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New Light On Dissent

Marianne Elliott

Dissent into Treason: Unitarians, King-killers and the Society of United Irishmen, by Fergus Whelan, Brandon Books/Mount Eagle Publications Ltd, 282 pp, €16.99, ISBN: 978-0863224294

Wolfe Tone’s common name of Irishman ideal is pretty generally known in Ireland as the definition of Irish republicanism.

to break the connection with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils, and to assert the independence of my country – these were my objects. To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissensions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman in the place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter – these were my means.

The republic came without his implied precondition of a secular national identity superseding conflicting religious ones, and in the religious polarisation of the nineteenth century the term “Dissenter” all but disappeared. These are the people Fergus Whelan is talking about in his Dissent into Treason. Though the term “Dissenter” was used to describe every religious grouping not belonging to either the Catholic or Anglican faiths, it has in Ireland come to be identified largely with Presbyterianism. Taking as his base two Presbyterian congregations in Dublin first established in the seventeenth century, Whelan traces the links with Ireland’s first modern republicans, the United Irishmen, through a series of linked biographies.

In what is a very readable and fast-moving book, each chapter opening with nice scene-setting vignettes, Whelan has added some additional new information, which might one day help us answer a question posed by Sean Connolly back in 1992 (in his Religion, law and power). Whatever became of Irish Dissent outside Ulster? By 1833 southern Dissenters had declined to under one per cent of the population and seem largely to have consisted of Quakers and Baptists. Irish Presbyterianism then has been a predominantly Ulster tradition. But in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it had a network also spanning other urban centres in Ireland, Britain (notably Scotland) and latterly North America. Indeed almost all the radicals who fled to the new American republic from Britain and Ireland in the crisis of the 1790s were Presbyterian Dissenters. And, as this book argues effectively, it was the coming together of their particular theological outlook with the spirit of the age which produced early Irish republicanism, and with it the espousal of Tone’s common-name-of-Irishman ideal.

Their clergy had arrived in batches in the seventeenth century, but operated as part of the established church until expelled from their livings. Because of various bouts of persecution, their descendants had as heightened a sense of victimhood as Catholics. They too suffered under the Penal Laws and, given their theological views, they had just as little reason to accept their Anglican rulers as did Catholics. Presbyterians were Calvinist in their theology. They believed they were a covenanted people, having made a contract with God to fulfil his will on earth. Their theology also conceived of godly political structures, resulting in a number of covenants made with successive governments. The most important was the famous 1643 Solemn League and Covenant, on which the 1912 Ulster Covenant was modelled. It was signed in London and agreed to support the parliamentary cause against Charles I in return for the establishing of Presbyterianism throughout the three kingdoms. But the victorious parliamentarians failed to honour this pledge and Presbyterians were persecuted under Cromwell, though supported under his son – so the refrain in the book of “Cromwellian” to describe successive generations of such Presbyterians requires some modification. It was then that the English character of southern Presbyterianism emerged, as distinct from the Scottish roots of its stronger Ulster side.

After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Anglicanism was restored as the state church, retaining, in Presbyterian eyes, many practices and hierarchical structures left over from the pre-Reformation church, while Presbyterianism believed that there should be no such intermediary between God and man. Now the state church had the monarch as its head, which Presbyterians considered unscriptural and a confusion between Christ’s kingdom and earthly ones. This did not necessarily make them rebels. Most of the time they were quietist in their relations with the state. But they were disliked and feared by the state at a time when those not of the state religion (that is Anglicanism) were considered a threat. Moreover, some Presbyterian groupings did adhere strictly to the covenant and denounced such establishments as blasphemous.

The hostility to the idea of any intermediary between God and man also led to internal theological disputes and Presbyterianism spawned a bewildering array of splinter groups. And since ministers were elected or called by their congregations rather than appointed by some higher authority, attempts to impose internal orthodoxy were also challenged. This coalesced with the rational spirit of the age in the refusal by “New Light” Presbyterians in the 1720s to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith – the central doctrinal statement of Presbyterianism. Their belief in the primacy of private conscience and support for religious tolerance came to imbue majority Presbyterian thinking and informed a climate of patriotism, reform and ultimately republicanism in the 1780s and 1790s.

Unitarianism (Arianism or anti-Trinitarianism) – the topic of Fergus Whelan’s book ‑ had been a strand, along with many others, within Presbyterianism since the seventeenth century. It became a separate, open tradition only when it was legalised in 1813 in Britain and 1817 in Ireland. It was as a result of harsh treatment meted out to early thinkers such as Revd Thomas Emyln that the New Light tendency came to the fore. Emlyn, assistant minister at the Wood Street congregation, was not a controversialist, but was forced to admit, when asked, that he found the doctrine of the Trinity unsound. The result was betrayal by his own to the established church authorities, trial by an established church court and harsh imprisonment for several years. Given Presbyterian beliefs about church establishments and uncovenanted states (particularly since this state had just passed the Test Act in 1704 to exclude Dissenters from public life), this had a deep impact on a new generation of Presbyterian clergymen, notable among them being the Ulsterman John Abernethy. All Abernethy’s siblings had been killed in the siege of Derry in 1689, but like other Presbyterians he had little reason to love the confessional state which followed the Protestant victories of “Derry, Enniskillen and the Boyne”. With like-minded clergy, he set up the Belfast Society in 1705. It was this group, further influenced by contemporary religious controversy in England and Scotland, which challenged the required subscription to the Westminster Confession and initiated the New Light tendency.

New Light thinking placed individual conscience above doctrinal creeds and considered the Bible, and not man-made confessions, as the only source of church authority – an argument, as Ian McBride’s study Scripture Politics has shown – that had been at the heart of the Protestant Reformation in its denunciation of papal power. In the eighteenth century, however, it was the sheer utilitarianism of these New Light Presbyterians (piety and virtue to be practised but not forced on others) which came to characterise their society.

Later in life Abernethy was called to be minister at Emlyn’s old church in Dublin and there became part of a formidable group of (largely Ulster) Presbyterians which included the future professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow University and father of the Scottish Enlightenment, Francis Hutcheson from Co Down. The Glasgow/Scottish foundation was an important gel for these Dissenters, as was kinship, for their families tended to intermarry. Their offspring carried their ideas forward and into that radical generation which applied the ultimate logic of their “latitudinarianism”: the notion that tolerance and liberty were nonsense if not applied to all men, even Catholics. Catholics had previously regarded the Presbyterians as far more anti-papist than Protestants of the established church. Indeed Dublin and London governments of the late eighteenth century viewed the coming together of Catholic and Dissenter with some incredulity. Tone, in his inimitable manner, exposed the illogicality of Presbyterian radicalism if it refused to extend the same rights it demanded for itself to Catholics. His celebrated Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland paved the way for the formation of the United Irishmen in October 1791.

There can be no doubt that the liberal New Light tendency in Presbyterianism underpinned the emergence of republicanism at the end of the century. But this is not the whole truth on the subject: the pioneering work of David Miller and latterly of Ian McBride has shown that at another level Presbyterians could remain anti-papist and yet be revolutionary. Because dissenting radicalism was theologically based, it owed just as much to orthodox Calvinism as to the rational dissent of the New Light “non-subscribers”. In an analysis of those Presbyterian ministers who had taken part in the 1798 rebellion, Miller showed that only half were non-subscribers.

Foremost among those who were not of the New Light tendency were the Covenanters. This group had emerged in Scotland in the mid-seventeenth century, when it refused to join the Church of Scotland and adhered strictly to the Solemn League and Covenant. It became a persecuted sect, with a memory of persecution that was almost a mirror image of Irish Catholic traditions. In accordance with their fundamental Calvinism, sect members refused to take oaths of allegiance to uncovenanted states. They were popular and fiery field-preachers, but they had also retained an equally fiery anti-popery. Their millenarian tendencies and interpretation of the French Revolution as prefacing the downfall of the Antichrist finds rather strange echoes in Tone’s apparently rational writings. As with the equally sectarian millenarianism of the Catholic Defenders, one might wonder how such extremes would have been kept in check had the 1798 rebellion succeeded. The Unitarians were on the more rational wing of the Dissenters. Even so, the United Irishmen had no problem in utilising the millenarianism of the less rational in their recruitment campaign.

There is some misunderstanding here about the nature of “Protestant nationalism” (in old money “colonial nationalism”) in the eighteenth century and indeed about the very term “republican”. Fergus Whelan denounces the likes of Jonathan Swift and queries Tone’s ambition to include him in some future Irish pantheon of national heroes. Certainly Swift, with most of his Anglican peers, disliked Dissenters with a passion. They were epitomised in the fanatical character of Jack in his Tale of a Tub (1704), unable to perform the most basic of acts without recourse to the Bible. Yet the ideas of such Protestant nationalists – in challenging the nature of English rule in Ireland – were just as important as those of the Dissenters in feeding into the development of modern Irish nationalism and republicanism at the end of the century and Tone rightly acknowledged that in his own writings. “Republicanism” in the eighteenth century, did not – at least not until its last years – mean the overthrow of the existing order and sometimes the continued use of “Cromwellian” to describe “patriot” or radical thinkers of the period can mislead.

That said, there is a nice coming together in Dissent into Treason of the different strands of Presbyterianism in a wide-ranging discussion of how Irish dissenting thought fits into the wider British support for the American colonists in their dispute with the mother country. It confirms the findings of other historians that the bulk of those radicals taking refuge in America at the end of the eighteenth century were Dissenters. Readers who have enjoyed Fergus Whelan’s book might want to read Michael Durey’s impressive fuller study of the topic, Transatlantic Radicals and the Early American Republic (1997). Most immigrants did well, for such was the diversity of Presbyterian theology in America that most could find a congregation that suited them. But the tiny group of Unitarians (mostly English immigrants) did not. They were to find, much as did Tone on his arrival in America in 1795, that being radical and pro-French at a time when newly independent America had taken a distinctly anti-republican turn was not a good position to be in. They remained a tiny sect, only ordaining their first minister in 1806. But in explaining the reason for distributing bibles without accompanying instruction or interpretation, one of their number gave a good description of how their theology could come to underpin the growing tolerance of the age:

We have always believed that the Scriptures contained many things hard to understand, yet there is sufficient in them, which is plain and intelligent to the meanest capacity … sufficient even without a guide to teach men their duty to God and to their fellow-men. Nor do we conceive the diversity of opinion among men on the subject of religion as an evil to be lamented. All that is necessary to produce happiness … is that men should think charitably of each other, agree to differ, believing that every one who professes himself to be guided by the principles of the Gospel, is sincere in his profession and will hereafter be approved by his Maker.

It is at the Great Strand Street congregation in Dublin that Fergus Whelan has identified other formidable radical thinkers as worshipping. Most notable is William Drennan, a Glasgow-educated Ulster doctor, who had moved to Dublin in 1789. The move gave rise to one of the finest insights into contemporary Irish radical thinking that we could hope for, in hundreds of letters to his sister, Martha McTier, an equally formidable radical thinker in her own right. Drennan was one of the most inspired writers associated with the Volunteers and advanced reformers in the 1780s and early 1790s. As such, he inspired the young Wolfe Tone and introduced him to fellow Presbyterians in Belfast. Indeed some believe Drennan to have been the real founder of the United Irishmen. Apart from the works of the late ATQ Stewart, Drennan has been strangely neglected by historians and still awaits a modern biography. As Whelan shows here, Drennan is a fine example of dissenting dynasties of advanced thinkers, for, as he argued in his proposed trial defence (1794), he was connected through his father, Rev Thomas Drennan, with Hutcheson, Abernethy and other founding luminaries of New Light tendencies.

Other United Irishmen identified by Whelan as linked with the Great Strand Street congregation include Archibald Hamilton Rowan and, less plausibly, Arthur O’Connor, Lord Edward Fitzgerald and Robert Emmet. Even though the intimate world of family connections and friendships are crucial to understanding the urban leadership of the United Irishmen, the biographical linking together of those attached to the two Dublin churches works less well in later chapters in the book and it is a pity that there was not more editorial input at this stage. Rowan is an interesting figure, not least because it was highly unusual for a Presbyterian to be a major landowner. But, as with O’Connor and ‑ undoubted courage aside ‑ even Lord Edward, he sometimes acted with a certain recklessness which is associated with his class. His dissenting upbringing in England, of which Whelan gives a good account, uncovers fascinating and wide-ranging dissenting connections, not least with his old tutor at Cambridge, John Jebb, and another tutor at the famous Dissenting Academy at Warrington, Joseph Priestly. Both would have an input into the early thinking of the United Irishmen.

Rowan escaped from prison and from Ireland in 1794 and was ultimately pardoned and permitted to return in 1806, living to the very respectable age for a former revolutionary of eighty-three. The end of his story is also told to good effect, as the congregation in his home church at Killyleagh in Co Down sided with Henry Cooke in the great controversy which saw the New Light tendency all but defeated and the Unitarians withdraw from the Synod in 1829. Traditionally this has been seen as the end of dissenting liberalism ‑ and so it is here. But I would suggest that the real end did not occur until much later. Historic Presbyterian reservations about relations with the state did not disappear until the rise of modern unionism. Where the dissenting tradition disappeared to thereafter is a question which, though posed by a number of recent writers, still hangs in the air.

There is a spirited defence by the author of some of those Presbyterians who chose not to follow the radicals. Indeed the majority did not. In contrast, his coverage of the 1798 period follows the heroes and villains approach of nineteenth century writers such as WJ Fitzpatrick, [presumably why he devotes so much attention to the so-called “Sham Squire”, government informer Francis Higgins] who in a series of works set out to show how a malign governing structure watched and manipulated the United Irishmen through informers and agents provocateurs. This view has been debunked by recent scholarship, most notably by Tom Bartlett (Revolutionary Dublin: The letters of Francis Higgins to Dublin Castle, 1795-1801), who concluded that “for most of the 1790s, Dublin Castle had no clear way of distinguishing quality information from the hysterical drivel sent in by panic-stricken magistrates, clergymen and landlords, or by the many adventurers in the United Irishmen”. He found that by the time of the rebellion in 1798 Dublin Castle “had won the intelligence war … But it had been a close-run thing.”

In this black and white, heroes and villains story the same villains are singled out as by the nineteenth century writers. Foremost is Lord Castlereagh, and the old story of Shelley’s poem “The Mask of Tyranny” (published 1832), and his later role as home secretary in England, are read back to misrepresent his conduct in the 1790s. Whilst few (on any side) involved in the brutal atmosphere of 1798 Ireland can escape blame, it strikes me that the villainous reputation which has followed Castlereagh in Ireland owes more to radical perceptions that he had once been one of their own and the very effective propaganda of the United Irishmen is saying as much. He appears in Dissent into Treason as the “apostate” Castlereagh. Yet in the records of the period he figures as a critic of the extreme loyalists and a supporter of the new lord lieutenant, Cornwallis’s, efforts to stop the executions and declare an amnesty for the rebels. He was, moreover, a supporter of Catholic emancipation and pushed through the Union on the understanding that it would be followed by such a measure.

Whelan has produced a very readable book which uses some new evidence from Dublin’s Unitarian Church to present a convincing argument: that there are other more important elements feeding into the emergence of modern Irish republicanism than the origin-myths of the Catholic victim and rebel, developed in the later nineteenth century. And while the use of the refrain “Cromwellian” to describe those influences is rather overstretched, nevertheless the importance of the theology of certain elements of the Protestant Reformation is accurate enough and well argued here. I may be wrong, but the new evidence found in the church registers seems insufficient to justify a lengthy book and, as noted above, does not sustain the second half very well. Indeed it would have been beneficial to have had some visual illustrations of the evidence, or at least an appendix listing some of the entries. But if I were asked whether this book has added much to our knowledge of an already well-trodden area the answer would be a resounding yes.


Marianne Elliott is Blair Chair and Director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Liverpool University. Her most recent book is When God Took Sides. Religion and Identity in Ireland. Unfinished History (Oxford, 2009). A second edition of her acclaimed biography of Wolfe Tone will be published in October 2011.

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