TOLD FOR ITS SUNDAY SCHOOLS
Rev. A: L. AGNEW, O.B.E., B.A., D.D., J.P. AND
Rev. J. McCLEERY, B.A., S.T.M.
Published by the Sunday School Committee of the
Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland
TO TELL, in a few words, the long and complicated story of
our Non-Subscribing Church, so that it may not only interest
children, but give them some sense of the Spiritual
back-ground and importance of our movement, is something we
should not have attempted had we not had confidence in the
ability of our Teachers to adapt it to their needs.
To that loyal body of men and women we offer these pages.
A. L. A. J. McC.
THE NON-SUBSCRIBING PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH OF IRELAND
Every Sunday you go to Sunday School and to Church. You
know that there are other Churches the same as your own.
Perhaps you have been in some of them. All these Churches
belong to what is called the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian
Church of Ireland.
In these few pages we are going to tell you something about
that Church. We want you to know how it began, what it stands
for, and how it got its name. We should like to tell you about
other Churches in other lands which are also part of the same
great movement to which it belongs. We cannot do this now, but
it is important that you should always remember that your
Church is part of a world-wide movement.
Our history does not begin in our own country. It goes back
to Scotland, from which most of our forefathers came, and
indeed to that great movement on the Continent of Europe which
is known as the Protestant Reformation. Our Church is the most
Protestant of all Churches. We must therefore consider the
Reformation and its causes.
THE PROTESTANT REFORMATION
From the earliest times some people have liked to be told
what to believe. Others have always liked to think for
themselves. It is easier to be told what to think than to form
our own beliefs. For this reason, those who would think for
themselves have always been few. Men also like to walk in
well-tried paths, and often they have persecuted the few who
were brave enough to explore new ways. The whole history of
religion repeats that story.
In your Bible you read of the Prophets. They were men who
gave new truths to the world. Most of them were persecuted
whilst they were alive. But after their time men began to
believe that they had been right, and Priests were appointed
to teach the people those very things which the Prophets in
their day had taught in vain. These Priests considered it
their duty to prevent any other way of thinking than that
which they thought right. But very often what they thought was
right was far from the Prophets' real teaching. So when Jesus
came, bringing the greatest truths the world has ever known,
it was the Priests who led the people to oppose Him. Yet in
time His followers appointed their own Priests who told the
people what they should believe about Him. They made creeds,
or statements of belief, and all who would not "subscribe" or
agree to these creeds were cast out of the Church and, indeed,
were sometimes put to death.
So things went on for many centuries. But at last, in the
year 1517, a man called Martin Luther led that great movement
called the Protestant Reformation. He declared that Priests
were not needed, because every man should be his own Priest
and read the Bible for himself.
But men's minds did not change. At Geneva in Switzerland,
John Calvin, though a Protestant, drew up a system of religion
in which men were compelled to believe, and it was so widely
accepted that the work of Luther was largely undone.
We have said that our Church in Ireland is the most
Protestant of all the Protestant Churches. How it came to be
so, why it is that the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church has
the Bible as its only creed, and how it escaped being bound by
the fetters of Calvinism, is the story we have to tell.
THE REFORMATION COMES TO SCOTLAND AND IRELAND
The Protestant Reformation came to Scotland mainly through
the work of John Knox, at a time when that country was
backward, badly governed, and very poor. Knox was a popular
preacher and a born leader, and with the people behind him,
his movement of Reform was begun and carried on against the
Priests and rulers of the Catholic Church. His victory pledged
Scotland to the Protestant religion.
Now Knox had been much influenced by Calvin, but his
conflict with Royalty and the Bishops of Scotland had served
to dull much of his Calvinism. Questions of belief became of
less importance to him. It was Presbyterianism that mattered.
Later we shall tell you what is meant by Presbyterianism. For
the present we will describe it as the rule of the Church by
the people, instead of by the Bishops.
After the death of Knox, King James VI of Scotland decided
to do away with the Presbyterianism that had become the form
of government in the Scottish Protestant Church. He preferred
the rule of Bishops, and was a strong believer in the maxim,
"No Bishop, No King". But his people would not give up the
Presbyterian form of government. They resisted the King, and
some of them left their native land to find refuge in Antrim
and Down, across the "Waters of Moyle".
These were the first Presbyterians to come to Ulster.
A few years later, in 1610, the plan of colonising the
North of Ireland, known as the Plantation of Ulster, was put
into operation. As a result, vast numbers of people from
Scotland and England began to arrive in Ulster. Settlers came
in hundreds, and with them were ministers and laymen, who had
actually been banished to Ulster because they held so strongly
to Luther's principles. It was these ministers who laid the
foundation of Irish Presbyterianism.
Among them was Edward Brice, who began to preach in
Ballycarry in 1613. Ballycarry thus claims to be our oldest
congregation. Edward Brice's grave can still be seen in the
old graveyard there, beside that of James Orr, a local poet,
who wrote the lines :
"There thy rever'd forefathers heard
The first Dissenter dar'd to tarry
On Erin's plain, where men felt pain
conscience sake, in Ballycarry".
Just before his death, Brice and other ministers were asked
to submit themselves to the rules of the Episcopal Church in
Ireland, but such was their spirit, that they refused, and as
a result were not allowed to preach again.
THE "EAGLE WING"
One interesting story of this first persecution of the
early Presbyterians in Ulster is that of the voyage of the
*"Eagle Wing". This small ship of about 150 tons, was built at Groomsport, Co. Down, by Presbyterians who were prepared to
cross the Atlantic to find in the New World a refuge from
persecution, like the men and women of the "Mayflower" some
sixteen years earlier. The ship was completed and provisioned,
and when all was ready on September 9, 1636, a little company
of about 140 people went on board. The "Eagle Wing" weighed
anchor, rounded the Gobbins and bore out for the open sea.
Before long, contrary winds drove her into Loch Ryan, but she
sailed again and soon the Ulster Pilgrims were clear of
Ireland and steering west for the New World. Then came fearful
weather, which made havoc of the little "Eagle Wing". The
rudder was broken, the sails were torn, heavy seas swept over
the deck, a leak was sprung, and finally the captain declared
it was impossible to face the storm any longer. The ship was
put about and in miserable plight they headed back again for
Ireland, feeling that God wished them to return to continue
the fight for liberty at home. The "Eagle Wing" dropped anchor
in Carrickfergus Bay on November 3, 1636. So ended an
adventure which shows the spirit and courage of our
forefathers. Small wonder then, that in spite of persecution,
they persevered in their opinions and finally established the
way of thought and Church government which is ours today.
*Some scholars are of the opinion that the "Eagle Wing" was
built at Carrickfergus.
THE FIRST PRESBYTERY
In the year 1641, the native Catholic Irish, under Phelim
O'Neill, made a great attempt to drive out the Scottish and
English settlers. The full fury of this Rising was felt in
Ulster, which became a "field of blood". To protect the
Protestants, it was arranged that a Scottish Army should be
sent to Carrickfergus, and in 1642 several regiments arrived,
each with its own Chaplain. These men decided that
Presbyterianism should now be put on a sound footing, and in
June, 1642, there took place the fast Presbytery meeting ever
held in Ireland. This was at Carrickfergus. It was composed of
five ministers and four ruling elders, and at that first
meeting various arrangements were made to strengthen the
Presbyterian cause. The Presbytery made visits to various
places in which Presbyterian Societies had formerly existed,
and they set up new congregations. Several of these exist
until this present day and form part of our Non-Subscribing
Presbyterian Church, such as Belfast, Cairncastle, Holywood,
Larne and Templepatrick. Thus did Presbyterianism begin over
three hundred years ago.
WHAT PRESBYTERIANISM IS
Now that we have told you how the first Presbytery came to
be formed, we will try to explain as simply as possible what a
Presbytery is, and what Presbyterianism is.
Many people think that Presbyterianism is a form of belief.
That is not so. It is a form of Church Government. In the
Presbyterian system every Church is free to manage its own
affairs, under its own minister and elders elected by its own
people. But there must be something to hold all the different
Churches together. Therefore the ministers with one elder from
each congregation in a district meet from time to time to
discuss things of-interest to them all. This is called a
Presbytery. The Presbytery looks after all those Churches
which need help. It sends a minister to preach where a Church
has no minister of its own. It advises all the Churches
belonging to it, and sees that their affairs are properly
looked after. It does many other things. You will see that
this is a good system of government. All the ministers and
elders are equal, whether they come from large Churches or
small ones, and their only concern is to help one another. The
different Presbyteries meet together once a year to form a
Synod or Assembly to deal with matters affecting all the
Presbyteries and Churches in the country.
Some Presbyterians have always considered that Presbyteries
and Synods should try to make all the Churches and people
believe the same things. Others have just as firmly held that
they have no right to do this. Here we touch on the difference
between Subscribers and Non-Subscribers. The Subscribers
require their ministers to sign, or "subscribe" their names to
a certain form of belief. We, the Non-Subscribers, allow our
ministers and people to form their own opinions about what the
The struggle between these two points of view among
Presbyterians went on in Ulster for over a hundred years, and
twice the Presbyterian Church in Ireland was divided
by it. But there was no struggle in the early days. The
Presbyterian Church at its beginning was as true to the
Lutheran principle of the Open Bible as the Non-Subscribing
Church to-day. It is the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church
which still carries on the principle of the Reformation which
those first Presbyterians brought to Ulster.
THE EARLY DAYS
For some years after the forming of the first Presbytery,
the Presbyterian Church grew and flourished. More and more
ministers came from Scotland, and more and more Churches and
Meeting Houses were built. But dark days were soon to come.
Troubles in England in the days of Cromwell and Charles II,
which you may read of in other histories, led to several
attempts being made to impose the rule of Bishops on the
Ulster Presbyterians. It was then that some of the persecuted
ministers fled to America, and along with them went many
members of their congregations. In the new land they established towns with the old Ulster names such as Belfast,
Derry, Bangor, and Hillsborough. Their first action when they
did so was to establish Churches, and in many of those
Churches today the same freedom of religion is upheld as in
our own Churches. Some of our ministers have preached in them,
and sometimes their ministers visit our Churches here.
WILLIAM AND THE BOYNE
Soon events took place which bound all the Protestants in
Ireland together, whether they were Presbyterians or
Episcopalians. In the streets of Comber, Co. Down, a letter
was found stating that a massacre of Protestants was to take
place on December 7, 1688. General alarm spread over Ulster,
and at Derry, where many of the Protestants had taken refuge,
the gates were closed and remained so for. one hundred and
five days. This was the famous Siege of Derry.
In June, 1690, King William III landed at Carrickfergus
and, as he passed on his way to the Boyne, he renewed at
Hillsborough Castle the grant of money to the Presbyterian
ministers of Ulster, known as the "Regium Donum", or Royal
Bounty. This was paid to all Presbyterian ministers until the
year 2869. When the "Regium Donum" ceased, lump sums were
given by the Government to the ministers who had formerly been
paid this yearly gift. Some ministers handed over the money to
their Churches, and some of our congregations still benefit
through this action of those ministers.
Unfortunately, after the victory of King William at the
Boyne, the unhappy divisions between the Protestants in
Ireland broke out once more. Trouble and persecution by both
sides continued until the Act of Toleration in 1719. It would
be unfair to blame one side more than the other for these
things. Each party persecuted the other in turn when
opportunity arose, and no sooner had Presbyterians become free
from outside troubles than they began to have others of their
SUBSCRIBERS AND NON-SUBSCRIBERS
From its beginning until now, Presbyterianism had remained
true to the principles of the Protestant Reformation. In
Scotland, however, the Presbyterians had deviated from the
open Bible and had become strict followers of John Calvin.
Scottish ministers now signed, or "subscribed" their names as
a token of belief in the Westminster Confession of Faith,
which contained the doctrines of Calvin. Many of these
ministers came to Ireland, bringing with them the influences
of their native land, and soon Calvinism had become the
popular belief of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. No
serious attempts were made to make it compulsory as yet. Soon,
however, such attempts were to be made, and to be bravely
resisted, and so began the dispute between the Subscribers and
THE ANTRIM PRESBYTERY
John Abernethy, the young minister of Antrim, was opposed
to all attempts to introduce Subscription, and in 1719 he
preached a famous sermon in Belfast, in which he denied that
the Church had any right to make people subscribe to
statements of belief. For preaching this sermon, he was
accused of attempting to give New Light to the world, and from
this time the Non-Subscribers were known as "the New Light
people". The installation of the Rev. Samuel Halliday in the
Church at Belfast, took place a year later, in 1720. When
Halliday came to Belfast he refused to subscribe, and this
brought the matter to a head.
By this time, the Synod of Ulster had been formed, and at
the next Annual Meeting of that body in 1'721, it was urged
that all Ministers should subscribe to the Westminster
Confession of Faith. Those who opposed this, and contended
that there should be n0 creed, except the Bible, were known
henceforth as Non-Subscribers. For some years there were many
disputes between them and the Subscribers. In 1724 Thomas Nevin, minister of Downpatrick, was called on to make a
declaration of his belief, but steadfastly refused. He was
expelled from the Synod, but remained in charge of his
In 1726 the whole matter ended for a time, when seventeen
ministers and their congregations were excluded from the Synod
and formed into the Non-Subscribing Presbytery of Antrim. In
that Presbytery ever since, the original contention, "that
human creeds and confessions restrict the right of private
judgment", has been faithfully maintained.
But the old spirit 0f independence was very strong, and it
had not been got rid of by excluding the Presbytery 0f Antrim.
By the year 1783, ten 0f the fourteen Presbyteries which then
composed the General Synod of the Presbyterian Church had
ceased to demand Subscription, and in 1805 there was almost a
reunion of the divided Presbyterians. Again in 1824, the Synod
adopted a Code of Discipline which would have satisfied all,
and a great liberal Presbyterian Church might have been built
up, with untold benefits for the whole of Ireland, but for a
succession of events and but for two great rival personalities
who now appear upon the stage of Presbyterian history.
COOKE AND MONTGOMERY
Porter, of Limavady, in his opening address, said
"We have come together to prove that we are genuine
Presbyterians . . . assertors of the right of private
judgment, uncompromising advocates of the all-sufficiency of
the Bible as a Rule of Faith and Duty.... Christ, and Christ
only, is our King ; the Bible, and the Bible only, is our
accredited standard of belief".
There was one man whose ambition was to build up a strong
Church at all costs. He was convinced that only by enforcing
unity of belief, could this be attained. His name was Henry
Cooke. But the Non-Subscribers also found a champion : this
was Henry Montgomery, known as "the Lion of Dunmurry".
These were two of the greatest orators Ulster ever
produced. Both of them were men of commanding appearance.
Montgomery was six feet four inches in height. You will
probably have seen his portrait about your Church. The statue
of Henry Cooke stands in College Square, Belfast. Montgomery
waged a continual fight for liberty, not only for
Non-Subscribers, but for his Roman Catholic fellow countrymen,
who in those days were greatly oppressed. Cooke on the other
hand, put the glory and power of the Presbyterian Church
before all else.
The Synod Meetings of these times were the scenes of great
duels between these famous men. In the end Cooke was
victorious. Montgomery, with sixteen other ministers, left the
Synod to form, in 1830, the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster. It
was called "Remonstrant" 'because it remonstrated against
people being compelled to subscribe the Westminster
THE REMONSTRANT SYNOD
The first meeting of this Synod, which contained three
Presbyteries (Bangor, Armagh and Templepatrick) consisting of
seventeen congregations, was held in Belfast on May 25, 1830.
The first Moderator, the Rev. William
Thus was Protestantism upheld. Doctor Henry Montgomery in
his statement of the Fundamental Principles of the New Synod
"We are now compelled ... in obedience to the dictates of
conscience ... in vindication of our own rights . . . in
defence of religious liberty, and to avoid being accessory to
the suppression of the truth of God, to separate ourselves
from the General Synod of Ulster, and to remain separated,
until that body shall have returned to the Scriptural
principles and usages of Presbyterianism".
THE NON-SUBSCRIBING PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH
During the years that followed, several new congregations
were formed, and it is worthy of mention that in 1843 a
minister was ordained in York Street Meeting House, Belfast,
for a new Church in Montreal, and that a Presbytery of Canada
was connected with the Remonstrant Synod until 1856. The
Churches in Toronto and Montreal still remember the old links
that bound them to the Non-Subscribing Church in Ireland.
In these years also, the Remonstrant Synod and the
Presbytery of Antrim drew closer together. At length in 191o
they united to form the General Synod of the Non-Subscribing
Presbyterian Church of Ireland. In more recent times, 1935,
the Synod of Munster, an old and historic Non-Subscribing
Synod, was welcomed into fellowship with the Non-Subscribing
Church. Today our Synod, or General Assembly, consists of
and thirty-four congregations. All these congregations
together form and constitute the Non-Subscribing Presterian
Church of Ireland.
Such is the story of the Non-Subscribing Church, so far as
it may be told in a few pages. But remember that there are
many more things about it that you will have to discover for
yourselves. The more you learn about it, the better you will
be able to serve it in the days to come. You will discover why
it is not a large Church. It was built up by men who cared
little how many were with them, if they themselves were
faithful to what they believed to be right. Such men were
brave, and the brave are few.
But because it is not a large Church, it needs your loyalty
and courage all the more, so that it may continue to bear
witness to the right of men to think for themselves. Now, as
never before in the history of the world, that right must be
fought for, and there is no principle more valuable today than
that for which our Non-Subscribing Church has stood, and must
stand in the days to come.
Constitution of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of
The Constitution of the Non-Subscribing Church was once
described by a famous Presbyterian scholar as a noble document
which might well form the basis of the United Christian Church
of the future. All Non-Subscribing Presbyterians should know
by heart at least its opening paragraphs. They are as follows
That the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the
Rule of Christian Faith and Duty under the teaching of our
Lord Jesus Christ.
That it is the inalienable right of every Christian to
search these records of Divine Truth for his own instruction
and guidance, to form his own opinions with regard to what
they teach, and to worship God in sincerity, agreeably to the
dictates of his own conscience, without privation, penalty or
inconvenience inflicted by his fellowmen.
Outline of the present organisation of the Non-Subscribing
Presbyterian Church of Ireland
The Synod of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of
Remonstrant Synod of Ulster
Synod and Presbytery
Presbytery of Antrim
|Presbytery of Bangor