Second Congregation of Protestant Dissenters, Belfast


GREAT as is the temptation to the painter of a living subject to put on canvas an ideal picture, still greater is the temptation to the historian of a distant past to record the events from the standpoint of his present vision. The bitter hatred of the Scotch Covenanters in resisting the encroachments of Prelacy, and still later the bloody strife that defeated a deposed Sovereign who had adopted the principles of the Church of Rome, seem impossible to us when viewed in the light of universal toleration and religious equality. Many causes contributed to the bringing about of those desirable changes, in the accomplishment of which the Second Congregation played a by no means insignificant part. Created by a love for freedom, they have ever championed the cause which gave them birth. Whether the freedom was that of the coloured slave or the honest religious inquirer, they have fearlessly taken their stand on the side of justice, and resisted every attempt to stifle private judgment. An ardent desire to bring about the brotherhood of man has led them to generously support many charitable and benevolent movements of a non-sectarian nature, and some of the most deserving institutions in our midst owe much of their usefulness to the Members of the Second Congregation. To place on record our "simple annals" is to throw some little light on the growth of the City of Belfast, and I approach my task in the spirit of Cromwell's advice to Lely, when he remarked, "Paint me as I am."

In 1708, when the Belfast Presbytery granted the petition of the Session of Belfast "that Mr. James Kirkpatrick might be ascertained to the new Meeting-house now built," Episcopacy was the form of religion as by law established in Ireland, and all Protestants who did not declare their assent to the Thirty-Nine Articles and Book of Common Prayer were liable to disability. The penalty of preaching during disability was three months' imprisonment. It was a criminal offence to deny, either in preaching or writing, the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity as declared in the Thirty-Nine Articles, and it was compulsory that the doors of Dissenting Meeting Houses should remain unlocked and unbarred. Such was the state of the law with regard to religion when the Second Congregation, under the ministry of the Rev. James Kirkpatrick, D.D., sprang into existence. There was no trust deed, either open or binding them to any particular doctrine or mode of worship, and the only bond of union was based on the principle of the right of private judgment in all matters of theological doctrine. That principle was manifested by their Minister in the Belfast Society, which had been founded in 1705 for theological discussion, of which Society he was an original member. Here it was that Dr. Kirkpatrick became the champion of Non-Subscription, the principles of which were afterwards to be described as the "New Light."

On the 2nd November, 1719, the Royal Assent was given to the Irish Toleration Act, which was entitled "An Act for exempting the Protestant Dissenters of this Kingdom from certain penalties to which they are now subject." (6 Geo. I. (Ir.) c. 5.) The toleration thus extended to Protestant Dissenters still forbade an open denial of the doctrine of the Trinity, but it was no longer necessary to subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles. The Synod of Ulster passed the Pacific Act on 21st Tune, 1720, enforcing a custom which had crept in about 1705, viz. a subscription to the substance of the doctrine contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Here was an opportunity of which the members of the Belfast Society were not slow to avail themselves, and on the 7th December, 1720, they issued a circular vindicating their principles. The Second Congregation approved of the action of their Minister in supporting the principles of the "New Light," and on the 20th June, 1721, at a meeting of the General Synod held in Belfast, there was produced "a certificate from both congregations of Belfast, bearing testimony to the soundness of both their Ministers' faiths, subscribed by a great number of hands of both congregations."

At this meeting the Rev. Samuel Haliday, M.A., of the First Congregation, manfully refused to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith, on the ground that "my scruples are against the submitting to human tests of divine truths . . . when imposed as a necessary 'term of such communion';" and in this refusal he was supported by the First and Second Congregations, both of which became henceforth NON-SUBSCRIBERS.

The Presbyteries were now remodelled, and at the General Synod, held at Dungannon on 15th June, 1725, the Non-Subscribers were transferred to the newly-erected Presbytery of Antrim.[1]

On the 2ist June, 1726, the General Synod met at Dungannon, and on the 25th June the Antrim Presbytery was excluded from the Synod. Haliday and Kirkpatrick subsequently convened "the whole town" of Belfast "to relate to them the great injuries done to the Non-Subscribers, which caused a great ferment in the place." The action of the Antrim Presbytery was approved of by the Dublin and Munster Presbyteries, both of which unanimously resolved to hold communion with them. It must not be supposed that the separation of the two Congregations from the General Synod was a question between Trinitarians and Anti-Trinitarians. It was solely a question between Subscription and Non-Subscription, and was based on the principle that the act of subscription was a relinquishment of liberty, and at variance with the right of private judgment.

While these changes were taking place with regard to the form of church government, the Second Congregation were mere tenants at will of the Meeting-house in which they worshipped, as they had no legal document entitling them to the occupancy of the building. For close on 60 years they worshipped under such conditions. On the 31st August, 1767, Arthur, Earl of Donegall, granted to trustees, on behalf of the Second Congregation of Protestant Dissenters in the town of Belfast, certain premises on the north side of Rosemary Lane, Belfast, for the public worship of Almighty God, to hold unto the trustees and their successors for ever, subject to the payment of twenty shillings of the then currency.

This, then, was the first trust deed under which the Second Congregation held their Meeting-house, and it is well to pause and consider their position at this time. Their original minister, Dr. Kirkpatrick, had passed away, and had been succeeded by the Rev. Gilbert Kennedy, who remained attached to the General Synod of Ulster. The Congregation had severed its connection with the General Synod, had joined the Presbytery of Antrim, and had again reverted to the former body. They had approved of the action of their minister in refusing to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith, and had become Non-Subscribers. But the benefits of the Toleration Act were still stubbornly refused to all who in preaching or writing denied the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity, as it is declared in the Thirty-Nine Articles. Five years after the trust deed was executed, a Bill for the further relief of Protestant Dissenters was passed by the Commons House of Parliament, but the House of Lords, with their characteristic conservatism, rejected it. The Bill was again brought forward, and finally, in the year 1779, the Royal Assent was given to an "Act for the further relief of Protestant Dissenting Ministers and Schoolmasters" (19 Geo. III., c. 44). By this Act the privileges granted by the Toleration Act of 1719 were granted to all Protestant Dissenting Ministers who shall

(a) Take the Oaths and subscribe the Declaration against Popery required by the said Act, and

(b) Shall subscribe the following Declaration : --

"I, A. B., do solemnly declare, in the presence of Almighty God, that I am a Christian and a Protestant, and as such, that I believe that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, as solemnly received among Protestant Churches, do contain the revealed Will of God; and that I do receive the same as the rule of my Doctrine and Practice."

The old Act of 9 and 10 Wm. III., c.32, by which it was criminal "to deny any one of the Persons in the Holy Trinity to be God," continued in force until 1813, when the Royal Assent was given to an "Act to relieve persons who impugn the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity from certain penalties" (53 Geo. III., c.160), by which the above portion of the Act of Wm. III. was repealed. Some doubt arose about this Act being applicable to Ireland, and "as it is meet and proper that equal freedom of religious worship should be secured by law to every part of the United Kingdom," the provisions of the above Act were re-enacted and made applicable to Ireland. (57 Geo. III., c.70.) It was no longer penal to preach anti-Trinitarian doctrines, and the fate of the Rev. Thomas Emlyn, who was sentenced in 1702 to undergo both fine and imprisonment for "entertaining an opinion unfavourable to the deity of the Saviour," was an impossibility.

Although it was penal to preach Unitarian doctrines previous to 1817, it must not be supposed that the law was strictly enforced. If those principles had not been publicly declared, there would have been no occasion for the Legislature to have interfered. As early as 1744 there was published in Belfast A Gospel Defence of the Unitarian Doctrine. It is difficult to say when the Second Congregation first adopted those principles, but we have it on the authority of the Rev. Dr. Killen, that the sermon preached before the General Synod in 1763 by the Moderator, who was then Minister of the Second Congregation, was a departure from the species of theology which the Synod had originally adopted. The change from Trinitarianism to Unitarianism was a gradual development,[2] and was the natural outcome of the desire for preserving religion in its primitive, uncorrupted purity. The first minister of the Second Congregation who adopted the Unitarian name was the Rev. John Porter, and as early as 1831 we find him advocating the "extension of rational Christianity."

But there was still a very serious legal disadvantage under which Protestant Dissenting Congregations stood. The law said that the building must be used for the identical doctrines and modes of worship of the original founders, while the more enlightened public opinion said there was no obligation to perpetuate such views. Public opinion is always in advance of legislation, and Sir Robert Peel introduced the Dissenters' Chapels Bill with the object of bringing the two into more complete accord. A shout of disapproval at legalising Unitarians was raised throughout the Kingdom, and, viewed from the distance of half a century, shows to what an extent justice is disregarded in religious controversies. The arguments used by the opponents of the Bill are now a matter of history, but the noble attitude assumed by Thomas Babington Macaulay (afterwards Lord Macaulay), William Ewart Gladstone, T. Monckton Milnes (afterwards Lord Houghton), and Richard Lalor Sheil, all of whom were diametrically opposed to the religious views of Unitarians, will ever be regarded with veneration by those who respect the right of private judgment in all matters of theological doctrine. The Bill received the Royal Assent on the 19th July, 1844, and henceforth the legal doctrine of prescription confirmed the title of the Unitarians in possession of their buildings.

One of the most pleasing incidents in the discussion on the Second Reading of the Bill in the House of Commons, on the 6th June, was the eloquent advocacy of an Irish Catholic (Sheil) on behalf of the Unitarian claims. Half a century previous (17th January, 1792) a former minister of the Second Congregation, Rev. James Bryson, presided at a meeting of the Belfast Reading Society, at which it was resolved to publicly declare their sentiments on the great and important question of admitting the Roman Catholics to a full and immediate participation of the rights enjoyed by their fellow citizens and countrymen. Now the Catholic was raising his voice in support of the Unitarians to a full and immediate participation of the legal rights enjoyed by other Protestants. The concluding words of Richard Lalor Sheil on that occasion are unsurpassed for their eloquence, while they are tempered with a due regard to the conscientious scruples of his opponents.

"It is surprising," said he, "that men who are complaining of the existing law of marriage, and calling for a repeal of it, by which property may be affected, should themselves show so little forbearance; it is wonderful that they will allow so small a portion of liberty to others, while they themselves demand it in so large a measure -- that they, whose ancestors heroically suffered persecution almost to death, for their honourable adherence to that which they believed to be the truth, should be prompt to inflict pains and penalties -- that they should seat themselves in the iron chair of Calvinistic infallibility -- and that they should read the Book of Mercy by that lurid light with which Geneva was illuminated when Servetus was consumed."

Down to the year 1871 the Congregation had always been connected with a Presbytery. It became attached to the Synod of Ulster in 1744, and reverted to the Presbytery of Antrim in 1791, to which body it belonged for eighty years. On the 10th November, 1816, it was decided "That whatever clergyman may hereafter be appointed to the charge of this house shall become a member of the Presbytery of Antrim, if he does not already belong to that body." It must, however, be borne in mind that Presbyterianism had only been adopted for purposes of convenience, and had never been regarded as essential in the constitution, or as a fundamental principle, of the Congregation.[3] The Presbyterian practice of an installation service before the admission of a member to the Presbytery of Antrim had been rigourously insisted upon by that body, and there had been no instance of a member having been admitted, during the 19th century, without such service. In the year 1871 the Congregation claimed the right to exercise perfect freedom and be absolutely relieved from ecclesiastical control in regard to the arrangements they might make with their minister. The desire of the Congregation to assert its natural freedom from any external intervention whatever was the distinct understanding on which the Rev. James C. Street, of Newcastle-on-Tyne, accepted the call to become Mr. Porter's assistant and successor.

The minister of the Congregation was bound by the resolution of 10th November, 1816, to become a member of the Presbytery of Antrim. An application was made to the Presbytery to admit Mr. Street as such member, and the matter was considered on the 24th October, 1871. At that meeting Mr. John Ritchie moved and Rev. John Porter seconded --

"That Mr. Street, and all other ministers for the time being of the Second Congregation, Rosemary Street, Belfast, be received into the Presbytery of Antrim, and become a member and members thereof, without any installation or other service. That the said Second Congregation, Rosemary Street, Belfast, and Mr. Street, and all other ministers for the time being of the said Second Congregation, be at liberty to settle between themselves all arrangements, monetary or otherwise, affecting them respectively, including those as to the duration of and mode of terminating the engagement and connection between them, without any intervention whatever on the part of the Presbytery."

The Rev. S. C. Nelson moved, and the Rev. Wm. Napier seconded the following amendment : --

"That the Second Congregation being already in connection with the Presbytery, and there not being any application before the Presbytery on Mr. Street's part for admission to their body, we cannot come to any resolution on the communication from the Second Congregation, and that we can see no reason to subvert the original principles and usages which have worked so satisfactorily for both Ministers and Congregation for nearly a century and a half."

After a somewhat lengthened discussion the amendment was put to the meeting, and carried by 15 to 4. The names of those who voted against the amendment were: -- Rev. John Porter, Messrs John Ritchie, David M'Master, and James Logan.

The Second Congregation, after an existence of 164 years, was now free -- free to exercise its own private judgment in all matters of doctrine, provided they are not other than Protestant; free from all legal disabilities; free to terminate their engagement with their minister without any intervention of a Presbytery; free to discharge the sacred trust reposed in them --

"The Public Worship of Almighty God."

Communion Service
The joint property of the First and Second Congregations.

The Communion Service originally belonged to the First Congregation, but in 1708, when the Second Congregation was created, it was agreed that it should become the joint property, and since then it has been constantly used by the respective Congregations. Three of the silver cups bear an inscription, viz.: The Gift of James Stewart to the Meeting-house of Belfast, 1693. -- Donum Thos. Crawford, Coetui Presbyter de Belfast, 1698. -- James Martin.




  1. "The Presbytery of Antrim was founded for the purpose of doing away with ecclesiastical domination, which had been imported by our forefathers from Scotland, and restoring Presbyterianism to that which it was intended to be -- that was, an Association of both ministers and lay representatives of the congregation, mutually joined together to consult and deliberate for their common good." -- Rev. S. C. Nelson. 24th October, 1871.
  2. For the growth of Unitarianism in the North of Ireland, see Historic Memorial of the First Presbyterian Church, Belfast, pp. 32 to 39.
  3. This was the opinion of W. D. Andrews. Q.C. (now the Right Hon. Mr. Justice Andrews), on a joint case submitted to him on behalf of the Second Congregation and the Presbytery of Antrim.


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