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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Reverend John Abernethy

john-abernethyJohn Abernethy, Irish Presbyterian minister and church leader, is born at Coleraine, County Londonderry on October 19, 1680. He is the grandfather of the surgeon John Abernethy.

Abernethy’s father, also named John, a Presbyterian minister, accompanies Patrick Adair on a deputation from the general committee of Ulster presbyterians, who present a congratulatory address to William III in London in 1689, and obtain from the king a letter (November 9, 1689) recommending their case to Meinhardt Schomberg, 3rd Duke of Schomberg.

At the age of 13, Abernethy enters the University of Glasgow and, upon concluding his course there, goes on to the University of Edinburgh, where he soon moves in the most cultured circles. Returning home, he is licensed to preach from his Presbytery before he is twenty-one. In 1701 he is called to accept charge of an important congregation in Antrim. After an interval of two years, mostly spent in further study in Dublin, he is ordained there on August 8, 1703. He becomes a noted debater in the synods and assemblies of his church and a leading evangelist. He has been described as being at this time “the young minister of Antrim … a man of studious habits, heretical opinions, and remarkable ability.”

In 1712, he is devastated by the loss of his wife, Susannah Jordan. Five years later, he is invited to the congregation of Usher’s Quay, Dublin, and also to what is called the Old Congregation of Belfast. The synod assigns him to Dublin. After careful consideration he refuses and remains at Antrim. This refusal arouses disapproval and a controversy follows, with Abernethy standing firm for religious freedom and repudiating the ecclesiastical courts. The controversy and quarrel bears the name of the two camps in the conflict, the “Subscribers” and the “Non-subscribers.” Abernethy and his associates sow the seeds of the struggle (1821–1840) in which, under the leadership of Dr. Henry Cooke, the Arian and Socinian elements of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland are thrown out.

Much of what Abernethy contends for, and which the “Subscribers” oppose bitterly, is silently granted in the lapse of time. In 1726, the “Non-subscribers” are cut off, with due ban and solemnity, from the Presbyterian Church of Ireland. In 1730 he moves to Wood Street, Dublin. It is said of him that, although a “Non-subscriber,” he is a Trinitarian. However, Dr. Cooke states that Arianism “made very considerable progress under the patronage of high names, as Abernethy, the author of a very excellent work upon the Attributes, who gave it a great deal of eclat.”

In 1731 comes the greatest controversy in which Abernethy is involved. It is nominally about the Test Act, but actually on the entire question of tests and disabilities. His stand is against all laws that, upon account of mere differences of religious opinions and forms of worship, exclude men of integrity and ability from serving their country.

Abernethy is nearly a century in advance of his age. He has to reason with those who deny that a Roman Catholic or Dissenter can be a “man of integrity and ability.”

John Abernethy dies on December 1, 1740.


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Opening of Assembly’s College, Belfast

assemblys-college-belfastAssembly’s College, Belfast, opens for the training of Presbyterian clergy on December 5, 1853.

The Renaissance Revival style building with its grand Doric porch and Baroque attic is designed by Sir Charles Lanyon, the architect of the main building at Queen’s University Belfast and built with Scrabo stone at a cost of £5,000. Jean-Henri Merle d’Aubigné of Geneva participates in the opening ceremony alongside Henry Cooke, President of the Faculty. The five other professors in the new college are John Edgar, Robert Wilson, William Dool Killen, James G. Murphy and William Gibson.

There is a large influx of students in the wake of the 1859 Ulster revival and the south wing with its dining hall and student accommodations is added in 1869. Princeton Theological Seminary has an important influence in the shaping of the ethos of the College during this period as the Reverend Roberts Watts, who is appointed Professor of Systematic Theology in 1866, hopes to make “Belfast another Princeton.” The north wing with its wood-panelled chapel is designed by John Lanyon, son of original architect, and completed in 1881. The first degrees under the Royal Charter are conferred in 1883. However, the death of Watts in 1895 marks the beginning of the end of the Princetonian influence. A partial union takes place between the faculties in Belfast and Magee in 1922.

The newly formed Parliament of Northern Ireland meets in Assembly’s College from 1921 until 1932 while Stormont is being built with the House of Commons meeting in the Gamble Library and the Senate in the College chapel. During this period the College conducts classes in a house and provides library resources in a house on University Square. In 1926 the College becomes a Recognised College of Queen’s University. During this period the College comes under criticism for its embrace of theological liberalism. This culminates in a charge of heresy being brought against Professor James Ernest Davey in 1926-27. The College officially reopens in October 1932 and the inaugural lecture is delivered by the Scottish Historian Robert Rait.

Between 1941 and 1948 the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the city police, use the College as its own headquarters are bombed in the Belfast Blitz. In 1953, to mark the College’s centenary year, Prof. Davey is elected Moderator of the General Assembly.

In 1976 theological teaching at Magee College in Derry, County Londonderry, ceases and the two colleges amalgamate in 1978. The new college, constituted by an Act of Parliament, is named Union Theological College.

Today Union Theological College offers a full range of courses in Theology. The professors of the College constitute the Presbyterian Theological Faculty Ireland (PTFI) which was granted a Royal Charter in 1881 to confer academic degrees. The PTFI still awards degrees, diplomas and certificates. The majority of students are enrolled for degrees and diplomas, undergraduate and postgraduate, through the Institute of Theology of the Queen’s University of Belfast, in particular the BTh, BD, MTh and PhD.


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Birth of Minister William Dool Killen

william-dool-killenWilliam Dool Killen, a minister of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and church historian, is born at Church Street, Ballymena, County Antrim, on April 16, 1806.

Killen is the third of four sons and nine children of John Killen (1768–1828), a grocer and seedsman in Ballymena, by his wife Martha, daughter of Jesse Dool, a farmer in Duneane. His paternal grandfather, a farmer at Carnmoney, marries Blanche Brice, a descendant of Edward Brice. A brother, James Miller Killen (1815–1879), is a minister in Comber, County Down. Thomas Young Killen is his father’s great-nephew.

After attending local primary schools, Killen goes to Ballymena Academy around 1816, and in November 1821 enters the collegiate department of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, under James Thomson. In 1827, he is licensed to preach by the Presbytery of Ballymena, and on November 11, 1829 he is ordained minister at Raphoe, County Donegal.

In July 1841 Killen is appointed, by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, its professor of church history, ecclesiastical government, and pastoral theology, in succession to James Seaton Reid. He concentrates on history. When Assembly’s College, Belfast is set up in 1853, he becomes one of the professors there. In 1869 he is appointed president of the college, in succession to Henry Cooke, and undertakes fundraising for professorial endowments and new buildings. In 1889 he resigns his chair but continues as president.

During his career Killen receives the degrees of D.D. (1845) and of LL.D. (1901) from the University of Glasgow. His portrait, painted by Richard Hooke, hangs in the Gamble library of the college.

William Dool Killen dies on January 10, 1902, and is buried in Balmoral Cemetery, Belfast, where a monument marks his resting place.