).

(7) Marianne Elliott, `The Origins and Transformation of Early Irish Republicanism', Internat. Rev. Social Hist., xxiii (1978); `Select Documents XXXVIII: Defenders and Defenderism in 1795', ed. Thomas Bartlett, Irish Hist. Studies xxiv (1985).

(8) Nancy J. Curtin, `The Transformation of the United Irishmen into a Revolutionary Mass Organization, 1794-6', Irish Hist. Studies, xxiv (1985), 490.

(9) For 1916, see Mairin Ni Dhonnchadha and Theo Dorgan (eds.), Revising the Rising (Derry, 1991); for the wider debate, Ciaran Brady (ed.), Interpreting Irish History: The Debate on Historical Revisionism (Dublin, 1994).

(10) Kevin Whelan, The tree of Liberty: Radicalism, Catholism and the Construction of Irish Identity, 1760-1830 (Cork, 1996), ix. See also Kevin Whelan, `Reinterpreting the 1798 Rebellion in County Wexford', in Daire Keogh and Nicholas Furlong (eds.), The Mighty Wave: The 1798 Rebellion in Wexford (Blackrock, 1996).

(11) Whelan, `Reinterpreting the 1798 Rebellion', 34.

(12) Whelan, Tree of Liberty, esp. chs. 3-4.

(13) Whelan, `Reinterpreting the 1798 Rebellion', 34. The research agenda for Wexford was established by Louis Cullen in `The 1798 Rebellion in its Eighteenth-Century Context', in P. J. Corish (ed.), Radicals, Rebels and Establishments (Belfast, 1985).

(14) Samuel McSkimmin, Annals of Ulster: or, Ireland Fifty Years Ago (Belfast, 1849), 19.

(15) Richard Musgrave, Memoirs of the Different Rebellions in Ireland (Dublin, 1801), 183-4

(16) Thomas Ledlie Birch, A Letter from an Irish Emigrant to his Friend in the United States (Philadelphia, 1799), 22, n.

(17) A list of these ministers can be found in Ian McBride, Scripture Politics: Ulster Presbyterians and Irish Radicalism in the Late Eighteenth Century (Oxford, forthcoming 1998).

(18) David Dickson, Daire Keogh and Kevin Whelan (eds.), The United Irishmen: Republicanism, Radicalism and Rebellion (Dublin, 1993); A.T.Q. Stewart, A Deeper Silence: The Hidden Origins of the United Irishmen (London, 1993); Nancy J. Curtin, The United Irishmen: Popular Politics in Ulster and Dublin, 1791-1798 (Oxford, 1994).

(19) Mark Goldie, `The Civil Religion of James Harrington', in Anthony Pagden (ed.), The Languages of Political Theory in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, 1987); Mark Goldie, `Civil Religion and the English Enlightenment', in Gordon J. Schochet (ed.), Politics, Politeness, and Patriotism (Folger Institute, Center for the History of British Political Thought, Proceedings, vol. 5, Washington, DC, 1993); J. A. I. Champion, The Pillars of Priestcraft Shaken: The Church of England and its Enemies, 1660-1730 (Cambridge, 1992). For some idea of the broader field, refer to J. C. D. Clark, English Society, 1688-1832: Ideology, Social Structure and Political Practice during the Ancien Regime (Cambridge, 1985); Martin Fitzpatrick, `Heretical Religion and Radical Political Ideas in Late Eighteenth-Century England', in Eckhart Hellmuth (ed.), The Transformation of Political Culture: England and Germany in the Late Eighteenth Century (Oxford, 1990); Mark Philip, `Rational Religion and Political Radicalism in the 1790s', Enlightenment and Dissent, iv (1985); James E. Bradley, Religion, Revolution, and English Radicalism: Nonconformity in Eighteenth-Century Politics and Society (Cambridge, 1990); J. G. A. Pocock, `Within the Margins: The Definitions of Orthodoxy', in Roger D. Lund (ed.), The Margins of Orthodoxy: Heterodox Writing and Cultural Response, 1660-1750 (Cambridge, 1995); Knud Haakonssen (ed.) Enlightenment and Religion: Rational Dissent in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge, 1996). For America, see P. U. Bonomi, Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society and Politics in Colonial America (Oxford, 1986); N. O. Hatch, The Sacred Cause of Liberty: Republican Thought and the Millennium in Revolutionary New England (New Haven, 1977); R. H. Bloch, Visionary Republic: Millennial Themes in American Thought, 1756-1800 (Cambridge, 1985); J. C. D. Clark, The Language of Liberty, 1660-1832: Political Discourse and Social Dynamics in the Anglo-American World (Cambridge, 1994).

(20) The links between Dissenting religion and radical thought are discussed in David W. Miller `Presbyterianism and "Modernization" in Ulster', Past and Present, no. 80 (Aug. 1978); Marianne Elliott, Watchmen in Sion: The Protestant Idea of Liberty (Field Day Pamphlet, Derry 1985); Peter Brooke, Ulster Presbyterianism: The Historical Perspective, 1610-1970 (Dublin, 1987), ch. 6; Stewart, Deeper Silence. See also Ian McBride, `William Drennan and the Dissenting Tradition', in Dickson, Keogh and Whelan (eds.), United Irishmen; Ian McBride, `"The School of Virtue": Francis Hutcheson, Irish Presbyterians and the Scottish Enlightenment', in D. George Boyce, Robert Eccleshall and Vincent Geoghegan (eds.), Political Thought in Ireland since the Seventeenth Century (London), 1993).

(21) Elliot, Wolfe Tone, 3.

(22) Curtin, United Irishmen, 36; Smyth, Men of No Property, 170.

(23) David Hempton and Myrtle Hill, Evangelical Protestantism in Ulster Society, 1740-1890 (London, 1992), 37-40.

(24) For a full account of the subscriptions controversy, see James Seaton Reid, History of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, 3rd edn, 3 vols. (Belfast, 1867), iii, ch. 25.

(25) J. M. Barkley, The Westminster Formularies in Irish Presbyterianism (Belfast, 1956), 13.

(26) John Abernethy, Sermons on Various Subjects, 4 vols. (London, 1748-51), iv, 54, 65.

(27) John Abernethy, Religious Obedience Founded on Personal Persuasion: A Sermon Preach'd at Belfast, the 9th of December, 1719 (Belfast, 1720), 12.

(28) For Locke and Hoadly, see R. B. Barlow, Citizenship and Conscience: A Study in the Theory and Practice of Religious Toleration in England during the Eighteenth Century (Philadelphia, 1962), 35-52.

(29) Much more research is needed on these issues, but see A. W. G. Brown, `A Theological Interpretation of the First Subscription Controversy (1719-1728)', in J. L. M. Haire et al., Challenge and Conflict: Essays in Irish Presbyterian History and Doctrine (Antrim, 1981).

(30) In addition to Abernethy's Religious Obedience, see Samuel Haliday, Reasons against the Imposition of Subscriptions to the Westminster Confession of Faith (Belfast, 1724). For later examples of New Light sermons, see James Hull, Religion Founded upon Knowledge, and Productive of Forbearance, Moderation and Peace (Belfast, 1770); Andrew Alexander, The Gradual Increase and Progress of Religious Knowledge (Belfast, 1772); William Campbell, The Presence of Christ with church in Every Age and Period of It, Explained and Improved (Belfast, 1774).

(31) First Report of the Commissioners on Education in Ireland, Parliamentary Papers, H.C. (1825), xii, 822.

(32) A list of congregations belonging to the Synod of Ulster and the Presbytery of Antrim, together with their stipends, can be found in Memoirs and Correspondence of Viscount Castlereagh, ed. Charles Vane, 3rd marquess of Londonderry, 12 vols. (London, 1848-54), iii, 167-71.

(33) [Francis Hutcheson], Considerations on Patronage: Addressed to the Gentlemen of Scotland (London, 1735), 16, 20.

(34) The Seceders were concentrated in south Armagh, Monaghan and west Down: see Alan Gailey, `The Scots Element in Northern Irish Popular Culture', Ethnologia Europaea, viii (1975), 8.

(35) The quotation is from the Reformed Presbytery, Act, Declaration and Testimony, 3rd edn (Edinburgh, 1779), 110.

(36) Montgomery, `Outlines of the History of Presbyterianism in Ireland', Irish Unitarian magazine and Bible Christian, ii (1847), 231.

(37) Associate Synod, Act, Declaration and Testimony (Edinburgh, 1737); Reformed Presbytery, Act, Declaration and Testimony.

(38) William James, Homesius Enervatus: A Letter Addressed to Mr John Holmes (Londonderry, 1772), 55.

(39) Matthew Hutchison, The Reformed Presbyterian Church in Scotland: Its Origin and History, 1680-1876 (Paisley, 1893), 252.

(40) Reid, Presbyterian Church in Ireland, iii, 368, n. 78.

(41) T. A. Emmet, `Part of an Essay towards the History of Ireland', in W. J. MacNeven, Pieces of Irish History (New York, 1807), 99-100; [Samuel McSkimmin], `Secret History of the Irish Insurrection of 1803', Fraser's Mag., xiv (Nov. 1836), 553.

(42) `Journal of the Duke of Ruthland's Tour', in HMC Rutland, iii, 421.

(43) See, most recently, Emma Vincent, `The Responses of Scottish Churchmen to the French Revolution , 1789-1802', Scot. Hist. Rev., 1xxxiii(1994).

(44) [James Kirkpatrick], An Historical Essay upon the Loyalty of Presbyterians ([Belfast], 1713), 152. See also James Kirkpatrick, God's Dominion over Kings and Other Magistrates: A Thanksgiving Sermon Preach'd in Belfast October 20, 1714 (Belfast, 1714), 21-7; John Abernethy, The People's Choice, the Lord's Anointed: A Thanksgiving Sermon for his Most Excellent Majesty King George his Happy Accession to the Throne (Belfast, 1714).

(45) The quotation is from John Abernethy, Reasons for the Repeal of the Sacramental Test (Dublin, 1733), 66. For the impact of the test, see Ian McBride, `Presbyterians in the Penal Era', Bullan, i, (Autumn 1994).

(46) John Abernethy, The Nature and Consequences of the Sacramental Test Considered (Dublin, 1731); Abernethy, Reasons for the Repeal of the Sacramental Test. These pamphlets, which were written with the assistance of the Dublin bookseller William Bruce, were later collected together in Scarce and Valuable Tracts and Sermons (London, 1751).

(47) Abernethy, Reasons for the Repeal of the Sacramental Test, 44-5.

(48) Ibid., 25-34; see also [Kirkpatrick], Historical Essay, 20-1.

(49) Abernethy, Sermons on Various Subjects, iv, 79.

(50) See, for example, Gilbert Kennedy, The Wicked Ruler: or, The Mischiefs of Absolute Arbitrary Power: A Sermon Preached at Belfast, December 18th, 1745 (Belfast, 1745), 7-8; Gilbert Kennedy, The Great Blessing of Peace and Truth in Our Days: A Sermon Preach'd at Belfast on Tuesday, April 25th, 1749 (Belfast, 1749), 18-19; Gilbert Kennedy, The Ambitious Designs of Wicked Men, under the Restraint of Divine Providence, and made Subservient to Wise and Good Ends: A Sermon Preached at Belfast, on Thursday, November 29, 1759 (Belfast, 1759); Alexander Maclaine, A Sermon Preached at Antrim, Dec. 18, 1745 (Dublin, 1746), 23, 11; James Moody, A Sermon Occasion'd by the Present Rebellion in Scotland, Preached at Newry, October the 6th 1745 (Belfast, 1745); James Moody, A Sermon Preached at Donoughmore, on Thursday October the Ninth, 1746 (Belfast, 1746). These are all thanksgiving or fast-day sermons.

(51) Martin Fitzpatrick, `Joseph Priestley and the Cause of Universal Toleration', Price-Priestley Newsletter, i (1977).

(52) For the influence of English Dissent, see, for example, William Drennan, `Intended Defence, on a Trial for Sedition, in the Year 1794', in The Trial of William Drennan, ed. John Larkin (Dublin, 1991), 128; Ebenezer Radcliff, Two Letters, Addressed to the Right Rev. Prelates who a Second Time Rejected the Dissenters' Bill (Belfast, 1774); Plain Reasons for Being a Protestant Dissenter: or, The Foundations of Religious Liberty Explained (Belfast, 1782). Priestley was popular in the north of Ireland, and he in turn republished the works of Abernethy and Duchal in his Theological Repository.

(53) William Campbell, A Vindication of the Principles and Character of the Presbyterians of Ireland (Belfast, 1788).

(54) William Campbell, An Examination of the Bishop of Cloyne's Defence of his Principles (Belfast, 1788), 9. Abernethy had admitted the use of a `publick leading in religion' and accepted that the civil magistrate should direct it: Reasons for the Repeal of the Sacramental Test, 46.

(55) William Drennan to Martha McTier, Newry, 3 Apr. 1787 [Aug. 1788?]: Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, Belfast (hereafter PRONI), Drennan Papers, T.765/231, 260. See also Drennan to William Bruce, Newry, [Mar. 1787]: PRONI, Drennan-Bruce Correspondence, D.553/58.

(56) Samuel Barber, Remarks on a Pamphlet, Entitled The Present State of the Church of Ireland, by Richard, Lord Bishop Cloyne (Dublin, 1787), 12. Barber's arguments were reiterated in his Reply to the Reverend Mr Burrowes and the Reverend Mr Ryan's Remarks etc. (Dublin, 1787).

(57) Barber, Remarks on a Pamphlet, 34.

(58) For Dicksons's role in the convention, see Musgrave, Memoirs of the Different Rebellions in Ireland, 124; McSkimmin, Annals of Ulster, 31; Belfast News-Letter, 22 Feb. 1793.

(59) William Steel Dickson, Three Sermons on the Subject of Scripture Politics (Belfast, 1793), 12.

(60) Ibid., 33.

(61) Ibid., 33, 40.

(62) Ibid., 33, 34-5.

(63) For a good example of the social ethos New Light, see Hugh Hamill, Ministerial Respectability Considered; in a Sermon Preached before the Rev. Sub-Synod of L:Derry (Strabane, 1787); for parallel developments in England, see John Seed, `"A Set of Men Powerful Enough in Many Things": Rational Dissent and Political Opposition in England, 1770-1790', in Haakonssen (ed.), Enlightenment and Religion.

(64) Hutchison, Reformed Presbyterian Church, 211.

(65) Ibid., 209.

(66) Reformed Presbytery, Act, Declaration and Testimony, 113-16.

(67) For a good restatement of this position by an Irish Covenanter, see Samuel B. Wylie, The Two Sons of Oil: or, The Faithful Witness for Magistracy and Ministry upon a Scriptural Basis (Greensburg, Pa, 1803), esp. 9, 12.

(68) Hutchison, Reformed Presbyterian Church, 234-5; Act of the Reformed Presbytery for a Public Fast [Glasgow, 1795], 3.

(69) James McKinney, `A View of the Rights of God and Man', Covenanter, i (1831), 160.

(70) W. E. H. Lecky, A History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century, 5 vols. (London, 1892), v, 438-9.

(71) Address by the Associate Presbytery, to ... the Reverend Thomas Nairn ... Together with a Declaration and Defence of the Associate Presbytery's Principles Anent the Present Civil Government (Edinburgh, 1744), 6-9.

(72) John McKerrow, History of the Secession Church, revised and enlarged edn (Glasgow, 1841), 474.

(73) [William Fletcher], The Scripture-Loyalist: Containing a Vindication of Obedience to the President British Government in Things Lawful (Glasgow, 1784), 17.

(74) Address by the Associate Presbytery, 56, 62, 66.

(75) McKerrow, Secession Church, 271-3, 524, 344-5, 566.

(76) Reid, Presbyterian Church in Ireland, iii, 356; Belfast News-Letter, 24 Feb. 1784.

(77) Dickson, Three Sermons, 68; Reid, Presbyterian Church in Ireland, iii, 376.

(78) David Stewart, The Seceders in Ireland (Belfast, 1950), 290.

(79) Francis Boyle, Miscellaneous Poems (Belfast, 1811), 85-6. See also [anon.], `Biographical Sketch of the Reverend Francis Pringle', in James P. Miller (ed.), Biographical Sketches and Sermons, of Some of the First Ministers of the Associate Church in America (Albany, 1839).

(80) `Minutes of the Burgher Presbytery of Down, 3 July 1798', in W. H. Crawford and Brian Trainor (eds.), Aspects of Irish Social History, 1750-1800 (Belfast, 1976), 103-6.

(81) Minutes of the Secession (Burgher) Synod: PRONI, CR3/46/1/1, 85.

(82) R. R. Madden, The United Irishmen: Their Lives and Times, 3rd ser., 3 vols. (London, 1846), i, 226-7. See also Dickson, A Narrative for the Confinement and Exile of William Steel Dickson (Dublin, 1812), 291, n.; Thomas Ledlie Birch, Physicians Languishing under Disease: An Address to the Seceding, or Associate Synod of Ireland, upon Certain Tenets and Practices, Alleged to be in Enmity with all Religious Reformation (Belfast, 1796), 28-30.

(84) For these evangelical tendencies, see a. L. Drummond and J. Bulloch, The Scottish Church, 1688-1843 (Edinburgh, 1973), 35-9.

(85) Secession ministers were certainly among the first to show interest in the missionary societies which began to proliferate after the turn of the century: see Francis Pringle, The Gospel Ministry, An Ordinance of Christ: And the Duty of Ministers and People: A Sermon, at the Opening of the Associate Synod of Ireland, in Belfast -- July 12, 1796 ([Belfast?]), 1796), 32; McKerrow, Secession Church, 483, 575, 628, 633.

(86) Birch, Letter from an Irish Emigrant, 29. See also Birch, Physicians Languishing under Disease, 29-30; John Brims, `The Covenanting Tradition and Scottish Radicalism in the 1970s', in Terry Brotherstone (ed.), Covenant, Charter, and Party: Traditions of Revolt and Protest in Modern Scottish History (Aberdeen, 1989).

(87) John Abernethy, Persecution Contrary to Christianity: A Sermon Preached in Wood-Street, Dublin, on the 23d of October, 1735: Being the Anniversary of the Irish Rebellion (Dublin, 1735), 9, 17, 38, 40.

(88) Dickson, Narrative, 10-11; William Steel Dickson, A Sermon on the Propriety and Advantages of Acquiring the Knowledge and Use of Firearms in Times of Danger (Belfast, 1779), 25; Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland, Belfast (hereafter PHSI), Samuel Barber, MS. sermon preached to the Castlewellan Rangers, 24 Oct. 1779, 11; Barber, Remarks on a Pamphlet, 34, 41.

(89) William Drennan to Samuel McTier, Dublin, 3 July 1791: PRONI, Drennan Paper, T.765/303.

(90) Henry Joy (ed.), Historical Collections Relative to the Town of Belfast (Belfast, 1817), xi, n.

(91) Northern Star, 20 June 1796.

(92) See J. F. C. Harrison, The Second Coming: Popular Millenarianism, 1780-1850 (London, 1979). Iain McCalman has stressed the connections between popular enthusiasm and Enlightenment rationalism in `New Jerusalem: Prophecy, Dissent and Radical Culture in England, 1786-1830', in Haakonssen (ed.), Enlightenment and Religion.

(93) John Creasy, `Some Dissenting Attitudes towards the French Revolution', Trans. Unitarian Hist. Soc., xiii (Oct. 1966); N. U. Murray, `The Influence of the French Revolution on the Church of England and its Rivals, 1789-1802' (Univ. of Oxford D.Phil. thesis, 1975), ch. 4; Clarke Garrett, Respectable Folly: Millenarians and the French Revolution in France and England (Baltimore, 1975); Jack Fruchtman, Jr, `The Apocalyptic Politics of Richard Price and Joseph Priestley: A Study in Late Eighteenth-Century English Republican Millennialism', Trans. Amer. Phil. Soc., lxxiii (1983); Gary B. Nash, `The American Clergy and the French Revolution', William and Mary Quart., 3rd ser., xxii (1965), esp. 394-6; Thomas More Brown, `The Images of the Beast: Anti-Papal Rhetoric in Colonial America', in Thomas M. Brown and Richard O. Curry (eds.), Conspiracy: The Fear of Subversion in American History (New York, 1972).

(94) Barber's commonplace book is in the Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland, Belfast.

(95) PHSI, Barber, MS. sermon on Revelations 18:20, preached June 1791, 21.

(96) Thomas Ledlie Birch, The Obligations upon Christians and Especially Ministers to be Exemplary in their Lives: Particularly at this Important Period, When the Prophecies are Seemingly about to be Fulfilled (Belfast, 1794), esp. 26-32. Birch was also the author of several anonymous millenarian letters to the radical press: see Northern Star, 17 Nov. 1972, 24 Apr. 1793, 29 June 1795.

(97) Records of the General Synod of Ulster, 1691-1830, 3 vols. (Belfast, 1890-9), iii, 157.

(98) Birch, Letter from an Irish Emigrant, 24, 26-7.

(99) References to the millennium are very rare before the 1790s, but see John Abernethy, A Sermon Recommending the Study of Scripture-Prophecie (Belfast, 1716); Kirkpatrick, God's Dominion, 16-17; James Duchal, `Observations upon the Apostle Paul's Description of the Man of Sin', in his Presumptive Arguments for the Truth and Divine Authority of the Christian Religion (London, 1753).

(100) PHSI, Barber, MS. sermon of Revelations 18:20, preached June 1791, 13-14; Thomas Ledlie Birch, Seemingly Experimental Religion (Washington, Pa, 1806), 15.

(101) PHSI, Barber, MS. sermon on Revelations 18:20, preached June 1791, 3-6.

(102) Birch, Obligations upon Christians, 26-7; Birch, Seemingly Experimental Religion, 22.

(103) Birch, Seemingly Experimental Religion, 15-16.

(104) William Stavely, War Proclaimed, and Victory Ensured: or, The Lamb's Conquests Illustrated (Belfast, 1795), 55-6. See also William Stavely, Appeal to Light: or, The Tenets of Deists Examined and Disapproved (Belfast, 1796), 65-7. For the Background to Calvinist millenarianism, see S. A. Burrell, `The Apocalyptic Vision of the Early Covenanters', Scot. Hist. Rev., xliii (1964).

(105) McSkimmin, Annals of Ulster, 54.

(106) Thomas Witherow (ed.), Historical and Literary Memorials of Presbyterianism in Ireland, 2 vols. (Belfast, 1879-80), ii, 338; Albert A. Campbell, Notes on the Literary History of Strabane (Omagh, 1902), 11.

(107) Other similar tracts include Reflections on the Rise and Fall of the Papacy: Shewing the Present Great Commotions in the World, to be the Pouring Out of the Sixth Vial (Belfast, 1794); An Examination of the Scripture Prophecies Respecting the Downfall of Antichrist, in which the Coincidence of Late Events with those Prophecies are Pointed Out (Belfast, 1795); Extracts from the Prophecies of Richard Brothers (Belfast, 1795); Revt A. B., Christ in Triumph, Coming to Judgement! As Recorded in the Most Holy Sacred Scriptures, by the Holy Prophets and Evangelists (Strabane, n.d.; copy preserved in National Archives of Ireland, Dublin, Rebellion Papers, 620/29/8). See also Michael Durey, `John Hughes, Reluctant Agent Provocateur and Millenarian: A Note and New Documents', Eighteenth-Century Ireland, vii (1992).

(108) James Kelly, `Inter-Denominational Relations and Religious Toleration in Late Eighteenth-Century Ireland: The "Paper War" of 1786-88', Eighteenth-Century Ireland, iii (1988).

(109) Stavely, Appeal to Light, 38.
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Author:McBride, I.R.
Publication:Past & Present
Date:Nov 1, 1997
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