Ulster Presbyterians and the 1798 Rebellion

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Reformed Covenanter

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I am presently working on an essay on why Ulster Presbyterians became more theologically and politically conservative following the failed United Irish uprising against the Protestant Ascendancy run Irish Parliament in 1798. However, I challenge the idea that the rebellion was a Presbyterian revolt. Anyway the introduction is posted below.

Introduction

It is widely accepted that after the failed United Irish rebellion in 1798 that Ulster Presbyterians became more conservative both politically and theologically. This is due to the fact that, in the decades following the rising the vast majority of Presbyterians supported legislative union with Britain and the Synod of Ulster was purged of its Arian and New Light elements. Consequently, Ulster Presbyterianism is thought to have undergone an ideological revolution in the years following the rebellion, resulting in a conservatism that was at the opposite end of the philosophical spectrum from the views of their forebears. Yet, it shall be the purpose of this essay [I will split this over a number of threads for Puritan Board readers] to analyze a number of key assumptions that underlie this interpretation of history.

Writing in 1847, the New Light leader Henry Montgomery asserted that ‘the rebellion, at the close of the last century was, in its origin and almost to its end…a Presbyterian rebellion.’ While acknowledging that Presbyterians were involved in 1798, one shall challenge the idea that Ulster Presbyterianism in general was revolutionary. Then we shall consider how Presbyterians adopted the new political climate after the suppression of the rebellion and the union with Britain in 1801. Furthermore, with reference to the Arian controversy in the 1820s, the link between theological and political conservatism shall be examined to see whether or not political and theological liberalism necessarily went hand in hand. Additionally, the role and importance of the conservative minister Henry Cooke shall be evaluated to find out if his views were representative of all orthodox Presbyterians. Finally, we shall consider why Presbyterians rejected Daniel O’Connell’s attempts to repeal the act of union.
 

Reformed Covenanter

Cancelled Commissioner
Below we shall consider whether or not Ulster Presbyterians were really revolutionary.

The Attitude of Ulster Presbyterianism to the Rebellion

Should it be assumed that because some high profile ministers, like William Steel Dickson, and many Presbyterian laymen took part in the 1798 rebellion, that Ulster Presbyterianism as a whole favoured the revolutionary cause? To conclude this is to fundamentally misunderstand the very nature of Presbyterian government. Presbyterianism is a system of government by elders, therefore, in order to understand what the official position of Ulster Presbyterianism was, it is necessary to examine the views of its ruling body – the Synod of Ulster – not individual ministers or members on the ground (as in Congregationalism).

In the 1790s, Ulster Presbyterianism was mostly reformist, but not revolutionary. Presbyterians were generally Whig in their politics, and had been sympathetic to the American Revolution and desired the reform of the Irish parliament. This claim is substantiated by the fact that in 1793 the Synod called for parliamentary reform and Catholic Emancipation; however, in its address to the Lord Lieutenant, the Synod made clear it only approved of constitutional reform ‘rejecting with abhorrence every idea of popular tumult of foreign aid.’ In other words, they opposed the United Irish notion of a popular uprising assisted by revolutionary French. This alerts us to the fact that while radical elements existed within Ulster Presbyterianism, they were by no means dominant. Whatever the views of individual Presbyterians, the position of the Synod did not change, and so in August 1798 it reiterated the position of 1793 that while reform was right, rebellion was wrong.

In the Synod’s loyal address it condemned ‘the inexcusable crimes’ of a ‘few unworthy members of our body’ while beseeching the king ‘to accept…those who have withstood the tenant of popular fury and the seductions of sophisticated philosophy.’ The references to popular fury and sophisticated philosophy highlight the negative reaction of Ulster Presbyterianism to the French Revolution. While initially welcomed as an event that would fulfill prophecies concerning the fall of papal antichrist , and would lead to the overthrow of oppressive regimes, by 1793 it became apparent to Ulster Liberals that the French Revolution was becoming tyrannical and godless as the reign of terror unfolded.

What sympathy remained for the revolutionary cause among the ministers was relatively small, as only seven percent of the clergy supported the rebellion in 1798. So, despite the execution of ministers like James Porter and Robert Gowdie for their role in the rebellion, the greater body of the clergy distanced themselves from such radicalism. Moreover, congregations with United Irish ministers were not always happy with their minister’s radical politics; as is demonstrated by the formation of the second congregation in Saintfield (1796) [2nd Saintfield is the congregation I grew up in and which my parents still attend] in protest at Thomas Ledlie Birch’s pro-Catholic sympathies, while Dickson’s Portaferry congregation published a declaration of loyalty to the crown, eventually dissolving their connection with him.

With such a low-level of support among the clergy, Montgomery’s characterization of 1798 as a Presbyterian rebellion is clearly mistaken. Theologically, it would have been difficult for Presbyterian ministers to have justified the rebellion, as most accepted Calvin’s doctrine of interposition that lawful revolution against tyrants by the lesser magistrate, not private individuals. Hence, they could support the American Revolution, but not the United Irish rebellion.

Moreover, it is important to remember that what Presbyterian support did come for the 1798 rising, mostly came from Antrim and Down where Protestants were in a majority. Presbyterians living outside these counties, and alongside large numbers of Catholics, largely remained loyal. Since Presbyterians fought on both sides in 1798, this means that the rebellion cannot be seen as a Presbyterian phenomenon.
 
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