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  • The “Prophet” of Interposition: The Reverend Ian Paisley and American Segregation
  • Richard L. Jordan

One-hundred-and-six hours before Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, the Reverend Ian Paisley of Northern Ireland and an international fellowship of militant Christians met in Greenville, South Carolina, to launch the annual Bob Jones Bible Conference. Only “Bible Protestants”—Christians who defined “true” Protestantism as Calvinist, fundamentalist, and separatist—gathered that day. These militant clergy shunned any Christian who did not proclaim predestination and premillenialism. They believed that God’s plan was under attack from an alliance of the civil rights movement, international communism, and liberal clergymen who wanted to secularize, socialize, and integrate American society. Militants viewed these developments eschatologically; they saw their battles against civil rights and communism as indicating that the world was approaching the End Times.1

The Bob Jones conference commenced as the American civil rights movement neared its apex. Although most direct-action campaigns had ended, the militants present in Greenville believed that opposition to the coalition of integrationists, the political left, and apostate Christianity required continued diligence. Furthermore, Paisley’s attendance indicated that the reappraisal of American racial relations had acquired an international audience. The success of racial activism in America inspired similar movements throughout the world to end colonialism, racial prejudice, and religious intolerance, and also empassioned a new attitude toward national minorities. This was true in Europe, in the British Isles, and in Northern Ireland.2 [End Page 40]

Beginning in 1963, Northern Ireland’s civil rights groups had begun to copy the tactics of their American counterparts. Over the next six years, the Campaign for Social Justice and the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association demanded an end to discriminatory economic and political policies. Like American blacks, Northern Irish activists protested, staged marches, and made moral appeals to the British and Irish public. Civil rights efforts provoked a backlash from Protestants who saw Catholic civil rights as a republican and Roman Catholic conspiracy to reunify Ireland. The loudest voice that arose to oppose Catholic rights came from the Reverend Paisley, who orchestrated counter-demonstrations to block marchers. Paisley’s relationship with segregationists and his exposure to the American civil rights movement, underscored his convictions. Paisley’s stance had its own international dimension. After his imprisonment in 1966, when Paisley led a protest march that erupted into violence, North American militant fundamentalists came to regard him as “God’s prophet in Ireland.” Paisley became a frequent and respected speaker at bible conferences and in militant churches.3

From his ordination in 1946 and throughout the following two decades, the primary theological influence on Paisley was the militant fundamentalism he learned from North Americans. Paisley’s religiosity can be traced to the American fundamentalism introduced in the 1920s and to the separatism that many Ulster Protestants accepted in the 1930s. During the 1920s, William Patterson Nicholson, a native of County Down who was ordained by the Presbyterian church in the United States, led revival campaigns in Northern Ireland that attracted and “saved” thousands. Nicholson introduced fundamentalism to a wide segment of Northern Ireland’s Protestant community. It was during these campaigns that James Kyle Paisley, a Baptist preacher from Armagh, adopted Nicholson’s teachings. Shortly thereafter, Kyle Paisley met Thomas Todhunter (T.T.) Shields of Toronto, Canada’s most influential militant until his death in 1955. Shields was instrumental in Kyle Paisley’s withdrawal from the Baptist Union of Ireland and his conversion from a moderate fundamentalist into a more separatist conviction—though the elder Paisley remained nonaligned and never joined a militant organization. Kyle Paisley passed his theological independence onto his family, most notably his second son, Ian Richard.4 [End Page 41]

At age nineteen, Ian Paisley accepted a call to be pastor at Ravenhill Evangelical Mission Church in East Belfast. His installment took place under the guidance of the fundamentalist Irish Evangelical Church and minister W.J. Grier. Paisley preached a message that shunned mainstream and liberal Protestants and attacked the Presbyterian church in Ireland for its membership in the World Council of Churches (WCC). The young preacher made a name for himself around Belfast as a firebrand Calvinist and open-air revivalist...


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