An Independent People Part II – What have the Ulster Presbyterians Ever Done for America?

Makemie-Mahon_smallThe BBC’s whirlwind tour through Presbyterian history in Ireland continued last night with the second instalment of “An Independent People: The Story of Ulster’s Presbyterians.” The programme excelled in introducing viewers to men – often largely forgotten today – whose thoughts and actions have shaped the modern world.

Hands up any of you who, before watching the programme, knew something of the lives of all of the following:

  • James McGregor
  • Francis Makemie
  • Francis Hutcheson
  • Francis Alison

The stories of these four were intertwined in a narrative spanning roughly 1680s-1800, which also featured more well-known characters like Henry Joy McCracken and Wolfe Tone, and events such as the American Revolution and the 1798 rebellion in Ireland.

The programme picked up where Part I had left off with the story of McGregor, the Presbyterian minister who left Derry/Londonderry with his congregation in 1718 for greener pastures in the American colonies. What they found was not a land flowing with milk and honey but a land of trial and hardship. Presenter William Crawley painted a picture of McGregor as persistent and faithful, with his people ultimately surviving to establish themselves in what is now Londonderry, New Hampshire.

Makemie, considered ‘the father of Presbyterianism in America,’ founded the first Presbyterian congregation in the United States in Maryland in 1683. Makemie’s story makes clear how many of those who travelled to the colonies in search of religious freedom also had to struggle to find it there. In 1707 Makemie was arrested in New York for preaching without a license, enduring jail time and amassing exorbitant legal costs. Makemie was acquitted, and the case is seen as setting an early standard for religious freedom in America.

As someone who was born and educated in the United States up until the age of 22 – and enjoyed subjects like history and religion – I am shocked that I never learned about Makemie growing up. Our history lessons focused on Roger Williams as the star attraction in the story of American religious freedom. Williams was a Baptist minister who was forced to leave Puritan Massachusetts for Providence, Rhode Island, in 1636.

As a Baptist, Williams believed in the strict separation of church and state – a principle that could not be taken for granted among Massachusetts’ Calvinistic Puritans, with whom it could be expected Ulster Presbyterians of the era would have shared some religious ideals. A longer programme, or perhaps one more focussed on American religious history, could have teased out some of the nuances of why Calvinists in two parts of the colonies took such different approaches to religious freedom.

Hutcheson, born in Saintfield, Co. Down, was the son of a Presbyterian minister. He is the most well-known of the four figures I have chosen to highlight here, though it is doubtful that he is as well-remembered today on this island as he should be.

One of the leading lights in the Scottish Enlightenment, Hutcheson has been overshadowed by some of his pupils at Glasgow University, like Adam Smith. Crawley described Hutcheson as an engaging speaker who enthralled his students by lecturing in English rather than Latin and pacing to and fro throughout the lecture hall, and as taking a keen interest in his students from the island of Ireland. The key to his philosophy was the radical idea of the people’s right to resist tyrannical government.

Crawley described Hutcheson’s Irish-born pupil Francis Alison – a Presbyterian minister who established the New London (Pennsylvania) Academy – as almost single-handedly bringing Hutcheson’s revolutionary ideas to American shores (though I suspect the story is somewhat more complex!). Five of Alison’s pupils went on to become signers of the American Declaration of Independence.

By focussing on the achievements of men like these, the tone of the programme was largely celebratory, emphasizing Presbyterians’ contributions to ideas around liberty, religious freedom, and modern democratic political thought.

This is perhaps a necessary corrective in a cynical age when these people and what they struggled for are often taken for granted. It is the type of programme that I am sure would be appreciated by a wider, American audience.

The tone darkened somewhat when 1798 was considered. But the relatively short amount of time left to consider such a complex era meant that some of the sectarian aspects of the rebellion were left unmentioned, with the segments that featured expert comment from historians content to leave us thinking of 1798 almost as a unique, missed opportunity when sectarianism might have been transcended for the sake of a common cause.

Perhaps it has been the nature of the history covered so far in these programmes, but the contributions of Presbyterian women have not yet been given much consideration.

Interestingly, when Crawley visited the present-day congregations that both McGregor and Makemie established in New Hampshire and Maryland, the ministers presiding over them were women.

Part II also featured some footage of the present-day ordination of Rev Patricia Nelson in the Presbytery of Omagh, in an introduction to a wider discussion about the importance of individual conscience in the ‘New Light’ v. ‘Old Light’ controversy about subscribing to the Westminster Confession of Faith (segment begins about 19 min into the programme).

But I anticipate that next week’s third and final programme, which will cover about 200 years of history, will include Amy Carmichael, one of the most significant Protestant missionaries of the 20th Century.

Read my Review of the First Programme here.

(Image – Francis Makemie)

5 thoughts on “An Independent People Part II – What have the Ulster Presbyterians Ever Done for America?”

  1. Nice work, Gladys; I’m still working my way through the show, but I’m pleased to see that our irascible freethinking mindset is getting some kudos 🙂 This should be mandatory viewing.
    -Heliopolitan (remember me from Will’s blog?)

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