Rev Dr Martyn C Cowan
BA MA MTh PhD FRHistS FHEA Lecturer in Historical TheologyView all articles
The 300th anniversary of the Salters’ Hall debates and the beginnings of the first subscription controversy in the Synod of Ulster.
February and March 2019 mark the tercentenary of a series of debates within the English dissenting community that were linked to the first subscription controversy which would rock the Synod of Ulster in the 1720s.
The Salters’ Hall gathering was precipitated by events in the West Country. Suspicions had arisen concerning the orthodoxy of the Exeter dissenting minister, James Peirce, and about the influence of anti-Trinitarian ideas upon students at Joseph Hallett’s Dissenting Academy in the same city. Eventually, a dispute over an ordination led to an impasse and advice was sought from the representatives of the three dissenting traditions in London (Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists). This was discussed at a meeting of all the nonconformist ministers in London which took place at Salters’ Hall in late-February 1719.
The specific issue in the debate was not so much the doctrine of the Trinity but rather whether or not formal subscription to doctrinal standards was appropriate. Many dissenters objected to the requirement to subscribe to any extra-biblical formula, thinking such articles of faith to be ‘human compositions’, and believed that the only test of orthodoxy should be that of scripture. Consequently, a small majority voted against the proposal that a candidate for ordination should be required to affirm belief in the doctrine of the Trinity (57 to 53). Although all the Baptists and Congregationalists present were divided over the issue, the majority of the Presbyterian ministers were opposed to subscription. The defeated minority reconvened in March and subscribed to a specific orthodox statement on the Trinity.
In Ulster there were also suspicions about the spread of anti-Trinitarian ideas. These came to a head when, in 1720, John Abernethy, a leading member of the Belfast Society, published his sermon Religious Obedience Founded on Personal Persuasion. Abernethy effectively argued against being required to subscribe to any statement of belief imposed by an ecclesiastical authority. Consequently, because of events locally and in London, when the Synod of Ulster gathered in 1720 tensions were high. In its Pacific Act, the Synod allowed exceptions to be taken to phrases from the Westminster Confession, provided the presbytery ‘judge such a person sound in the faith’. This attempt to keep the Synod of Ulster together failed and a crisis erupted over the installation of Samuel Haliday to First Belfast. At his installation, Haliday (who had been present at the Salters’ Hall debates) refused to subscribe to the Westminster Confession and soon a full-blown subscription controversy engulfed the Synod. In 1725 the congregations of Abernethy, Haliday, and the other non-subscribers were gathered into a separate presbytery which was then excluded from the Synod of Ulster in 1726. The reverberations of this controversy continued throughout the century and on into the second subscription controversy of the 1820s.