Evangelicals in Ireland: An introduction

‘Hearty and headstrong’, ‘opinionated and argumentative’, ‘enthusiastic and committed’, ‘gregarious but distinctive’ could be descriptions of any Irishman. What of the evangelicals among them? In the Foreword to this series of articles, Dean Townley of Kildare acknowledges that ‘the contributors are self-critical, analytical and disarmingly candid.’ Diversity and disagreements are not evaded. The variety of churchmanship from which the writers are drawn explains this openness. Robert Dunlop, a Baptist pastor in the Irish Republic, attempts to define the entire group, rather than isolate the distinctives of differing strands. Compiling the book was encouraged by the formation of Evangelical Alliance Ireland in 2004. The new association, which covers the whole of the island, embraces evangelicals in the two political constituencies of the island.

The first chapter immediately summarises the strengths of Irish evangelicalism as their enthusiasm for the Bible and for singing, coupled with a commitment to upright living and experiential faith. This is counterbalanced by a narrow pietism and separatist attitude to the visible church. ‘Christian’ is often equated with ‘evangelical’, and holiness with shibboleths. In chapter 9 there is a valuable sociological and psychological analysis of the movement, with a helpful distinction between ‘evangelical’ and ‘fundamentalist’. Fergus Ryan in chapter 2 gives a thumbnail sketch of the ingredients which have contributed to what we have today. He goes back to the Celtic church before it was replaced by the Roman Catholics, and later the Protestants of various hues. The following chapter is an excellent review of the massive contribution made by Anglican Archbishop Ussher (1581-1656) and the founding of Trinity College, Dublin. Both these chapters, together with the masterly summary of ‘Things most certainly believed’ by Warren Nelson in chapter 4, would make the book worthwhile, even if nothing else were added. I have already heard some church leaders say that Nelson’s summary of the fundamentals of evangelical Christianity should be published in a stand-alone booklet. Maybe, but the eighth chapter on evangelical diversity covers sensitively the variations of interpretation of scripture and transfer of biblical injunction to everyday practice, depending on where you come from. Those from a Roman Catholic background have differed in their attitude to association with the majority Church in the Republic. Following discussion of getting the balance between purity and reform, sectarian and political traditions, and consideration of God’s strategy for renewal, pp156-161 define four strands of response to the Catholic Church. The six pages of references and bibliography following this chapter will repay thorough perusal, especially by the Missionary Societies who wish to send ‘missionaries’ into Ireland. A lot of damage has already been done by those who have arrived from outside with the open commitment to introduce biblical Christianity to the island!

How the Irish exported their own brands of Christianity (including the Methodists to the new world!) is comprehensively detailed in chapter seven (with two pages of valuable references). The considerable numbers of Mission agencies having their origin in Ireland are reviewed, together with the impact of great leaders like J.N.Darby, Howard Guinness and Dr. Barnardo in the 19th Century, when the Leprosy Mission also had its origins in Dublin. Several other chapters give brief pen portraits of influential individuals who would not be well known outside the island. Because many of these are personally known to many of us, these preserve the sense of ‘family’ which still binds together all of us who see ourselves as evangelical in today’s Ireland.

The book is also enriched by many black and white photographs of people and places. For those of you who have connections in the past, or more recently, with the Emerald Isle, this very readable book will give explanations for current attitudes, as well as providing ammunition for continued prayer that the wave of secularism which threatens to submerge the renewal of evangelical faith will not blind eyes to the freedom which only comes through faith in Christ.