Where did Unitarianism in Dublin come from?
The lively congregation which gathers at the 150-year-old church in St. Stephen’s Green owes its origin to English Puritans who arrived in Ireland in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Although the location of the earliest Meeting House in Dublin remains unknown, by the 1660s the descendants of the first Puritans were meeting in Wood Street, which is situated between Aungier Street and Peter Street.
The description ‘Puritan’ is unlikely to be applied to today’s Unitarians but the Puritan independence of mind and dissent from imposed religious orthodoxies is still embraced enthusiastically by their spiritual descendants in the Dublin church, and by its sister congregations in Cork and Northern Ireland. The Puritans reached their high point following the victory of the Parliamentary forces in the English Civil War of the 1640s and the establishment of the Commonwealth but their fortunes changed following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.
Many of their ministers refused to conform to the new authorities and were ejected from their positions in parish churches and other institutions. With their supporters they set up separate Nonconformist congregations outside of the established Church. Among the Nonconformist congregations set up in Dublin were those of New Row, Cook Street and Mary’s Abbey. Over the course of two centuries, these congregations and the older Wood Street congregation relocated and merged until their descendants became the congregation that worships today at the church on St. Stephen’s Green.
Evolution of Unitarianism
For most of their history up to the time of the move to St. Stephen’s Green these congregations were publicly known, and would have referred to themselves, as Protestant Dissenters or Presbyterians. Following a split with the more orthodox Presbyterian congregations in the middle of the 19th century, the Eustace Street and Strand Street congregations gradually began to publicly identify themselves more by their Unitarian beliefs than by their Presbyterian form of church governance. Arian views (that Christ was not God) had begun to emerge at the start of the 18th century. This was seen as heresy and in 1702 Rev. Thomas Emlyn, one of the Wood Street ministers, was imprisoned for publishing such views. Emlyn was one of the first ministers in Ireland to use the name Unitarian, to distinguish this view from the Trinitarians who believed there were three persons in the one God. Up to 1813 there were legal restrictions on Unitarian worship but the passage through parliament that year gave Unitarians the freedom to worship on the same terms as Trinitarians.
In 1730 Ulsterman John Abernethy became minister of Wood Street. His refusal in 1726 to subscribe to the Calvinist Westminster Confession led to the birth of Non-Subscribing Presbyterianism. The liberal Christian congregations of Non- Subscribers, mainly located in Co. Antrim and Co. Down, had close bonds with the Dublin congregations and together they would later form the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland (NSPCI).
The early congregations of the mid 17th century relocated and merged several times in the following century. In 1762 the Wood Street congregation was joined by the Dissenters of Mary’s Abbey. Together they would move to Great Strand Street where a new meeting house had opened in 1764. They were joined there in 1787 by the Cook Street congregation. In 1728 the New Row congregation moved to a new meeting house on Eustace Street. This building, in the area now known as Temple Bar, is today home to the children’s cultural centre The Ark.
Our church is linked to many historic events and developments in Irish history through the men and women who worshipped and played an active part in the life of the St. Stephen’s Green church and in the Meeting Houses that it descends from. Short bios of some of these men and women can be viewed in Notable Unitarians
The move to St. Stephen’s Green
In the 1850s the Strand Street congregation decided that it was time to build a new church on a more prominent street. This resulted in the purchase of the St. Stephens Green site where our present church was built and opened in June 1863. The Eustace Street congregation also relocated to St Stephen’s Green in 1867.
In Ireland, our congregation is connected with other Unitarians and like-minded Presbyterians through our membership of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland. We maintain our historic relationship with Unitarians in England, Scotland and Wales through our warm friendship with the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. Further afield, we keep links with the Unitarian Universalist Association in the USA and with the International Association for Religious Freedom.