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Pre-Famine Ireland: Social Structure Copyright © 2000 by Desmond Keenan Hard copy of book available from and

Chapter Twenty One

                 The Protestants I

Summary of chapter.  This chapter deals with the Irish Protestants, and the main issues in the different Churches.

(i) The Established Church

(ii) The Revenues of the Established Church

(iii) The Dissenters

(iv) The Evangelising Movement or Second Reformation


(i) The Established Church 

            The Church of Ireland by law established was vibrant and full of life in the early nineteenth century. The age was one of religious revival. The preceding century had seen the spread of scepticism and indifference, but also of religious toleration. There had been signs that Christianity was being replaced by a vague Deism. The Church of England had been regarded as being in a 'fat slumber', and Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire which attributed the decline to the baneful influences of Christianity had been very popular. 

            The revival of religion (and this is true of all the Churches) may be dated from the founding of the Moravian Brethren in Saxony in 1722. In doctrine the Brethren followed a simplified Lutheranism, but more importantly they developed a liturgy in which the singing of emotional religious hymns by the congregation was given central place. Their most important converts were John and Charles Wesley in England who wrote many hymns and developed what became known as 'Evangelicalism' in the established Churches in Great Britain and Ireland. Many of their followers left the Established Churches and formed dissenting Churches. Their efforts made the open profession and practice of religion once more respectable. 

            It is not surprising that the spirit or spirituality of the Established Church in Ireland in the nineteenth century was best expressed by its hymn-writers. One can mention 'Abide with me, fast falls the eventide' of Henry Francis Lyte. He was born in Scotland, but educated in Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, and Trinity College, Dublin. The best-known hymn-writer was Mrs Alexander of Wicklow. Her hymns 'All things bright and beautiful' and 'There is a green hill far away' remain firm favourites to the present day. Also may be mentioned is the Rev. William Pennefather, whose father was a Baron of the Court of Exchequer, and his wife Catherine Pennefather who was also a hymn-writer. 

            With regard to its organisation the diocesan and parochial structure of the medieval Church was retained virtually unchanged, whether or not Protestants were numerous in a given area. There were about thirty bishoprics. (Actually thirty three named bishoprics survived from the Middle Ages, but firm unions of dioceses had begun to be made as early as the year 1216.) There were 33 deaneries and 34 archdeaconries. Archdeacons in Ireland had no powers of visitation, so the diocesan bishops had to make the visitations of the parishes in their dioceses in person.  

            This they did, and the visitation rather resembled the assize of the visiting judge. The clergy and dignitaries assembled in the cathedral to meet the bishop. The bishop then delivered a 'charge', i.e. made a speech in which he called the attention of the clergy to various aspects of discipline he wished to see better observed. The concerns of a reforming bishop can be seen expressed in the charges of Archbishop William Magee to the clergy of the dioceses of Raphoe and Dublin. (This archbishop is often condemned on the basis of a few unfortunate phrases quoted out of context.) 

            There were about 2,000 Church of Ireland parishes which were also civil parishes. Some of these were merely nominal parishes being the remains of medieval religious houses. The civil parish had virtually no functions left to it, so the parish vestry or meeting of the men of the parish did little but set the cess for the maintenance of worship. 

             The revenues of tiny parishes being insufficient to support a rector the bishops allowed the holding of more than one parish or living. If the livings were distant from each other the rector could not reside in all of them, but he could pay curates to deputise for him. (In the Catholic Church only contiguous livings could be joined because residence was enforced.) Lack of suitable accommodation in the parishes was another cause of non-residence. In 1800 it was estimated that there were only 295 glebe-houses or residences for the clergy in the whole of Ireland. By 1829 this had risen to about 1,000. Also to enable less wealthy rectors to pay curates an additional Curates Fund had been formed to provide added revenues. 

            Looking after these parishes at the beginning of the century were about 1,000 clergymen, of whom half were parish priests or rectors, and the other half curates. By the year 1830 rectors numbered 1,200 and curates 750, the numbers equalling those of the Catholic priests who had three times the number of communicants to administer to. 

            From the beginning of the nineteenth century successive Lords Lieutenant took more into consideration spiritual suitability and administrative capacity when appointing to bishoprics. Being of the rank of gentleman was still essential, but it was no longer sufficient. At the beginning of the eighteenth century Archbishop King of Dublin advised the Dean of St Patrick’s cathedral that if he wished for further preferment he should begin by studying theology, though nominally he was a Doctor of Divinity. 

             The bishops in turn took greater care about those they promoted to orders. It was no longer sufficient to be a younger son of a good family looking for a secure income. From 1790 onwards the bishops insisted on the possession of an Arts degree from Trinity College, Dublin, and attendance for one year at the lectures given by the Regius Professor of divinity. Other professional bodies, especially those connected with the College, were beginning to insist on minimum professional standards about this time. At first, as in the case of the law students, we may assume that attendance at the lectures in divinity was fairly nominal, but Dr Jebb of Limerick began the practice, taken up by Archbishop Whateley, of examining ordinands. 

            Whateley, who became archbishop of Dublin in 1831, belonged to the generation of clergymen at Oxford University which included Newman, Keble, and Pusey, the founders of the Oxford Movement, though he himself did not belong to that Movement. As befitted an age of classical scholarship one of Whateley's tests was to ask a candidate to translate a page of the Greek New Testament. He established a proper school for divinity for ordinands at Trinity College, Dublin. The other Irish bishops did not agree with his proposal that attendance at a two-year course at this school should be a requirement for ordination, but in practice this was to become customary. By mid-century a Protestant clergyman in Ireland would have a degree in Arts and would have studied theology for at least two years. 

            It is not surprising therefore to find the Irish clergy, like their counterparts in England, taking a lead in all kinds of studies. They promoted education, agriculture, industry, the study of Irish antiquities, and modern sciences like mathematics, astronomy, Assyriology, Egyptology, and archaeology in general, economics, and statistics. Nor did they neglect their pastoral duties, or the conduct of divine service.  

            The early nineteenth century was a great period for the building and repair of churches. During and after the Reformation the lands and funds for the upkeep of ecclesiastical buildings were often lost or alienated. Money for re-building, repairing, and beautifying the fabric of the churches and cathedrals had to come from other sources. The vestry cess (payable by Catholics as well) could not be used for this purpose. Some money came from the revenues of the bishops and other dignitaries, some from the Board of First Fruits, and some from contributions from the laity.  Ireland is studded to this day with churches of a notable plainness built with money supplied by the Board. 

            It was also the time when the laity, especially but by no means exclusively the working-class laity, began to take religion seriously. The Regency period (1811-20) was famous for the dissolute lifestyle of the upper classes, but already even statesmen were taking religion more seriously. The arrival in England of Albert the Prince Consort in 1840 was not the beginning of 'Victorians' but set the seal of approval on trends that had originated forty years earlier. More attention was paid to church-going and bible-reading; more emphasis was placed on sobriety, truthfulness, honesty and industry; there was a greater rejection of card-playing, cursing, and swearing; there was greater concern for the unfortunate, especially Negro slaves, and a desire to spread the Gospel to the 'benighted' creatures from the west of Ireland to the South Seas. The vices that were openly displayed in the Regency period still continued to some extent in the second half of the century, but were frowned upon. People came to believe that moral reform and social reform was possible, and that there was no excuse for backsliders. 

            Theologically, the Irish Church had always been conservative, largely reflecting the views of the English reformers during the reign of Edward VI as expressed in the Book of Common Prayer (1549), but perhaps being slightly more 'Protestant' or 'Lutheran' in an emphasis on salvation by faith alone. Nevertheless it held strongly to the need for a visible Church, lawfully ordained ministers, and public worship in the forms prescribed by law. Bishops repeatedly stressed that evangelical preachers, who were not ordained clergymen, could not conduct services in the parish churches. There were always a few 'High Churchmen' like the Rev. Charles Leslie of Glaslough in the reign of Anne, who believed that the visible Church had an essential role to play in salvation in exhorting and instructing the faithful and bearing witness to the true meaning of the Gospel. In the nineteenth century, Dr Jebb of Limerick and the Rev. Alexander Knox DD had reached High Church views before Keble did in Oxford. The Oxford Movement was not taken seriously in Ireland, though Mrs Alexander was influenced by it to some extent. 

            With regard to worship the Church of Ireland largely followed the example of the Church of England. The Latin formularies of the medieval Latin Church were simplified, translated into English, and the service was given a simple logical structure. Ceremonies like the Communion or Breaking of bread were retained. The music was simplified, and the complicated musical compositions of the medieval period removed. Singing was largely confined to chanting psalms. Hymn-singing was certainly allowed, at least for some services, for there were hymn-writers. No new elements were adopted, and most of the prayers in the officially approved Irish Book of Common Prayer were simple translations from the Latin originals that were no longer understood by ordinary people. In many ways the Established Churches adopted positions about half way between Lutheran or Calvinist practice and that of the Church of Rome. 

            The Bible and the Book of Common Prayer had been translated into Irish in the seventeenth century. The New Testament in use was based on the 1681 revision of William Daniel's translation, while Bedell's translation was used for the Old Testament. It is unclear how widely they were used in the nineteenth century, though many Protestants still spoke Irish. Under Anne the policy had been adopted of teaching only English in the schools. 

            With the exception of the Whig Archbishop Whately and a few others the Irish clergy joined the Tories in the Thirties in fending off Whig attempts at reform. This does not mean that they were averse to reform: far from it. They were, however, very impressed by the sermon of Keble before the assize judges in Oxford on 14 July 1832 with regard to the danger of 'National Apostasy'. They convinced themselves that the Whigs intended destroying the Church (Fitzpatrick, Whately; Mant). [Top] 

(ii) The Revenues of the Established Church 

            The revenues of the Irish Church were quite large, though not as large as some imagined. The Whigs believed that there were great amounts of superfluous revenues that could be used for charitable purposes. The Crown itself, at the Reformation, had seized superfluous revenues and used them for purposes of education. There would have been little objection by the Protestants if only the education of Protestant children was envisaged. But since 1831 Roman Catholics had been appointed to the Board of National Education responsible for mixed schools. In one of the early Whig Bills there was a clause 147 that transferred superfluous revenue to the Government. The clause had to be dropped, but Lord John Russell spent several years trying to get it inserted in other Bills. The Tories and the Protestant clergy fought the clause tooth and nail whenever it was introduced. The sum in fact proved to be quite small and Russell would have been better advised to ignore it. But he wished to establish the principle that the Church was subordinate to the wishes of Parliament. 

            There was no such a thing as a Consolidated Fund into which all ecclesiastical revenues were poured and out of which all payments were made. There were several sources of income, but each was devoted to a particular object, and money from one source could not be spent on a different object. Some dioceses were rich and others poor, but there was no transfer of funds between them. Bishops might have large incomes and curates small ones, but the bishops' income could not be diverted to assist them. A bishop, while he lived, might personally assist poorer clergymen, but he could not bind his successor. 

            Bishops were supported by the income from extensive grants of land. Most Irish sees had between 10,000 and 20,000 acres including unprofitable land. Of the wealthy sees, Derry had 90,000 acres, Armagh 63,000, and Kilmore 51,000. The revenues were derived from the rents of these lands. The first year's income of the larger benefices, the first fruits, were payable to the Crown and were administered by a Board of First Fruits. 

            These rents of Church lands were far below what were obtained by lay proprietors. They were scarcely more than nominal, having been fixed in the seventeenth century by the 10 Charles I. Most of the bishop's income was derived from 'renewal fines', but these too were not as great as they might have been for most of the lands were held by the descendants of former bishops. The parcels of Church lands held by each tenant were never surveyed before the Ordnance Survey, and so the fines were fixed by custom. This system of holding was called a 'bishop's lease renewable forever'. It was a bit of a misnomer for no bishop could bind his successors, so the lease was only valid until the bishop died. A new lease had to be obtained from his successor. According to Leslie Foster, a reforming Tory layman, this system militated against improvements in lands, for nobody knew when the lease would have to be re-negotiated. Church lands were therefore notoriously unimproved. 

            In the Middle Ages, grants of land were made to bishops for four purposes: to assist the poor, to support the clergy, to build and repair churches, and to maintain the prelate himself. At the time of the 'Tithe War' Dr. James Doyle stressed this point, but it was doubtful if a formal canon was ever adopted in the Irish Church to make this legally enforceable. In any case such a distribution had long since ceased to be practised. 

            The parish clergy were supported by tithes. Tithes became a contentious issue among Catholics in a way that no other source of Church income did. The reason for this may be that objections to tithes (along with rents and 'dues' to the Catholic clergy) were among the traditional grievances in the countryside always mentioned and exploited by the agrarian conspirators. It was also an issue on which the more militant Catholics who supported Repeal felt that the Government was vulnerable, and which could also be exploited as a great national grievance.  

            The burden of tithes in Ireland was in fact not heavy. Nor is there any reason to suppose that tithe proctors were unusually harsh in collecting the tithe. It was uneven, but not more so than the Grand Jury cess. The sums claimed by the tithe proctors or ecclesiastical attorneys amounted to about 5% of specified crops each year, compared with 10% of all crops exacted in England. They were not exact or fixed. Twice every year, first to note the acreage sown and second to fix the amount, the proctor visited every field on his list. The evaluation was itself rough-and-ready, and traditional, and always favoured the tenant. The return of each crop was evaluated on a scale depending on fluctuations in the market price and distance from market. In Cork, for example, between 1780 and 1785, potatoes were tithed at around 10/2 an acre, wheat at 8/-, barley at 7/6, and meadow (permanent grassland used for making hay) at 2/6. But in one particular year, when the price of potatoes was high, 16/- was charged. Where sub-division was rife the proctor might have to collect tiny sums. (Short-term rents for potato or wheat land varied in a similar manner, the rent of potato-land always being highest, as it was the highest yielding.)  

            Grazing land was not tithed, though if it were made up into hay a nominal tithe was payable (about 2/6). Neither was the agistment, or letting out, of grassland titheable in Ireland by a statute of 40 Henry VIII. The reason presumably for this exception was that grassland was not let out in the Middle Ages. The 'extensive graziers' or large farmers specialising in cattle-rearing paid little or no tithes.  

            Not all the tithes were paid to the clergy. In some parishes the landlord had the right to the tithe revenue. Such parishes were said to be 'impropriate', i.e. the revenues did not belong (to the Church). The rights to such tithes were property in the legal sense, and if tithes were suppressed the owners of the rights would have to be compensated. Most politicians were sensitive to charges that they did not respect 'property'. 

            From the beginning of the century many people including the Prime Minister Spencer Perceval considered the grievance.  It was taken for granted in every State at the time (except briefly in France during the Revolution and in the United States) that every member of the State should contribute to the maintenance of the official religion. The great obstacle to reform was that any rational system of tithing would involve everyone, even the poorest, having to pay more, not less tithes. Sir Henry Parnell brought the question before Parliament in 1809 and in subsequent years.  He personally favoured some form of composition and commutation that had been described by Blackstone half a century earlier. 

            By tithe composition was meant that the tithe-owner agreed to accept a fixed sum annually, in fee farm as it were, in place of the annual assessment.  The people of the parish would then guarantee to pay to the rector this sum annually.  By commutation was meant imposing the tithe only on the landlord who would then recover the sum by an additional rent charge. Tenants would then have only one payment to make each half year and this would be known when they entered into the tenancy. The idea was unpopular with the landlords who had enough troubles with arrears in rents as it was.  

            In the 1820's when Richard Wellesley was Lord Lieutenant the Irish Government introduced legislation to allow composition and commutation by local agreement. This also allowed a clergyman to bind his successors in the matter. The parishioners in many parishes compounded with the rector, and it was considered that the objectionable features of the system would disappear. 

            But in 1830 there began one of those episodes in Irish history of which few have reason to be proud. The series of mass meetings and demonstrations with wholesale violence and intimidation, agrarian crime and murder, assaults on the police, and attempts to enforce the collection of the tithes is commonly referred to as the 'Tithe war'. The clergy on either side made little attempt to calm excited feelings. Indeed many of the Catholic clergy made every effort to stir up the feelings even when it was known that a murder campaign against Protestant clergy was in operation. The Protestant clergy for their part made little attempt to grant concessions. Some Protestant gentlemen considered that payment could be enforced by means of Commissions of Rebellion from the Court of Exchequer. O’Connell kept up the agitation for a total abolition of tithes long after it was clear that the Whigs envisaged nothing more than a reduction. Eventually, in 1837, he settled for what he could have obtained in 1830. By the Tithe Commutation Act (1838) the tithe was commuted to a rent charge and the amount payable was reduced by 25% 

            Clergymen in the towns were supported by a tax called Ministers' Money. By Common Law houses were not titheable, and before the seventeenth century no provision had been made for the support of secular clergy in towns apart from the clergy in the cathedrals. The friars and other religious clergy were supported by alms, or by endowments of lands. An Act of the 16th and 17th Charles II (1666) imposed a rate on property in the towns for the support of the parish clergy. The rate was about one shilling in the pound of annual value, or rental if let. The houses were valued by the parish valuators for the parish cess. About 1840 around £11,400 was being collected annually. Sir William Somerville, the Irish Secretary in 1848, remarked that successive Secretaries had sought a substitute but without avail.

            The Irish Church Act (1833) undertook a considerable reform of the Church. By this act the number of bishoprics was to be reduced progressively to thirteen. The revenues of the suppressed sees were to be vested in and administered by a Government Board of Church Commissioners. The Board of First Fruits whose revenues were used for the construction of new churches was suppressed. The vestry cess was abolished, the Church Commissioners being made responsible for the parish expenses. 

            A more radical reform took place in 1869 when the Irish Church was disestablished. Its courts lost their civil jurisdiction. (The Church of England shortly afterwards lost its civil jurisdiction in a general reform of the courts.) All Church property was vested in the Commissioners. Oddly enough, the tithes remained after 1869 but were payable to the Commissioners (Beckett; Philips). [Top] 

(iii) The Dissenters 

            The Dissenters refused to believe in the necessity for an Established Church. The 'Old Dissenters', mainly Presbyterians, broke from the Established Church in the seventeenth century. The 'New Dissenters' were mainly Methodists who broke from the Established Church in 1817 (Latimer). 

            The organisation of the dissenting Churches differed fundamentally from that of the episcopal Churches. The latter were organised as it were from the head down, recognising a supreme authority (king or pope) under whom was a hierarchy of authority, bishops, priests, and laymen. The dissenting Churches were rather organised from the bottom up, authority being primarily vested in each local church or congregation, from which various grades of authority were devolved upwards to presbyteries and synods. The moderator of a synod was merely a chairman and had no authority outside the synod. 

            The local congregation or 'church' ('kirk' in Scotland), was responsible for local worship, building and maintaining the house of worship, selecting or calling the clergyman or minister from among those approved by the Presbytery, and providing for his support, and in general maintaining discipline in the congregation. Each congregation elected elders or 'presbyters' who corresponded to the parish officers or to the select vestry in the Established Church. 

            Local churches in a region about the size of a county or diocese banded together into a Presbytery, and each church sent delegates to meetings within it. It was responsible for preparing students for the ministry, licensing preachers, ordaining clergymen, and supervising the morals and orthodoxy of the clergy. 

            Presbyteries could remain independent or form unions called Synods over a larger area like a province. The chief purpose of a Synod, which was normally held once a year, was to determine policy on controversial subjects. A Synod was presided over by a Moderator, elected for the year, who had no authority except to carry out the resolutions of the Synod. There could be rival Synods in a given region. This was particularly true of Scotland where Presbyterianism was chronically riven by disputes. 

            With regard to doctrine the Presbyterians followed the teaching and interpretation of Jean Calvin of Geneva and John Knox of Scotland closely, and also accorded great respect to a summary of his teaching known as the Confession of Westminster drawn up at Westminster by Puritan clergymen in the seventeenth century. For Calvin the central doctrine of Christianity was 'predestination' or the 'eternal decree' by which God had destined some men for hell and some for heaven without any merit or demerit on man's part. They followed a simplified form of the Book of Common Prayer, ceremonial or sacramental worship including the breaking of the bread being celebrated but a few times in the year. The terms 'priest' and 'bishop' were strictly excluded; 'minister' being preferred. 

            Each congregation was responsible for the support of its own minister. From the reign of Queen Anne this was supplemented by an annual royal grant, the Regium Donum. As the number of ministers increased so too was the size of the grant augmented by the Government from time to time 

            In the eighteenth century candidates for the ministry learned Latin from a minister in the Presbytery, and then made their way to Glasgow university to study divinity. About 1807 a college was established in Belfast for the sons of Presbyterian gentlemen, with an upper school for ordinands, similar to the Catholic College at Maynooth. It was called the Royal Belfast Academical Institution but it had not the title of 'Royal' at first. No funds were asked from the Government for its construction, but soon the Government was contributing a small sum annually for its maintenance similar to the annual grant for Maynooth College. Some of the professors in the College were at the centre of the dispute over 'subscription' for many years until finally the Presbyterian General Assembly established another College, called the Assembly's College, beside the newly founded Queen's College in Belfast. 

            The Presbyterians in Ulster tended to be located north of Belfast, while the Established Church was stronger south of Belfast. About 1830 it was calculated that the Presbyterians numbered 500,000. Of these, the Synod of Ulster was said to have 400,000 adherents in 250 congregations with 237 ministers and 50 licensed preachers. The Secession Synod was credited with 85,000 adherents, 140 congregations, and 123 ministers.  The 'Arian' or Non-subscribing Synods, namely the Synod of Munster, the Remonstrant Synod, and the independent Presbytery of Antrim were considered to have 16,000 members between them with 40 congregations and 60 ministers. Of the minor groupings the Burghers were said to number 4,000, the Cameronians 16,000, the Independents 5,000, the Quakers 5,000 and the Baptists 1,000. Independents are called Congregationalists in America.

            Three main issues divided the Presbyterians in Scotland in the eighteenth century, and these divisions were carried across into Ulster. The first dispute was whether Presbyterians were bound to subscribe to the Confession of Westminster, or whether that was merely a useful document for instruction. Subscribers were called the 'Auld Licht' and non-subscribers were called the 'New Licht'. The fierce denunciations of rival ministers are famous in Scottish history. The Presbytery of Antrim represented the New Licht in Ireland. Next in Scotland there arose a dispute about whether lay patrons of churches or kirks could appoint ministers. Those who objected formed a rival synod called the Secession Synod and this established branches in Ireland as well. The Secession Synod itself split over the text of an oath, and also to taking oaths by kissing the Bible, or 'kissing the calfskin' as they called it. They, and gradually all Presbyterians, were allowed to testify by raising the hand. So the Burghers and Anti-burghers were formed, and the Irish Secession Synod followed suit. The Irish Burghers and Anti-burghers (or most of them) re-united in 1818, and the Secession Synod rejoined the Synod of Ulster in 1840 to form the General Assembly of Irish Presbyterians. 

            There remained the question of subscription. Towards the end of the eighteenth century fewer Presbyteries were insisting on subscription as a condition for ordination. But a question came to the fore as to whether Presbyterians were bound to believe that the Three Persons in the Trinity were equal in all things as the ancient synods of the Church and the Confession of Westminster asserted. Or was it allowable to accept at face value the text of John 14.20 'the Father is greater than I'?. Some leading Presbyterian divines considered that any interpretation could be followed so long as no forcible interpretation was given to other texts like John 10.30 'I and the Father are one'. Opponents described non-subscribers as Arians saying that they denied the divinity of the Son, or Unitarians saying that they believed in only one divine Person. The non-subscribers could retort that such ancient theological formulae were merely 'words of men' and were not to be put on the same level as the 'words of God' in the Bible. 

            But the main issue was not one of theological interpretation but of personal liberty. Non-subscribers might hold the traditional interpretation themselves, but wished to allow liberty to others to disagree. The Subscribers, led by the Rev. Henry Cook, finally achieved a majority in the Synod of Ulster for enforcing subscription, so the Non-subscribers, led by the Rev. Henry Montgomery, broke away to form a protesting or Remonstrant Synod. There was a political side to this dispute. Traditionally the Presbyterians had supported liberty of conscience and personal liberty, and so sided with the Catholics in their struggle for Emancipation. Henceforth the majority of Presbyterians led by the Rev. Henry Cook supported the Tories. Apart from that the internal disputes had little effect on Irish politics. But the peculiar organisation of the Presbyterians meant that the Government had no one individual with whom it could discuss matters such as participation in the system of National Education.  A Moderator, sent to discus terms with the Irish Secretary could not negotiate; he could only refer proposals back to the next Synod. 

            The Irish Methodists or followers of John and Charles Wesley, were usually recruited from among the ranks of the Presbyterians. It proved very attractive to many people. It had a warm and enthusiastic spirit that was expressed in lively hymn-singing. Preachers in the Established Church read their sermons in order to instruct, and religious 'enthusiasm' was frowned on.  Methodist preachers preached their sermons to rouse their hearers to religious emotions. Great stress was laid on the feeling of conversion to God, of being born again to a new religious life, and of being saved. Doctrinally, there was little difference between the Methodists and the Established Church. Adherents were expected to live a strict sober life. Opponents said that the Methodists were unduly restricting themselves to a few narrow aspects of Christianity. Their worship was even more simplified than that of the Presbyterians, consisting almost exclusively of hymn-singing and a sermon.

            Their organisation was simple, local congregations being joined together into a Conference. They were divided into two main groups. The Wesleyan Methodists were regarded about 1830 as numbering 55,000 with 90 travelling preachers, 24 missions, and 35 supernumary preachers. The Primitive Methodists, who split from the main body in 1810 to keep the old preaching methods of the Wesleys, were credited with 40,000 members, 19 missions, and 40 preachers on circuit besides local preachers. The leading figure among the Irish Methodists was the Rev. Gideon Ousley. He was an effective preacher in Irish as well as English, and was well-read in Catholic works of divinity. Methodists, following the example of the Wesleys, often preached in the open, and as they were likely to be stoned by a Catholic mob liked to station themselves in front of the windows of a Catholic-owned shop! 

            Though rather few in numbers the Methodists were probably the most influential religious body in the British Isles in the first half of the century. Within the Established Churches they had a large following of people who did not go so far as to actually join them. The Oxford Movement, which stressed the functions of the Church, was in some ways a reaction to them. The terms High Church and Low Church distinguish the followers of the Oxford Movement from those of the Evangelicals. The Irish Protestant bishops at first associated themselves with the Methodist preachers, but gradually found themselves forced to dissociate themselves from their methods, to insist on the observance of Canon Law, and to set up rival organisations for the same ends. The Catholics singled out the Methodists, or Biblicals, for their opposition and detestation, because they had not the slightest objection to 'poaching' adherents from other Churches. The more extreme Catholics deliberately confused the methods of the 'Biblicals' with those of the other Churches. The Government made its dislike of proselytising known to the clergy of the Established Church, for such activity usually stirred up local riots. 

            The Quakers, or Society of Friends, existed in Ireland since 1653. As noted above, the numbered about 5,000. Their schools were highly respected. John Rutty, the pioneer of meteorology in Ireland, belonged to this group. The Shackelton family kept a famous school at Ballitore, county Kildare, and it was there the future Cardinal Cullen was educated. (The polar explorer, Ernest Shackleton, was of this family.) [Top] 

(iv) The Evangelising Movement or 'Second Reformation' 

            This was a series of disconnected attempts by various evangelical groups or societies in Great Britain and Ireland to bring what they regarded as the light of the Gospel to the Gaelic-speaking cottiers in the west of Ireland. It had little or no connection with the official Protestant Churches in Ireland. The Government, as noted above disapproved of their activities, as it did of all activities calculated to emphasise sectarian differences. The Government made it clear that no clergyman who supported the activities of the evangelisers could expect promotion. The bishops and clergy of the Established Church were normally careful to ensure that no undue influence was placed on Catholics to conform to the Established Church, and to see that no influence at all was placed on Catholic children in schools under their care, or in the schools of the Kildare Place Society. Also, when giving alms, which they did generously, they ensured that no connection was made with any act of worship, even to the extent of saying a grace. 

            Nor, so far as we can see, was any attempt made in schools belonging to the Bible Societies to exercise any undue influence on Catholic children to forsake their parents' religion. It was trusted that the reading of the Bible itself would be sufficient. Nor apparently did Catholic masters supported by the Bible Societies on condition that they made the Bible a textbook see any danger of proselytism. This being the case it is difficult to see the reason for the paranoia that gripped many of the Catholic clergy with regard to the supposed proselytism. As early as 1819 they were writing to Rome to denounce the schools of the Bible Societies.  The future Archbishop MacHale was among the first priests to denounce them, and among his followers was fostered the suspicion that the Irish Government, or the 'British' Government, was involved in a plot to subvert the Catholic religion in Ireland. 

            The Report of the Commissioners of Education Enquiry in 1812 publicly signalled the end of official attempts to convert the Irish Catholics. Many Protestants felt that the superior merits of a 'reformed Church' would become obvious to all Catholics, and that the steady trickle of converts from the Catholic middle and upper classes would soon become a flood. Education and the reading of the Bible would, it was hoped, be equally effective among the working classes. That these influences were not negligible can be seen from the resentment they provoked among many of the Catholic clergy who felt that the balance was loaded against them. They were ultimately driven to use political methods to try to load the balance in their own favour. 

            Both the Presbyterians and the Methodists organised small scale preaching missions, especially among the Gaelic-speaking peasants and cottiers. But the vast bulk of attempted proselytism was carried out by the Bible and Missionary Societies. There were many of these, both British and Irish, with shared beliefs and strategies for conversion. They believed that Roman Catholics in Ireland, Spain, Italy, etc, were deliberately kept in poverty and ignorance by the their clergy and by their monks for their own monetary gain. (It should be noted that Irish observers as different as the Duke of Wellington and Dr James Doyle were unimpressed by much of what they saw in the Peninsula.) They further believed that all that was necessary to convert them to Christ was to preach the pure words of the Gospel to them and to let them read it for themselves. Having once read the Bible they would renounce their errors and be saved. For this it was essential that they be taught to read.

It was a fundamental belief of these preachers that the Bible was literally true, that it was written in a simple plain language that everyone could understand, and that salvation came solely from a simple belief in the word of God. This being so there was no need for a Church or a priesthood. Everyone could read the word of God, understand it, assent to it, and in turn become a preacher or missionary. In addition they believed that the King James version of the Bible was free from errors found in other versions like the Latin Bible. 

            Bible Societies were first established in England towards the end of the eighteenth century, and one existed in Dublin as early as 1800. But the re-organisation of the British and Foreign Bible Society in London in 1804 and the founding of the Hibernian Bible Society in Dublin in 1806 more properly marks their beginning. By 1814 the Hibernian Bible Society had established repositories for Bibles in 100 Irish towns. By 1819 it had established 480 schools in which the Bible could be read without note or comment. This latter condition was unpopular with Protestant bishops as it did not allow a role for the Church to ensure orthodox interpretation, and by 1820 they were beginning to withdraw their support from the Bible Societies. By 1824 there were at least 30 different Bible or Missionary Societies working in Ireland, mostly from bases in England. Some of the Catholic clergy described them as 'locusts from the Pit' (Revelation chap. 9). Besides the Bible Societies there were Sunday School Societies and Religious Tracts Societies for the distribution of religious pamphlets or books. Also, evangelically-minded gentlemen like the Earl of Roden made great efforts to promote church-going and Bible-reading among their tenants. 

            A totally different aspect of the 'Second Reformation' was a series of public debates between the clergy on both sides. Some enthusiastic young clergymen of the Established Church, notably the Rev. Mortimer O’Sullivan, began this.  As the French Revolution had deprived the Catholics of access to universities on the Continent a considerable number of poorly-educated men were ordained to the Catholic clergy. These the university educated Protestant clergymen assumed to be typical of all Catholic priests. It seemed a good idea therefore to challenge them to public debate, and expose their ignorance to the people. Their flocks would then realise that the Protestant clergy was teaching the true Gospel.  It did not work out like that. Formidable skills in controversy were discovered among the Catholic clergy who also had the advantage of having to hand books printed on the Continent refuting the doctrines of the Protestants. Each side, in practice, studied its own authors and ignored the arguments of the other side. The arguments were no more than repetitions of standard arguments on both sides developed in Germany and France two centuries earlier. Each side was cheered by its supporters and regularly claimed the victory. 

            It is worth comparing the style of controversy of the Rev. Mortimer O’Sullivan with that of the Catholic politician, the Rev. James Maher. Each presented part of the truth as if it were the whole truth. Neither bothered to check his facts to see if they were complete or accurate. Each was convinced that he was unmasking a sinister plot to undermine his religion. Each tore facts out of context and then gave them the most lurid interpretation, being convinced that they had finally unmasked the villainy of their opponents and shown the rogues in their true light. Each resolutely refused to accept the explanations of their opponents. After all, if there is a plot its authors can be expected to deny the fact! 

            The moderate clergy on either side, and these were growing fewer and fewer, people like Archbishop Whateley and Archbishop Murray, deplored this kind of controversy and tried to prevent their clergy from becoming involved in it. Unsurprisingly, Archbishop Murray was denounced by a majority on his own side as a dupe of the Government. 

            Another strategy was adopted after 1830 and this was attempts to establish Protestant colonies in the remote parts of the Gaelic-speaking West. The idea was derived from the Missionary Societies. The idea was to purchase a tract of bog, and to drain and reclaim it. Protestant settlers would be established on the new farms, a church and school built, and Protestant services held. The local 'natives' would see the benefits of true Christianity in action and would be converted. Economically, despite high hopes, the colonies were only marginally profitable, and the Catholic clergy urged a boycott of every Catholic who associated himself with the colony.



Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.