Calvinist Influences in Early Modern Ireland

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Calvinist Influences in Early Modern Ireland

John Calvin's Institutes (first published 1536, final edition 1559) is one of the major theological achievements of the Reformation, a systematic attempt to develop a biblical theology taking Luther's theology as its starting point, but developing it in new directions. If one defines Calvinism in relation to the model church structure that Calvin established in Geneva, with its insistence on the relative powers of church and state, its three-fold non-episcopal ministry, and its distinctive disciplinary structure, then the formal history of Calvinism in early modern Ireland, thus defined, began with the arrival of the Scottish army in Ulster in 1642 and the consequent establishment of Calvinist presbyteries in various Ulster towns. These subsequently grew into the Irish Presbyterian church(es), which after the Restoration in 1660 became the largest dissenting group in Ireland. Even within this tradition, however, the relationship to the classic English statement of Calvinist theology, the Westminster Confession of 1646, was complicated, with splits in the early eighteenth century between Old Lights (conservative Calvinists) and the more liberal New Lights, who rejected the need to subscribe to that definition of the faith.

In broader theological terms, the influence of Calvin's theology spread well beyond those churches that were formally Calvinist in their structure. The theology of the Church of England by the early seventeenth century was largely Calvinist in its approach to salvation and the Lord's Supper. By the time that the Church of Ireland began to develop a theological identity in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, it was this "informal" Calvinism that shaped both its theology and its first seminary, Trinity College, Dublin, founded in 1592. The first full-time provost of Trinity, Walter Travers, had been a leader of the unsuccessful effort by English Puritans in the 1580s to create a Presbyterian presence within the Church of England, and Trinity in its early decades had a reputation for so-called Puritanism. Indeed, the Church of Ireland went beyond the Church of England in incorporating this theological bent into its confession of faith. Whereas the English Thirty-Nine Articles of 1563 allowed for Calvinist doctrine but did not prescribe it, the Irish Articles of 1615 were much more explicitly Reformed: For instance, they committed the church to double predestination by incorporating the Lambeth Articles of 1596 (which had been rejected by the Church of England), and they were were more nuanced in their approach to episcopacy, and much more firm in their opposition to the Roman Catholic Church. The theology of James Ussher (1581–1656), Church of Ireland archbishop of Armagh (1625–1656) and the leading intellectual figure in the seventeenth-century Irish church, closely reflected the Calvinism of the Irish Articles.

As a result of this theological coloration, the Church of Ireland in the first three decades of the seventeenth century proved able to incorporate many Puritan clergy from England and Presbyterians from Scotland who had been judged too radical by the authorities across the Irish Sea. In particular, the urgent need for Protestant clergy to serve the great influx of Scottish settlers in Ulster led some Church of Ireland bishops in that province to admit to the ministry Scots Presbyterians, a feat which was made easier by the absence of any rigorous disciplinary structures to enforce conformity within the Church of Ireland.

This interesting experiment in inclusiveness ended in the mid-1630s as Ireland was sucked into the campaign by Charles I and his chief ecclesiastical adviser, Archbishop Laud of Canterbury, to moderate the Calvinist theology of the Church of England. The arrival in Ireland in 1633 of the new Lord Deputy Thomas Wentworth and his chief ecclesiastical advisor, Bishop John Bramhall of Derry, marked the beginning of a decisive shift in theological outlook. Ussher was gently pushed to one side, and Bramhall and Wentworth used the 1634 Irish convocation to radically alter the Church of Ireland's doctrine and constitution by forcing through, in the face of considerable opposition, two key reforms: The Irish Articles of 1615 were replaced by the English Thirty-Nine Articles, and new disciplinary canons were approved. Over the next two years Bramhall forced the Presbyterian clergy in Ulster out of the Church of Ireland. The link between the Church of Ireland and Presbyterianism was not wholly broken, however, for the Westminster Confession used as one of its primary sources the Irish Articles of 1615. And in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Church of Ireland developed a distinctly evangelical outlook which can be seen as a throwback to its earlier flirtation with Calvinism.

SEE ALSO Burial Customs and Popular Religion from 1500 to 1690; Puritan Sectaries; Solemn League and Covenant; Ussher, James


Ford, Alan. "The Church of Ireland, 1558–1641: A Puritan Church?" In As by Law Established: The Church of Ireland since the Reformation, edited by Alan Ford, James McGuire, and Kenneth Milne. 1995.

Ford, Alan. The Protestant Reformation in Ireland. 2d edition, 1997.

Alan Ford

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Calvinist Influences in Early Modern Ireland

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