Johnstone, Thomas McGimpsey (1876–1961), presbyterian minister, temperance campaigner and author, was born on 11 June 1876 in Newtownards, Co. Down, son of Joseph Hamilton Johnstone, a builder, and his wife Rosena (née McGimpsey). The family was staunchly presbyterian (with covenanter and secessionist ancestors) and had liberal political sympathies of a type common among presbyterian tenant farmers in nineteenth-century north and east Down; the Johnstones traced their family politics back to the era of Rev. James Porter (qv). Thomas Johnstone remained fundamentally a liberal until his death, but was never a home ruler. One of his closest university friends was W. H. Davey (subsequently editor of a liberal, pro-home-rule weekly, the Ulster Guardian), and he had a wary personal respect for J. B. Armour (qv). Childhood excursions to the ruined monastery of Nendrum on Mahee Island in Strangford Lough produced an abiding fascination with (and idealisation of) the early Irish church.
From the age of three Thomas was educated at national schools in Newtownards, interrupted by a four-year period in Preston, where the family had emigrated for business reasons. Aged 14 he became an apprentice clerk in a Newtownards linen mill, but continued to study in the evenings. He entered Queen's College, Belfast, in 1901 and graduated BA (1905), supporting himself by teaching evening classes in technical schools. An active member of the Student Christian Union and the college's Literary and Scientific Society, he served as the latter's secretary and president (1905), winning the society's Dufferin medal for oratory three times (1903–5) and representing the college at various intercollegiate events.
Johnstone studied for the presbyterian ministry at Assembly's College, Belfast (1905–8), occasionally working as a freelance journalist. He recorded that during the 1907 Belfast dock strike his sympathies were with the strikers, finding James Larkin (qv) more reasonable than the employers' representative he interviewed. Licensed by Ards presbytery (19 May 1908), he was ordained by Route presbytery for St James's congregation, Ballymoney, Co. Antrim (17 September 1908). The following week he married Emma McClement, a methodist; they had one son, Thomas McClement Johnstone, who was ordained minister of London Road congregational church, Leicester, in 1937.
Johnstone became a leading activist in the 'catch-my-pal' movement (Protestant Temperance Union), which spread across Ireland from 1909. He always regarded the drink trade as society's crowning evil and its abolition as essential for social progress. Although he developed a certain respect for Mussolini ('a water-drinker') as a vigorous reformer, in general he retained a liberal distrust of state power and a strong belief in individual self-help.
Installed on 31 January 1910 as minister of Newington congregation on Limestone Road, north Belfast, he greatly increased the number of its social clubs and evangelising bodies and oversaw the introduction of hymns and organ music. Although he avoided direct political campaigning against the third home rule bill, his lecture delivered on St Patrick's Day 1914 was published as Ulstermen: their fight for fortune, faith and freedom. Often cited as an Ulster unionist manifesto, it is in fact a more ambivalent text. Greatly influenced by Rev. George Hill (qv), it argues that the Scots settlers and the pre-plantation inhabitants of Ireland were largely the same nation, displaying the same qualities of religious faith, tenacity and industry. Differences between them arose from adventitious circumstances (e.g., the Scots accepting the reformation preached by fellow countrymen, while the Irish mistakenly but understandably rejected its imposition by foreign conquerors), and, whether ruled from Dublin or Westminster, Ulstermen would determine their own fate by their character and grit.
Johnstone engaged in war service on the western front with the Young Men's Christian Association (March–November 1918). That experience, followed by the horrific sectarian violence of Belfast in the early 1920s, reinforced his belief that war must be abolished. In the post-war era he was involved in a variety of evangelising initiatives, including the mission preached by W. P. Nicholson (qv) in the early 1920s and the activities of the Oxford Group in the 1930s. His own theological position, however, was liberal: he disliked fundamentalist refusal to accept modern biblical criticism, and was a declared believer in a Christianised version of Darwinism. Although visits to medieval churches in Italy reinforced his view of the reformation as an inestimable blessing, Johnstone maintained personal friendships with more than one catholic priest.
Becoming a regular contributor on various subjects (notably temperance) to the British Weekly, the Witness and the Presbyterian Magazine, he also produced an annual new year's Sunday school tract for children on the evils of drink, and a range of pamphlets linking drink and betting to wider social evils. His adroit use of press management (by pre-supplying brief texts of his speeches to reporters and including what would later be known as 'sound bites') attracted extensive coverage, particularly in Belfast's Northern Whig, while his debating skills made him a popular public speaker and prominent figure of the presbyterian general assembly. At various times he was a member of assembly committees on gambling, church extension, social service and the state of religion. He compiled a history of Newington presbyterian church, These fifty years (1926).
In 1919 Johnstone took a leading role in a temperance delegation that lobbied Edward Carson (qv) and James Craig (qv). Highly suspicious of Craig's involvement with the family distillery, he thought licensing legislation passed by the Northern Ireland parliament in 1923 grossly insufficient. In 1925 he became chairman of the general assembly's temperance committee, then relatively inactive. Having cleared the committee's debt and undertaken a three-month tour of the United States to observe the benefits of prohibition, Johnstone promptly launched a high-profile campaign for various temperance measures, up to and including 'local option' (an arrangement found in parts of Wales and Scotland, whereby local authority areas held periodic referenda on whether to permit the sale of alcohol). This campaign was resisted by the Northern Ireland government, H. M. Pollock (qv) pointing out that the compensation required was unaffordable, and that the length of the border and the seacoast made prohibition unenforceable. Three 'local option' candidates contested the 1929 Stormont general election, supported by an alliance of protestant clerics and temperance Orange lodges. Johnstone spoke on their behalf and engaged in newspaper and platform confrontations with leading UUP politicians. He also attacked a UUP-sponsored propaganda film, Ulster: a Garden of Eden (1930), for failing to acknowledge the drink problem. UUP leaders such as Craig and Dawson Bates (qv) complained that Johnstone and his allies endangered Northern Ireland by splitting the unionist vote, and damaged its reputation by accusing the RUC of corrupt dealings with the drink trade and portraying the population as immoral drunkards. The local option candidates of 1929 were heavily defeated. Undeterred, Johnstone produced a tract in May 1930, Northern Ireland: the crisis in industry, arguing that restricting the drink trade would increase productivity and provide funds for more rewarding activities. He continued to address public meetings of the Irish Temperance Alliance and similar bodies into the late 1930s, scoring some minor victories. Proposals to open a bar in the parliament buildings at Stormont were stymied by his opposition, and an unlicensed bar in the building was hastily closed after he denounced 'the Stormont shebeen'.
Johnstone's election as moderator of the general assembly (1934–5) reflected his stature as one of the most prominent presbyterian ministers in Northern Ireland; an official portrait was painted by J. Langtry Lynas. As moderator, Johnstone would not appear or be represented at any function where alcohol was served. On 9 June 1937, when delivering the temperance committee's annual report to the general assembly, he denounced the implementation of the licensing laws by the court of king's bench so strongly that he was prosecuted on 29 June 1937 for contempt of court. Johnstone represented himself, claiming that any lawyer who defended him would endanger his career. (He believed that his friend James Pringle, KC (1874–1935), Unionist MP for Fermanagh–Tyrone (1924–9), had been victimised professionally as well as politically for leading the local option revolt in 1929.) He argued that as a minister of religion addressing a church court he was entitled to the same sort of privilege enjoyed by utterances in secular courts or in parliament, but was found guilty and fined £100, with imprisonment unless he paid the fine. Declaring he would go to prison – for life, if necessary – rather than pay, he secured a brief respite to participate in his son's ordination and marriage in Leicester. On his return, it was announced that the fine had been paid privately. He denied paying, and suspected it had been quietly remitted by the government to avoid controversy.
Also in 1937, Johnstone actively campaigned against the Hollywood musical film The green pastures, whose all-black cast included 'De Lawd', represented as an elderly black man in top hat and frock coat. Johnstone castigated the film as a debasement of religion through 'negro conceptions of biblical truth', which he compared to the debasement of music by 'negro conceptions of rhythm' (Hill, 61). (It should be noted that in 1956 Johnstone listed the campaigns against racial segregation in South Africa and the southern states of the USA as evidence of humanity's continuing moral progress.)
During German bombing attacks on Belfast on 15–16 April 1941, Newington church was destroyed and Johnstone's residence damaged. He published a memoir, The vintage of memory (1942), and retired the following year from his congregation because of heart disease. He and his wife went to live with their son (who had become organising secretary for Ireland of the British Sailors' Society) on Mahee Island in Strangford Lough. Johnstone liked to remark that, having taught the largest Sunday School in the province at Newington, he now on the island taught the smallest (with three pupils). He continued to follow public affairs, and devoted his retirement to writing, while remaining convenor of the temperance committee until 1957. His continuing identification with and idealisation of the early Irish church is reflected in Where the foxglove glows (1946), a novel set on Mahee Island in the days of St Patrick (qv), featuring a fondness for alliteration combined with slangy and deliberately anachronistic dialogue. Although clearly presented as a Roman establishment (complete with Latin prayers), the island's monastery is also a 'Christian settlement', seeking to improve material as well as spiritual conditions around it (an implicit comparison with Toynbee Hall in London, which Johnstone visited and admired). A passage in which the hero opposes the construction of the Dane's Cast (a large, prehistoric earthwork) on the grounds that the north and south of Ireland are complementary and should not be separated, suggests an ambivalence about partition. The novel's prefatory chapter regrets that Northern Ireland lacked its own literary censorship board, as found in the Irish republic. (Johnstone regularly iterated that literature should promote ideals rather than confining itself to sordid naturalism.) It was followed by Sunset soliloquy (1956), a collection of octogenarian reflections, concluding with a verse in praise of the monks of Nendrum.
In April 1961, though confined to a wheelchair, Johnstone laid the foundation stone of a church hall in Newtownards. He died on Mahee Island on 21 August 1961, and was buried at Movilla cemetery, Newtownards. Johnstone's career serves as a reminder of the persistence of the nineteenth-century Ulster liberal tradition into the first half of the twentieth century, of its ambivalence between Irish and Ulster identities, and its retention of moralist and specifically presbyterian elements easily overlooked by later and more secularised brands of liberalism in search of ancestors.