What is Arianism? Arianism maintains that God the Father alone is eternal and that He created His Son to be the first creature made at a point in time. Maintaining that the Son of God was created by the Father Arianism believed that the Son of God was therefore neither co-equal, co-eternal nor co-substantial with the Father. Hence it denies the reality of the Trinity as we understand it.
2. This heresy of Arianism became dominant in the Belfast Academical Institution. Alongside the Arian development within the Synod of Ulster at that time, the dominance of Arianism within the Belfast Academical Institution came to the fore.
The sanction and aid of the Synod of Ulster was sought by the Board of Managers; and the Synod resolved, in 1814, that "the same respect be paid to the certificates of the Belfast Institution as to the certificates from foreign universities, so soon as adequate professors are appointed to lecture in this Institution on the different branches of science which the Synod points out to the students under its care.
Dr Porter goes on to state: It was all too evident to close observers that, from the first, New Light or Arian influence prevailed in the Board of Management … The Board of Management saw it to be for their interest to propitiate the Synod of Ulster, and the Synod naturally expected to be largely benefited by a college growing up in the capital of Irish Presbyterianism.
Arian influence, instead of waning, increased in the Institution. On a vacancy occurring in the chair of Greek and Hebrew, an orthodox candidate of high attainments was set aside, and a professed Arian appointed. The appointment was rendered all the more obnoxious to the Old Light party by the fact that the new professor was minister of an Arian congregation in the immediate vicinity of the Institution; and that at his ordination, a short time previously, it had been publicly stated by one of those who officiated that "Trinitarians, whatever they might pretend before the people, did not and could not believe what they taught of the Trinity."
It was felt that a Hebrew professor could not instruct his students in the language of the Old Testament without, directly or indirectly, enunciating his views regarding the Trinity. It was felt also that, as the Greek New Testament was a classbook, the Greek professor must, in critically examining its text, interfere, in one way or another, with the vital doctrines of Christianity. If honest and conscientious, an Arian would necessarily teach Arianism, and poison the minds of those who were being trained for the ministry of the Presbyterian Church.
3. The promotion of Arianism by Rev J Smithurst, at the behest of the Antrim Presbytery. Around 1821 an Arian minister came from England to further push the cause of Arianism in Ireland. His name was Rev. J. Smithurst. The following advertisement appeared in the the spring of 1821 in the Belfast newspapers:
This was no chance venture. Smithurst was not a volunteer apostle. He was invited to Ireland and supported by the Arian leaning Presbytery of Antrim. Furthermore, one of the teachers in the Belfast Academical Institution supplied him with references and by personal influence introduced him to presbyterian pulpits in Ulster. Writing to an Arian minister in county Down, this teacher stated that Mr. Smithurst had come as a missionary from England, to explain our doctrines more fully.
When Smithurst was done speaking Cooke rose and replied to Smithurst:
You, sir, have chosen your own time and mode for invading my parish, and stating your views: I shall choose mine for reply. I here declare your doctrines to be false and pernicious. I invite this assembly, and the whole parish of Killyleagh, to my church on next Sunday; you, too, sir, shall be welcome; and I pledge myself fairly to review, and fully refute, by scriptural arguments, every dogma you have this day propounded. When I have thus removed the evil impression now made on the minds of my people, I shall be ready to meet you in public discussion, here or elsewhere in Ulster.
The next Sunday came and Cooke's Church in Killyleagh was filled in every part, and many, unable to gain admission, clustered round doors and windows. From far and near the people came, old men and youths, matrons and maidens, to hear Cooke defend their insulted faith.
The pursuit of Smithurst by Cooke around Ulster was said to resembled a fox-hunt. The Arian party saw that their cause was suffering in his hands. Instead of advancing their doctrines, he only exposed them, in every part of the province he visited, to a crushing refutation. Mr. Cooke's labours were enormous; but his success was complete. Smithurst, defeated and humiliated, soon fled from Ireland back to England.
Dr. Edgar, theological professor for the Secession Synod, had opposed the appointment of Arians to the Belfast Academical Institution. Henry Cooke in the interests of the Synod of Ulster would also take his stand.
I speak openly before the world, and I declare that the doctrines held and taught by the Arian ministers and professors in Belfast are in direct opposition to the Scriptures. Not creed nor catechism, but the Bible has taught me to approach my Redeemer as ' God manifest in the flesh,' God over all, blessed for ever,' and to regard the Holy Spirit, not as an inferior created agent, or a mere attribute.
The Bible has taught me that the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost are one God ; it has taught me that the carnal mind is enmity against God, and must remain so until quickened and renewed by the power of the Eternal Spirit ; it has taught me that the Saviour offered a real vicarious sacrifice for sin, that 'He was made sin for us that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.'
His efforts seemed to be in vain. His warnings made no visible impression. With a sad and anxious heart he returned to his home at Killyleagh. Never during his ministry did he feel so much discouragement.
However, the subject of the appointment of a Greek professorship was again introduced to the Synod at the next annual meeting in Armagh, in 1823, by a motion to the effect that the Synod should express unqualified approval of the Institution. This was vigorously opposed by Mr. Cooke, who was, on this occasion, joined by Rev Robert Stewart, a friend from college days. After two days debate, it was resolved that the matter should be allowed to drop, and that no notice, public or private, should be taken of the discussion.
Henry Cooke, however, would have no peace with error; he would have no compromise with Arianism. In private and public, to the preachers of peace at all costs in the church he remarked: If you can convince me from Scripture that Trinitarians, Arians, and Socinians, can form a scriptural church, and cordially unite in licensing and ordaining one another, I shall resign my present views, and unite with you in preserving our present Constitution.
Many of Cooke's timid brethren trembled before the champions of Arianism in the Synod, such as Porter, Montgomery and Bruce. Some were content with peace at any price. Others were not yet educated up to the necessity of unqualified subscription, or entire separation from Arianism; others were lazily indifferent both as to the present state and future prospects of their Church.
That year, 1827, the Synod met in Strabane. As soon as the meeting was constituted, Rev Magill, of Antrim, moved: That the Rev. William Porter, having publicly avowed himself to be an Arian, be no longer continued clerk.
A long and stormy debate followed. An amendment was proposed to the effect that: Although this Synod highly disapproves of Arianism, yet Mr. Porter having always discharged his duties of clerk with ability and fidelity, that he be continued in his office.
Neither motion nor amendment satisfied Henry Cooke. He would have no half measures. He declared that the time had come for separation. He, therefore, proposed that both motion and amendment be withdrawn, and that a resolution be framed for the separation of Orthodoxy and Arianism.
The proposal was rejected; and a new amendment, drafted by Rev Stewart, of Broughshane, was carried. It declared, the deepest regret, that it expressed its high disapprobation ; yet, as the removal of the clerk from office on this account might be construed into persecution for the sake of opinion, they do not consider it expedient to remove him.
Henry Cooke was not satisfied. He resolved upon a more decisive step. Porter's acknowledged Arianism gave him a fitting opportunity. Porter had under oath sworn that the Synod of Ulster contained more real Arians than professed ones. This gave Cooke the advantage he sought. Cooke forthwith argued that the character of the Synod was involved. The honesty and the truthfulness of every member was indirectly questioned. Orthodox men would not hesitate to state their opinions, and thus free themselves from a foul charge.
Whereas some members of the Synod have made open profession of Arian sentiments; and whereas Mr. Porter, in his evidence before the Commissioners of Education Inquiry, has declared that, 'in his opinion, there are more real than professed Arians in this body; and whereas Mr. Cooke, in his evidence before the said Commissioners, has declared his opinion, 'that there are, to the best of his knowledge, thirty-five Arians amongst us, and that very few of them would be willing to acknowledge it; and whereas Dr. Hanna, on a similar examination, has declared his opinion, 'that he presumes there are Arians amongst us,' we do hold it absolutely incumbent on us, for the purpose of affording a public testimony to the truth, as well as of vindicating our religious character as individuals, to declare that we do most firmly hold and believe the doctrine concerning the nature of God, contained in these words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, namely, ' That there are three persons in the Godhead, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory; 'and that we do affix our signatures to this declaration in the minutes of Synod; and that the Moderator be instructed to issue a circular letter to the absent members of the Synod, in order to afford them an opportunity of forwarding to him their signatures of concurrence, before the printing of the minutes.
A lengthy debate ensued. It began on a Thursday, and lasted to Saturday. J. L. Porter records the events that transpired in the Synod:
The only change, therefore, was a verbal declaration instead of a written one. The one was as effective as the other so far as Cooke's objective was concerned.
On Saturday, after the modification of Cooke's motion, Rev. Henry Montgomery rose to address the Synod. He was a great orator and champion of Arianism. He was minister at Dunmurry, and at the same time Headmaster of the English Department in the Belfast Academical Institution.
The lengthy debate was closed by Henry Cooke, who, as mover of the original resolution, had the right of reply. He reviewed briefly the leading arguments of his opponents, and then turned to Rev Montgomery and said:
Peace! peace! without purity of faith, which is its fundamental principle. Peace! amid the opposing elements of theological dogmas. Peace! where the very Giver of peace is dishonoured and degraded by the men who clamour for it. There can be no peace apart from purity and truth. The words of the Apostle are whispered in our ears in accents so tender, and of such deep pathos, that we are appalled by them—'Keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.' But pathos cannot palliate error.
Truth was triumphant. Cooke's searching logic and eloquence, were irresistible. The appeals, warnings and threats of the Arians were in vain. It was ruled that the question should be put to the Synod: Believe the doctrine or not. Each member was directed to stand up when giving his vote.
Cooke had led the battle and Trinitarianism had won the day!!!
Dr Josiah Leslie Porter's Life and Times of Dr Henry Cooke and from
Rev Thomas Hamilton's History of Presbyterianism in Ireland.
Unless attributed to someone else all the quotations in blue are taken from
Dr J. L. Porter's Life and Times of Dr Henry Cooke