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Presbyterians and science in the north of Ireland before 1874

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 July 2008

School of History and Anthropology, Queen's University Belfast, Belfast, BT7 1NN, Northern Ireland. Email:
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In his presidential address to the Belfast meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1874, John Tyndall launched what David Livingstone has called a ‘frontal assault on teleology and Christian theism’. Using Tyndall's intervention as a starting point, this paper seeks to understand the attitudes of Presbyterians in the north of Ireland to science in the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century. The first section outlines some background, including the attitude of Presbyterians to science in the eighteenth century, the development of educational facilities in Ireland for the training of Presbyterian ministers, and the specific cultural and political circumstances in Ireland that influenced Presbyterian responses to science more generally. The next two sections examine two specific applications by Irish Presbyterians of the term ‘science’: first, the emergence of a distinctive Presbyterian theology of nature and the application of inductive scientific methodology to the study of theology, and second, the Presbyterian conviction that mind had ascendancy over matter which underpinned their commitment to the development of a science of the mind. The final two sections examine, in turn, the relationship between science and an eschatological reading of the signs of the times, and attitudes to Darwinian evolution in the fifteen years between the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859 and Tyndall's speech in 1874.

Research Article
Copyright © 2008 British Society for the History of Science

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1 J. Tyndall, ‘The Belfast Address’, in idem, Fragments of Science: A Series of Detached Essays, Addresses, and Reviews, 6th edn, 2 vols., London, 1879, ii, 199.

2 Barton, R., ‘John Tyndall, pantheist: a rereading of the Belfast Address’, Osiris, 2nd ser., (1987), 3, 111–34, 117CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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4 Turner, F. M., ‘The Victorian conflict between science and religion: a professional dimension’, Isis (1978), 69, 356–76CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; idem, ‘John Tyndall and Victorian scientific naturalism’, in John Tyndall: Essays on a Natural Philosopher (ed. W. H. Brock, N. D. McMillan and R. C. Mollan), Dublin, 1981, 169–80.

5 Livingstone, D. N., ‘Darwinism and Calvinism: the Belfast–Princeton connection’, Isis (1992), 83, 408–28, 410CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 D. N. Livingstone, ‘Situating evangelical responses to evolution’, in Evangelicals and Science in Historical Perspective (ed. D. N. Livingstone, D. G. Hart and M. A. Noll), New York, 1998, 193–219; and idem, ‘Science, region, and religion: the reception of Darwinism in Princeton, Belfast, and Edinburgh’, in Disseminating Darwinism: The Role of Place, Race, Religion, and Gender (ed. R. L. Numbers and J. Stenhouse), Cambridge, 1999, 7–38. For the response in Belfast specifically see idem, ‘Darwin in Belfast: the evolution debate’, in Nature in Ireland: A Scientific and Cultural History (ed. J. W. Foster), Dublin, 1997, 387–408.

7 R. Watts, Atomism: Dr. Tyndall's atomic theory of the universe examined and refuted. To which are added, humanitarianism accepts, provisionally, Tyndall's impersonal atomic deity; and a letter to the Presbytery of Belfast; containing a note from the Rev. Dr Hodge, and a critique on Dr Tyndall's recent Manchester recantation, together with strictures on the late manifesto of the Roman Catholic Hierarchy of Ireland in reference to the sphere of science, 4th edn, Belfast, 1875, 19, 24.

8 J. Macnaughtan, The address of Professor Tyndall, at the Opening of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Examined in a Sermon on Christianity and Science, Belfast, 1874, 3, 8.

9 R. Jeffrey, ‘Scientific giants v. theological pigmies’, Christian Banner (1874), 2, 43.

10 Livingstone, op. cit. (5), 422.

11 For a readable and reliable introduction to the history of Irish Presbyterianism see R. F. G. Holmes, Our Irish Presbyterian Heritage, Belfast, 1985.

12 I. M. Bishop, ‘The education of Ulster students at Glasgow University in the eighteenth century’, MA dissertation, Queen's University Belfast, 1987; W. I. P. Hazlett, ‘Students at Glasgow University from 1747 to 1768 connected with Ireland: an analytical probe’, in Ebb and Flow: Essays in Church History in Honour of R. Finlay G. Holmes (ed. W. D. Patton), Belfast, 2002, 20–49.

13 C. W. J. Withers and P. Wood (eds.), Science and Medicine in the Scottish Enlightenment, East Linton, 2002.

14 In adhering to these principles, they were echoing their liberal co-religionists in the Church of Scotland, the Moderates. Kidd, Colin, ‘Scotland's invisible Enlightenment: subscription and heterodoxy in the eighteenth-century Kirk’, Records of the Scottish Church History Society (2000), 30, 2859Google Scholar.

15 Kennedy, D., ‘The Ulster academies and the teaching of science, 1785–1835’, Irish Ecclesiastical Record, ser. 5 (1944), 63, 30, 33–4Google Scholar.

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17 M. Nelson, Whether the Light of Nature be Sufficient to Salvation: Considered in a Discourse Delivered at Lurgan, June 26, 1787, at a General Synod of the Protestant Dissenting Ministers of Ulster, Belfast, 1788, 5.

18 R. Bayles, ‘Understanding local science: the Belfast Natural History Society in the mid-nineteenth century’, Science and Irish Culture Vol. 1 (ed. D. Attis), Dublin, 2004, 139–69; L. Lunney, ‘Knowledge and enlightenment: attitudes to education in early nineteenth-century Ulster’, in The Origins of Popular Literacy in Ireland: Language Change and Educational Development 1700–1920 (ed. M. Daly and D. Dickson), Dublin, 1990, 97–112; H. C. G. Ross and R. Nash, ‘The development of natural history in early nineteenth century Ireland’, in From Linnaeus to Darwin: Commentaries on the History of Biology and Geology (ed. A. Wheeler and J. H. Price), London, 1985, 13–27.

19 For a broader discussion of evangelical attitudes to the Enlightenment see J. R. McIntosh, Church and Theology in Enlightenment Scotland: The Popular Party, 1740–1800, East Linton, 1998, S. Sivasundaram, Nature and the Godly Empire: Science and Evangelical Mission in the Pacific, 1795–1850, Cambridge, 2005; and B. Stanley (ed.), Christian Missions and the Enlightenment, Grand Rapids, MI, 2001. For Ireland see A. R. Holmes, ‘Tradition and enlightenment: conversion and assurance of salvation in Ulster Presbyterianism, 1700–1859’, in Converts and Conversions in Ireland, 1650–1850 (ed. M. Brown, C. I. McGrath and T. P. Power), Dublin, 2005, 129–56.

20 Holmes, A. R., ‘The shaping of Irish Presbyterian attitudes to mission, 1790–1840’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History (2006), 57, 711–37CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

21 S. Edgar, A Sermon; Preached Before the Down Missionary Society, at Rathfriland, Belfast, 1815.

22 S. Edgar, The Times, a Sermon, Preached at the Ordination of the Rev. Thomas Heron, Fourtowns, Donoughmore, Belfast, 1814, 56–60, 57.

23 S. Edgar, Improvement of Irish Catholics. A sermon, Belfast, 1822, 44.

24 Edgar, op. cit. (22), 50.

25 For Presbyterian involvement in the Belfast Inst see R. Allen, The Presbyterian College Belfast 1853–1953, Belfast, 1954, 37–54.

26 C. Smith and M. N. Wise, Energy and Empire: A Biographical Study of Lord Kelvin, Cambridge, 1989, 9–19. For the teaching of science in the Belfast Inst more generally see Kennedy, op. cit. (15), 34–8.

27 Fourth report of the commissioners of Irish education inquiry, HC (1826–7), xiii.157, 101.

28 Fourth report, op. cit. (27), 61.

29 Fourth report, op. cit. (27), 102; Minutes of the General Synod of Ulster, Belfast, 1829, 42–3. Unfortunately for Drummond, a lack of interest was reported to the synod the following year. Minutes of the General Synod of Ulster, Belfast, 1830, 19–21.

30 Fourth report, op. cit. (27), 9.

31 H. F. Klemme, ‘Scepticism and common sense’, in The Cambridge Companion to the Scottish Enlightenment (ed. A. Broadie), Cambridge, 2003, 117–35.

32 Noll, M. A., ‘Common sense traditions and American evangelical thought’, American Quarterly (1985), 37, 216–38, 220CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33 A. Broadie, ‘The human mind and its powers’, in The Cambridge Companion to the Scottish Enlightenment (ed. A. Broadie), Cambridge, 2003, 60–78.

34 For brief biographies of both men see J. McCosh, The Scottish Philosophy, Biographical, Expository, Critical, from Hutcheson to Hamilton, London, 1875, 367–9, 369–70.

35 For the attitudes of Cairns and Young see Fourth report, op. cit. (27), 54, 103; for Hanna and Carlile see ibid., 66–7, 129.


36 For a good overview of the tensions between the synod and the Belfast Inst see R. F. G. Holmes, Henry Cooke, Belfast, 1981, 68–73, 124–8.

37 Minutes of the General Synod of Ulster, Belfast, 1835, 37–8; 1837, 54.

38 For histories of these colleges see Allen, op. cit. (25); and R. F. G. Holmes, Magee 1865–1965: The Evolution of the Magee Colleges, Belfast, 1965.

39 Moody, T. W., ‘The Irish university question in the nineteenth century’, History (1958), 43, 90109CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Holmes, op. cit. (36), 165–70.

40 J. D. Hoeveler, James McCosh and the Scottish Intellectual Tradition from Glasgow to Princeton, Princeton, 1981; D. N. Livingstone and R. A. Wells, Ulster-American Religion: Episodes in the History of a Cultural Connection, Notre Dame, IN, 1999, 13–20.

41 The religious and cultural background may be traced from the following: D. Hempton and M. Hill, Evangelical Protestantism in Ulster Society 1740–1890, London, 1992; R. F. G. Holmes, ‘“Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right”: the Protestant churches and Ulster's resistance to Home Rule, 1912–14’, in The Church and War, Studies in Church History, 20 (ed. W. J. Sheils), Oxford, 1983, 321–35; idem, ‘United Irishmen and Unionists: Irish Presbyterians, 1791 and 1886’, in The Churches, Ireland and the Irish, Studies in Church History, 25 (ed. W. J. Sheils and D. Wood), Oxford, 1989, 171–89; Livingstone and Wells, op. cit. (40).

42 W. Gibson, Maynooth. A Protest Against its Endowment, Belfast, 1843, 9–10.

43 Gibson, op. cit. (42), 12–13.

44 F. Wright, Two Lands on One Soil: Ulster Politics before Home Rule, Dublin, 1996, 157–8, 301–9, 364, 378–9, 447–9.

45 W. D. Killen, Academic Addresses, on Various Occasions, Belfast, 1863, 55.

46 [J. R. Leebody], ‘The Irish university question. By an Irish graduate’, Fraser's Magazine (1872), 10, 63. See also R. Smyth, Irish University Education. An Address Delivered in the Common Hall of Magee College, Londonderry, at the Opening of Session, 1872–3, Londonderry, 1872, 10, 17.

47 Livingstone, ‘Darwin in Belfast’, op. cit. (6), 401–3.

48 G. Jones, ‘Scientists against Home Rule’, in Defenders of the Union: A Survey of British and Irish Unionism since 1801 (ed. D. G. Boyce and A. O'Day), London, 2001, 188–208.

49 D. N. Livingstone, Darwin's Forgotten Defenders: The Encounter between Evangelical Theology and Evolutionary Thought, Edinburgh, 1987, 7–16; W. J. Astore, Observing God: Thomas Dick, Evangelicalism, and Popular Science in Victorian Britain and America, Aldershot, 2001.

50 Second Annual Report of the Londonderry Natural History Society and Museum, Londonderry, 1840, 6.

51 Livingstone and Wells, op. cit. (40), 28.

52 My exposition of Chalmers is indebted to D. F. Rice, ‘Natural theology and the Scottish philosophy in the thought of Thomas Chalmers’, Scottish Journal of Theology (1971), 24, 23–46; and J. R. Topham, ‘Science, natural theology, and evangelicalism in early nineteenth-century Scotland: Thomas Chalmers and the Evidence controversy’, in Evangelicals and Science in Historical Perspective (ed. D. N. Livingstone, D. G. Hart and M. A. Noll), New York, 1998, 142–74.

53 ‘The Synod of Ulster and collegiate education’, Orthodox Presbyterian (1833), 4, 268–70.

54 W. Gibson, ‘Inaugural lecture on Christian ethics’, Banner of Ulster, 9 November 1847.

55 Yeo, R., ‘An idol of the market-place: Baconianism in nineteenth century Britain’, History of Science (1985), 23, 278CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

56 ‘The Synod of Ulster’, Orthodox Presbyterian (1833), 4, 345.

57 ‘Review: Natural Theology, by Thomas Chalmers’, Orthodox Presbyterian (1836), 7, 287–8.

58 Topham, op. cit. (52), 149–59, quotation on 158.

59 M. A. Noll, America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, New York, 2002, 235.

60 Cited in R. L. Numbers, ‘Charles Hodge and the beauties and deformities of science’, in Charles Hodge Revisited: A Critical Appraisal of His Life and Work (ed. J. W. Stewart and J. H. Moorehead), Grand Rapids, MI, 2002, 82–3.

61 Allen, op. cit. (25), 101.

62 ‘Dr. Chalmers and the divinity class in the University of Edinburgh’, Orthodox Presbyterian (1830), 1, 414–15; original italics.

63 For example, J. Carlile, Letters on the Divine Origin and Authority of the Holy Scriptures, 2nd edn, 2 vols., Edinburgh, 1837, ii, 296–316.

64 Killen, op. cit. (45), 10–11.

65 ‘The discoveries of science and interpretations of Scripture’, Irish Presbyterian (1853), 1, 67.

66 J. G. Murphy, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Genesis, with a New Translation, Edinburgh, 1863, pp. xi–xii.

67 Murphy, op. cit. (66), 30–2, 74. Numbers, R. L., ‘“The most important biblical discovery of our time”: William Henry Green and the demise of Ussher's chronology’, Church History (2002), 69, 257–76CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

68 Murphy, op. cit. (66), 32.

69 Murphy, op. cit. (66), 47.

70 Murphy, op. cit. (66), 35, 74–5, 216–17.

71 Murphy, op. cit. (66), 61.

72 ‘Reply of John Knox, Jun. to the Rev. James Carlile’, Belfast News-Letter, 8 September 1829.

73 ‘The discoveries of science and interpretations of Scripture’, op. cit. (65), 67.

74 R. Watts, The Rule of Faith and the Doctrine of Inspiration, London, 1885, 207–8.

75 R. Watts, ‘The ministerial curriculum’, Banner of Ulster, 15 November 1866.

76 This reading of Chalmers is based on Topham, op. cit. (52), quotation on 168.

77 J. G. Murphy, Science and Religion before the Flood, Belfast, 1857, 27.

78 H. Wallace, The Nature and Scope of Christian Ethics, with an Inquiry into the Origin of our Moral Sentiments: An Inaugural Lecture Delivered in the Common Hall of the Presbyterian College, Belfast, 12th November, 1867, Belfast, 1867, 8–9.

79 Watts, op. cit. (75).

80 Testimonials in Favour of John R. Leebody, M. A. Senior Scholar in Mathematics, Queen's College, Belfast; and First Honorman and Gold Medallist in Mathematics and Mathematical Physics, in the Queen's University of Ireland. As Candidate for the Chair of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy in the Magee College, Derry, Belfast, 1865.

81 J. R. Leebody, ‘Modern materialism and modern science’, British and Foreign Evangelical Review (1872), 21, 470; original emphasis.

82 H. W. Molyneaux, The philosophy of the Human Mind, an Essential Branch of the Professional Education of Teachers: Being a Lecture Delivered to the Ulster Teacher's Association, on Friday, the 26th January, 1844, Belfast, 1844, 15–16.

83 J. McCosh, On the Method in Which Metaphysics Should be Prosecuted: Being Introductory Lecture of Dr McCosh, in Queen's College, Belfast, 12th January, 1852, Belfast, 1852, 3, 15.

84 J. Carlile, ‘New Presbyterian Colleges’, Banner of Ulster, 7 February 1845; J. McCosh, The Mental Sciences and the Queen's University in Ireland: Being a Letter to the Secretary of the Queen's University, Belfast, 1860; T. Sinclair, Considerations on the Irish University Education Bill, With Some Remarks Upon the Nature and Functions of a University, Dublin, 1873.

85 For the Presbyterian understanding of these theological themes see A. R. Holmes, ‘Millennialism and the interpretation of prophecy in Ulster Presbyterianism, 1790–1850’, in Prisoners of Hope? Aspects of Evangelical Millennialism in Scotland and Ireland, 1800–1880 (ed. C. Gribben and T. C. F. Stunt), Carlisle, 2005, 150–76; idem, ‘The uses and interpretation of prophecy in Irish Presbyterianism, 1850–1930’, in Protestant Millennialism, Evangelicalism, and Irish Society, 1790–2005 (ed. C. Gribben and A. R. Holmes), Basingstoke, 2006, 144–73.

86 Breakey, W. E., ‘Modern progress of science and art’, Ulster Magazine and Monthly Review of Science and Literature (1860), 1, 257Google Scholar.

87 Murphy, J. G., ‘Our ministry’, Evangelical Witness (1871), 10, 197Google Scholar.

88 Gibson, op. cit. (54).

89 J. L. Porter, ‘Inaugural lecture’, Banner of Ulster, 15 November 1860.

90 For Porter's geographical apologetics see, for example, J. L. Porter, Five Years in Damascus, 2 vols., London, 1855; idem, The Giant Cities of Bashan and Syria's Other Holy Places, London, 1865; and idem, Illustrations of Bible Prophecy and History from Personal Travels in Palestine, Dublin, 1883. For his refutation of Colenso see idem, Bishop Colenso on the Pentateuch Reviewed, Belfast, 1863; and idem, The Pentateuch and the Gospels; a Statement of our Lord's Testimony to the Mosaic Authorship, Historic Truth, and Divine Authority of the Pentateuch, London, 1864.

91 Numbers, op. cit. (60), 87–8.

92 W. Gibson, ‘Self-development’, Banner of Ulster, 29 April 1865.

93 Watts, op. cit. (75).

94 Banner of Ulster, 13 June 1867.

95 J. R. Moore, ‘1859 and all that: remaking the story of evolution and religion’, in Charles Darwin, 1809–1882: A Centennial Commemorative (ed. R. G. Chapman and C. T. Duval), Wellington, 1982, 167–94.

96 Hill, M., ‘Ulster awakened: the '59 revival reconsidered’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History (1990), 41, 443–62CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

97 Holmes, A. R., ‘Biblical authority and the impact of higher criticism in Irish Presbyterianism, c.1850–1930’, Church History (2006), 75, 343–73CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

98 W. T. Martin, Our Church in its Relation to Progressive Thought. A Lecture … Delivered Before the Newry Presbyterian Young Men's Society, in the Sandys-Street Church, November 3rd, 1863, Newry, 1863, 10.

99 Numbers, op. cit. (60), 97–101.

100 Macloskie, G., ‘The natural history of man’, Ulster Magazine and Monthly Review of Science and Literature (1862), 3, 230Google Scholar.

101 For Macloskie see Livingstone and Wells, op. cit. (40), 40–8.

102 Croskery, T., ‘Liberal theology’, British and Foreign Evangelical Review (1867), 16, 254Google Scholar.

103 Livingstone, D. N., ‘Science, site and speech: scientific knowledge and the spaces of rhetoric’, History of the Human Sciences (2007), 20, 82–3CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

104 Leebody, J. R., ‘The theory of evolution, and its relations to religious thought’, British and Foreign Evangelical Review (1872), 21, 1Google Scholar.

105 Leebody, op. cit. (104), 2.

106 Leebody, op. cit. (104), 7–8, 17–18, 18.

107 Leebody, op. cit. (104), 33.

108 Leebody, op. cit. (81) 463, 465.

109 Leebody, op. cit. (104), 34–5.

110 Leebody, op. cit. (104), 35.

111 J. S. Black and G. Chrystal, The Life of William Robertson Smith, London, 1912, 161–3.

112 Barton, op. cit. (2), 115.

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