Puritan Sectaries

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Puritan Sectaries

Protestantism in Ireland was precariously established among a minority of its inhabitants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. For the most part it remained the confession of the immigrants from England, Wales, and Scotland, but just as they brought their Protestantism with them, so too they arrived with a variety of forms of worship. In particular, those from Scotland often came with the Presbyterian preferences that marked the national church in Scotland after the Reformation. The resultant diversity in doctrine and ritual among Irish Protestants offended Charles I and his archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. Their agents in Ireland—Lord Deputy Wentworth and John Bramhall, bishop of Derry—attempted to achieve religious uniformity among the Protestants of Ireland. This drive was resisted by Scots Presbyterians in Ulster, who were prosecuted for their nonconformity. Soon, the uprising of 1641 brought Scottish armies into Ulster. The commanders protected Presbyterianism on the Scottish model, so that it survived and then thrived. By 1659 five presbyteries in Antrim, Down, the Route, Laggan, and Tyrone oversaw the separate churches. By 1689, seventy-two separate sessions or congregations attracted perhaps 18,000 worshipers.

Scottish Presbyterianism was merely one component in an increasingly fragmented Protestant community. Separatism had not been a problem elsewhere in Ireland before 1641. However, the presence in the island throughout the 1640s of forces dispatched from England and Wales rapidly introduced a multiplicity of religious practices. In 1647 the Directory of Worship, a religious formulary imposed by the English parliament, replaced the ceremonies and government by bishops enshrined in the now banned Book of Common Prayer. In Ireland spontaneous enthusiasm for these changes was limited because Protestants were primarily worried about containing and defeating the insurgent Catholics. However, the arrival in 1649 of a large army from England brought sectaries as its chaplains and provided them with auditors. As English authority was reintroduced across the island, Protestantism was again actively promoted. Ministers, mainly English but also some Welsh and Scots, were invited to officiate in Ireland. In England the collapse of episcopacy and the proscription of the old Anglican liturgy had produced a confused situation in which Presbyterians, religious Independents (the future Congregationalists), and General and Particular Baptists all flourished. Adherents of each of these sects came to Ireland. Some were formally invited and were given state stipends. The best paid were installed in Dublin, where the most Protestants were concentrated. The favored served as chaplains to the parliamentary commissioners who governed the country, or (after 1653) to the lord deputy and councillors in Dublin. Notable among them was Samuel Winter, minister of the Independent congregation that assembled in the former Christ Church cathedral, and head of Dublin University as provost of Trinity College from 1652 to 1660.

As in England, so too in Ireland, different practices continued, although there were attempts to silence those who professed unorthodox beliefs. Some groups resented the freedom and favor allowed to their rivals and schemed to curtail them. In addition, divergences in confessional affiliation frequently coincided with and sometimes aggravated political differences. The religious Independents and Baptists, for example, were associated with the permissive attitudes of the lord deputy, Charles Fleetwood. Some Presbyterians looked to Fleetwood's rival Henry Cromwell as their particular patron. The Presbyterians, moreover, split between those who favored the Scottish and English schemes of church government. By the 1650s the Scottish Presbyterians in Ireland had reproduced the divisions between Resolutioners and Remonstrants in Scotland. The situation was further complicated when new groups of English origin, such as the Ranters, Fifth Monarchists, and Quakers, appeared in Ireland. Of these, the Quakers made the most headway and became a permanent presence. Like other sectaries, they owed their initial successes to support within the occupying army. But more than most of their rivals, the Quakers prospered by widening their appeal to embrace civilians in towns and countryside.

The longer history of the Quakers as a distinct confession in Protestant Ireland illustrates the problem bequeathed by the interregnum. Efforts to check the most disruptive and unorthodox preachers had had only limited success. After 1660, in Ireland as in England, the restoration of the Stuart monarchy was quickly followed by the restoration of the established episcopal church. By 1666 attendance at and conformity with the services of the Church of Ireland were required, and nonconformists (i.e., sectarians) were punished. At moments of panic, known leaders might be rounded up and imprisoned. In addition, those who broke the law by refusing to pay tithes toward the maintenance of the clergy of the established church (notably the Quakers) had goods seized and were sometimes imprisoned.

The need for Protestant solidarity in the face of the danger from the large Catholic majority persuaded some former sectaries to conform to the state church. Among them were two ministers, Henry Jones and Edward Worth, who had accepted salaries from the Cromwellians and then bishoprics from Charles II. In a similar spirit, some bishops, conscious of the need to include as many Protestants as possible, did not enquire too closely into the practices of erstwhile dissenters. Yet, despite these accommodations and concessions, sectarian congregations survived after 1660. The most tenacious were in Ulster, Dublin, and the larger towns.

In Ulster the Scottish Presbyterians built on the foundations established in the 1640s and 1650s. They were assisted by the continuing emigration from Scotland to the north of Ireland, especially in the 1690s. Also, a degree of indulgence was accorded to the group, which technically was outside the law. From 1672 onwards, the Irish state was authorized to supplement the stipends of docile Presbyterian pastors through a grant known as the king's gift (regium donum). Strictly defined, the Scottish Presbyterians in Ulster were not sectaries. They believed as firmly as the adherents of the Church of Ireland in a state church—technically, they were an offshoot of the Presbyterian kirk of Scotland, the legally established church of that kingdom, and organized as such through the Synod of Ulster. The Presbyterians in Ireland were subjected to further serious legal inhibitions when in 1704 a Test Act was passed. This confined many important public offices and the full exercise of citizenship to the communicant members of the Church of Ireland. Thereafter, the Presbyterians were treated more like the Irish Catholics than like their conformist Protestant neighbors.

Other Dissenters also felt the effects of the Test Act. Through strategies such as occasional conformity—taking holy communion according to the Church of Ireland's rites at least once a year—and through the forbearance of the authorities in not insisting on certificates of such conformity, it was possible for some Protestant Dissenters to evade the ban. Nevertheless, since 1660 they had faced potential and sometimes actual discrimination. This grievance drew them into political activism, but hopes of the repeal of penalties were disappointed. A Toleration Act was delayed until 1719 and did not remove the disabilities in the Test Act.

The inability of the Dissenters in Ireland to obtain the favors granted to their compatriots in Scotland and England after 1690 suggested a lack of political influence. Few within the Irish landed elite still adhered to the sectaries by 1700. Their strength came from the renewed influx of Scottish Presbyterians into Ulster and the continuing attractions of English Presbyterianism, religious Independency, and Quakerism for the merchants, craft-workers, and artisans of the towns. Some groups from the 1650s, such as the Baptists, Independents, and English Presbyterians, dwindled into near invisibility. Their fate contrasted with that of the Scottish Presbyterians and Quakers, and—from the 1740s—the newly arrived Methodists. These contrasts owed much to whether or not the sects developed institutions through which they could train and pay ministers and discipline and relieve their adherents. In turn, success in these spheres reflected not only the numbers, commitment, and prosperity of the congregations in Ireland, but also their links with associates in Britain, Holland, and North America.

SEE ALSO Butler, James, Twelfth Earl and First Duke of Ormond; Calvinist Influences in Early Modern Ireland; Church of Ireland: Elizabethan Era; Cromwellian Conquest; Restoration Ireland; Solemn League and Covenant


Barnard, T. C. Cromwellian Ireland: English Government and Reform in Ireland, 1649–1660. 1975. Reprint, 2000.

Gillespie, Raymond. "The Presbyterian Revolution in Ulster, 1600–1690." In The Churches, Ireland and the Irish, edited by W. J. Shiels and D. Wood. 1989.

Greaves, Richard L. God's Other Children: Protestant Nonconformists and the Emergence of Denominational Churches in Ireland, 1660–1700. 1997.

Kilroy, Philomena. Protestant Dissent and Controversy in Ireland, 1660–1714. 1994.

Seymour, St. John D. The Puritans in Ireland, 1647–1661. 1921. Reprint, 1961.

Toby Barnard