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The Shaping of Ulster Presbyterian Belief and Practice, 1770-1840$

Andrew R. Holmes

Print publication date: 2006

Print ISBN-13: 9780199288656

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2007

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199288656.001.0001

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The Lord's Day

The Lord's Day

(p.56) 1 The Lord's Day
The Shaping of Ulster Presbyterian Belief and Practice, 1770-1840

Andrew R. Holmes (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter outlines the attitude of Ulster Presbyterians to Sabbath attendance and observance, along with the efforts of religious reformers in the 19th century to improve lay practice and deal with the problems caused by population and urban growth.

Keywords:   sabbath, attendance, observance, population growth, urban growth, discipline

(p.57) The observance of the Lord's Day, as laid out in the Directory, entailed not merely attendance at meeting, but the setting aside of the whole day as holy to God.1 In order to do so, necessary preparations had to be made, all worldly business postponed, and servants were to be allowed a day of rest to attend meeting. The Christian Sabbath was to begin with private and family devotions before the family assembled at the meeting‐house, the head of the household ensuring that all under his care attended punctually and remained until the benediction was given. During the intermission in the middle of the service, and for the remainder of the day, time was to ‘be spent in reading, meditation, religious conversation, catechising, repeating of sermons, private and family prayer, visiting the sick, relieving the poor, and in performing any other duties of piety, charity, and mercy’.2 The Puritan use of the Sabbath as the focal point of piety was a significant innovation in the life of the church as it inaugurated a weekly rather than a yearly cycle of piety.3 The Sabbath was a time when the people of God were to meet, irrespective of social rank or wealth, to worship God and encourage one another in the faith. This chapter outlines the attitude of Ulster Presbyterians to Sabbath attendance and observance, along with the efforts of religious reformers in the nineteenth century to improve lay practice and deal with the problems caused by population and urban growth.

(p.58) I

The use of church attendance statistics is fraught with difficulties concerning the collection, presentation, and interpretation of data. The debates that have surrounded the timing and character of secularization and the significance of the 1851 religious census as an indicator of working‐class non‐attendance are cases in point.4 Attendance or membership figures tell us little about the intensity with which religious beliefs were held, but they are a useful indicator in determining the ‘social significance’ of religion.5 In Ulster there were different degrees of attachment to organized religion and various factors often militated against a deeper commitment to the local congregation. Bare statistics therefore need to be placed and interpreted within the complicated context from which they have been extracted. The following section is not meant to be an in‐depth examination of all the variables surrounding Presbyterian church attendance in Ulster, but a broad description of the main issues.

In the 1780s, the minister of Armagh, William Campbell, calculated that if the average number of families attending each of the 180 congregations of the Synod of Ulster was 400, and if there were six persons in each family, then the estimated population belonging to the Synod would be 432,000. To that number, he added approximately 82,800 Seceders to give 514,800 persons attached to mainstream Irish Presbyterianism.6 Campbell's figures did not include either Reformed Presbyterians or members of the Southern Association, and his estimated totals seem to be somewhat inflated. The publication in 1835 of average church attendance figures in the First report of the commissioners of public instruction were similar to his estimates but were taken after several decades of net population growth. If the 1835 figures are compared with the regium donum returns of 1834, which gave the total number of individuals (p.59)

Table 1. Size and average attendance of the principal Presbyterian groupings in Ulster, 1835


Number of congregations


Average attendance

Ratio of adherents to attendees

Synod of Ulster















Presbytery of Antrim










Sources: First report of the commissioners of public instruction, Ireland, HC (1835), xxxiii; An account, in detail, of the application of the sums voted to defray the expense of non‐conforming, Seceding, and Protestant dissenting ministers in Ireland in 1833, HC (1834), xlii. 523–6. For the calculation of these figures, see A. R. Holmes, ‘Ulster Presbyterian belief and practice, 1770–1840’ (QUB Ph.D., 2002), 340–51.

connected with a congregation and who are referred to in Table 1 as adherents, it is possible to calculate ratios between the total number of people who could attend meeting (adherents) and the average number who actually did.

In addition to these figures were 1,831 persons who belonged to the Synod of Munster and an estimated 20,000 belonging to other Presbyterian groupings, including 16,000 Reformed Presbyterians.7 An examination of the figures indicates variations in attendance based upon geographical location, the type of Presbyterianism of the congregation, and the time of the year, with attendance increasing during the summer months. In addition, there were problems associated with the collection of the original data. Presbyterian congregations did not correspond with the Church of Ireland parishes upon which the census was based, which may have led to either the under‐ or over‐reporting of Presbyterian strength in certain areas. The Synod of Ulster established a committee in 1835 to correspond with the government as many of the returns appeared to underestimate the number of Presbyterians in Ulster, while the Remonstrants alleged that some orthodox Presbyterians had deliberately inflated their attendance figures in order to receive a higher regium donum grant.8

(p.60) In congregations belonging to the Synod of Ulster and the Remonstrant Synod, between one‐fifth and one‐quarter of those who could attend meeting on a regular basis did so. Perhaps owing to its size and geographical concentration, the small Presbytery of Antrim had a high level of adherence, while the more scrupulous and committed attitude of the Seceders may account for their higher attendance ratio. In fact, the situation was even more complicated. On the basis of the 1835 figures, George Mathews, a Presbyterian who worked as a government official in Dublin Castle, reckoned there were 130,898 Presbyterians in 1836 ‘who are not under the charge of any clergyman of their own’.9 Matthew observed that ‘after making every allowance for aged, sick, juvenile, and those otherwise absent, the attendance is (particularly throughout the Synod of Ulster) far below what it ought to be, whatever are the geographical obstructions in mountainous or sea coast districts’.10 The existence of a large group of people who were called Presbyterian but who had no formal connection with the church has significant implications for the present study. It highlights variations in the level of lay attachment to the structures and beliefs of Presbyterianism. Being a Presbyterian for some people had little to do with attendance at meeting. Their identity signified attachment to certain cultural, ethnic, and political ideals that were informed but not necessarily beholden to the peculiar doctrines of Presbyterianism. The Presbyterian laity was not homogeneous but varied according to the religious, social, and cultural outlook of the individual or group concerned.

The question still remains, why did so many not attend meeting on a regular basis? A variety of factors contributed, including a lack of suitable clothing, tiredness after working all week, dislike of a preacher's style, and want of inclination.11 The above figures must also be placed within the context of rapid population growth between 1750 and 1841. Some Presbyterians recognized the implications of this for church accommodation and pastoral provision. In 1807 the Synod of Ulster in its pastoral address noted that the number of communicants had not kept pace with population (p.61) growth.12 Yet, it was only in the late 1820s and 1830s that serious concerns were raised. The prominent evangelical minister of Aghadowey, the Revd John Brown, stated the problem in stark terms to the Synod of Ulster in 1833. While presbyteries and ministers reported that attendance was good and communicant members were as numerous as ever, he believed that such statements failed to take into account that the population in some areas had doubled in the past thirty years and that a comparable increase of ministers was needed to meet this new need. He claimed that, ‘dense masses of heathenism exist in our large towns and in country parishes, while no adequate exertions are being made to enlighten and reclaim them’.13

The problems caused by population growth were exacerbated by the organization of local congregations, particularly the pew rent system. Pews or ‘sittings’ were let to individuals and families in return for a fixed sum payable at set times during the year, the bulk of which made up the minister's stipend.14 Pews were accorded different monetary values depending on their location in the meeting‐house. Ostensibly, this system ensured that anyone who wanted a pew, irrespective of wealth, had access to public worship, but it also meant that social differences were reflected in congregational seating plans. In 1834 the stipend of £80 paid to the Revd William Montieth of Glendermott was made up by three classes of pew‐sitter, ranging from ‘gentlemen’ at £1.10s., to farmers at £1, and artisans/cottiers at 15s.15 The congregations of Lisburn and Cahans, County Monaghan, were more elaborately arranged with eight and nine classes respectively.16 In Synod of Ulster congregations, this social differentiation based on ability to pay was carried further in a 1733 resolution that a two‐thirds majority of both church‐members and money had to be achieved when voting for a new minister.17 The pew rent system did exclude poorer Presbyterians from attending public worship as they (p.62) could simply not afford the seat rent for themselves and their families. Owing to demand for seating, it was usually the case that not all members of a family attended meeting. The Presbytery of Route in 1836 found that generally seatholders were ‘not disposed … to take sufficient accommodation for their families’ and that on average ‘the sittings taken by seatholders do not amount to two sittings for each family’.18 In some areas the economic difficulties of the 1820s and 1830s also inhibited the ability of individuals to pay pew rents.

Though the provision of church accommodation remained inadequate, a number of points are worth noting. First, the brisk growth in the number of Seceder congregations in the second half of the eighteenth century provided a safety valve for an increasing population by providing extra ministers and congregations without the procedural and financial constraints of the Synod of Ulster. They had no such rule as that passed by the Synod of Ulster in 1733 and often stressed the lack of wealth or gender differentiation between church members in their congregations.19 Second, until the early 1770s, around 100,000 individuals, mostly Presbyterians, had left Ulster and migrated to America. This led directly to the collapse of the first Reformed Presbyterian presbytery and more generally to a reduced demand for church accommodation. Third, non‐attendance at worship did not suddenly become a problem in the nineteenth century, and synodical pronouncements, presbytery records, and Kirk session books demonstrate the concern of eighteenth‐century Presbyterians with this issue.20 By the nineteenth century, the desire to collect data and the rhetoric of evangelicals drew greater attention to the scale and possible moral consequences of non‐attendance. Indeed, the almost excessive expectations of evangelicals concerning appropriate levels of churchgoing have done much to distort our appreciation of working‐class attendance in this period.21

(p.63) It is not self‐evident that Presbyterians were automatically excluded by pew rents or a lack of suitable clothing as this presupposes that every Presbyterian had a similar desire to attend public worship. Some Kirk sessions expressed concern that presumably well‐to‐do seatholders and those who took church privileges were not attending public worship.22 Conversely, Henry Cooke observed in 1825 that the ‘poor are generally as forward to pay according to their means as the rich’.23 Nor does it necessarily follow that the poor resented the social differentiation implied by the different classes of pew rent or indeed the suitability of their clothing.24 In his evidence to a House of Commons Select Committee in 1835, Alexander Moncrieff, a Belfast muslin manufacturer, took issue with the view that a lack of decent clothing deterred the poor from attending church and reiterated the point that it was personal inclination that determined whether an individual attended or not. He continued, ‘If they are very religiously inclined they are generally economical in their habits; and the desire they have to attend a place of worship induces them to strain every point to do so; and, of course, they generally manage to attend.’25 Likewise, the Revd William Moore of Moneymore, County Londonderry, commented in the 1830s that Presbyterians in the area were so proud they ‘actually live on scanty meals and work hard all week in order to appear well dressed on Sunday’.26 Where possible, congregations also ensured that provision was made for those who could not afford to pay pew rent but who wanted to attend public worship. Cheap or free seating was often provided at the back or in the balcony of the meeting‐house and in other cases the pew rent of the less well‐off was paid out of the poor fund or a special collection.27

(p.64) The alarm caused by the growth of population led the Synod of Ulster to attempt a number of initiatives to increase the opportunities for attendance. The Synod recommended in 1828 that evening services should be held in the summer months in all their congregations and, though initially the adoption of a second service was slow, it soon became the norm.28 More important, a remarkable church building programme was undertaken in the 1830s. In a resolution passed in 1833 and repeated the following year, the Synod recognized that ‘very many of the members of this church are totally destitute of accommodation for public worship’ and recommended presbyteries to ‘take immediate steps for the erection of new congregations wherever they may appear necessary’.29 During the 1830s, the Synod erected eighty‐three congregations (at least fifteen of which where located in the five presbyteries with the lowest attendance ratios) compared with only seventy‐three established between 1729 and 1829. Congregations also spent £107,000 on rebuilding and repairs. The home mission of the Seceders organized a further thirty‐three congregations between 1820 and 1840.30

Establishing a congregation was financially more viable in the nineteenth century due to the new terms upon which the government endowment of Presbyterianism, the regium donum, was granted. Until 1803 it was given as a fixed sum to both the Synod of Ulster and the Secession synods who then divided that sum equally between their ministers. After that date, each congregation belonging to the Synod of Ulster was placed into one of three classes, each receiving a fixed sum of £100, £75, or £50. The Seceders received their augmentation in 1809, classified at £70, £50, and £40. Therefore, establishing a new congregation after 1803 meant that the overall share a minister received from the government would remain the same. Despite this, the importance of religious principle in church growth should not be ignored. The terms of the regium donum were altered in 1803 and though thirty‐four congregations were erected by the synod in the 1820s, eighty‐two were formed in the 1830s. It was (p.65) only after the triumph of Cooke and evangelicalism in 1829 that the Synod embarked wholeheartedly upon its church‐building programme. Any previous official mention of providing extra accommodation was through committees dominated by evangelicals.31 Furthermore, until the 1780s, the Seceders significantly increased the number of congregations under their care without any government grant.


Recent studies of the nature and chronology of secularization have claimed that social and cultural changes from the 1960s have had a greater impact upon levels of churchgoing than industrialization and urbanization in the nineteenth century.32 Consequently, Victorian cities may no longer be seen as the graveyards of organized religion and churches as middle‐class institutions. This view is echoed by work on church membership and social class in Belfast between 1870 and 1930, which has shown that, though Belfast Presbyterianism became predominantly middle‐class in character, working‐class membership continued to increase and by 1901 36.4 per cent of the total church membership belonged to the upper working class.33 Despite this re‐evaluation, it is important to consider the impact of the growth of Belfast in particular upon Sabbath attendance and the provision of church accommodation. Owing to immigration from rural areas, the population of Belfast grew from 37,277 in 1821 to 75,308 in 1841.34 As noted in the Introduction, the rate of growth was impressive in itself, but its concentration in one area was unprecedented and qualitatively different to anything that had occurred (p.66) previously, since Ulster did not have an extensive urban network until the middle of the nineteenth century.

At first glance, the census returns for the Synod of Ulster in 1834 would seem to contradict the view that urban centres were inimical to organized religion.35 The two presbyteries with the highest attendance ratios were Belfast and Dublin, with figures of 33 and 37.9 per cent respectively. Five rural Synod of Ulster presbyteries had ratios below 20 per cent, namely, Cavan (18.5%), Clogher (19.5%), Down (18.7%), Monaghan (19.3%), and Templepatrick (17.9%). The first four were situated in the heartland of the Seceders, which explains in part the low attendance figures for the Synod of Ulster in those areas. In only one case did Seceders have an attendance ratio below 30 per cent (Tyrone, 29.8%). Templepatrick Presbytery had experienced deep divisions and upheavals after the Remonstrants' exodus and it may be the case that there was considerable confusion in the area as to membership. Nonetheless, it is clear that non‐attendance was not a solely urban phenomenon and that the churches' concentration of resources upon Belfast may have increased attendance there by providing extra church accommodation and activities for urban dwellers to the detriment of Presbyterians in rural areas.

On closer examination, the figures for Belfast are misleading. The census returns for 1834 gave the Presbyterian population of Belfast (Shankill Parish) as 25,939 (the Anglican and Catholic populations were 17,942 and 22,078).36 Yet when the total numbers of adherents of each of the twelve Presbyterian congregations given in the report are added together, the total comes to 12,661 persons; the total average attendance each Sunday was 5,900. In other words, over one half of those termed Presbyterian in the 1834 returns were not connected with the Presbyterian churches in the parish. A significant number of the non‐affiliated 13,278 persons may have been children, those unable to attend for a variety of reasons, and some may have gone to congregations in neighbouring parishes, though given the lack of accommodation across the board that is unlikely.

(p.67) Callum Brown has shown that the economic and industrial expansion of Glasgow between 1780 and 1820 caused a massive escalation in pew rents and the subsequent alienation of many working‐class people from Church of Scotland congregations.37 As early as 1812, Samuel Hanna, minister of Third Belfast, discovered during his visitation work ‘that there were many families residing in Belfast, who have not connected themselves with any place of public worship. They are generally poor.’38 An author of a pamphlet published in the same year, and written in response to the formation of an interdenominational Sunday school, claimed, ‘It has long been matter of infinite concern to many, to observe the gross ignorance on the subject of religion which prevails among the lower class of Presbyterians in this town and neighbourhood.’39 The author outlined a number of reasons for this level of religious ignorance. One of the main causes was the pew rent system and the inability of the poor to contribute anything towards a minister's stipend. Another was the lack of zeal for visiting displayed by Presbyterian ministers compared with that of the Catholic clergy, who did so without the promise of financial reward. Owing to this, the author claimed that Presbyterians were deserting their own church for ‘Methodists, evangelicals, or other enthusiasts’.40 The final reason he noted was the false pride of the Presbyterian laity who would not attend meeting unless they had respectable clothing.

Anxiety about urban growth intensified amongst Presbyterians as the population of Belfast increased rapidly during the 1820s and 1830s. In his role as chaplain of the county jail, James Seaton Reid observed that newly arrived migrants ‘saw themselves completely overlooked and lost in the great mass of the neglected population’. He continued, ‘in the course of time, [they] sunk into indifference about religion and religious duties, and thus passed from one stage of (p.68) evil to another, till they committed the crime for which they were suffering when they came under his notice’.41 Once they had been transplanted to urban areas, Presbyterians did not have access to the traditional framework of pastoral visitation and communal identity that existed in their rural communities. In response, the Seceder Presbytery of Down in 1837 attempted to make sure that rural and urban ministers liaised with one another to ensure that no one would be without church provision.42 Concern was also expressed that the growth of Belfast would have an adverse effect upon the morals of its hinterland. James Morgan, the prominent evangelical minister of Fisherwick Place congregation and tireless advocate of missionary and philanthropic societies, stated in 1837 that Belfast was ‘a stagnant pool, emitting an atmosphere hurtful to the morals and religion of the people, while it might, and ought to be, a living fountain, pouring out streams of purity and peace over the face of the land’.43 John Dill, minister of Carnmoney congregation just to the north of Belfast, was worried that being situated ‘near the contagion of a large town’ encouraged breaches of the Sabbath in his congregation.44

Commentators believed, and the statistical evidence confirms their fears, that there was a growing pool of nominal Presbyterians in Belfast who had little or no formal link with the church. Morgan estimated in 1837 that there were 18,000 persons in Belfast without connection with the churches whose plight was made all the worse by the density, increase, baneful influence, and obscurity of the population.45 Some recommended that Scripture readers be appointed to visit and catechize those who had no links with established congregations.46 Yet as the presbyteries of Bangor and Belfast realized in 1833, the pressing need was to provide extra accommodation for nominal Presbyterians.47 Initially the ecclesiastical machinery was (p.69) cumbersome. For example, the initiative for Townshend Street congregation came, not from the General Synod, but from the exertions of Cooke and Morgan who initiated and oversaw the completion of the project. The congregation was fitted with free pews and a number of very cheap seats for the poor.48 Once the initial obstacles had been overcome, the church could move quickly. The Presbytery of Belfast recorded in 1837 that over £45,300 had been spent on erecting new or repairing old congregations in the previous decade.49 By 1842 the General Assembly had fifteen congregations in Belfast compared with only two Synod of Ulster charges in 1800.50 Valiant attempts were also made by evangelicals in general to provide for the religious and social needs of a growing urban population through the formation of voluntary organizations. For instance, the object of the Belfast Town Mission, founded in 1827, was to address the problems associated with urban growth by distributing Bibles, encouraging church attendance, ‘and contributing, in every possible way, to the promotion of religious knowledge, feeling, and practice’.51

Theologically liberal Presbyterians also voiced their concern about the absence of poorer Presbyterians in their Belfast congregations. They recognized that it was difficult to attract the poor as Unitarianism was associated with wealth and social respectability. One writer even suggested that ‘while avoiding their unworthy artifices, [they] imbibe something of [the] proselytising spirit’ of the Synod of Ulster.52 Overall, the Unitarian response to urban growth was piecemeal. After the success of an evening lecture series for the working class in Second Belfast in 1834, the congregational committee decided to reserve seats in the west gallery, and later in the east gallery also, for the working class at 1s. 3d. per month.53 Previously, in 1833, they decided that a new Unitarian meeting‐house should be (p.70) established in Belfast, though First Congregation ‘did not deem such an object to be then expedient’. Undaunted, Second Congregation eventually bought a derelict meeting‐house in York Street for £250, which was officially opened in January 1840.54 The problem was that the commercial and bourgeois Belfast of the late eighteenth century in which liberal Presbyterianism had thrived had disappeared and the harsh industrial centre of the nineteenth century was not congenial to their refined ways and liberal beliefs.


Attendance at meeting is only one indicator of how well the Lord's Day was observed as the whole day was to be set aside for religious devotions and activities. It was a common opinion that Ulster Presbyterians strictly observed the Sabbath. Samuel Walker's poem, ‘The cotter's Sabbath day’, gives a somewhat idealized, yet not wholly misleading, glimpse into the devotional observance and educational interests of lay Presbyterians.

Then some to readin' verse‐about commence,

And some the alphabet to wee anes tell;

The father taks some beuk o' sober sense,

Or godly sermon, which he reads himsel'.

Syne at the question‐beuk they tak a spell—

The father spiers, the bairns their answers gie;

Some say them pat, and ithers no sae weel,

Accorin' as their size is big or wee,

And some can say them a'—some but twa sides, or three.55

Henry Cooke observed in 1825 that ‘the Presbyterians in the north are generally speaking excessively puritanical in their observance of Sunday’, adding that when he was a boy ‘I dare not go bird's nesting, or after any other boyish amusement … or I should receive a severe chastisement’.56 Presbyterian respect for the Sabbath may be gauged (p.71) by their sartorial habits. One observer of Presbyterians in Balteagh, County Londonderry, stated that ‘On Sunday they all endeavour to display as much of their finery as possible.’57 Similarly in Aghadowey, ‘The men appear at meetings in skirted dress coats and the females in shoes, stockings and bonnets.’58 In some cases, the style and colour of Presbyterian dress marked them as distinct from their non‐Presbyterian neighbours. Some males had a penchant for wearing black and those in Glendermot were called ‘Rooks’.59 The importance of Sabbath observance was also enshrined in local legends of retribution. Sometime in the late eighteenth century in the Larne and Kilwaughter district, the harvest was delayed due to bad weather and, as a consequence, the grain was in danger of rotting in the fields. A dry day came along, but happened to be a Sabbath. William Agnew, the local squire, convinced the minister, Robert Sinclair, to let the congregation gather the corn. Many refused to do so and they always remembered that the first man to yoke his horse that day lost it before the year's end.60

Those who did not observe the Sabbath correctly could be disciplined by the Kirk session. According to the synodical address of the Burgher Synod in 1781, not observing the Lord's Day would harden the heart and dull the conscience of the individual thus leading to greater sins and, in some cases, to the gallows.61 In a study of Sabbath breach in Scotland, Leah Leneman found that between 1740 and 1780 there was a general decline in the prosecution before Kirk sessions of those who broke the Sabbath. She also suggested, but did not demonstrate, that Seceders tended to be more severe in their discipline of such offenders.62 Even before 1740, the situation in Ulster as regards the prosecution of Sabbath breach seems never to have been as severe as in Scotland. It has been calculated from the nine remaining pre‐1740 session books that out of the 1,275 cases (p.72) recorded only seventy‐eight were for breach of the Sabbath (sixty‐two were from one congregation alone).63 During our period, congregations belonging to the Synod of Ulster and the Presbytery of Antrim prosecuted few, if any, such cases. The failure of Synod of Ulster Kirk sessions to impose discipline in this area did not mean they were not alarmed by open profanation of the Sabbath. However, when a dispute arose over the propriety of Volunteer parading on the Sabbath, it is significant that those ministers with New Light sympathies actively encouraged it while Sinclare Kelburn and the Seceders emphatically did not.64

Seceder and Covenanter Kirk sessions prosecuted more cases of Sabbath profanation than the Synod of Ulster, but even then such cases did not comprise a major proportion of their caseload. The scrupulous session of Cahans prosecuted only one such instance out of a total of fifty‐six in the period from 1751 to 1758; between 1767 and 1836, only four out of 188.65 Other Seceder and Covenanter session books record discipline for unlawful travelling, intoxication, and farm work on the Sabbath.66 The Eastern Presbytery in 1815 referred two cases to the Reformed Synod, one involving a man who had to distribute milk on the Sabbath evening, the other involving a baker who had to set his sponge. Despite the risk to their livelihoods, the Synod agreed that both activities were a breach of the Sabbath.67 An example of Seceder discipline from 1840 involved a postmaster who was prevented from becoming an elder in Sandholes congregation, County Tyrone, as his employment entailed working on the Sabbath.68 For liberal Presbyterians, such strictness smacked too much of hypocrisy and legalism. A Remonstrant writer urged his readers ‘not to spend it [the Sabbath] in a slavish round of superstitious (p.73) austerities; but … to reserve it from the world, and devote it to moral and religious exercises’.69 Different types of Presbyterians obviously observed the Sabbath in different ways according to their religious and social values.


Seceder and Synod of Ulster Presbyterians in the early nineteenth century showed increasing concern about the profanation of the Sabbath. In 1807 the Synod of Ulster declared, ‘This day, which should be devoted to the public and private exercises of religious worship, is in too many instances passed in walking or jaunting abroad for amusement, in visiting and receiving visits, in idleness, vain conversation, or evil company.’70 According to contemporary opinion, one of the most flagrant examples of Sabbath profanation was the over‐consumption of alcohol by sections of the congregation who during the intermission in public worship headed to the local alehouse or dram‐shop.71 Drinking alcohol in the period before the 1820s was neither a socially nor a religiously unacceptable activity for the laity and ministers unless it led to drunkenness or further sin. That is not to say that such behaviour did not constitute a breach of the Sabbath as Kirk sessions did censure some for drinking on that day. In general, Presbyterians could drink ale or spirits when they wanted. This accounts for the paradoxical reports often found in the Ordnance Survey Memoirs of the 1830s. The memoir for Templepatrick noted that Presbyterians were ‘rather moral and are very strict in their observance of the Sabbath’ by their attendance at meeting, abstinence from work, and devotional exercises. Yet, on the other hand, ‘most of all classes, particularly during the “intermission 'tween sermons” in summer, resort to the alehouse for some time’.72 An earlier commentator writing in 1812 gives us the following account. (p.74)

As we entered Broughshane, the people were coming out from worship, between sermons and not a few entering the public‐houses; our inn was soon nearly full to the door, old and young merrily sacrificing to the ‘jolly god’, in a manner which fully evinced, that they were ‘o'er all the ills of the life victorious’. This scene left some doubts in our minds, which our short stay did not allow us to solve; namely, what was the chief object of the people coming to Broughshane on Sundays?73

The question posed is a pertinent one, for it highlights the importance of the Sabbath to the social life of rural communities. The prevalence of 'tween sermon drinking in south Antrim, an area of dispersed settlement and few villages, was part of the Sabbath's social function in providing ‘one of the regular social meeting points in the pattern of rural life’.74 One contemporary writer observed that Sabbath conversation tended to concentrate on every subject except religion; ‘The weather, the crops, the markets, perhaps the common gossip and scandal of the neighbourhood—these are their all‐engrossing topics of discourse, with the exception, it may be, of a serious observation occasionally thrown in for the sake of decency.’75 The prevalence of stalls selling alcohol, food, and other items outside the meeting‐house gate offers another indication of the social importance of the Lord's Day. Joseph Kinkead, minister of Killinchy in the 1770s, took drastic action against stalls that sold spirits. Finding that preaching had no effect, ‘the following Sunday he took a stick, broke all the liquor bottles, demolished the stalls and thus settled the question of roadside liquor for the time being at any rate’.76 In the light of the widespread use of alcohol, it is little wonder that the temperance movement specifically linked intemperance with the profanation of the Sabbath. In a letter published in the Belfast News‐Letter on 14 August 1829, John Edgar, the noted temperance advocate, outlined the extent of Sabbath breach in Ulster and the ‘terrific demoralising influence’ of treating the Lord's Day ‘as a mere holiday’. (p.75) He argued that if the Sabbath was to be made special once more, the main cause of Sabbath profanation, ‘the sale and use of spirituous liquor’, must be addressed. ‘We can never secure effectual permanent cure for this monster ill on the Sabbath except by putting an end to the customary use of spirits on all days. To have sanctity on the Sabbath, there must be temperance all year round.’77

During the nineteenth century a variety of reformers endeavoured to ensure that the Sabbath was well observed for a variety of economic, religious, and social reasons.78 Ulster Presbyterians attempted to influence public opinion against profanation of the Sabbath through various means such as Sunday Schools and ensuring that church courts disciplined those who breached the fourth commandment as well as the more frequently prosecuted seventh.79 By the mid‐1830s, visitation presbyteries were asking questions about levels of attendance, late arrival, early leaving, and coming in an out of the service.80 The Presbytery of Tyrone had specific questions regarding the sale of alcohol and attendance at public houses on the Sabbath presumably on account of the prevalence of illicit distillation in west Ulster.81 The burgeoning Presbyterian periodical press printed the resolutions passed by the various synods and presbyteries in favour of sanctification of the Sabbath and provided advice as to how the Sabbath should be observed, invariably reinforcing the strictness of the Directory's original prescriptions and the spiritual benefits of doing so.82 Others were astute enough to appreciate that the practical benefits would appeal to those who did not normally observe the Sabbath. For many factory workers and other exploited groups, sabbatarianism offered a means by which they could guarantee a (p.76) day's rest. It also chimed well with the working‐class desire for self‐improvement, independence, and respectability.83 These values were expressed in a petition from 1836 that hoped to ‘promote the comfort and moral improvement of the poor man by protecting him in his privilege of the Sabbath, and by leading him, after the labours of the week, away from the haunts of dissipation and profligacy, to spend this holy day in the bosom of his family and the service of his God’.84

Petitioning Parliament was a significant means by which reformers sought to enforce observance. One of the first synodical petitions was Henry Cooke's against Sabbath distilling, transmitted through the Synod of Ulster in 1819.85 The numbers of petitions increased dramatically during the 1830s in support of, for example, a bill presented to Parliament in 1833 by the famous Scottish Sabbatarian Sir Andrew Agnew, Sunday trading, and the running of trains on the Sabbath.86 There were dissenting voices against aspects of petitioning. One Seceder believed that signing petitions on the Lord's Day was itself a breach of the fourth commandment.87 Non‐subscribers voiced concerns about any means of attempting to legally enforce observance. Referring to the spate of petitions sent to Parliament in 1833, one writer, while agreeing with the principle, argued that the existing laws against Sabbath profanation were already too severe and that legislation was not the way to commend Christian morality. He believed that the way to encourage observance was by increasing public knowledge and promoting the principles of true religion rather than by further legislation.88

For nineteenth‐century Presbyterians, non‐attendance and Sabbath profanation became major issues of concern. The growth of Belfast presented the church authorities with the unprecedented problem of (p.77) how to deal with nominal Presbyterians who had little or no links with urban congregations. Their concern with Belfast overshadowed the problems of non‐attendance in rural areas, but it does show how perceptions amongst Presbyterians were significantly altered by the onset of urbanization. Non‐attendance and its associated problems were more obvious when concentrated in a small area. For evangelicals, this acted as a spur both to missionary endeavour and to the provision of accommodation for thousands of non‐churchgoers. At the same time, the Sabbath had more social rather than religious significance for many Presbyterians. The social side of the Sabbath has been stressed because that is what reformers believed needed to be reformed. Non‐attendance and Sabbath breach were widespread in some areas, though how far this was a wilful rejection of the Sabbath or how far it was determined by practical considerations depended upon a variety of factors. The stereotypical view that Presbyterians were scrupulous in their observance of the Sabbath focuses upon only one, albeit a significant, aspect of Presbyterian practice and, to some degree, is itself a product of the rhetoric and reforms of nineteenth‐century evangelicals.


(1)   Directory, 375, 386.

(2)   Code (1825), 87.

(3)  C. Hambrick‐Stowe, The practice of piety: Puritan devotional practice in seventeenth‐century New England (Chapel Hill, N. C., 1982), 96.

(4)  For a stimulating, though not entirely convincing, reading of these themes see, C. G. Brown, The death of Christian Britain: understanding secularisation 1800–2000 (London, 2001).

(5)  Idem, Religion and society in Scotland since 1707 (Edinburgh, 1997), 42–4.

(6)  I. R. McBride, Scripture politics: Ulster Presbyterians and Irish radicalism in the late eighteenth century (Oxford, 1998), 27–8.

(7)  G. Mathews, An account of the regium donum (Dublin, 1836), 27.

(8)   RGSU (1835), 59, 72–3; ‘Presbyterian statistics’, Bible Christian, 5 (1834), 527–30.

(9)  Mathews, Account, 27.

(10)  Ibid., 25.

(11)  ‘Public worship’, Bible Christian, 3 (1832), 393–9.

(12)   A pastoral address from the ministers of the Synod of Ulster (n.p., 1807), 7.

(13)  J. Brown, The Christian ambassador (Belfast, 1833), 34–6.

(14)  For information regarding stipend see, C. Porter, Irish regium donum and ministerial maintenance (Belfast, 1884).

(15)   OSMI (Clondermot), xxxiv. 24.

(16)  W. I. Craig, Presbyterianism in Lisburn from the seventeenth century. First Lisburn Presbyterian church (Belfast, [1961]), 52; Cahans (B/Sec.) session book, Feb. 1846 (PHS).

(17)   RGSU ii. (1733), 187.

(18)  Route Pby (GSU), 20 Dec. 1836 (Church House, strong room). Templepatrick Pby (GSU), congregational census, 1832 (PRONI, MIC/1P/85).

(19)  For example, MPSI (1834), 39.

(20)  Down Pby (B/Sec.), 10 Dec. 1788 (PHS); Anahilt (GSU) session book, 23 Nov. 1771, 13 Apr. 1778 (J. M. Barkley, ‘A history of the ruling eldership in Irish Presbyterianism’, 2 vols. (QUB MA, 1952), ii. 274); C. Porter, ‘Congregational memoirs: Glenarm’, Christian Unitarian, 5 (1866), 223.

(21)  Brown, Death of Christian Britain, 18–30.

(22)  Ballykelly (GSU) session book, 7 Feb. 1809 (PHS); Cahans (B/Sec.) session book, 1 Mar. 1825 (PRONI, CR/3/25B/2), 122; Loughaghery (B/Sec.) session book, 5 Feb. 1819 (PRONI, CR/3/8/1).

(23)   First report of the commission of Irish education inquiry, HC (1825), xii. 824.

(24)  C. D. Cashdollar, A spiritual home: life in British and American Reformed congregations, 1830–1915 (University Park, Pa., 2000), 169.

(25)   Report from select committee on handloom weavers' petitions, HC (1835), xiii. 104–5.

(26)   OSMI (Lissan), xxxi. 105–6.

(27)  Down Pby (B/Sec.), 15 Oct. 1788; Roseyards (AB/Sec.) committee minutes, 4 June 1790 (PRONI, Tennent papers, D/1748/A/2/3/10); T. Kilpatrick, Millisle and Ballycopeland Presbyterian church: a short history (Newtownards, 1934), 27; ‘Rules of the First Presbyterian church, Ray’ (Barkley, ‘Eldership’, ii. 292–3); Ballybay (GSU) session minutes, 16 Nov. 1811 (PHS).

(28)   RGSU (1828), 61; (1831), 32.

(29)   RGSU (1834), 43–4.

(30)  J. S. Reid, History of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, ed. W. D. Killen, 3 vols., 2nd edn. (Belfast, 1867), iii. 465; D. Stewart, The Seceders in Ireland with annals of their congregations (Belfast, 1950), 207–8.

(31)  For example, An address to the public, by the committee of the Synod of Ulster Home Mission Society (Belfast, 1827), 7–9.

(32)  Brown, Death of Christian Britain; P. L. M. Hillis, ‘Church and society in Aberdeen and Glasgow, c. 1800–c. 2000’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 53 (2002), 707–34.

(33)  D. Huddleston, ‘Religion and social class: church membership in Belfast, c. 1870–1930’ (QUB M.Phil., 1998), 63.

(34)  D. Hempton and M. Hill, Evangelical Protestantism in Ulster society 1740–1890 (London, 1992), 106.

(35)  The figures given below are taken from, A. R. Holmes, ‘Ulster Presbyterian belief and practice, 1770 to 1840’ (QUB Ph.D., 2002), 342, 349.

(36)   First report of the commissioners of public instruction, 216–17a.

(37)  C. Brown, ‘The costs of pew‐renting: church management, church‐going and social class in nineteenth‐century Glasgow’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 38 (1987), 347–61. More generally, idem, Religion and society, ch. 5.

(38)  E. Wakefield, An account of Ireland, 2 vols. (London, 1812), ii. 593.

(39)  A Poor Old Light Presbyterian, An address to the most reverend the Synod of Ulster, in behalf of the poor of the Presbyterian body of the town of Belfast (Belfast, 1812), 5. A. McClelland, ‘The early history of Brown Street primary school’, Ulster Folklife, 17 (1971), 52–60.

(40)  Poor Old Light, Address, 18.

(41)   Belfast News‐Letter, 15 Feb. 1828. For a similar view, R. M. Sibbett, For Christ and Crown: the story of a mission (Belfast, 1926), 26.

(42)   MPSI (1837), 9–10.

(43)  J. Morgan, Reflections on the death of Mr William Cochrane, one of the agents of the Belfast Town Mission (Belfast, 1837), 5.

(44)  Belfast Pby (GSU), 7 Mar. 1837 (Church House, strong room).

(45)  Morgan, Reflections, 6. For a similar view, ‘Home and heart heathenism’, Christian Freeman, 4 (1836), 324.

(46)  ‘Scripture readers’, Orthodox Presbyterian, 4 (1833), 301–5. For further information about Scripture readers, see Chapter 10.

(47)   Belfast News‐Letter, 21 May 1833.

(48)  Hempton and Hill, Evangelical Protestantism, 111; ‘New meeting‐house in Belfast’, Orthodox Presbyterian, 5 (1833), 35.

(49)  Belfast Pby (GSU), 7 Feb. 1837.

(50)  Figures from Hempton and Hill, Evangelical protestantism, 111.

(51)  ‘Statement of the objects of the Belfast Town Mission’, in J. Morgan, Growth in grace (Belfast, 1831), 29. A general overview of evangelical activism in Belfast may be found in, Hempton and Hill, Evangelical Protestantism, ch. 6.

(52)  ‘To the Unitarians of Belfast’, Bible Christian, 3 (1833), 539–42.

(53)  S. S. Millin, History of the Second Congregation of Protestant dissenters in Belfast 1708–1896 (Belfast, 1900), 54.

(54)  Ibid., 54–5.

(55)  S. Walker, ‘The cotter's Sabbath day’, Belfast Penny Journal, 1 (1845), 94.

(56)   First report of the commission of Irish education inquiry, 811.

(57)   OSMI (Balteagh), ix. 15.

(58)   OSMI (Aghadowey), xxii. 14.

(59)   OSMI (Clondermot), xxxiv. 28. See also OSMI (Balteagh), ix. 16 and (Aghnanloo), xi. 10.

(60)  C. Porter, Congregational memoirs. Old Presbyterian congregation of Larne and Kilwaughter (Larne, 1929), 65–6.

(61)  MASB (1781), 12–13.

(62)  L. Leneman, ‘ “Prophaning” the Lord's Day: Sabbath breach in early modern Scotland’, History, 74 (1989), 217–31.

(63)  R. M. Browne, ‘Kirk and community: Ulster Presbyterian society, 1640–1740’ (QUB M.Phil., 1998), 161.

(64)  T. Witherow, Historical and literary memorials of Presbyterianism in Ireland, 2 vols. (Belfast, 1879–80), ii. 212–13; S. Kelburn, The morality of the Sabbath defended (Belfast, 1781); MASB (1781), 12–13; W. H. Crawford and B. Trainor (eds.), Aspects of Irish social history 1750–1850 (Belfast, 1969), 99.

(65)  Cahans (B/Sec.) session book, 1767–1836.

(66)  Boardmills (B/Sec.) session book, 22 Apr. 1790, Nov. 1818 (Barkley, ‘Eldership’, ii. 278–9); Cahans (B/Sec.) session book, 17 May 1772 (Barkley, ‘Eldership’, ii. 234); Linenhall Street (RP) session book, 3 Oct. 1833, 6 and 20 June 1836 (PRONI, CR/5/4A).

(67)  Minutes of the Reformed Synod of Ireland, 1815 (PRONI, CR/5/5A/1/3), 33.

(68)  Tyrone Pby (Sec.), 4 Aug. 1840 (Church House, strong room).

(69)  ‘The Lord's Day’, Bible Christian, 4 (1833), 170–8.

(70)   Pastoral address (1807), 6. Reasons for humiliation and thanksgiving … corrected and approved of by the Associate Synod of Ireland (n.p., 1811), 3.

(71)   Annual pastoral address of the General Synod of Ulster (Belfast, 1831), 6.

(72)   OSMI (Templepatrick), xxxv. 121.

(73)  [S. McSkimin], ‘Ramble in 1810’, Belfast Monthly Magazine, 8 (1812), 368.

(74)  A. Gailey, ‘Folk‐life study and the Ordnance Survey Memoirs’, in idem and D. Ó hÓgáin (eds.), Gold under furze: studies in folk tradition (Dublin, 1983), 153.

(75)  ‘Sabbath‐day conversation’, Christian Freeman, 4 (1836), 119.

(76)  C. W. McKinney, Killinchy: a brief history of Christianity in the district, with special reference to Presbyterianism (n.p., n.d.), 43. Henry Cooke displayed a similar attitude (A. McCreery, The Presbyterian ministers of Killyleagh: a notice of their lives and times (Belfast, 1875), 252).

(77)  Letter reprinted in W. D. Killen, Memoir of John Edgar, D.D., LL.D. (Belfast, 1867), 29–36, quotation from 30.

(78)  B. Harrison, ‘Religion and recreation in Victorian England’, Past and Present, 38 (1967), 98–125.

(79)   RGSU (1833), 46–7.

(80)  For example, ‘Questions for visitation presbyteries, adopted by the Presbytery of Raphoe’, Orthodox Presbyterian, 8 (1837), 166–8.

(81)  Tyrone Pby (GSU), 1836–41 (Church House, strong room); Gailey, ‘Folk‐life study’, 153.

(82)  For example, ‘Remember the Sabbath‐day to keep it holy’, Orthodox Presbyterian, 5 (1834), 126–30; ‘The Presbytery of Connor to the people under their charge’, Orthodox Presbyterian, 7 (1836), 424–5; Covenanter, 3 (1833), 389–91; new ser., 1 (1834), 191, 237–8.

(83)  Harrison, ‘Religion and recreation’, 105.

(84)  ‘Petitions to Parliament for preventing intemperance and desecration of the Sabbath’, Christian Freeman, 4 (1836), 243.

(85)   RGSU iii. (1819), 502.

(86)  ‘Review of the Scottish Sabbath Bill’, ‘Sabbath profanation’, ‘The General Assembly, to the people of Scotland, in the Observance of the Lord's Day’, Orthodox Presbyterian, 5 (1833), 20–7, 69–73, 434–40; Bovevagh (GSU) session book, Mar. and Apr. 1833 (PRONI, MIC/1P/229); ‘The Sabbath‐day’, Orthodox Presbyterian, 4 (1833), 139–43; Belfast Pby (GSU), 6 Aug. 1839.

(87)  ‘Sabbath sanctification’, Christian Freeman, 4 (1836), 299–303.

(88)  ‘Laws for the observance of the Sabbath’, Bible Christian, 4 (1833), 94–6.