Hunter, James (1863–1942), presbyterian fundamentalist, was born in Newtownstewart, Co. Tyrone. He was educated at the RBAI and QCB, receiving a first-class honours BA in classics from the RUI in 1883 and a first-class honours MA (with prize) in 1886. He was ordained at First Newry Presbyterian Church in April 1888, and in 1890 became minister of Knock congregation in middle-class east Belfast; during his ministry the church was enlarged three times. Hunter was an active and well-respected evangelical worker.
In 1897 Hunter joined the governing committee of the Belfast Presbyterian Theological College. In the previous decade staff turnover had led the college to move away from the conservative theology associated with Princeton University towards historical-critical exegesis. Hunter became the principal opponent of this trend. The Irish Presbyterian Church had been in communion with the Free Church of Scotland since 1843. In the later nineteenth century the Free Church developed increasing theological liberalism, and in 1900 a large majority of Scottish Free Church members joined the United Presbyterian Church (which derived from groups who had broken away from the Church of Scotland in the eighteenth century) to form the United Free Church. A conservative minority (the ‘Wee Frees’) remained separate. Legal disputes over church property led to a house of lords ruling that the minority inherited the Free Church's property with its original doctrines, and further legislation was necessary to produce an equitable division of the assets. In 1905 the Irish presbyterian general assembly entered into community with the United Free Church; Hunter led the minority who accused the UFC of heresy and favoured the Wee Frees.
In 1915 an Irish presbyterian missionary in China, F. W. S. O'Neill, argued that the Western metaphysical assumptions of Christian theology (as distinct from the gospel narratives) were unintelligible in Chinese and should be adapted. Hunter tried unsuccessfully to have O'Neill prosecuted for heresy. He also objected to the showing of films in the general assembly's buildings. Hunter was encouraged in his conservatism by the postwar fundamentalist–modernist dispute in American presbyterianism; he was prominently associated with the revivalist mission of W. P. Nicholson (qv), with its anti-modernist overtones. Hunter retired as minister of Knock in 1924, in which year thirteen students petitioned the governing committee of the Presbyterian Theological College to clarify the traditional subscription to the Westminster confession of faith. Hunter saw this as reversing orthodox victories in earlier subscription controversies. He was appointed to a committee on the subscription formulas, but found himself isolated and resigned.
In 1926, with prominent lay activists involved in the Nicholson Mission, Hunter founded the Presbyterian Bible Standards League (BSL) to oppose change to the formulas. The BSL held public meetings across Northern Ireland and disseminated leaflets by Hunter accusing named professors of heresy and calling the theological college ‘a seed-bed of rationalism’. Hunter was claiming the mantle of Henry Cooke (qv) as a defender of presbyterian orthodoxy; he maintained that modernists should be forced out, as Cooke had forced unitarians out of the presbyterian church in the 1820s, by making subscription to the Westminster confession of faith compulsory for ordination. The presbytery of Belfast censured Hunter for making accusations without regard to prescribed disciplinary procedures and refusing to attend a college subcommittee concerning his charges against Professor James Haire (1874–1959). Hunter appealed unsuccessfully to the 1926 general assembly. In December of that year Hunter formally charged the respected Professor J. E. Davey (qv) with heresy. Davey was accused, among other things, of denying the divinity of Christ (he held that complete omniscience was incompatible with a fully human nature), and denying the divine inspiration of scripture (he held that the biblical text was limited and subject to contemporary reinterpretation, as distinct from the fundamentalist view that Reformation confessions of faith definitively stated biblical doctrine).
Hunter's tactics antagonised even many theological conservatives. The trial before the presbytery of Belfast, between 15 February and 29 March 1927, interrogated the doctrinal views of Hunter and his allies as much as it investigated Davey. Hunter and his sympathisers complained that the presbytery blocked detailed examination of Davey's beliefs; the licentiate W. J. Grier (qv), who accused Davey of giving heterodox lectures, was himself accused of misrepresentation. Davey entered detailed pleas of justification, with Hunter offering rebuttals; Davey's party accused Hunter of inconsistency in rationalising some Old Testament miracles, and his definition of the Trinity was denounced as Docetist (that is, as asserting the divinity of Jesus by denying his humanity). Davey complained that quotations used against him were taken out of context, that the accusers assumed his insincerity, and that they were stifling legitimate debate by reckless accusations. The nickname ‘Pope' Hunter, bestowed by Davey's supporters, implied that the accusers denied the Reformation principle of private judgement. The presbytery accepted Davey as orthodox at least in intention. Hunter appealed to the general assembly, publicly accusing the Belfast presbytery of blasphemy and dishonesty. On 10 June 1927 the appeal was dismissed.
The BSL majority fought on within presbyterianism, but Hunter felt obliged to separate from an apostate denomination. On his retirement from Knock he had refused a financial testimonial and the use of the manse; in July 1927 he left the Irish Presbyterian Church, forfeiting his pension rights. On 15 October 1927 Hunter's supporters (including Grier) formed the Irish Evangelical Church (later Evangelical Presbyterian Church). The new church cooperated with the Scottish Wee Frees and American Orthodox Presbyterians (founded by the conservative Princeton theologian J. Gresham Machen). Hunter became the leading figure of the Irish Evangelical Church and minister of its Knock congregation, writing regularly for its magazine, the Irish Evangelical. He died in Belfast on 20 September 1942; he never married.
The new church attracted only a few hundred adherents (partly because of dissensions between the classic presbyterianism of Hunter and Grier and the holiness doctrine and pre-millennial dispensationalism of many Nicholson converts). Nevertheless, it represented the only 1920s fundamentalist schism in presbyterianism outside North America, and became an important European conduit for American fundamentalist literature. Later Ulster fundamentalists (notably Ian Paisley (qv)) saw the Davey trial as the definitive apostasy of the Irish Presbyterian Church, and adopted Hunter's argument that the orthodox should ‘come out and be separate’. Many who saw the founder of the Irish Evangelical Church as a rabble-rousing obscurantist nevertheless acknowledged that ‘Hunter had the courage of his convictions and must have suffered much because of the actions he felt compelled to take’ (Fulton, 163).