Recent biographies concur that John Abernathy was probably born in Bligh (near Cookstown), Co. Tyrone on 19th October 1680. His father, also John, was a Presbyterian minister there. In 1698 John Abernathy senior went to London with Patrick Adair to communicate Irish Presbyterian support for William III. His mother took refuge in Derry/Londonderry: John’s siblings were among the 10,000 who died in the famous siege. John had been sent instead to relatives in Ballymena who then brought him to Scotland where he was educated. In 1692 he returned to his parents in Coleraine. He went to Glasgow University aged 13, graduated MA in 1696, studied divinity in Edinburgh and returned to Ireland in 1701/2.
He was ordained in 1703 and became minister in Antrim. He married Susannah Jordan (d. 1712), with whom he had one son and three daughters.
Abernathy had a leading role in the Irish Presbyterian debate over whether ministers should be obliged to sign up to the Westminister Profession of Faith, an obligation only introduced in the Irish Presbyterian Church in 1705. The debate raged from 1719 until 1726, when the non-subscribing ministers, including John Abernathy, were sequestered in the Presbytery of Antrim.
Abernathy moved to Wood St, Dublin in 1730 where he married again. Early in his time in Dublin he wrote against the Test Act in The Nature and Consequences of the Sacramental Test Considered (1731). Abernathy was “against all laws that, upon account of mere differences of religious opinions and forms of worship excluded men of integrity and ability from serving their country” (the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, presumably quoting Abernathy.)
His natural-law defence of dissenters’ rights to civil and military office drew a response from Jonathan Swift. Abernethy, together with William Bruce countered this reply in a series of five pamphlets, Reasons for the Repeal of the Sacramental Test (1733). The pamphlets were an important part of the debate on toleration at that time.
His learning was respected by others including Francis Hutcheson, who asked William Bruce to show the first draft of System of Moral Theology to Abernathy for his opinion in 1737.
After his works on the Test Act Abernathy turned to theological writing on the being and attributes of God. The resulting books, that had began as sermon series were Discourses Concerning the Being and Natural Perfections of God (1740) and Discourses concerning the Perfections of God; in which his Holiness, Goodness, and other Moral Attributes, are Explained and Proved (1742 – published posthumously. Duchal selected various of his other sermons for print in consultation with William Bruce and appended a short “life”.
Abernethy died intestate of gout at his home in Whitefriar Street, Dublin, on 1 December 1740.
References and Further Reading
M. A. Stewart, ‘Abernethy, John (1680–1740)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
M. A. Stewart. “Abernethy, John”. Dictionary of Irish Biography.
(ed.) James McGuire, James Quinn. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
PRDL: John Abernethy (1680-1740) (list of his works available online)
Mark McGovern (1997) “Myths and Marches History, Class and the Siege of Derry 1689” in History Ireland, Vol.5, Issue 4 (online).