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Covenanters in Ireland General Overview/Background

Background and The Irish Reformation

In the 1500s, just over a million people lived in Ireland, compared to over 6 million today. The Reformation which took place in Ireland was very different to the Reformation which happened in Scotland. The Reformation in Scotland had been a mighty work of God, during which thousands were converted through ministers preaching the gospel, which eventually led to Parliament abolishing Roman Catholicism. In Ireland however all that changed was that, in 1536, Parliament said that king Henry VIII was now head of the church instead of the Pope. The people stayed Catholic. The lives of the first Protestant ministers weren’t much better than the old Catholic priests. Services were now held in English rather than Latin, but to the ordinary Irish people this was just a change from one foreign language to another.


The spiritual state of the country began to improve however through the work of Scottish ministers who came over to Ireland during the Plantation of Ulster in the early 1600s. The National Covenant of 1638 and the Solemn League and Covenant of 1644 were both signed by thousands of people in Ireland, and the first Presbytery was set up in 1642. As in Scotland, the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 saw Presbyterian ministers ejected from their churches and Episcopalianism brought back. However, unlike in Scotland, the ministers (apart from a few, like Alexander Peden who came over from Scotland) just accepted what the king said and stopped preaching. In the eyes of the people, however, Peden and the other Scottish preachers were the only faithful ministers left. They had a big influence on a young Irish ministerial student called David Houston, who became friends with James Renwick. By this time, those who still held to the covenants were holding separate society meetings for fellowship. By the time Houston died in 1696 he had firmly united these societies, which were eventually were organised as the Reformed Presbyterian Church in 1763.

More on the Irish Reformation:
Crawford Gribben,
The Irish Puritans: James Ussher and the Reformation of the Church (Darlington, 2003), especially pp 12-17.
Thomas Hamilton,
History of Presbyterianism in Ireland (Belfast, 1992 [1887]).
James Seaton Reid,
History of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, ed. W. D. Killen (3 vols, 3rd edn, Belfast, 1867), i, 1-69

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