2. The Second Subscription Controversy

By David Steers

In the preceding article we commenced our survey through the history of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterians and we had reached 1726 and the end of the first subscription controversy.


With an inexorable logic we have now reached the second subscription controversy but that doesn’t really start until some 100 years later. What was the situation in 1726? Well to take our local examples Downpatrick had been placed in the Presbytery of Antrim, the place where all the Non-Subscribers had been assigned. There was no split in the congregation but they had been put in the body that was meant to be completely separated from the Synod of Ulster.


What about Ballee and Clough? Well there was no split in either congregation but they were both also moved into a new Presbytery – the Presbytery of Killyleagh. This was interesting because it was created to contain all the congregations who while not being non-subscribers nevertheless opposed the expulsion of the non-subscribers. The significance of this would only become clear in time.


The divisive break of 1726 with the Presbytery of Antrim proved to be no such thing at all. After the initial division had concluded, differences became less heated and non-subscription actually became more prominent within the General Synod. What was intended to be a complete severance of the non-subscribers actually proved not to be the case. The wording of the overtures from the subscribing party and passed by the Synod excluded non-subscribers from “ministerial communion …in Church Judicatories” but it could not prevent ordinary ministerial fellowship nor anticipate the growing latitude or liberality within the General Synod which encouraged this. The immediate and unanimous decision of the Presbytery of Dublin and Synod of Munster in July 1726 to maintain fellowship with the northern non-subscribers was one factor in this tendency. However, within just a few years of 1726 some of the presbyteries of the Synod were ceasing to report that their candidates for ordination had subscribed the confession. This was the case with Templepatrick in 1734 and in the following year the Synod apparently found that they did not have a formula of words for subscription in their minutes and had to insert a formula found in the Presbytery of Armagh’s book. Nevertheless, in 1743 the Presbytery of Armagh appears to have installed the Rev James Moody – the new minister of Newry – without subscription, the presbytery subsequently dividing in half over the issue.

The Presbytery of Killyleagh

But throughout this period the most liberal presbytery on this issue was the Presbytery of Killyleagh. As I have mentioned it had been formed from the ‘moderate’ subscribers who had been disinclined to censure the non-subscribers and included the congregations of both Ballee and Clough. No doubt it was principally this group which Charles Masterton had in mind when he claimed that “the number of those in the synod who are for a strict adherence to our confession as a term of communion seems to be but small; and a vast number are so carried off that they could make greater concessions to the non-subscribers than some of us can with peace yield unto.” The Presbytery of Antrim might have been formally excluded from the ‘Church Judicatories’ but that did not prevent fellowship on other levels. For instance on the death of James Kirkpatrick in 1743 the vacant pulpit of Belfast’s second congregation was eventually filled by Gilbert Kennedy. He was the son of a firm subscriber of the same name who had gone into print against Samuel Haliday. But Gilbert Kennedy junior had graduated from Glasgow in 1724 and commenced the study of divinity three years later. He had been ordained in Lisburn in 1732 and subsequently became minister of Killyleagh but on his removal to the Belfast congregation in 1744, without subscription, he still retained his membership of the presbytery of Killyleagh. In 1763 he was made moderator of the General Synod and by that time was a pretty open non-subscriber.


We can see the same tendencies within another minister of the Presbyterian General Synod. The Rev George Cherry was the brother in law of Gilbert Kennedy junior. He was a graduate of Glasgow and former student of divinity in the University. In July 1736 he preached before the Synod of Armagh on the Duty of a Minister to be a Pattern of Good Works, a sermon (published by non-subscribing booksellers in Dublin) which essentially rejected subscription.


Such trends were underlined by the first cautious considerations by the Synod in 1747 of moving to closer communion with the non-subscribers. They were accelerated further by the establishment of the Widows’ Fund in 1751 as a joint venture and by an invitation to the Presbytery of Antrim to send commissioners to Synod meetings which opened up discussions about a closer association between it and the Synod of Ulster. By 1820 there were only five subscribing presbyteries out of a total of fourteen in the Synod of Ulster.


So there was no final split with the non-subscribers in 1726. On the contrary links were maintained and, perhaps more importantly, many ministers within in the Synod of Ulster continued to hold non-subscribing views. In some ways therefore it is not surprising that a second controversy occurred in the 1820s.

Henry Montgomery and Henry Cooke

Compared to the first subscription controversy which really was about authority in religion the second controversy had more theological content although it also revolved around the personalities of two leading churchmen – Henry Montgomery and Henry Cooke.


The theological tendency known as Arianism, mentioned in the previous article, had started to gain ground amongst Irish Presbyterians within the General Synod. To capitalise on this the London based Unitarian Fund sent a missionary, John Smethurst, to Ulster to win recruits. He met with little encouragement especially from the Presbytery of Antrim (preaching only in the Downpatrick pulpit) – although five pulpits of the General Synod were opened to him – Moneyreagh, Banbridge, Templepatrick, Dromore and Lisburn. Cooke, however, determined to oppose him and there opened up a debate within the church about the doctrine of the trinity. Allied to that there were more calls to reintroduce a more rigorous subscription to the Westminster Confession. A lot of the arguments began to centre around the Belfast Academical Institution which was founded not just as a school but also as a place to train ministers. This it did very effectively for all the different branches of Presbyterianism at the time but Henry Cooke began to attack the Institution because he believed it to be a power base of Arianism. He attacked the appointments of various professors, including that of William Bruce then one of the co-ministers of first church in Belfast.


But Cooke and Montgomery represented different aspects of Presbyterian tradition. Cooke was conservative in politics and theology, Montgomery was liberal in both and consequently a supporter of Catholic Emancipation. The stage was set for an epic struggle which took place in the various Synods of the church as Cooke tried to fasten his church to subscription once again. Both were talented men and both were said to be accomplished orators. Their debates attracted huge public interest and were printed verbatim in the newspapers. Although there were stronger theological differences this time the issue was still basically the same as at the first controversy – whether the Christian faith could be contained in a binding confession of faith.

Remonstrant Synod of Ulster

Eventually Cooke won the day and in 1828 the Synod decreed that all students, licentiates and ministers should be examined as to their belief in the Westminster Confession. The minority who opposed this then drew up a remonstrance – effectively a protest. This was presented to the Synod and led to the separation of the Remonstrant Synod on 25 May 1830 containing 17 congregations and three presbyteries. These congregations included Ballee but not Clough which itself joined the Presbytery of Antrim, something we will return to.


At the inaugural meeting of the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster William Porter was appointed first moderator and in the course of his opening speech made the following remarks which indicated the sense of identity which the Remonstrants held:


We have come together to lay the foundation-stone of a temple dedicated to RELIGIOUS LIBERTY – a temple under whose ample dome every individual who chooses to enter will be allowed to worship, in his own way, the one God and Father of all. We have come together, not merely to profess, but to prove that we are genuine Presbyterians – assertors of the right of private judgment and advocates, uncompromising advocates, of the all-sufficiency of the Bible as a rule of faith and duty…We have emancipated ourselves and our congregations from a state of spiritual thraldom, and established our claim to those invaluable immunities wherewith Christ intended to make mankind free. The privilege of free and fearless inquiry is the groundwork of the church we are now preparing to build…We do not associate as Calvinists or Arminians – we do not associate as Unitarians or Trinitarians – we are Presbyterians.


Following this Henry Montgomery introduced the twelve fundamental principles of the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster which laid stress on the scriptural basis of the church as well as the right of private judgment in matters of faith and a rejection of human tests and confessions.


This was a much more decisive break than the earlier one concerning the Presbytery of Antrim and the separation was attended by great disputes and legal challenges in some congregations not least in Clough. But although the personalities and the background were different the central issue was basically the same. Subsequently the Remonstrant Synod began to co-operate with the Presbytery of Antrim and the southern and also non-subscribing Synod of Munster, eventually, these bodies began to come together in a single unified church in 1910.


All the groups that eventually made up the NSPCI would have agreed with the views expressed by Henry Montgomery in 1830 and perhaps it’s only right to leave the last word to him. In the fourth of his fundamental principles he underlined the rights of individuals:


That the imposition of human tests and confessions of faith, and the vain efforts of men to produce an unattainable uniformity of belief, have not only tended to encourage hypocrisy, but also to restrict the sacred right of private judgment – to lessen the authority of the Scriptures – to create unrighteous divisions amongst Christians – to sanction the most barbarous persecutions – to trench on the natural and civil rights of men – to place undue power in the hands of the few – to throw a shield over the time-serving – to expose the honest to injuries and persecutions – to perpetuate errors in almost all churches – and to prevent that free inquiry and discussion which are essential to the extension of religious knowledge.