Barkley, John Monteith (1910–97), presbyterian minister, scholar and historian, was born in Belfast on 18 October 1910, the only son of Robert James Barkley and his wife Mary Darcus (née Monteith). He had a younger sister. When John was born the family was living with his mother's brother John Monteith in Belfast while his father was a divinity student. Robert Barkley was ordained a presbyterian minister in Malin, Co. Donegal, in 1913, and also served in the congregations of Aughnacloy, Co. Tyrone, Loanends, Co. Antrim, and Claremont, Derry city. John attended primary school in Aughnacloy, went to Campbell College, Belfast, as a boarder, and was a day pupil in Shaftesbury House College, Belfast. To prepare for third level, and especially to learn enough Greek to matriculate for entry to Magee College, Derry, he attended Skerry's College in Derry. He entered Magee in September 1929, determined to become a presbyterian minister. Somewhat unusually for a divinity student at the time, he would have described himself as a socialist and was even interested in communism for a time in the 1930s. He had to spend some terms in TCD, and finished his studies with two years in Assembly's College, Belfast, graduating BA (1934) as Thompson memorial prizeman in philosophy.
The following year, he was called to and ordained in the congregation of Drumreagh, Co. Antrim. His experiences there and in his next congregational charge, Second Ballybay and Rockcorry, Co. Monaghan, from 1939, introduced him to a version of presbyterianism not much affected by the twentieth century's uncertainties, and taught him of the values of a rural life that seemed equally unchanging.
Throughout his career, Barkley continued his reading and historical studies, and took a bachelor's degree in divinity from TCD in 1944. Two years later, Trinity awarded him a Ph.D. for his thesis on 'Christian worship; the heart of the Christian life'; his book The worship of the reformed church (1967) was one of several publications that drew on the research and thinking of his thesis. During this time, Barkley developed convictions about Christian unity that shaped the rest of his career. Further work on the liturgy led to another thesis and the award of a doctorate in divinity (1949). Barkley later earned another BA (1952) and an MA (1953), and was awarded several prizes, including the Larmour memorial exhibition in theology (1944) and the Paul memorial prize in history (1953). He gave the Carey lectures in 1954–6.
In 1949, when considering a call to Cooke Centenary in Belfast, he heard that eighty members of the church had held a prayer meeting in which, as Barkley afterwards noted, God was 'specifically requested (if not ordered) to stop my coming' (Blackmouth, 87). Seven anonymous telegrams and seventeen anonymous letters, accusing Barkley inter alia of not being born again, convinced him to accept the call. He decided he had to move from the relative tranquillity of Ballybay, believing that Cooke Centenary clearly needed the gospel message.
Cooke Centenary congregation, off the Ormeau Road, was one of the largest congregations in Ireland, with 760 families, increasing during Barkley's ministry to 1,128, and most members thought that the minister should be visiting each of them regularly. There were even more significant difficulties, especially, at the outset, with the kirk session, who had been accustomed to bully the previous minister; furthermore, the congregation was riven by factions. Eventually Barkley achieved a number of liturgical and other innovations, which would have seemed impossible in Cooke at his installation. Holy Week services, the first in any presbyterian congregation in Belfast, began in 1949, and he even held St Patrick's Day services.
As well as ministering to such a large and demanding congregation, Barkley served as a lecturer in biblical studies in Stranmillis College (teacher training) from 1951, and simultaneously as a lecturer in church history in QUB. In 1954 he was appointed professor in ecclesiastical history in Assembly's College, and consequently resigned as minister of Cooke. He later heard that prospective students were sometimes warned not to believe anything they were taught in Barkley's classes. His views on the necessity of open-mindedness in study and of fair dealing in inter-church relations would prove to be anathema to some influential figures in Ulster presbyterianism, but generations of ministerial students came to appreciate Barkley's thorough scholarship and perspective.
In that period, Assembly's academic staff had to be involved in all aspects, even mundane, of running the college; there were no administrators. As well as lecturing and publishing ten books and articles, Barkley served at various times as librarian, bursar, warden, secretary, vice-principal (1964–76) and principal (1976–8). While he occupied the latter office, there was a successful outcome to the lengthy negotiations and planning that resulted in the amalgamation in 1978 of Magee College and Assembly's College to form Union Theological College.
In theological matters Barkley could fairly be described as evangelical, and relatively conservative, but his outlook on many aspects of church policy and on inter-church relations was decidedly liberal. He believed that his version of presbyterianism derived from the enlightenment dissent that developed in the eighteenth-century denomination, and he was a staunch supporter of the ecumenical movement. His views sometimes provoked controversy, as for instance when he supported an invitation by the QUB faculty of theology to a catholic priest, Fr Michael Hurley (qv), to join in a lecture series on baptism (1966–7). An 'unholy spate of distortion and misrepresentation' (Blackmouth, 129) in the general assembly failed to prevent the lectures, but Barkley's stance was decried in letters to local newspapers, and gained him unpopularity, even notoriety.
Barkley's experiences on both sides of the Irish border inclined him towards ecumenism, which was crystallised by his participation in international meetings. In 1948 he was appointed to represent the Presbyterian Church in Ireland at the general council of the World Presbyterian Alliance. He continued throughout the 1950s to attend international meetings of churches within the reformed tradition in locations round the world, including Sao Paulo, Brazil. In 1958 he represented the Irish Council of Churches at a gathering in Germany. He worked towards uniting several groups into the World Alliance of Reformed Churches in 1970. (Barkley believed that 'reformed' had to be understood as 'semper reformanda', always being reformed (Blackmouth, 119)).
From June 1964 Barkley was one of about forty churchmen from the four major Irish denominations who met for discussions in Glenstal, Co. Limerick, and he also participated in the talks at Ballymascanlon, Co. Louth, in September 1973. He was a patron of the Irish School of Ecumenics. During the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (1982), he preached in St Patrick's Roman catholic cathedral in Armagh at the invitation of his friend Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich (qv). In 1979 he met Pope John Paul II on his visit to Dublin.
In his important autobiography, Blackmouth and dissenter (1991), Barkley described some of the tactics of adversaries who campaigned against him. These, as well as his delineation of certain other aspects of early twentieth-century presbyterianism, are not particularly edifying. The witch hunt against Professor J. Ernest Davey (qv) in 1927, and a later shocking occurrence at a 1933 church service, when one of Davey's opponents (probably James Hunter (qv)) announced a vicious 'cursing psalm' against Davey, profoundly distressed the young Barkley. He expressed satisfaction at having been involved in ongoing amelioration of inter-church relations, but also his disappointment that his own denomination had latterly turned its back on international ecumenical organisations. The book details the steps by which fundamentalism and isolationism overturned much of what he hoped had been achieved by people such as Fr Hurley and himself.
A member (1948–80) and sometime chairman of the general assembly's inter-church relations committee, Barkley had many other positions within Irish presbyterianism, including service on the general assembly's government board and as a convener of the assembly committee on secondary education. He was an outspoken critic of educational selection by the 11+ examination, and also of the poor housing and lack of monetary and social support suffered by so many in Northern Ireland. Elected moderator of the general assembly in 1976, he felt unable to accept the position because of his workload as principal of Assembly's College, and also because he believed it would hinder his work in ecumenism.
Important publications include Handbook on evangelical presbyterianism and Romanism (1949), A short history of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (1959), The Sabbath School Society for Ireland (1961), The eldership in Irish Presbyterianism (1963) and Handbook to the church hymnary (third edition, 1979). Historians of the denomination are particularly indebted to Barkley's three small volumes of fasti of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland from 1840 to 1910, published in his retirement in 1987.
John Barkley married (October 1936) Irene Graham Anderson (d. 1987), a daughter and granddaughter of ministers. They adopted a daughter in 1943. Irene Barkley suffered a long period of ill health. After her death, Barkley married secondly (1988) Carrie Barnett. He died on 20 December 1997, and was buried in Dundonald cemetery, Belfast.