BBC Northern Ireland’s landmark series, “An Independent People: The Story of Ulster’s Presbyterians,” concluded on Sunday with its third and final episode, “Union and Division,” taking viewers through two centuries of contentious history. This episode maintained the high standard of narrative and cinematography established in the first two programmes. But the compressed nature of the last episode (two centuries in one hour, as opposed to roughly one century of history in each of the first two programmes) meant that Presbyterianism’s most recent history was comparatively neglected.
“Union and Division” picked up in the aftermath of the 1798 rebellion and guided viewers on Presbyterians’ journey from marginalised radicals to conservatives at the heart of Northern Ireland’s political establishment. This story was effectively personalised in the character of Lord Castlereagh (1769-1822), who converted from Presbyterianism to Anglicanism to further his political career, and powerfully symbolised by the location of the Northern Ireland Parliament in the Presbyterian Union Theological College between 1921 and 1932.
The turn of a majority of Presbyterians towards the “establishment” meant a hardening of their identification with the United Kingdom over and above any Irish identity they might previously have expressed (for example, through what had once been a longstanding commitment to preaching in the Irish language). Their new-found political conservatism was reinforced by a religious conservatism that was often expressed through the evangelical movement, exemplified by the 1859 revival.
But not all Presbyterians conformed to the conservative establishment, as demonstrated through a series of significant controversies.
These included the Old Light/New Light disagreement around Arianism, which featured the famous debates between the “Old Light” Rev Henry Cooke and the “New Light” Dr Henry Montgomery. The treatment of this controversy was especially well-done, including an explanation of Arianism and actors playing the parts of Cooke and Montgomery (segment begins at the 8.43 mark of this Youtube clip).
It also featured the heresy trial of James Davey in 1927. This short segment described Davey as “a liberal with progressive views,” influenced by modern developments in science and psychoanalysis, who had published a “radical restatement of the central teachings of the Christian faith.” Unfortunately it was not more specific about what that “radical restatement” was, leaving viewers wondering about the specifics of the heresy trial (segment begins around the 1.20 mark of this Youtube clip).
But what was common about the Cooke/Montgomery and Davey episodes was how they served as catalysts for further union or division within Presbyterianism.
For example, the aftermath of the Arian controversy was the establishment of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church (Montgomery’s liberals) and the official establishment of the denomination still known today as “the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.” Davey’s acquittal led directly to the formation of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Both episodes were presented as victories for conservatism within the wider family of Presbyterianism, an assessment I agree with.
The story of Presbyterians in our more recent history – namely throughout the Troubles – made up less than ten minutes of the programme and focused primarily on the early career of the Rev Ian Paisley.
For any viewers who had been lulled into fondness for Paisley after observing his jovial career as First Minister, the footage was a startling reminder of his provocative (some would say violent) anti-Catholic and anti-ecumenical rhetoric. The programme’s images of masses of people marching in his city centre rallies or queuing up to get inside his Martyrs Memorial Free Presbyterian Church provided a stunning commentary on his appeal and popularity at the time.
While Paisley is undoubtedly one of the seminal figures in our recent history, it was disappointing that this period was reduced to these images and commentators remarking on how Paisley’s foundation of the Free Presbyterian Church meant that the larger Presbyterian Church in Ireland had to watch its back.
There was almost no attempt made to tell the story of how some Presbyterians worked for peace and reconciliation during the Troubles. This is remarkable, given that one of the commentators was the Rev John Dunlop, who has been a major figure in Christian peace work. Dunlop was simply quoted as saying that Presbyterian congregations “came through a very, very difficult time,” and went into “survival mode” – which of course doesn’t tell the whole story.
Indeed, the explicit critique and reworking of Ulster’s covenantal Calvinist theology (explored in earlier programmes and in this programme’s discussion of the Ulster Covenant of 1912) by Presbyterians and non-Presbyterians alike through organisations like Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI) could have provided an example of how present-day Presbyterians have adapted, and contributed to reconciliation. This also would have highlighted that Presbyterians’ modern journey hasn’t been inevitably towards conservatism. Indeed, it is striking that it was evangelical Presbyterians (usually considered the most conservative of Presbyterians) within ECONI who proved to be among the most radical of Northern Ireland’s Christian activists throughout the Troubles.
Another major segment of the programme focused on the missionary work of Alexander Kerr and James Glasgow in India (beginning in 1840). This was a harrowing story of courage and determination. Presenter William Crawley visited the lively and now-thriving church that they founded.
Last week I wrote that I anticipated that this programme would include the career of Amy Carmichael, and that I hoped that this would help to balance the series’ disproportionate focus on men. While Carmichael was not mentioned, Crawley did Tweet that a full-length programme about Carmichael will air later in the year.
But all in all, “An Independent People” is enriching and essential viewing for anyone interested in Presbyterians’ contributions to life on this island – and beyond.