The Presbyterian Church in Ireland: a popular history, Finlay Holmes. (Columba Press, £7.99) ISBN 1856072843 Ulster-American Religion: episodes in the history of a cultural tradition, David Livingstone and Ronald A. Wells, University of Notre Da

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Book Reviews, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 3 (Autumn 2000), Reviews, Volume 8

Professor Finlay Holmes has put us in his debt once again by telling the often very complex story of Irish Presbyterianism in a narrative which is itself a model of clarity. In this book he returns to some themes which he has treated of before in articles in learned journals but which the general reader may not find convenient to consult, for example his summary treatment in chapter three of the roots of Presbyterian radicalism which led to a significant Presbyterian contribution to the Society of United Irishmen.
This chapter will do much to disabuse readers of the facile equation of liberal or New Light theology with radical, not to say, militant politics. Using and acknowledging the most recent research (as he does throughout his book), Professor Holmes acknowledges the work of David Miller and Ian McBride who have demonstrated the influence and importance of the apocalyptic interpretation of the times in the sermons and pamphlets of covenanting preachers. The New Light ministers of the often relatively wealthy congregations of the Synod of Ulster were not in a position to persuade the large numbers of weavers and small farmers who came out on to the field in June 1798. Some of them, like Robert Black of Derry and William Bruce of Belfast were not in the least inclined to anything other than a loyalist line. Recent research has demonstrated in fact that, of those who were suspected by the authorities of involvement in subversive activities, there were as many Old Light ministers as there were New Light. Professor Holmes is to be congratulated on his presentation of the post-1798 situation and his suggestions as to what happened to the radicalism of the nineties. This book is also to be commended for the fact that the author does not write (as church historians and, in particular, denominational historians have tended to do) as though the events they are describing took place without reference to the economic and social conditions of the time. One might wish that so sophisticated a commentator as Professor Holmes had lingered longer over these dimensions, but he was no doubt working within very strict constraints of length.
His narrative begins with the establishment of the first presbytery on Irish soil in June 1642 and in masterly fashion tells readers what they must know of the Scottish and Irish contexts of that presbytery. He follows the story through to 1992 and can be said to have omitted very little of real significance in between.  The reviewer might, however, be pardoned for wishing that he had adopted a more critical position from time to time vis-à-vis the church. Maybe it would not have been appropriate for a historian to do so, but this reviewer would for instance have welcomed some comment on the continuing and, on the whole, inhibiting effect of the Davey heresy trial which he describes (pp. 131-2). It is arguable that one result was a growth in what may be called theological self-censorship among ministers of a ‘liberal’ turn of mind, and that this, combined with the political self-censorship of those who did not entirely go along with the unionist position post-1922, led to serious ineffectiveness in many cases.

If Professor Holmes was prevented by lack of space from saying as much as he certainly could have and no doubt would have liked to, about the Davey heresy trial of 1927, the authors of Ulster-American Religion did not feel themselves cramped in this way. They give us a fuller account, and they set it (as they do all the other events and controversies they describe) in the context of what they call the ‘North Atlantic’ culture of evangelical Presbyterianism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They take Belfast and Princeton as the lode-stars of the firmament they survey, and they note in a way that anyone unfamiliar with the story will find fascinating, how the stories and the fates of Princeton Theological Seminary (and University) and various institutions in Belfast, particularly Queen’s College and Assembly’s College, were linked and for how long they were so. The concern of the authors is to trace the ways in which cultural geography and social history may be brought together to enrich one another. Their primary interest lies in the cultural and social location of ideas.
Over 340 Irish-born students are recorded as having attended Princeton Seminary prior to 1929, of whom almost ninety returned to Ireland afterwards, either as congregational ministers or to teach in Assembly’s College. One of them, on his return to a post in Assembly’s in 1893, made it his ambition ‘to make Belfast another Princeton’. The authors document the extent to which Presbyterian scholars in the two centres were pre-occupied with most of the same questions. They spoke of these and argued about them in a language that was shared, though the differences in the structure of society and economic circumstance could and did lead sometimes to divergent approaches, e.g. to revivalism and indeed evolutionary theory.
In chapter five, ‘Populist ideology and revivalism’, the authors make the case for the constitutive significance of religion in the forging of the unionist identity in the province of Ulster. They do not in every particular agree with the thesis first put forward by John Hickey in response to the Marxist or quasi-Marxist analyses of de Paor and others who tended at that stage to see the conflict in class terms. Hickey (1984) contended, as Livingstone and Bell do here, that the so-called ‘Ulster question’ cannot be understood without our recognising religious conflict as being at its heart. An increasing literature, including the works of Brooke, McBride and Bruce, confirm this.

Labour, Love and Prayer, underlines the desirability of recognising that in any conflict there are more tensions and more participants (some of them marginalised but nonetheless significant) than we readily recognise. Andrea Brozyna allows women, that half of Ulster’s population who are scarcely mentioned and not at all cited in the other two books discussed here, to speak. Brozyna’s book does more than merely cite women, however. It documents the degree to which Catholics and Protestants saw the role of women as the preservers and transmitters of their respective belief systems. ‘Conservatism’, say Brozyna (p. 211), ‘in matters concerning gender construction and understanding of gender roles was a feature of the popular religious literature of Catholics and Protestants. Each for their own particular reasons, sought to prevent change in the realm of the family.’ Contemporary observers and the women themselves were most often obsessed with what made Protestants and Catholics different. The extraordinary finding of this book is that as these women from each side of the confessional divide set about the task of constructing a picture of the ideal Christian lay woman, the figure they set before their readers was in effect a shared (and increasingly bourgeois!) construct. Perhaps, if the author had been in a position to deploy the all too scanty surviving material in Irish, she would have had to modify this somewhat.

Terence McCaughey


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