History

This is an article about Unitarianism in Ireland. For a specific history and details of our church building, please go to the church building page.

Unitarianism in general

Unitarians are people of liberal religious outlook who are united by a common search for meaning and truth. Although of Christian origin and still following the teaching of Christ as a great and godly leader, Unitarianism today also seeks insight from other religions and philosophies. Individual beliefs within our religious community are quite diverse, and personal religious development is seen as a continuing process. We see religious beliefs as relevant to all aspects of life. Our services of worship can be viewed as the celebration of our deepest values.

Unitarianism has no set doctrines or dogmas. The broad beliefs of Irish Unitarians are summed up in the introductory statement in the Dublin church’s monthly calendar, under the three central Unitarian principles of freedom, reason and tolerance. This statement reads: “Love is the doctrine of this church. The quest for truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer. To dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve mankind in fellowship, to the end that all souls shall grow in harmony with the Divine – thus do we covenant with each other and with God.”

Puritan roots of Unitarianism in Ireland

THE congregation which assembles in this church every Sunday can trace its descent back to English Puritans who arrived in Ireland at the end of the 16th and early 17th centuries. They took the view that the reformation of the Christian Church under Queen Elizabeth I – the breakaway from Roman Catholicism to form Anglicanism – was incomplete, and its hierarchies and practices remained corrupt and unscriptural. The earliest such congregation we know about was formed in Bandon, Co Cork, probably in the early 1600s.

In this way, ironically, the seeds of Unitarianism in Ireland were Puritan ones, and thus a very long way indeed from the thinking of the present day congregation. What distinguished these early Dissenters – and made them comparable to their contemporary Unitarian counterparts – was their independence of mind and their willingness to challenge religious orthodoxies.

At first, the English Puritans who came to Munster and Leinster, were generally tolerated within the established Anglican Church – although they were persecuted in the years leading up to the English Civil War. The Presbyterians who had come to Ireland from Scotland suffered similar persecutions. In the ‘Cromwellian’ period which followed the parliamentary side victory in that war, many Presbyterian and Independent congregations flourished. However all this changed following the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, the parallel restoration of the established episcopal churches and the passing of the Acts of Uniformity in England and Ireland, making the Book of Common Prayer compulsory at all places of worship.

As had happened in England, a number of ministers refused to conform to this hierarchical form of church governance and were ejected from their positions in parish churches. Together with their followers they formed their own Dissenting or Nonconformist congregations. Among the congregations formed in Dublin were those which set up ‘Meeting Houses’ at Wood Street, New Row, Cook Street and Mary’s Abbey. Other breakaway congregations were formed in Tipperary town and Clonmel. Thus the passing of the Act of Uniformity led to the creation of a separate religious identity, that of Protestant Dissenter, which absorbed the earlier Puritan ethos. The strand of Protestant Dissent found in the aforementioned congregations became the main root from which Irish Unitarianism was to grow.

Many such congregations were also established in Ulster, where the first planters from the Scottish lowlands had brought their Puritan ministers with them, and the first presbytery, the non-hierarchical gathering of elders which is the organisational base of Presbyterianism, was formed in 1642. Thus was organised Presbyterianism in Ireland born, out of which, in the following two centuries, emerged the ‘Non-Subscribing’ liberal Presbyterians, the Northern cousins of today’s Dublin Unitarian congregation.

The first Protestant Dissenting congregation for which authentic records can be found met in Wood Street (near the site of the former Adelaide Hospital). This Meeting House was attended by many wealthy families and people in influential positions in government and the professions: in 1710 it was able to contribute the huge sum – for those days – of £6,750 to a fund for “the support of religion in Dublin and the South of Ireland”. It was led by pastors with international reputations, such as John Owen, Stephen Charnock and Joseph Boyse. The latter was particularly famous for his championing of those who disagreed with the restrictive religious orthodoxies of the day.

The coming of Unitarianism

During the first half of the 18th century a reluctance to accept the doctrine of the Trinity began to appear in some religious thought and writing. This was not yet called Unitarianism, but Arianism, after a Christian priest who lived in Alexandria during the 4th century and preached that Christ was not of one substance with God. Arianism was regarded, even in the Dissenting churches, as a heresy. However in 1702 Thomas Emlyn, the minister in Wood Street, was tried and imprisoned for two years for blasphemy after publishing a book defending his Arian views. Emlyn was an influential figure in religious debate at the time, and was the first minister anywhere to use the name ‘Unitarian’.

[The word Unitarianism did not come into more common usage until the 1770s, when a former Anglican minister called Theophilus Lindsey, who felt he could no longer accept the doctrine of the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, started an openly Unitarian chapel in central London. One of the earliest members of his congregation was the scientist Joseph Priestly, the discoverer of oxygen.]

Some Ulster Presbyterians were alarmed by these heretical views, which were also spreading in some of the old Presbyterian congregations of Antrim and Down. Their leaders’ response was to attempt to impose a rigid conformity of belief by insisting on ‘subscription’ to the Westminster Confession of Faith, a document written in the 1640s which reflected the struggle between the Reformation and Counter-Reformation of that era.
Many ministers and elders with more liberal and open-minded views were deeply unhappy with this doctrine and its enforcement. In 1726 John Abernethy, leader of the so-called ‘New Light’ movement, along with 16 other ministers, refused to sign, or ‘subscribe’ as it was called, and they and their congregations were expelled from the Presbyterian Synod of Ulster. This was the birth of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church.

Some years later Abernethy was invited to become minister of Dublin’s Wood Street congregation. His influence was to consolidate that of his predecessor Thomas Emlyn so that, according to one historian of Unitarianism, the congregation would soon become “Arian in tone, and steadily gravitate towards ultimate Unitarianism.”
If for much of the late 18th century religious life in Ireland for those of Dissenting views was relatively tranquil, this was to change dramatically in the wake of the French Revolution. These changes were political, economic and religious. Many Dissenting ministers sympathised with the 1798 Rebellion, and in the North two were executed and 18 imprisoned for their active involvement in it (one leading member of the present congregation is descended from an army officer who fought with the United Irishmen in Leinster). Another factor was the decline of those industries which had brought the early Puritans to the country: the Bandon congregation, for example, disintegrated following the end of the woollen industry in that town.

In the 1820s and 1830s, the conservative Ulster Presbyterian leader, Rev Henry Cooke, took it upon himself to rescue Irish Presbyterianism from the “bog of indifference and moral laxity” into which he was convinced it was sinking under the influence of Arian views. Cooke’s energies did not confine themselves to Ulster. Unitarian congregations in Munster were largely restored to mainstream Presbyterianism. The only Unitarian congregation to survive in southern Ireland outside Dublin was in Cork.

However, Dublin remained a stronghold of liberal Dissenting ideas with two thriving congregations in Strand Street and Eustace Street. The Wood Street congregation had moved across the River Liffey to Strand Street, where a new meeting house opened in 1764. Shortly before this, in 1762, the Dissenters of Mary’s Abbey had joined the Wood Street congregation and the Cook Street congregation joined with Strand Street in 1787. Over the next century there was a clear move in Strand Street towards more Unitarian opinions. By 1843 the congregation regarded itself as distinctively Unitarian, as indicated by its communion plates inscribed in that year.

In the late 1820s the internationally-known theologian and philosopher Rev James Martineau – an early advocate of ecumenism between the churches – served as minister at Eustace Street (to where the New Row congregation had moved in 1728). His six-month-old daughter died during his short time in Dublin, and is buried in the Huguenot cemetery on Merrion Row near the Shelbourne Hotel. In later life Dr Martineau would fall out of sympathy with the militant Unitarianism of the mid-19th century, which he found “critical, cold and untrusting” and would plead for a warmer, more emotional kind of religion.

Rev W.H.Drummond, whose portrait hangs in the St Stephens Green vestry, presided over Strand Street for 40 years until 1859. He was a dedicated and devoted Unitarian, not afraid to enter into public debate against its detractors. Irish Unitarianism was also strengthened by the influence of the great American Unitarian William Ellery Channing, who as a preacher and writer in Boston, Massachusetts, had a great impact on the thinking of the Harvard Divinity School and other leading US Protestant seminaries.

The Unitarian Church in modern Ireland

For over 50 years, from 1910 to 1962, the minister at St Stephen’s Green was Rev E. Savell Hicks, who was widely acclaimed by people of all religious persuasions throughout the city as an outstanding preacher. He played a largely unrecognised behind-the-scenes role in moves to bring the British government and the old IRA together for talks to end the war of independence in the early 1920s. A man of wide religious, philosophical and literary interests, he did much to encourage religious co-operation in the first half of the century when there was still considerable prejudice and even outright bigotry in the new Irish state.

In the mid-20th century the large room under the church, the Damer Hall – which had once been a school – became famous for another reason, as a theatre. From the mid 1950s to the late 1970s it was the centre of both professional and amateur Irish language theatre in Dublin as the home of Amharclann an Damer. The world premiere of Brendan Behan’s An Giall (The Hostage) took place here in 1957.

Savell Hicks was succeeded by Rev Kenneth Wright, another fine preacher with a bent for philosophy, who presided over a small but loyal congregation into the 1990s.
In 1996, a new minister arrived from Yorkshire. Under Rev Bill Darlison the church experienced something of a revival, with attendances at Sunday morning services greatly increased by new members, many of them younger people from a Catholic or non-religious background searching for a new kind of spirituality in the Ireland of the ‘Celtic Tiger’. Many were attracted by the new minister’s powerful sermons on the need for a new form of Unitarian mysticism to provide guidance on how to live a fully aware life in the contemporary world.

A Sunday school, a lay preachers course and midweek meditation services were started. Wedding services became an almost weekly occurrence. Several members were active in the peace process in Northern Ireland, and an annual Good Friday service was initiated at which the names of all those who had died in the 30 years of the Northern Ireland conflict were read out. A new energy is now being felt in the old church, together with the feeling that Unitarianism is once again a living part of the complex religious and cultural tapestry that is Ireland in the early years of the 21st century.

In June, 2010, Rev. Bill Darlison retired as Minister of Dublin Unitarian Church. His successor is Rev. Bridget Spain. Appointed in 2007 as Dublin’s first Assistant Minister for 116 years, she is the first woman Unitarian minister in the Republic of Ireland

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