Did They Give Rise to Secession?

So here is the problem (aside from Irish department stores stocking washcloths but Irish hotels not owning them, or that no one shows up in Dublin for evening prayers when the fat ladies aren’t singing). Political philosophers and historians have given lots of attention to Calvinism as an engine of modern liberal (read constitutional) politics. Whether it’s resistance theory, the Dutch rebellion, or the so-called Presbyterian revolution of the British colonies in North America, students of Calvinism believe they have a firm read on Reformed Protestant politics as an inherently rebellious outlook, one that won’t let any human authority encroach on the Lordship of Christ. (Why we didn’t celebrate 1861 along with 1776, 1689, and 1567 prior to getting right with race is a bit of an inconsistency.)

That sounds good in theory, and it certainly turns out Calvinist (New, Neo, or Denominational) in large numbers for Fox News. But it doesn’t make sense of history where context matters. Here, the case of Irish Presbyterians are instructive. They were Scottish in background and carried around in their devotional DNA the covenants that Scottish or English-Scottish monarchs had made to ensure the protection of the true religion (Presbyterianism) and the suppression of the false (Roman Catholic or prelatical/Episcopal). But in Ulster they encountered a set of realities remarkably different from Scotland or North American colonies. They were subject politically to English authorities who trying to subdue the Irish and who wanted more Protestants but did not want to provoke the natives. They confronted a native population that was firmly Roman Catholic. And they found themselves on the outside of an ecclesiastical establishment (the Church of Ireland) that was Anglican. If you turn to Scottish history for help, you alienate the English government and your stir up your Irish neighbors. If you want to be part of the ecclesiastical establishment (the way Upper Canada would try in the nineteenth century), you’re guilty of historical anachronism. The closest situation to yours is perhaps Philadelphia which when it comes along toward the end of the seventeenth century provides an attractive alternative to Ulster for Scots-Irish.

Here is how I. R. McBride in Scripture Politics: Ulster Presbyterians and Irish Radicalism in the Late Eighteenth Century puts the challenge of placing Irish Presbyterianism on the map of political theory in the West:

It would be convenient if an analysis of theological controversy could somehow isolate a single gene that programmed radicalism into the Presbyterian Church. Unfortunately, political affiliations were not structured by religious allegiances in any simple way, but resulted from a subtle combination of theological inheritance, social factors, and political circumstances. Ulster radicalism cannot be understood outside the experience of exclusion from the institutions of the state, the social conditions of the north of Ireland, and a deep-seated ambivalence towards a British government which was both the upholder of Anglican ascendancy and the ultimate guarantor of Protestant security. Presbyterianism, furthermore, was neither homogeneous or static, but was fragmented . . . Unlike the monolithic edifices of its Anglican and Roman rivals, this fractured culture allowed theories of both religious and political dissidence to take hold and flourish.

The intellectual inheritance of the Scottish Reformation offered a rich and complex legacy of resistance and radicalism which provided a common platform on which Presbyterians of all theological preferences could unite. The basic principle that Jesus Christ was the sole lawgiver in the Church, though applied in a variety of ways, was shared by all strands of Presbyterian opinion. In its most extreme manifestation, the older ‘prophetic’ theocracy called for Church and state to be brought together to create a society in social and political conformity to the word of God, a vision still shared by those groups which adhered to the Solemn League and Covenant. In an age of social and political disruption, it retained its attraction for poorer Presbyterians in the Synod of Ulster, the Secession, and most of all the Reformed Presbytery. The political theology of the Covenanters, which asserted that all government, temporal and spiritual, must be based on those patterns allegedly found in Scriptures, was violently at odds with the development of an erastian, parliamentary regime. . . .

In their insistence on the supremacy of individual conscience over received authority, the New Lights also regarded themselves as the genuine heirs of the Reformation heritage. The call to separate Christianity from human policy echoed the fundamental Protestant dichotomy between human corruption, evidenced in the false ceremonies and beliefs which had debased the Church, and divine truth as embodied in the Scriptures. While their political principles were no doubt derived from a common Presbyterians, however, they also reflected the rationalism of non-subscribing divinity . . . . Far more important to the evolution of radical ideology was the non-subscribers’ battle for freedom of enquiry, and their conviction that civil and religious liberty were inextricably linked. . . . ‘that religious is a personal thing – that Christ is the head of the church – that his kingdom is not of this world – that the WILL OF THE PEOPLE should be the SUPREME LAW’. Here was the authentic voice of New Light radicalism. [109-110]

The spirituality of the church keeps looking better and better.


7 thoughts on “Did They Give Rise to Secession?

  1. Engelsma on Crawford’s Ussher book:

    Ussher’s greatest and lasting accomplishment was authoring the Irish Articles (1615). This confession, “agreed upon by the Archbishops and Bishops, and the rest of the Clergy of Ireland in the Convocation holden at Dublin in the year of our Lord God 1615, for the avoiding of Diversities of Opinions, and the establishing of Consent touching true Religion,” is a solid, full statement of the Reformed faith. These 104 articles were influential in the formulation of the Westminister Confession of Faith some thirty years later.

    Article 12 of the Irish Articles confesses double predestination: “By the same eternal counsel, God hath predestinated some unto life, and reprobated some unto death: of both which there is a certain number, known only to God, which can neither be increased nor diminished.”

    Articles 26 and 27 teach that all works done by the unbeliever “are not pleasing unto God” and are “sinful.” Among these deeds, all of which are alike sinful, “some are more heinous than others.”

    In Article 80, coincidentally numerically the same as the great article in the Heidelberg Catechism condemning Roman Catholicism, the Irish Articles identify the Bishop of Rome as Antichrist: “that man of sin, foretold in the holy scriptures, whom the Lord shall consume with the Spirit of his mouth, and abolish with the brightness of his coming.”



  2. 10 May 1666 A.D. Rev. James Hamilton Passes—a “Precopalian” (Presbyterian and Episcopalian). Imagine a Reformed Churchman leading an Irish Anglican worship service. A robust Prayer Book Service of the old sort with a Calvinist in the pulpit. And, of course, as always, a well-built pipe organ with an organist with at least a masters, if not some doctoral work in sacred music and the pipes. Wonderful. <—Oh! Oh! Presbyterians with Prayer Books! Oh no!

    Mr. Myers tells the story.

    Myers, David T. “May 10: James Hamilton Dies in Ireland.” This Day in Presbyterian History. 10 May 2014. http://www.thisday.pcahistory.org/2014/05/may-10-2/. Accessed 10 May 2014.

    May 10: James Hamilton Dies in Ireland
    Deposed by Man, but Not By God

    They called them “precopalians,” which strange as it may sound (and spell!), was defined as Scottish Presbyterians who were leading Anglican congregations in northern Island, or Ulster. At one time, in the seventeenth century, there were 27 Presbyterian ministers in churches in Ulster, all there to pastor the large number of Ulster Scottish families in the area.

    Our post today deals with the Rev. James Hamilton, who traveled before he was ordained to Ulster. Even after graduation from the University of Glasgow, he went to Ireland where his uncle had vast acreage in the northern part of Ireland. In time, our young man was noticed by a Presbyterian minister by the name of Robert Blair, who encouraged James to enter the ministry. It was on March 3, 1626 that James Hamilton was ordained as a minister in the Church of Ireland by the Irish bishop Robert Echlin. Hamilton began his pastorate in the Ballywalter Church and stayed there for a decade. The church later on became a Presbyterian Church, perhaps by the solid doctrinal preaching of Pastor Hamilton, as he is listed at their first pastor.

    The presence of so many Presbyterians in the Irish churches brought the inevitable clash between who was the head of the church—the king of England or the Lord Jesus. When the Church of Ireland sought to bring subservience to the former and urged that the Presbyterian ministers deny the National Covenant of 1638, which had just been signed, James Hamilton resigned. He offered, along with two other ministers, to debate the matter, but the bishop simply deposed him from the ministry. He was ordered to be arrested, but escaped from their hands.

    Around this time, Hamilton with three other Presbyterian ministers and 140 Ulster Scots commissioned a sailing vessel known as the Eagle Wing to sail to America. However due to storms, a broken rudder, and other calamities, the ship had to return to Ireland. Hamilton traveled on to Scotland and became involved with the Covenanters. He eventually became the minister of the Presbyterian Church of Dumfrees, Scotland.

    It is interesting that he returned to Ireland for various purposes, once even to administer the Solemn League and Covenant in Ulster. Why he was not arrested, we don’t know, other than the providential care of God watching over him. On one of his trips to Northern Ireland, his ship was captured by forces not conducive to his faith. He served 10 months in prison but was set free in 1645. Returning to Scotland, he was appointed by the General Assembly to be a chaplain to King Charles II, but wound up with another prison sentence in the Tower of London. Oliver Cromwell eventually gave him his freedom. He eventually retired in Edinburgh.

    James Hamilton died this day, May 10, 1666.


  3. Carl Truman—Kierkegaard was a master of irony (but no orthodox person reads him today, on the grounds that Francis Schaeffer told us he was a naughty boy), Protestantism has produced very few decent humorous prose stylists. Indeed, I suspect one would have to go back to Jonathan Swift
    to find a broadly orthodox Protestant churchman who was actually able to write sustained, elegant prose that still proves capable of provoking laughter. And he wanted to eat Irish babies, didn’t he?
    Now, I love Irish babies; but I could never eat a whole one


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