Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Abernethy, John (1680-1740)
ABERNETHY, JOHN (1680–1740), Irish dissenting clergyman, was born at Coleraine, co. Londonderry, Ulster, on 19 Oct. 1680. His father was then presbyterian minister there. His mother was a daughter of Walkinshaw of Walkinshaw, Renfrewshire, Scotland.
In his ninth year, on occasion of his father's being sent to London as representative of the Irish presbyterian church in affairs that concerned them, his mother removed to Londonderry, whilst he was sent to a relative in Ballymena (or Ballymenagh). This was in 1689. To escape the rebellion and turbulence and confusion of the times, the relative proceeded to Scotland, and carried Master John with him, having ‘no opportunity of conveying him to his mother.’ He was thus delivered from the horrors and perils of the famous siege of Derry, in which Mrs. Abernethy lost all her other children. His education was continued in Scotland for three years. He then returned to Coleraine; but in his thirteenth year he is again found in Scotland as a student at the university of Glasgow. He himself condemned the unwisdom of this premature sending of him to the university. His career in Glasgow was a brilliant one. He must have been specially precocious in wit. He took his degree of M.A. with much éclat.
At this time his leanings were towards the study of medicine or physic. He was persuaded by his parents and other friends to devote himself to divinity. Upon this decision he went to Edinburgh university. His distinction at Glasgow college and his social attainments preceded him. He was at once admitted into the innermost circle of the cultured society of Edinburgh. The unvarying tradition is that he excelled as a conversationalist, drawing forth the wonder of grave professors (e.g. of Professor Campbell) and the more perilous homage of fair ladies' bright eyes.
Patriotically and modestly putting aside opportunities presented in Scotland, at the close of his theological course he returned to Coleraine. He there prosecuted his studies privately. In a short time he was licensed by his presbytery to preach the gospel. But being still under twenty-one, he proceeded to Dublin that he might get the advantages of further classical and theological study. When he left for the capital, he was practically under ‘call’ to the (presbyterian) church at Antrim; but having preached in Wood Street, Dublin, that congregation eagerly sought to associate him as co-pastor with the Rev. Mr. Boyse, who was held in high esteem. There was then competition between the two congregations. According to use and wont the synod was left to decide. In the interval the competition was complicated by a third ‘call’ on the death of his venerable father, from his father's congregation of Coleraine. The synod determined in favour of Antrim, and he was there ordained on 8 Aug. 1703. His admiring biographer (Duchal) tells of such quantity and quality of work done in Antrim as few could have achieved. He toiled and witnessed as a primitive apostle might have done. By the mass of his intellect, united with unequalled alertness of perception and fluency of expression, he was marked out for a debater; and perhaps no ecclesiastical courts in Christendom afford finer opportunities for an able debater than the synods and general assemblies of the presbyterian churches. But he was more than a debater. His whole soul and heart were fired with zeal on behalf of his ignorant and superstitious fellow-countrymen; and it is clear on perusal of the ‘Records’ that he lifted the entire Irish presbyterian church to a higher level of duty than ever before.
When he had been nine years in Antrim, he was called to Londonderry, but rejoiced when the synod retained him in his original charge. In 1712 the darkest shadow of his life fell broad and black upon him—the death of his wife, whose maiden name was Susannah Jordan, leaving one son and three daughters. A ‘Diary’—passages of which are given in Duchal's ‘Life’—begun at this date (Feb. 1712–13) reveals how intense was his desolation and sorrow, and equally how yearning and devout was his ‘walk with God.’ His passionate, because compassionate, concern for the Roman Catholics was most remarkable, and his labours abundant. In 1717 he was again involved in competing claims for him as minister. First there came a call from the congregation of Usher's Quay, Dublin, in conjunction with the Rev. Mr. Arbuckle. Then, almost simultaneously, a like ‘call’ from the old congregation at Belfast. In the face of both, Antrim desired to retain its beloved pastor. As before, the synod decided the matter and assigned him to Dublin. This threw Abernethy into no common agitation and perplexity. After tarrying three months at Usher's Quay on an experimental or observing visit, he felt that Antrim had the first claim upon him, and resolved accordingly, spite of the appointment of the general synod. When his resolution to remain at Antrim was bruited abroad, it was as though an ecclesiastical earthquake shook the Irish presbyterian church. Such a thing as disobedience to a decision of the supreme court of the church never had been heard or dreamed of as possible. But Abernethy stood firm; and from less to more the thing grew to an assertion of resistance to mere authority, or, as it ultimately ran, ‘the tyrannical exercise of ecclesiastical power.’ His convictions were coloured, if not shaped, by Bishop Hoadly's famous sermon on the ‘Kingdom of Christ.’ Henceforward he stood forth uncompromisingly for religious freedom, and disowned the sacerdotal assumptions of church courts, higher or lesser. The minister of Antrim promulgated his new opinions in an association of like-minded presbyterians, called The Belfast Society. The issue was a division of the one camp of Presbyterianism into two, known historically as subscribers and non-subscribers. Abernethy was at the head of the latter.
In 1719 Abernethy's opinions and sentiments found memorable expression in a sermon on the text (Romans xiv. 5): ‘Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind,’ in which he nobly vindicated private judgment and christian liberty; but it was as fuel added to fire. The jealousies waxed fast and furious. A breach or schism was threatened. To arrest it if possible, he published ‘Seasonable Advice to the contending Parties in the North.’ This was accompanied with a ‘Preface’—an admirable one—by Boyse and Chappin, of Dublin, and others. The effort was vain. In 1726 the ‘non-subscribers’ were ‘cut off’ from the ministry and membership of the Irish presbyterian church, and formed themselves into a separate presbytery. Sorrowful heart-burnings and feuds followed. There can be no question that, consciously or unconsciously, Abernethy now sowed the seed whose blissful or baleful harvest (according to opinion) had to be cut down by the illustrious Dr. Henry Cooke fully a century later. But the ‘non-subscribing’ presbyterians still exist as unitarians.
In 1730 he accepted a call to Wood Street congregation in Dublin, on the death of Mr. Boyse. And here his fame as a pulpit orator won back for him his original influence. His sermons were now noted for their pathos. Here he married a Miss Boid (or Boyd), and was again happy in his choice.
In 1731 came on the greatest of all the controversies in which Abernethy engaged. The occasion was the notorious Test Act; but the contest grew to a demand for repeal of all tests and disabilities. The stand taken 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 far ahead of his age. He had to reason with the episcopal church, which held presbyterians for ‘schismatics,’ and with others who had to be convinced that it was possible for ‘protestant dissenters’ and Roman Catholics to be ‘men of integrity and ability.’ John Abernethy's is a venerable name to all who love freedom of conscience and opinion. He died in December 1740. The works of Abernethy, other than his ecclesiastical writings, are still noticeable. The ‘Biographia Britannica’ furnishes full details. His ‘Discourses on the Divine Attributes’ and his ‘Posthumous Sermons’ (4 vols.) are still valued. His collected ‘Tracts’ (1751), wherein he measures swords with Swift himself triumphantly, carry in them truths and principles greatly in advance of the age.
[Life, by Duchal, prefixed to Sermons (1762); Kippis's Biographia Britannica; Irish Presbyterian Church; Reid's Presbyterian Church in Ireland, iii. 234, seq.; MS. Diary, 6 vols. 4to.]