Skip to main content Accessibility help

Building opposition: the Mant controversy and the Church of Ireland in early Victorian Belfast

  • Sean Farrell (a1)


In 4 October 1842, Richard Mant, the Church of Ireland bishop of Down and Connor, presided over the first meeting of the Down and Connor Church Architecture Society in the Clerical Rooms in central Belfast. The scholarly Mant doubtless was in his element as he introduced this initiative dedicated to promoting discussion about historical and contemporary aspects of Anglican church architecture. The Ulster Times, the city’s self-proclaimed newspaper of the Church of Ireland, welcomed the new society, arguing that it was good to have ‘correct views’ on these matters and hoping that features like arched roofs, Gothic windows and lengthened aisles could be maintained so that Anglican churches could be distinguished from their Dissenting counterparts.



Hide All

1 Ulster Times, 8 Oct. 1842; Report of the first meeting of the Down and Connor and Dromore Church Architecture Society, October 4, 1842 (Belfast, 1842). The term city is used throughout though formal city status was not granted to Belfast until 1888. Belfast, by Irish standards, had physically reached city size by the 1840s.

2 For brief treatments of the controversy, see Yates, Nigel, The religious condition of Ireland, 1770–1850 (Oxford, 2006), pp 285–6; Hempton, David and Hill, Myrtle, Evangelical Protestantism in Ulster society, 1740–1890 (London, 1992), pp 118–20.

3 Belfast Newsletter, 18 Nov. 1842. Puseyism refers to Edward Bouverie Pusey, regius professor of Hebrew and canon of Christ Church, a leading advocate for the Oxford or Tractarian Movement. The classic account is Owen Chadwick’s landmark The Victorian Church: part 1 (Oxford, 1966), pp 167231. For more recent specialized work, see Chadwick, , The spirit of the Oxford Movement: Tractarian essays (Cambridge, 1992); Faught, C. Brad, The Oxford Movement (University Park, PA, 2004); Nockles, P. B., The Oxford Movement in context: high Anglican churchmanship, 1780–1857 (Cambridge, 1994); Skinner, S. A., Tractarians and the ‘Condition of England’: the social and political thought of the Oxford Movement (Oxford, 2004).

4 Ulster Times, 2 Feb. 1843.

5 Yates, , Religious condition, pp 266–7.

6 Holmes, Andrew, The shaping of Ulster Presbyterian belief and practice (Oxford, 2006), p. 66.

7 Reverend Drew, Thomas, The Church in Belfast (Belfast, 1838). For Christ Church, see Reverend Dawson, Abraham, Annals of Christ Church (unpublished typescript, 1858, P.R.O.N.I., T.2159). My thanks to the Rev. Niall Bayly for letting me consult the original manuscript. For the analogous situation faced by Belfast Presbyterianism, see Rev. Morgan, James, Recollections of my life and times: an autobiography (Belfast, 1874), pp 40–1.

8 Morgan, , Recollections of my life and times, p. 35.

9 See Hempton, and Hill, , Evangelical Protestantism in Ulster society, pp 108–11.

10 For Cooke, the classic study is Holmes, R. Finlay, Henry Cooke (Belfast, 1982). For a recent reassessment, see Miller, David W., ‘John MacHale, Henry Cooke and the curious demise of the confessional state in Ireland’, in Nie, Michael de and Farrell, Sean (eds), Power and popular culture in modern Ireland (Dublin, 2010), pp 109–24. For a recent take on the importance of Morgan and Edgar, see Wright, Jonathan Jeffrey, The ‘natural leaders’ and their world: politics, culture and society in Belfast, c.1801–32 (Liverpool, 2012), pp 215–18.

11 In their useful survey, David Hempton and Myrtle Hill make particular note of Christ Church’s success in bringing working-class congregants into the congregation. See Hempton, and Hill, , Evangelical Protestantism in Ulster society, pp 105, 109.

12 For the 1857 riots, see Doyle’s, MarkFighting like the devil in the name of God: Protestants, Catholics and the origins of violence in Victorian Belfast (Manchester, 2009), pp 76106. See also my Rituals and riots: sectarian violence and political culture in Ulster, 1784–1886 (Lexington, KY, 2000), pp 125–53. For open air preaching, see Holmes, Janice, ‘The role of open-air preaching in the Belfast riots of 1857’ in R.I.A. Proc., cii, part C (2002), pp 4766.

13 Catalogue of the Christ-Church Library, Belfast, established 1836 (Belfast, 1837). For biographical information on Drew, see Patrick Long and C. J. Woods, ‘Drew, Thomas (1800–70) in D.I.B. For a rich social portrait of Christ Church parish, see the 1852 parish census undertaken by the Rev. Abraham Dawson: Christ Church Census, 1852 (P.R.O.N.I., CR1/13D/1–2).

14 For the origins and early workings of the Clergy Aid Society, see Account of the proceedings of the Down and Connor Clergy Aid Society, for the year ending 9/11/1838 (Belfast, 1838). A copy of this publication can be found at the library of the Representative Church Body in Dublin.

15 Ulster Times, 8 Sept. 1838.

16 Bebbington, David W., Evangelicalism in modern Britain: a history from the 1790s to the 1980s (London, 1989), pp 1012. For an interesting collection of comparative studies, see Noll, Mark A., Bebbington, David W. and Rawlyk, George A., (eds), Evangelicalism: comparative studies of popular Protestantism in North America, the British Isles and beyond, 1700–1990 (Oxford, 1994).

17 Quoted in Dawson, , Annals of Christ Church (P.R.O.N.I., T.2159/57–8).

18 See Drew, Church in Belfast; Dawson, , Annals of Christ Church (P.R.O.N.I., T.2159/48–57); Mant, W. B., Memoirs of the Right Reverend Richard Mant... (Dublin, 1875), pp 380–8; Hempton, and Hill, , Evangelical Protestantism in Ulster society, p. 112.

19 Many of the churches were designed by Charles Lanyon, architect and a member of the congregation at Christ Church. Lanyon is most famous for a number of other Belfast buildings: the Palm House in the Botanic Gardens (1840), Queen’s University, Belfast (1849) and the Customs House (1857) amongst others.

20 For the controversy over baptismal regeneration, see Nockles, , Oxford Movement in context, pp 229–35. For a more general account, see Bebbington, Evangelicalism in modern Britain, pp 9–10.

21 See Sibbett, R. B., For Christ and crown: the story of a mission (Belfast, 1926), pp 110.

22 Mant, Memoirs, pp 313–51. Drew also ran afoul of the church establishment when he tried to increase his income through celebrating marriages and christenings of men, women and children who did not reside in his district. See Edward Stopford to Primate Beresford, 5 Feb. 1836 (Church of Ireland diocesan papers, P.R.O.N.I., DIO/1/125A/17B).

23 Rev. Thomas Drew to J. Emerson Tennant, 29 July 1842 (Emerson Tennant papers, P.R.O.N.I., D.2922/C/12/3).

24 For an overview of the history of the Cambridge society, see White, James F., The Cambridge Movement (Cambridge, 1962).

25 Report of the first meeting of the Down and Connor and Dromore Church Architectural Society, p. 13. For a detailed examination of the topic across the Victorian era, see McBride, Stephen, ‘Bishop Mant and the Down and Connor and Dromore Church Architecture Society, 1837–1878’, (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Queen’s University, Belfast, 1996).

26 Ulster Times, 15 Oct. 1842.

27 Ibid., 11 Oct. 1842. This struggle was not picked up in either of Belfast’s major newspapers, the Belfast Newsletter or the Northern Whig, a fact that underlines the key role played by McIlwaine’s public journalism in widening the sphere of debate.

28 Ibid. The subject seems not to have been a passing one for St George’s rector; McIlwaine’s second lecture before the Church of Ireland’s Young Men’s Society in 1851 was entitled ‘Some Thoughts on Church Architecture and Ecclesiastical Remains’ (Annual Reports of the Church of Ireland Young Men’s Society, P.R.O.N.I., D.3936/A/1/1).

29 Ulster Times, 3 Nov. 1842.

30 For the relationship between street preaching and sectarian violence in the 1850s, see Holmes, ‘Role of open-air preaching’, pp 47–66. For his break with the Church of Ireland’s Young Men’s Society, see Norman McNeilly, The first hundred years: a history of the development of the Church of Ireland’s Young Men’s Society (P.R.O.N.I., D.3936/H/5/6). According to J. B. Leslie, McIlwaine was the first clergyman in Belfast to have hymns sung, to hold early morning Holy Communion, preach in the surplice and to hold Harvest Thanksgiving service: Leslie, J. B., Clergy of Connor from Patrician times to the present day (Belfast, 1993), p. 469. McIlwaine’s increasing interest in ‘high church’ forms late in his career underlines the danger in assuming that ‘high church’ and ‘evangelical’ are necessarily oppositional terms in the Church of Ireland.

31 The letters were published in the Belfast Commercial Chronicle from mid-October 1842 to the end of February 1843. They were later published in pamphlet form as Ecclesiologism exposed: being the letters of ‘Clericus Connorensis’, as originally published in the Belfast Commercial Chronicle (Belfast, 1843). For simplicity’s sake, further references to McIlwaine’s letters will be to this single publication.

32 McIlwaine, Ecclesiologism exposed, p. 16.

33 Belfast Commercial Chronicle, 16 Jan. 1843.

34 For a sampling, see Ulster Times, 18 Oct. 1842 and 12 Jan. 1843; Belfast Commercial Chronicle, 16 Jan. 1843; McIlwaine, , Ecclesiologism exposed, pp 44, 47–9. See also Dawson, , Annals of Christ Church, p. 76. Opponents of the Church Architecture Society placed this point at the centre of their petition to Bishop Mant: Ulster Times, 2 Feb. 1843.

35 Ulster Times, 29 Nov. 1842.

36 Ibid., 22 Dec. 1842.

37 McIlwaine, , Ecclesiologism exposed, pp 502.

38 For the main tenets of McIlwaine’s theological argument against Puseyism, see Ecclesiologism exposed, pp 9–13, 15–18, 26–8, 31–8, 45–7, 52–4. For a solid introduction to Richard Hooker’s notions of justification, see Simut, Corneliu C., Richard Hooker and his early doctrine of justification (Aldershot, 2005), pp 112. For Hooker and historiography, see Brydon, Michael, The evolving reputation of Richard Hooker: an evaluation of responses, 1600–1714 (Oxford, 2007).

39 McIlwaine, , Eccesiologism exposed, p. 19.

40 For religion and English and British nationalism, see Clark, J. C. D., English society 1688–1832: ideology, social structure and political practice during the ancien regime (Cambridge, 1985); Colley, Linda, Britons: forging the nation, 1707–1837 (New Haven, 1994). Colley has rightly been criticized for understating the denominational fractures within British Protestantism. For searching critiques of Colley’s treatment of religion and nationalism, see Pincus’s, Steven review in Journal of Modern History, lxvii, no. 1 (Mar. 1995), p. 134; Newman, Gerald, ‘Nationalism revisited’ in Journal of British Studies, xxxv, no. 1 (Jan. 1996), p. 124; Kidd, Colin, ‘North Britishness and the nature of eighteenth-century British patriotisms’ in Historical Journal, xxxix, no. 2 (June 1996), pp 364–81.

41 McIlwaine, , Ecclesiologism exposed, pp 910. While there are references to various seventeenth-century English figures throughout McIlwaine’s letters, letter xvii contains an extended treatment of this theme, focusing on early Tractarian critiques of Jewel, Luther, Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer: ibid., p. 50.

42 Ulster Times, 14 Jan. 1843. Of course, these martyrdoms remained a critical symbolic power within certain conservative narratives of the Ulster past and present. Drew, for example, scheduled special services at Christ Church in 1855 and 1856 to commemorate the tercentenary anniversaries of the sixteenth-century martyrdoms of Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley: Annals of Christ Church (P.R.O.N.I., T.2159/185 and /195).

43 McIlwaine makes reference to an awakened laity in letters 7, 9, 18 and 19: Ecclesiologism exposed, pp 25–8, 52–5. In addition to the petition controversy described below, see Belfast Newsletter, 18 Nov. 1842; Belfast Commercial Chronicle, 18 Jan. 1843.

44 Belfast Commercial Chronicle, 9 Jan. 1843.

45 McIlwaine, Ecclesiologism exposed, p. vii.

46 Belfast Commercial Chronicle, 18 Jan. 1843.

47 Ulster Times, 28 Feb. 1843. Chosen in early February, the committee consisted of Davison, Archdeacon Walter Mant, Colonel William Blacker, Colonel F. Crossley and the Rev. Monsell, J. S.: Belfast Commercial Chronicle, 1 Mar. 1843.

48 W. Smyth Cummings to the marquis of Downshire, 3 Mar. 1843 (Downshire papers, P.R.O.N.I., D671/C/209/19).

49 See Col. John Ward to the marquis of Downshire, 26 Jan. and 5 Feb. 1843 (Downshire papers, P.R.O.N.I., D671/C/209/10–12); Dawson, , Annals of Christ Church, pp 7982.

50 Christ Church Census, 1852 (P.R.O.N.I., CR1/13D/1).

51 Ulster Times, 2 Feb. 1843; Belfast Newsletter, 4 Feb. 1843.

52 Mant clearly was serious about this point, writing to the British prime minister, Sir Robert Peel, about the issue: Mant to Peel, 12 Dec.1843 (B.L., Peel papers, general correspondence, vol. ccclvii, f. 433).

53 Ulster Times, 2 Feb. 1843.

54 Ibid.

55 See Reid, James Seaton, History of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (3 vols, Belfast 1867), iii, 485–8. For a more recent view see Miller, , ‘Demise of the confessional state in Ireland’, pp 116–17.

56 Writing in an era where the importance of pan-Protestant unity was a more firmly established element in Ulster Unionist rhetoric, Sibbett lamented the ways that heightened interdenominational strife made mission work much more difficult: Sibbett, , For Christ and crown, pp 71–2.

57 Drew generated a particularly emotive controversy with remarks he made in Annalong, County Down in 1840, blaming Presbyterians for the current state of interdenominational strife, a speech that generated at least two bitter responses from ministers angered by Drew’s ‘gratuitous attack’: Belfast Newsletter, 25 Aug., 8 Sept. 1840; John Knox and the Reverend Thomas Drew or, The book of Common Order, no liturgy (Belfast, 1840).

58 At one meeting dedicated to bringing relief to Belfast’s poor population, Cooke was exasperated by Drew’s long-winded attack on the use of soup for relief, saying that he was not as fearful of soup as Drew and that the Rev. Dr’s speech was ‘political claptrap’. As so often happened with Drew, Cooke’s anger here reflected Drew’s personality and style as much as belief: Ulster Times, 30 June 1842.

59 Rev. Thomas Drew to J. Emerson Tennant, 29 July 1842 (Emerson Tennant papers, P.R.O.N.I., D.2922/C/12/3).

60 Belfast Newsletter, 20 Jan. 1843.

61 Ulster Times, 2 Feb. 1843.

62 Downshire to Richard Davison, 17 Feb. 1843 (Downshire papers, P.R.O.N.I., D671/C/209/14).

63 For an overview of the controversy stemming from the bishop’s 1843 charge that focused on enforcing liturgical conformity, see Drew’s public remonstrance against the ‘… occult mode of instituting the Diocesan Church Architecture Society’: Ulster Times, 22 July 1843.

64 Ibid., 28 Feb. 1843.

65 Belfast Commercial Chronicle, 1 Mar. 1843.

66 Downshire to Davison, 17 Feb. 1843 (Downshire papers, P.R.O.N.I., D671/C/209/14). Downshire, a devoted and deeply conventional Anglican, had battled with Walter Mant, archdeacon of Down, over the latter’s supposed Puseyite tendencies in the 1830s and was a key player in an 1845 clash in Hillsborough: Yates, , Religious condition of Ireland, pp 287–9; Maguire, W. A., The Downshire estates in Ireland, 1801–1845 (Oxford, 1972), p. 81.

67 Ulster Times, 14 Feb. 1843. For another letter calling for an end to the recent clerical controversies, see ibid., 4 Mar. 1843.

68 The Mant family, both the bishop and his sons, the Rev. Walter Mant, archdeacon of Down, and the Rev. Frederick W. Mant, curate of Inch, were central to the workings of the local society, presenting a sizeable proportion of the society’s published papers between 1842 and 1846. See ‘Stray papers on diocesan history and antiquities, read before the Down, Connor and Dromore Architecture Society and the Harris Society, 1842–46’ in the Reeves manuscripts (P.R.O.N.I., DIO1/24/12). My thanks to Fred Rankin and Brian M. Walker for this reference.

69 For a recent view, see Miller, , ‘Demise of the confessional state in Ireland’, pp 109–24. See also Hempton, and Hill, , Evangelical Protestantism in Ulster society, pp 69, 98–9, 205–6.

70 Belfast Newsletter, 20 Jan. 1843.

71 St John Smyth correspondence (Representative Church Body Library, Dublin, MS 772/6/1–17).

72 Focusing on the 1850s, Mark Doyle has termed Christ Church as a kind of makeshift Orange lodge in an era where Orange processions were banned: Doyle, Fighting like the devil, p. 84.

73 For Gregg’s Protestant Operative Association, see Crawford, John, ‘“An overriding providence”: the life and ministry of Tresham Dames Gregg (1800–81)’ in Barnard, T. C. and Neely, W. G. (eds), The clergy of the Church of Ireland, 1000–2000 (Dublin, 2006), pp 157–68. For a brief treatment of Drew’s Christ Church Protestant Association, see Doyle, , Fighting like the devil, pp 26–7.

74 For a vivid example, see William Johnston’s campaign to repeal the Party Processions Act: Farrell, Sean, ‘Recapturing the flag: the campaign to repeal the Party Processions Act, 1860–72’ in Eire–Ireland, xxxii, nos. 2–3 (summer/fall 1997), pp 5278. For an alternate view of Johnston’s career, see Bew, John, The glory of being Britons: civic Unionism in nineteenth-century Belfast (Dublin, 2009), pp 194222.

75 Ulster Times, 22 July 1843.


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed