Cooke, Watson and the reluctant Non-Subscribers
By Rev'd Dr John Nelson BD
The following sermon was delivered in Killinchy Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church on the evening of Sunday 24th. March 1996, as part of the celebrations of the 150th Anniversary of the present church building.
On the 15th July 1836 the Remonstrant Presbytery of Bangor received a petition signed by "many respectable heads of families" and stating, amongst other things
"We, the undersigned, residing in adjoining districts of the parishes of Saintfield, Kilmood, Killinchy and Comber, beg leave respectfully to state, that, in consequence of the distance at which some of us dwell from the Meeting-Houses at present in these parishes, and the conscientious scruples of others respecting the doctrines now enforced on congregations, by the unwarrantable dictation of several Synods, we are desirous of being supplied with preaching on Lord's Day, as often as your Reverend Presbytery can make it convenient.
"Perceiving by your records, that 'Liberty of Conscience is the sacred inscription which your banner bears; that Christ and Christ only, is your Master; and, that the word of God, and the Word of God only, as contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is your sole rule of Faith; we do humbly hope, that you will, according to these truly Protestant principles, supply us with preaching as frequently as in your power."
What was it that had led to this situation?
Killinchy was one of the oldest Presbyterian congregations in Ulster. Its separate existence as a congregation dated form the settlement of the Rev. John Livingstone in 1630. Livingstone was one of the outstanding figures of the church in his day and although he only ministered there for five years there is no doubt that he left a firmly established and thriving congregation.
The second minister, Michael Bruce, was also a remarkable figure. He ministered at Killinchy from 1657 until 1689 (with interruptions) and in the most difficult times he maintained a vigorous defence of Presbyterianism He left a legacy of a numerically strong congregation with a single minded determination to uphold its witness and interests, which continued down the generations.
In September 1797 Samuel Watson was Ordained as minister of Killinchy. He was then 23 years of age and came to the congregation at one of the most difficult times in its history. The countryside was then in the political ferment that preceded the 1798 Rebellion, and nine months after his arrival fighting actually broke out with major conflict locally at the battles of Saintfield and Ballynahinch. Watson was too young and too recently arrived at Killinchy to have had any 'leadership role during the rebellion. His main work was during the difficult period of reconstruction, which followed when he, and others like him, had to restore the confidence and purpose of the disorientated and injured Presbyterian community. His people must have appreciated his work for it is plain that in the following years Watson became well established in Killinchy and well liked by his people.
He was certainly kept very busy. In 1834 the membership of Killinchy congregation was returned as 5,000, and even making allowances for what is a suspiciously round figure it is clear that this figure is of the right order. It is known that in the same year Watson conducted 240 baptisms and 60 marriages. He can have had little time for anything beyond the work of his parish.
At just this period however Irish Presbyterianism was disrupted by a major controversy. The later 1820s saw the dispute come to a head in The General Synod of Ulster between 'Subscribers and 'Non-Subscribers'. In more general terms it was a dispute between conservatives and liberals and in personal terms a contest between Henry Cooke and Henry Montgomery.
Henry Cooke alleged that there was a conspiracy to subvert the faith of the Presbyterians of Ulster; that these Non-Subscribers had a hidden agenda to undermine and destroy the authority of the church; and that as individuals they were lacking in vital Christian Faith.
Montgomery responded that all he sought was a continuation of the liberty, which he had in the Presbyterian Church in earlier years. He asserted that there was no hidden agenda, and that his personal faith, far from being defective, was best expressed in the paraphrase
"Jesus my Lord I know his name
His name is all my boast
Nor will He put my soul to shame
Nor let my hope be lost"
Montgomery contested these points before the Synod in speeches of outstanding eloquence, which earned him both applause and respect. However, in general terms, the tide of religious opinion was turning away from the pervasive liberalism of the late eighteenth century. Conservative and Evangelical opinions were coming into fashion across the denominations and were making their mark on Irish Presbyterianism.
Henry Cooke realised that the general current of opinion was in his favour. He knew that he could not remove the Non-Subscribers from the Synod but believed that by carefully controlling the future intake of ministerial students he could ensure that in time they would become isolated and irrelevant.. To that end a series of resolutions were introduced and passed at the Synod meetings of 1828 and which appointed the necessary committee to examine all present and future students. Against these resolutions a strong protest was lodged, bearing the names of Montgomery, the leading Non-Subscribers, and, amongst others, Samuel Watson. In the eyes of the more conservative brethren he was now a marked man.
Later in 1828 a large-scale protest or 'Remonstrance' against the actions of the Synod was agreed upon and published. In August of 1829 the Non-Subscribers or 'Remonstrants' as they now became known, withdrew from the General Synod of Ulster, and in May 1830 they formed the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster. Samuel Watson, however, played no part in these events. He was now aged 56 and, in spite of undoubted sympathies with the Non-Subscribers it could well have been the case that he had no desire to leave the denomination which he had served since his Ordination, thirty-one years before, or to run the risk of division within his own congregation. In any case he took no action.
One other factor however, made his position even more difficult. Watson had two brothers in the ministry - John who was minister of Greyabbey and who in 1830 was one of the founder members of the Remonstrant Synod; and David who was Ordained in 1829 by the Presbytery of Antrim as minister of the Non-Subscribing portion of the divided congregation of Clough, Co. Down. If ever there was a case of Guilt by association it was that of Samuel Watson
In Killinchy Watson carried on with his normal pastoral work. Allegations were made that he was 'unsound' and some few people withdrew from his congregation, but there were no significant developments. In May 1832 a visitation of Presbytery was held after which it was reported that the doctrine of Original Sin was not preached by Watson (i.e. he was probably not a Calvinist), but it is notable that the worst which could be said was that this doctrine was 'not preached', NOT that it was 'denied'. Nothing was discovered remotely worthy of a formal charge.
At the General Synod meeting in June 1835 the report of the Down Presbytery made reference to Killinchy. It stated that only one service was held there each Sunday, but was also obliged to state that Watson had promised to adhere to Synodical regulations and would conduct two services each Sunday in future. Of itself this matter was of no undue significance, but it was made the opportunity to challenge the status of Watson and the Killinchy congregation. Following a speech by the Moderator, the Rev. John Barnett, the congregation of Killinchy was placed under the authority of a committee of Synod which was "empowered to adopt such measures as circumstances may render necessary
At a special congregational meeting, held on 4th. August 1835 a protest was drawn up, entreating the Synod to cancel this resolution, and which was approved by 140 to 67. This was presented to Synod on 11th. August and was rejected.
On 19th August the Committee carried out a visitation of the congregation. No new evidence whatever came to light but still the committee "found cause to appoint one of their number to preach every alternate Sabbath to the congregation, without however interfering with Mr. Watson's service
Indignation in Killinchy ran very high. Their protests included such phrases as "Is this fair, is it just, is it honourable?" "Hear this ye Presbyterians of Ulster" and "One of the most extraordinary proceedings ever resorted to in the Synod of Ulster".
It was very obvious that this action would 'interfere' massively with Mr. Watson’s position, and it seemed to him that the next step would be his removal or forced retirement. A further congregational meeting was held on 6th. September
"Resolved - That the Presbyterian Congregation of Killinchy were living in perfect harmony with one another, and with their respected pastor, when the Presbytery of Belfast disturbed their peace by unnecessary and injurious interference. That the Synod of Ulster, at the last meeting in Belfast, adopted resolutions still farther infringing on the rights and privileges of the congregation, and, subsequently, at Cookstown, rejected the supplication of a very large majority of seat holders, regularly convened in their place of worship. That the General Synod’s Committee assembled on Wednesday 19th, having passed a resolution to deprive our esteemed and valued pastor, Mr. Watson, of his pulpit . . and to put a stranger in his place; -We consider such a proceeding as a virtual deposition of our believed pastor (intended to prepare the way for his actual degradation) and an unlawful infringement of our most sacred rights and privileges as Presbyterians. That, under these circumstances, we are compelled, in vindication of conscience, and in maintenance of those invaluable rights handed down to us by our forefathers, to renounce the jurisdiction of the General Synod of Ulster; - which we do hereby renounce and disclaim; and, farther, we do now agree, as lovers of the Bible, and determined to maintain that liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, to place ourselves under the care of the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster, or the Presbytery of Antrim, as the Session may advise; as both these bodies, by one of their fundamental laws, guarantee the full and free choice of any minister, whose views of Christian doctrines may be in accordance with our own religious opinions 219 seat holders supported the resolution, with only 10 against.
Throughout all of this the shadow of Henry Cook must have hovered in the background. While he was not one of those appointed to the committee, his close friend and confidant Robert Stewart of Broughshane was, and at no point did Cooke use his considerable influence to restrain the proceedings. Of more immediate concern to Watson would have been the role of John Barnett. Ordained at Moneymore in 1827, he was Moderator of Synod in 1835 and played a leading role in the work of the committee on Killinchy. Barnett had been born at Saintfield in 1794 and, as a local man, it is highly likely that Watson knew him personally and therefore felt all the more aggrieved by his actions.
At a Pro-Re-Nata meeting of the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster on 9th September 1835 Watson and the congregation of Killinchy were received into the Remonstrant Synod.
At a meeting of the General Synod's Committee held in the following week Samuel Watson was suspended from office indefinitely because he had rejected the authority of the committee, and not, as some have said, for Arianism.
Almost immediately there were threats of litigation for control of the Meeting House. At first the Non-Subscribers considered moving, then, doubtless on legal advice, they remained in possession. Then as now the mills of the law grind slowly and it was only in 1837 that formal proceedings began. The case came before Baron Pennefeather in the Court of Exchequer on 18th. November 1841 and by adjournments was continued until 1843 when a final judgement was given against Watson and the Non-Subscribers. Bowing to what was then inevitable Watson's congregation erected a temporary wooden building, capable of accommodating 700, and which was opened by Dr. Henry Montgomery on Sunday 29th. January
On 10th June 1845 the Foundation Stone of the present Meeting House was laid and on 16th. August 1846 this house was opened and dedicated to the worship of Almighty God. In spite of so much dispute, division, and indeed, falling population in the years after the famine, the membership remained at a very high level with a figure of 1,465 being returned. After Watson's death in 1856 the Rev. John McCaw succeeded him. The congregation continued as one of the strongest in the Remonstrant Synod.
Surely a central question in all of this is “Was it really necessary?” Henry Cooke and his friends certainly thought so, believing that only a 'root and branch' removal of the Non-Subscribers and their friends would purify the church. However the methods used undoubtedly increased the size of the secession. The raising of tempers in Killinchy meant that some who might have been reluctant to leave felt that they were being driven out. If Watson had been left alone it is highly unlikely that there would ever have been a Non-Subscribing Presbyterian congregation in Killinchy. If only out of respect to his brothers, the Non-Subscribers would have been very reluctant to organise a rival congregation in Killinchy to that of Watson. Moreover it must have been plain that neither Watson nor his congregation were actively endorsing any heresy or radical views. In the petition to the Synod of Ulster of 4th August it had been stated -
"Your Memorialists are fully aware of the necessity and importance of a pure Gospel ministry, and are ready to acknowledge, that there are in this, as, they are confident, there are in every society of equal extent, dissidents. But they are confident that the great doctrines of man's accountability, a future state of rewards and punishments, the prospect of pardon through the mediation and intercession of the Lord Jesus Christ, on sincere repentance, together with the influence of the Holy Spirit on the heart of man, are a brief epitome of Gospel doctrine; and these, your Memorialists humbly submit, are now, and always have been, taught by our worthy pastor"
Given such a context, the creation of such a division and the bitterness, which inevitably followed, was very sad.
In their resolution of separation from the General Synod of Ulster the congregation had stated "We do now agree, as lovers of the Bible, and determined to maintain that liberty wherewith Christ has made us free". In that we all might agree.
Times have changed. New, more tolerant, generations have come to the fore, and a greater acceptance for those who love the Bible and rejoice in the fellowship of Christian discipleship. May that long continue, and may the work and witness of this congregation, begun in such troubled times, long continue and flourish in this place.