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The Shaping of Ulster Presbyterian Belief and Practice, 1770-1840
The Shaping of Ulster Presbyterian Belief and Practice, 1770-1840
Andrew R. Holmes
Oxford University Press, 2006
400 pp., $165.00

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Mary Noll Venables


Public Presbyterianism

Religious identity in the Synod of Ulster, 1770-1840.

One of the more remarkable events in recent Irish history was the formation of a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland in 2007. Unionist Ian Paisley, then head of the Democratic Unionist Party and moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, became the First Minister, while Republican Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein became the Deputy First Minister. Contrary to expectations, Paisley and McGuinness got on famously. Shortly before Christmas 2007, the "odd couple of Ulster" helped open IKEA's first Irish store, in Belfast, posing on a red sofa for photographers. Paisley expressed delight that the store made it easier for the man from Ballymena (his heavily Protestant constituency) "to buy cheap" because "[i]t's got the best possible goods for the lowest possible price."[1]

As Paisley's tribute to Presbyterian frugality suggests, Presbyterians have a distinctive identity—both cultural and religious. It's not Presbyterians' tightfistedness but their religious identity that concerns Andrew Holmes in The Shaping of Ulster Presbyterian Belief and Practice, 1770-1840. He aims to describe the theological character of Ulster Presbyterianism, paying particular attention to interactions between clergy and laity, the variety of Presbyterian opinions, and the significance of individual faith. Throughout the study, Holmes notes the growth of Presbyterian evangelicalism, which he defines as the search for reform and renewal within the church, and not as enthusiasm or individualism.

Holmes starts his study in 1770, by which time Presbyterianism was well established in Ireland, having been brought to the island by Scottish settlers in the early 17th century. Perhaps justifying a Presbyterian reputation for fractiousness, Irish Presbyterians were not monolithic. The majority of Irish Presbyterians belonged to the Synod of Ulster. In the early 18th century, a seceding synod formed, which subsequently split into two further synods. The Presbytery of Antrim, the Remonstrant ...

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