Book Review: The Irish Presbyterian Mind by Andrew Holmes

At a recent academic seminar, I remarked (only somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that what defines Irish Presbyterianism is that it cannot agree on anything. I was alluding to the fact that historically, Irish Presbyterians have disagreed on a range of theological, social and political issues; indeed, over several centuries Irish Presbyterians have been preoccupied by such ‘family feuds’.

Today, Presbyterian disagreements tend to be reflected in rather crude caricatures of so-called ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative evangelical’ wings of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI), distinctions that have recently come to the fore around LGBTQ issues.

In The Irish Presbyterian Mind: Conservative Theology, Evangelical Experience and Modern Criticism, 1830-1930 (Oxford University Press, 2018), Andrew Holmes provides a much welcome historical perspective on high-level theological debates in PCI during a crucial period.

Holmes analyses the development of divergent perspectives within PCI on a range of issues, including responses to revivalism, ‘higher criticism’ of biblical texts, and the challenge of Darwinian science. At the same time, he sheds new light on the often-neglected intellectual contributions of Irish Presbyterians to international debates, arguing that Irish Presbyterian theologians were often more open and accommodating than their counterparts elsewhere, especially in the United States.

You can listen to Holmes, a Reader in History at Queen’s University Belfast, in conversation about the book with Crawford Gribben, Professor of History at QUB. It’s well-worth tuning in, particularly in a time of pandemic-imposed ‘virtual’ learning and due to the fact that The Irish Presbyterian Mind (unfortunately) comes with an ‘academic’ price tag of £65.

Holmes and Gribben’s wide-ranging discussion covers topics such as Presbyterian responses to the 1859 revival, the J.E. Davey heresy trial, and the development of university-level education for Presbyterian ministers on the island of Ireland. The conversation also briefly covers some of Holmes’ earlier work, which takes a more-encompassing view of Presbyterianism in that it is not so focused on the writings of ministers and theology professors.

A predictable criticism of The Irish Presbyterian Mind is that it is too focused on elite – and, due to the time period, unavoidably male, discourses. But Holmes argues that this is a necessary corrective to earlier work, which has tended to overlook Irish Presbyterians’ theological scholarship, including its important connections and contributions to Princeton Theology.

Princeton Theology developed in Princeton Theology Seminary in New Jersey in the early 1800s and was a significant force until early in the twentieth century. According to American historian Mark Noll (2001, p. 13), it was marked by: ‘Devotion to the Bible, concern for religious experience, sensitivity to the American experience, and full employment of Presbyterian confessions, seventeenth-century Reformed systematicians, and the Scottish philosophy of Common Sense’. (Earlier work by David Livingstone and Ronald Wells recognised the important connections between Irish and American Presbyterianism, including through Princeton.)

Historians’ neglect of Irish theological scholarship has been due to an overly-intense focus on religion’s role in shaping and reinforcing oppositional political identities, in the context of the island’s religious traditions.

As such, The Irish Presbyterian Mind is a welcome addition to scholarship that takes religion seriously as religion, and not merely a social-cultural phenomenon that it is subservient to political aspirations.

Some readers may be surprised to learn that Irish Presbyterians did not initially react to Darwinism by asserting a ‘six day’ Creationist interpretation of biblical texts. Rather, they were more vexed by the ‘moral’ questions that Darwinism raised about the nature of the universe. For example, if a ‘materialist’ Darwinian view of the world implied that a God was not altogether necessary, how could one know right from wrong?

Indeed, it is striking that during the early twentieth century, when ‘fundamentalist’ versus ‘modernist’ debates about evolution were tearing apart some American Protestant churches, evolution was, by comparison, barely debated in Ulster.

The United States had the ‘Scopes Monkey Trial’ about the teaching of evolution in schools, but the stand-out event in Northern Ireland was the heresy trial of Davey, a professor in Presbyterian College, Belfast. Davey was interested in modern psychology and its links to emotion and religious experience; his application of these ideas saw his critics accuse him of ‘modernism’.

Holmes’ nuanced treatment of the trial explores how Davey defended himself by appealing to his own evangelical experiences of ‘born again’ conversion and a ‘second blessing’ at Keswick. Davey argued that it was those experiences of God that made him open to more modern insights. As Holmes neatly summarizes the logic behind Davey’s acquittal (p. 234): ‘How could a saved man be a heretic?’

While Davey remains one of the more well-known figures of the era under consideration, Holmes introduces us to other important (though often overlooked) thinkers like Robert Watts, one of Ireland’s leading proponents of Princeton Theology; as well as Thomas Croskery and Thomas Witherow, who were editors of the Presbyterian Review, a successor of the journal the Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review. Holmes engages closely with their writings and ideas.

This gives readers a deeper appreciation of an intellectual culture that, while conservative in the sense of seeking to uphold perceived orthodoxy, was more rigorous and open than present-day readers might have supposed.

That’s worth remembering today, in an ‘echo chamber’ world where it remains all too easy to stereotype the perspectives of those who seem to hold strong beliefs – especially if those beliefs jar with our own.