The second coming of Paisley: militant fundamentalism and Ulster politics

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 6 (November/December 2014), Reviews, Volume 22

Richard Lawrence Jordan
Syracuse University Press
ISBN 9780815633136

Reviewed by
Brian Kennaway


In The second coming of Paisley, the American historian Richard Lawrence Jordan claims to provide us with some theological insights into the nature of Ian Paisley’s politics. The title may cause confusion. Some may think that ‘the second coming’ is a reference to a bodily resurrection and a return of Paisley to the religious, if not political, stage. The title summarises Jordon’s thesis that it was Ian Paisley’s eschatology that drove him both religiously and politically. Jordon’s thesis is that it was Paisley’s premillennialist eschatology, like that of his father, Kyle, which was the driving force in the early days of his religious and political life (p. 101), and that his change to an amillennialist eschatological position enabled him eventually to ‘cut a deal’ with his political opponents.

Having lived through much of the period covered in this book, including being the chaplain of the Lutheran branch of Ulster Protestant Action, I have serious questions about that analysis. I doubt very much whether Paisley himself would have agreed with it. In spite of Jordon’s insistence on expanding his thesis, he does not provide any concrete evidence, by way of quotations from Paisley’s sermons or writings, to substantiate his claims. The only evidence he offers is, ironically, the evidence of ‘guilt by association’, a favourite tactic of Ian Paisley to denounce others as ‘apostate’. Paisley had a long association with well-known premillennialists, like the Lurgan Baptist pastor William Mullan, Bob Jones, the American Southern Baptist, and ‘militant maverick’ Carl McIntire. Jordan also maintains that the Reformed Theological Hall, which Paisley attended as a guest student, ‘reinforced his premillennialism’. This is not true! The Reformed Presbyterian Church never taught premillennialism.
With reference to this ‘change’ in Paisley’s eschatology, Jordon admits (p. 233):

‘He never publicly articulated this view, but his conversation was exposed by his actions. Moreover, the Articles of Faith of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, published in The Revivalist in November 1969, took an ambiguous stance on the Second Coming, calling it “the visible and personal return of our Lord Jesus Christ”, a position that both pre- and amillennialists could take.’

The footnote refers to ‘The Revivalist, Nov.–Dec. 1969’, but this statement of faith appears in The Revivalist of Sept.– Oct. 1959, a decade before Jordan suggests. This goes some way towards defeating his argument. Those outside the ‘hothouse’ church life of Protestant Ulster may find it difficult to comprehend that one’s views on eschatology (the Second Coming of Christ) would determine whether or not one was accepted as an orthodox Christian. For many, particularly from the Baptist perspective in which Paisley grew up, believing in a premillennial return of Christ and even in dispensationalism were the hallmarks of evangelical Christianity. Those who hold to a premillennialist eschatology believe that Jesus will literally and physically return to the Earth before Christ’s reign for 1,000 years during a golden age of peace. This is based upon a literal interpretation of Revelation 20:1–6. Nevertheless, in spite of its shortcomings, Jordan’s argument is well worth the patience, as it provides us, albeit through the back window, with a route map over which Paisley, the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster and the Democratic Unionist Party have travelled—even though the basic thesis behind it is ‘not proven’.

In his introduction Jordon states: ‘Without Paisleyism, it is safe to say, the “Troubles” would have unfolded very differently—if they unfolded at all’ (p. 11). He concludes: ‘In spite of his legacy as an anti-Catholic bigot and crusading Loyalist, by entering into government with Sinn Féin, Paisley has offered Northern Ireland its best chance to date for lasting peace’. Between those two statements Jordon takes us on a journey through Paisley’s life, claiming that his eschatology motivated him and that his connection with and support of American militant fundamentalists thrust him onto the global stage. He makes much of Paisley’s association with Carl McIntire, who, like Paisley, fought more with his friends than his enemies. He also shows his connection to the Southern Separatist Bob Jones and the anti-communist (Roman Catholic) Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. He claims (p. 57):

‘McIntire’s willingness to overlook McCarthy’s Catholicism—and thus to compromise militant fundamentalist theology and separatism—showed his political pragmatism. Two decades later Paisley copied this political amillennialism.’

As I have indicated, there are many shortcomings, in terms of factual errors, the use of language and the lack of completeness of the narrative. This book should, in my opinion, have dealt more vigorously with the divisive nature of Paisley’s religion and politics.

Paisley’s divisiveness was first seen at the age of twenty, when he accepted an invitation to be the ‘pastor’ of Ravenhill Evangelistic Mission, to which he was ‘ordained’ in 1946. Jordon rightly points out that this Mission grew out of a dispute in Ravenhill Presbyterian Church over women wearing make-up and having their hair cut, seen by some as a mark of Jezebel. This divisiveness continued in 1951 during the vacancy in Lissara Presbyterian Church. Down Presbytery were theoretically correct according to the Code of the Church, which prohibits the holding of an evangelistic mission during the vacancy of a church. Paisley and the zealous evangelicals around Crossgar believed, however, that this was yet more evidence to prove the influence of Liberalism in Presbyterianism. What Jordon does not note is that a few years later George Gibson, one of the Elders who left, courageously, along with his brother and their families, returned to Lissara.

Jordon covers the dispute (p. 224) between Norman Porter and the Revd Eric Borland within the National Union of Protestants. He does not highlight that the dispute arose over the affirmation that Paisley made in 1952, during an executive meeting, that his ‘calling was to split the churches’. It was this divisive position that led Borland to ask ‘how can I sit in this executive with you when you want to split my church?’ The Revd Eric Borland told me that he made it clear that either Paisley left or he left.

As a result, Paisley was voted off the executive and, as the book indicates, went on to form his own branch of the National Union of Protestants because of his connection to his uncle, the Revd W. St Clair Taylor, the general secretary in London.

Paisley’s divisiveness continued within the Orange Order, and Jordon’s recollection of the conflict with the Revd Warren Porter (p. 173) gives a flavour of the episode. The Orange Order did not, however, ‘censor’ Paisley, as he transferred from the Mountpottinger Lodge, contrary to Orange Law, to Shankill LOL 1069 Lodge in No. 9 District after Porter gave notice of bringing a charge against him at the next meeting of the Lodge. He continued to take every opportunity, no matter how small, to cause division within the Protestant churches, particularly the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

Ed Moloney’s assertion that Paisley was driven by ego is borne out in this book. Jordon often makes reference to his desire for martyrdom and publicity. As Paisley allegedly told Norman Porter, ‘We will never get anywhere until we go to jail’, which was typical of his desire for notoriety. His desire for publicity was seen in his comparing the ‘copy inches’ he received to those of others. His ‘stunts’ began long before the Third Force or the ‘waving of firearms certificates on Slemish’. In the 1950s he alleged that a shot had been fired into the lounge of his home. When the police investigated, however, they discovered the glass fragments on the outside window-sill and closed the case.

When Jordon uses the expression ‘militant fundamentalism’ to describe the theology of Paisley and his American associates, he is describing a fundamentalism whose origins appear in the Southern states of America and embraced not only a verbal inspiration but also a literal interpretation of the Bible. They also held to the exclusive use of the Authorised (1611) version of the Bible and the use of Jacobean English to address God in prayer—as if the Almighty could not understand modern English. It is seen in a strict adherence to the tradition of women wearing hats, not using make-up and not having their hair cut. It does not, however, embrace the Sabbatarianism of Paisley.
The author does not appear to understand that many conservative Christians in Northern Ireland also regard themselves as fundamentalists, though not in the same sense, but as adhering to the fundamental essentials of the Gospel. Jordon’s use on at least eight occasions of the pejorative term ‘Northern Ireland statelet’, commonly used by Sinn Féin, does not help to give the book any authority.

Jordon rightly questions the validity of Paisley’s ordination, as it does not conform to the Presbyterian form of a ‘collective laying on of hands’. While the Free Presbyterian Church acknowledges the ‘presence’ of others at the service, they do not claim that any of them took part in his ordination. In fact, only his father, Kyle, laid hands on him. Paisley’s claim, therefore, to be a ‘Calvinist’ and a ‘Presbyterian’ are open to serious question. His Calvinist claims are open to question because of the evangelistic methods he employed. His mental and sometimes physical force conversions—getting people to ‘stand for Jesus’—have more in common with the Arminianism and ‘Revivalism’ of Charles Finney than with the theology of John Calvin. His Presbyterian claims have no foundation, as the Free Presbyterian Church does not accept the Westminster position of paedobaptism and his almost consistent occupation of the Moderator’s chair (Sydney Lince served as Moderator of the new church for a few months) is not in keeping with the Presbyterian tradition. Paisley was not a Presbyterian either by conviction or by convention, but merely used it as a convenient title to poach members.

Jordon makes reference to the fact that Paisley received an honorary doctorate from Bob Jones University in 1966 (p. 185). He does not, however, reveal the source of his other ‘degrees’, which came to light following articles in the Irish Times on 11–13 August 1959. A response appeared in The Revivalist in September–October 1959:

‘Dr Paisley holds degrees from two Evangelical colleges in the USA—the Pioneer Theological Seminary, Rockford, Illinois, and Burton College and Seminary, Manitou Springs, Colorado. In March 1954, Mr Paisley obtained his BD degree from Rockford Seminary and in October the same year, on the recommendation of three theological professors, the trustees of the same seminary granted him first Moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, a DD degree (honoris causa).’

Both these colleges, however, are correspondence schools, outlawed by the American education authorities as ‘bogus degree mills’. Jordon covers how Paisley and others have served time in jail for breaking the law. This evidence of an antinomian tendency has already been covered in my article in the Irish Times on 9 May 2007. Jordon evidently has no understanding of the diverse eschatology held by different groups in Northern Ireland during this period. The sad thing is that this ‘academic’ book may be taken at face value and its errors repeated in subsequent publications. Ian Richard Kyle Paisley was a man of great ability, and also one of many contradictions. But was he also a charlatan?

Revd Brian Kennaway is a Presbyterian minister and author of The Orange Order: a tradition betrayed (2006).


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