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Arianism & Non-Subscribing Presbyterians

By Rev. Edward Andrews, BA, MA, BD

Note: This article is intended as an insight of the religious history of Ulster. It does not indicate the opinions or beliefs of either Jim McKane or Barry R. McCain and UlsterHeritage.com

The question was asked in an email, “Can anyone help me figure out what denomination is represented at the Arian Meeting House (Edward Andrews - are you there?). I know that "Arianism," which purported that Christ was not divine, was denounced as heresy by the Catholic Church at the Council of Nicea in 325. Is this Ulster congregation, in the 1830s, practicing a form of the ancient Arianism? It seems to be, perhaps, a branch of Presbyterianism?????"

Charles O'Neill

Here is a reply. It is not meant to be an academic paper, no sources are quoted, but some research has been done on the topic.

The reply is not so simple. Christianity is a confessional religion. By that, we mean that there has been for most of its history an agreed body of faith. This is called the orthodox faith, (though to make things even more complicated there is a branch of the Christian faith which also calls itself the Orthodox Church). Those who do not agree with a particular doctrine tend to be called heretics and their views heresies. However, heresies are merely the minority opinion.

Prior to Christianity becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire, there was a fairly wide diversity ofChurch Spire understandings of what the Christian faith actually was. There are different views of what primitive Christianity believed expressed in the documents which eventually came together to be the canon of Scripture, and there were other ideas which were rejected by the sifting process of deciding which books made it into the Bible and which did not.

When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Roman Bureaucrats wanted to know what they actually believed. The result was the holding of the first council of Nicea in 325. At this Council, which was accepted as authoritative by most of the Christians of the World, the nature of Jesus the Christ was agreed. The decision was that Jesus was God and Man at the same time. There had been a man called Arius who had taught that Jesus was not of the same status as the Father (The words are more complicated and if you really want to find out about it read Jim Mackey, the “Christian Experience of God as Trinity”, especially part 3).

There are two major ways in which you can get the belief in the Trinity wrong, and a host of minor ways. The main ways are that one can believe that Jesus is not God – which is generally dismissed as Arianism, though “real Arianism” is a lot more subtle, and Docetism, which believes that Jesus only seemed to be human, but was actually just God. You can ignore the minor ones unless you want to be a professional orthodox theologian. Don’t worry, the Churches were still having councils on the question of the Trinity right up to the end of the 7th Century, and the theological understanding of what exactly the Trinity means in contemporary terms is still a live issue among theologians.

It is important that we are clear that the Reformation was not an attempt to reinvent Christianity, but an attempt to purge it from the abuses, which had grown up over the years. We must remember that not only were those who were to become regarded as Protestants seeking Reform, so too were those who would become regarded as Roman Catholics looking for reform. The 5th Lateran Council and the Council of Trent were both Reforming Councils.

On the Reformed side, though there were broad understandings of the faith, which can be grouped into the main traditions Lutheran, Reformed and Anglicanism, these were to some extent statements of a local, national understanding of the Faith. Generally speaking, the idea that the Faith of the Monarch was the faith of the people was observed. The clearest example of this is Anglicanism, which while it draws upon other traditions, thought initially heavily influenced by Calvinism was very much the result of a national political and religious movement. In a few countries, a minority faith survived, while strangely in Scotland where because of peculiar circumstances the late Reformation which had begun under Regency, continued despite the arrival of the Sovereign from abroad. Thus, initially Scotland became a reformed country despite the efforts of the Roman Catholic monarch. In Scotland, there was a locally developed understanding of the Reformed Faith. By the time that James VI became an adult, he imposed a form of Episcopalianism, called Bishop in Presbytery. There was a Presbyterian party, who were dissatisfied with the settlement. They were, however, tolerated. In England, on the other hand, uniformity was the rule, and while there were Puritans initially, up to the end of the reign of Elizabeth, they were generally contained within the Anglican Church.

Because the Reformation was a root and branch review of the nature of Christianity, which in the Reformed tradition was very heavily reliant upon different understandings of the Bible, rather than Tradition, some of the views which had been rejected by Councils of the Church came back into the reckoning. Two of the major areas of disagreement with traditional orthodoxy were propagated by one man, Michael Servetus. Servetus is a fascinating person. For the purpose of this study, it is enough to say that he rejected the traditional doctrine of the Trinity, and the rite of infant baptism. Despite a fairly contentious correspondence with Calvin, he turned up in Geneva where eventually he was burnt for heresy. Servetus was important in the development of Unitarianism. This is especially true, as his detractors had accused him of the historical anti-Trinitarian heresies. It is not clear that he did in fact hold the views ascribed to him.

The King of Scotland became the King of England, and confirmed the Episcopal nature of the Church of Scotland. His Son, when he became Charles I went over the top in the idea that the Church was subordinate to the Monarchy. Encouraged by the Archbishop of Canterbury Charles tried to impose his will on the Church of Scotland. Eventually, because of this, along with a number of other issues, the people of Scotland got fed up and went to war with England (the First Bishop’s War). This developed into a series of conflicts variously known as the Bishop’s Wars, the English Civil War, the Irish Rebellion, but summed up by the name of the War of the Three Kingdoms. The English Puritans differed in their view of Church polity, between those who wanted a reformed Anglicanism, those who favoured Presbyterianism and the Independents (or Congregationalists). However by 1643, they were agreed that they would support Presbyterianism in an attempt to get the support of the Scots in the war with the King. The terms, which the Scots demanded, were that the English and Irish Churches would be reformed into Presbyterian Churches. The result was that there was a conference held. It was an English / Irish meeting with “Commissioners from Scotland present”. Traditionally, the Reformed Churches had produced “Confessions” and basically, this is what the Westminster Assembly did. As well as other documents (which don’t matter for this discussion), they produced a Confession of Faith. These documents set out, often in great detail exactly what the official teaching of the Church was.

It is important to remember that Presbyterianism in Ireland did not only have Scottish roots. There were many English who were involved in not only the plantation of Ulster, but also both previous and subsequent settlements. Some of them were dissenters. It is also important to remember that there was a normal coming and going between England and Dublin, and some of these people would have been English dissenters. One of the Presbyterian Churches in Dublin is called Scots Kirk, and reflects the tradition of Scots Kirks round Europe, many of which are still connected with the Church of Scotland. In the 19th Century, Dublin was the centre of evangelicalism in Ireland and these roots were English rather than Scottish. Anyone who tries to understand the Irish Presbyterian Church using the Scottish model, or understand the Church of Scotland using the Irish model is going to find themselves confused.

It is not our part to comment about either the contents of the Confession or the details of how it was drawn up. Suffice it to say that it was accepted as the official doctrine of the Church of Scotland and at the Glorious Revolution with the restoration of Presbyterianism the Westminster Confession of Faith (along with two Catechisms) became the official statement of doctrine of the Church of Scotland and the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

“Subscription” to a Confession is a complicated thing. It can range from a complete acceptance of the doctrines stated in the Confession as being a statement of ones own personal faith, through to an acknowledgement that if there are any statements in the Confession which are founded on and agreeable to the World of God as it is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament then it is a statement of the subscriber’s faith.
Because of the very structure of the Westminster Assembly, with its eclectic mixture of understandings, it is not surprising that people may have had problems about the doctrines of the Confession from the earliest times. These spilled over into various splits, which were based upon different theological understandings of particular doctrines. Eventually, there were those in Ireland who were unhappy about the whole question of any subscription to any confession. “No human statement of faith is sufficient to reflect a person’s faith”, they claimed. This was the origin of the Non-Subscribing position in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.
The position of the Non-Subscribers was perfectly reasonable, however, it also caused problems. The 18th Century was a time of rapid change. There was a reaction to the religious wars of the 17th Century. For the first quarter century or so, there were debates about the actual meaning of Christianity, and these represented in Ireland, at least, in considerable tension over the question of orthodoxy. There was a New Light/ Old Light controversy, different to the one, which would happen in Scotland, more reflecting the position in America. There is little doubt that the earliest Non-Subscribers were perfectly Orthodox. Unfortunately, what they were teaching probably became increasingly unorthodoxy. To make things more complicated, various forms of dissent from the Church of Scotland especially the Covenanters (Reformed Presbyterians) and the Secessionists, set up causes in Ireland, which attracted those who wished to have more orthodox doctrine preached. Despite this, as in Scotland the mainstream churches reflected the age of the moderates as the ecclesiastical establishments follower the Enlightenment. It was against this background that John Wesley visited Ireland and preached his gospel of Armenianism as opposed to the Calvinism of the Presbyterians. (Armenianism classically believes that humanity plays a part in their salvation and that people could fall away from being saved. While classically Calvinism believes that salvation is totally the work of God who decides who is going to be saved, and this state of grace is permanent.)

It has to be remembered that socially the 18th Century was also a time of tension in the Presbyterian community over the falling in of leases and the increase in rents. It was these people who went to America and supported America’s struggle for Independence, while significantly many Scots who went straight to America supported the Status Quo. The political and social development of Irish Presbyterianism however came to a head with the United Irishman movement. The defeat of the United Irishmen led not only to the abolition of the old Irish Parliament, but also to the more radical Presbyterians pulling in their horns. The dawn of the new Century would see changes in Presbyterianism. This change was not in the least due to the growth or the evangelical position in the Presbyterian Churches, partly in response to Wesley, partly as part of a worldwide change in where the Churches were.

By the 19th Century, the State was beginning to seek to keep the Presbyterians sweet. Not only did they increase the grant which had been paid to the Presbyterian Ministers, they also organised they way of payment to reward the politically reliable. One issue, which had long concerned the more orthodox Presbyterians, was the need for students for the ministry to go to Scotland (usually Glasgow, sometimes Edinburgh, rarely Aberdeen or St. Andrews) for their university training. There were difficulties with dissenters attending Trinity College Dublin, in any case, the theology, which was taught there was Anglican, rather than Presbyterian. There was a belief that students were picking up unorthodox views in Scotland, especially Arian views. There had previously been an attempt with the founding of Belfast Academy, but that had failed and had merely resulted in a leading Grammar i.e. semi private School which as Belfast Royal Academy exists to this day.

A second attempt led to the founding of Belfast Academical Institution (also now a Grammar School). Ultimately both Church and State fought over this Institution. The State did not want it at all, and as religious training was left to the Churches they had to appoint their own teachers. The first battle, which Henry Cooke engaged in against the perceived Arians, was fought over the appointment over Professors at the Institution.

Just occasionally, there rises in Ulster a gifted minister, a great preacher, and fine pastor who is totally focused upon a narrow set of objectives. In the early 19th Century, such a minister was Henry Cooke. The Black Man, for so he is known for his statue in College Square, standing with his back to the Institution which he tried so hard to destroy. Cooke was a colossus who towered over Irish Presbyterianism for most of the first half of the 19th Century until his death in 1868. What is important for our study is that Cooke destroyed both the theological and political liberalism, which was a very strong component in the life of Irish Presbyterianism. This Cooke destroyed liberalism first of all as a theological movement, where the New Lights, condemned as Arians were marginalised in the Synod and then excluded, and then politically as Presbyterianism moved from a politically liberal attitude into a political liaison with the Anglicans and the Orange Order.

The Ordnance Survey memoirs were being published right at the height of the conflict. The “Arians” had set up the Remonstrant Synod in 1830, and there was a much older Antrim Presbytery, which roughly stood for the same ideas. It is, therefore, not surprising that the Ordinance Survey officials would describe the unorthodox Presbyterian meetinghouses as “Arian”. Montgomery, the leader of the Liberal party was quoted by Findlay Holmes in the Centenary lecture at Magee in 1965, as saying that while they were not Arians, it amused them that Cooke and his followers called them Arians. As the Non-Subscribers tended to be the better off, better educated, it is not surprising that the stipends of the ministers were higher than those of the main line Presbyterians, though they got a grant from the state which may or may not be shown in your figures.

The development of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterians was a uniquely Irish event. Else where, Unitarianism developed in a different way. It should be noted that within the Unitarian community there seems to be a tension about the exact position of Jesus. The old reluctance of the Non-Subscribers to be tied into any man made doctrinal situation still is revealed in their desire not to be completely absorbed into Unitarianism. It should be noted that the Churches of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church in the Irish Republic at Cork and in Dublin, call themselves Unitarian, pointing to their different roots, thought English dissent in the tradition of Joseph Priestly and Charles Dickens.

© Edward Andrews 2009


Bio - Rev. Edward Andrews

Rev. Edward AndrewsEdward Andrews was born in Northern Ireland and educated at Belfast Royal Academy, Magee University College, Trinity College Dublin (BA, MA). He worked in the public service in Northern Ireland and in Scotland before he studied at the University of Edinburgh (BD). He was ordained into the ministry of the Church of Scotland. After pastorates in the Argyll, the Lothians and Ayrshire he retired to East Lothian. His interests are history and sociology of religion.

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