Statue of Henry Cooke against bare tree branches

Cooke against the radicals

The statue of Henry Cooke (who died on 13th December 1868) stands in Belfast with its back to the “Inst”, the Royal Belfast Academical Institution. Its pose can be seen as a symbol of his determined conflict with the liberal (and, he feared, religiously unorthodox) school [1]. 

A non-denominational establishment founded in 1810 by William Drennan, the Belfast Academical Institution served as both a school and a university. Cooke alleged it was a “seminary of Arianism”, due to the presence of prominent anti-Trinitarians and Unitarians such as William Bruce Jr (chair of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, nephew of William Bruce the printer) and Henry Montgomery (chair of English) [2]

Montgomery “threw himself with his whole heart into the liberal cause”, arguing for freedom of conscience within the Ulster Synod. This was effectively a continuation of the subscription debates of the early 18th century, but this time no compromise was found and the Unitarians “withdrew from the church of their fathers, rather than violate their conscience, or abandon their liberty”. Montgomery’s convictions about freedom of conscience were reflected in his support for Catholic Emancipation[3].

At the peak of the Arian controversy John Ferrie was appointed professor of moral theology. and his campaign first targeted John Ferrie, a moral philosopher who departed from the Scottish Common Sense school.His philosophy: [4].

 was empirical and owed much to Thomas Brown as well as the physiological approach of David Hartley and the sensationalism and utilitarian ethics of James Mill.

Cooke contended that those intending to become ministers should only learn moral philosophy as derived from Biblical revelation. He won his point: the Presbyterian Synod of Ulster withdrew its ordinands and Cooke with another minister taught them in his May Street Church [5]

Cooke “represented and led the nineteenth century Ulster Presbyterian reaction to the eighteenth century radicalism in religion and politics with with the founders of the Belfast Institution were identified”[6]. His motives are often ascribed to his opposition of the influence of such liberals in the administration and faculty: a political concern rather than a religious one. Yet his religious motives should not be dismissed. While the eighteenth century had its radicals, it had also many adherents to orthodoxy. For every John Abernathy arguing for freedom of conscience within Ulster Presbyterianism, there was a John Hutcheson (father of Francis) arguing against it.   

Cooke appears to represent a complete break with the “New Light” style of the eighteenth centuries but some interesting continuities remain. In 1842, at the celebration of 200 years of Presbyterianism in Ireland, Henry Cooke made a speech on the rise, progress and prospects of Presbyterianism. Referring to an article that had appeared in the Times, which described Presbyterians as essentially Republicans he said [7]:

If by Republican it is meant that Presbyterians are in favour of popular rights and liberties, we glory in the name. I hold that the British Government is the only perfect Republican Government this world ever saw. Places mentioned in history as having been Republics, such as Athens and Rome, were no Republic; they were oligarchies of the rich… If it be meant that Presbyterianism is Republican in the sense in which Republicanism existed in Athens or Rome, I assert that a grosser falsehood never was uttered… If it be meant that we are favourable to the fooleries of a Republic, we deny it…Were our fathers Republicans when the throne of Charles was at stake ? When the liberties of our own island were in danger, were our forefathers Republicans? No ; they were the first to give the hand to William the Third at Carrickfergus, and the first to acknowledge him in Belfast.”

 This is a definition that the thinkers that influenced William Drennan like Francis Hutcheson might recognise. 

Statue of Henry Cooke against bare tree branches

The “Black Man” (Henry Cooke), Belfast.
Albert Bridge (CC BY-SA 2.0). 

Further Reading and Listening

  •  J. L. Porter (1871) The life and times of Henry Cooke, D.D., LL. D., Second Edition London: John Murray, p. 345 (
  • Great Ulster Scots – Henry Cooke (Ulster Scots Network). 
  • Myles Dungan (2018) “OTD-11.5.1788 Birth of Henry Cooke, Firebrand Presbyterian minister” Myles Dungan (online). 
  • Gordon Lucey (2018) “Influential Presbyterian minister Henry Cooke was ‘the father of Ulster Unionism’” Belfast Newsletter (3 Dec 2018). 


  1. Philip V. Allingham (2006) “Henry Cooke – Samuel Ferris Lynn (1834-1876)” Victorian Web (online)
  2. A. R. Holmes (2014). “From Francis Hutcheson to James McCosh: Irish Presbyterians and Defining the Scottish Philosophy in the Nineteenth Century” History of European Ideas 40(5), pp. 622-643 (Online at QUB)  See page 6 of online version.
  3. Alfred Webb (1878) “Rev Henry Montgomery” in A Compendium of Irish Biography (Online). Quotes from Webb. Also see Mark Rainey (2015) “Blue plaque for liberal Presbyterian minister at Dunmurry” Belfast Newsletter (18 December 2015).
  4. Holmes (2014), p. 9 of online version.
  5. Finlay Holmes (2002) “Cooke, Henry (1788-1868) in Thomas Duddy (ed.) Dictionary of Irish Philosophers, pp. 90-91.
  6. Holmes (2002), p. 90.
  7.  J. L. Porter (1871) The life and times of Henry Cooke, D.D., LL. D., Second Edition London: John Murray, p. 345 (

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