The Second Coming of Paisley by Richard Lawrence Jordan: Book Review

paisleyIn The Second Coming of Paisley: Militant Fundamentalism and Ulster Politics (Syracuse University Press, 2013), American historian Richard Lawrence Jordan provides us with some insights that are relevant for today – both for understanding the Rev Ian Paisley, and for coming to grips with unionist perspectives on religion and politics.

With a title like The Second Coming of Paisley, readers might assume this refers to Paisley’s seeming about-face in 2007, when he became First Minister of Northern Ireland after compelling his Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to share power with Sinn Fein in the Executive of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

But this is not the case. Jordan’s primary focus is on the late 1960s and early 1970s, when, he claims, Paisley became much influenced by American fundamentalism and its response to Martin Luther King Jr and the civil rights movement. Jordan argues that American fundamentalist preachers and political activists ultimately inspired him to take a more pragmatic approach to his religion –thus compromising aspects of his theology for the sake of political gain.

 

This, of course, allows us to see how Paisley’s latter-day entry into power-sharing is a logical extension of multiple small, ‘compromising’ decisions taken over many years. But unlike some who have studied Paisley, such as sociologist Steve Bruce, Jordan doesn’t see Paisley’s willingness to compromise as somehow exonerating him of responsibility for what other observers feel is a central role in the Troubles. On this, I’ll let Jordan speak for himself (p. 11):

“Without the onset of civil rights activism and O’Neillism, Paisley’s campaigns would have remained religious in focus and the advent of Free Presbyterianism would have been a minor historical incident that linked the Calvinism and revivalism of the British Isles with the militant fundamentalism that emerged in North America. Moreover, without the influence of American militant fundamentalism, there would have been no Paisleyism. Even more important, it is possible to argue that the communal fighting would not have taken place if Paisley had chosen to ignore the Northern Ireland civil rights movement and that civil rights activism would have been less radical if “Paisleyite” activities had not made it difficult for Terence O’Neill to implement political and economic reforms. Without Paisleyism, it is safe to say, the “Troubles” would have unfolded very differently – if they unfolded at all.”

Jordan is not the first scholar to note the links between Ulster and American Protestant fundamentalism. But this is the first book to look at Paisley’s relationships with key American figures in such depth and to argue that Paisley’s observations of the American civil rights movement had far-reaching consequences for his religious/political development. Jordan asserts that:

“Militant fundamentalists argued that a plot existed to use integration, civil rights agitation and black street violence to destroy America’s Protestant churches and establish a godless America” (p. 169) – an argument that sounds very much like what Paisley had to say about nationalism, republicanism, the civil rights movement, Catholicism and ecumenism in Northern Ireland.

Jordan also highlights Paisley’s relationships with segregationists and anti-civil rights campaigners like the Bob Joneses (Chris Donnelly has posted here recently on Ian Paisley Jr’s high regard for the Joneses), General Edwin A. Walker (who utilized John Birch Society material in writing materials for soldiers and advised soldiers how to vote in American elections), and Georgia Governor Lester Maddox, who “had prevented African Americans from eating at his Pickrick restaurant in Atlanta, chasing them into the street with hand guns and ax handles” (p. 193).

Paisley’s Protestant Telegraph reprinted Maddox’s speech to the Christian Crusade convention in 1967, where, Jordan writes:

“Maddox called the racial rioting across American cities a Communist conspiracy abetted by liberals within the US government. By devoting nearly half of his bimonthly eight-page paper to Maddox’s speech, Paisley signalled his whole-hearted endorsement of Maddox’s position and intimated that such a scenario could happen in Northern Ireland if the O’Neill administration did not stamp out the civil rights and Republican movements. It is conceivable that admiration for such Christian politicians strengthened Paisley’s resolve to enter politics” (p. 194).

Further, Jordan shows that Paisley and his American fundamentalist brethren saw themselves on a joint, international crusade against the various forces that would destroy Bible Protestantism if left unchallenged. Paisley’s actions in Northern Ireland, including time spent in jail for disturbing the peace at his pickets, were widely reported among the American fundamentalist press and deemed examples of the persecution of true Christianity.

Jordan also notes that Paisley was attending the annual Bible Conference held at Bob Jones University when Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated. Jordan admits that “Paisley has never publicly stated that the events of the American civil rights movement influenced him” (p. 199). But he argues that after King’s death, Paisley returned to Ulster with a new sense of purpose and was willing to adopt even more militant tactics to ensure that what happened in the US did not happen in his backyard.

 

Raising awareness of – and questions about – Paisley’s relationships with American fundamentalists is the most valuable contribution of this book.

Beyond that, there is plenty in the book for those looking for deeper historical connections between the US and Ulster.

 

For example, a major portion of the book is devoted to historical analysis of the development of fundamentalism in both contexts. In this, Jordan painstakingly discusses the influence of Calvinism and revivalism, introducing us to figures such as C.H. Spurgeon, James Glendinning, William Tennett, Henry Cooke, Roaring Hugh Hanna, Charles Finney, Dwight Moody, John Nelson Darby, W.P. Nicholson, J. Ernest Davey, and William Jennings Bryan.

Interestingly enough, Jordan covers some of the same ground traversed in the BBC’s recent documentary, An Independent People: The Story of Ulster’s Presbyterians. In linking Paisley’s career to the wider Ulster-American Presbyterian world, Jordan demonstrates that Paisley should not be seen as an isolated, unrepresentative figure, but rather that he is very much a product of this environment. As Jordan writes: “Paisleyism was the end product of the religious and political history of Ulster outlined to this point” (p. 90).

In the final chapter, titled “The Second Coming: Paisley and the ‘Civil’ Religion of Democratic Unionism,” Jordan turns to more recent history and offers his take on why Paisley seemingly changed his mind in 2007.

 

As a social scientist (and not a historian), I would have liked to have seen more attention paid to this contemporary period. But after detailing some examples of Paisley and the Democratic Unionist Party’s pragmatism over the years, Jordan agrees with theologian Patrick Mitchel’s argument that “Paisley’s political shift has theological underpinnings” (p. 260).

This follows a line Jordan had taken throughout the book:

Paisley started his public religious life as a “premillennialist,” a theological position that essentially assumes that political action is pointless because God is going to “rapture” away true believers, only to then destroy the world through great tribulations. (For more on the influence of this particular theology on American and Irish thinking, see my post on “Crawford Gribben on Ireland, America and the End of the World”).

But Paisley has now essentially become “amillennialist,” a position which assumes political action can be ordained by God and that changing the world is just as (or more?) important than saving souls. This, Jordan argues, is reflected in the wider world of Ulster fundamentalism/evangelicalism (p. 257):

“[Paisley’s] pragmatism exposed a trend that had been redefining Ulster’s evangelicalism since the revivalism of the nineteenth century: the abandonment of hyper-Calvinism and the acceptance of earthly solutions to man’s depravity and the work of the Holy Ghost.”

The Second Coming of Paisley is well-written and offers some new perspectives on the early career of Paisley, his relationships and influences, and the complex links between religion and politics in the US and Ulster. The book is currently selling for less than £20 on amazon – a bargain by the standards of academic publishing – and is well worth a read.

  • Ruarai

    Superb heads-up for a book I look forward to reading.

    One quibble with the presented thesis. When you write:

    “Without the onset of civil rights activism and O’Neillism, Paisley’s campaigns would have remained religious in focus”

    …and then later write…

    “Paisley’s political shift has theological underpinnings” (p. 260).

    I take issue, to a point. This presents the motives of Paisley based primarily on his reputed beliefs, not his ego.

    Start with the assumption that he was driven primarily by ego and not conviction and then you can see how he very well might have found another angle to make a name for himself.

    A comparison with Osama Bin Laden. Was OBL driven by (a) all the stuff he claimed to believe or (b) the ego that saw an opportunity to take a platform that would make him one of the most important men in the world?

    It’s B, innit?

    More than anything else, Paisley was about…Paisley.

    An old English teacher of mine – a veteran from the famous People’s Democracy March from Belfast to Derry that say Paisley’s thugs and the cops violently attack non-violent civil rights protestors – had it about right when he once told me: People who try to understand how NI descended into tribal violence almost always underestimate the significance of the Paisley factor.

    Sound like this book may be a step towards remedying that.

  • carl marks

    “More than anything else, Paisley was about…Paisley.”
    I think this is a very important point, If big Ian wasn’t at the centre of things then he didn’t play,
    He opposed the GF agreement till his party had enough seats to make him first minister then broke the famous covenant he made with god in his church on the Ravenhill rd, never to make a deal with the shinners.
    He loved the limo and the other trappings of power, even his use of the title DR was typical of his ego, he was given a honorary doctorate from a university whose degrees are not recognised by anybody but the nutty Christian right. But he behaved like he had actually earned it, i know of no other honorary doctor who uses the title.
    The British government was well aware of his ego and played him like a violin putting Eileen in the house of lords ( Ian could not have been first minister if he was a lord) was a beauty, no one has ever explained what she done to deserve that post apart from being married to ian but as a bribe it worked.

  • Ruarai,

    If you believe in Freud, people are not aware of their inner-most motivations that really drive them. Paisley could be completely sincere when he states his reasons for taking a particular course of action, yet a certain pattern emerges.

    This is I believe the fifth Paisley biography. I own those by Bruce and Moloney/Pollak (both versions). I know that one was written by a former member of his church who left, so I wonder if this will really add much. It also does not say when the end period of this study is. Does it end with the formation of the DUP in the early 1970s? Or does it cover Paisley’s subsequent political career?

  • Ruarai

    tmitch57,

    but was the ego really so “inner-most” with Paisley?

    This was a self-appointed Protestant Pope and political populist who boasted of his humility by incessantly advertising his own goodness in speeches from the pulpits, podiums and even etched in tasteful stain-glass monuments – some of which may have warned of idolatry!

    PS,
    perhaps more durable insights that those proposed by Freud’s matters of the ego are available in Dostoevsky’s “The Devils”. Essential reading for anyone trying to understand the last 40 years, not least the late 60s-early 70s in Ireland.

  • claudius

    Not available on Kindle. Typical Paisley.

  • pauluk

    What a pathetic life some people have. Can you folks not move on?

  • Expat

    Great contribution, pauluk! I had naively thought we moved on by understanding and acknowledging the past as a means of negotiating its legacy.

  • ayeYerMa

    “He opposed the GF agreement till his party had enough seats to make him first minister”

    The DUP position was that they would not deal with the Provos until there was at least a gesture of decommissioning to show at least some change in mindset. There is no contradiction here, plus the moral damage of the “Agreement”, its appeasement and prisoner releases, had already been done and it was the only pragmatic way to improve things at that stage.

  • @claudius,

    I looked for it on both the US and UK Amazon and couldn’t find it in any form. I’ll check back in a week or two.

    @Ruarai,

    But in the Evangelical fundamentalist tradition that he grew up in there is a tradition of child preachers and the belief that they are favored by God. Paisley began preaching at age 12 and founded his own church in his early 20s. So he may well feel that his clerical and political success were signs of God’s fortune. So this would tend to reinforce his oversize ego.

  • Ruarai

    tmitch57,

    that may be so and I’m not discounting it. But here’s the thing: Paisley has always immensely enjoyed being Paisely and that’s been obvious from the get-go.

    And I don’t mean enjoyed in the “carry one’s personal cross” as payment for passage to Elysium kinda way.

    No, I mean this guy has been virtually laughing his ass off for the past 40 years. He’s revelled in being himself.

    The rubbish jokes; the nasty play-to-the-rogue’s gallery put-downs; the hyper-dramatic shows of oratory. The need to be the capo of every single organization he’s ever been within hectoring distance of.

    Mission from God? Perhaps A lifetime of thrills? Without a doubt.

    He’s been well aware how much he has enjoys his act in a base pleasure kind of way, has he not?

  • If you are looking for the book on Amazon, click directly on the links I have provided in the blog post – they take you to the book on Amazon.

    You will also see from the post that I say that Jordan does spend some time on recent history, with a whole chapter to the immediate period leading up to 2007.

  • Jack2

    “Eileen in the house of lords ( Ian could not have been first minister if he was a lord) was a beauty, no one has ever explained what she done to deserve that post apart from being married to ian but as a bribe it worked.”

    Absolutely spot on!
    Peter Robinson buying land for a fiver. Iris in the bed of a teenage boy.
    Ian Jnr handed a high paying job due to his family and now bribery.

    Its looking less like a political party and more like a script from The Soprano’s.

  • “Paisley’s observations of the American civil rights movement had far-reaching consequences for his religious/political development.”

    Gladys, I can see how Paisley and Jones could be birds of a religious feather but does Jordan factor in the evolution of the civil rights movement in a UK and Ireland context? This context is very different from the US one.

    I’d have thought that Paisley’s politics would have been deeply influenced by the 1956-1962 IRA campaign and by the subsequent decision by armchair and militant socialist republicans to remove the ‘conservative’ administrations in both Belfast and Dublin, initially through agitation and, if necessary, through violence.

    If you’ve not looked at the UK and Ireland dimension, I’d recommend Desmond Greaves and the Origins of the Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland [Irish Democrat], Liam O Comain’s The Birth of the Provisionals and the Sean Garland speech at Bodenstown.

    Greaves was a member of the Connolly Association in Britain and editor of its newspaper, The Irish Democrat. In the [1963] pamphlet he argued that the best way forward for the anti-partitionist movement was through a civil rights campaign. .. O Comain

    There are no longer two different types of republicans; physical force men and politicians. We in the Republican Movement must be politically aware of our objectives and must also be prepared to take the appropriate educational, economic, political and finally military action to achieve them .. Garland

    Is anyone going to place Martin Luther King in the same camp as these armchair and militant republicans? I don’t think so.

  • Jack2

    “Is anyone going to place Martin Luther King in the same camp as these armchair and militant republicans? I don’t think so.”

    Not sure anyone is, as its a topic about Paisley.
    As I said before:
    Bribery & Nepotism are a given as above.
    With still no mention of Ulster Vanguard………