Abernethy, John (1680–1740), presbyterian minister of Scots descent, was born 19 October 1680, probably at Brigh, Co. Tyrone, where his father, also John (d. 1703), was minister 1674–84. His mother was a daughter of John Walkinshaw of Walkinshaw, Renfrewshire, Scotland. Abernethy senior had settled in Ireland during the commonwealth, was ejected from his church living at Aghalow in 1661, and became for a time a peripatetic preacher. From Brigh he moved the family to Moneymore (1684), and in 1689 accompanied Patrick Adair (qv) to London to convey the support of Irish presbyterians for William III (qv). In the turmoils of the time, his wife took refuge in Derry, where her other children died during the siege. John had been living with relatives and was taken for safety to his mother's family in Scotland. After attending grammar school in Renfrewshire until 1692, he rejoined his parents, now settled at Coleraine, and finished his schooling there. At the age of 13 he entered Glasgow University in the first year of the philosophy course, but found it a struggle; his teacher, John Tran, still taught a scholastic curriculum. He graduated around 1696, went to study divinity under the scholarly George Campbell at Edinburgh, and returned to Ireland for ministerial trials over the winter 1701–2.
Early career: the Belfast Society Abernethy received his preaching licence from the presbytery of Route on 3 March 1702. After supply preaching first at Coleraine, then in Dublin, where he resisted efforts to recruit him to succeed the controversial Thomas Emlyn (1663–1741) at Wood St., he was admitted as a probationer in the presbytery of Antrim. More than one congregation sought his services. The synod of Ulster sustained a call to the newly-built church at Antrim and he was ordained there on 8 August 1703.
Abernethy married Susannah Jordan, who bore them one son and three daughters before her premature death in 1712. He raised the family himself, remarrying only after they were grown up. After Susannah's death he began keeping a spiritual diary, six volumes of which were available to his biographer, James Duchal (qv), in the 1740s. They showed that early in life Abernethy had had to overcome ‘a warm imagination, laying too great stress upon what I accounted divine impressions, upon fervours and raptures in religion’ (Duchal, ‘Preface’, xviii). He trained himself to scriptural study and to reflections on providence and virtue, in order to achieve a ‘conformity of the habitual disposition of the mind to the will of God’; but he saw religion as equally a discipline of the heart, founded upon a profound spirit of charity. Around 1705, he had started to involve colleagues in this quest. Doubting his own competence over troubling matters of orthodoxy, he instigated regular meetings for ministers and ministerial candidates in the region. Their discussions ranged over biblical exegesis, the rationale of dissent, and practical problems of the ministry. They explored recent scholarship by sharing books. As the group expanded, Belfast became their customary meeting place and they gained the name of the Belfast Society. Their meetings attracted a cross-section of the ministerial fraternity and for over ten years raised no suspicions.
First publications Abernethy's first publications reflect a degree of tension between support for a traditional Reformed theology and topics generated by the literature of the day. In The people's choice, the Lord's anointed (1714), he found Old Testament precedents for a whig view of monarchy within a protestant theory of liberty. But the Hanoverian succession almost failed, and he concluded with an urgent exhortation to moral regeneration. As moderator of the synod, 1715–16, he repeated the moral message with fresh urgency. The synod that year received a lengthy ‘Enquiry into the state of religion’ from the subsynod of Belfast, and his critics would later recognise Abernethy's hand in some of its principal recommendations: a call for better education and standards of conduct among clergy as well as laity, and a recognition that the schisms among protestants had subverted the reformation and laid society open to factionalism, irreligion, and destructive political divisions and social enmities. His Sermon recommending the study of scripture-prophecie (1716) took seriously the possibility that the Millennium might be realised within his lifetime. It would see the abandonment of sectarian rivalries based on ‘particular church-constitutions’, and the restoration of ‘practical godliness’ and ‘the great essentials of the faith once delivered to the saints’ in a society based on tolerance (Scripture-prophecie, 18). He had enough command of the Irish language to embrace the communities beside Lough Neagh in this vision, and when there were moves in the synod to settle him elsewhere, an Irish-speaking deputation twice supplicated for him to stay.
This issue arose because of two applications to obtain Abernethy's transfer to the Ulster-Scots congregation at Usher's Quay, Dublin. It was voted down by the synod in 1717, but the vote was reversed on reapplication in 1718 and Abernethy received three months’ notice to move. Abernethy himself, his congregation, and the whole Antrim presbytery considered this directive ultra vires, and it has never been established that the synod did have the authority to remove a minister to a posting outside their jurisdiction. A year later, Abernethy had not moved. A mediating committee proposed that he should undertake an eight-month trial, and if he could still not come to terms with the change, he should then petition the Dublin presbytery, ‘who will have such a regard to the rights of conscience . . . that we make noe doubt of their consenting to all that can be reasonably demanded by him’ (Records of General Synod, i. 493). But since the synod had already loosed his ties to them, Abernethy could disregard even this compromise with impunity, and sat tight. A release was negotiated with the Dublin presbytery without his ever going there, and he was rehabilitated by the 1720 synod.
Subscription and Nonsubscription During this confrontation, Abernethy's reading had opened him to the influence of Benjamin Hoadly, the radical whig bishop of Bangor in Wales, who was read as criticising church judicatories for exercising forms of ecclesiastical and temporal authority that went beyond the injunctions of Jesus and the Apostles. Abernethy's sermon to the Belfast Society in December 1719 on Religious obedience, published early in 1720, showed his Hoadlyite credentials. He defended conscience as the guiding principle of the reformation against encroachment by civil and ecclesiastical power. The magistrate's authority is restricted to the preservation of civil peace, and ecclesiastical magistracies have an analogous authority, but no greater. The Apostles directed the churches to be orderly but specified no forms of order; their role was edificatory, ‘to promote truth and sincere religion’. ‘From hence we may see the just limits of church-power; its decisions bind the conscience as far as men are convinc'd, and no farther’ (Religious obedience, 36).
By 1720, however, many synod members were alarmed at reports of the Salters’ Hall debate in London in 1719, when English presbyterians voted by a small majority that the rule of faith for ministers should be adherence to scripture alone rather than any scripture-substitutes of human composition. This was to downgrade the Westminster confession, and move English presbyterianism in the direction of European religious liberalism. Abernethy had hitherto avoided open reference to confessions or creeds, but he had certainly implied that the right to search scripture for oneself carried more weight than church councils. The redemptionist theology built into the Calvinist understanding of the Trinity was particularly threatened by scriptural exegesis that was gaining currency in England through the writings of Hoadly's anglican ally Samuel Clarke; there was little sign of this Arianism among Irish Nonsubscribers at this time, but they were undoubtedly moving away from what they increasingly considered an unscriptural Calvinism towards a broadly Arminian theology and a support for toleration. Abernethy for one was not bothered by doctrinal diversity, seeing freedom of conscience as less evil in its consequences than inquisition.
Gripped by these fears, nevertheless, a majority in the Ulster synod sought resubscription to the Westminster confession from all ministers, challenging the personal character of faith advocated by Abernethy and his associates. Some members deserted the Belfast Society, which became a platform for Nonsubscription. There was a conscientious effort by leaders of both sides to seek a middle ground, but no agreement on what their common language meant. The Nonsubscribers were thought to be countenancing irregular ministerial installations, and a succession of pamphlets from convinced heresy-hunters spread alarm among the laity. Abernethy, assisted by sympathisers from both north and south, such as James Kirkpatrick (qv) and Samuel Haliday (qv) (Belfast), and Joseph Boyse (qv), Richard Choppin (d. 1741), and Nathanael Weld (1660–1730) (Dublin), responded to sometimes ranting criticism with as much scholarly courtesy as they could muster. In 1725 the synod redrew the presbytery boundaries to isolate the Nonsubscribers in a single presbytery (Antrim), and a year later extruded it from the synod. One recurrent but mistaken criticism of Abernethy has continued to surface down the years, namely, that the appeal to conscience in matters of faith was effectively a believers' free-for-all. This overlooks the strictly scriptural appeal on which Abernethy and his colleagues insisted. Scripture, of course, needs interpretation, but since every interpreter is fallible and, with the passage of time, open to interpretation in turn, the tables could as easily be turned, and were turned, against the Subscribers. Individuals, not churches, would ultimately be held accountable for their beliefs and needed to start understanding the grounds for them. The Nonsubscribers believed that the number of propositions that were clear enough to command unconditional assent was much smaller than those that had been put together by different church councils, and that the doctrines on which the churches were at variance with each other had no resolution in scripture. The unacknowledged influence of John Locke's writings on religion is unmistakable here.
Dublin: later works Abernethy's piety, humanity, and pastoral diligence were beyond reproach; nevertheless, some of his congregation withdrew from his ministry. Surviving marriage and baptismal records show that the numbers of households of family-raising age peaked in the second decade of the century and went into a relative decline in the 1720s. In 1730 he accepted a renewed call to Wood St., Dublin. This congregation was English presbyterian in orientation, and attracted some of the leading intellectuals in southern dissent. It is not known if Abernethy had the same contacts with the political and legal establishment that Boyse, his predecessor, had, but he continued to work for the interests of the whole presbyterian body. The liberties he sought within presbyterianism were no different in Abernethy's view from those sought by presbyterians at large within the wider polity, a point that becomes clear when his early and late pamphlets are seen together in the posthumous collection, Scarce and valuable tracts and sermons (1751). In 1731 he published The nature and consequences of the sacramental test considered, defending dissenters’ rights to civil and military office regardless of how they exercised their consciences in taking the sacrament. The argument was based on natural-law principles and the theory of the ancient constitution, opposing any political tactic to create and preserve divisions except where it was essential to isolate enemies to the state. He continued the argument in a series of five papers issued at weekly intervals, Reasons for the repeal of the sacramental test (1733), of which his close friend, William Bruce (qv), the dissenting bookseller, was a coauthor. The civil liberty argument was repeated, and emphasis given to the profanity and hypocrisy involved in trading religious practice for civil privilege. The authors were less generous to the majority population, offering the catholics only some limitation to their disabilities out of ‘humanity and a regard to the mild institutions of the Gospel’ (no. 5). It was in vain: the Irish parliament was not interested in curbing the privileges of the established church.
In this period Abernethy moved away from extemporary preaching and prepared scripted narratives, some of them with a substantial philosophical content for his new auditory. One result was a first volume of Discourses concerning the being and natural perfections of God (1740), which appeared just before his death. It applied Francis Hutcheson's (qv) philosophy of beauty to the design argument for theism. A second volume of Discourses concerning the perfections of God, dealing with the moral attributes, appeared posthumously (1742), and this too drew on Hutcheson's view of the virtues and his philosophy of the moral sense. Abernethy had been one of several friends from whom Hutcheson asked Bruce in 1738 to secure comments on his draft System of moral philosophy, but it is not known if he actually saw the manuscript. In his later writing, including materials selected posthumously by Duchal under the title Sermons on various subjects (1748–51), Abernethy emphasised the freedom of reason, the rational containment of the passions, and the sense of fulfilment born of good works. Human sin is not ‘original’, but a failing in self-control; our natural instincts are to benevolence. An approach to the Deity through intelligence should give rise not to fear, which was a source of superstition, but to reverence, love, and trust.
After moving south, Abernethy remarried. His second wife was a daughter of John Boyd of Rathmore, Co. Antrim. He died 1 December 1740 in Dublin and was buried in St Bride's churchyard; the remains were later removed to Mount Jerome cemetery. A portrait of Abernethy was painted by James Latham (qv), but its location is unknown. One of several mezzotints made by the engraver John Brooks (qv) from this portrait is in the National Portrait Gallery, London; F. J. Bigger (qv) states that he donated another to the NGI.