My father’s family were all professed Presbyterians, a religion which originated in Scotland. This included both those on his Scottish father’s side and his Irish mother’s side. Religion was very important in all their lives. They were part of a church, “which had a noble band of loyal devoted men and women who have counted it their chief joy to seek its highest welfare”.
It was not until 1843 that marriages performed by Presbyterian ministers were legally recognized in Ireland. My two times great grandparents, Susan Dodds and Alexander Bailey married in that year in Armagh were some of the first to have a recognized Presbyterian marriage.
The name Presbyterian comes from their form of church governance, an assembly of elders. These protestant churches trace their roots to the Church of Scotland whose theology emphasizes the sovereignty of God and following only the scriptures. The Scottish Reformation of 1560 shaped this Church, when many broke with Rome, led among others, by John Knox. This religion was brought to Ireland from Scotland with the migrations of people in the 1600s. Irish Presbyterians were never a single entity. Groups splintered, formed new congregations, united with others and broke apart again.
The majority of the Irish remained Catholic even when Henry VIII founded the Anglican Church, the Church of England and then the Church of Ireland. Most protestants lived in the north. While they soon outnumbered the Church of Ireland, the life of an Irish Presbyterian was not easy.
The government passed the Test Act in 1704, which stated that those wishing to hold civil or military office had to prove they had taken communion in the Church of Ireland. The Church of Ireland demanding tithes also angered the Presbyterians. Even after the Toleration Act of 1719 passed and Presbyterians were not penalized for their beliefs, they still felt estranged, which contributed to the large scale North American emigration in the early 1800s.
When the Susan and Alexander Bailey arrived in Toronto, they probably attended Knox Presbyterian Church, opened in 1820 as the First Presbyterian Church of York, Upper Canada. This church started by Scottish immigrants, welcomed the Irish but they wanted their own church and organized the Second Presbyterian Church in 1851.
The congregation raised money for a minister’s stipend and met first in St Lawrence Hall and then an empty Methodist church on George Street. This church soon became too small for the current members and the many others asking for seats. A new property purchased at Queen and Mutual St for 475 pounds soon a housed brick church.
There used to be many churches in the area as Toronto had a Sabbath Day Law with no public transport running on Sundays. People had to walk to church.
The new building became Cooke’s Church, named for Henry Cooke an Irish Presbyterian minister who in 1834 united the Irish Presbyterians. With his ordination in 1808, his ministry began in Northern Ireland. He reformed both the church and public education. He believed that the only music in churches should be what God created. There could be voices singing but no man-made musical instruments. When he died there was a massive funeral march through Belfast with all religious denominations in attendance.
The congregation kept growing. The church was renovated, enlarged and then in 1891 a new church that could hold 2000 worshipers was built on the same site. The Irish always knew they would be welcome in Cooke’s Church.
My great grandparents, William Eagle from County Monaghan and Eliza Jane Bailey, were members of Cooke’s Church. William served as an elder until his death. Both their daughters, Amy and Minnie, were very involved in church life. Amy sang in the choir and served as secretary and treasurer of other societies. Minnie was the President of the Young Women’s Mission Band which had formerly been the Ernest Helpers Society. Their mother Eliza served on the Women’s Association as well as being Honorary President of the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society.
Donald and Alice Sutherland, another set of great grandparents, although Scottish Presbyterians were also members of Cooke’s Church. Their children were named in the anniversary booklet. Mary, the Christian Endeavor Society flower convenor and Wilson on the Junior Visiting Committee. It is there that my grandparents, William Sutherland and Minnie Eagle met and were married by Reverend Andrew Taylor.
In 1925 the Presbyterians, Methodists and Congregational Unionists joined together to form the United Church of Canada. Cooke’s Church was for the union while Knox Church was against it and responsible for the continuation of the Presbyterian Church of Canada. It is still an active church celebrating its 200th Anniversary this year.
Cooke’s Church closed in 1982. There were few parishioners left as most had moved away from the downtown. It’s glory years only a memory when it was the most pretentious structure in the city, a landmark on East Queen Street and a great spiritual influence. It was torn down in 1984 and is now a parking lot.
Roulston, William J. Researching Presbyterian Ancestors in Ireland, Ulster Historical Foundation 2020.
Alison, James. Annals of Sixty Years Cooke’s Presbyterian Church Toronto 1851 – 1911. 1911.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presbyterianism accessed October 18, 2020.
In Ireland there were many Presbyterian Sects:
The Presbyterian Church of Ireland
The Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church
The Secession Church
The Reformed Presbyterian (Covenanters) Church
There is a story about my great grandfather Donald Sutherland leaving his church because they purchased an organ. He seemed to subscribed to the ideas of Henry Cooke. According to a story in the Toronto Star, in 1880, a group of parishioners heard the choir had brought a organ into the church for choir practice. These people entered the church and dragged the offending instrument into the street. A riot ensued. Some were arrested and all were suspended from the church. They went off and formed their own church. Was this the incident Donald was involved with?
A story about Susan Dodds https://wordpress.com/post/genealogyensemble.com/1691
4 thoughts on “Who were the Irish Presbyterians?”
Hi Mary, It is a coincidence but my McConnell grandparents came from Monaghan to Toronto. They also attended the Presbyterian Church and may have known your family.
They are also called “Canada’s Ulster-Scots”. See new book published by this name on Amazon at https://www.amazon.ca/Canadas-Ulster-Scots-Brian-McConnell/dp/B08MSLX8Q3
Thanks for your interest. Good luck with your book. I will look it up. I have only traced my ancestors back to my great great grandparents and they were living in Monaghan and Armaugh at that time.
Hello Mary, my McConnell grandparents came from Monaghan too. That is a coincidence. They were members of First Monaghan Presbyterian Church in Monaghan Town and moved to Toronto in 1920s.