[Rev.] John Abernethy

Commentary

Life
1680-1740 [‘the father of non-subscription’]; b. 19 Oct., Brigh, nr. Stewartstown, Co. Tyrone; his namesake father [freq. John Abernathy], moved to ireland as a Presbyterian minister, settled at Brigh and , shortly moved to Moneymore, 1684; later lived in Ballymena and Coleraine; in 1688 he who went to London with John Adair to assert Presbyterian loyalty to William III; John was sent instead to relatives in Ballymena and conveyed by them to Scotland, where he was educated; some of his siblings died in the Siege of Londonderry where his mother had taken shelter; returned to family in Coleraine, 1692; entered Glasgow Univ., 1693, and grad. MA, 1696; studied Theology at Edinburgh Univ., returning to Ireland, 1701/02; ordained, Antrim 1703; m. Susannah Jordan (d.1712), with whom one son and three dgs;
 
founded Belfast Society, with James Duchal, James Kirkpatrick (also a Glasgow graduate) and others, 1705 - in reaction against the Synod's adoption of the Westminster Confession in that year; instructed to accept a call to Dublin by the Synod of Ulster but opted to stay in Antrim to the annoyance of the Synod, 1717; preached in Belfast the sermon Religious Obedience Founded on Personal Persuasion (1719 pub. 1720) disputing the ‘just limits of church power’ in the application of a Subscription to the Westminster Confession as creating ‘arbitrary enclosures within the Church of Christ’ by means of ‘the rigid test of an exact agreement in doubtful and disputable points’ - thus opening the First Subscription Controversy (1719-26); sequestered with other non-subscribers in the Antrim Presbytery by a Synod majority and the Elders, 1726; led the Unitarians - or non-subscribers with increasingly out-spoken Arian views - in the Belfast Society meeting-house, 1726; foresaken by his congregation and returned to Dublin;

issued Nature and Consequences of the Sacramental Test Considered (Dublin 1731),

moved to Wood St. Meeting House, 1730; remarried; wrote against the Test Act in The Nature and Consequences of the Sacramental Test Considered (1731) - in which he wrote that the Anglican Test Act ‘carries the appearance of public censure, at least distrust’ and further asserted his belief that ‘men of integrity and ability’ could come from all denominations, offering a natural-law defence of dissenters' rights to civil and military office and drawing a response from Jonathan Swift; with William Bruce - cousin of Francis Hucheson - he issued five pamphlets in response under the title Reasons for the Repeal of the Sacramental Test (1733), professing himself ‘against all laws that, upon account of mere differences of religious opinions and forms of worship excluded men of integrity and ability from serving their country’ (EB, 1911); consulted by William Bruce to show the first draft of System of Moral Theology to Abernathy for his opinion in 1737;
 
known a mbr. of Robert Molesworth’s ‘New Light’ circle of liberal theologians in Dublin - the phrase coined for the non-subscribers by opposing clergyman John Malcolme of Dunmurry; efforts to change Parliament’s mind on dissenters’ civic status, defeated in 1733; prominent in Belfast New Light movement and was later cited by William Drennan as a formative influence on the thinking of the United Irishmen); he preached on the accession of George I in 1714 and on the centenary of the 1642 Rebellion; besides sermons - which were highly regarded by Dr. Johnston - he wrote Discourses Concerning the Being and Natural Perfection of God [1740]; Scarce and Valuable Tracts &c (1751); d. Dec. DIB ODNB CAB RR DUB OCIL FDA

[ top ]

Works
  • A Sermon Preach’d at Belfast, the Ninth of December 1719, by John Abernethy, Minister of the Gospel (London: J. Noon; printed by James Blow 1720);
  • Religious Obedience Founded on Personal Persuasion (Belfast & London 1720) [to the text, ‘Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind’ - Rom. 14:5];
  • Sermons on Various Subjects [ ...] with a Large Preface Containing the Life of the Author, by [ed.; James Duchal with a short ‘life’], 4 vols. (London: D. Browne; C. Davis; A. Millar 1748-51); Do., another edn. (London: D. Browne; T. Osborne; A. Millar 1762).
  • Discourses Concerning the Being and Natural Perfections of God in Which That First Principle of Religion, the Existence of the Deity, Is Proved (Dublin: for the author 1740), 400pp., 8o.; Do. (Dublin: J. Smith 1742), 8o., 440pp.; Do., 2 vols (London: H. Whitridge 1743), 8o; Do., 2 vols. (London rep. for H. Whitridge 1746), 8o.; Do. (London H. Whitridge, D. Browne, etc. 1757), 8o.; Do., 2 vols. (Aberdeen: J. Boyle 1778), 12o. [see details - infra.]
  • Scarce and Valuable Tracts and Sermons,Occasionally Published by the Late [ ...] John Abernethy [ ...] Now First Collected Together (London: R. Griffiths 1751). 8o., 7, 288pp.
Bibliographical details
A Sermon Preach’d at Belfast, the Ninth of December 1719, by John Abernethy, Minister of the Gospel (London: J. Noon 1720)
 

Discourses Concerning the Being and Natural Perfections of God in Which That First Principle of Religion, the Existence of the Deity, Is Proved / from the Frame of the Material World, from the Animal and Rational Life, and from Human Intelligence and Morality / and / The Divine Attributes of Spirituality, Unity, Eternity, Immensity, Omnipotence, Omniscience, and Infinite Wisdom, are explain’d . [Vol. 1] By John Abernethy, M.A. (Dublin: Printed: London, Reprinted for H. Whitridge, at the Royal Exchange, MDCC.XLVI. - 1740 online [accessed 22.09.2020]
   
                  

—Available at Google Books - online; accessed 22.09.2020.

 
Note that Abernethy uses the word ‘commodiously’ (p.30 supra) in connection with the supply of heat on earth: ‘But no one can avoid observing the changes of the seasons, occasion’d by the annual (apparent) course of the sun. If he kept one perpetual track, the greatest part of the earth must be uninhabited, either by reason of excessive heat or cold; the gloomy regions never visited by him, must be shut up in continual darkness and impenetrable frost, while the climates on which his beams should still [30] directly fall, must be quite burnt up, yielding on sustenance for man or beast. But instead of these extremes, how commodiously is this greaet benefit dispensed, by the fixed periodical revolutioin of the great orb in a yearly couorse, so direct, as to prevent, as far as can be the excesses both of heat and cold, and produce the grateful and useful variety of summer and winter, seed-time and harvest.’ (pp.29-30.) For further examples of ‘commodious’ in Irish colonial texts, see under Edmund Spenser > Notes > Texts > ‘commodious soyle [soil]’ - as infra.

[ top ]

Criticism
  • John Duchal, a life prefaced to Sermons on Various Subjects [ ...], 4 vols. (London: D. Browne; C. Davis; A. Millar 1748-51);
  • Richard B. Barlow, ‘The Career of John Abernethy (1680-1740): Father of Nonsubscription in Ireland and Defender of Religious Liberty’, in Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 78, No. 3/4 (July-Oct. 1985), pp.399-419 [Cambridge UP - available in JSTOR - online; accessed 21.09.2020];
  • Godfrey Brown, ‘John Abernethy, Scholar and Ecclesiast’, in George O’Brien and Peter Roebuck, eds., Nine Ulster Lives (Ulster Hist. Found. 1992), pp.125-39.
  • M. A. Stewart, ‘Abernethy, John (1680-1740)’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (OUP 2004) [entry in Dictionary of Irish Biography by same author]..


See also

Rev. Martin C. Cowan, ‘Francis Hutcheson and the 300th anniversary of the beginning of the First Subscription Controversy’ - Union Theological College Blog (12.12.2019).

[...]

In 1705 the General Synod of Ulster had strengthened its requirement for subscription of the Westminster Confession. That same year, John Abernethy (1680-1740), minister in Antrim, helped found the influential Belfast Society. On 9 December 1719 Abernethy preached a sermon before the Society which was published in both Belfast and London as Religious Obedience Founded on Personal Persuasion (1720). The text for this sermon was ‘Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind’ (Rom. 14:5). Abernethy was arguing against the authority of church courts to require subscription of a man-made confession of faith. For Abernethy, such a requirement was an overextension of ‘the just limits of church-power’ and an attack on the guiding principle of following conscience. Abernethy reasoned that to do so would make ‘arbitrary enclosures within the Church of Christ’ by ‘the rigid test of an exact agreement in doubtful and disputable points’.

For Abernethy this was more than simply an abstract question about the extent of ecclesiastical power - his sermons reveal evidence of a personal commitment to doctrinal anti-Calvinism. Furthermore, Abernethy saw himself as a victim of the abuse of church power. In 1717 the Synod of Ulster had instructed him to accept a call to the Dublin congregation of Usher’s Quay. Abernethy thought that the very idea that he could be told to move against his will depended on ‘servile notions of ecclesiastical power’.

One of Abernethy’s critics, the minister of Dunmurry, John Malcome, coined the term ‘New Light’ to describe the non-subscribers. In his Personal Persuasion no Foundation for Religious Obedience (1720), he argued that Abernethy was undermining Presbyterian polity by putting ‘personal persuasion’ in the place of ‘church government and discipline’. For Malcome, Abernethy’s claims to ‘new light’ undermined the government which Christ himself had established in the church.

[...]

—Available online; accessed 21.09.2020.

David Steers, The First Subscription Controversy, in “The History of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland” [as No. 1] - at The Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Wordpress - online.

[...]

Matters came to a head in 1719 when John Abernethy preached a sermon before the Belfast Society on Romans ch.14 v.5 – “Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.” This sermon was strongly influenced by the ideas of Bishop Benjamin Hoadly who had preached before King George I two years earlier the idea that Christ sanctioned no visible Church authority.

Abernethy entitled his sermon Religious Obedience founded on Personal Persuasion and it was to plunge Irish Presbyterianism into a struggle that was to last for seven years and end with the expulsion of the liberal wing of the church. The sermon was published in 1720 and it immediately caused a storm. Abernethy took his stand on the sufficiency of scripture but with it the right of private judgement and the individual’s responsibility to employ the God-given faculty of reason in their religious opinions.

Abernethy argued that it was the Christian’s duty to examine all the evidence carefully and to act it on the basis of their own conscientious conviction. He and his supporters saw themselves as following very directly in the reformation tradition by emphasing the right of each individual believer to search the scriptures for themselves.

So with this emphasis on individual decision went an increasing questioning of the place of creedal formularies and with them the authority of the ecclesiastical bodies that upheld them. For presbyterians it meant that the traditional criticisms that they had directed at the Papacy and episcopalian churches were now being directed at their own synods and the Westminster Confession of Faith.

The whole matter rapidly moved from being a theoretical and theological discussion to one of direct practical import with the installation in Belfast of the Rev Samuel Haliday. On 28 July 1720 the presbytery of Belfast assembled at the meeting house of the first congregation to install the new minister. However, Haliday refused to subscribe the Westminster Confession in any form and instead substituted his own declaration. Four members of the presbytery objected to Haliday’s installation but under James Kirkpatrick’s direction the event went ahead. What is usually referred to by historians as the first subscription controversy was now underway.

[...]

Out voted by the orthodox side, which had the overwhelming support of the eldership, the non-subscribers were all placed in the newly created Presbytery of Antrim at the Synod of Dungannon held in June 1725. The following year the non-subscribers drew up a list of propositions which they presented to the Synod as “expedients for peace”. The non-subscribers were heard but the subscribing majority was not satisfied with their suggestions and the end result was the separation of the Presbytery of Antrim from the General Synod.

[...]

—Available online; accessed 21.09.2020.

Fergus Whelan, ‘Oliver Cromwell: father of Irish republicanism?’, in History Ireland (Nov./Dec. 2010).
[...]

During the 1720s Francis Hutcheson, ‘father of the Scottish Enlightenment’, his cousin William Bruce, a noted publisher, Revd John Abernethy and Revd Thomas Drennan (father of William Drennan, the United Irishman) formed a group of philosophers and clergymen linked to the Wood Street meeting-house [founded by Puritans escaping persecution under Elizabeth I; later moved to Strand St.]. They collaborated in publishing Hutcheson’s work, but they also republished the works of English Civil War republicans and Commonwealthmen such as John Harrington and the notorious heretic John Toland.

Francis Hutcheson left Dublin in 1730 to take up a post at Glasgow University. There he instilled in his students a liberal, democratic and anti- slavery philosophy. Many of the Presbyterian clergymen within the ranks of the United Irishmen, including four who lost their lives in the 1798 Rebellion, were graduates of Glasgow. Revds James Porter, Alex Gowdy, Archibald Warwick and Boyle Moody were associated with the liberal Presbyterianism then known as New Light but these days known as non-subscribing Presbyterianism. Today in counties Antrim and Down and in Belfast non-subscribers are known within their Protestant communities as Unitarians.

When the Dublin Society of United Irishmen was founded in 1791, members of the Strand Street congregation such as William Drennan and Archibald Hamilton Rowan were prominent in the new venture. Oliver Bond and Henry Jackson were Presbyterian businessmen. Their secret republican committee in the Strand Street/Pill Lane area was referred to by the infamous informer and newspaper publisher Francis Higgins (aka‘the Sham Squire’) as the ‘king-killers of Pill Lane’. Several informers referred to Bond as Oliver ‘Cromwell’ Bond. Higgins may have been referring to the execution of King Louis XVI of France but the epithet could equally have been applied to the Cromwellian executioners of Charles I, a point rammed home repeatedly in United Irish counter-propaganda.

Strand Street had a long-standing special relationship with First Presbyterian Rosemary Street, Belfast. William Drennan was born ‘a son of the manse’ there in 1751. Leading United Irishmen Samuel Neilson, Sam McTier and William Tennant worshipped at Rosemary Street. Revd William Bruce (nephew of the publisher) had left Strand Street, Dublin, in 1791 after twenty years when ‘called’ north to Rosemary Street. Later that year, Wolfe Tone came to Belfast for the inaugural meeting of the United Irishmen. Having imbibed a few glasses of wine, Tone quarrelled with Revd Bruce over the issue of immediate Catholic emancipation. Tone described Bruce as ‘an intolerant high priest’. He knew that Unitarians abhorred intolerant high priests.

—Available online; accessed 21.09.2020.

[ top ]

Quotations
The Existence of God Proved by Human Morality” (from Discourse Concerning the Being and Natural perfections of God, 1743): ‘Nothing can be more groundless and unsupported with any pretence of reason than to allege that the notions of morality so common and prevailing in the world were originally invented by politicians, and by their artifice imposed upon credulous mankind as the dictates of nature. For besides that strict virtue is often too little agreeable to the maxims and measures of their policy to give it any appearance of proceeding from such an original, every man who will look carefully into his own heart may find there a standard of right and wrong prior to any instructions, declarations, and laws of men, whereby he pronounces judgment upon them. Nor was it ever known that any human invention, nor anything which was not the voice of reason and nature itself, appeared so uniform and unvaried, always consistent with itself, and always in the same light to the minds of men, as the principal moral species do. The forms of civil government differ according to the circumstances and inclinations of the people who create them, the external forms of religion too are variable, and so is everything of positive appointment and institution; but justice and mercy, gratitude and truth, never alter; the learned and the unlearned, the most uninstructed and the most polite nations agree in their notions concerning them, and whenever they are intelligibly propose approve them.’ (Extract in Charles Read, ed,. The Cabinet of Irish Literature, 3 vols., 1876-78, Vol. 1, p.162.)

Christianity Opposed to Persecution” (from Discourse Concerning the Being and Natural Perfections of God, 1743): ‘All this is not to be understood as if Christianity were intended to destroy the unalterable right of mankind to defend their lives and their liberties, among which that of conscience is the most sacred, against unjust violence, as if we were obliged by the rules of our religions to offer our throats to ruffians, and submit universally to the most lawless tyranny. But the religion of the Holy Jesus forbids revenge. Even when necessary, self-defence is allowed, nay, is most just and honourable. Christians should be always ready to be reconciled, never carrying their resentment farther than self-preservation requires. When that end is obtained, and force is no more needed to repel causeless wrongs, then the offices of love take place; the utmost cruelties ought not to be retaliated. In the case of the apostles and other primitive Christians the right of self-defence was entirely out of the question. Their situation was such that it was not in their power to use it. And so God was pleased to order, in his infinite wisdom, that in them might be exemplified illustriously the virtues of meekness, patience and charity, which are the glory of his gospel, for a pattern to all who should afterwards believe, and for a testimony to the world of the truth, the purity, and the innocence of the Christian faith. But at all times Christianity appears, as originally delivered by its blessed Author, to be an inoffensive institution, breathing nothing but peace, and tending to inspire its professors with the strongest sentiments of kindness and good-will to all men - kindness not to be extinguished even by hatred, injuries, and affronts, so far from giving any allowance to rage and cruelty in the defence and provocation of it; of which we have a remarkable instance in the severe reproof our Saviour gave to two of his disciples, who moved to have fire come down from heaven to a destroy some of the Samaritans because they refused to receive him into their village. He turned and rebuked them and said, “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of, for the Son of man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them.”’ (Extract in Charles Read, ed,. The Cabinet of Irish Literature, 3 vols., 1876-78, Vol. 1, p.164; see also pages shown - as supra.)

[ top ]

References
Richard Ryan, Biographia Hibernica: Irish Worthies (1821), Vol. I, p.1.

Charles A. Read, The Cabinet of Irish Literature [1876-78]; erroneously cites place of birth as Coleraine, prob. confusing the town with former Coleraine County (later Co. Londonderry); also mentions the death of [all] his siblings in the Williamite War, here called ‘dissensions’. Reprints extracts from Discourses Concerning the Being and Natural Perfection of God (1743) and Collected Tracts [n.d.].

British Library holds: A Sermon preached at Antrim, Nov. 13. 1723, at a fast observed in the Presbyterian Congregations in Ulster [...] on the account of divisions. Belfast: Robert Gardner 1724), 4o., pp. 24; A Sermon recommending the Study of Scripture-Prophecie, etc. (Belfast: James Blow 1716), 4o, 25pp.; Discourses concerning the being and natural perfections of God, &c. (Dublin: for the author 1740), 400pp., 8o.; Discourses concerning the being and natural perfections of God [Fourth edn.], 2 vols. (Aberdeen: J. Boyle 1778), 12o.; Discourses concerning the Being and Natural Perfections of God, etc., 2 vols (London: H. Whitridge 1743), 8o; another edn. [Third Edition], 2 vols. [Dublin] (London rep. for H. Whitridge 1746), 8o.; Another Edn. (London H. Whitridge, D. Browne, etc.1757), 8o.; Discourses concerning the Being and Natural Perfections of God, etc. (Dublin: J. Smith 1742), 8o., 440pp.; Persecution contrary to Christianity. A sermon preached in [...] Dublin on the 23d. of October 1735, being the anniversary of the Irish Rebellion. (Dublin: J. Smith & W. Bruce 1735, 8o., pp. 44; Religious Obedience founded on Personal Persuasion. A sermon, etc.. London: J. Noon: 1720), 8o., 28pp.; Scarce and Valuable Tracts and Sermons, occasionally published by the late [...] John Abernethy [...] now first collected together (London: R. Griffiths 1751). 8o. [7, 288pp.]; Seasonable advice to the Protestant Dissenters in the North of Ireland; being a defence of the late General Synod’s charitable Declarations [i.e., the proceedings of the Synod at Belfast, 27 June 1721]. With a recommendatory preface. By the Reverend Nath[aniel] Weld, J. Boyse and R. Choppin. [by J. Abernethy] (Dublin: George Ewing 1722), 8o, xxii, 57pp.; Sermons on Various Subjects [...] With a large preface [by James Duchal] containing the life of the author.; [another edn. of Vols. 1 and 2.]; another edn. [The Third Edition] 4 vols. (London: D. Browne; C. Davis; A. Millar 1748-51), 8o.; Another edn. (London: D. Browne; T. Osborne; A. Millar 1762). 8o.; The People’s Choice, the Lord’s Anointed. A thanksgiving sermon for [...] King George, his happy accession to the throne, his arrival and coronation. Preach’d at Antrim, etc. (Belfast: R. Gardner [1714]), 4o. 20pp.; The True Terms of Christian and Ministerial Communion founded on Scripture alone. A sermon [...] With a preface: containing a short account of the author, by Mr. Abernethy.. pp. xii. 24. J. Smith: Dublin, 1739. 8o.; The Nature and Consequences of the Sacramental Test considered: with Reasons humbly offered for the repeal of it. [by John Abernethy] (Dublin 1731), 63pp.; another edn. [rep.] (London: J. Roberts 1732), . 8o.. 79pp.; A Sermon [on Matt. xxv. 21] on occasion of the [...] death of the Revd Mr. J. Abernethy, preach’d [...] Dec. 7th, 1740, etc. (Dublin 1741), 8o. Also SERMONS, Eleven Sermons on the Being and Perfections of God [A sermon]; Of Acknowledging God in all our ways [A sermon]; Of Repentance [2 sermons]; Of Self-Denial [A sermon]; The Causes and Danger of Self-Deceit. [A sermon]. Note, BL Cat. also contains theological works of one John Abernethy, Bishop of Caithness [e.g., A Christian and Heavenly Treatise, containing physicke for the soule [...] Newly corrected and inlarged by the author. [Third edition] (London: J. Budge 1622; 1630); trans. as Een Christelick ende Goddelick Tractact, inhoudende de medicine der ziele, etc. (s’ Graven-hage: A. Meuris: 1623), 4o.]; also numerous works by the distinguished medical practitioner and author John Abernethy (fl. 1830) and a biography of same.

Dictionary of National Biography refers to ‘his zeal on behalf of his ignorant and superstitious countrymen [i.e. Catholics]’; Abernethy stood uncompromisingly for religious freedom and disowned sacerdotal assumptions of the ecclesiastical courts; head of non-subscribers to the Presbyterian Synod, which was cut off in 1726. [Note that the Dictionary of Irish Biography entry is a distillation of this.]

James S. Donnelly, Jr., et al., eds., Encyclopedia of Irish History and Culture, 2 vols. (Macmillan Reference USA [Thomson Gale] 2004), commences with an article on Abernethy [Vol. I].

Seamus Deane, gen. ed., The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, 3 vols. (Derry: Field Day 1991), Vol. 3, p.19: [ftn. to William Drennan, ‘The Intended Defence’].

[ top ]

Notes
John Larkin, The Trial of William Drennan (1991) includes remarks to the effect that William Drennan wrote in his “Defence”: ‘I glory to be a Protestant Dissenter and proudly recited the names of Abernethy, Bruce, [John] Duchal and [Francis] Hutcheson. Not only were these men all close friends of his father but they were exponents of a particular kind of Presbyterianism - a new liberal attitude which an opponent ironically termed the “New Light”. In the 1720s, this movement was at the centre of a division in the Irish Presbyterian Church on the question of subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith, and Abernethy and Bruce, together with Samuel Haliday, the elder Drennan’s predecessor as minister of the First Presbyterian Church Belfast, and others were leaders of the liberal ‘non-subscribers.’ (See review by John W. Nelson, The Linen Hall Review, April 1991.) Note that these same men were cited in a sermon preached by James Mackay in the Old Belfast Meeting House on the death of Drennan's father.

Namesake: George MacIlwain, FRCS, Memoirs of John Abernethy, with a View of His Lectures, His Writings, and Character [...] [3rd Edn.] (London: Hatchard 1856), concerns another person of the name. [Gutenberg - online; accessed 21.09.2020.]

Query: preached at Ussher’s Quay, Dublin. c.1690?

A frontispiece

[ top ]