Seceders, Non-Subscribers, and Covenanters

The Secession Presbyterian Church

Lylehill Presbyterian Church

The Secession Church was a branch of Presbyterianism that emerged following a split in the Church of Scotland in 1712 over the issue of official patronage. Before long it had gained a foothold in Ulster and began to spread rapidly, especially in those areas where the Presbyterian Church had hitherto not been as strong. The first congregation was at Lylehill, near Templepatrick, in County Antrim. In the nineteenth century nearly all of the Secession churches were received into the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. Therefore, in the Guide to Church Recordscongregations that originated as Secession churches will be found listed as Presbyterian churches.

Essential reading for an understanding of the Secession Church in Ulster is David Stewart’s The Seceders in Ireland: With Annals of Their Congregations (Belfast, 1950). Brief biographical sketches of Secession clergy appear in Fasti of Seceder Ministers Ordained or Installed in Ireland 1746-1948, arranged and edited by W.D. Bailie and L.S. Kirkpatrick, published by the Presbyterian Historical Society 2005.

The Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church

The ethos of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church is ‘faith guided by reason and conscience’. The origins of this denomination go back to a dispute within the Presbyterian Church over the issue of subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith, the statement of doctrine of the Presbyterian Church. Those who denied the necessity of subscribing to this work were known as ‘New Light’ Presbyterians or ‘Non-Subscribers’. In 1725, in an attempt to deal with the situation, ministers and congregations of the ‘New Light’ persuasion were placed in the Presbytery of Antrim (this did not mean that all the congregations were inCountyAntrim).

About 100 years later the issue of subscription again became a source of contention within Presbyterianism, and in 1829 a small section of the Presbyterian Church withdrew and the following year formed what was known as the Remonstrant Synod. In 1910 the General Synod of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church was created following a union of the Presbytery of Antrim and the Remonstrant Synod. In 1935 this body was joined by the Synod of Munster. Today there are around 34 congregations, mainly in counties Antrim and Down.

Some of the early Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church records, created before the split, are in fact Presbyterian records. For example, the early records of Scarva Street Presbyterian Church in Banbridge are to be found in Banbridge Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church records. Microfilm copies of Non-Subscribing Presbyterian congregational records are in PRONI under reference MIC/1B, while originals may be found under CR/4.

In a number of instances a Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church will be known as the First (Old) Presbyterian Church. Rosemary Street Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church inBelfast, for example, is generally known as First Presbyterian Church. This can give rise to confusion if there is a Presbyterian Church in a town with the designation First.

For a brief background to this denomination see A Short History of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland by John Campbell (Belfast: 1914). The denomination’s website (www.nspresbyterian.org) includes a map showing the location of all congregations.

The Reformed Presbyterian (Covenanter) Church

The Covenanter or Reformed Presbyterian Church was composed of those who adhered most strongly to the Covenants of 1638 and 1643 and who rejected the Revolution Settlement of 1691 inScotland. The National Covenant of 1638 was a reaction against the attempts by Charles I to bring theScottishChurchinto closer conformity with the episcopal Church ofEnglandand to introduce greater ritual and a prescribed liturgy to services. It firmly established the Presbyterian form of church government inScotland, and bound the people to uphold the principles of the Reformation. The Solemn League and Covenant of 1643 was composed on similar lines and affectedEnglandandIrelandas well as Scotland.

During the reigns of Charles II (1660–85) and James II (1685–8) there was considerable persecution of Covenanters, and many were executed or banished. This ended with the accession of William III. In 1691 Covenanters refused to accept the Revolution Settlement as it gave the government a role in the running of the Church of Scotland. Covenanters, therefore, stood apart from mainstream Presbyterianism in Scotland.

Of the early history of the Covenanters in Ireland very little is known, save that the denomination was small and scattered. It was not until the latter part of the eighteenth century that congregations began to be organised and ministers were ordained. Very few Reformed Presbyterian records have survived from the eighteenth century. This can be partly explained by the paucity of ministers at this time; many baptisms and marriages were performed by visiting ministers fromScotlandand there is little evidence of proper records being kept of these events. Congregations were divided into societies, composed of several families living within a short distance of each other.

For background information on this denomination see The Covenanters in Ireland: A History of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland by Adam Loughridge (Belfast, 1984). For information on ministers in the Reformed Presbyterian Church see Fasti of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland compiled and edited by Adam Loughridge (Belfast, 1970). A recent article on researching Covenanter ancestors is ‘The Origins of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland with some comments on its records’ by William Roulston, published in Familia: Ulster Genealogical Review (2008), pages 86-110. The website of this denomination is www.rpc.org. This includes a map showing the location of congregations.