Belfast Society

Belfast Society is noted in the history of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland for its having intensely agitated the Church for many years upon the question of subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith. It had its origin with Reverend John Abernethy, Jr., who became minister at Antrim in 1703. He was a diligent student, and soon drew around him as associates Reverend William Taylor, of Randalstown, Reverend Alexander Brown, of Donegore, and Reverend James Kirkpatrick, of Templepatrick — all young men of much promise. They were soon joined by Reverend Thomas Orr, of Comber, Reverend Alexander Colville, of Dromore, licentiates and theological students, and a few laymen of Belfast. The object of the organization was theological improvement. They first gave their organization the name of Belfast Society in 1705. "At their meetings, generally held monthly, each member preached in succession; chapters out of the Old and New Tests., previously agreed upon, were read in the original languages, and their difficulties discussed; reviews and analyses of books read by the members since the previous meeting were given; and dissertations were read on important theological topics, specially on those questions which were then attracting the attention of divines elsewhere, and becoming the subjects of controversy." Their sermons treated of "the nature and Scriptural terms of the unity of the Christian Church, the nature and mischief of schism, the rights of conscience and of private judgment, the sole dominion of Christ in his own kingdom, the nature, power, and effects of excommunication, and other subjects of that kind." Through Mr. Abernethy the latitudinarian notions on the inferiority of dogmatic belief and the nature of religious liberty, which had obtained currency on the Continent and in England, were introduced into the Belfast Society, and thus into Ireland. This society held and diligently promulgated their ideas, principal of which are the following error is innocent when not wilful; that every man's persuasion of what is true and right is the sole rule of-his faith and conduct; "that the Church has no right to require candidates for the ministry to subscribe to a confession of faith prepared by any man or body of men, and that such a required subscription is a violation of the right of private judgment, and inconsistent with Christian liberty and true Protestantism." There is much evidence which leads one to believe that this society was guilty of the heresy of Arianism; such was the prevalent impression at that time. Such views, held by some of the most learned of the Church, soon caused widespread alarm. The question of subscription became the topic of the day. The controversy was taken to the press, and over fifty pamphlets were published by the members of the society and their opponents. In 1721 the General Synod met at Belfast, when the orthodox Calvinists attempted to enforce subscription. A law to that effect was passed by the synod, to which all conformed except the members of the Belfast Society; after which time the Belfast Society was principally known by the appellation of non-subscribers. The synod, however, did not now expel, but passed pacific resolutions. The controversy still continued with unabated fury. The non-subscribers formed a presbytery (the Presbytery of Antrim). The subscribers refused communion with the non- subscribers. Finally, in 1726, the synod expelled the non-subscribers, some of whom established independent churches, others lost their following, and ceased from the ministry; thus a most unfortunate quarrel was settled, and the Belfast Society passed out of existence. In August 1727, the Belfast Society published a very valuable work; though partial and onesided, it contains an elaborate defence of their peculiar views. It contains compilations from original documents, and reports of the synod's debates, which are nowhere else preserved: A Narrative of the Proceedings of Seven General Synods of the Northern Presbyterians in Ireland, with Relation to their Differences in Judgment and Practice, from the Year 1720 to 1726, in which they Issued in a Synodical Breach. See Reid, Hist. of the Presb. Church in Ireland.

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