Birch, Thomas Ledlie (1754–1828), radical and presbyterian minister, was born at Birch Grove, Gilford, Co. Down, youngest among nine children of John Birch, a large farmer and officer in the Down militia, and his wife Jane, daughter of John Ledlie of Arboe, Co. Tyrone, a prosperous linen merchant. In 1772 he graduated MA from Glasgow University, where he and his fellow Irish students established a successful debating society. He is said to have written several pro-American pamphlets while in Glasgow, but they have never been found. Licensed in 1775, on 21 May 1776 he was ordained minister of Saintfield, Co. Down, one of Ireland's largest and wealthiest presbyterian congregations, in which his relatives had some influence. He commissioned the building of the First Saintfield presbyterian church in 1783. He married (December 1783) Isabella Ledlie (d. 1836), his second cousin, from Carnan, Co. Tyrone; they had four children. He lived on a farm at Ballyloughan, near Saintfield (1784–98), which he named Liberty Hill.
During the Volunteering era he was elected chaplain of the Saintfield Infantry. His congregation fasted for the success of American arms, and in 1784 he helped draft an address from the Stewartstown Yankee Club (a masonic lodge of which he was a member) to George Washington, congratulating the Americans on winning their independence; the address and Washington's cordial reply were published in the Belfast Mercury (5 October 1784). During the Co. Down election of 1790 he was an election agent for Robert Stewart (qv), the anti-government candidate; an election squib dubbed him ‘Blubbering Birch’, a taunt which his enemies never let him forget.
A member of the presbytery of Belfast, he regularly attended the general synod of Ulster, and was six times proposed as moderator; he was never elected, probably more because of his querulous personality than his radical politics. After the intervention of the anti-presbyterian earl of Hillsborough had ensured that the regium donum would increase only by a paltry amount, Birch resigned his share of the bounty and in a letter to the Belfast Mercury (14 January 1785) repudiated the principle of state provision for the clergy. Theologically orthodox, he opposed both evangelical enthusiasm and the ‘New Light’ Arian and unitarian views. He adhered to the millennialist theology then common among dissenting clergy, preaching a sermon before the synod of Ulster in June 1793 which interpreted the revolutionary wars as a Manichean struggle in which France represented the forces of light, and claimed that the French revolution heralded the end of the unholy union of church and state inaugurated by the emperor Constantine, and the approach of the Christian millennium of peace and justice (he forecast 1848 as the date of the Second Coming). This was published as The obligations on Christians . . . to be exemplary in their lives . . . when the prophecies are seemingly to be fulfilled (Belfast, 1794). Firmly committed to parliamentary reform and catholic emancipation, he formed a United Irish society in Saintfield (16 January 1792), and his congregation proposed to form a battalion of a French-style national guard. His radical politics and strong advocacy of catholic relief led some of his flock to secede in 1796 and form an apolitical burgher congregation. They, and all seceders, were attacked by Birch in a bitterly outspoken pamphlet, Physicians languishing under disease . . . (Belfast, 1796).
His sermons became increasingly radical as the 1790s progressed: on 25 June 1795 he denounced kings as ‘the butchers and scourges of the human race’ (McClelland, 28) and preached that it was the duty of all Irishmen to unite to overthrow landlordism, episcopacy, and English rule. His outspokenness made him a marked man for loyalists and he was arrested for high treason in March 1797. Acquitted at the autumn assizes, he was forced to take the oath of allegiance. He was indicted again in April 1798, charged with attempting to bribe a witness not to testify against a United Irishman, but the charges were dropped when the main prosecution witness was assassinated. On 25 April 1798 he was elected chaplain to the United army in Co. Down, and on Pike Sunday (10 June), at Creevy Rocks overlooking Saintfield, preached a militant sermon exhorting them to ‘drive the bloodhounds of King George the German king beyond the seas. This is Ireland, we are Irish, and we shall be free’ (Durey, 147). After the battle of Ballynahinch he was arrested 16 June and tried by court martial in Lisburn 18–20 June, but acquitted. An observer commented on his ‘long and blubbering defence’ (Stewart, 206) in which he admitted his errors and proclaimed his loyalty to the king. He probably owed his acquittal to a deal arranged by his loyalist brother Dr George Birch, commander of the Newtownards Yeomanry and friend of Lord Castlereagh, by which he would be spared if he agreed to exile. The verdict was received with fury by Lisburn yeomen, who almost lynched him.
After a month on a prison tender in Belfast Lough (19 July–16 August), he sailed for New York. He arrived in September 1798 and soon wrote a pamphlet to rehabilitate the reputation of Irish political exiles, A letter from an Irish emigrant . . . giving an account of the rise and progress of the commotions in Ireland (Philadelphia, 1799). Early in 1799 he accepted the offer to minister to a group of exiles from Saintfield who had settled in Washington, western Pennsylvania. He saw the USA as the refuge of persecuted saints and the agent for humanity's enlightenment, and believed that his congregation at Washington should form a Christian republican community to prepare the way for the new millennium.
In October 1800 (and again in January and March 1801) the presbytery of Ohio refused to accept his services, mainly it seems because he had not had a dramatic conversion experience. He appealed to the general assembly of the presbyterian church in Philadelphia in May 1801, which accepted Birch's suitability for the ministry but refused to censure the Ohio presbytery. Unhappy with his treatment by the general assembly, he withdrew from its jurisdiction in 1803 and was officially expelled. Birch also took a civil action for slander against the Rev. John McMillan, clerk of the Ohio presbytery, for calling him ‘a liar, a drunkard, and a preacher of the devil’ (McClelland, 35); after a long legal battle the supreme court of Pennsylvania found against him (18 September 1806). Birch claimed that his difficulties stemmed from the antagonism of politically conservative evangelicals to his democratic politics, but they probably also resulted from his obvious distaste for the emotional revivalism of most Philadelphian presbyterians, displayed in his pamphlet Seemingly experimental religion, instructors unexperienced [sic] – converters unconverted – revivals killing religion – missionaries in need of teaching – or, war against the gospel by its friends (1806). In 1810 he apologised to the general assembly, which reinstated him; he was licensed by the Baltimore presbytery, which allowed him to preach to his flock in Washington, Pa. In February 1804 he bought a 274-acre farm near Washington, and lived there till at least 1819. He died 12 April 1828 at Freeport, Armstrong county, Pa.