Second Reformation from 1822 to 1869

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Second Reformation from 1822 to 1869

Following the revolutionary decade of the 1790s, the growth of an evangelical movement based on biblical morality was symptomatic of the growing belief that religion afforded the best protection against the destabilizing influences of the recent democratic revolutions in America and France. Convinced that the first Reformation had failed to take root in Ireland, supporters of the evangelical movement in the early decades of the nineteenth century sought to generate a "New," or "Second," Reformation. Promoters of the movement sought to effect a moral revolution among the upper classes that would make them more conscious of their duties as social and moral exemplars. They also attempted to introduce the principles of the Protestant faith to the Catholic population in the belief that this would secure Catholic acceptance of the existing social and political order. Initially, the movement was interdenominational in character and was dominated during its early years by Methodists and Congregationalists. During the second decade of the century, however, faced with the challenge launched by the Dissenting evangelicals, the Church of Ireland took the lead in the reformation campaign, especially in its outreach to the Catholic population.

The contemporary burgeoning demand for education among the poor was the most obvious and convenient avenue to control of the hearts and minds of the rising generation of Catholics. Through a variety of voluntary organizations (the Association for Discountenancing Vice, the London Hibernian Society, the Hibernian Bible Society, etc.) devoted to Bible distribution and education, the movement began to make serious progress in the 1820s, with increasing support from the landed classes and financial assistance from Parliament. When government funds went to agencies that were considered to be overtly engaged in proselytism, Catholic leaders began to publicly condemn the movement. In 1819 and 1820, following a letter from the head of the Propaganda Fidei about the dangers of Bible schools, the Reverend John MacHale and Daniel O'Connell openly accused the schools of proselytism and attempting to subvert the Catholic religion as well as the movement for emancipation. This criticism was the opening shot in a rivalry that persisted through the 1820s against a backdrop of rising sectarian tension that was worsened by economic crisis and agrarian rebellion. It broke into open conflict following a famous sermon delivered at Saint Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin in October 1822 in which the newly appointed Archbishop William Magee called for a "glorious Second Reformation" that would establish the Church of Ireland as the church of the majority population. Magee argued that the Church of Ireland was the only legitimate ecclesiastical body in the country, deriving its legitimacy from apostolic succession and its descent from the ancient Celtic church of Saint Patrick. This claim provoked a reply from Bishop James Warren Doyle of Kildare and Leighlin, an outspoken defender of the rights of the Catholic poor. Doyle's response to Magee was immediately recognized as the first expression of a strident assertiveness on the part of Catholic leaders, particularly the hierarchy, which quickly coalesced behind the Catholic Association, and it marked the beginning of a new phase of politicization for Catholics. Magee's sermon and Doyle's reply prompted an all-out ideological conflict in newspapers, pamphlets, and public debates—a conflict that accompanied the spread of the Catholic Association and the intensification of the controversy over Bible-based education. The controversy also promoted the institutionalization of the Second Reformation movement at the local level, where the campaign was supported especially by evangelical landed aristocrats such as Lord Farnham. Damaging criticism from the Catholic side was leveled against what was perceived to be coercion in the drive to make converts. Allegations surfaced that landlords were forcing Catholic tenants to send their children to evangelical schools on pain of eviction, and providing food and work as incentives to switch denominational allegiance. Although there were certainly some conversions, they never reached large numbers. Of far greater significance were the polarization that ensued between the two denominations (widened by the success of the Catholic Association) and the efforts by the government to solve the educational problem by setting up the National Board of Education in 1831. This last measure had severe implications for the Second Reformation movement, which focused its energies on the educational needs of the poor. During the 1830s, faced with the challenge of the schools of the National Board, the promoters of the Second Reformation shifted their attention to the west of Ireland, where the scarcity of Catholic religious education and the predominance of Irish-speakers were elements that could be exploited in the drive for conversions. During the 1830s and 1840s the foundations were put in place for a new missionary offensive that reached its highest point during the years of the Great Famine, when thousands of converts were reported. The charge of "souperism" (the use of food to attract converts) became widespread, especially in the western counties. Overall, the legacy of the Second Reformation movement hardened the attitudes of the Catholic hierarchy regarding Protestant influence in Catholic affairs, particularly those relating to education and philanthropy.

SEE ALSO Church of Ireland: Since 1690; Evangelicalism and Revivals; Methodism; Presbyterianism


Bowen, Desmond. The Protestant Crusade in Ireland, 1800–70: A Study of Protestant-Catholic Relations between the Act of Union and Disestablishment. 1978.

Brown, Stewart J. "The New Reformation Movement in the Church of Ireland, 1801–29." In Piety and Power in Ireland, 1760–1960: Essays in Honour of Emmet Larkin, edited by Stewart J. Brown and David W. Miller. 2001.

Whelan, Irene. "The Stigma of Souperism." In The Great Irish Famine, Cathal Póirtéir. 1995.

Irene Whelan