Covenanter Politics: Evangelicalism, Political Liberalism and Ulster Presbyterians, 1798-1914

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Historians of Ireland have devoted considerable attention to the Presbyterian origins of modern Irish republicanism in the 1790s and their overwhelming support for the Union with Great Britain in the 1880s. On the one hand, it has been argued that conservative politics came to dominate nineteenth-century Presbyterianism in the form of Henry Cooke who combined conservative evangelical religion with support for the established order. On the other hand, historians have long acknowledged the continued importance of liberal and radical impulses amongst Presbyterians. Few historians of the nineteenth century have attempted to bring these two stories together and to describe the relationship between the religion and politics of Presbyterians along the lines suggested by scholars of Presbyterian radicalism in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. This article argues that a distinctive form of Presbyterian evangelicalism developed in the nineteenth century that sought to bring the denomination back to the theological and spiritual priorities of seventeenth-century Scottish and Irish Presbyterianism. By doing so, it encouraged many Presbyterians to get involved in movements for reform and liberal politics. Supporters of ‘Covenanter Politics’ utilised their denominational principles and traditions as the basis for political involvement and as a rhetoric of opposition to Anglican privilege and Catholic tyranny. These could be the prime cause of Presbyterian opposition to the infringement of their rights, such as the marriage controversy and the Disruption of the Church of Scotland in the early 1840s, and they could also be employed as a language of opposition in response to broader social and political developments, such as the demands for land reform stimulated by the agricultural depression that accompanied the Famine. Despite their opposition to ascendancy, however, the Covenanter Politics of Presbyterian Liberals predisposed them towards pan-protestant unionism against the threat of ‘Rome Rule’.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)340-369
Number of pages30
JournalEnglish Historical Review
Issue number513
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)
  • History


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