THE CHURCH (1800-1950)
One of the most important events in the first quarter
of the nineteenth century was the Synod of Ulster's assertion of her
independence of the State in "things spiritual". The circumstances also
were most dramatic. Many deplored the want of a College for higher
education in Ulster, and determined to establish one in Belfast. The
attempt was successful, and the Belfast Academical Institution was
opened in 1815, and a parliamentary grant of �1,500 per annum obtained.
The managers of the Institution offered accommodation for theological
classes to the Synod of Ulster and the Seceders. In 1815, the Burghers
appointed Rev. Samuel Edgar (Ballynahinch) to teach theology, but the
Synod, although determined to take advantage of the opportunity offered,
did not make an appointment.
At a public dinner in the Institution, in March,
1816, many toasts were drunk, including one "To the memory of Marshal
Ney". This led the government to withdraw the endowment. Dr. Black
(Derry), a Tory, as a result, used all his power to persuade the Synod
that it would be unwise to permit their students to attend the
Institution ; and a letter was presented from the Board of the
Institution to the Synod at its meeting in Cookstown, in 1816, informing
them that, at a conference with Lord Castlereagh, his lordship had
stated that if the Synod appointed a Professor of Divinity to lecture in
the Institution it would be regarded by the government as an act of
hostility on the part of the Church. The Synod, in the light of this,
postponed making an appointment, and appointed a deputation to wait on
his lordship. The result was unsatisfactory, as Lord Castlereagh
declared that permission given to students of the Synod to attend the
Institution would be "a breach of the contract" with the government.
When the Synod met in Third Belfast (Rosemary Street)
in 1817, there was a large attendance. Dr. Black hinted that the Regium
Donum might be withdrawn if their students were permitted to attend
classes in the Institution. The Synod was surprised, and there was
general confusion and uncertainty, when Rev. James Carlile, Mary's
Abbey, Dublin, only three years ordained, rose to speak, and made one of
the most telling speeches ever delivered in an Irish Presbyterian Church
"It is surely unnecessary", he said, "to take up the
time of the Synod in demonstrating that the education of our students is
strictly a matter of internal arrangement. Nothing is more clearly
connected with the spiritual interests of our people. There are,
Moderator, some proposals which may be made to individuals or to public
bodies, on which it is infamous even to deliberate. Such seems to be the
nature of the proposal made to us at our late meeting in Cookstown,
when, by a verbal message from an individual styling himself Lord
Castlereagh, we were informed that the Government may regard our
electing a professor for educating our students in theology as an act of
hostility, and we were required to desist from our purpose. Who or what
is this Lord Castlereagh, that he should send such a message to the
Synod of Ulster? Is he a minister of the body ? Is he an elder ? What
right has he to obtrude himself on our deliberations ? I revere the
Government of my country. I pay a willing obedience in matters civil. I
am no cavilling politician. But I protest against the government
dictating an opinion as to the measures we should adopt for the
interests of religion . . .
"Let us tell our people that we will never permit his
Majesty's bounty to operate as a bribe to induce us to desert what we
believe to be their spiritual welfare.
"This day's decision will tell whether we deserve to
rank as an independent, upright, conscientious body, with no other end
in view than the glory of God and the welfare of His Church, or whether
we deserve that Lord Castlereagh should drive his chariot into the midst
of us, and tread us down as the offal of the streets".1.
This bold and courageous speech won the day, led to
the appointment of the Rev. Samuel Hanna as Professor of Divinity and
Church History, ended the infamous attempt of Lord Castlereagh and the
Government to override the religious liberty of the Synod, and showed
that independence was a treasured possession to Irish Presbyterians.
The decision of the Synod let Castlereagh and his
supporters see that although they had been able to "buy" the Union of
the Parliaments they could not make Presbyterians sell their
Other important events in the first half of the
nineteenth century were: (1) the second Non-Subscription, or Arian,
controversy, and (2) the Union of the "General Synod of Ulster" and the
"Presbyterian Synod of Ireland, distinguished by the name of Seceders",
to form the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, with the General Assembly as
its Supreme Court.
Before discussing the former, a word may be said
about Dr. Henry Cooke of Killyleagh, and Dr. Henry Montgomery of
Dunmurry, the leading figures during the Arian controversy. Both were
great and outstanding men, and each held the other in high respect.
Cooke declared that Montgomery "had the greatest command of the English
language of any man living"; and Montgomery said of Cooke, "I cheerfully
admit that he was, generally speaking, an open and manly opponent . His
dexterity as a debater I have never seen surpassed, whether in defending
his own weak points or attacking those of his adversary-his eloquence
during our synodical debates was frequently commanding, and the skill
with which he played on all the cords of the popular heart was perfect".
Cooke's powers of effective extempore speech and
reasoned argument were phenomenal, and he was a master of invective.
Montgomery was a splendid speaker of a rather different type, having a
graceful manner, with persuasion rather than declamation as the chief
feature of his eloquence. Indeed, as Principal J. E. Davey says, "one
cannot but regret the circumstances which drove these two worthy and
gifted men into different folds".2.
Montgomery was loved by his friends and respected by
his enemies, a man of devout and attractive personality. Cooke, on the
other hand, was extremely self-possessed, and appears to have been
admired rather than loved. Yet, when this distinction has been drawn, it
must be recognised that both were great men and men of strong
convictions. Cooke was a militant Tory and was regarded as a bitter
opponent of "Catholic emancipation", although, in fairness, it must be
pointed out that he was not opposed to a "limited emancipation".
Montgomery, on the other hand, was a Liberal and an ardent supporter of
Montgomery withdrew with the Remonstrants in 1830,
whereas Cooke remained in the Synod, and became the most dramatic and
dominant figure in the early years of the General Assembly. Cooke is the
type of historical character who creates either great admiration or just
as great aversion, but, taking an objective view, while one may not
approve of his every action there is no denying that he was the
outstanding figure in nineteenth century Irish Presbyterianism, and a
(1) Let us now turn to the second Non-subscription
controversy. The Belfast Academical Institution, which was to provide a
Collegiate education, was, as we have seen, founded in 1815, and a grant
of �1,500 was obtained from the government, so an approach was made to
the Synod of Ulster and the Secession Synod to recognise the General
Certificate of the Institution. The scheme worked well until 1821, when
there was a vacancy in the classical department. Rev. William Bruce was
elected in preference to Mr. Brice, who had been supported by Rev. Henry
Cooke. Cooke maintained that Bruce had been elected by Arian influence.
There were no grounds for this statement for Bruce owed his election to
the influence of Rev. Edward Reid, Moderator of the Synod of Ulster, and
Rev. Samuel Hanna, both of whose orthodoxy was beyond suspicion. This
was the beginning of the second Non-Subscription controversy in the
Synod of Ulster. It differed from that of a century earlier in that in
the eighteenth century all on both sides were orthodox, whereas now
some, but not all, of the Non-Subscribers had been affected by
"New-Light" views and had become Arians. Arianism derives its name from
Arius, who was a presbyter in Alexandria in the fourth century. While
holding that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, he taught that Christ was
"a created being", and not of "the same substance" as the Father.
Arianism is to be carefully distinguished from Unitarianism which
regards Christ "as a man adopted to the office of Son of God".
In 1824, Cooke was defeated in his attempt to have
the law of subscription re-enacted; but the storm did not really break
until the meeting of the Synod at Strabane in 1827. After a long debate,
it was finally agreed, on the proposal of Rev. James Morell, Ballybay,
that the words to be subscribed should be those of the "Shorter
Catechism" - "There are three persons in the Godhead - the Father, the Son,
and the Holy Ghost ; and these three are one God, the same in substance,
equal in power and glory". After a debate, in which both Cooke and
Montgomery participated, it was finally agreed that the question should
be put in the form : "Believe the doctrine or not". The minute of the
vote is : "Before the sense of the house was taken, four ministers
obtained leave to withdraw ; the roll was then called-117 ministers and
eighteen elders voted `Believe', two ministers voted `Not', and eight
ministers declined voting".3. Ten ministers and five elders
handed in a protestation. So the Synod of 1827 closed with the tide
running strongly in favour of the subscribing party.
When the Synod met at Cookstown in 1828 there was a
novel proceeding in that all present, who had not been present at
Strabane, were called upon to record their votes for or against the
Strabane Test. Although the legality of this was contested it was forced
through. The result was : thirty-eight ministers and fifty-nine elders
voted `Believe', four ministers and fourteen elders voted `Disbelieve',
one minister withdrew, twelve ministers and four elders declined to
vote, and two elders protested against the measure. On the Friday, Cooke
introduced Overtures, which provided that every student, before being
recognised as a candidate for the ministry, should "previously to
entering a theological class . . be examined by a committee of this
Synod, respecting his personal religion, his knowledge of the
Scriptures, especially his views of the doctrine of the Trinity,
Original Sin, Justification by Faith, and Regeneration by the holy
Spirit". This was carried - ninety-nine ministers and forty elders voted
`pass', while forty ministers and seventeen elders voted `not pass'. The
Non-subscribers placed a protest on record, which was signed by
twenty-one ministers and seventeen elders.4. They, then,
began to prepare for withdrawing from the Synod. In October, 1828, at a
meeting in Belfast, they prepared a "Remonstrance", setting forth their
position, and stating that, unless the Overtures were repealed, they
The meeting of the Synod in Lurgan in 1829 adjourned
further consideration of the question to a special meeting which met on
18th August, at Cookstown. The attendance was small. The Remonstrants
were absent, except Rev. William Porter, who attended in his capacity as
clerk, and in order to intimate the secession of his friends. Memorials
were read from twenty Sessions, praying for the retention of the
Overtures�ten of them asking for the expulsion of the Non-subscribers.
Porter then read the "Remonstrance", which had been drawn up in 1828 and
left aside in the hope of a settlement. The Synod reaffirmed the
Overtures, with the result that the seventeen Non-subscribing ministers
withdrew ;5. and, on 25th May, 1830, they formed the
Remonstrant Synod of Ulster.
Once again, as a century earlier, it must be a matter
of regret that patience was not exercised, and schism prevented by
tolerance towards those already in the ministry, and the making of
subscription absolute for the future. The tragedy of both divisions is
that they need not have happened, as may be seen from the events of
1854, when the Presbytery of Munster, consisting of seven congregations,
joined the General Assembly, on condition of still remaining a
Non-subscribing body, and such they remain to the present day.6.
In 1835, the General Synod of Ulster adopted an
Overture making subscription to the Westminster "Confession of Faith"
compulsory for all ministers, licentiates, and elders. This opened the
way for Union with the Secession Synod, which took place in 1840.
The door was now open for Union, but two other events
contributed in no small measure to its success. The first has already
been noticed, in chapter ii, namely, the removal by the government of
the system of classification of congregations in paying the Regium
Donum. The second was the defence of Presbyterianism by members of the
Synod of Ulster in reply to the attack of Rev. Archibald Boyd, an
Anglican curate in Derry, in the spring of 1838. Four ministers of the
Synod replied in 1839 in a work entitled "Presbyterianism Defended"
William McClure (First Derry) was distinguished for
his culture, piety, and fidelity. James Denham (Great James' Street) was
a learned and scholarly minister. A. P. Goudy (Strabane) was the son of
Rev. Andrew Goudy (Ballywalter), and Matilda, daughter of Rev. James
Porter (Greyabbey). He was a Liberal in politics and a Conservative in
theology, who was animated by the same hatred of landlordism which had
sent his grandfather to the scaffold in 1798, but a strong supporter of
"Subscription". "Distinguished by his eloquence in the pulpit, and by
his wit, humour, and invective on the platform, he was the first
minister of the Assembly to meet Dr. Cooke on equal terms, and curb his
dictatorial power".8. W. D. Killen (Raphoe), who was in 1841
appointed Professor of Church History in the Presbyterian College,
Belfast, was a man of wide reading and width of learning. Generally
accurate in his facts, however, he is not always reliable in his
interpretation. "He", says Latimer, "succeeds better in recording events
than in discussing their causes or their consequences".9.
Each dealt with a separate aspect of the attack, an Boyd replied in his
"Episcopacy, Ordination, Lay Eldership, and Liturgies". This they
refuted in the "Plea of Presbytery", pointing out Boyd's errors,
misquotations, and blunders. Boyd replied in his "Misrepresentation
Refuted", in which among other things he accused the four ministers of
"meanness" because they noticed his mistakes. The authors replied in a
pamphlet entitled "Mene Tekel", and Boyd answered in his "Episcopacy and
Presbytery", which Goudy described as "a literary abortion, which no man
ever read, and no periodical ever reviewed".10. Soon
afterwards Boyd was removed from Derry, and the controversy came to an
While no one wishes to stir up the animosities of the
past, this controversy was of great importance in the cause of the Union
of the Synods in that it firmly convinced the Seceders of the loyalty of
the Synod of Ulster to Presbyterianism. It only remains to say that the
"Plea of Presbytery" went through three editions, and the last act of
the Synod of Ulster before its union with the Secession Synod was to
vote its thanks to the authors of the "Plea" for their services.11.
(2) We now come to the second main event in the first
half of the nineteenth century, namely the Union of Synods. The students
of both Synods were in attendance at the same Divinity classes in the
Belfast Academical Institution, and the movement for union began with
them. This spread to ministers and congregations. Memorials, expressing
a desire for union, from the students and from a number of congregations
of both Churches, were presented to the Synods at their meetings in
1839. These were favourably received, and committees of both churches
were appointed to meet and draw up terms of union. These were submitted
to each Synod. at special meetings, held in Belfast on 8th April, 1840,
and there was agreement on all essential points.
The following is a brief summary of the main
conditions on which the two Synods agreed to unite12.:-
- Mutual recognition of each other as equal and co-ordinate Church
- Subscription of the Westminster "Confession of Faith", as
founded on and agreeable to the Holy Scriptures, in the same manner
as it was received by the Church of Scotland in the year 1647, by
all ministers and elders.
- Adoption of the practice of public baptism.
- A rearrangement of Presbyteries according to local convenience.
- The preparation of a Code of Discipline for the United Church.
- The acceptance of an agreed Formula of Questions to be used at
the Ordination of Ministers.
- That all Seat-holders in full Communion with he Church, whose
names have been registered for twelve months previous to a vacancy
occurring in any congregation, shall be entitled to vote in the
election of office-bearers.
- As a matter of Christian prudence, that no Call be sustained
which shall not be supported by at least two-thirds of the voters.
- That at the first meeting of the Supreme Court of the United
Church all ruling elders must produce credentials that they have
been duly commissioned.
- That the Rev. Dr. Hanna be Moderator of the United Church for
On 21st May, at a joint-meeting in the Session room
of Fisherwick Church, complete agreement was reached, and it was decided
that the Union should take place in July. "On Tuesday, the 7th of that
month, the two Synods commenced their sittings in Belfast ; the Synod of
Ulster, meeting in the church of May Street, and the Secession Synod in
the church of Linen-Hall Street. After having transacted some other
business, and sanctioned the resolutions which the joint-committee had
adopted in the May preceding, they proceeded, on Friday, the 10th July,
1840, to the final act of corporation. At eleven o'clock on the morning
of that day they set out from their respective places of meeting, and
then, mingling in one body on the way, walked together in procession,
through a dense crowd of spectators, to the church of Rosemary Street.
The moderators of the two Synods, the Rev. James Elder, of Finvoy, and
the Rev. John Rodgers, of Glascar, headed the procession. Having reached
the place of destination, accompanied by an immense multitude, these two
venerable ministers then proceeded to the pulpit, and conducted
devotional exercises. Immediately afterwards, the Rev. Dr. James Seaton
Reid read, in a very deliberate manner, the act of union ; and, as soon
as he had concluded, all the ministers and elders present rose from
their seats, and held up their right hand in token of approval. The Rev.
Dr. Hanna was now unanimously chosen moderator, and the court was
regularly constituted, under the title of `The General Assembly of the
Presbyterian Church in Ireland'."13.
The Act of Union describes the General Synod of
Ulster as "holding the standards and adopting the discipline of the
parent Church of Scotland", and the Seceders as "likewise holding the
standards and adopting the discipline of the Church of Scotland" ; and
continues, "It is hereby accordingly resolved and agreed upon, in the
name of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Great Head of the Church, by the said
General Synod of Ulster and the said Presbyterian Synod of Ireland,
distinguished by the name of Seceders, on this the 10th day of July, in
the year of our Lord 1840, duly assembled together, that they do now,
and in all times hereafter shall constitute one united Church,
professing the same common faith, as set forth in the standards as
aforesaid; and, in all matters ecclesiastical, exercising, and subject
to, the same government and discipline . .
"And it is hereby further resolved and agreed upon,
as aforesaid, that the said united Church so constituted, shall
henceforth bear the name and designation of `The Presbyterian Church in
Ireland . . .', and that its supreme court shall be styled `The General
Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland' .".14.
This Act of Union is of vital importance as it
defines the Standards of Doctrine, Worship, and Government, of the
Presbyterian Church in Ireland. At the time of the Union, there were 292
congregations connected with the Synod of Ulster, and 141 with the
Secession Synod ; and the United Church contained approximately 650,000
Presbyterian people. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church was
laid down in the Act of Union. The General Assembly was its Supreme
Court, and in the 1841 Code its powers within the Constitution, were
defined as follows :-
"The highest ecclesiastical power upon earth,
acknowledged by the Presbyterian Church, is the Presbytery. The General
Assembly is therefore not higher than a Presbytery in power, claimed or
exercised; but merely, as being a larger Presbytery, is entitled to
exercise an equivalently larger jurisdiction; and as being the common
council of the Churches. is, therefore, entitled to have the final
cognisance of all common concerns. When some cases are not to be decided
by a Presbytery, but reserved for the sentence of the Assembly, it does
not follow, that it is because the Assembly has any inherent
superiority; but it is merely an agreement by mutual consent, that some
points that are of more general concern, should wait till the
representatives of the whole Church be present at their discussion and
"The Assembly shall hold a meeting each year . . .
and shall meet oftener, if business require.
"The following powers are allotted to the General
Assembly :- To the Assembly is reserved the power of regulating the
number and extent of the several Presbyteries under its care; and of
removing congregations and ministers from one Presbytery to another ;
but the Assembly does not claim the power of removing a congregation or
minister from one Presbytery to another, except at the request of the
congregation, if vacant ; or of both minister and congregation, where
the congregation is planted.
"To the Assembly is reserved the right of permitting
congregations to choose assistants and successors to their ministers.
"To the Assembly is reserved the right of restoring
ministers suspended `sine die', or degraded : likewise of restoring
probationers, from whom license has been withdrawn.
"To the Assembly belongs the power of determining
upon the conduct and sentences of Presbyteries, either by reference,
appeal, or review of their records, on motion of inquiry into any of
their proceedings . . .
"The Assembly exercises the right of reconsidering
its own acts . . .
"The Assembly exercises the right of appointing a
Commission of its members either to investigate and report, or finally
to issue particular cases . . .
"As the General Assembly exercises a superintendence
over all the churches under its care, it possesses the power of
appointing a Commission of Visitation to any church, or churches, where
there is presumptive proof that a Presbytery has been negligent in the
exercise of discipline".15.
Although the work of missions had been discussed by
both Synods for a number of years, prior to the Union, no mission field
had been established, but the first public act of the General Assembly
was to send two missionaries to India-Rev. James Glasgow and Rev.
Alexander Kerr. Down through the years the Church's missionary work has
been extended. In 1841, the Jewish Mission was formed, and, in 1843,
Rev. William Graham was sent to Palestine. The Colonial Mission to
"minister to the spiritual needs of emigrants in the colonies of the
Empire" was founded in 1846, a Mission to China and the Continental
Mission (chiefly centred in Spain)
in 1870, and the Zenana Mission for "work among women
in India" in 1875. Space prohibits a detailed account of this work, but
tribute must be paid to the work of the Women's Missionary Association,
and the Girls' and Boys' Auxiliaries in support of missions.
Presbyterianism, as we shall see in chapter VI, has
always sought to minister to the needs of the widow, the orphan, and the
poor. This, at first, was the responsibility of the local Sessions, but
later was reorganised on a Church basis. So, having outlined the
Church's missionary activities, this is a convenient point at which to
summarise the contribution of the General Assembly in this field. The
potato famine in 1846-47 resulted in people crowding into the cities and
dying in the streets from starvation. Fever followed. There were no
hospitals or workhouses, so many Presbyterian Meeting-houses were used
as hospitals. Thousands died, and about one million emigrated. The
province of Connaught was stricken with peculiar severity, and the
Presbyterian Church raised over �16,000 for the relief of destitution
there. Dr. Edgar, as convener of the Home Mission, had his agents
distribute food to the hungry, and start industrial schools where women
were taught needlework and helped to earn a living. As a result of this
work, fourteen Presbyterian churches were erected within a decade.
An Orphan Society was founded in 1866, and since its
beginning it has helped to support over 35,000 orphans ; and in
connection with it the Johnston Memorial Training Home for the training
of orphan girls has been opened. The Kinghan Mission to the Deaf and
Dumb was established in 1857. The Old Age Fund, which has done so much
to provide for poor people of advanced years, who are unable to support
themselves, was founded in 1906, and later an Indigent Ladies' Fund.
More recently Adelaide House and Towell House have been opened as
residences for the aged. Another most successful service to the
community was the Presbyterian Health Insurance Society.
During the closing years of the nineteenth century
the Shankill Road Mission was organised, and later Ballymaconnell
Village, Bangor, was built and opened to provide holiday facilities for
children and others in connection with the Mission. A Boys' Residential
Club was founded to help boys received from Welfare Authorities, the
Courts, and broken homes, to adjust themselves to society. The
Temperance interests of the Church go back to Dr. John Edgar who, in
1829, began his public work on behalf of temperance, and who later
founded the Ulster Female Penitentiary or Edgar Home for rescue work.
After the 1914-1918 War, it was decided to build as a War Memorial a
Hostel making provision for Presbyterian youth in Belfast, which should
provide them with board and lodging under ideal conditions at a
reasonable figure. Today plans for its extension are in hand.
Current social problems are dealt with by special
committees of the General Assembly, such as, Church Extension, Social
Service, Education, Gambling, Temperance, and so on.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century there were
very few Sunday Schools in Ireland. When the Sunday School Society for
Ireland, a non-sectarian body, was founded in 1809, there were but
eighty Sunday Schools in the whole of Ireland. In 1862, the Sabbath
School Society was founded in connection with the Presbyterian Church,
and its work for the Church cannot be over-estimated. In 1959, there
were 828 schools with 7,770 teachers and 67,490 scholars, apart from a
further 14,785 in Bible Classes.
In connection with the Church there are many youth
organisations, such as, the Boys' Brigade, the Girls' Brigade, Scouts
and Guides, Young People's Guild, Boys' and Girls' Auxiliaries, and
others. As some of these were only loosely connected with the Church, it
was felt that a scheme of co-ordination and co-operation ought to be
prepared. This was done, and adopted by the General Assembly. By this
scheme every, society has representation on the Youth Committee of the
Assembly, and it has worked with great success.
This brief summary gives no adequate picture of the
social work of the Church, but in conclusion it is interesting to note
that Presbyterians are still pioneering in the field of social service,
for example, we have only to think of the work of Rev. T. G. Eakins,
O.B.E., on behalf of spastic children, and to realise that the
Presbyterian Church is the only Church in Ireland who sends workers to
the Matrimonial Courts in an effort to rebuild broken homes.
A further pioneering effort was the taking of a
Display Stand, with facilities for consultation, by the Presbyterian
Church at the "Belfast Telegraph Ideal Homes' Exhibition" in 1959 so
that people might know that the "Ideal Home" is the Christian Home.
At the Union of the Synods the vital question of
union of congregations was not faced, and in some towns and districts
the former congregations of both Synods were allowed to continue side by
side. The failure to face this problem has created one of the most acute
problems in the Church today, namely, the financing of two churches
where one would be adequate. This involves an unnecessary drain on the
financial resources of the Church, and results in waste of ministerial
man-power. This problem can only be solved in a spirit of goodwill and
harmony, and of sympathy and understanding; and wherever the question
arises in particular cases all must seek not the satisfying of personal
prejudices and local wishes, but the good of the Church as a whole.
The year of the formation of the General Assembly saw
another attack on the part of the Anglican Church on the validity of
Presbyterian marriages. "In 1840", writes Latimer, "the Armagh
Consistorial Court decided that a marriage between a Presbyterian and an
Episcopalian, performed by a Presbyterian minister, was illegal. Next
year, a man convicted of bigamy carried the matter to a higher court, on
the ground that his first marriage had been celebrated by a Presbyterian
minister. although between a Presbyterian and an Episcopalian. In the
Queen's bench, three of the judges were for liberating the prisoner, and
two for his condemnation. The question was carried to the House of
Lords. But the Law Lords, being equally divided, the decision of the
inferior court was upheld, and the marriage pronounced invalid. The
decision caused great alarm among the Presbyterians of Ulster. Public
meetings were held . . . In February, 1842, Government gave notice of
introducing a bill to legalise all marriages of this kind, which had
already been solemnised. But, as this bill was merely retrospective, Dr.
Cooke convened a special meeting of Assembly, bye which it was
condemned. Presbyterians were now thoroughly aroused to contend for
their rights. Many meetings were held; intense excitement prevailed; and
at last the Government gave way", and in 1844 an Act legalising such
marriages by Presbyterian ministers was passed.16.
Let us now turn to the principal events of the years
1850-1950. Writing on Higher Education in Ulster, Professor T. W. Moody
says, "in 1800 there was no permanent local institution that catered for
higher studies. There was only one university in Ireland, the University
of Dublin or Trinity College, which along with kindred institutions in
the capital, generally satisfied the needs of the ruling classes, in
Ulster as elsewhere. But with Ulster Presbyterians it was quite
different. Excluded by law from Trinity College till 1793, they looked
for higher education to Scotland, the home of their seventeenth century
ancestors. Since the early years of the Ulster colony, Presbyterian
students had gravitated to the Scottish universities, and above all to
the University of Glasgow. The long road from Portpatrick to Glasgow was
familiar to generations of foot-slogging scholars from Ulster, intent on
qualifying as cheaply as possible for the ministry of the Presbyterian
Church or for the medical profession . . . From 1782 the Irish
Government was repeatedly urged to establish a university in Ulster,
primarily though not exclusively for Presbyterians. The `opening' of
Trinity College in 1793 to all religious denominations did little to
weaken the Presbyterian claim, for Trinity continued to be an Anglican
stronghold, Dublin to be spiritually more remote from Presbyterian
Ulster than Scotland, and a course in Dublin University to be far more
costly than one in Glasgow. But it was the age of the French revolution,
and Ulster Presbyterians, identified with radical and republican
principles, were out of favour with the government. So while the
catholic Church was enabled by the Irish Parliament in 1795 to set up a
national seminary at Maynooth for the education of its clergy, the
Presbyterian Church was left to fend for itself".17.
The need for an Ulster College was first met by the
Belfast Academical Institution, but, as a result of the Arian
controversy, the General Assembly, in 1841, declared that the
Institution was no longer satisfactory, and, in 1844, it was decided to
apply to the government for aid to erect and endow a Church College. The
Assembly felt justified in doing so because the Anglicans had Trinity
College, and the government was passing a Bill through Parliament to
make a gift of �30,000 to Maynooth for buildings, and to endow it with
an additional grant of �26,000 per annum. Notwithstanding the Assembly
were informed that the State "would not endow any denominational
College".18. At the same time, they were informed that the Government
was introducing a Bill for the establishment of three Queen's Colleges
at Belfast, Cork, and Galway. They were to be non-sectarian, and were to
be devoted to the advancement of Arts and Science. While the Assembly
had good grounds for complaining of unjust treatment, it welcomed the
scheme, especially as the Government promised to make provision for its
divinity students by the endowment of four theological chairs.
Queen's College, Belfast, was opened in 1849. It is
true that all three Presidents of Queen's College were Presbyterian
ministers - Revs. P. S. Henry, J. L. Porter, and Thomas Hamilton-and that
sixty-five per cent. of the students were Presbyterians, but, as
Professor T. W. Moody points out, "there is no evidence of any
ecclesiastical interference with the college, or of any special
preference for Presbyterians in appointments to chairs".19 To the wise
leadership of her Presidents and administrators Queen's owes much, and
their hopes that she would attain the status of an independent
university reached fulfilment when the Irish Universities Act (1908)
erected Queen's into an independent university in 1909.
In harmony with acceptance of the Queen's Colleges
scheme, the Presbyterian College, Belfast (affectionately known as
"Assembly's College"), was built by the Church, and opened in December,
1853, the inaugural address being given by Dr. Merle D'Aubigne of
Geneva. In 1868, the Gibson Chambers, providing residential
accommodation for thirty-three students, were opened, and a College
Chapel was added in 1881. This College has served the Church faithfully
for over a century, but the Church has never made financial provision
for the College in the way she ought to have done, and one of the main
problems facing the General Assembly today is that of the College's
general finances, owing to the fall in value of trust funds and the
increase in overhead expenses. The Gamble Library was opened in the
College in 1873. While severely limited in its financial expenditure, it
houses a collection of valuable, historical, religious, and theological
works, and rare and scarce pamphlets, numbering about 20,000 volumes.
While the majority in the General Assembly favoured
the Queen's College and Assembly's College scheme, there were some who
held that nothing short of a complete Presbyterian College in Arts and
Theology would meet the Church's need. The situation was now complicated
by the fact that Mrs. Magee, a wealthy Dublin Presbyterian, had left the
sum of �20,000 for the erection and
endowment of a Presbyterian College. Some hoped to use this for the
Belfast College, but such was not to be, for after much litigation the
Chancery Court ruled that it must be devoted to the establishment of a
complete college. So Magee College, providing classes in Arts, Science,
and Theology, was opened in Derry in 1865. The Arts and Science classes,
from the beginning, were open to every member of the community. The
Theological classes, on the other hand, were for the preparation of
students for the ministry of the Presbyterian Church. Since 1953, the
College has received generous financial help from the Government of
Northern Ireland for the advancement of literary and scientific
scholarship, and the maintenance of property. To obtain this financial
assistance from the Government the Arts and Theological departments had
to be separated into different buildings. They are now known as Magee
University College and Magee Theological College.
In 1881, Mr. Gladstone's government granted a Charter
to the theological professors in Belfast and Derry to grant degrees in
Divinity, as the Presbyterian Theological Faculty of Ireland. The degree
of Bachelor of Divinity is awarded by examination, and the Doctorate is
given honoris causa.
Professor William Gibson and Rev. Isaac Nelson, who
lived through the stirring days of the Ulster Revival of 1859, have left
us the best-known accounts of the events that took place. The former
entitled his work "The Year of Grace", and the latter "The Year of
Delusion". While many have written accounts of this Revival, of which
the best is "God's River in Spate", by Rev. J. T. Carson, a completely
objective history has never been written, but Principal J. E. Davey has
given a fair-minded summary: "It began in the congregation of Connor,
near Ballymena, and spread quickly through the countries of Antrim,
Down, Tyrone, and Derry, and the great majority of the ministers of the
Irish Presbyterian Church entered whole-heartedly into the movement.
Churches were crowded, services often very prolonged and multitudes
brought under intense conviction of sin and into assurance of salvation.
Thousands professed conversion in every part of the region touched by
the Revival; and one can, I think, without exaggeration, state that the
great bulk of the Christian workers of the Irish Presbyterian Church for
the next generation came from those who had been touched by the
movement. The work of 1859 and the years which followed gave a new life
to the religion of Ulster, a new enthusiasm and a new power-its
influence was not evanescent as the influence of such movements
unfortunately sometimes is .. . But along with the good of the movement
there were elements which shocked and puzzled . . . many strange and
objectionable features presented themselves . . . One cannot deny either
the existence of such morbid manifestations or the actual and positive,
indeed amazingly valuable work done for God in that memorable period . .
. But the positive achievement of the Revival, judged not merely by
emotion and experience, but by its fruits, was there for all to see and
to give thanks to God . . . And the results of the work have remained
through the years in many of our congregations, in the presence of a
band of devoted men and women, interested in the things of the Kingdom,
and prepared to give their strength to the cause of God and His Church,
as ministers, teachers, office-bearers or workers in less obvious
fields, a band of Christians holding up their pastor's hands and loving
the worship and service of God. The work and the enthusiasm it begot
were renewed some fifteen years later when Moody and Sankey visited
Ulster, and a second wave of revival swept through the land, to be
renewed yet later by a second visit".20.
The disastrous and terrible famine of 1846-1847
during which hundreds of thousands of hungry and fever-stricken people
died, and almost a million fled from the country, as Mr. J. C. Beckett
says, "had left Ireland politically as well as economically exhausted.
The movement for repeal was dead ; the young Irelanders were scattered
and discredited ; no leader came forward to take O'Connell's place ;
Ireland had no national party and the British government had no Irish
policy".21. However, the rise of the Fenians, and their
attempt to seize Chester Castle and the Holyhead Railway in 1867,
together with the beginnings of the Home Rule movement which became the
Home Rule League in 1870 under the leadership of Isaac Butt, and the
rise to power of Charles Stewart Parnell, made England see that the
Irish problem could be no longer shelved.
From 1867, the English political parties were sharply
divided over the question of religious endowments in Ireland, the
Tories, under Disraeli, favoured general endowment of all, while the
Liberals, under Gladstone, pledged themselves to abolish all religious
endowments, and to disestablish the Anglican Church of Ireland.
Gladstone, it must be pointed out, was not yet a Home Ruler, but, in
1868, believed that Ireland's salvation lay in religious, land, and
educational reforms. His first step in that direction was to
disestablish the Anglican Church in 1870. On the disestablishment,
Curtis writes, "The highly-endowed State Church commanded the allegiance
of only an eighth of the population, she had against her both the
Romanist and Presbyterian elements, and though she claimed to be the
ancient Church of Ireland with uninterrupted succession it had to be
admitted that she had never been nor could be the Church of anything but
a minority, even though the minority was powerful in the upper classes.
In spite of her fine record in scholarship and learning and for the
noble men she had produced it was clear that her claim to remain the
national Church could not be supported, though it was secured by the Act
of Union. Further, the age was making for justice to all classes of
Irishmen, and the disestablishment of the State Church was part of the
undoing of the grossly unjust subjection of Ireland from Elizabeth
onwards. Disestablishment had the support of England's greatest coming
statesman, Mr. Gladstone, himself a sincere Anglican, and when he came
into power, in 1869, he carried through the Act by which the Church of
Ireland was disestablished and put on a footing with other Churches.
Henceforth she was to be ruled by a representative Church Body and made
To the Anglican Church was reserved the Church
buildings on which �1,103,699. 19s. 3d. had been spent during 1834-65,
the school-houses, and �500,000 compensation for recent private
endowments. In addition provision was made for the bishops and clergy
then living, and all recipients could either continue to draw this for
life, or commute in the interests of the Church. All but forty-five
commuted, and the amount paid to the Representative Church Body was
�8,048,446. 16s. 7d. The total expenditure of the commissioners to the
Representative Church Body and to the bishops, clergy, and others
connected with the Anglican Church after disestablishment amounted to
�10,208,988. 15s. 3d.23.
The General Assembly passed a resolution condemning
the policy of disestablishment, for while many Presbyterians were in no
way opposed to the disestablishment of the Anglican Church all were
greatly concerned about the question of endowments, as the government's
policy meant that ministers would lose the Regium Donum. The Act in
their case also made provision for commutation in the interests of the
Church, and all but four did so. This amounted to �556,974. 6s. 5d.,
with a bonus of �65,766.24. This, together with the Fund
raised by a generous and loyal laity to assist in overcoming the
financial crisis caused by the stopping of the Regium Donum, forms the
basis of the present Central Ministry Fund.
The Divinity School in Trinity College, University of
Dublin, was reserved to the Anglicans for the education of candidates
for the ministry, and the Presbyterian College, Belfast, received
�39,500, and St. Patrick's College, Maynooth, �385,035. Ss. 3d.
(including the remission of a debt of �12,704. 4s. 9d.) .25.
The Non-Subscribing Presbyterians received about
�46,000 and �4,200 towards the endowment of a professor's salary.
Gladstone, as stated above, hoped to solve another
side of the Irish problem by land reform legislation, with the result
that several important Acts were passed while he held office. To this
movement Irish Presbyterians contributed many leaders. The most
distinguished was Dr. James McKnight, sometime editor of the "Belfast
News-Letter", of the "Banner of Ulster", and of the "Derry Standard".
"In 1847", writes Dr. Brian Kennedy, "he organised the Ulster farmers
into a body calling itself `The Ulster Tenant Right Association'. The
General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, despite the
opposition of Dr. Henry Cooke, supported the policy of this association,
and it started an agitation for no less purpose than the legalising of
the Ulster Custom".26 Indeed, "the father of the three F's
was the Rev. N. M. Brown, Presbyterian minister of Limavady".27.
Other Presbyterian leaders were Professor Richard Smith (Magee
College), Rev. John Rogers (Comber), Rev. John Kinnear (Letterkenny),
Rev. William Dobbin (Anaghlone), and S. M. Greer, a barrister, son of
Rev. Thomas Greer (Dunboe). The tenants, prior to 1870, were at the
mercy of the landlords, who could evict them when they chose. In that
year Gladstone passed a Tenant Right Act, legalising the "Ulster Custom"
by which the tenants had an acknowledged right to buy or sell their
land. It, however, left the power of raising the rents in the hands of
landlords, a weapon they continued to use ruthlessly. A Ballot Act was
passed in 1874, which enabled the people to vote secretly. This enabled
Presbyterians to vote, in security, against landlord nominees, and to
secure the return of several members of their Church to Parliament. In
1881, Gladstone passed the celebrated. Land Act, which secured for
tenant farmers fair rents, free sale, and fixity of tenure. "Indirectly
this measure", writes Dr. D. Stewart, "was of great advantage to the
Presbyterian Church. The reduced rents enabled the people to live in
greater comfort, and to give a more liberal support to religious
ordinances. Moreover, it freed them entirely from the power of
landlordism, which was too often used in the interest of the Episcopal
Church".28. The legislation, making provision for tenant
purchase, initiated by the Liberals was extended by the Conservatives in
the Land Purchase Acts of 1898 and 1903. The removal of the old
grievances connected with land by this body of legislation produced a
social revolution in that the country which had formerly consisted of
large landed estates let to tenants now became one of a vast number of
small peasant farms owned by their occupiers.
Gladstone eventually adopted the view that to grant
Home Rule was the solution to the Irish problem, and controversy on this
question agitated the Assembly from 1886 to 1921. Ulster, as we have
seen, was strongly liberal and radical at the close of the eighteenth
century, and this tradition had remained strong, although there had been
a development in the direction of Conservative sympathies during the
middle years of the nineteenth century. However, when Gladstone declared
in favour of Home Rule in 1885, Ulster swung strongly into alliance with
the Conservatives. The reasons governing the stand taken by Ulster were
religious and social, cultural and economic. Presbyterians regarded
these issues as vital. So, in the General Assembly, the vast majority
were against Home Rule, although a small minority favoured it. At the
same time, the words of Principal J. E. Davey are very true: "Whatever
quarrels with British policy members of the Assembly may have had from
time to time, and whatever their views of the best solution of the Trish
problem, the sentiment of loyalty towards, and pride in, the British
inheritance and commonwealth of peoples has been common to us all".29.
Other controversies arising at the close of the
nineteenth century and early years of the twentieth, dealt with
Instrumental Music, Hymnody, and Communion wine. Today most churches
have organs to assist in the praise of the sanctuary, use the "Revised
Church Hymnary", and the majority of congregations, but not all, use
unfermented wine at the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper. A few, also,
retain the Table in the aisle at Communion, for example, Glascar and
From time to time, the idea of a Church House and
Assembly Hall was discussed, and, in 1892, a proposal was made that a
central building with an assembly hall, and the necessary committee
rooms, should be erected for meetings of the General Assembly, and its
committees. The site of the old Fisherwick Place Church was obtained,
and building began. It was opened in June, 1905, by the Duke of Argyll.
Church House contains several smaller halls and offices, in addition to
a main hall seating about 2,250. It houses the Clerk's Office, the
office of the Financial Secretary, and the offices of the Home, Irish,
and Foreign Missions, etc., as well as the Central Presbyterian
Association, the Presbyterian Book Room, and the Historical Society.
The Government of Ireland Act, 1920, set up two
legislatures in Ireland, one in Dublin for Southern Ireland and one in
Belfast for Northern Ireland. The political division of the country has
created many difficulties for the Church, for example, a declining
membership in the South raising the problems of man-power and the union
of congregations, and in the North the growth of industrial Belfast with
the urgent need to supply the Word and Ordinances in new housing areas.
Vision and prayer are very necessary if the Church is to fulfil her
mission to Ireland.
Recent years have seen a closer co-operation between
Presbyterians and Anglicans in matters of public welfare, and
joint-action with the Methodists in theological education and in new
housing areas. Through membership in the World Council of Churches and
the British Council of Churches friendly contacts have been made, and
the "Irish Amsterdam" and "Irish Evanston" Conferences revealed that
while the road to organic unity contains many difficulties, yet the
Evangelical Churches in Ireland recognise that they have a common task
in the service of Jesus Christ.30.
In conclusion, a reference must be made to the part
played by Irish Presbyterianism in the formation and founding of the
World Presbyterian Alliance. The idea of an Alliance or Council of the
Reformed Churches had a prominent place in the minds of the Reformers,
especially Calvin, but it was beset by too many difficulties to be
carried out at that time. This has had unfortunate consequences, and is
probably one of the reasons for the gulf that has developed between
Anglican and Reformed. In the second half of the nineteenth century,
however, the conception of a World Presbyterian Alliance was advocated
by many people. In February, 1873, Dr. Knox gave notice to the
Presbytery of Belfast of the following overture to be submitted to the
General Assembly : "Whereas there is substantial unity in faith,
discipline and worship among the Presbyterian Churches in this and other
lands ; whereas it is important to exhibit this unity to other Churches
and the world ; whereas a desire has been expressed in many lands for
closer union, among all branches of the great and widely scattered
family of Presbyterian Churches ; it is overturned to the General
Assembly favourably to consider this subject, and open up a
correspondence with other Churches, holding by the Westminster
Confession of Faith, with the view of bringing about an
ecumenical Council of such Churches,
to consider subjects of common interest to all, and especially to
promote harmony of action in the mission fields at home and abroad".31.
The Assembly approved the overture, and a committee to correspond
with other Churches was appointed. Similar action was taken about this
time in America also, but the first active step towards the foundation
of the World Presbyterian Alliance by a Church Court was that of the
Presbytery of Belfast. Today the World Presbyterian Alliance, which held
its first General Council in Edinburgh, in 1877, serves as a great bond
of unity and brotherhood to Presbyterians of many different
The underlying principles of the government of the
Presbyterian Church must be outlined before we proceed to discuss the
history and working of the Courts of the Church, as this is essential to
a proper understanding of the same. Let us, therefore, summarise them as
they are set out in the first chapter of the "Code of Discipline",
authorised by the General Assembly in 1841.
Of the Catholic or Universal Church it says, "The
Catholic or Universal Church of Christ has been distinguished by two
appellations : the visible and the invisible.
"The Universal Church invisible consists of all the
people of God, who have been, are, or shall he, gathered into one under
"The Universal Church visible consists of all persons
throughout the world, together with their children, who profess to
believe in the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation, and to live obedient to
the precepts of His Word.
"The Universal Church visible consists of many
particular Churches. A particular visible Church consists of a number of
persons who profess to believe and to obey the Lord Jesus, together with
their children, voluntarily associated, and statedly assembling for the
worship of God, reading and hearing the Word, Church discipline, and
godly living, according to the Scriptures".1.
Of the Head of the Church it says, "The Lord Jesus
Christ is the sole King and Head of His Church".2.
Of the Teachers and Rulers in the Church it says,
"Our Lord Jesus Christ, at the commencement of the Gospel Dispensation,
gave to His Church Apostles, Prophets, and Evangelists . . .
"Our Lord also gave to His Church `pastors and
teachers', 'helps and governments', `for the perfecting of the saints,
for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ'.
These are the ordinary and perpetual officers in the
Church, and are called Bishops, or Presbyters, and Deacons".3.
The officers of the Church are then dealt with in
separate sections showing the distinctions between them. The first is
entitled: "Bishops, Presbyters, Pastors, Teachers, Ministers : commonly
called Clergy". It says, "The teachers of the Gospel have their
commission from Christ . . . The person who fills
the office, has in Scripture received different names expressive of the
various duties incumbent upon him . . . and they are in Scripture
indiscriminately applied to the same office-bearers, without marking any
distinction, or superiority of rank . . . Bishop and Presbyter, in the
Apostolic Church, were only two titles for the same office-bearer . . .
"Every regularly appointed Teacher, Pastor, or
Minister, was an Apostolical Presbyter ; and every Presbyter labouring
in word and doctrine, was the Apostolical Bishop, or overseer, of the
particular church committed to his care".4.
The second section deals with "Ruling Elders". It
says, "Ruling Elders are appointed for the purpose of exercising
government and discipline, in conjunction with Bishops or Presbyters.
Under the Jewish dispensation, elders of the people were joined with the
priests and Levites in the government of the Church. Under the
dispensation of the Gospel, there are Elders who are helpers to
The third section deals with the diaconate. It says,
"Deacons are recognised as distinct office-bearers in the Church . . .
The business of the deacons is to take care of the poor, and to
distribute among them the collections raised in the congregation for
"Ruling elders in the Church are, at the time of
their ordination, generally appointed to take care of the poor, and
consequently exercise the office of Deacons".6.
Then follows a section on the "Power of the Teachers
and Rulers of the Church in Spiritual matters", which says, "The word of
God directs Christians `to know those who labour among them, and are
over them in the Lord, and admonish them ; and to esteem them very
highly in love for their works' sake'. Also, 'to obey them that have
rule over them, and to submit themselves'. But this power in teachers,
and this submission from the people, do not sanction the teachers to
publish any doctrine, or prescribe any ceremony, upon their own
authority ; nor require the people to submit to their teachers, except
so far as their doctrines and precepts are consistent with the doctrines
and laws of Christ contained in His Word.
"The power possessed by the teachers of the Church .
. . amounts not to more than this : to search the mind of the Spirit
speaking in the Scriptures : to produce scriptural authority for the
truth of what they teach . . . and to practise those rites, and those
only, which Christ has sanctioned by His example, prescribed by His
authority, and recorded in His Word . . .
"But whilst the Teachers and Rulers of the Church are
not permitted to teach or enjoin any thing more than is contained in the
Divine Word, they are at the same time bound to teach the whole counsel
of God ; and in ruling, to have respect to all the laws which Christ, as
`king and head', has published for the preservation of purity and order
n His Church. They are therefore empowered, and it becomes their duty,
to exhort, rebuke, or finally exclude from the fellowship or communion
of the Church, those members who walk disorderly, or renounce the
doctrines of the Holy Scriptures".7.
Next the "Right of Private Judgment in the Members of
the Church" is discussed. It says, "It is the privilege, the right, and
the duty of every man to examine the Scriptures for himself . . . In the
exercise of this right . . . it is his duty to hold conversation and
intercourse with learned teachers and other experienced Christians . . .
and constantly to attend the public preaching of the word, and other
religious ordinances . . . The Christian does not refuse to admit light,
or receive assistance, from his teachers ; he only refuses to
acknowledge subjection of conscience to any authority but the word of
God ; and before he assent to any doctrine, he claims the right of
examining the Scriptures for himself, that, upon their authority, he may
rest thoroughly persuaded in his own mind".8. The principle
is not "the right of private judgment" but "the right of private
Concerning the right of the members of every Church
to choose their own office-bearers it says, "When teachers and rulers
are to be chosen, it is the unalienable right of the members of the
Church freely to elect, and when they have elected well qualified
persons, it is the right and duty of the teachers to ordain".9.
The people elect, but the pastors ordain because ordination is an
ordinance of the Word.
Finally it deals with the Church Courts or
Judicatories. It says "The government of the Presbyterian Church is
exercised by Sessions, Presbyteries, Synods, or General Assemblies.
- The Session, or eldership, consists of the Minister, or
Ministers, and Ruling Elders of a particular congregation.
- A Presbytery consists of the Ministers of a convenient district,
with a Ruling Elder from each congregation.
- A Synod or General Assembly consists of the Ministers of several
Presbyteries, with a Ruling Elder from each congregation ; or in
case of embracing an extensive district, where the attendance of all
would be highly inconvenient, a Synod, or General Assembly, may
consist of a specific number of Ministers and Ruling Elders
appointed by each Presbytery".1o. Synod and Assembly consequently
are representative Courts of the presbyteries.
An analysis shows that the above statement of
Presbyterian principles is based on the Westminster "Form of
Presbyterial Church Government". Having outlined the under-lying
principles let us now turn to the history and workings of the
Presbyteries in Irish Presbyterianism.
From the erection of the first Presbytery in 1642 by
ministers of the Church of Scotland, to the year 1654, the ministers and
elders composing it, continued to meet in one Court. While they
occasionally met at Bangor, Belfast, and Ballymena, as particular
emergencies required, their general place of meeting was Carrickfergus.
In the year 1654, however, their numbers having considerably increased
and their congregations having extended far beyond the boundaries of the
Counties of Antrim and Down, they found it necessary, for the
maintenance of good government and discipline, to divide themselves into
separate Presbyteries. In taking this step, as Adair's "Narrative"
shows, they did not delegate the whole business of the Church to the
subordinate Presbyteries. He says, "The Presbytery found it necessary
that there should be three different meetings in different parts of the
country, for the better and more speedy carrying on the work of God in
divers counties ; taking order with scandals ; and concurring in matters
of discipline as particular congregations should require their help. And
withal, that these district meetings should take trials of entrance
within their particular hounds, upon their finding the calls clear to
congregations. These meetings were not constituted into Presbyteries,
strictly so called, as acting by power in themselves ; but they acted by
commission of the whole Presbytery met together, their commission being
drawn and subscribed by the Clerk of the Presbytery for what they did.
These committee meetings had power only to visit empty congregations ;
to dissuade people from hearing hirelings ; to erect and give advice to
sessions anent scandalous persons and their repentance; to try what
duties ministers and elders performed in their charges ; to see what
care congregations took to maintain ministers; to inspect expectants'
testimonials coming from Scotland, and, if approved, to licence them to
preach till the Presbytery met, but not in relation to trial ; to preach
and censure doctrine at their meetings; to take account of one another's
diligence ; and to divide the controversies of the times among
themselves. But, on the other hand, they were not to enter expectants
upon trial in reference to congregations, till the Presbytery was
satisfied with their testimonials. Nor were these young men to be
ordained till the Presbytery should have report and satisfaction
concerning their abilities after trials were passed. Thus the work of
the Presbytery was facilitated by these meetings commissioned by them".11.
The original Presbytery was divided in 1654 into the
Presbyteries, or Meetings, of Antrim, Down, and Route. In 1657, the
Presbytery of Laggan was formed out of Route and, in 1659, the
Presbytery of Tyrone out of Down. These Presbyteries met in Synod, or
General Presbytery, at such intervals as the circumstances of the Church
required.12. The last meeting of Synod, prior to the long
interruption following the Restoration of Charles II, was held at
Ballymena in 1661, when a troop of horse was sent to disperse them, but
providentially they had dispersed before its arrival. The Synod did not
meet again, indeed it dare not, until the Revolution in 1690.13.
During the years 1661-1690, when Prelacy was rampant
and Presbyterian ministers were evicted from their congregations, and
their meetings of Presbytery, and for religious worship, proscribed,
these five Presbyteries, notwithstanding their difficulties, carried on
the work of the Church.
Excluding the eight who conformed, the Presbytery of
Antrim consisted of twelve ministers ; the Presbytery of Down (sometimes
called Newtown or Newtownards) of sixteen; the Presbytery of Route of
ten; the Presbytery of Laggan of thirteen; and the Presbytery of Tyrone
(sometimes called Dungannon) of eight.
These five Presbyteries met secretly, generally in
private houses, and at such meetings corresponding members from
neighbouring Presbyteries usually attended, and no decision affecting
the whole body was taken without reference being made to all the other
meetings. Deputies, appointed by all five, met in secret as occasion
required, at some central place in the province.14.
With the coming of King William and the Revolution
Settlement, it was possible for the Presbyterians to hold their
Ecclesiastical Courts with less fear of molestation, and the General
Synod of Ulster met for the first time since 1661 in Belfast on 24th
September, 1690. No addition was made to the number of Presbyteries
until 1697, when the Presbytery of Belfast was erected. In 1702, there
was a completely new distribution, and the Presbyteries were increased
to nine - Antrim, Down, Belfast, Route, Derry, Convoy, Tyrone, Monaghan,
and Armagh; and these were distributed into three sub - Synods, with three
Presbyteries in each-Belfast, Laggan, and Monaghan. In 1717, the
Presbytery of Monaghan was divided into those of Augher and Longford,
but they were again united into the Presbytery of Monaghan in 1724,
owing to the decrease of the number of congregations in the Presbytery
of Longford, three being vacant because of lack of ministerial support
and two having joined the Presbytery of Munster. Also, in 1717, the
Presbyteries of Derry and Convoy were, for the sake of greater
convenience, divided into Derry, Strabane, and Letterkenny.
The Non-Subscription controversy of the eighteenth
century led to a further change in the division of the Presbyteries. All
the Non-Subscribers were placed in the Presbytery of Antrim in 1725, and
the Subscribing ministers in the Presbyteries of Down and Belfast were
formed into the Presbyteries of Killyleagh, Bangor, and Templepatrick ;
and, in 1726, the Subscribing ministers in the Dublin Association were
erected into the Presbytery of Dublin. Some fifteen years or so later a
division arose within the Presbytery of Armagh over the licensing of
students, who refused to subscribe the Westminster "Confession of
Faith". Efforts to heal the breach were unavailing, and the Presbytery,
in 1743, was divided into those of Armagh and Dromore. In 1745, the
Presbytery of Ballymena was erected out of those of Route and
Templepatrick. In 1749, the Presbytery of Monaghan was divided into the
Presbyteries of Monaghan and Cootehill. They were united again in 1763,
and in 1777 divided into the Presbyteries of Monaghan and Clogher. The
Subscribing ministers in the Presbytery of Bangor refused to take part
in the ordination of Mr. M. Stevenson at Greyabbey, and were erected
into the Presbytery of Belfast in 1774. In 1796, the Presbytery of
Killyleagh was dissolved, and the seven congregations were distributed
to the neighbouring Presbyteries of Dromore, Bangor, and Armagh. The
Presbytery of Connaught was. erected in 1825.
In 1831, it was overtured "that the congregations of
this Synod be divided into twenty-four Presbyteries" because of the
inconvenience arising in Presbyterial business from the present
disproportionate division. Effect was given to this in 1834. The
Presbyteries were - Armagh, Ballymena, Bangor, Cavan, Clogher, Coleraine,
Connaught, Connor, Derry, Down, Dromore, Dublin, Glendermot,
Letterkenny, Magherafelt, Monaghan, Newtownlimavady, Newry, Raphoe,
Route, Strabane, Templepatrick, and Tyrone.15.
The first Anti-burgher Presbytery in Ireland met on
12th April, 1750. It was a member of the Scottish Synod. It divided into
the two Presbyteries of Newtownlimavady, and Moira and Lisburn, in 1761
; and into the four of Belfast, Markethill, Derry, and Templepatrick and
Ahoghill, in 1786. They were formed into a Synod in 1788. The Presbytery
of Limavady was erected out of that of Derry in 1801. The Anti-burghers
and Burghers united in 1818 to form the Presbyterian Synod of Ireland.16.
The original Burgher Presbytery, under the Scottish
Synod, was divided into the Presbyteries of Down and Monaghan in 1764.
In 1777, the Presbytery of Derry was erected out of Monaghan. In 1779,
these three Presbyteries were formed into a Synod. In 1790, the
Presbytery of Tyrone was erected out of those of Monaghan and Derry,
and, in 1802, it had so increased numerically, that it was divided into
the Presbyteries of Upper and Lower Tyrone. In 1796, the Presbytery of
Armagh was erected out of Down and Monaghan. In 1815, all the
congregations on the eastern side of the Bann in the Presbytery of Derry
were erected into the Presbytery, of Antrim.17. The Union of
1818 with the Anti-burghers was followed in 1840 by the Union with the
General Synod of Ulster to form the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. This
involved the redistribution of congregations into Presbyteries, and the
names of the original Presbyteries in the General Assembly may be given,
as a matter of interest : Ahoghill, Armagh, Athlone, Ards, Ballibay,
Ballymena, Banbridge, Belfast, Carrickfergus, Cavan, Coleraine, Derry,
Down, Dromore, Dublin, Dungannon, Glendermot, Letterkenny, Magherafelt,
Monaghan, Newry, Newtownlimavady, Omagh, Rathfriland, Route, Strabane,
Templepatrick, and Tyrone.18. In 1854, the Presbytery of
Munster, as a Non-Subscribing Presbytery, was received into the General
Assembly.19. Should a revision of Presbyteries be undertaken
in the future, there arc some who would like to see the original names
of Antrim and Laggan restored.
For the more efficient exercise of the Church's
mission and government a Commission was set up by the General Assembly
in 1843 to group the Presbyteries into Synods. This was completed in
1846.20. The five Synods were :- Armagh and Monaghan,
Ballymena and Coleraine, Belfast, Derry and Omagh, and Dublin. It is
doubtful if the Synods have ever fulfilled the purpose of their
formation, and much hard thinking with regard to their efficiency and
usefulness is required today.
The powers and jurisdiction of Presbytery at the
formation of the General Assembly is set forth in the "Code of
Discipline" of 1841.
On the jurisdiction over members of Presbytery it
"1. The officer of the minister, or elder, labouring
both in Word and doctrine, being more extensive in its duties, and
consequently of more importance than that of the ruling elder, the trial
of ministerial faults shall not be before the congregational eldership,
but before the Presbytery.
"2. As a minister is appointed for the instruction
and example of the people, and a steward of the manifold grace of God,
it is required that he be apt to teach, blameless in his conduct, and
faithful in his officer. Should he come short of this character, it is
the duty of his brethren to examine respecting any alleged heresy,
conduct unbecoming the ministerial character, or voluntary neglect of
ministerial duties, and to deal with his offence as the case may
On the jurisdiction over congregations it says, "To
the Presbytery belongs the superintendence of all matters relating to
doctrine, discipline, and order, in the several congregations under
- To the Presbytery belongs the power of cutting off from the
communion of the Church, and again restoring, upon sufficient
evidence of repentance.
- To the Presbytery belongs the duty of supplying preaching,
administering ordinances, and ordaining ministers in vacant
- Presbyteries may erect new congregations, where they are deemed
necessary, provided that no appeal is made to the General Assembly
by any of the ministers ; or, in case of vacancy, by the Session of
any of the adjoining congregations.
- No congregation shall be erected at the first meeting of
Presbytery, to which application for concurrence is made ; but a
committee shall be appointed to inquire into the circumstances, and
report at the next stated meeting-".22.
Concerning congregational visitation it says, "To the
end that discipline may be duly administered, in all the congregations
within their bounds, it is the duty of Presbyteries to hold regular
visitations of the several churches under their care, besides those that
may be occasioned by particular circumstances ; and, if they deem it
expedient, to report to the General Assembly the state of the
Concerning the jurisdiction over the eldership it
Presbyteries have the right of examining records
of Session, and of approving, modifying, or reversing their
- To the Presbytery likewise belongs the right of receiving
appeals against the sentence of an eldership in Session, and of
sustaining, modifying, or reversing their decision.
- It is the duty of the Presbytery to give advice to ministers and
Sessions in cases of difficulty".24.
Concerning the jurisdiction over students it says,
"To the Presbytery belongs the right of receiving under their care
candidates for the ministry, and of superintending and directing their
education ; judging of their qualifications for the work, and of
licensing them to preach as candidates for the ministerial office".25.
Such were the original powers of the Presbyteries in
the General Assembly, and such changes as have taken place since then
will be noted later. Let us now turn to the workings of the Presbytery
as a Court.
Meetings of Presbytery were presided over by a
minister as Moderator. They met four times in the year, and were opened
with preaching and prayer. The clerk called the roll, and recorded the
attendances in the Minute Book. Reasons had to be given for absence.
This was either accepted, or if unsatisfactory a fine imposed, for
example, in the Presbytery of Belfast it was 2s. 2�d. for each absence.
Presbyteries exercised oversight over students, examining them in
Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Ethics, Natural Philosophy, Ecclesiastical
History, and Divinity. After this they were placed on Trials, and if
these were satisfactory they were licensed to preach the Gospel by the
The Presbytery moderated in Calls, and were
responsible for drawing the terms of settlement, for serving the Edict,
and Ordination. The following extracts from the minutes of the
Presbytery of Belfast illustrate this :-
24th June, 1794: "There appeared commissioner
from Drumbo, Capt. Kelly, supplicating that Mr. Saml. Hannah a
Probationer under the care of the Presbytery of Ballymena, and now
upon Trials at Drumbo may be allowed to supply that congregation the
first Lord's day in July, and that the ministers who shall assist at
the Sacrament at Drumbo upon the second Sabbath in July may be
empowered to take the minds of the people relative to Mr. Hannah,
and if necessary to moderate a Call. Granted".
5th August, 1794: "Mr. Saml. Hannah produced his
Credentials from the Presbytery of Ballymena, which were received
and approven of. He delivered a Presbyterial Exercise which was also
approved of . . . Mr. Hannah is appointed the following Question :
is God the Author of Moral evil ? to be delivered at our next
meeting of Presbytery. Capt. Kelly appeared commissioner from Drumbo
requesting the next meeting of Presbytery there and that Mr.
Hannah's trials may be forwarded with all convenient speed.
1st February, 1795: "Mr. Hannah delivered his
popular sermon at this meeting which was considered and approved of,
he was now examined on the Greek and Latin language, on Natural
Philosophy, Divinity, &c. and gave such answers as were satisfactory
to the Presbytery".
At this meeting, however, a difficulty arose in that Drumbo were in
arrears in their payment of their former minister, Mr. Malcolm, and
the matter was so serious that it had to be referred to the General
28th July, 1795: "The Presbytery have agreed to
ordain Mr. Saml. Hannah on the last Tuesday of August, Mr. Simpson
to preach and Mr. Harrison to ordain. Mr. Kelburn is appointed to
preach in Drumbo on the third Sabbath of August, and serve the
Edict. Messrs. Henry and Birch to attend on the Wednesday following
and take security for Mr. Hannah's stipend".
25th August, 1795: "The Rev. the Presbytery of
Belfast meet at Drumbo, according to appointment, post preces
Sederunt qui Infra. Ministers : Rev. Thos. Birch, Modr. Messrs
............Elders ......... The congregation of Drumbo paid
to the Rev. Malcolm �145. 11s. 6d., stifling-, being the sum agreed
upon by the Synod's committee. Mr. Hannah having subscribed the W.M.
confession of faith. Mr. Simpson preached from 1st corrinth 4 and
12th. And Mr. Harrison Ordained. Mr. Birch and Henry report, that
they attended at Drumbo according to appointment, and got a Bond
perfected with the security for seventy pounds stifling per annum to
"Mr. Hannah being asked if he would be a contributor to the widows'
fund said he would".
Ordination was conducted in accordance with the
Westminster "Directory for Ordination", which directs that, when a
congregation has made trial of a man's gifts in preaching, "there shall
be sent from the Presbytery to the congregation a public intimation in
writing, which shall be publicly read before the people, and after
affixed to the church-door, to signify that such a day a competent
number of the congregation of the members of that congregation,
nominated by themselves, shall appear before the Presbytery, to give
their consent and approbation to such a man to be their minister ; or,
otherwise, to put in, with all Christian discretion and meekness, what
exceptions they have against him. And, if upon the day appointed, there
be no just exception against him, but the people give their consent,
then the Presbytery shall proceed to ordination".27.
This was known as "serving the Edict" ; and an
illustration may be given from the minutes of the Presbytery of Tyrone
on 14th May, 1782. "Appeared from the congregation of Moneymore Messrs.
James Smyth and Hendry George, Commissioners, requesting that the
Presbytery might proceed to ordain Mr. William Moore ; according to
appointment Mr. McLeland reported he served the Edict. The Presbytery
being well satisfied with Mr. Moore's moral life and conduct, as also
with his Trials `in cumulo', resolved to ordain him to the sacred office
of the Ministry, the Janitor was ordered to give notice of the design of
the Presbytery at the doors of the Meeting house, and, no objections
being made, then the Presbytery did ordain and set apart 1r. Moore to
the sacred office of the Ministry by prayer and imposition of hands ;
when Mr. Stitt preached from Rom. 2:21 and Mr. Wilson presided and gave
the Charge ; then the Presbytery received Mr. Moore as a Member by
giving him the right hand of fellowship and the people received him as
The Westminster "Directory for Ordination" continues,
"Upon the day appointed for ordination, which is to
he performed in that church where he that is to be ordained is to serve,
a solemn fast shall be kept by the congregation, that they may the more
earnestly join in prayer for a blessing upon the ordinances of Christ,
and the labours of His servant for their good".28. We find evidence of
the ordering of the "fast" in every Presbytery, for example, on 1st
June, 1703, the Presbytery of Route appointed for the ordination of Mr.
Thomas Stirling the "22 June current, and the day to be observed as a
It is interesting to note that this "fast" is the
origin of the luncheon, or tea, which follows Ordination Services today.
It was to enable the Presbytery to break their fast. Indeed, in earlier
days, they appear to have done themselves quite well, for example, the
following is the account of Sam Gray for the Ordination of William
Gibson in First Ballybay on 1st January, 183429.:-
|To 23 bottles
Port and 16 bottles Sherry
|To 7 gallons Ale
|To Reporter, 2
breakfasts Hotel, and Car Hire
|Deduct for Reporter
Ordination is an Ordinance of the Word, so the rite
always followed the preaching of the Word, and is by prayer with the
laying on of hands by the ministers of the Presbytery, as the Laggan
minute of 21st December, 1692, shows:
"This day Rot. Craghead preached upon 1st Tim. 4 and
16 according to appointment at Strabane and after sermon having proposed
the ordinary questions to Mr. Will. Holmes that are useful before
Ordination, he with the rest of the ministers then present did ordain
the said Mr. Will. Holmes by imposition of hands and solemn and serious
prayer to God, and they solemnly set him apart to the ministry in the
congregation of Strabane".
The Presbytery were responsible for supplying
Ordinances as the Belfast minute of 6th February, 1787, shows, "As (the
minister) Mr. Kenedy is indisposed an elder from Holley-wood moved that
suppliers be appointed. And accordingly we appoint the 2nd Sabb. of Feb.
Mr. Harrison, the 2nd Mr. Knox the 5th (April) Mr. Tate".
Presbytery controlled the hearing of candidates
during vacancies. The congregation supplicated the Presbytery who made
the arrangements, for example, the minute of the Belfast Presbytery on 7
January, 1783 : "The congregation of Moira having supplicated the Revd.
Presb. of Bangor to apply to us for a month's hearing of Mr. David
Trotter: They (the Revd. Presb. of Bangor) have requested us to appoint
Mr. Trotter to preach at Moira a month commencing the first Lord's day
of Feb. next which we agree to unanimously and he is hereby appointed".
An illustration of the form of the supplication is
that of 8th April, 1797, from the congregation of Killinchy to the
Presbytery of Belfast :-
"To the Revd. Presbytery of Belfast to meet at
Belfast the 2nd of May, 1797. We the Session and congregation of
Killinchy supplicate your Revd. Body to procure us a hearing of the
Revd. Samuel Watson of the Revd. Presbytery of Dromore and the Revd.
John Davidson of the Revd. Presbytery of Colrain Each for four Lord's
Days commencing the second Lord's Day in May.
"We also supplicate your Revd. Body to procure Three
of your Revd. Body to administer the Sacrament in our Meetinghouse in
the Month of July if convenient and your supplicants as in duty bound
shall ever pray".30.
When Calls were made out they were always presented
through the Presbytery, as the following extracts from the Presbytery of
Belfast minutes show :-
7 January, 1783: Arrangements were made for a pro re
nata meeting to moderate a Call in Newtownards. The minute continues :
"The Presby above mentioned to draw up the Call to Mr. McEwen at
Killinchy are empowered to transmit said Call to the Revd. Presby of
Dromore that they may recommend it to Him at their next meeting and send
him back to the Presby of Belfast with Credentials".
2 March, 1790: "The Modr. produced a Letter directed to
him Signed by the Revd. Jos. Lawson, Modr. of the Monaghan Presbytery :
`Revd. Sir, The People of Glentubrat, having formed the most favourable
opinion of the Revd. Mr. Goudy a probr. under the care of the Revd.
Presby of Belfast have drawn the enclosed unanimous call which by order
of the Monaghan Presby I have the pleasure of conveying to your Revd.
Body and request that you would present and recommend the same to him as
worthy of his acceptance. As it is usual on these occasions you will be
kind enough to give him his credentials, appoint him a subject as a
Specimen to be delivered to a committee at his return thatso we may
appoint him the constant supplier of that Congn'."
When a minister was ordained or installed the Presbytery
exercised oversight over him and the congregation, and were responsible
for seeing that he received his stipend. The last was one of their
greatest problems, for example, so far as the writer can make out, in
1702-03, every congregation in the Route was in arrears, some for up to
three or four years. However, the Route was not alone, all Presbyteries
had to face this problem.31. The problem of "arrears" of stipend was not
confined to Synod of Ulster congregations, but was also quite common
among the Seceders, and as the Presbytery of Route has been quoted on
the one hand, on the other a reference may be made to the minutes of the
Secession Presbytery of Lower Tyrone which record that in 1825 Mr. Bell
of Eglish was owed by the congregation "�200 in stipend".
Presbyteries had power to call congregations to
account concerning every aspect of congregational life, and to review
the proceedings of Kirk-Sessions. They also had to deal with cases of
appeal, complaint, or reference. This, however, need not be discussed
here, as illustrations will occur in the next two chapters.
Presbyteries conducted Visitations of Congregations,
but this appears, owing to historico-political reasons, to have been
irregular until the eighteenth century. The following, by way of
illustration, is the record of the Visitation of Convoy by the Laggan
Presbytery in 1696:
"This day Mr. Ja. Allexr. preached in his ordinary
and is approven, and being removed and the elders called in, they are
asked if this be Mr. Allexr's ordinary and usual way of preaching, which
they say it is, and being asked concerning his life and conversation and
all other questions ordinary upon such occasions relating to their
minister being put to them: they answer that they can object nothing
against him in any particular ; they say also that the people gives both
him and them due reverence. They also give account that they paid to Mr.
Allexr of salary from May .94 to May .96, 411b. 03s. 0d., due to him
from the above said time 10 lb. and that they have given him in corn for
the time above said 52 burls., the meeting requires them to give
diligence to pay up all arrears against next Meeting. The people being
called declare their satisfaction both with their minister and session.
Mr Allexr being called in, the meeting demand a sight of the Session
book which being produced and found much out of order, they are required
to put it in better order with all convenient speed".
After the Revolution Settlement Presbyterial
Visitation became a regular practice, except when persecution made it
impossible. It follows a common pattern, but the questions prescribed
for such occasions do not appear to have been codified until 1841.32.
Prior to 1841, ruling elders were ordained by the
minister in the local congregation, but in that year it was enacted that
elders should be ordained in the Presbytery, although, on the other
hand, it appears that this practice did not become universal until about
Since 1841 there has been a considerable modification
of the powers of Presbyteries, for example, in the reception of
candidates for the ministry the right of Presbytery is "to nominate for
the approval of the General Assembly, persons desiring to undertake the
work of the ministry, to receive them under its care when approved as
students for the ministry, to co-operate with the Board of Studies in
supervising their life and conduct when under its care"34. ; with regard
to erecting new congregations the power of Presbytery now is "to
constitute new congregations when it has obtained leave from the General
Assembly to do so"35. ; and in filling vacancies "No step
shall be taken by the congregation or Presbytery towards filling the
vacancy in the pastorate of any congregation without first obtaining the
sanction of the Commission"36. of the General Assembly on
Union of Congregations, who "have power to fix a minimum of Stipend and
Central Ministry Fund to be paid by that congregation".37.
These illustrations show a tendency towards
centralisation in the General Assembly of many powers formerly exercised
by Presbytery. Of course, it should be noted that the Presbyteries
voluntarily assigned these powers to the Assembly, and that they could
be withdrawn again, if the Presbyteries so wished.
The General Assembly is a representative Court, and
all constitutional legislation must be sent down to Presbyteries under
the Barrier Act.38. In the 1841 Code it read, "When any
Overture establishes a new regulation, or the modification of an old
one, each Presbytery is ordered, before the Assembly's next meeting,
publicly to discuss the same, and report their opinion in writing to the
Assembly".39. In the current Code among the powers of the
General Assembly is "to enact, change, or abrogate a law of the Church,
but only after an overture embodying the proposed law, or change, or
abrogation, has appeared on the Minutes of the preceding annual meeting.
It shall send down every overture which, in the opinion of the Judicial
Commission, contemplates a change in the constitution of the Church to
the Presbyteries enjoining them to give their judgments thereon".40.
The Barrier Act has for its object the "preventing
any sudden alteration or innovation, or other prejudice to the Church in
either doctrine, or worship, or discipline, or government thereof, now
happily established".41. It is the great bulwark of the
rights of Presbytery against the dictatorship of Commissions and
Committees of the General Assembly, or by the Assembly itself.
SESSION AND CONGREGATION
Each congregation is under the care of a Presbytery,
which is responsible for seeing that the people are supplied with the
Word and Ordinances, and for oversight.
A minister of the Word and Sacraments, or pastor,
presides over each congregation, and he is responsible for conducting
Public Worship, for preaching the Word, for the celebration of the
Sacraments, the administration of Ordinances, for Catechising, and
pastoral visitation. Because the oversight and discipline of the
congregation stands under the Word of God, the minister of the Word
presides over all meetings in the congregation. He governs it with the
assistance and co-operation of the ruling elders. They, as a Court, meet
in the Kirk-Session, with the minister of the Word as Moderator, and are
responsible for the spiritual oversight of the congregation.
The fullest sources of information for congregational
life are the Session records, so let us attempt, in this chapter, to
draw from the evidence they supply a picture of congregational life in
relation to the election of the Session, Public Worship, the Word and
Sacraments, and the administration of Ordinances. Since the formation of
the General Assembly the practice and procedure of the Church has been
set forth in the various editions of the Code of Discipline, so the
writer has only quoted from Session records prior to 1840, noting the
changes which have taken place. The Synod of Ulster prepared a Code in
1825, as did the General Assembly in 1841. The latter was revised in
1859, 1868, 1887, 1912, and 1948.
The Abbey minute book gives particulars of the
Session's procedure during the election of elders. On 31 January, 1800,
it says :�"It being determined at this Meeting that four additional
elders be appointed to the Session the following Persons were put in
It appearing that the following persons had the majority, viz.
Messrs. Orr, Duncan, Chambers, and Todd.
Resolved, that the minister wait on those gentlemen
(and that they) be requested to accept of the said office".
It, also, furnishes information concerning the
sanctity of Session nomination, for on 27 October, 1776, it records
:"This day Mr. Baird came into the Vestry Room attended by several
people, and did there propose Messrs. Houston, Shafton, and Wheeler to
become elders, without having previously consulted the Members of the
Session on that head, which they, on duly considering that matter, found
to be a measure contrary to the usual practice in our congregation ; and
therefore entered into a Resolution, that the reasons why such gentlemen
should not be elected into that Office should be read publicly from the
Desk to the Congregation next Lord's Day, immediately after Divine
Service, which was accordingly done".
A full description of the election of elders may be
given by quoting the Carnmoney minute book for 14 and 28 April, 1697:
"The Session of Carnmoney being weak by the removal of some by death and
indisposition of others have considered it necessary to find out if any
of the parish may be fit for that office and having proof of the
sobriety of John Russell, Alexr. Kilpatrick and John Dickson and the
minister being desired to speak to the said persons as to their
inclination about undertaking the charge of an elder he having done so
and told that the said persons may be persuaded to embrace the said
office, the Session appoints Geo. McRoy to signify to the people of
Hightown that it is designed John Russel be their elder; and Sam Guy to
signify to the people of Bally-Earle that John Dickson is to be their
elder and David Ferguson to acquaint the people of BallyHenry that Alexr.
Kilpatrick is to be their elder, and the said commissioners have this
day given answer of their diligence to the Session that they find
several quarters are satisfied the Session appoint the Clerk to desire
the above persons to appear `coram' the next Session which is to be this
day fourteen days".
"John Russel, Alexr. Kilpatrick and John Dickson
appeared before the Session, did acknowledge their willingness to
embrace the office of an elder which office they are to discharge in the
above quarters mentioned in the preceding session. The minister by
appointment of Session appointed the said persons to attend our several
meetings as they shall be advertised which they promised to observe".
Cahans minute book shows that this procedure was also
followed in the case of the election of a person, who previously had
been an elder in another congregation.'
It would appear that prior to 1859 a ruling elder
when he left a congregation, and went to another ceased to be an elder;
and that, if elected to the eldership there, he was ordained, for the
1859 Code says :�"A ruling elder, certified as such from one
congregation to another, shall, if nominated and elected, be admitted
into the Session of the congregation to which he is certified, without
reordination".2. He was elected and installed.
Those elected could refuse to accept office as the
Larne and Cahans minute books show, and in some cases this problem
became so acute that the matter had to be referred to the Presbytery,
for example, Thomas Allen, the representative elder of Dawson's Bridge,
on 13 January, 1710, was instructed by the Session thereof "to ask the
Presbytery's advice what we shall do with such as is called to join with
us in the office of elders and still refuse".
There is evidence also that in some places the names
of candidates were not only approved by the congregation, but by the
Presbytery, in accordance with the decision of the Synod of Ulster in
The above outline corresponds to that laid down in
the Codes of 1825 and 1841. By this procedure the Session submitted
their nominations to the congregation for approval. In 1859 an
alternative form of election was provided whereby the congregation
proposed names for the consideration of the Session.3. Both
forms are still legal today, but the latter is the more common usage.
There is no one term in general use for the
"appointment" of ruling elders, after election. They are "admitted",
"taken into", "set apart", "invited and joined", "constituted",
"appointed", "ordained", "received", and "added". The term "ordination"
is the most common, and is that used in the 1825 Code.4.
After election, ruling elders were either appointed
to office by the minister with prayer, without laying on of hands, or
simply invited to take their seats. The former apparently was the
practice in Templepatrick, Antrim, Connor, Rosemary Street, Cahans,
Carland, Glascar, Anahilt, and First Ballybay, whereas the latter
appears to have been the practice in Carnmoney, Larne, Aghadowey,
Magherafelt, and Abbey. The former came to be the common practice, and
is the procedure prescribed in the 1825 Code.5.
Cahans, Glascar, and Boardmills records show that
prior to "appointment" ruling elders were required to subscribe to the
Westminster "Confession of Faith". The following account of an
ordination on 12 April, 1752, in Cahans is given as it contains the
questions put to elders-elect and the formula of subscription :-
The Eldership being met and constitute by prayer
agreed that seeing the Edict of the said persons had been duly
served and no objections made they therefore might be ordained after
sermon. They being called and exhorted not to be adverse from
casting in the `mite' of their endeavours to glorify God by
advancing Religion in these bounds but to embrace this divine call
and opportunity to this, however, sensible to their own weakness, to
which they at last consented and even desired to answer and stand up
in a rank before the pulpit when called in the afternoon. Closed
After public worship being ended they were called
and stood up accordingly were publicly and solemnly asked :
1st. Do you own and believe the Holy Scriptures to
be the only and Infallible Rule of Faith and practice ? Answered :
- Do you own the Westminster Confession as truly grounded on God's
- Do you own it as the Confession of your faith? Yes.
- Do you own and approve of the Directory for public and family
worship compiled by the Westminster divines approven and established
by Acts of General Assembly and parliament of Scotland as agreeable
to God's Word 1645 ? Yes.
- Do you also approve of the Form of Presbyterian Church
Government and adhere unto it as agreeable to God's Word? Yes.
- Do you resolve so far as the Lord enables you to suppress sin,
encourage true Religion by exercising Discipline and other ways all
your days diligently ? Yes.
- Do you resolve by God's help to behave exemplary and piously in
your stations before your families ? Yes. Then said Elders according
to 10th Act of Assembly, 1711, did in presence of the congregation
sign the following formula.
We undersubscribers do hereby sincerely declare
that we do heartily own and believe the whole Doctrine contained in
the Westminster Confession of Faith approven by the General Assembly
of the Scots National Church and ratified by Law in the year 1690,
to be the truth of God's Word and we do own the same as the
Confession of Our Faith. We do also own the purity of worship
presently authorised and practised in this Kirk, and likewise the
Presbyterian Government and Discipline now happily established
therein; which Doctrine, Worship, Discipline and Government we are
persuaded is founded on the word of God and agreeable thereunto. And
we promise that through the grace of God we shall firmly and
constantly adhere unto the same and to the utmost of our power in
our stations assert, maintain, and defend the same, Conform to it
and Submit to it in our practice, Renouncing all tenets, opinions,
and practices that are contrary thereto or inconsistent therewith as
witness our hands this 12th day of April in the new Meeting-house
Then follow the names.
"Then the minister by solemn prayer did set them
apart for that sacred office imploring grace from God whereby they
might on all occasions be enabled to do this duty as faithful Rulers
in the House of God and that the people might carry suitably also
towards them, etc.
"After prayer the minister did at some length
exhort the elders to do their duty carefully to the people and
encouraged them in their work howsoever opposed by the friends of
sin. Upon the other hand he exhorted the people to pray for their
elders and to give care unto their private admonitions from the Holy
Scriptures as unto the voice of God.
"The minister having done advised the eldership
to give those newly-ordained the right hand of fellowship . . After
dismissing the people their names were added to the Roll and they
took their seats accordingly".
It should be noted that the congregations supplying
evidence for "subscription" are all Secession congregations. That this
was the common practice in the Secession Synod, and not in the Synod of
Ulster, may be seen by T.K's article in the "Christian Freeman" in 1834.
He writes :-"Should men be ordained as elders without making a
profession of their faith, and without examination as to their religious
principles ; Should there not be as much care in admitting elders into
office as candidates for the ministry? To the latter two questions, the
Secession has been answering YES by their practice for a century past .
. . Our Presbyteries permit no elder to sit in Church Courts, without
deriving his authority from profession, ordination, and appointment for
that occasion in a constituted Session . . . At the opening of our
Synod, every minister entered on the roll, has, at license and
ordination, publicly adhered to the Westminster Confession of Faith .. .
When the lay elders are called to be entered, each elder must produce a
testimonial, signed by the minister of the congregation, which he claims
to represent, certifying: 1st-That he was regularly ordained. 2nd That
he Subscribed the Westminster Confession of Faith. 3rd-That he was appointed to attend that
meeting of Synod".6.
In view of the fact that there is generally levelled at
the Synod of Ulster a charge of slackness with regard to the scrutiny of
elders-elect, which the records do not appear to the writer to warrant,
the procedure in Rosemary Street may be quoted, and compared with the
Cahans extract given above.
The first minutes in Rosemary Street Session Book,
1827-1846, are of meetings of Committee; and they deal with the
appointment of the Session. The candidates were nominated by the
Committee on 16 July, 1827, and approved by the congregation on 23
October, 1827, "the nomination of these persons being thus confirmed Dr.
Hanna proceeded to ordain them to the office of elders". The minute of
the ordination is, "Accordingly on Sabbath the . . . he explained at
considerable length in his sermon the principles of Presbyterianism and
gave a general outline of the proofs on which we rest in showing that
the Presbyterian Form of Church Government is founded upon and agreeable
to the word of God. After the sermon was finished, having called on the
following persons, they appeared in two pews in the congregation". Here
follow the names. "For the satisfaction of the congregation Dr. Hanna
proceeded to put to them a number of questions respecting their belief
in the following doctrines of Christianity :
"1st. On the Divine authority and sufficiency of the
Holy Scriptures as the only infallible rule of Faith and practice. 2. On
the doctrine of the Trinity. 3. Of the Supreme Deity of Christ. 4. Of
the Atonement. 5. Of the Deity and Agency of the Holy Spirit. 6. Of a
future state of rewards and punishments. They then made a declaration of
their approbation of the Presbyterian Form of Church Government and of
their acceptance of the office of elders. After this Dr. Hanna proceeded
to set them solemnly apart and ordain them to this office by prayer and
The records show that elders were "appointed" or
"ordained" by the minister "after sermon" as in Scotland. This is the
procedure laid down in the 1825 Code.7. Today, elders are
ordained by Presbytery.
Ruling elders could resign the eldership in the
Session, and it is not until the 1887 Code that this was changed to
Presbytery, although the Presbytery's consent to their resignation was
required from 1859.8. This Code says, "A ruling elder shall
not resign his office in a congregation without the consent of the
Session, nor the eldership without the consent of the Presbytery".9.
The change in 1887 was made because ruling elders were ordained by the
The Kirk-Session, as a Court, from the beginning,
watched over and guarded the whole spiritual life of the congregation. A
ruling elder, as an individual, had no authority. He could not act as an
individual, except commissioned by the Court. Let us now turn to the
functioning of the Kirk-Session.
At all meetings the minister was Moderator of the
Kirk-Session ; and the Lame and Drumbo minute books show that if he was
absent there could be no meeting. On 1 June, 1701, the former states
:�"No meeting of Session next Thursday the minister being at the General
Synod at Antrim".
In some places the attendance roll is recorded, for
example, Templepatrick, Aghadowey, Dawson's Bridge, Magherafelt, Cabans,
Abbey, and Carland, whereas it is not in Carnmoney, Larne, Drumbo,
Glascar, Boardmills, and Creggan. In the latter instance the formula,
generally speaking, is "The minister and elders met" or "minister and
Carnmoney, Larne, Cahans, Glascar, and Sandholes
testify to the meetings being opened by prayer; and Carnmoney, Cabans,
and Glascar to their being closed with prayer. Other minute books record
this from time to time.
In Carnmoney, Larne, Aghadowey, Drumbo, Dawson's
Bridge, and Magherafelt the "absents" are recorded, and required to
state the reason why. On 31 December, 1703, the Dawson's Bridge Session
enacted :� "This Session enacts that every elder when he is called to an
account for his absence from any Session or neglect of any duty shall be
put out after he bath given his reasons, until he be judged by the
Session". A fine was imposed if the reasons were considered
unsatisfactory. The term "neglect of any duty" covered absence from
Presbytery or Synod, if appointed representative elder, or failure to
summon a member cited to the Session.
The Session appointed one of their members to act as
Clerk. They were, also, responsible for providing a book in which to
record the minutes, for providing Baptismal Registers, Marriage
Registers, Communicants' Roll Books, etc.
The minutes in most cases are not signed, but a few
are signed by the minister or the session clerk, or by both.
The Session, as well as looking after the records,
from time to time revised the old minutes, and the various Acts of the
Each elder, except there were extenuating circumstances,
was appointed to the oversight of a "quarter" or district, on the moral
and spiritual welfare of which he was required to report periodically,
especially before the celebration of Communion. This report was based on
his visitation of his quarter.
The Session had an important part to play in the
election of the minister or pastor. The first "Book of Discipline"
asserts that "it appertaineth to the people, and to every several
congregation, to elect their minister".10. However, after the
second "Book of Discipline" and the abolition of patronage by Act of
Parliament in 1649, elections of ministers "were in the hands of the
Kirk-Session, the people being asked if they acquiesced and consented,
the Presbytery, as always, trying qualifications, a minority of the
Session or congregation being allowed to offer objections, of which the
Presbytery was judge", in harmony with the principle in the second "Book
of Discipline" that "no person be thrust into any of the offices of the
Kirk contrary to the will of the congregation . . . or without the voice
of the eldership",11. that is, the Presbytery.
Abbey, Rosemary Street, Connor, and Larne minute
books, and the 1825 and 1841 Codes testify to the same procedure being
followed in Ireland.12. The procedure was that the Session
nominated, and if the congregation approved, the Session presented a
supplication to the Presbytery requesting the hearing of the nominee for
At the end of this period, if the congregation were
satisfied, they "prayed" the Presbytery to appoint a minister to
"moderate" at the making out of a Call. If the candidate was considered
unsuitable, the congregation "prayed" the Presbytery to grant the
hearing of a second. The same procedure was then followed, until a Call
was made out. Broadly speaking, this is still the practice of the
Church, in that all candidates to be heard during a vacancy have to be
approved by the Session and the Commission of Presbytery in charge of
the vacancy. Originally all candidates during a vacancy preached in the
congregation, and this is still the general practice, but in some
congregations, principally in the cities and larger towns, they are now
heard by "hearing committees" who nominate to the congregation for their
approval a candidate for a "Call". While it might be argued that this is
in harmony with the principle of the people governing themselves through
their representatives, it does not appear to the writer to be in keeping
with the spirit of Presbyterianism, which is that after a candidate has
been approved by the Presbytery "he is to be sent to the church where he
is to serve, there to preach, and to converse with the people, that they
may have trial of his gifts for their edification". It would be better
if all candidates were heard by all the people as formerly.
If the Session could not determine which of two, or
more, candidates to hear, they might consult the congregation, at a
meeting presided over by a minister appointed by the Presbytery.
The following illustration may be given from Connor
in April, 1733 :�"The Session meet this day at the little house after
Sermon after some reasoning agreed to set up Mr. William Willson in the
Presbytery of Letterkenny and Mr. Charles Caldwell in the Presbytery of
Straban that the congregation may come to a poll and to stand to the one
of those who the majority shall fall upon".
If the "Call" was sustained and accepted, the candidate
was ordained by prayer with the laying on of hands by the ministers of
the Presbytery, or installed, as the case may be.13.
The Session were responsible for the "Encouragement"
presented to the minister, that is, the pledge of support spiritual and
financial. This is testified to in the Abbey, Rosemary Street, and
Creggan minute books. It had also to be approved by the Presbytery,
before the "Call" was presented. Today, before applicants are heard for
a vacancy, this has to be fixed by the congregation, the Presbytery, and
the Commission on Union of Congregations of the General Assembly.
From the first ruling elders had much to do with the
Communion services, but "in no fundamental document of any of the
Reformed Churches is participation in the distribution of the elements
included amongst the functions of elders".14. Nor was it
regarded as a prerogative of the office in Ireland, for there are
instances of the minister being assisted by communicants. Nevertheless
it was, and is, the general practice for ruling elders to assist the
minister in this way. The doctrine is that the elders "being the arms
and hands of the pastor after that he hath consecrated the sacramental
elements and distributed the bread and cups to them that are nearest to
him, may come in to his relief and assistance and distribute them also
unto those who are more remote from him".15.
The extant records testify to this duty being
performed by elders, and others, as the following quotations from
Rosemary Street records on 17 February, 1828, shows :- "The Session agree
to request on this occasion the assistance of those who formerly acted
on such occasions but are not members of Session. Messrs. Munford and
Annesley are deputed to request their assistance.
"The members of Session appointed to the following
places in distributing the elements were :
The East Aisle-Messrs. Gamble and Hughes aided by
Mr. John Suffern.
South East-Messrs. Annesley, Blair, and Bottomley.
South West-Messrs. Thomson, Milford, and Sterling.
West Aisle-Messrs. Sinclair, Young, and Halliday
assisted by Mr. McConnell".
The Kirk-Session determined when the Sacrament of the
Lord's Supper should be celebrated, and, in some districts, for example,
in Aghadowey, their purpose was announced to the congregation for five
weeks, although the normal practice was two.
The Communion services began with a Fast Day, as a
day of preparation, and concluded with a Thanksgiving Service on the
Monday. The following account is taken from Carnmoney on 26 June, 1698
:-"Good providence ordering the affairs of this congregation the people
being visited and examined intimation was made two Sabbaths preceding
that we proposed to administer the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper in
this place, we had the fast day on the 23rd instant Mr. Jo. McBride was
a helper, helps at the Communion were Mr. Tho. Cobham, Mr. Jas. Brice,
and Mr. Jo. Malcom. Mr. Malcom began on Saturday Mr. Brice preached, Mr.
Cobham began on Sabbath morning. There were very nigh eight Tables which
make almost 600 Communicants the people were orderly and much of God's
presence was seen at the work. Mr. Malcom preached on Sabbath after
Tables. Mr. Brice began on Monday and Mr. Cobham closed the work".
It is sometimes stated that Communion was celebrated
only once, or twice, each year. This is true congregationally, but not
for the communicants as four or five congregations united at the
Communion season and had a Communion on successive weeks. The following
extract from the Larne and Kilwaughter Session Book for 15 June, 1701,
illustrates this :"This day it was intimated that we will not have
Sermon next Lord's Day because Mr. Ogilvie will be at Carncastle
Communion and people exhorted to repair thither for hearing of the Word
and communicate (as many) as may be admitted and are willing". This
shows that members might communicate as often as eight, or ten, times
For the celebration of Communion long Tables were
brought in and placed in the aisles.
All the preliminaries for Communion were the
responsibility of the Session. They were responsible for making
arrangements for an orderly celebration. The following is the oldest
extant record in an Irish Session-Book, that on 28 June, 1647, in
Templepatrick, "For the ordering of matters at the Communion, for
keeping the elements, drawing the wine, and cutting of the bread Adam .
McNielie. Gilbert berrihill to attend Adam McNielie for reaching the
elements to the servers at the table.
"For receiving the tokens at the Table Gilbert
McNielie and John Pettigrew.
"For serving with the bread Major Ellis and Lievt.
Lyndsay, major at the East door, Lievt at the West for serving with the
cups Mr. Shaw and Hugh Kennedy.
"Thomas Windrum and Thomas taggart for keeping the
west door that all may be `keeped out' that wants tokens. John inglis
and Thomas Loggan for the East door that none come in at that door but
go out immediately from the tables.
"Hugh Sloan and Guian Herberson for filling the cups
and delivering them to the hands of the elders, and Alexr. Coruth to
relieve them by turns.
"Collectors at the barn Wm. Wallace and Wm. McCord,
and to attend them Mr. Shaw and Hugh Kennedy. Major Ellis and Lievt.
Lyndsay to attend the collectors at the church.
"Hugh Sloan is to provide the table cloths. He is
likewise to go to Carrickfergus with Wm. McCord about the elements".
A further illustration may be taken from Dawson's
Bridge on 31 October, 1709 :-"This Session having a design of having the
Sacrament of the Lord's Supper celebrated in this place the next Lord's
day therefore did meet together this day in order to the providing of
the Elements and other `necessarys' for that work.
"And therefore have concluded to have two dozen of
two penny bread and appoints Ellen Ekin to make the same which she
promised to do.
"This Session also concluded to have five gallons of
wine and appoints John Buntin to fetch the same which he promised to do.
"This Session appoints John Kent to go to Maghera for
the cups and John Raney to bring the flaggons from Magherafelt which
they promised to do.
"This Session appoints John Buntin to provide the
long table cloth and James Garvan to provide the dishes, plates, and
little table cloth and napkins which they promised to do.
"This Session appoints Patrick Kaven to bring the
liquor table for the work which he promised to do.
"This Session appoints Andrew McDooll, John Calwell,
and William Weer to provide the tent and what is needful about it James
Garvan is his advice in the thing which they promised to do.
"This Session appoints Robert McAdow to stay in the
Session House Saturday at night and Patrick Kaven on the Sabbath night
with Gilbert Davison".
They were, also, responsible for the supplying of the
Communion vessels and "tokens".
There is little definite information concerning the
elements, which appear to have been ordinary daily bread, although
Antrim and Carland both refer to "biskett". The minutes simply refer to
"wine" although Templepatrick and First Ballybay state claret and sherry
Most of the minute books give a number of Communion accounts. The
following is that in Carland for 5 July, 1755 :--
|The Fast Wednesday collected
|The total collected
The disbursements first to wine
|To a Door for the Meeting-house
|To bis Cakes
|To Aqua Vitae
|To Turf for the Retiring house
|To Clerk Session
|To John Murtagh for work done
|To Scallops for the Meeting-house
Then follows the list of disbursements to the poor. This
aspect of the Session's work will be dealt with in chapter VI.
The Session still are responsible for making all
arrangements for the celebration of the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper.
Today, however, communion is generally received in the pews, which are
covered with a white linen cloth, instead of at the table in the aisle.
Also, in most churches there is a central Holy Table. The elements,
generally speaking, are common daily bread and unfermented wine.
Catechumens were admitted by resolution of the
Session. While, no doubt, procedure varied in different districts that
in Creggan on 3 June, 1837, is typical. The minute says :-"At a meeting
of the Session of the Presbyterian congregation of Creggan, held at
Freeduff, on Saturday, the 3rd day of June, 1837. The following young
persons being examined in the Shorter Catechism, and in their knowledge
of the Holy Scriptures, and having answered satisfactorily. It was
resolved that they be admitted to partake of the Sacrament of the Lord's
Supper; at the approaching solemnity, and that they now may receive
tokens of admission accordingly".
On the other hand, reference ought to be made to the
procedure in Connor. The minute of 2 November, 1716, says : "The young
communicants according to appointment met at the little house with Mr.
Masterton and after solemn exhortation they were put in mind of the
several heads of their Baptismal Covenant which they had verbally
engaged to observe and adhere unto before they were admitted to the
Lord's Table and were solemnly asked if they did adhere to the same now,
and whether they were willing that their names should be entered into
the public register of this congregation in a way of subscription to
their Baptismal Covenant which now they had solemnly owned at the Lord's
Table on Sabbath last was eight days which was the 21st day of October,
1716, and accordingly these young people desired their names to be
inserted and subscribed to keep the heads of the Baptismal Covenant and
at their desire their names were entered. The tenor of the covenant is
as followeth on the other side of the leaf. Turn over the leaf".
"We whose names are under written do solemnly profess
our hearty desire to believe in God the Father, the Son, and the Holy
Ghost according to the several articles of the Christian faith as they
are contained in the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments,
summed up in our Confession of Faith and Shorter and Larger Catechisms.
And earnestly desiring to repent of all our sins we give our selves up
to God the Father as our revealed Father in Christ and to Jesus Christ
as our only Saviour and to the Holy Ghost as our sanctifier, renouncing
the Devil and the world and the sinful desires of the flesh. We promise
through grace in all things to behave ourselves orderly and according to
the principles we have now professed and that we will deny ourselves and
take up our Cross and follow Christ as the Captain of our salvation unto
the death in the earnest hope of living with Him in endless Glory".
Admission to the Lord's Table is still a function of
the Session, but today in many congregations, and correctly so, they are
admitted not at a Session meeting, but at a service of public worship
after approval of the Session.
Testimonials or certificates of transference from
another congregation had to be received and approved by the Session.
The "tokens", which communicants received, were made
of lead.16. Admission was by "token", and these were lifted
either at the kirk door, or when the communicants were going to the
Table in the aisles.17 . The lead "tokens" have now been
changed to "cards".
Not only was the Session responsible for the
admission of catechumens. They reviewed the character and conduct of all
members of the congregation prior to Communion. They jealously guarded
the Lord's Table in the interests of discipline, for example, on 12
April, 1686, the minute in Carnmoney reads :-"The Session considering
that after their long desolation it hath pleased the Lord in His mercy
to grant them again a gospel minister settled amongst them they do
ordain all the elders to make diligent enquiry concerning scandalous
persons and delinquents in their several quarters that they may be
brought to the Session to give satisfaction, etc., and likewise that
they enquire concerning each as not testified for from the places they
came last from, etc.".
Records of "Communion kept" are entered in the
Session Books, and also a Roll of the communicants.
The Session had the same responsibility, as in the
case of Communion, with regard to the Sacrament of Baptism. It, too, was
celebrated in accordance with discipline ; and if parents were under
censure or did not fulfil the necessary requirements, sponsors were
On 9 February, 1647, Templepatrick Session enacted
:"that no children be baptised till first they come to some of the
elders, the parents who presenteth them, and get their children's names
`inregistrate', and that the elders may testify of them to the
The minute for 12 April, 1686, in Carnmoney reads
:"The which day the Session taking into their consideration the
irregularity of many in this parish in coming to get the ordinance of
baptism without absorbing the end and holy order they doth unanimously
appoint and enacteth that none in this parish shall have access to that
ordinance of baptism for their children without they bring their elder
or his token to the minister and give the child name to the Session
Clerk to be inserted in the register and this to be intimated to the
congregation publicly by the minister the next Lord's day after sermon".
The minute on 16 April, 1838, in Ray reads :-"Public
Baptism was also appointed in the congregation".
After this minute is added a note-"Note, the above
appointment was at a time, when the public administration of Baptism was
not the law, nor practice, of the Synod of Ulster. Some families were
lost by the carrying out of the law". Public baptism was always the law
if not the practice within the Synod, and has always been the doctrinal
and legal practice in the General Assembly.
The following illustration may be cited from Cahans
on 10 June, 1753, as an example of Baptismal discipline :"Compeared Mary
Gordon and owned her guilt of fornication with a man that belonged not
to this congregation whom it was said left the Kingdom lately. She was
instructed in the evil nature and danger of her sin and appointed to be
publicly rebuked for it this evening, but as she appeared so ignorant
she was desired to be diligent in the use of means to get more knowledge
and converse with the minister or with John Riddel from time to time.
Could not be sponsor for her child nor be yet absolved from censure".
Another instance showing the importance of discipline
is the entry on 2 February, 1701, in Antrim Baptismal Register:-"James
Bell had a child baptised held up by McBoarus for want of a testimonial.
Instances of appointing sponsors occur in
Templepatrick, Carnmoney, Larne, Cahans, Anahilt, and Connor. The last
also testifies to the celebration of the Sacrament of Baptism "after
sermon", as in Scotland.
The Baptismal Registers vary greatly, for example,
the entry on 30 May, 1696, in Carnmoney, "Andrew Reed had a child
baptised called Alexander", This is the form found in Drumbo, Glascar,
and Boardmills, the last adding the townland after the parents' names.
The Larne and Kilwaughter book is by pages, headed for example, "G" for
"Glen", "K" for "Kilwaughter", etc. Dawson's Bridge, Anahilt, and
Carland registers are set out in columns, for example, Date, Child's
Name, Parents' Names, Townland, etc.
A fee was charged for registration, and the
non-payment of this could have, as in Larne, disastrous results, namely,
the non-insertion of the child's name. Generally speaking, but not
always, the canonical order-boys followed by girls-was followed in
Baptism. Today, unfortunately, it is seldom remembered that the Session
have the same jurisdiction and responsibility with regard to admission
to Baptism as they have concerning admission to the Lord's Table.
Marriage, also, was celebrated in accordance with
discipline. It must be remembered that up to 1844 marriage by
Presbyterian ministers was "countenanced", and while Presbyterians
fondly believed that "when a minister is ordained, he acquires a legal
right to celebrate marriage",18. the famous case Regina v
Millis in 1841-44 revealed how mistaken they were.19. It is
unnecessary to go into the details of this case, suffice it to say that
Presbyterian marriage was, until 1844, celebrated in accordance with
The names had to be publicly proclaimed three times
"after sermon", and while this was normally at Public Worship on the
"Sabbath" the Larne and Kilwaughter book shows that they might be
proclaimed also on "Lecture" day. The importance of proclamation may be
seen from the fact that the Synod of Ulster in 1701 unanimously approved
that a minister who transgressed the rule of proclamation "three several
Sabbaths" "shall be rebuked and suspended at the discretion of the
Presbytery, whereof he is a member". Breach of this regulation also
affected the individual members of the Church, for example, on 3
September, 1786, the minute in Glascar Session book reads :-"Appeared
Jas. boyd acknowledging himself guilty of marrying without proclamation
. . . after some conversation it was agreed to rebuke him in the Session
which was accordingly done".
A fee was charged for proclamation, for example, in
Templepatrick on 9 February, 1647, the minute reads :-"The which day
John richard and Margaret Cunningham gave up their names to be
proclaimed on the purpose of marriage consigning two "ryels" for their
bands, and gave one shilling to the clerk for booking their names . .
."; and on 13 April, 1647 :-"The which day Shan O'Hagan and Shilie
O'donally both entered their bonds of marriage and hath delivered four
shillings for their bonds to the treasurer".
The Session scrutinised every wedding to see that it
conformed to ecclesiastical discipline, and if not the parties were
summoned before them. Marriage was irregular if celebrated by a "papist
priest", in the Established Church without the Session's permission, by
a "debarred" clergyman of any Church, or in disobedience to parents.
At the same time, parents were not permitted to be
unreasonable as the minute for 12 February, 1832, in Magherafelt shows
:-"An application was made on behalf of William Farson desiring to
obtain marriage to Margaret Brown. It appeared that several years before
said couple had been guilty of the crime of fornication. And having
expressed repentance and a desire to be restored to Christian
privileges, were rebuked agreeably to the discipline of the Church;
since which they have led irreproachable lives. He from the first was
willing to marry her, but was prevented, because it was contrary to the
wish of his father. A few days ago the Moderator had spoken to Robert
Parson, father of the Applicant, on this subject, and reasoned with him
touching the propriety of his son's marriage with Margaret Brown the
aforesaid, and wished to obtain his consent, which however was refused.
The whole of this case being thus laid before the Session, and
deliberately discussed by them�It was unanimously resolved that no
reasonable or proper objection has been urged by Robt. Farson to the
marriage of his son William Farson with Margt. Brown, and therefore, the
celebration of such marriage is not only to be permitted, but under
existing circumstances to be highly approved. A member accordingly was
authorised to inform the parties, that the Moderator was at liberty to
marry them whenever they should apply".
Neither were parents permitted to lead their children
astray without rebuke, for on 29 November, 1753, the minute in Cahans
records :-"Compeared James Sanderson of Drumhirk who owned that he had
compelled his daughter to marry a man from beyond Newry according to the
Form of the Book of Common Prayer . . . He professed some sense of his
sin and declared his sorrow for it. He was accordingly rebuked before
the Session and absolved from further censure".
Eloping was frowned upon, and also the assisting of
people to elope left cupid's assistant open to censure.21. In
some cases of irregular marriage the parties, after censure, were
remarried, but this appears to have been done only in cases where the
officiating person at the offending ceremony was a "debarred" clergyman,
although on 10 July, 1784, in Anahilt, "Intimation was given to the
congregation that if any of the members of it in future married
irregularly, they should be remarried and pay half a Crown to the poor
of the Parish and half a Crown to the Clerk of the congregation. And
that this regulation should not be departed from upon any account
whatever". This decision, however, is probably only of local
significance as a certain debarred priest was very active in the
district at this period.
Sessions, also, kept a careful watch on conduct at
wedding receptions, for example, the Templepatrick records state :"Its
enacted by the session of Templepatrick the 28 of December, 1647, that
if there be any misdemeanour at bridals as drunkenness or swabling that
besides the censure that the persons comes under, who makes the abuse,
the parties married shall forfeit their penalty".
The testimony of the Session books shows that the
practice followed is that which came to be codified in 1825.22.
Bigamy was also a matter dealt with by Sessions, and
deserves censure, but the reasons stated by the Session of Aghadowey for
their leniency hardly commend themselves to the Christian conscience of
the twentieth century. The following are the relevant minutes :-
21 August, 1730. "James Turner being refused
Christian Privileges these several years, upon account of a scandal of
having two wives in the time of the late wars . . . The Session agree to
give Public Notice that any who can fix this upon him shall appear at
the time hereafter appointed".
16 December, 1730. "Mr. Elder having wrote to the
Revd. Humphry Thomson of Ballybay concerning James Turner, who told the
occasion of the report of his having two wives happened in Mr. Thomsons'
neighbourhood. Mr. Thomson wrote that he remembered James Turner
perfectly well and one Armstrong with whom he lived as his wife. James
Turner confessed before the Session that he had that woman in bed with
him. The Session unanimously agree that he is to make a public
acknowledgment of that sin, but inasmuch as the fact was committed so
long ago as the wars and his being in the army which took him away from
where his first wife found it convenient to stay, it is agreed that he
only shall stand one Sabbath day".
The question of divorce arises on only one occasion,
that is, on 7 December, 1698, in Carnmoney, when the Session advised
Alexander Collbeart "to seek counsel whether he may not be legally
divorced seeing she (that is, Jenat his wife) will not cohabit with
Not only did Sessions deal with marriage, they also
were called upon to decide cases of breach of promise, for example, the
minute of 12 October, 1714, in Connor :�"Andrew Sprule appears before
the Session he complaineth that he is wronged by Jonat Scott, John
Scot's daughter who now is under proclamation of marriage with Robert
Carnohan and that notwithstanding of promises often made by the same
Jonat Scott to him Andrew Sprule that she would marry him and appointed
to meet him at Ballymonah and he went according to her appointment but
she came not as yet. The Session orders the Clerk to delay the
proclamation until further enquiry be made if there was consent of
parents in this case. The Session orders both parties to confront and to
bring in their evidences if any be also parents to command and to
declare what they have to say in this case".
The bewitching Jonat was also claimed by Samuel
Elliott on 15 October, 1715 ; but, much to their dismay, no doubt,
neither Andrew nor Samuel won the fair lady for his bride.
The above extract from the Connor minutes shows that
"banns" were published by the Clerk of Session in accordance with the
practice of the Church of Scotland.
The Marriage Acts of 1844, and the appeal to the
civil courts in matters of breach of promise, and bigamy, and divorce,
have tended to obscure the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Session in
these matters. Indeed, today much re-thinking is necessary if marriage
is to be regarded not simply as a "legal contract", and to be restored
as an Ordinance of the Word.
Attendance at Public Worship was supervised by Kirk
Sessions, and non-attendance involved censure. Discipline was also
enforced for misconduct during public worship. Members were rebuked for
seeking ordinances in the Established Church, or with the "sects".
The Kirk Session appointed the Precentor; and the
Antrim records tell of their arranging a "Singing school". Sessions were
also responsible for the provision of an Hour Glass, presumably to make
certain the sermon was not too short.
Not only Presbyteries, and the supreme Courts,
ordered special days for prayer and fasting and for thanksgiving, but
also Sessions. The following extracts from the Session minutes of
Magherafelt are an excellent example :-
11 July, 1832. "Resolved that the awful judgment from
God, the pestilence of `Cholera Morbius', which has visited our land,
and threatens to pervade every district of it, presents to us a solemn
warning and a more than ordinary call to the exercises of humility,
repentance and prayer. That in order to excite the people of this
congregation to such exercises, our pastor shall preach in the various
districts, on catechising ; and our members, and all others who may
think proper to join with us, shall be requested to assemble for such
"After this the Moderator repaired to the House of
Worship, and preached to a large congregation, assembled at the hour of
6 o'clock in the evening".
28 August, 1832. "Agreeably to the foregoing
Resolution, a sermon was preached at each of the following places, at
the hours of 5 and 6 o'clock, on the evenings of Catechising days . . .
In the months of July and August, viz.
"At Coleshinney Schoolhouse�At Robt. Ekin's,
Ballymoughan . . . Ended on the 28 August".
31 July, 1833. "The 10th of Romans was read and
commented upon. After which, Mr. Wilson preached a sermon at 5 o'clock,
as a thanksgiving appointed by the Church, to Almighty God for His mercy
in protecting us from the Pestilence of Cholera, which lately ravaged
the land, in many parts, yet approached not us".
February, 1834. "On the first Sabbath of this year,
viz. January 5th, 1834, `Cholera Moribus' made its appearance in
Magherafelt. On the following Sabbath the 12th Jany. the Session held a
Solemn meeting, and, the attention of the congregation was directed to
this awful visitation from God, and all were called upon to humble their
souls before Him, to repent of their lives and flee for refuge to the
Lord Jesus Christ, `the hope Set before them in the Gospel'. The
following Tuesday was appointed as a day for humiliation and prayer.
Public Worship to commence at 2 o'clock.
"It was resolved to have public worship and a sermon
(besides on the Sabbaths) in the middle of each week during the
prevalence of the disease.
"These services lasted for six weeks, and concluded
with a day of Thanksgiving".
The following page gives an account of the ravages of
the disease in Magherafelt and neighbourhood, tells of the medical
efforts to overcome the situation, and how the Schoolhouse was turned
into a hospital for "an hospital was wanting". It gives a list of
deaths, and records how Rev. James Wilson "visited in town during the
disease, and in the hospital every day".
Before leaving the subject of Public Worship, one
must not omit to point out that the Larne records show a correct
approach to the use of the festivals of the Christian year. The
following are the relevant extracts :-
April, 1701. "The Session is acquainted that the
order is come out from authority concerning the Fast, and that the
prefixed day is the first Friday of May which will be the 2nd day next .
. . And that authority has discharging the observing or keeping of
Christmas or any other festival holy days because of much abuse has been
made at such times".
There is some doubt if the "authority" referred to in
the minute is civil or ecclesiastical. It is probably the former. In
addition its exact meaning required clarification as is seen by the
record of the next meeting.
27 April, 1701. "It is reported that it is only the
papish festival days that is discharged, but no word of discharging
Christmas as to the Protestant form nor other festival days".
It is also interesting to note that in Mary's Abbey
as early as 1798 there was a service on Christmas Day. The collection on
that day was �l. 6s. 6�d., approximately the same amount as that at the
Sunday morning services. For over twenty years, at this period, there
are records of a service on Christmas Day in Abbey congregation. Today
the great majority of congregations observe the great Festivals of the