The revival of the Old Light – New Light controversy within the Synod of Ulster in the 1820s, resulting in the triumph of Trinitarian orthodoxy over Arianism, has often been interpreted as a triumph of political conservatism over political liberalism. This is hardly surprising considering that the leading exponent of orthodoxy, Henry Cooke, was also an apostle of political conservatism; while, on the other hand, the chief latitudinarian, Henry Montgomery, was a leading Ulster liberal. Cooke had even blamed the theological errors of the New Light ministers for the political radicalism of some Presbyterians in 1798. And the historian W.D. Killen sought to minimise Presbyterian involvement in 1798 to a quasi-Unitarian section of Ulster Presbyterianism that was eventually purged in the 1820s.We now come to consider the controversy withing the Presbyterian Synod of Ulster during the 1820s, which eventually led to the New Light/Arians seceding from the Synod.
Yet the link between theological and political conservatism and liberalism was not quite as simple as figures like Cooke and Killen argued. It should be remembered that the most consistent opponent of the Belfast United Irishmen was William Bruce, a minster of the non-subscribing and New Light Presbytery of Antrim; while in the Synod of Ulster itself, the leading enemy of the United Irish movement was Robert Black – a man who held latitudinarian, and possibly Arian, theological views. Conversely, Old Light figures, such as Thomas Ledlie Birch and Sinclare Kelburn, had actually supported the rebellion in 1798. Indeed, the Presbyterian clergy who supported the United Irishmen were evenly divided between Old and New Light views. So, although the attempt to link New Light theology and radical politics, and Old Light theology with conservative politics, may have suited the respective purposes of Cooke and Montgomery, it is clearly an example of historical revisionism.
Furthermore, while theological orthodoxy seems to have increased among members of the Synod of Ulster after the rebellion, it is important not to overstate the extent of this. Cooke’s initial opposition to the Arians at Belfast Academical Institution, which led to him giving evidence against it as part of a government inquiry into the state of education in Ireland, was widely seen as an act of betrayal among many Presbyterians. Moreover, while leading proponents of Evangelicalism in the Synod of Ulster during the 1820s, like James Carlile and Samuel Hanna, opposed Arianism as a theology, they were not in favour of full subscription to the Westminster Confession. Indeed, Carlile’s sermon as moderator of Synod in 1826 actually praised the nature of the Synod of Ulster because its constitution allowed ministers to differ. Therefore, it is wrong to assume that there was a witch-hunt conducted by the Synod against its unorthodox members.
And it should be remembered that the Arians were not actually disciplined for heresy. Instead when the Synod took steps to ensure the doctrinal orthodoxy of prospective ministerial candidates, the Arians believed that they had no long-term future in the Synod and seceded in 1829 to form the Remonstrant Synod which later merged with the Presbytery of Antrim and Synod of Munster to become the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church.
Yet the secession of its liberal element does seem to have increased the theological conservatism of the Synod of Ulster as it did return to the practice of unqualified subscription to the Westminster Confession in 1835. This step paved the way for a merger with the even more conservative Secession Synod to form the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland in 1840. Having lost its liberal element, it can hardly be considered surprising that the theological orthodoxy of the mainstream Presbyterian body in Ireland increased.
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