[Rev.] John Abernethy

Commentary

Life
1680-1740; b. 19 Oct., Brigh, nr. Stewartstown, Co. Tyrone; his father, a Presbyterian minister, and the first of the family in Ireland, shortly moved to Moneymore, 1684; lived in Ballymena and Coleraine; ed. Glasgow University and Edinburgh; preached at Ussher’s Quay, Dublin. c.1690; ordained Antrim 1703; recalled to Dublin, 1717, but opted to stay in Antrim to the annoyance of the Synod; led Unitarians or non-subscribers in the Belfast Society meeting-house, 1726; foresaken by his congregation and returned to Dublin; mbr. of Robert Molesworth’s liberal circle of ‘New Light’ theologians; issued Nature and Consequences of the Sacramental Test Considered (Dublin 1731), in which he wrote that the Anglican Test Act ‘carries the appearance of public censure, at least distrust’ and further asserted his belief that ‘men of integrity and ability’ could come from all denominations; challenged Swift’s view of dissenting religion as fanatical; efforts to change Parliament’s mind on dissenters’ civic status, defeated in 1733; prominent in Belfast New Light movement and was later cited by William Drennan as a formative influence on the thinking of the United Irishmen; Discourses Concerning the Being and Natural Perfection of God [1740]; Scarce and Valuable Tracts &c (1751); preached on accession of George I in 1714 and on the centenary of the 1642 Rebellion; his published sermons were highly regarded by Dr. Johnston; d. Dec. DIB ODNB CAB RR DUB OCIL FDA

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Works
Sermons on Various Subjects [ ...] with a Large Preface Containing the Life of the Author [by James Duchal], 4 vols. (London: D. Browne; C. Davis; A. Millar 1748-51); Do., another edn. (London: D. Browne; T. Osborne; A. Millar 1762). Discourses Concerning the Being and Natural Perfections of God [... &c.] (Dublin: for the author 1740), 400pp., 8o.; Do. (Dublin: J. Smith 1742), 8o., 440pp.; Do., 2 vols (London: H. Whitridge 1743), 8o; Do., 2 vols. (London rep. for H. Whitridge 1746), 8o.; Do. (London H. Whitridge, D. Browne, etc. 1757), 8o.; Do., 2 vols. (Aberdeen: J. Boyle 1778), 12o. Scarce and Valuable Tracts and Sermons,Occasionally Published by the Late [ ...] John Abernethy [ ...] Now First Collected Together (London: R. Griffiths 1751). 8o., 7, 288pp.

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Criticism
John Duchal, a life prefaced to Sermons on Various Subjects [ ...], 4 vols. (London: D. Browne; C. Davis; A. Millar 1748-51); Godfrey Brown, ‘John Abernethy, Scholar and Ecclesiast’, in George O’Brien and Peter Roebuck, eds., Nine Ulster Lives (Ulster Hist. Found. 1992), pp.125-39.

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Quotations
The Existence of God Proved by Human Morality” (from Discourse Concerning the Being and Natural perfections of God, 1743): ‘Nothing can be more groundless and unsupported with any pretence of reason than to allege that the notions of morality so common and prevailing in the world were originally invented by politicians, and by their artifice imposed upon credulous mankind as the dictates of nature. For besides that strict virtue is often too little agreeable to the maxims and measures of their policy to give it any appearance of proceeding from such an original, every man who will look carefully into his own heart may find there a standard of right and wrong prior to any instructions, declarations, and laws of men, whereby he pronounces judgment upon them. Nor was it ever known that any human invention, nor anything which was not the voice of reason and nature itself, appeared so uniform and unvaried, always consistent with itself, and always in the same light to the minds of men, as the principal moral species do. The forms of civil government differ according to the circumstances and inclinations of the people who create them, the external forms of religion too are variable, and so is everything of positive appointment and institution; but justice and mercy, gratitude and truth, never alter; the learned and the unlearned, the most uninstructed and the most polite nations agree in their notions concerning them, and whenever they are intelligibly propose approve them.’ (Extract in Charles Read, ed,. The Cabinet of Irish Literature, 3 vols., 1876-78, Vol. 1, p.162.)

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Christianity Opposed to Persecution” (from Discourse Concerning the Being and Natural Perfections of God, 1743): ‘All this is not to be understood as if Christianity were intended to destroy the unalterable right of mankind to defend their lives and their liberties, among which that of conscience is the most sacred, against unjust violence, as if we were obliged by the rules of our religions to offer our throats to ruffians, and submit universally to the most lawless tyranny. But the religion of the Holy Jesus forbids revenge. Even when necessary, self-defence is allowed, nay, is most just and honourable. Christians should be always ready to be reconciled, never carrying their resentment farther than self-preservation requires. When that end is obtained, and force is no more needed to repel causeless wrongs, then the offices of love take place; the utmost cruelties ought not to be retaliated. In the case of the apostles and other primitive Christians the right of self-defence was entirely out of the question. Their situation was such that it was not in their power to use it. And so God was pleased to order, in his infinite wisdom, that in them might be exemplified illustriously the virtues of meekness, patience and charity, which are the glory of his gospel, for a pattern to all who should afterwards believe, and for a testimony to the world of the truth, the purity, and the innocence of the Christian faith. But at all times Christianity appears, as originally delivered by its blessed Author, to be an inoffensive institution, breathing nothing but peace, and tending to inspire its professors with the strongest sentiments of kindness and good-will to all men-kindness not to be extinguished even by hatred, injuries, and affronts, so far from giving any allowance to rage and cruelty in the defence and provocation of it; of which we have a remarkable instance in the severe reproof our Saviour gave to two of his disciples, who moved to have fire come down from heaven to a destroy some of the Samaritans because they refused to receive him into their village. He turned and rebuked them and said, “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of, for the Son of man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them.”’ (Extract in Charles Read, ed,. The Cabinet of Irish Literature, 3 vols., 1876-78, Vol. 1, p.164.)

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References
Richard Ryan, Biographia Hibernica: Irish Worthies (1821), Vol. I, p.1.

Charles A. Read, The Cabinet of Irish Literature [1876-78]; erroneously cites place of birth as Coleraine, prob. confusing the town with former Coleraine County (later Co. Londonderry); also mentions the death of [all] his siblings in the Williamite War, here called ‘dissensions’. Reprints extracts from Discourses Concerning the Being and Natural Perfection of God (1743) and Collected Tracts [n.d.].

Dictionary of National Biography refers to ‘his zeal on behalf of his ignorant and superstitious countrymen [i.e. Catholics]’; Abernethy stood uncompromisingly for religious freedom and disowned sacerdotal assumptions of the ecclesiastical courts; head of non-subscribers to the Presbyterian Synod, which was cut off in 1726. [Note that the Dictionary of Irish Biography entry is a distillation of this.]

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James S. Donnelly, Jr., et al., eds., Encyclopedia of Irish History and Culture, 2 vols. (Macmillan Reference USA [Thomson Gale] 2004), commences with an article on Abernethy [Vol. I].

British Library< holds: A Sermon preached at Antrim, Nov. 13. 1723, at a fast observed in the Presbyterian Congregations in Ulster [...] on the account of divisions. Belfast: Robert Gardner 1724), 4o., pp. 24; A Sermon recommending the Study of Scripture-Prophecie, etc. (Belfast: James Blow 1716), 4o, 25pp.; Discourses concerning the being and natural perfections of God, &c. (Dublin: for the author 1740), 400pp., 8o.; Discourses concerning the being and natural perfections of God [Fourth edn.], 2 vols. (Aberdeen: J. Boyle 1778), 12o.; Discourses concerning the Being and Natural Perfections of God, etc., 2 vols (London: H. Whitridge 1743), 8o; another edn. [Third Edition], 2 vols. [Dublin] (London rep. for H. Whitridge 1746), 8o.; Another Edn. (London H. Whitridge, D. Browne, etc.1757), 8o.; Discourses concerning the Being and Natural Perfections of God, etc. (Dublin: J. Smith 1742), 8o., 440pp.; Persecution contrary to Christianity. A sermon preached in [...] Dublin on the 23d. of October 1735, being the anniversary of the Irish Rebellion. (Dublin: J. Smith & W. Bruce 1735, 8o., pp. 44; Religious Obedience founded on Personal Persuasion. A sermon, etc.. London: J. Noon: 1720), 8o., 28pp.; Scarce and Valuable Tracts and Sermons, occasionally published by the late [...] John Abernethy [...] now first collected together (London: R. Griffiths 1751). 8o. [7, 288pp.]; Seasonable advice to the Protestant Dissenters in the North of Ireland; being a defence of the late General Synod’s charitable Declarations [i.e., the proceedings of the Synod at Belfast, 27 June 1721]. With a recommendatory preface. By the Reverend Nath[aniel] Weld, J. Boyse and R. Choppin. [by J. Abernethy] (Dublin: George Ewing 1722), 8o, xxii, 57pp.; Sermons on Various Subjects [...] With a large preface [by James Duchal] containing the life of the author.; [another edn. of Vols. 1 and 2.]; another edn. [The Third Edition] 4 vols. (London: D. Browne; C. Davis; A. Millar 1748-51), 8o.; Another edn. (London: D. Browne; T. Osborne; A. Millar 1762). 8o.; The People’s Choice, the Lord’s Anointed. A thanksgiving sermon for [...] King George, his happy accession to the throne, his arrival and coronation. Preach’d at Antrim, etc. (Belfast: R. Gardner [1714]), 4o. 20pp.; The True Terms of Christian and Ministerial Communion founded on Scripture alone. A sermon [...] With a preface: containing a short account of the author, by Mr. Abernethy.. pp. xii. 24. J. Smith: Dublin, 1739. 8o.; The Nature and Consequences of the Sacramental Test considered: with Reasons humbly offered for the repeal of it. [by John Abernethy] (Dublin 1731), 63pp.; another edn. [rep.] (London: J. Roberts 1732), . 8o.. 79pp.; A Sermon [on Matt. xxv. 21] on occasion of the [...] death of the Revd Mr. J. Abernethy, preach’d [...] Dec. 7th, 1740, etc. (Dublin 1741), 8o. Also SERMONS, Eleven Sermons on the Being and Perfections of God [A sermon]; Of Acknowledging God in all our ways [A sermon]; Of Repentance [2 sermons]; Of Self-Denial [A sermon]; The Causes and Danger of Self-Deceit. [A sermon]. Note, BL Cat. also contains theological works of one John Abernethy, Bishop of Caithness [e.g., A Christian and Heavenly Treatise, containing physicke for the soule [...] Newly corrected and inlarged by the author. [Third edition] (London: J. Budge 1622; 1630); trans. as Een Christelick ende Goddelick Tractact, inhoudende de medicine der ziele, etc. (s’ Graven-hage: A. Meuris: 1623), 4o.]; also numerous works by the distinguished medical practitioner and author John Abernethy (fl. 1830) and a biography of same.

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Seamus Deane, gen. ed., The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, 3 vols. (Derry: Field Day 1991), Vol. 3, p.19: [ftn. to William Drennan, ‘The Intended Defence’].

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Notes
John Larkin, The Trial of William Drennan (1991) includes remarks to the effect that William Drennan wrote in his “Defence”: ‘I glory to be a Protestant Dissenter' and proudly recited the names of Abernethy, Bruce, [John] Duchal and [Francis] Hutcheson. Not only were these men all close friends of his father but they were exponents of a particular kind of Presbyterianism - a new liberal attitude which an opponent ironically termed the “New Light”. In the 1720s, this movement was at the centre of a division in the Irish Presbyterian Church on the question of subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith, and Abernethy and Bruce, together with Samuel Haliday, the elder Drennan's predecessor as minister of the First Presbyterian Church Belfast, and others were leaders of the liberal ‘non-subscribers.’ (See review by John W. Nelson, The Linen Hall Review, April 1991.) Note that these same men were cited in a sermon preached by James Mackay in the Old Belfast Meeting House on the death of Drennan's father.

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