What is our story as Non-Subscribing Presbyterians in Ireland? How did our denomination come to be formed?
I wonder how many of us know the details of how our denomination came into being?
The story of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland (also called the NSPCI) is a story that takes us right back to the earliest beginnings of Presbyterianism in Ireland.
It is also a story that involves the coming together of three separate and distinct Non-Subscribing Presbyterian groups in Ireland. I would like to look at these three groups now starting with the Presbytery of Antrim. And in doing so, we will start at the very beginning.
The first Presbyterians to arrive in Ireland were from Scotland even before the plantations took place. The new King of Scotland James VI when he came to power tried to do away with the Presbyterian Church in Scotland and tried to make it into an Episcopal Church with Bishops as was the case in the Church of England. As we saw last week, having bishops made the Church much easier for the Monarch to have exert control over rather than the grass roots democratic system represented by Presbyterianism. Many Presbyterians in Scotland resisted and in the end were successful, but some decided to cross the Irish Sea to make a new life for themselves in Ulster.
It wasn’t long after in 1610 when James, who was by now also King of England began his strategy of the plantations in order to gain more control over the North of Ireland. And with the plantations large waves of Scottish Presbyterians and English Puritans were moved into Ulster, rapidly swelling the number of Presbyterians.
By 1642, there were enough Presbyterians to form a Presbytery consisting of some of the earliest congregations: First and Second Presbyterian Churches in Belfast, as well as the Churches in Cairncastle, Holywood, Larne and Templepatrick. All of these Church are part of the NSPCI today.
For the first 100 years or more, from the early 1600’s to the early 1700’s Ulster Presbyterians never had to subscribe to a specific statement of belief. For the first 100 years they survived and flourished quite happily with the Bible alone as their rule of faith. Many would have known and agreed with the ideas of John Calvin together with the ideas of other reformers, but at no point were these early Ulster Presbyterians required to all agree on exactly what the correct doctrine was.
But by the early 1700’s this began to change. In 1690, in Scotland, the mother-land of Ulster Presbyterianism, the Westminster Confession of Faith was adopted into law in the Scottish parliament, defining the faith of the Church of Scotland which was Presbyterian. From that point on, Presbyterianism became more than just a system of government, it now formally became Calvinist as well. Calvin's theology became Presbyterian Doctrine, and Presbyterian Ministers in Scotland were required to conform to it. Scottish ministers were required to sign or subscribe their names as a token of belief in the Westminster Confession of Faith.
This was not the case in Ulster, because the Presbyterians of Ulster were independent of the Church of Scotland. But overtime, because Ulster still recruited many of it’s ministers from Scotland and many were trained in Scotland, they brought with them the influence of the Church of Scotland. Soon Calvinism became the popular belief of Presbyterians in Ulster and it wasn’t long before some of these Scottish ministers began to try and make it compulsory for Irish and Ulster Presbyterians to subscribe as well.
These attempts were bravely resisted by quite a number of Ulster Presbyterians. John Abernathy was the key name among the non-subscribers. He was the minister of Antrim and was opposed to all attempts to introduce Subscription. In 1719 he preached a famous sermon in Belfast in which he denied that the Church had any right to make people subscribe to any statement of belief. A year later, when Rev. Samuel Halliday came to Belfast to be installed at First Church in Rosemary Street, he refused to Subscribe and this brought the matter to a head.
By this time the number of Presbyteries had grown and so the Synod of Ulster had been formed. At it’s next Annual meeting in 1721 it was urged that all ministers should subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith. Those who opposed this, and contended that there should be no creed except the Bible became known from that time onwards as Non-Subscribers. Further, in 1724, Rev. Thomas Nevin, Minister of Downpatrick was tried on a charge of heresy. There General Synod ruled against him, although a sizeable minority supported him. The Synod of Ulster didn’t know what to do with these non-subscribers and so decided to put them into their own Presbytery, to remove what they saw as bad apples from corrupting others. The new Presbytery became known as the non-subscribing Presbytery of Antrim. They were still officially part of the Synod of Ulster, but the following year it was decided to completely sever ties with the Presbytery of Antrim making it an independent body.
This episode in Ulster Presbyterian History is called the First Subscription Controversy. Now there were two Presbyterian bodies in Ulster. There was the Synod of Ulster who were officially subscribing. And there was the Presbytery of Antrim which was Non-Subscribing. Interestingly, some of those original congregations like Templepatrick, Larne, Cairncastle although they were placed in the Non-Subscribing Presbytery of Antrim, adopted the name The Old Presbyterian Church of Larne or Templepatrick or Cairncastle as a reminder that for over 100 years the original or old Presbyterians of Ulster were not forced to Subscribe to Calvinist Doctrine or in fact to any creedal statement at all apart from the Bible. These Churches still to this day, are known as the Old Presbyterians and are part of our denomination.
Next we come to the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster.
The subscribers in the Synod of Ulster in the North believed they had won by pushing the non-subscribers out into the Presbytery of Antrim. But as time past, over the next 80-90 years, attitudes towards the Westminster Confession of Faith relaxed and from about the 1770-80’s they were no longer forcing their ministers to subscribe to it. By about 1820 the issue of forced subscription became a problem again especially when accusations began to grow that some ministers were Arian in their theology and therefore no longer subscribed to the orthodox views of the Trinity. On the side of trying to enforce Subscription was the Rev. Dr. Henry Cooke. And on the side of those advocating Non-subscription was the Rev. Dr. Henry Montgomery, strongly supported by the minister from Banbridge the Rev James Davis. Rev. Dr Henry Montgomery became known as the Lion of Dunmurry. In the battles between Henry Montgomery and Henry Cook, within the Synod of Ulster, the Rev. Dr Henry Cook’s supporters were in the majority. Once again a new set of Non-subscribers were forced out of the General Synod and once again, they formed their own organisation. In 1829, Rev. Dr. Henry Montgomery led three Presbyteries of Armagh, Bangor and Templepatrick out of the Synod of Ulster and formed the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster (which still sort of exists today under the umbrella of the NSPCI).
The first moderator of the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster was the Rev. William Porter who made the following statement:
“We have come together to prove that we are genuine Presbyterians, asserters of the right of private judgement, uncompromising advocates of the self-sufficiency of the Bible as the Rule of Faith and Duty – Christ, Christ and Christ only is our King. The Bible, and the Bible only is our accredited standard of Belief.”
And so in 1830, there were now three Presbyterian organisations in Ulster -
There was the General Synod of Ulster comprising of Subscribing Presbyterians.
There was the Non-Subscribing Presbytery of Antrim that had been formed in 1725
And now there was the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster formed in 1830.
Lastly we come to the Non-Subscribers of the South.
At the same time as all of this was taking place in the North of Ireland, in the South of Ireland over a long period of time there had been in existence similar groups of Presbyterians. Although there was some cross-fertilisation with Presbyterians from the North of Ireland, the Presbyterians in the South of Ireland had a largely separate or parallel existence. Their primary beginnings had not been Scottish Presbyterianism, but rather English Presbyterianism. They were known initially as the Southern Association which became distinct and separated from the subscribing Presbytery of Dublin when the Presbytery of Dublin was constituted in 1726. Like many Presbyterians in England who had begun to move away from the Westminster Confession of Faith, so in turn many Presbyterians in the South of Ireland had also begun to move away from the Westminster Confession of Faith. Some of these Churches in the South of Ireland had in fact never subscribed to the Westminster Confession of faith, going right back to the late 1600’s and early 1700’s. These Churches which formed what was called the Southern Association had in fact supported the first Non-Subscribers of the North when they were placed in the Non-Subscribing Presbytery of Antrim. The Southern Association had also provided support for Rev. Colville and the Dromore congregation when he had refused to subscribe, allowing Dromore to become a part of the Southern Association in order for Rev. Colville to be properly installed at Dromore. Like many Presbyterians in England as well as some in Ulster, there were also Presbyterians in the Southern Association who were beginning to adopt Arian and Unitarian beliefs because they felt they could no longer subscribe to the Doctrine of the Trinity based on their reading of Scripture. In fact as early as 1703 saw the trial and sentencing of Rev. Thomas Emlyn in Dublin to two years imprisonment and a hefty fine because he didn’t subscribe to orthodox views of the Trinity. This trial and sentencing in Dublin left a lasting impact not only on the churches in the South but also in the North.
And so across Ireland, by 1830, there were now 3 Non-Subscribing Presbyterian groups that largely held a similar positions on many things.
There was the Presbytery of Antrim
There was the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster
And there was the Southern Association which by that time was now called the Synod of Munster.
At a meeting held in Dublin on the 20th July 1835, representatives of each of these three groups met to discuss how they might work together and formed the Association of Irish Non-subscribing Presbyterians. This wasn’t yet the NSPCI as we know it today. It was more of an association rather than a fully fledged denomination.
Over time, in the North of Ireland, in Ulster, the Presbytery of Antrim and the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster grew closer together. Finally in 1910, the Presbytery of Antrim and the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster united in a more formal way to form the General Synod of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland, and so the NSPCI as a denomination was born.
They remained part of the Association of Irish Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Churches with the Synod of Munster.
Then finally in 1935 the Synod of Munster formally became part of the General Synod of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterians Church of Ireland and together adopting the motto from Scripture: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is Freedom”.
In reference to this liberty, in 1892, Rev. W.G. Bannister summarised the spirit that continues to guide our denomination when he said:
“Remember, liberty, however precious, is in itself only a negative. It is merely the removal of hindrances to seeking truth. A far greater question is: what truth have you found, when you have go your liberty? What Gospel have you to proclaim for the salvation of the world? Had Christ a Gospel for the world? He had. What does he teach? He unfolds that life’s secret lies in blessedness not happiness, in character not condition, in righteousness, not reputation, in meekness, truth, gentleness, goodness, not in riches ease or power, that we must not resist evil but bless them that persecute us, that love is the greatest thing in the world, and the fulfilling of the law”.
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