150th Anniversary of the General Assembly in Ireland
150th Anniversary of the General Assembly in Ireland
The 10th July 1990 marks the 150th Anniversary of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. It is, in effect, the anniversary of a united Church for in 1840 there were two main streams of Presbyterianism in Ireland, namely the General Synod of Ulster and the 'Presbyterian Synod of Ireland distinguished by the name Seceders'. For a considerable period of time they had not only competed with each other but regarded one another with mutual hostility. That such a union came about is something of a miracle.
The Synod of Ulster traces its beginnings back to the early 1620s when Scottish Presbyterian ministers arrived to labour in Ireland in the wake of the Plantation of Ulster. Up to 1641 they served, not without difficulty, in the Irish Anglican Church. The Irish Rebellion of that year, which aimed at the expulsion of all foreign elements from the country and the restoration of confiscated lands, brought great hardship and suffering. Consequently, in 1642, a Scottish army was dispatched to quell the revolt. Along with the soldiers came Presbyterian chaplains who met in Carrickfergus on 10th June 1642 and established the 'Army' Presbytery, the first formal organisation of Presbyterianism in Ireland. Under Cromwell, Presbyterians enjoyed a certain amount of liberty but the restoration of the monarch under Charles II resulted in the reestablishment of Episcopacy and ushered in a time of persecution. Sixty-four out of eighty Presbyterian ministers were ejected from their churches and to all intents and purposes the Church became an 'underground' Church. Although the Revolution Settlement of 1690 enabled the Church to be organised into a Synod, two sub-Synods and nine Presbyteries, legal difficulties still remained a grievous burden to Presbyterians. 1719 saw an easing of the situation but also witnessed the beginnings of a controversy which lasted seven years. Although ostensibly this concerned liberty of conscience with regard to subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith, many of those opposed to subscription reflected a dissatisfaction with the doctrines of the Confession. The outcome was the establishment of a separate Presbytery of Antrim into which the Non-subscribers were placed and eventually the Synod of Ulster expelled this body. Despite this, the theological laxity of the period led many Presbyterians to suspect that some of the ministers were unorthodox and this created a deep dissatisfaction within the Synod of Ulster.
It was around this time that the Seceders began to arrive from Scotland and establish the second stream of Presbyterianism. The origins of the Secession Synod lie in Scotland. While the immediate cause of division in the Church of Scotland was the issue of patronage, an underlying anti-evangelical attitude appears to have been prevalent. For about fifteen years the teaching of Professor John Simson at Glasgow had been scrutinised and it appeared to some that he was treated somewhat leniently by the General Assembly. This was in contrast to the denunciation of the Auchterarder Creed and the condemnation of 'the Marrow of Modern Divinity'. Consequently, Ebenezer Erskine and three others seceded and on 5th December 1733 established 'the Associate Presbytery'.
Approaches were made to the Seceders from Ireland but it was not until the 1740s that preachers came across. Eventually in 1745 Isaac Patton was ordained at Lylehill. However, soon afterwards the Seceders themselves divided into Burghers and Anti-Burghers. The latter disapproved of an oath in some Scottish towns requiring Burghers to 'profess the true religion presently professed within this realm', while the former took no exception to it. Although the oath was unknown in Ireland the division was carried into the Secession Church there.
Despite this breach, the Seceders in Ireland grew rapidly, usually at the expense of the Synod of Ulster. Their methods involved taking advantage of disputes within congregations, itinerant preaching, public debate and pamphleteering, responding positively to discontented groups as well as a warm-hearted and enthusiastic proclamation of the gospel. Inevitably, such activity produced a response within the Synod of Ulster and for a while relationships between the two were characterised by mutual condemnation and not a little antagonism.
As time passed it became evident that here were two bodies which really shared so much in common. Their worship, church government and doctrinal standards were the same. Both adopted the same position in support of the Bible Society, in opposition to national education, in support of the temperance movement and in missionary outreach. More and more frequently their members were speaking with a united voice on many issues. A pointer to the direction in which events were moving was the healing of the Breach among the Seceders in 1818 by the union of Burghers and Anti-Burghers. Interestingly this took place in a Synod of Ulster meeting house.
A succession of events, especially in the 1830s, contributed to the drawing together of the two Synods. During the 1820s a campaign was led by Rev. Henry Cooke, to make subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith compulsory for all ministers, licentiates and elders in the Synod of Ulster. The result was the withdrawal of seventeen ministers, most of whom held Arian views, to form the Remonstrant Synod. This, along with a spirited defence by four ministers to an attack on Presbyterianism led by Rev. Archibald Boyd, an Anglican in Derry, served to convince the Seceders of the loyalty of the Synod to Orthodox Presbyterianism.
From the middle of the 17th century a financial grant, the Regium Donum, had been paid to Presbyterian ministers in Ireland. This was extended in 1784 to the Seceders. However, when a system of classification of grants according to the size of congregations was introduced in 1803 both Synods were unhappy. The abolition of the system in 1838 removed one source of bitterness between the Synods.
From 1834 contacts were being made and developed between individuals and groups of individuals in the two Synods, but perhaps the catalyst came from within the student body. Students of both Synods attended the Belfast Academical Institution where a United Prayer Meeting was established. In April 1839 Rev. John Coulter, a Secession minister, addressed the students on the prospect of Union. From this came a memorial to both Synods although it transpired to be one among many. Consequently, both Synods agreed to set up a United Committee to deal with the issue. This body produced twelve resolutions which were presented to both Synods meeting on 8th April 1840. With concessions from both sides these were eventually accepted and both Synods agreed to meet together for prayer the following day.
On the date fixed for the Union, 10th July, both Synods gathered in their respective meeting places in Belfast. At 11 o'clock they set out, each led by their respective Moderators. Mingling in one body they walked in procession through a vast crowd of spectators to the Rosemary Street Church. Psalm 133 was sung, part of John 17 was read and prayer was offered. Then the Act of Union was read twice. When the final question of acceptance was put, all signalled their approval, thus uniting 292 congregations of the Synod of Ulster and 141 of the Secession Synod. After singing Psalm 122, Rev. Dr Samuel Hanna was chosen Moderator and he formally constituted 'The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland'.
History has proved the God-inspired nature of the union. Within two decades God was pleased to visit Ulster with revival in which the Presbyteries of the land were abundantly blessed.
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