Biographia Hibernica/John Abernethy

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An eminent presbyterian divine, was born on the 19th of October, 1680, at Coleraine, in the county of Londonderry. His father was a dissenting minister in that town, and his mother of the family of the Walkinshaws, of Renfrewshire in Scotland. After remaining under the care of his parents for nine years, he was separated from them by a chain of circumstances, which, in the end, proved highly favorable. His father had been employed by the presbyterian clergy to transact some public affairs in London, at a time when his mother, to avoid the tumult of the insurrections in Ireland, withdrew to Derry. Their son was at that period with a relation, who in the general confusion determined to remove to Scotland, and having no opportunity of conveying the child to his mother, carried him off along with him. Thus he providentially escaped the dangers attending the siege of Derry, in which Mrs. Abernethy lost all her other children. Having spent some years at a grammar school, at the early age of thirteen he was removed to the college at Glasgow, where he remained till he had taken the degree of master of arts. His own inclination led him to the study of medicine, but, in conformity with the advice of his friends, he declined the profession of physic, and devoted himself sedulously to the study of divinity, under the celebrated professor Campbell, at Edinburgh; and so great was his success in the prosecution of his studies, that he was licensed to preach by the presbytery of Route, before he had arrived at the age of twenty-one. In 1708, after having been several years at Dublin with a view to farther improvement, he was ordained at Antrim, where his preaching was much admired, and where his general conduct and superior attainments were beheld with respect and esteem. His congregation was large, and he applied himself to the pastoral work with great diligence. His talents likewise gave him a considerable ascendancy in the synod, so that he had a large share in the management of public affairs. As a speaker he was considered as their chief ornament, and he maintained his character and his interest in their esteem to the last, notwithstanding a change in his religious sentiments had excited the opposition of many violent and highly-gifted antagonists.

In 1716, he attempted to remove the prejudices of the native Irish, in the neighbourhood of Antrim, who were of the popish persuasion, and induce them to embrace the protestant religion. His labours in this design were attended with but moderate success, for notwithstanding several, who were induced to abandon popery, continued firm in their attachment to protestant principles, yet others, to his great discouragement and mortification, reverted to their former persuasion. In the following year he received two invitations, one from Dublin, and another from Belfast; and the synod (whose authority at that time was very great) advised his removal to Dublin; but so strong was his attachment to his congregation at Antrim, that he resolved to continue there at the peril of incurring their displeasure. The interference of this assembly was diametrically opposite to those sentiments of religious freedom which Mr. Abernethy had been led to entertain, both by the exercise of his own vigorous faculties, and by an attention to the Bangorian controversy which prevailed in England about this period. Encouraged by the freedom of discussion which it had occasioned, a considerable number of ministers and others in the north of Ireland, formed themselves into a society for improvement in useful knowledge; their professed aim was to bring things to the test of reason and scripture, instead of paying a servile regard to any human authority. This laudable design is supposed to have been suggested by Mr. Abernethy, and as the gentlemen who concurred in the scheme met at Belfast, it was called 'The Belfast Society.' In the progress of this body, and in consequence of the debates and dissensions which were occasioned by it, several persons withdrew from the society, and those who adhered to it were distinguished by the appellation of non-subscribers. Their avowed principles were these, "First, that our Lord Jesus Christ hath in the new testament determined and fixed the terms of communion in his church; that all christians who comply with these have a right to communion, and that no man, or set of men, have power to add any other terms to those settled in the Gospel. Secondly, that it is not necessary as an evidence of soundness in the faith, that candidates for the ministry should subscribe to the 'Westminster confession,' or any uninspired form of articles or confession of faith, as the terms upon which they shall be admitted, and that no church has a right to impose such a subscription upon them. Thirdly, that to call upon men to make declarations concerning their faith, upon the threat of cutting them off from communion if they should refuse it, and this merely upon suspicions and jealousies, while the persons required to purge themselves by such declarations cannot be fairly convicted upon evidence of any error or heresy, is to exercise an exorbitant and arbitrary power, and is really an inquisition."

Mr. Abernethy was justly considered as the head of the non-subscribers, and he consequently became a principal object of persecution. In an early stage of the controversy he published a sermon from the 14th chapter of Romans, the latter part of the 5th verse; "Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind;" in which he explained in a masterly manner the rights of private judgment, and the foundations of christian liberty. He afterwards published a small tract, entitled "Seasonable Advice to the contending Parties in the North," to which was prefixed a preface composed by the Reverend Messrs. Weld, Boyse, and Chappin, of Dublin. The design of this publication was to prove that there ought to be no breach of communion among the protestant dissenters on account of their difference of sentiment concerning subscription to the Westminster confession. The controversy on the negative side, of which Abernethy was a principal leader, was brought into the general synod, and terminated in a rupture in 1726, the synod determining that the non-subscribers should no longer remain of their body, and reviving with additional force the act of 1705, which required the candidates for the ministry to subscribe to the Westminster confession. From that time the excluded members formed themselves into a separate presbytery, and encountered many difficulties and hardships arising from jealousies spread among their people.

Mr. Abernethy now found that his justly acquired reputation, which he had uniformly maintained by a strict and exemplary life, was little security to him against these evils. Some of his congregation forsook his ministry, and, under the influence and encouragement of the synod, formed themselves into a distinct society, and were provided by them with a minister. Deserted thus by the individuals from whom he expected the most constant support, he received an invitation from the congregation of Wood street, Dublin, which he accepted, and removed thither in 1730. At Dublin he prosecuted his studies with unremitting activity, and deviated from a practice which he had adopted in the north, by writing his sermons at full length, and constantly using his notes in the pulpit. The Irish dissenters being at this time desirous of emancipating themselves from the incapacities devolved upon them by the Test Act, Mr. Abernethy, in 1731, wrote a paper to forward this design, with a view of exhibiting both the unreasonableness and injustice of all those laws, which upon account of mere difference in religious opinions, excluded men of integrity and ability from serving their country, and deprived them of those privileges and advantages, to which they had a natural and just title as freeborn subjects. He insisted strongly that, considering the state of Ireland, it was in point of policy a great error to continue restraints which weakened the protestant interest, and was prejudicial to the government. In 1733, the dissenters of Ireland made a second attempt for obtaining the repeal of this obnoxious act, and Mr. Abernethy again had recourse to the press to favour the scheme; but the affair miscarried.

He continued his labours in Wood street for about ten years with a large share of reputation, and enjoyed great satisfaction in the society and esteem of his friends; and while his associates, from the strength of his constitution, the cheerfulness of his spirits, and the uniform temperance of his life, were in hopes that his usefulness would have been prolonged, a sudden attack of the gout in the head (to which disorder he had ever been subject) frustrated all their hopes, and he expired universally lamented in December 1740, in the 60th year of his age; dying as he had lived, esteemed by all mankind, and with a cheerful acquiescence to the will of an all-wise Creator.

Mr. Abernethy was twice married; first, shortly after his settlement at Antrim, to a lady of exemplary piety, whom he lost by death in 1712; and, secondly, after his removal to Dublin to another lady, with whom he lived in all the tenderness of conjugal affection till the time of his decease. The most celebrated of his writings were his two volumes of Discourses on the Divine Attributes, the first of which only was published during his life-time; they were much admired at the period of their publication, and were recommended by the late excellent Archbishop Herring, and are still held in the highest esteem. Four volumes of his posthumous Sermons have also been published, the two first in 1748, and the others in 1757; to which is prefixed the life of the author, supposed to have been witten by his countryman, Dr. Duchal. Another volume was likewise published in London, in 1751, entitled "Scarce and valuable Tracts and Sermons," &c.

He also left behind him a diary of his life, commencing in February 1712, a short time after his wife's decease. It consists of six large quarto volumes in a very small hand, and very closely written. His biographers have justly termed it an amazing work, in which the temper of his soul is throughout expressed with much exactness. The whole bearing striking characters of a reverence and awe of the divine presence upon his mind, of a simplicity and sincerity of spirit, and of the most careful discipline of the heart; clearly evincing that however great his worldly reputation was, his real worth was far superior to the esteem in which he was held.