- The Shaping of Ulster Presbyterian Belief and Practice, 1770–1840
The historiography of Irish Presbyterianism, like that of other churches, has been dominated both by functionalist critiques, subordinating issues of faith to wider explanatory frameworks, and by local celebratory approaches. Irish Presbyterians have generated their own extensive literature, much of it produced in glorification of individual congregations or ministers (Holmes comments on the Presbyterian passion for parish history), but also with a leavening of more widely researched and scholarly work (undertaken by the likes of John Barkley and Finlay Holmes). Another body of research, often originating from beyond the Presbyterian communion, has sought to link the development of the church in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to wider political issues. One leitmotif of this scholarship was defined by A. T. Q. Stewart in 1956, when he launched the task of explaining the transition of the Presbyterian community from its apparent radicalism in the 1790s and the United Irish movement through to the evident conservatism of the 1890s and Ulster Unionism. Others, particularly in the light of the ‘long war’ in Northern Ireland after 1969, or in the light of Marxian approaches to Irish historiography [End Page 357] (such as those espoused by Peter Gibbon), have sought to explain not so much the reality of Ulster Presbyterianism as its failure to fulfil some predetermined alternative paradigm. Irish Presbyterians, like the Victorian working classes, have not always conformed to historians’ desires and expectations.
Andrew Holmes’s superb exploration of Ulster Presbyterianism covers the period from the high tide of ‘New Light’ or ‘moderate’ theological influence through to the rise of evangelicalism and the formation of the General Synod of the Church. He naturally seeks to advance upon the existing historiography, which is gently chided for its functionalist or celebratory lapses: David Miller’s early work, particularly his Past & Present article of 1978, is important but (in this critique) is defined by too mechanistic a view of Presbyterian spirituality, Ian McBride (in his otherwise scintillating monograph, Scripture Politics (1998)) is still working within an agenda set by Stewart in the mid-1950s, and David Hempton and Myrtle Hill are too much preoccupied by Methodism. Holmes interrogates a range of individual arguments, and in particular the highly influential notion (formulated by Miller, and inherited by McBride and others) that–in the context of rapid industrialisation–Ulster Presbyterianism shifted from an emphasis on public testimony and a widespread faith in wholesale divine intervention in the material world to a greater emphasis on private spirituality and the individual conversion experience. Holmes tackles this orthodoxy by arguing that it embodies too limited a notion of individual faith, that (accordingly) it misses continuities in the spirituality and practice of Presbyterians, and (finally) that it embodies too homogeneous a conception of Presbyterianism itself. On the whole, his advocacy succeeds.
But the fundamental achievement of the volume lies beyond, or behind, these jousts. Holmes offers a picture of Presbyterianism in its full complexity, teasing out distinctions between the different Presbyterian traditions on the island (he identifies six in late eighteenth-century Ireland). He brings to bear the full weight of scholarship on early modern religious practice, exploring Irish Presbyterian life in the light of recent scholarship, not merely on Ireland and Presbyterianism, but on Scotland and North America, and on Catholicism and Anglicanism. Following the historiographical current, he assesses faith and spirituality determinedly within their own terms, and not as adjuncts to some wider, often political, argument. The book is organised into four broad sections, which (taken together) illuminate in great detail and with great empathy the full range of Presbyterian religious faith and practice, from the observance of Sunday through the structure of religious services, the sacraments of the Church, and religious activity beyond the meeting house. Through painstaking reconstruction, Holmes goes a long way to addressing his central research question–what it meant to be an Irish Presbyterian in the period under discussion.
What it meant to be a late eighteenth- or early nineteenth-century...