Are We Still Waiting for Reformation in Ireland?

As part of the ‘500 Project’ we have asked a range of contributors from across the spectrum to stimulate and challenge our thinking. We won't always agree with all they write, but that’s the point. This piece is by Wallace Thompson, who is a member of Caleb, the Evangelical Protestant Society and a former special advisor.

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The Reformation was a rediscovery of Bible truth. Centuries of spiritual darkness were dispelled by the light of God’s Word. However, the progress of the Reformation varied across the British Isles.

In England and Wales, Henry VIII’s need to secure a male heir led to the Reformation being imposed from the top down. In Scotland, it began as a grassroots movement with a long-lasting influence on the character of the nation.

By contrast, the Reformation did not spread to Ireland. This had radical and far-reaching consequences for the subsequent history of the island. Historian B I Bradshaw states, “The single most intriguing problem posed by the history of the Reformation in Ireland is the failure of the state-sponsored religion to take root in any section of the indigenous population.”

If we go back several centuries to the evangelical witness of Patrick in c432AD, we see that the celtic Church which emerged was soundly biblical. Rev Thomas Hamilton says, “For a long time, Irish ecclesiastics boldly opposed the extravagant claims of the pope so that for centuries the Christianity of Ireland was purer than that of any nation in Christendom”.

However, in the 12th century, when King Henry II intervened in Ireland with the blessing of the pope who granted him the right to invade and impose Gregorian reforms on the celtic church, the influence of Rome began to grow across society. When King Henry VIII sought to introduce the Reformation in Ireland, he met stiff resistance.

The Reformation Parliament met in Dublin in 1536 and was prorogued several times. Several Acts were passed to impose the Reformation. It was also agreed to dissolve the monasteries, which merely increased the bond between monks and people.

Significantly, the Irish language was proscribed (banned), which meant that no reformation ideas were proclaimed in many parts of Ireland. As Thomas Hamilton wrote, “No reformation worthy of the name can be propagated by mere royal proclamations or Acts of Parliament, and it was the misfortune of Ireland, not only in the era of the Reformation but for centuries after, that no wise efforts were made to win the people over to Protestantism”.

Genuine efforts at Reformation were made by some Anglicans bishops, but by the time of Henry’s death in 1547, the Reformation had made virtually no mark on Irish religious life. Greater efforts were made during the reign of Edward VI but any advances were reversed under Mary I.

The Reformation in Ireland began to gather some momentum under Elizabeth I, but her determination to bring Ireland under political and religious control was met with strong resistance and rebellion. Roman Catholicism thus became a symbol of Irish defiance against England.

We must acknowledge the important role played by the Anglican church from the 1590s onwards to establish a parochial Protestant ministry chiefly in the Pale (the area around Dublin directly under English control). Although it was viewed as a colonial church with English cultural and political characteristics, and most of the ministers were from England and Scotland, one of its key figures was an Irishman. Archbishop James Ussher of Armagh (1581–1656), a convinced Calvinist, became Primate of Ireland in 1626. The Church of Ireland developed along broadly evangelical and Calvinist lines, reflected in the 1615 Articles.

By the start of the reign of James I in 1603, very few Irish had converted to Protestantism. However, the events of James I’s reign are pivotal to the political and religious future of Ireland. The Plantation of Ulster was officially aimed mainly at Anglicans, but the Scots came on their own and settled principally in Antrim and Down, and that is where Presbyterianism took root. This transformed Ulster and brought a dynamic Protestantism to the north of the island.

Events such as the Siege of Londonderry in 1689 and the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 consolidated the Protestant presence in Ireland, especially so in Ulster.

Efforts to reach out to the Catholic population in the 19th century resulted in what is sometimes known as the “Second Reformation”. The Earl of Roden, Orangeman and evangelical Anglican, visited the west of Ireland in 1851 to witness the awakening there.

Despite much repression due to the penal laws, Irish Catholicism eventually recovered much of its confidence and influence, and Protestants in 1912 feared that Home Rule would be Rome Rule.

As we conclude this brief historical tour, we have to say that the Reformation in Ireland was largely a failure. It was imposed over many years by military and political efforts, and it was based more on structures, politics and power issues than on doctrine. There was no meaningful effort to preach in Irish. Individual godly men did their best but they had little support or encouragement. Repression of religion effected both Catholics and Presbyterians and it created bitter anger and resentment.

Today, the whole of Ireland is increasingly secular. For a variety of reasons, many Roman Catholics have lost their faith in their church. Protestants, too, have turned away from their faith. But God is sovereign. We must pray that in this 500th year of the great Reformation, God’s Holy Spirit would sweep across Ireland and that many might find Christ as Saviour. After all, that’s what the Reformation was essentially about.