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.

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