4. Division and Controversy

By David Steers

The point which we had reached in the last paper, when we were discussing the passing of the Dissenters’ Chapels Act in 1844 should really have been a good place to stop talking about the history of this denomination. It would really have entailed ending on a high point, from our point of view. Three separate but related Non-Subscribing Presbyterian institutions had been created – the Presbytery of Antrim, the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster and the Synod of Munster. They had begun to be linked through the Association of Irish Non-Subscribing Presbyterians founded in 1835. In the words of Alexander Gordon this was a union not an amalgamation but if it was not a fully formed denomination the body nevertheless held many of the attributes of a fully formed denomination. In fact each of the constituent parts jealously guarded their own historical rights and separate legal existence but beyond this they had been created by a shared historical theological process that spread over more than one hundred years and their right to exist had finally been confirmed by the passing of the Dissenters’ Chapels Act in 1844.


Not only that they were flourishing. Although the various bodies retained quite separate legal identities throughout the nineteenth century, they nevertheless managed to develop a whole range of organisations and activities that resembled a fully formed denomination. In 1881 the Association estimated that their churches contained ‘not less than 25,000 over the whole of Ireland’.  Even allowing for some exaggeration this is a vastly bigger number than we would have today. But the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster had been a very mission-minded organisation and it had founded new churches, sometimes in places that looked unpromising for Non-Subscribers – in places like Ballymena, Ballymoney and Strabane among other places. The Association filed petitions to government, it was active in the fields of education, temperance and Sunday Schools. So it looked like the Non-Subscribers were poised for a period of spectacular growth from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards. Unfortunately it didn’t work out like that, instead Non-Subscribers began to fall out amongst themselves in quite a severe way.


If you go to Banbridge or Ballyclare today you can go and visit our congregations there. But what you may not notice in both places as you travel into the town is a large building that looks like a church but is now a masonic hall (in Banbridge) or an undertakers (in Ballyclare). In both these places those buildings were once also Non-Subscribing churches and they exist not because our numbers grew so much in those towns that we needed an extra place of worship but because in both places the congregations split and divided in two when they fell out amongst themselves.


I think these are the only two instances of there actually being congregational splits resulting in separate congregations at the time but there were more divisions within presbyteries and between presbyteries and synods and a lot of general theological unrest.


This is sometimes referred to as the third subscription controversy. But while the first and second resulted in the separation of the Non-Subscribers from the larger Presbyterian body the third controversy was a controversy within and amongst the Non-Subscribers. What became the issue was: having dispensed with the Westminster Confession and with human creeds and formulae where should you stop? What should be the limits of Non-Subscription?

Henry Montgomery and Theodore Parker

Henry Montgomery had been the universal hero of the Non-Subscribers. He had led them out of the orthodox Synod of Ulster and created the Remonstrant Synod. He had been at the forefront of the campaign amongst Presbyterians for Catholic Emancipation and had argued persuasively against subscription to creeds and for liberty of thought within the Synod. But eventually he and his followers had been forced out of the Synod. In his new situation in the 1850s, however, Montgomery began to be increasingly alarmed at what he saw as the spread of more radical theological ideas amongst the Non-Subscribers. Often the sources of these apparently dangerous ideas were identified as coming from the writings of American theologian Theodore Parker who Montgomery denounced as “once a minister in the Christian Unitarian Church, [who] gradually abandoned the belief in a divine revelation by which that Church is distinguished and promulgated a religion which is neither more nor less than Deism”.


Allegations of being a follower of Theodore Parker were regularly used to denigrate the opponents of Henry Montgomery. Sadly, however, I suspect that a lot of the issue was personal. There were different generations at war. The result was a painful and drawn out controversy which really was disastrous for both the Remonstrant Synod and the Presbytery of Antrim.


In 1854 the Remonstrant Synod began the process of drawing up a new Code of Discipline. Essentially this comprised the rules and regulations for the conduct of business and the practical functioning of elders, ministers, churches, presbyteries, and synods. Up until then they had continued to use the 1825 Code of the Synod of Ulster, drawing up a new one was not necessarily contentious, but by the time the finished document was presented to the Synod a major stumbling block had appeared.


The commission to draw up the new code added a clause for theological questions that were to be put to candidates for the ministry which required them to affirm their belief in the divine origin and authority of Christianity. These were:


Do you believe in One God, the Creator and Governor of the universe?

Do you believe that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament contain a divine revelation?

Do you believe in the divine mission and authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, as the Son of God and the Saviour of the world?

But the only result of this was to open up serious theological differences and the person at the forefront of the opposition to Henry Montgomery was a young minister who was born in Downpatrick.


By 1854 David Maginnis had been the highly successful minister of the York Street congregation in Belfast since 1842. He had been educated at the Belfast Academical Institution where so many ministers received their training at the time and had led a new congregation in a period of growth and prosperity.


Undoubtedly he was the leader of a younger generation of ministers who held to more radical ideas than Henry Montgomery. In turn Montgomery labelled Maginnis and his supporters as “wild irresponsible spirits” and as a result constructed his new code which sought to limit their theological latitude.


The Rev William McMIllan describes the situation like this:


He [Montgomery] defended his position with power and eloquence but he was held up to bitter scorn by English and American Unitarians and by his old opponents in the Synod of Ulster. Dr Cooke ridiculed him for manufacturing a little creed of his own. Vindicating himself against the accusation that he was violating Christian Liberty he said “Genuine Christian liberty does not consist in casting off the Christian Faith, or in a wild licence to believe or disbelieve the great truths of the Gospel. It authorises both ministers and congregations to think and to act freely within the limits of the Gospel; should it go beyond those limits our liberty might be rational or philosophical but it would cease to be Christian.”


When the new code came before the Remonstrant Synod for approval in 1857 there was a lot of disagreement although a majority approved the questions. This was followed though by a strongly worded protest from a group of five ministers and two elders, led by David Maginnis. Their protest had at its core the view that:


the principle of testing, involved in the catechetical examination, [is] opposed to the best interests of religious truth and freedom of conscience.


So as Henry Montgomery had tried to preserve what he saw as the essence of Christianity in his questions, so David Maginnis took his stand on rejecting the questions in favour of stressing the centrality of the non-subscribing principle.


The result though was deep divisions. Those who protested against Henry Montgomery’s policy were members of the Presbytery of Bangor, and as a succession of new ministers came to be installed in three different congregations the presbytery had installed them without using the questions required by the Code. Three members of the Presbytery protested about this, including Henry Montgomery, and at the Remonstrant Synod meeting of 1860 a Court of Appeal consisting of the other two Presbyteries that then formed the Synod declared the Presbytery of Bangor to be “highly unconstitutional, irregular and reprehensible.” This brought forth another protest from David Maginnis and his supporters, signed by ten ministers and five elders. The next year the congregations of York Street, Moneyreagh and Greyabbey all resigned from the Presbytery of Bangor (and therefore the Remonstrant Synod) and sought affiliation to the other main Non-Subscribing body, the Presbytery of Antrim. They were soon after joined by the congregations of Ravara and Carrickfergus. But although the  Presbytery of Antrim accepted them this was only at the expense of an exodus of the more conservative inclined congregations of Antrim, Ballyclare, Holywood, Larne and First Belfast under the leadership of John Scott Porter, Classon Porter and C.J. McAlester who left to form their own new Northern Presbytery of Antrim. The whole process was attended by court cases, congregational divisions and a great deal of animosity.


But both the Remonstrant Synod and the Presbytery of Antrim had split over this issue and the various Non-Subscribing bodies faced years of painful argument and disagreement. The Remonstrant Synod remained the main focus for these disputes although they also spilled over into other areas such as the Belfast Unitarian Society and the election of the Professor of Church History.


David Maginnis was very close to the Rev John Orr, the minister of Comber. Orr held to a similar theology and had expressed it in some important publications. Orr and Maginnis were brothers in law, Maginnis conducted Orr’s marriage in Strabane and later Rev S.C.Nelson minister of Downpatrick conducted Maginnis’s marriage, also in the Strabane meeting house. Both S.C. Nelson and the Rev David Whyte, minister of Ballee, and both senior ministers came to the support of Maginnis and later John Orr in the ongoing quarrels.


Eventually it all became too much for Maginnis who left Belfast to go the Unitarian church in Stourbridge in 1861. At his departure the York Street congregation presented him with a silver salver and a purse of 155 guineas as well as an address which made mention of the effect on the health of Catherine Maginnis of the “harassing proceedings” which she had had to witness. Proceedings in which they alleged that their opponents were not up to speed in terms of modern theology. They said:

Those who joined in the assault on you did not know that they were stigmatising as “infidel” and “sceptical” in you the opinions, which, in the persons of Bunsen and Arnold…they would not dare to deny to be compatible with a sincere belief in, and reverence for Christianity.


The suggestion was that Henry Montgomery, John Scott Porter and the others were simply behind the times in their theology. In addition they has taken the debate to a level of personal abuse after they had called David Maginnis an ‘infidel’.


Part of the issue was also an early awareness that the variety of different religions around the world made absolute truth claims unseemly. Ironically a point which Henry Montgomery himself had originally addressed as early as 1841. But John Orr put it like this in one paper delivered to the Association of Irish Non-Subscribing Presbyterians:

Is there only one way to heaven, – and by the constitution of that one way as the only one, is the majority of the world to be debarred of all hope, no matter what they do, when death sets in? Truly the language of an ancient servant of God in reference to his bigoted opponents, were yet pertinent in the mouth of many a Mahometan, Buddhist, Parsee, in reference to the great majority of Christians, “If you are God’s, know also, that we are God’s.”


And in a lecture given in Downpatrick in 1877 he also made the simple but important point:

We have to learn more liberality…a Church founded on freedom will necessarily strike out various types of thought, and that, if its adherents are characterized by anything, they should be characterized by largeness and wide sympathies.


As the nineteenth century drew to a close Non-Subscribers were in a fractured state but the first glimmerings of a gradual movement towards comprehension also began to be seen.