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A Review of the BBC Documentary “An Independent People.”


A Review of the BBC Documentary, “An Independent People”.

I watched episode two of the BBC documentary, “An Independent People”. Presented by William Crawley, this three part series looks at the history of Irish Presbyterianism, and in this episode it chronicled the influence of Presbyterianism on the USA, on the driving further west of the settlements, on the motivation to rebellion against the British overlords, on the establishment of state and the constitution. The programme was entertaining, visually stimulating and superbly presented. It was of course, well researched and historically accurate. As far as it went. But was it balanced? The BBC in general, and Mr Crawley in particular are known for a distinct left-leaning liberal inclination, so would that predisposition colour their presentation of the Presbyterians?

Many of the leading characters mentioned in the programme were part of the ‘New Lights’ faction within eighteenth century Presbyterianism. This faction was established and fostered by scholars and students at Glasgow University, and were part of the so-called ‘Sottish Enlightenment.’ (One of the leading lights in this faction was Francis Hutchinson, from Saintfield, Co. Down, the Chair of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow from 1729.) The Glasgow scholars believed in the goodness and ability of human reason, and this ‘enlightenment’ brought forth great advances in Philosophy, Economics, Engineering and of course, Theology. As Mr Crawley rightly pointed out, with Trinity College Dublin out of bounds for Presbyterians during the eighteenth century, Glasgow became the nearest option for Ulster Presbyterians who wanted to train for the ministry. And that was an expensive and difficult option, restricting ministry training to those who came from families who could afford the costs, namely the middle class, metropolitan elite, who would already be open to the enlightenment ideas. As Mr Crawley did not mention, THE NEW INTAKE OF MINISTERS WERE PREDETERMINED BY UPBRINGING AND EDUCATION TO TAKE A LIBERAL STANCE IN THEOLOGICAL DEBATES.

Glasgow’s influence on Ulster Presbyterian theology was highlighted on the BBC documentary. The students returned to their churches and parishes, many to Ulster, with ‘enlightenment’ views on the Scriptures. Basically they believed that the Bible could and should be interpreted in the light of the conscience of the individual – that faith should be informed by human reason. When the Presbyterians insisted that ministers and elders should subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith, the subordinate standard of Presbyterianism, the Glasgow-educated scholars objected. They were opposed to having the individual conscience bound by a systemised theology. Those who refused to sign formed the ANTRIM PRESBYTERY in 1725

They were known as the NEW LIGHTS and those who were prepared to subscribe were referred to as the Old Lights.

(These terms are confusing and difficult, and we should be careful with them. In later New England, the followers of the Congregationalist Jonathan Edwards were also dubbed as ‘New Lights’ because of their desire for a spiritual ‘experience.’ Those who opposed the Great Awakening under Edwards and others have been referred to as ‘Old Lights’ – who were accused of wanting to remain in staid orthodoxy and who believed that Edwards was introducing unhelpful innovations. Yet Edwards’ followers had little in common with the theological liberal Presbyterian ‘New Lights.)’

From this point in the documentary, Mr Crawley follows the history of the New Light faction, demonstrating the effect of their ‘enlightened’ views. He totally ignores the work and witness of the the Subscribers – those who were prepared to assent to the traditional doctrines of Presbyterianism, who continued to preach Calvinistic, Reformed truth as had been taught by Calvin and Knox, faithfully witnessing to Christ’s atoning death on the cross for sinners, and who remained as the majority of the Presbyterian community in Ulster.

In his lauding of the ‘New Lights’ and their influence on Ireland and America, Mr Crawley omitted to make reference to the theological aberrations to which their core belief of private interpretation of Scripture led. He did mention that one hundred years later, a more well known controversy over subscription would occur, this time under the liberal minister, Rev Henry Montgomery, and that schism, eventually joining with the Presbytery of Antrim eventually became the Non Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland, a denomination very far removed from orthodoxy indeed, and based entirely on the same principles as the ‘New Lights’ of the eighteenth century. Within that denominational abberation can be found accommodation for Unitarianism, Christological error, Eschatological error, and moral declension.

Henry Montgomery

Rev Henry Montgomery

(Their website states: ‘Faith guided by reason and conscience. We hold that Scripture is the only rule of faith and duty under the teaching of Christ. We accept the guidance of our reason and conscience and we believe that human creeds and confessions restrict the sacred rights of private judgement which is a fundamental principle of the Reformation.’)

(Some modern non-subscribers reject the doctrine of the Divinity of Christ, believing that Jesus was a good man, in some sense a son of God, whose death on the Cross was a good example of self-sacrificial love for us all to emulate. They do not believe in the eternal conscious punishment of the lost. Some of their ministers support and promote homosexuality, and have officiated at homosexual ‘blessings’ and allowed their church buildings to be used for these purposes. Of course, rejecting any idea of empirical truth, they will claim that it is for every individual’s conscience to determine what he/she thinks the Bible teaches on these matters.)

In fact, instead of mentioning the theological and doctrinal results of the succession of the New Lights, he describes their ‘faithfulness to Scripture‘ in glowing terms. Standing by an open Bible, he declares that these men were unwilling to yield on their belief that the Bible is the only rule of faith and duty. He just forgot to mention that it was the Bible viewed through the sin-cursed eyes of human reason! The Sola Scriptura of the Reformation had been relegated to ‘Scripture plus what I think.’

Now that Mr Crawley has diverted our attention to one faction of Presbyterianism, away from those awkward, Calvinistic men sticking rigidly to the theology of Knox and preaching the sovereignty of God and the sinfulness of man, he can take us further down the historical road taken by men who were Non-Subscribers, theological liberals, numerically a minority and (generally) republicans. He reminds of of their influence on America, and shows us a number of liberal presbyterian churches, all of the with woman ministers in the pulpit.

But, eventually the programme makers get us to where they really want us to be – to the events of 1798, the rebellion against British Rule in Ireland under Henry Joy McCracken. He shows us now how ‘Presbyterian ideals and principles’ – the principles of reason and tolerance, were the motivating influence behind the rebellion. He brings into the discussion republicans like William Orr and Wolffe Tone – Presbyterians who were United Irishmen to the core. He wants us to be aware that to be Irish, to desire a united Ireland is compatible with our Presbyterian heritage n these parts – a strong, principled position. He wants us to know that we can be both Presbyterian and Nationalist, even Republican. But only in passing is the majority Presbyterian population mentioned, those who rejected the new ideology of the Non-Subscribers, and who opposed the United Irishmen with their metropolitan liberal ideas and their anti-British insurrection.

There is one more programme in the series. Is it too much to hope that there will be some examination of the faithful Presbyterian believers who remained loyal to the Reformation principles, loyal to Christ the Saviour and loyal to Britain?

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