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Response to Review of Ulster Liberalism, 1778-1876: the Middle Path

It was very satisfying to find that in his review of my book Ulster Liberalism, 1778–1876, Daniel Ritchie apprehended nearly all of the significant themes that I had intended to bring forward. His kind words and recommendation are greatly appreciated. It is always a relief that readers do not find your text baffling or addled. With that said, I am a little disappointed that my perhaps too subtle efforts to suggest that Ulster liberalism was in many ways not exceptional but part of a wider Atlantic experience did not resonate as much as I had hoped. For example, the epigrams at the beginning of chapter one and the conclusion were intended to suggest that the same questions that concerned people in Ulster were being debated elsewhere. Furthermore, these questions were more complex than we sometimes recognize. I believe that it is sometimes worth the risk to try and nudge people towards questions as much as answers.

On the minor point of Reverend John Paul, I think Mr. Ritchie was right to point out the ambivalence in this case. I was quoting Peter Brooke and it is clear that Paul was a bit idiosyncratic. If you look at Paul's writings against Reverend Henry Montgomery, he clearly asserts that ‘Every society of Christians is, or ought to be, a voluntary association’.(1) I think Paul was ambivalent at times, unable to put aside the habits of covenanting thought about coercion. This ambivalence almost certainly contributed to his tempestuous relationship with other covenanting ministers.

The issue of covenanters and coercion brings me to the only place where I think either Mr. Ritchie misread me or I did not express myself clearly. I am certain that Professor Holmes is right about the covenanting tradition abandoning the coercive aspects of their theology. I suspect that I did not make it crystal clear that I believe James McKnight correctly understood the matter. I hoped that when you read what I wrote about James McKnight this would be evident. It is clear that while McKnight's anonymous pamphlets attacked the past ideals of the covenanting tradition, he carefully admitted that the seceders and covenanters of his day no longer really supported coercion. Indeed, in many ways McKnight's real target was Reverend Henry Cooke and his allies. McKnight tried to encourage this development within the covenanting tradition, particularly among the seceders. McKnight criticized historical practices within a model of progress, much like his ally James Godkin.

Furthermore, as Mr. Ritchie suggested, I am speaking of a ‘reformulated vision of the godly commonwealth’, not anything as absurd as enforcing Presbyterianism upon the state. Most importantly, this discussion is in the context of rhetoric about tenant-right. I am convinced that the language of mutual obligation permeated the rhetoric of the most active supporters of tenant-right and that the metaphor of a covenant was particularly resonant with Presbyterians. McKnight understood this as well. Rhetoric and metaphor, particularly within a tradition, are powerful cultural elements without necessarily being tied to particular policies. You can still hear rhetoric about covenants and Godly commonwealths in American churches today from people who could not conceive of state intervention in matters of faith.

I am also disappointed that Mr. Ritchie, unlike other reviewers, was not convinced of the importance of the discussion of changes in local government. It was at times incredibly tedious to research, summarize and explain. However, I recall being in Belfast and describing my interest in some funny goings on around town commissions to the late J. C. Beckett. Usually when some overly enthusiastic young scholar pens an esteemed writer in a corner, the poor soul politely nods and mutters something about the ridiculously na├»ve idea being ‘very interesting’ until an appointed guardian rescues him. On this occasion, however, it seemed to me that Professor Beckett immediately understood what I was on about and told me that it was a very important story to be told. I think he was correct. In order to understand many of the dynamics of Ulster liberalism, I think you have to understand the very real changes in social authority that occurred during this period. Breaking the sod on a not widely known or understood development can be a bit arduous.

Thanks again for making reviews of this quality available and for the opportunity to reply to a thoughtful review of my work.


  1. Works of the Late Rev. John Paul, D.D., ed. Stewart Bates (Belfast, 1855) p. 401.Back to (1)