Barber, Samuel (1738?–1811), presbyterian minister and radical, was born in the parish of Killead, Co. Antrim, younger son of John and Sarah Barber, farmers. He entered Glasgow University in 1757 and graduated MA in 1759. On 28 August 1761 he was licensed as a minister at Larne, and on 3 May 1763 was ordained by the presbytery of Dromore to the congregation of Rathfriland, Co. Down, a position he held until his death.
The main founder of the Rathfriland Volunteers in April 1779, he held the rank of captain in the corps and drew up strict rules imposing fines for speaking, laughing, swearing, drunkenness, and being absent from public worship; he was elected colonel of the 1st Newry Regiment in 1781. An eloquent preacher, he regularly swapped his clerical garb for regimentals to deliver militant sermons to his troops. A delegate to the Volunteer conventions of 1782, 1783, and 1793, he supported parliamentary reform, catholic emancipation, the abolition of tithes, and reform of the Irish pension list. His politics managed to offend local conservatives such as Viscount Kilwarlin, who when asked to contribute to the rebuilding of Barber's meeting house declared that he would rather give money to pull it down.
In 1787 Barber published two sharp replies to Bishop Richard Woodward (qv), who in The present state of the Church of Ireland (1786) had attacked the ‘levelling spirit’ of presbyterianism. In his Remarks on a pamphlet . . . [by the] bishop of Cloyne (1787) – a work that went through several editions – Barber strongly condemned the tithe system and the notion of an established church, and argued that Christianity had been corrupted into an instrument of war and persecution when linked to the secular power.
In 1790 Barber was elected moderator of the presbyterian general synod. One of the leading figures of the progressive ‘New Light’ tendency, his theology inclined towards unitarianism and millennialism. He believed that the Book of Revelations foretold that the alliance of church and state established by the council of Nicaea marked the beginning of the reign of the Antichrist, but that the French revolution heralded its fall – views he preached before the synod of Ulster in June 1791 (published as Synodical sermon at Lurgan (1791)). A classical scholar, he spent much of his leisure time reading the Greek and Roman classics – his favourite author was Tacitus; he also had a strong interest in Hebrew scholarship and made a collection of works on rabbinical studies.
During the Co. Down election of 1790 he was one of the most active election agents of Robert Stewart (qv), the anti-government candidate, and in the early 1790s he probably became a United Irishman. He was popular with local catholics, who on one occasion harvested his oat crop as a mark of respect. During the early 1790s he attempted to reconcile warring Peep o' Day Boys and Defenders in the countryside around Rathfriland. The catholic United Irishman Charles Teeling (qv) described him as ‘one of the first and boldest advocates for the emancipation of his country and the union of all her sons’ (Teeling, 30). On 5 June 1797 he was arrested on suspicion of engaging in seditious activity and imprisoned in Belfast until autumn 1797. In the spring of 1798 he was considered as a possible commander of the United Irish forces in Co. Down. According to Teeling, Barber was offered the command of the central division of Down United Irish forces which assembled near Rathfriland before the battle of Ballynahinch in June 1798; he declined on the grounds of age, but promised to aid the rebels with advice and moral support. In the event, the Rathfriland contingent was paralysed by indecision and disagreement and took no part in the fighting in Down. None the less, Barber was arrested 18 June 1798 and imprisoned in Newry barracks. On 14 July he was found guilty of uttering seditious words and sentenced to seven years' banishment or two years' imprisonment; he chose the latter and was held at Downpatrick jail until January 1799. In later years he generally steered clear of political and religious controversy. He died 6 September 1811 at Tullyquilly, and was buried at Rathfriland meeting-house green.
He married (1771) Elizabeth, eldest daughter of the Rev. Andrew Kennedy of Mourne; they had seven children, only three of whom (all daughters) survived their father.