Front Page Titles (by Subject) Sect. IV.—: The Presbyterians. - Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious, vol. 2
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Sect. IV.—: The Presbyterians. - Gustave de Beaumont, Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious, vol. 2 
Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious, ed. W.C. Taylor (London: Richard Bentley, 1839). Vol. 2.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
There is another element of democracy, which, though not Irish either by its origin or its nature, is nevertheless found in Ireland, and exercises there a very marked influence. I mean the Scotch Presbyterians who came to Ireland in the time of James I., Cromwell, and William III.,1 and settled for the most part in the province of Ulster.
The Presbyterian and the Catholic creeds, two religious adversaries, proceed from two principles directly opposed to each other, the first from liberty, the second from authority; the one subjecting every will and every conscience to a single conscience and a single will; the other leaving to each the care of forming his individual conviction by free examination. But these two principles, so directly contrary, have a common democratic effect, and by two different roads lead men to equality. According to the Catholic principle, all men are equal under a single master who levels all beneath him: in the Presbyterian church all are equal, because all are sovereigns. If a political and a religious institution could be compared, I should say that there is a very great analogy between the Presbyterian church and the constitution of the United States. In both, the authority is derived from the people and the majority, and ascends by degrees; the presbytery is the electoral district, the synod is the state, the general assembly is the congress. This is directly the opposite of the Catholic church, in which the authority springs from the head and descends to the people.
Assuredly the simultaneous encounter and development in the same country of these two democratic elements, so different in their nature, and yet united together to effect the same work, are a very remarkable phenomenon. The Catholic and the Presbyterian religions in Ireland were equally separated by so many passions and prejudices, that a mere analogy between the political effects of these doctrines would certainly not have brought them together, if there had not elsewhere existed from the beginning another cause of union between them, and that cause was the presence, in the midst of them, of a common enemy, the Anglican church, the ally of the English government.
For a long time the religious rancour which animated one party against the other, was too powerful for political interest to unite them; and of this, history affords us a memorable example. In 1703, a bill was proposed in the Irish parliament, imposing the sacramental test as a necessary qualification for office. Now this bill, primarily directed against the Catholics, was framed in such general terms as to exclude not only Catholics but Presbyterians and all other classes of Protestant dissenters; nevertheless, the Presbyterians did not reject it: and by accepting it they showed that they preferred sacrificing their own rights to sharing them with Catholics. In this instance, political interest yielded to religious passion.2
At a later period, religious passions yielded to political passions: and those whom religion had separated were seen to unite in the common interest of national independence; this change dates from 1789. Already, before this period, the Irish Presbyterians had more than once manifested their republican and democratic inclinations. The great movements of 1778 and 1782, in which half of the nation appeared in arms, the popular conventions in which resolutions were carried by the plurality of votes, had as their central point the province of Ulster, and as their base the Presbyterian population. But a sectarian spirit then impeded the spirit of liberty; and, satisfied with obtaining rights and guarantees for Protestant Ireland, the Presbyterians of that day paid little regard to Catholic servitude. The French revolution imprinted on their minds wider and more generous tendencies. France spread over the world ideas of general liberty and universal emancipation, which found nowhere a greater echo than in Ireland, the most oppressed country of all. Still it was not amongst the most wretched, that is to say, the Catholics, that French liberty found the loudest echo; those most ready to adopt its counsels and instigations were the Presbyterians,—most attentive to its voice because they understood it best.
Thus, the whole Irish movement of this period was imprinted with the French character and the passions of France. They spoke in Ireland only of the rights of man and the sovereignty of the people; at Dublin and Belfast, on every 14th of July, they celebrated the capture of the Bastille; every victory that France gained over monarchical Europe, was to Ireland a subject of joy and an occasion for a national festival.—“Right or wrong,” exclaimed the Irish people, “may France triumph! It is our cause that she defends, it is for ourselves that she fights; her cause is that of human liberty.”
Acting under this generous impulse, Protestants who had hitherto shown themselves the most implacable enemies of the cause, became its most devoted champions, and displayed for Catholic emancipation more zeal and impatience than the Catholics exhibited themselves. All, or nearly all, the Protestants who then placed themselves at the head of the national movement, and by their junction with the Catholics formed the celebrated association of the United Irishmen, were Presbyterians.
Hence dates the first alliance formed between those mortal enemies the Catholics and the Puritans; hence, also, the first political schism in the Irish Presbyterian body; for whilst some hushed their religious passions, in order to listen to their political sympathies; others, stopping their ears against the voice of liberty which summoned them, clung obstinately to the yoke of their old hatred against Papists.
This division is still presented to us by the Presbyterians of our own day. Out of about seven hundred thousand, the number of the sect, there is nearly one half favourable to the democratic movement which the other half opposes. The latter have more hatred of the Catholic religion than love of liberty, and prefer rather to remain allies of the Anglican church, their political enemy, than unite with the Catholics, their religious enemies: the former, on the contrary, enter into a treaty with the Catholics, whose creed they dislike, through love of those political principles associated with the triumph of the Irish Catholic cause.
Whatever may be their apparent harmony, the liberal Presbyterians and the Irish Catholics agree completely only in the war for which they are leagued; enemies at bottom, they have ceased to hate each other, for the purpose of hating together a common enemy: it is a union of passions far more than of doctrines. Both, it is true, oppose the government of the aristocracy, but the Presbyterians detest their power because it is linked with that of the Anglican church—the Catholics, because it is Protestant and anti-national. The Presbyterians are likewise Protestants and foreigners, and for both reasons ought to be odious to the Catholics; but the latter, at least for the present, forget the origin and creed of their Presbyterian allies, and see in them only useful and generous auxiliaries.
These auxiliaries afford considerable assistance to the democratic movement in Ireland. They are, it is true, but a small part of the great national association,3 but they are the most enlightened and active section of it. It is worthy of remark, that never has any great event, any social or political crisis, any rebellion, prosperous or fatal, occurred in Ireland without the Presbyterians of Ulster taking the greatest share. They doubtless derive from their doctrines certain intellectual habits, which influence their political dispositions, render them unquiet and excitable, and impel them to take the lead in all agitations and changes.
Circumstances, besides, have rendered them peculiarly fit for the constitutional war which the national association, under the protection of the laws, wages against the aristocracy. The natural tendency of their doctrine is, without doubt, republican. What, in fact, were the independents, the levellers, the “fifth monarchy men” of England, but Puritans who applied their religious system to politics? But the Presbyterians of Ireland, in whose souls the first accents of the French republic had given birth to so many hopes and sympathies, lost these illusions when they saw the republic in France sully itself with excesses for its preservation, and Ireland have recourse to violence for its establishment. Since 1798, the idea of an Irish republic has been quite abandoned by the most democratic Presbyterians, who, by this change, have become the best soldiers that modern Ireland could have for the legal warfare in which she is engaged. They bring to this contest all their spirit of liberty and progress; and it may be remarked, that while they have renounced pushing their doctrine to its extreme consequences in politics, they are more ardent than ever to apply the less extreme principles, and manifest more incessantly the spirit of liberty, progress, and democracy, belonging to their character.
It may be set down as certain, that this portion of the Irish Presbyterians who make common cause with the Catholics, is on the increase, whilst the hostile party is diminishing. Besides the political division existing among the Presbyterians of Ireland, there is in their church a more ancient cause of schism, which is purely religious. Those called orthodox, though physically separated from the church of Scotland, always maintain a moral union with that body; now the Scottish church, though originally Puritan, has retained to some extent the principle of authority, since it requires from its members subscription to a profession of faith. The orthodox Presbyterians of Ireland are those who, according to this principle of the Scottish church, establish a system of doctrine which every member of their community must profess. It is, in general, amongst the orthodox Presbyterians, that opponents of the Catholics and their cause are found. The others, named Dissenters or Seceders, are those who, tracing the Protestant or Puritan sentiment to its origin, recognise no authority but the Bible, which everybody is at liberty to interpret as he pleases, provided he believes in its inspiration. These Presbyterian dissenters are sometimes called Arians, and have a great resemblance to the Unitarians of the United States, who are so numerous at Boston. It is these dissenters that we find zealous partisans of the democratic movement which every moment gains ground.4
I do not examine here what there may be salutary or fatal in this development of the democratic principle of the Presbyterian church: there the great question of human liberty and authority is fairly mooted,—the two powers that dispute the world,—which it seems equally impossible to unite or to separate; which wage a continual war, as if the first could not succeed without the destruction of the second, and which yet are so necessary to each other, that each only finds its safety in the mutual opposition of both. I confine myself to showing, that in the struggle that exists in the bosom of the Irish Presbyterian church, it is the principle of liberty that has the advantage over the principle of authority, and that the success of the dissenters over the orthodox adds to the number of the Presbyterians who are united with the Catholics of Ireland.
But is not this alliance between the Presbyterians and Catholics factitious and transitory? I am tempted to believe so. Take away the accidental causes of union, and I doubt if harmony would long subsist between such dissimilar elements.
In truth, there is every day in the two creeds a tendency to approximate both in ideas and manners. The Catholics of Ireland have long since rejected and daily disavow the superstitious doctrines and practices for which they have been most reproached by the Puritans. There is in the habits and preaching of the clergy of both a singular toleration, which is a fact if it is not a principle; Presbyterians and Catholic priests cultivate friendly intimacies: marriages take place between Catholics and Presbyterians, and the celebration of marriage, performed alternately by the ministers of the two communions, brings with it an exchange of courtesy and compliments. The spirit of toleration also diffuses itself with the march of time; a common warfare and common victories draw these first bands closer; and if this state of things continued for any length of time, it is conceivable that for the Catholics and Presbyterians united, there might result more than a momentary alliance of passions and interests: each creed, in the long run, might be so modified, that a durable agreement between them would not be impossible.
Still the Catholic principle and the Presbyterian principle are as much opposed to each other as the two eternal adversaries, liberty and authority. How then could they establish a sincere and durable union? I doubt whether this fusion can ever be accomplished, for nothing is so implacable as a principle. The Arians of Ireland, like the Unitarians of America, are the real adversaries of Catholicism. They are the philosophers of the Protestant church; happy philosophers beyond doubt, who have been able to graft their philosophy on a christian branch; surprising philosophers, by a singular mixture of passion and toleration, of intellectual boldness and faith; primitive Christians and modern philosophers; believing in the divinity of Jesus Christ, like Bossuet, and in other respects sceptics, like Voltaire; fervent as the Puritans of Cromwell, mild and tolerant as the disciples of Fenelon. Which of these two principles that dispute their soul will finally prevail? Will it be faith? Will it be doubt? How far will doubt lead them? Will it always stop at the divine origin of the Bible, a limit which it has not passed as yet? But whatever may be the amount of Christianity that they will retain, it is certain that their principle is examination, and their method doubt. Now this is precisely the principle most opposed to that of the Catholic church.
It is, then, probable, that when the Presbyterians and Catholics of Ireland will be no longer kept united by the presence of an enemy, they will divide and renew the war.
These views of the future are merely conjectural; but what is at present certain, is the immense power that Irish democracy derives from the existing union.
[1.][Note text has been omitted from the English translation. Please see the French version of the book for the content of this note.]
[2.][Note text has been omitted from the English translation. Please see the French version of the book for the content of this note.]
[3.][Note text has been omitted from the English translation. Please see the French version of the book for the content of this note.]
[4.][Note text has been omitted from the English translation. Please see the French version of the book for the content of this note.]