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.
This year, World Philosophy Day (17th November 2016) is celebrated immediately after International Day for Tolerance (16th November every year). The theme for World Philosophy Day 2016, therefore, is Tolerance.
In her message on World Philosophy Day 2016, Director-General of UNESCO Irina Bokova has this to say on tolerance and philosophy1:
Philosophy does not offer any ready-to-use solutions, but a perpetual quest to question the world and try to find a place in it. Along this road, tolerance is both a moral virtue and a practical tool for dialogue. It has nothing to do with the naive relativism that claims everything is equally valid; it is an individual imperative to listen, all the more striking because it is founded on a resolute commitment to defend the universal principles of dignity and freedom.
While an accurate description of the ideal of tolerance, it should be remembered that tolerance was not obviously a virtue in the past. It had to be argued for, and the acceptance of toleration waxed and waned over time.
In the religious wars of 16th and 17th century Europe, toleration was generally a term of insult. The Thirty-Year War and the Eighty-Year War sought to establish right religion within Europe. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 saw all countries recognise the 1555 Peace of Augsburg in which each ruler would have the right to determine the religion of his own state while allowing other Christians to worship privately and (limitedly) in public. This had some strange ramifications in Ireland.
Continue reading “Toleration in 18th century Ireland”
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.
Continue reading “A Brief Account of John Abernathy”