Cooney, Edward (1867–1960), evangelist, was born 11 February 1867 in Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh, one of twelve children of William Rutherford Cooney, a prosperous anglican draper, and his methodist wife Emily (née Carson). He was educated at Enniskillen Model School and Portora. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to a draper in Armagh. He underwent religious conversion in 1884, influenced by his elder brother who was dying of tuberculosis. Cooney also developed tuberculosis. He farmed sheep in Australia 1887–90, then returned to Ireland and worked as a commercial traveller. He engaged in Sunday school teaching and street preaching, often encountering violent opposition; like many participants in the evangelical mini-revival of the 1890s, he came to see established denominations as enslaved by snobbery, hypocrisy, and empty formalism.
In 1897 Cooney met William Irvine (1863–1947), a Scottish evangelist, at Borrisokane, Co. Tipperary. Irvine preached that true successors of Jesus must abandon all possessions and trust God to provide; his preachers, vowed to poverty and celibacy, met hostility from catholics and mainstream protestants. In 1901 Cooney became a tramp preacher, giving all he possessed (£1,300) to the work. His father disinherited him ‘until he returns to his senses’, one of many family separations caused by the new movement. Within a few years the group spread throughout the English-speaking world; since Cooney was the most charismatic preacher, they were popularly called ‘Cooneyites’ by outsiders. Cooney's first sphere of activity was Newtownards, Co. Down, where his preaching was drowned by Orange drums, and converts were mobbed during baptisms by immersion in Strangford Lough. From 1904 to 1914 the preachers held annual conventions at Crocknacrieve House, Ballinamallard, Co. Fermanagh. The organisation soon distinguished between ‘workers’ (preachers who gave up everything) and lay ‘saints’ (who retained their possessions but inwardly renounced them). Services were held in homes, church buildings being snares of Satan. A small group of ‘overseers’ supervised mission territories; bank accounts were opened on behalf of the group. Cooney stood slightly apart from these signs of institutionalisation and was uneasy at them. Irvine developed a ‘living witness’ doctrine which declared the Bible ‘a dead document’, subordinated to God's progressive revelation to the preachers. Salvation was confined to Cooneyites, who publicly ridiculed all other denominations. The Trinity and atonement were rejected as mystifications, and the material world called evil; Jesus was seen in Arian terms, an angel showing the way to salvation.
In 1914 Irvine was deposed after predicting an imminent Second Coming, which the overseers refused to accept as a genuine revelation. Accusations of sexual immorality were also levelled against Irvine, who declared himself one of the two martyr-witnesses of the Apocalypse. Those who continued to accept the leadership and undiminished prophetic status of Irvine after his deposition became known as ‘the Message’, a term also used for the second-adventist ‘Omega Gospel’ preached by Irvine. Those who followed the leadership group that deposed Irvine (and later excommunicated Cooney) became known as ‘the Testimony’, from the denominational title, ‘the Testimony of Jesus’, which they took when registering as conscientious objectors in Britain during the first world war (different titles were used in other countries). In 1920 Irvine went to Jerusalem, remaining there till his death. He was replaced by a federal leadership, each overseer supreme in his territory; references to Irvine were discouraged, and many non-Irish followers thought the group had existed since apostolic times.
Cooney decided that Irvine's revelation, initially from God, had been corrupted before his fall, and that preachers must recover their early spontaneity. He repudiated the Living Witness doctrine and exclusive salvation, refused to recognise territorial divisions, called on the group to abandon its bank accounts, and declared every preacher entitled to proclaim his revelations without reference to overseers. This embarrassed the overseers, since Cooney was more than ever the best-known Cooneyite. He presented the group's claim for exemption from conscription as pacifists, and became a familiar figure at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. He allegedly converted George V's sister Princess Victoria by corresponding with her through a Cooneyite maid (who possibly forged the letters). In 1921 Cooney was persuaded to visit Australia and New Zealand, where he won significant support but antagonised many sympathisers by failing to perform a miraculous cure, blaming the patient's lack of faith. In 1925 the Australian and New Zealand leadership excommunicated Cooney's followers. This spread to North America when Cooney arrived in Seattle in 1925. On 12 October 1928, after Cooney returned to Ireland, he was formally excommunicated and ostracised at a meeting in Lurgan. Few ‘workers’ followed him, but many ‘saints’, especially in Ireland, did; Cooney always called all Cooneyites brethren, and hoped for reunion. Those who followed him after the division of 1928 became known as ‘Outcasts’, a term coined by Cooney himself.
For the rest of his life Cooney travelled the world preaching and writing epistles to his scattered followers. In 1933–6 he preached in North America, in Australia and New Zealand 1936–7, and back to North America in 1937–9. In 1939 he returned to Ireland, preaching bareheaded in the Diamond at Enniskillen and baptising converts in ‘Cooney's Hole’ at Ballinamallard. Widely regarded as a saint by local catholics and protestants, he denounced their churches as fiercely as ever. From 1947 to 1957 he wandered America. In 1957 Cooney returned to Ireland, hoping to die there but producing fresh disruptions. Troubled by the fate of the unconverted, Cooney proclaimed repentance possible after death. Many Outcasts rebelled; the dying Cooney went to friends in Australia. He died 20 June 1960 at Mildura, Victoria.
The movements deriving from Irvine and Cooney have no single official name and are known by many titles (e.g., ‘Two by Twos’, ‘Go-Preachers’, ‘Black Stockings’, ‘No-Names’, ‘Christian Assemblies’, ‘The Nameless Ones’) too numerous to list here. All three Cooneyite groups survive. Loose organisation and secrecy hinder membership estimates. The Testimony has 80,000 to 600,000 members, mainly in rural Australia and North America. A small Irvineite group exists in California. The Outcasts survive in several countries; ‘teachers’ expound the message by letters among the faithful. The most significant was Fred Wood (1890–1986), a married former preacher living in Belfast; ‘Fred is to Edward as Timothy to Paul’ (Roberts, Life and ministry).
The four books by Patricia Roberts cited below are written from the viewpoint of the Outcast post-1928 followers of Edward Cooney by a convert (b. 1920) whose family were involved in the Cooneyite movement from its early years and who was acquainted with Cooney in his old age. Though defensive, they are valuable repositories of original documentation and reminiscences; they were privately printed and circulated.
Cooney was a significant Irish evangelical, exemplifying tension between charisma and institutionalisation. Some praise his rebellion against a constricted society (early Cooneyites called themselves ‘Christian Socialists’). Others see him as consumed by spiritual pride bordering on self-deification, and emphasise the physical and psychological burdens he imposed. Even admirers admit his brusqueness and a certain self-admiration, but he constantly practised self-criticism, had warm friendships, and strove to help others. Even critics saw him as driven by love. ‘What you hear from Cooney will perish. What you hear from Christ through me will endure’ (Roberts, Life and ministry).