The subtitle of Donald Harmon Akenson’s latest book is slightly misleading. The great Liberator appears in Akenson’s narrative mainly as a shadow, albeit a very large one, that darkens the hopes of the Irish evangelical Anglicans with whom the author is concerned. On the other hand, the principal figure who gradually comes to dominate the proceedings is not mentioned in the title, probably because few people unfamiliar with religious studies may have heard of him. John Nelson Darby (1800–1882) became the primary founder and chief theologian of a group generally referred to as the Plymouth Brethren. Darby’s influence extended far beyond the Brethren, however. His theology, with its emphasis on the Rapture and the end of time, became one of the dominant influences on evangelical [End Page 150] Protestant thought, especially in North America. Akenson maintains that the roots of Darby’s theology lie in Ireland where they are entwined with “the social physics of a very small socially and economically elite region of southern Ireland [that] formed the way he looked at the celestial mechanics of God interacting with Man” In other words, the author invites us to explore a possible connection between theology and sociology. As Akenson observes, Darby’s “continual reading and rereading of the scriptures formed the way he looked at Ireland; equally the Ireland he experienced formed the way he reinterpreted the Bible.”
Akenson begins by focusing on a tightly knit Anglo-Irish circle situated primarily in County Wicklow and south County Dublin, with extensions into the capitol and Trinity College. In Akenson’s narrative, this group of Anglican aristocrats and gentry takes on the collective persona of what, for convenience, he labels “Dalyland,” after its initial leader, Rev. Robert Daly, the charismatic rector of Powerscourt parish. Dalyland, as the author explains, “was a state of mind, a religious mentality, and it was also a network of real-world geographical coordinates, a web of complex social relationships, regulated mostly by the gentry and above; and all this rested on the peculiar economic and governmental structure of post-Union Ireland.”
This, then, is an Anglo-Irish story, and as such, families take precedence. Cemented by cousin marriages, these Wicklow families also enjoyed a spiritual bond formed through their enthusiastic embrace of a particular form of Anglican evangelicalism. And because a theological revolution occurred in their midst, the author devotes almost half of his book to exploring these “evangelical congeries.” There are the grandees, such as the Wingfields of Powerscourt, but there are also the somewhat lesser families, such as the La Touches, the Synges, the Parnells, and the Guinnesses. Why all this marshaling of the great and good among Wicklow’s Anglicans? Strong believers in Apocalyptic Millennialism, the evangelicals of Dalyland were dedicated to preparing the ground for the Second Advent—and saw no better way to do so than to break the hold of the Roman Catholic church on the Irish masses. They wanted Irish Anglicanism to form a truly national church, raising a New Jerusalem on Ireland’s very green and occasionally pleasant land. As a result, Dalyland was deeply involved in Ireland’s so-called Second Reformation.
Committed to Biblicism, the Wicklow group saw education as the key to conversion, as literacy would open the scriptures to an illiterate, benighted peasantry, steeped in Roman superstition and error. Success in this endeavor, however, depended upon the extent to which the British government was willing to subsidize the spread of Anglican-dominated schools. More problematic, building the New Jerusalem faced opposition from two powerful forces: Daniel O’Connell’s campaign for Catholic Emancipation and the rejuvenation of the Catholic church led by Dr. James W. Doyle, bishop of Kildare and Leighlin. Both [End Page 151] men were skilled in mobilizing the Irish masses. Of course, the odds against Anglican success were enormous. Nevertheless, as Akenson argues, the “hothouse atmosphere” of Dalyland misled its young enthusiasts into losing “the distinction between reality and illusion—and that...