Irish Unitarianism
where have we come from and how did we get here?

[Originally given in 1999 as an address entitled A History of Unitarianism in 5½ Chapters this is being reprinted here in response to some interest shown in the subject after Bridget’s address on 'Presbyterians and Unitarians' on Sunday, 14th March, 2021. ]

At first I was rather daunted by the mammoth task of presenting the history of Irish Unitarianism, but then I remembered reading a book by Julian Barnes entitled The History of the World in 10½ Chapters. Now if Julian Barnes can manage the history of the world in 10½ chapters, then I ought to be able to cover something like the history of Unitarianism in Ireland in about 3½ or 4½. Or so I thought. In fact it took me 5, and here they are:



Chapter 1.
Influential Visitors.

The origins of Unitarianism in Ireland lie with visitors to our shores who arrived here in the 16th and 17th centuries. English settlers came to Leinster and Munster, and Scottish settlers came to Ulster. Among these people were significant groups of Puritans, followers of the Protestant religion which had emerged from the Reformation, but who were beginning to cultivate their own ethos. In those early days, Puritan clergy were still tolerated within the Established Church. So these settlers were able to establish their own congregations, and worship as they wished. One of the earliest of these congregations was in Bandon, Co. Cork, where in the late 16th and early 17th centuries a number of settlers from the south-west of England had taken up residence. And in Ulster the earliest record is in Ballycarry where a minister named Edward Brice began to preach in 1613.
          Halfway through the 17th century, toleration of these Puritan ministers came to an end. In 1665 the Irish Act of Uniformity was passed in the Irish Parliament, making it compulsory for all ministers to conform and to use the Book of Common Prayer in all places of public worship. In England, three years previously, a similar Act had caused hundreds of ministers to resign their livings in protest and leave the Established Church; these people were the original Dissenters or Nonconformists, and the forerunners of English Unitarianism. In Ireland the same thing happened; a number of ministers of the Established Church left it, and with their congregations went out on their own. This resulted in the formation in Dublin of four new Dissenting Congregations: Wood Street, New Row, Cook Street and Capel Street, all led by ministers described as “among the most eminent and godly of the city”. Other similar congregations were established elsewhere in the country in addition to the existing one in Bandon: one in the 1660s in Tipperary town, and one in Clonmel in the 1670s. The passing of the Act of Uniformity, as well as causing the formation of all these congregations, had another associated and very significant result. This was the creation in Ireland of a separate religious identity, that of Protestant Dissent, which absorbed the earlier Puritan ethos, and formed the main rootstock from which Irish Unitarianism was to grow. More congregations were established in Ulster, too, at about the same time, but for different reasons. The catalyst there was the arrival in 1642 of a Scottish army to protect the Protestant settlers imposed earlier in the century on the native Irish population by the Plantation of Ulster. The Presbyterian chaplains of these regiments met together that same year to form the first presbytery meeting ever held in this country. Thus 1642 marks the beginning of organised Presbyterianism in Ireland, and from this, Nonsubscribing Presbyterianism would eventually emerge.




Chapter 2.
The First Unitarians

During the beginning 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. (He had preached that Christ was not of one substance with God.)
          Arianism was regarded, even in the Dissenting churches, as a heresy, and Thomas Emlyn, minister in Dublin to the Wood Street congregation, was tried and imprisoned for blasphemy after the publication in 1702 of his book explaining and defending his Arian views. Emlyn was an influential figure, and, interestingly, he was the first minister anywhere to use the name Unitarian.
          If the Dublin Dissenters were alarmed by this - as they saw it - heretical doctrine, so were the Ulster Presbyterians. Their weapon against Arianism was to try to make all their ministers sign the Westminster Confession of Faith, the statement containing the rigid doctrines of Calvinism. But many of the ministers in Ulster were uneasy about these doctrines, and particularly uneasy about the idea of enforcing them. John Abernethy, the leader of the New Light movement, and sixteen other ministers, refused to sign, or to ‘subscribe’, as it was called, and consequently in 1726 they and their congregations were expelled from the Presbyterian Synod of Ulster. This was the birth of the Nonsubscribing Presbyterian Church, and Abernethy’s little group is described (W.G. Tarrant) as becoming in the course of time ‘distinctly Unitarian’. Interestingly, some years later Abernethy was called to be minister of the Wood Street congregation in Dublin, where Emlyn had been minister before his imprisonment. Abernethy’s influence was to consolidate Emlyn’s, so that this congregation also was soon to become ‘Arian in tone, and steadily gravitate towards ultimate Unitarianism’ (E.M. Wilbur). So here we have the considered opinion of two Unitarian historians that these two groups of congregations, one in Ulster and one in Dublin, were heading for what we know as Unitarianism.




Chapter 3.
Controversy and Conspiracy.

As the 18th century drew to a close, I get the impression that religious life for those of Dissenting views in Ireland was fairly tranquil. I also got the impression from some comments I read that the majority of Dissenting sermons at this period were very long and extremely dull - perhaps that is the price one pays for tranquillity. In the South, Dublin had its congregations in Strand Street (the new location for the old church in Wood Street) and in Eustace Street (this congregation had absorbed the congregation from New Row). The other congregations outside Dublin, in Clonmel, Cork, Tipperary, Summerhill etc. seem to have been jogging along nicely. And in Ulster, affairs seemed equable too; the old bitterness between Subscribers and Nonsubscribers had receded into the background, and the issue seemed less important than formerly, to the extent that a gradual merging of the two wings of Presbyterianism seemed at the least not beyond the bounds of possibility. Sadly, all this was to change.
          In Ulster, just as 100 years previously the orthodox wing of Presbyterianism had attempted to force conformity on the free-thinking, Arian-influenced, wing, so it happened again. An authoritarian Calvinistic Presbyterian, 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, because of the influence of Arian views, in grave danger of sinking. ‘We must put down Arianism, or it will put down us,’ he said in 1825, and he embarked on a campaign to do just that - to stamp out Arianism - or, as it was coming to be called, Unitarianism. He did not get it all his own way, and was ably opposed by Henry Montgomery, the ‘Lion of Dunmurry’, but Cooke won the day, and Montgomery and his followers, like Abernethy before him, left the Northern Presbyterian Synod to form their own Nonsubscribing group. Cooke's energies did not confine themselves to the North. Some at least of the zeal generated by his crusade to rid his own Presbyterian church of doctrinal error, as he put it, took the form of trying to rid the Dissenting congregations in the South of doctrinal error as well. Presbyterian missions were formed, and sent to the Unitarian congregations in Bandon and Tipperary and Clonmel, and (from the mainstream Presbyterian point of view) these were successful. Some of the congregations split, some reverted to mainstream Presbyterianism, and some merged with, and became absorbed by, nearby mainstream Presbyterian congregations. The only Unitarian congregation to survive outside Dublin was the one in Cork.
          This is an over-simplification. Henry Cooke can't be blamed for the entire decline of Unitarianism in virtually the whole of Munster. Other complex social and political factors were at work as well. Many liberal and Dissenting ministers, because of their concern for democracy and human rights, had sympathised with the 1798 Rebellion, and some had actually been involved in it. One modern historian (Flann Campbell) is of the opinion that the defeat of 1798 was a very significant and damaging blow for Dissenters all over the country. Another factor was the decline of those industries which had brought Protestants to this country in the first place; an example of this was the decline of the woollen industry in Bandon in the last century which led to emigration and the disintegration of the congregation there. And everywhere was the devastation left by the Famine, which resulted in appallingly difficult social conditions and massive emigration.
          Meanwhile Dublin was holding firm, and under a succession of able and committed Unitarian ministers our two congregations of Strand Street and Eustace Street were preserved from the worst effects of all these influences. In Eustace Street Martineau made his all too brief appearance as minister, and, as Emlyn had done, put Dublin once more on the Unitarian map. In Strand Street, W.H. Drummond, whose portrait used to hang in the vestry, was minister for over 40 years. He was a dedicated and devoted Unitarian; I read a long and very spirited article which he wrote to defend Unitarianism against detractors, and I felt that really, with people like that to stand up for it, his co-religionists need have had no worries. And as the century progressed, Irish Unitarianism was further strengthened and deepened by the influence of William Ellery Channing, the great American Unitarian, whose writings were widely available here, and readily assimilated.




Chapter 4.
Forgotten Unitarians.

It will not have escaped your notice that everyone mentioned so far in this potted history of Irish Unitarianism is male. Were there no women? Where were they? Search as I would, I could find no trace of the mothers, sisters and daughters who must have played some part in this story, but who have not been written into it. Consideration of the reasons for this exclusion must wait for another day, but in deference to all those women who lived and worked and worshipped with their Dissenting and Unitarian communities and whose names we shall probably never know, let me tell you about James Martineau’s little daughter.
          To find out about her we need to go to the opposite corner of Stephen's Green. You will remember that some months ago when Paddy McElroy was taking the service, he took us on a verbal tour of the Green, giving us a picture of its atmosphere and its interconnectedness with the life of Dublin. Well, I would like you to extend that tour to a little spot just outside the Green, on the other side of the road, beyond the Shelbourne Hotel. You probably know it; it's the Huguenot cemetery, a pleasant tranquil oasis in the middle of the frenetic commercial and social life that swirls around it. Soon after his appointment to Dublin, James Martineau married, and brought his wife to Ireland. Their first baby, a daughter, was born here. She died when she was only six months old, and she is buried in the Huguenot cemetery. Two years later, before he and his wife left Ireland, it is recorded that the last thing they did was to visit the cemetery and stand together at their daughter’s grave.
          And, years later, when Martineau, famous now, and revered as one of the great thinkers of his day, revisited Ireland as an old man to receive an honorary degree from Trinity College, he took time off from the excitement and the celebrations and, with another daughter beside him, stood once more for a while at the little graveside.
          There is another story that deserves to be told. This concerns the forgotten congregation of Summerhill, in County Meath. We don’t know much about the congregation - it was started in 1714 by the Langford family and was probably never very big - but it is mentioned in a list of all the congregations in the Southern Association in 1804, and it survived into Famine times.
          The minister at the time of the Famine was Samuel Craig. The dreaded potato blight hit the area with a vengeance, local doctrinal and class differences were forgotten, and a Relief Committee was formed, of which our Mr. Craig was secretary. On him seems to have fallen the lion's share of the administration. He organised a stirabout kitchen, with staff, a boiler of 150 gallons, a ticket system for applicants, and a team of carters to draw meal and coal. For a period of twelve months he fed, on a daily basis, an average of about 1,000 people.
          Then at the end of the Famine, when the Famine fever set in, the task of coping seems to have been shouldered by him as well. He turned the farmyard loft of a neighbouring nobleman into a fever hospital. The doctor seems to have been reluctant to visit the patients in person because of the risk of infection, so Samuel Craig, note-book in hand, examined every patient and reported back to the doctor, who prescribed accordingly. In cases of death, which occurred daily in the area, he went personally to the house, pronounced death, and ordered the coffin. We read that some of the sights he witnessed in the houses of fever-stricken families at that time are too horrible to mention (C.H. Irwin): ‘fathers and husbands hopelessly drunk, wives and children lying dead, no friend left to perform the necessary offices to the sick and dying -and all the while this young minister, of a different religion from most of them, was labouring day and night to alleviate their suffering, stay the ravages of disease, and perform the most menial offices in his errand of mercy. Many acts of heroism were performed in the years of Famine-time and in the years of the fever and the cholera, but none more heroic than these.’ More than 150 years have passed since the Famine, but that Unitarian minister of Summerhill deserves to be remembered.




Chapter 5.
What's in a Name?

In Chapter 3 left our congregations, somewhat beleaguered, in the mid 1850s. In Ulster we left two groups who in different centuries had voted with their feet and walked out of the orthodox Presbyterian Synod. These were of course Abernethy’s Arian Nonsubscribers of 1726 and Montgomery’s Unitarian Nonsubscribers of 1830. In 1910 these two bodies merged to form the General Synod of the Nonsubscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland.
          In Munster, although the rural areas of the south and west of Ireland no longer had any practising Unitarian congregations, the church in Cork continued to function. In Dublin, the two remaining Unitarian congregations of Strand Street and Eustace Street merged to come here to Stephen's Green Unitarian Church in 1863. So the old Southern Association, which according to a government list of about 1804 represented eleven congregations, now represented only two, Dublin and Cork, and became known as the Synod of Munster.
          In 1934, partly for political reasons, the Synod of Munster merged with the Nonsubscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland. There had of course over the centuries been constant interchange and mutual respect between Dublin and Munster Unitarians and Ulster Nonsubscribers; they attended each others’ meetings and exchanged ministers, ideas and influences, so to a certain extent the merger was merely formalising the mutual support structure which had existed between the two groups North and South since the days of Emlyn and Abernethy. The original and dominant influences behind each tradition were undoubtedly different, in that in Ulster the religious influence was Scottish Presbyterianism, whereas in Leinster and Munster it was English Puritanism, but the process was the same - an example of what scientists would call convergent evolution.
          This explains why our congregation, while retaining its independent identity, is today administered under the umbrella of the Nonsubscribers. We are, of course, also affiliated, as they are, to the General Assembly of the Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, with head-quarters in London, thus maintaining our links with British Unitarianism which has also supplied us with ideas and ministers over the centuries.
          Historically speaking, this brings us more or less up to the present day. Irish Unitarianism has developed from the Protestant Dissent of the early years, through the Unitarian Christianity shaped by Martineau, Drummond and Channing, to what one might call the inclusive Unitarianism of the present. Because Unitarians have, since the days of Emlyn, been expected to use their minds, our faith has been able to enlarge itself, and to find inspiration and direction, wisdom and solace, not just from Christianity, but from other sources as well. This for me is the great strength of our religion: the fact that it can absorb the infinite complexities of modern-day living while remaining true to its origins, and grow, rather than diminish in the process. We have the privilege of retaining the great thoughts and convictions of past Unitarians which still speak to us individually, we have our tap-root which goes straight back to the teaching of Jesus, and we have the freedom to take on board those aspects of other ways of looking at the world which seem to us to make sense. Inclusive Unitarianism allows us to fuse all these elements within ourselves, and to forge our own relationship with that which we call God. It seems to me that this is the stage in which Irish Unitarianism now finds itself. And so the long trail of the story of Irish Unitarianism ends here, in Stephen's Green Church. With us. And seeing the work and the commitment and the vibrancy of this congregation, I think it is fair to say that Irish Unitarianism is alive and well, and living in Dublin.

Jennifer Flegg
Dublin Unitarian Church                     Revised March 2021


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