Rev Dr Martyn C Cowan
Martyn Cowan studied philosophy at Queen’s University Belfast (BA and MA) and went on to se…View all articles
This week marks the three hundredth anniversary of a significant event which precipitated the first subscription controversy in Irish Presbyterianism. As Prof Ian McBride pointed out last night in his excellent lecture in the Robinson Library in Armagh, this is an important context for understanding the influences which shaped the Scottish Enlightenment thinker Francis Hutcheson.
In 1705 the General Synod of Ulster had strengthened its requirement for subscription of the Westminster Confession. That same year, John Abernethy (1680-1740), minister in Antrim, helped found the influential Belfast Society. On 9 December 1719 Abernethy preached a sermon before the Society which was published in both Belfast and London as Religious Obedience Founded on Personal Persuasion (1720). The text for this sermon was ‘Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind’ (Rom. 14:5). Abernethy was arguing against the authority of church courts to require subscription of a man-made confession of faith. For Abernethy, such a requirement was an overextension of ‘the just limits of church-power’ and an attack on the guiding principle of following conscience. Abernethy reasoned that to do so would make ‘arbitrary enclosures within the Church of Christ’ by ‘the rigid test of an exact agreement in doubtful and disputable points’.
For Abernethy this was more than simply an abstract question about the extent of ecclesiastical power - his sermons reveal evidence of a personal commitment to doctrinal anti-Calvinism. Furthermore, Abernethy saw himself as a victim of the abuse of church power. In 1717 the Synod of Ulster had instructed him to accept a call to the Dublin congregation of Usher’s Quay. Abernethy thought that the very idea that he could be told to move against his will depended on ‘servile notions of ecclesiastical power’.
One of Abernethy’s critics, the minister of Dunmurry, John Malcome, coined the term ‘New Light’ to describe the non-subscribers. In his Personal Persuasion no Foundation for Religious Obedience (1720), he argued that Abernethy was undermining Presbyterian polity by putting ‘personal persuasion’ in the place of ‘church government and discipline’. For Malcome, Abernethy’s claims to ‘new light’ undermined the government which Christ himself had established in the church.
Questions about the nature and extent of ecclesiastical power would be at the centre of the subscription controversy which raged across the Synod of Ulster from 1720 to 1726. As such this episode provides an important context for understanding the influences which formed Francis Hutcheson. We are looking forward to learning much more about this and other infuences which shaped Hutcheson when Prof Ian McBride comes to Union in January 2020 to lecture on ‘Francis Hutcheson in Ireland, Scotland, and North America’. More details of the lecture may be found here.