Mural of two Celtic warriors in battle

Test of toleration: Abernathy and Swift

John Abernathy was born on 19th October, 1680. Jonathan Swift sailed into his rest on 19th October, 1745. In the 1730s they locked horns over the issue of religious toleration.

In 1719, the Toleration Act was passed in the Irish Parliament. This confirmed that Irish Dissenters (protestants who were not members of the Established Church, the Church of Ireland) were free to practice their religion and to have their own schools. This act allowed Francis Hutcheson to run an academy in Dublin, for example. But there were still restrictions on dissenters in other spheres. A clause in the Act to prevent the further growth of popery (1704) laid down a requirement that all crown and municipal office holders should qualify themselves by taking communion in the established church. This was not altered by the 1719 Act. Since most dissenters refused to take communion as required the result had been the ousting of dissenters from civil and military office.

John Abernethy
Wikimedia, Public Domain

In 1731 John Abernathy (recently moved to Wood St in Dublin) published The nature and consequences of the sacramental test considered, defending dissenters’ right to take public office regardless of how they worshiped. He pointed out that the clause outlining the Sacramental Test had been inserted into the original act (which was true) and that the Irish House of Commons had declared, when passing the Act that they disliked the Test and intended to repeal it. Abernathy argued that the dissenters had shown themselves loyal subjects: “no one party of a religious denomination, were as united as they…in an inviolable attachment to the Protestant succession” (p. 59). Moreover, the Sacramental Test “infringes on the indisputable right of the dissenters” and was harmful to the state (p. 26).

Swift had written a pamphlet once before on the Sacramental Test: in 1708 he published A Letter from a member of the House of Commons in Ireland to a member of the House of Commons in England, concerning the Sacramental Test. In that Swift clearly argues that the Sacramental Test should not be repealed. He insists the dissenters are not being persecuted, that the dissenters’ reward for their actions in the Williamite wars was “liberty, property and religion” with no word spoken at the time of “powers and employments”, and that the effect of repealing the test would be an “alteration of religion among us” (from the Established Church to a plethora of faiths and none.)

Bust of Jonathan Swift set into a wall of the same stone. Swift is bareheaded. Around the bust is inscribed the words >>This is the gift of T. T. Faulkner Esq. <<
Bust of Jonathan Swift, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.
Andreas F. Borchert/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0 DE)

Abernathy’s pamphlet apparently stung Swift into replying after silence on the topic for over two decades. His answer, A Narrative of the several attempts which the dissenters have made for a repeal of the sacramental Test was originally published in The Correspondent, a periodical paper, in 1731. The bulk of the work gives Swift’s reading of the establishment of the Sacramental Test : an introduction into Ireland of a law current in England, which protected the established church from the encroachment of dissenters into local government. Swift doesn’t spare Joseph Boyse, Abernathy’s predecessor in Wood St, of whose writing on toleration Swift exclaims: “what a mixture of impudence and prevarication is this?”

Swift is no kinder to Abernathy: Swift calls his writing “mazes and windings…incoherent shreds” and says he is a “feeble advocate for repeal of the Test in point of reasoning.” As he did for the previous attempts at reform, Swift paints the dissenters case as impertinent and imprudent:

Does not this sound like a demand of the repeal of the Test at the peril of those who dare refuse it? […] and that too in the style of a king of Connaught to a king of Ulster – ‘Repeal the Test, or if you don’t’–

He disputes that many (if any) members of the Commons stated they would repeal the Test. He asks, when Abernathy says the measure is absurd, exactly who he is calling absurd: “are they not the majority of both houses of parliament?” He argues Abernathy’s words insinuate the legislature is unjust, imprudent and Jacobite. Swift insists such accusations need concrete examples – and the examples of misdemeanors he gives have obvious examples among the dissenting community. He even disputes the extent to which the dissenters defend their country, undermining the argument for their emancipation based on loyalty. He even says the argument is purely led by ministers concerned at losing their occupation as their congregations desert them.

If Abernathy was left bloody, he was still unbowed. He collaborated with William Bruce to produce another work arguing for toleration for dissenters: Reasons for the Repeal of the Sacramental Test published in 1733. (Read more about William Bruce and Reasons for the Repeal here.) This work cannot be called a maze: each section deals with a different argument for repeal of the Test with clear arguments given for each:

The Reasons given by Abernathy and Bruce were that (1) it is unchristian and contrary to the gospel to punish people purely because of their religious beliefs and practices, (2) that it is anti-religion since it turns the Sacrament into an instrument of worldly advancement, (3) that the Test infringes civil liberty and natural rights, (4) that the Test is not necessary to protect the Established Church and that (5) repealing the Test is politically necessary, mainly to strengthen Protestant interests against Catholics

Swift offered no direct answer to Abernathy and Bruce, but continued to battle on in print. He wrote The Presbyterian’s Plea of Merit (1732) which attacked the dissenter’s claims of loyalty to the crown and defense of Protestantism. The second edition included the Narrative as an appendix. Swift also used satire against the campaign to repeal the Sacramental Test in his The advantages proposed by repealing the sacramental test, impartially considered (1732) and in his 1738 Reasons Humbly Offered to the Parliament of Ireland, for Repealing the Sacramental Test, in Favour of the Catholicks. In his introduction to the Reasons Humbly Offered to the Parliament of Ireland, Swift suggests that he felt the argument for repeal had been seen off by the Merits. The  Reasons also “insinuated, likewise, that [Catholic] pretensions, founded upon their former services and attachment to the government, had greater weight than those of the Presbyterians, a sort of representation which must have exceedingly galled these sectaries” (Mason, p. 389.)

In this time, there were numerous responses to Abernathy from The Humble Remonstrance of the Five-foot-highians to Faulkner’s reprint of Edward Synge’s A peaceable and friendly Address to the Non-Conformists (originally from 1695, arguing there was no sin in dissenters taking communion in the Church of Ireland). William Monck Mason (p. 388) lists sixteen pamphlets, excluding the ones listed above, published on the question in the 1730s.

The Sacramental Test was not repealed despite repeated efforts until 1780.

Mural of two Celtic warriors in battleFeatured Image: Detail of the Tain Wall, a mural depicting the Tain Bo Cúailnge. Diego Sideburns/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


William Monck Mason (1820) The History and Antiquities of the Collegiate and Cathedral Church of St. Patrick Near Dublin, from it Foundation in 1190, to the Year 1819, Dublin: W. Folds, Strand St.

Thomas Roscoe (ed) (1843) The Works of Jonathan Swift: Containing Interesting and Valuable Papers, Not Hitherto Published … With Memoir of the Author, Volume 2, London: Henry G. Bohn.

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