1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Abernethy, John (priest)

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130181911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 1 — Abernethy, John (priest)

ABERNETHY, JOHN (1680–1740), Irish Presbyterian divine, was born at Coleraine, county Londonderry, where his father was Nonconformist minister, on the 19th of October 1680. In his thirteenth year he entered the university of Glasgow, and on concluding his course there went on to Edinburgh, where his intellectual and social attainments gained him a ready entrance into the most cultured circles. Returning home he received licence to preach from his Presbytery before he was twenty-one. In 1701 he was urgently invited to accept charge of an important congregation in Antrim; and after an interval of two years, mostly spent in further study in Dublin, he was ordained there on the 8th of August 1703. Here he did notable work, both as a debater in the synods and assemblies of his church and as an evangelist. In 1712 he lost his wife (Susannah Jordan), and the loss desolated his life for many years. In 1717 he was invited to the congregation of Usher’s Quay, Dublin, and contemporaneously to what was called the Old Congregation of Belfast. The synod assigned him to Dublin. After careful consideration he declined to accede, and remained at Antrim. This refusal was regarded then as ecclesiastical high-treason; and a controversy of the most intense and disproportionate character followed, Abernethy standing firm for religious freedom and repudiating the sacerdotal assumptions of all ecclesiastical courts. The controversy and quarrel bears the name of the two camps in the conflict, the “Subscribers” and the “Non-subscribers.” Out-and-out evangelical as John Abernethy was, there can be no question that he and his associates sowed the seeds of that after-struggle (1821–1840) in which, under the leadership of Dr Henry Cooke, the Arian and Socinian elements of the Irish Presbyterian Church were thrown out. Much of what he contended for, and which the “Subscribers” opposed bitterly, has been silently granted in the lapse of time. In 1726 the “Non-subscribers,” spite of an almost wofully pathetic pleading against separation by Abernethy, were cut off, with due ban and solemnity, from the Irish Presbyterian Church. In 1730, although a “Non-subscriber,” he was invited to Wood Street, Dublin, whither he removed. In 1731 came on the greatest controversy in which Abernethy engaged, viz. in relation to the Test Act nominally, but practically on the entire question of tests and disabilities. His stand was “against all laws that, upon account of mere differences of religious opinions and forms of worship, excluded men of integrity and ability from serving their country.” He was nearly a century in advance of his age. He had to reason with those who denied that a Roman Catholic or Dissenter could be a “man of integrity and ability.” His Tracts—afterwards collected—did fresh service, generations later, and his name is honoured by all who love freedom of conscience and opinion. He died in December 1740.

See Dr Duchal’s Life, prefixed to Sermons (1762); Diary in MS., 6 vols. 4to; Reid’s Presbyterian Church in Ireland, iii. 234.