Irish Presbyterians: Church, State, and Rebellion

By Katherine Matthews

            Thinking about conflict in Ireland often conjures images of political and religious differences between Protestants and Catholics. There were, however, also differences among Protestants, as seen in the division between the Church of Ireland and the Presbyterian Church during the eighteenth century. The Church of Ireland was the branch of the official Church of England. The Presbyterians were a significant Protestant minority, also known as Dissenters because they dissented from Anglican doctrine. Although they were on the political and societal fringe, often having more in common with Catholics in terms of rights and privileges in society, they were able for a time to make their voice heard. Presbyterian political influence in Ireland peaked in the decade of the 1790s with the rise of the United Irishmen and the Rebellion of 1798.

            Presbyterian convictions regarding church and state were central to their political behavior in the 1790s. They held that the Bible was the final authority, and, though Christians were not to follow a wicked ruler or government into disobedience of the Scriptures, the civil government was to be submitted to with all deference. Endnote As a study of their history will show, any nonconformist attitudes or actions were based on underlying principles that would not allow them to obey civil authority. Endnote With the political tensions of the 1790s, the Presbyterians had to decide if their religious beliefs concerning the state would allow them to support the existing government or to support the establishment of a new one. Presbyterian opinion on the above issue, based on their deeply imbedded religious views, would determine a seemingly contradictory course of action for most in the events of that chaotic decade.

            Presbyterians came to Ireland in large numbers from Scotland in the 1600s. They extensively settled the province of Ulster in northern Ireland. By the late 1700s, Presbyterians even outnumbered Catholics and Protestants in some countries. Endnote They formed a strong middle class of farmers, small landowners, linen weavers, and industrial workers. The Scottish background of the northern settlers was made more distinct by their adherence to Calvinism. Endnote Following the legacy of John Calvin’s theocratic rule in sixteenth-century Geneva, Switzerland, these Ulster-Scot Presbyterians operated under a covenantal bond using the Scriptures to decide what was right and wrong in religious and political realms. Endnote Ulster Presbyterianism developed as a state within a state, according to David Hempton and Myrtle Hill. Endnote The people acted like a “self-contained political unit,” and, by participating in church, they accepted a consistent discipline from the democratic body of fellow believers who adhered to the standards of the Bible. Endnote The majority sect of Presbyterianism was the Synod of Ulster. Presbyteries that sent representatives to the Synod’s General Assembly each year were composed of churches that subscribed or considered themselves under the Westminster Confession of Faith. Endnote

            The Presbyterian Church operated under a hierarchy of accountable government levels, including the session, which was each church’s pastor and elected elders; the presbytery, comprised of the churches from a specific region, represented by the pastor and a ruling elder; and the general assembly, which was the highest level and met once a year with representatives from each presbytery, usually more than one. The influence of this operating procedure can be seen in the structure developed for the Society of United Irishmen. Endnote

            This concern shows itself in their support of republican ideas, such as those put forth in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Endnote The republicanism espoused early in the 1790s focused on virtue as the “guarantor of liberty” by which government should work, and without it, government would not work. Endnote It is important to note, however, that whatever ideas the Presbyterians subscribed to, all was filtered through their understanding of the Bible. They believed first and foremost in the Scriptures. Donald Akenson points out that a study of the Scriptures was the deciding factor in how these people viewed their world and the events that shaped it. This principle helps explain why the Presbyterians played seemingly contradictory roles in the 1790s.

            Members of the Ascendancy in Ireland were those favored by the British and, more often than not, were members of the Church of Ireland. These were Irishmen descended from British plantations established over 150 years previously to colonize Ireland. Laws allowing political involvement were grounded in religious affiliation. For instance, Presbyterians, like Catholics, paid tithes to the Anglican Church, but were excluded from many official positions, especially at the top level. They did enjoy the privilege of electing members to Parliament in Dublin. Endnote Presbyterians had earned this concession under King Charles II, after the Restoration of 1660, when the ministers petitioned for recognition as a legal body of believers. Though they refused to comply with practices of the Church of Ireland in matters that were against their own beliefs, they encouraged their congregations to “suffer patiently” the consequences of taking a stand. Endnote

            After suffering patiently for more than a hundred years, the Presbyterian dissenters were given a chance to petition for better treatment by the government. The Volunteer movement of the 1780s gave the Presbyterian community its first plausible chance at gaining concessions from the British government. The government had raised a corps of yeomanry troops from volunteers in Ireland to protect against a possible French invasion during the American Revolution, but when the war was over, the troops volunteered (largely from the Presbyterian community) were disbanded. Endnote W.T. Latimer observed that much frustration with the government was justified by government action after the war,


The Government was supported in its tyranny by the landlords, and the landlords were supported in their oppression by the Government. The Irish Parliament was therefore entirely devoted to the interests of the Episcopal landords, and when it was no longer controlled by the bayonets of the Volunteers, failed to take into consideration the wants of the nation. Endnote

Without weapons, the Presbyterians had little chance of intimidating the government into making concessions.

            The prevalent republican ideas circulating from the American and French revolutions, combined with the taste of political recognition provided by the Volunteer era, aroused a growing desire in many Irishmen, especially Presbyterians, to change their status through constitutional reform. In 1791 Ulster, a group of Presbyterian men seeking constitutional reform, created the Society of United Irishmen. The three main founders were Theobold Wolfe Tone, from the Church of Ireland, and Thomas Russell and Samuel Nelson, both of Presbyterian backgrounds. Wolfe Tone was invited by the Presbyterian Ulstermen because knowledge of his republican views had spread and corresponded with their own. Their stated goal was “to unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissensions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter.” Endnote

            This society originally had strong support from many Presbyterians due to its emphasis on republicanism and right to participate in government, regardless of religion, and was also further joined by Catholics and Protestants alike who felt ostracized by the government. Their ideas spread swiftly through Samuel Neilson’s publication, The Northern Star, whose motto was “The Public Well Our Guide-the Public Good Our End.” Endnote This newspaper and the writers who contributed to it tried to help Irishmen see their common interests and persecutions by the imperial government, and to see that the government fanned the flames of sectarian tension in a policy of “divide and conquer.” Endnote This divisive policy by the government even concerned the Synod of Ulster who addressed the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland with a petition seeking the reform of parliament. In this statement they made plain that they did not support “popular tumult or foreign aid,” but that “intolerance of every kind may be trodden under foot; and every equally good subject, shall be equally cherished & protected by the State.” Endnote

            By the mid-1790s, efforts were made to merge the United Irish with the Catholic society, the Defenders, in order to accomplish political goals and reform the government. Eventually, however, it became apparent that Catholic grievances with the government were different than many of those of the United Irish, which made unity between the two groups difficult. Endnote Many Presbyterians, especially those from counties with a majority of Catholics, left the United Irish because they were torn over the Catholic question. There was a great deal of fear, even by some liberals, that Catholics were not prepared for governing. Endnote

            The founders and top-level leaders began to feel that constitutional reform would be insufficient for Ireland’s needs. By 1793, a radical element had become prominent within the group with an emphasis on starting a revolution and establishing an “Independent Irish Republic.” Endnote The French Revolution had become more radical and its ideas reached the receptive ears of Wolfe Tone and William Drennan. In 1794, United Irishmen societies were outlawed and “scorned by respectable opinion.” Endnote The French guillotine massacres and death of King Louis XVI forced many Presbyterians to re-evaluate support for the United Irish who claimed strong ties with France and its ideals. They were forced to distinguish between goals and standards that were pursued from a reform mindset versus those goals (which were to become prevalent among the United Irish) that pursued revolution. Endnote

            William Stavely, a Reformed Presbyterian minister, had been a supporter of the Volunteers and eventually the United Irish. But by 1792, he saw the radical current in the society gaining momentum and did not want old Volunteer supporters to blindly support the radical elements of the United Irish. Stavely was sent to gain counsel from colleagues in Scotland as to course of action and when he returned, the Church released a statement in The Northern Star, which said that members of the Reformed Church held in contempt all “tumultous and disorderly meetings” and rejected all connection with them. Endnote Such leading Presbyterians in Belfast as William Bruce, Henry Joy, and Dr. Alexander Haliday supported change but in a conservative and reforming way; they gradually pulled from United Irish as the more aggressive members took control. Joseph Pollock and Rev. Robert Black spoke out of the need for men to be rational about overturning corruption in order to prevent becoming seditious. Endnote

            There were, however, other prominent Presbyterians, both ministers and laymen, who continued to support United Irish aims. The majority of these were of the New Light persuasion and of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church. Foremost among these were Rev. William Steel Dickson, Thomas Leslie Birch, and Samuel Barber. Endnote Most Presbyterian churches were under the accountability of the Westminster Confession of Faith and the biblically-based standards it set for church government within the churches themselves. The Westminister Confession stated that the church should meet in councils which “determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience” and only “conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary.” Endnote Non-Subscribers did not have this hindrance of accountability and could more freely interpret events on a personal level and perspective. Endnote

            The New Light ministers were a phenomenon who preoccupied the Synod of Ulster in the eighteenth century. As part of the Non-Subscribing element, their doctrinal beliefs focused on rejecting creeds and other documents besides the Scriptures themselves. McBride asserts that this was a minority party that found most support in and around Belfast, gaining hardly any ground with the more conservative and covenanting countryside. Endnote This divisive fact can be seen in that the Presbyterian element of United Irish was predominately New Light with a few isolated elements of other sects. Certainly those Presbyterian United Irish who were not New Light did not have the cohesiveness of the New Light members and were there due to personal conscience or circumstances. Endnote

            The United Irish continued with their increasingly radical goals and eventually erupted into rebellion in June and July of 1798. Wolfe Tone, whose name is now synonymous with the rebellion, had been collaborating with the French for a coordinated Irish rising and French invasion against the British. After failed attempts in 1797, the rebellion in 1798 was sporadic and uncoordinated. The French were hindered in their landing and actually did not arrive until after the United Irish had been suppressed. The southern United Irish cells rose before the northern ones, who were easily convinced to not rise at all, or who gave up quickly, when the government began to immediately put down the rebels. Endnote The ability of the government to so quickly stop the spread of rebellion was due in large part to the efforts of informers and early arrests of key leaders.

            The majority of Presbyterians were obedient to their church during the rebellion. Endnote The main Presbyterian participants in the rising were Presbyterian ministers, as well as blocks of Presbyterian laymen in very specific circumstances. For example, Presbyterian participation was found mainly in the Ulster counties of Down and Antrim where they constituted a large majority. Endnote In Armagh and Ulster, the Presbyterians predominately joined the Orange Order. Started in 1795 in reaction to the Defenders and United Irishmen, this society was made of mainly Episcopal Protestants and some Presbyterians who were directly supportive of the king and his government. Endnote As the decision of whether or not to rebel became more urgent, a few Presbyterians actually joined with the Orange Order to help fight the United Irish, especially in areas with a large percentage or even a majority of Catholics. Endnote Presbyterians joined because they were afraid of what would happen if Catholics were given the right to participate in government.

            One leading Presbyterian minister was Dr. William Steel Dickson. He was an avid United Irish supporter of republicanism and Catholic emancipation, though not involved in the society’s highest leadership. Endnote He used his pulpit and influence to further republican ideals. He was arrested early in June 1798 and later released in July, when a lack of evidence failed to convict him. Others did share Dickson’s fortunes in the whirlwind of government retribution. James Porter of Greyabbey was the only Presbyterian minister to be executed for treason. He was a New Light minister who had not been a United Irish member, but wrote for The Northern Star. Endnote According to McMillan, unsupported evidence got him convicted and Lord Londonderry, a very influential local landowner, had him executed. Endnote Even William Stavely, the Reformed minister who had a few years earlier warned his congregation against seditious ideologies, was arrested. Endnote Many men were imprisoned by the British, even up to three years, and others were exiled, often to France or America. On the whole, Presbyterian ministers were a minority of those executed or imprisoned for any length of time.

            The Synod of Ulster was embarrassed by the participation of any of its members in the rebellion. In August, 1798, it met at Lurgan in general assembly and drew up a petition to the king to remember the loyal Presbyterians and the sacrifices they made in fighting for the king against the traitors:


Let the madness of the Multitude be hidden from your eyes, by the courage, & sufferings of those of our Communion who have fought & died in defence of their King & Country, their Liberty, & Religion, and deign to harken to our Solemn Engagement, to do our utmost to recall the deluded from their Errors & Crimes, to make a strict Inquiry into the Conduct of our delinquent members; and to withstand to the best of our Abilities those pernicious foreign Principles which threaten alike the Temporal and Eternal Interests of Mankind. Endnote

After sending this to the king, they drew up another declaration to be read from the pulpits under their care in which they praised Presbyterians who upheld the government and “condemned acts of violence,” and greatly censured those who participated with the rebels or were in sympathy with them. Endnote

            Presbyterian initiative and reaction to the events of the 1790s took quite a few contradictory turns as different elements merged in a chaotic collision course that culminated in rebellion. The desire for political participation was fueled by the republican ideas from the American and French revolutions. The call for all men to be considered and treated as equals under the law regardless of religious conviction became a unifying element in Irish society. As much as Presbyterians believed these things and sympathized with the United Irish, there were other factors that they could not ignore. The issue of Catholic emancipation was divisive and opinion was split. Endnote Few besides the extreme radicals relished the idea of having to cooperate with the French and allowing them to invade Ireland. As the French revolution became more violent and godless, many people in Ireland, especially Presbyterians, became disgusted with it and fearful of the destructive path of its ideologies.

            The overall Presbyterian response to the outbreak of rebellion was a contradiction to the 1790-1793 support of constitutional reform and United Irishmen. However much their sympathies were with the rebels, through all the events, the majority of Presbyterians, and definitely the Presbyterian hierarchy, stayed true to their beliefs on church, state, and rebellion. Endnote The king and civil government were to be obeyed, regardless of persecution, unless the people were being pushed to pursue wickedness. Endnote The factors that would have made a successful rebellion favorable to the Presbyterian community were not tempting enough to turn from a covenanting tradition which had their inheritance since they settled in Ulster more than 100 years earlier.