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Blow ye the trumpet in Zion, and sound an alarm in my holy mountain: let all the inhabitants of the land tremble:

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Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Remembering Dr Henry Cooke, Part one - His Battle for Trinitarianism against Arianism

The day following the death of Dr Henry Cooke the Belfast Newsletter announced that ‘A Prince of the church had fallen’ and carried an obituary which extended over four and a half columns. Henry Cooke was indeed a 'prince' in the church of Jesus Christ. He unashamedly was a Protestant, a Presbyterian and a Protagonist.

Dr Henry Cooke's greatest battle for truth and righteousness was fought on the issue of the person of Jesus Christ. There can never be a more important issue which relates to the Gospel than the person of Jesus Christ.  
Henry Cooke’s Contending for Trinitarianism 
Henry Cooke is probably best known for the part he played in ridding the Synod of Ulster of the Arians. As a result of his stand for Trinitarianism the Arians were forced to leave and set up an alternative Synod, known as the 'Remonstance Synod' and latter still known as the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

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. 

This heresy was first taught by Arius of Alexandria (c. 250– c. 336). The Council of Nicea 325 AD repudiated this false teaching and taught that the Son of God was Co-equal, Co-eternal and Co-substantial with the Father. The Nicene Creed states on the person of the Son of God: We believe in one God … And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, begotten from the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made; of the same essence as the Father.

It is no mere coincidence that as Henry Cooke took on the mantle of the Gospel ministry within the Synod of Ulster that the issue of Arianism should rise to the fore. Henry Cooke would shortly become known as ‘The Presbyterian Athanasius’. God raised up a champion for the truth who would put to flight those who held to Arianism.

Three strands of Arianism all converged at this time to stir up the contending spirit that God had put in the heart and mind of Henry Cooke: 

1. It became obvious that the heresy of Arianism was present among ministers and elders within the Presbyterian Synod of Ulster. It had been found among the New Light party within Presbyterian circles and resulted in those who held these views seeking licensure from the Presbytery of Antrim, a known hot bed of Arianism. 

In 1808, two years after Henry Cooke was ordained to the Gospel ministry, the issue first came to the notice of the Synod of Ulster. Henry Cooke wouldn’t have been in attendance at the Synod, as assistant ministers would not normally have been at Synod meetings. Cooke was ordained an assistant minister in Duneane, near Randalstown and served there from 1808 - 1811. He later became minister of Donegore church from 1811-1818 and minister in Killyleagh from 1818-1829, afterwards becoming minister of a new church built specifically for him in May Street, Belfast. 

The prevalence of Arianism came to light during the hearing an appeal before the Synod. The appeal was heard and ruled upon but nothing, however, was done with the individual who avowed his Arianism. As a result seventeen ministers lodged a protest against this inaction. 

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. 

Dr Josiah Leslie Porter, Henry Cooke's son-in-law and biographer, records the commencement of this College: In the year 1810 the Belfast Academical Institution was founded by royal charter for the purpose of giving a high-class education to the leading youths of Ulster. A collegiate department was subsequently  added, arranged on the plan of the Scotch universities, chiefly with the view of supplying home training to candidates for the ministry in the Presbyterian Church. 

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.

But there were some members of Synod who felt less hopeful. They saw how deeply rooted Arianism was in the Institution. They feared the effect of its teachings upon Presbyterian students. They endeavoured, by the appointment of a special synodical committee, by searching examinations, and by unceasing watchfulness, to guard their young men from error, and at the same time to secure a high-class training. 

The attempt was vain, as every such attempt must be. False principles, whether in religion or philosophy, when held by able and earnest teachers, cannot fail, in a greater or less degree, to permeate the minds of the pupils. No amount of external watchfulness will prevent the tares from lodging and germinating in the youthful mind. 

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 wa
s 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:
" The Rev. J. Smithurst, from the neighbourhood of Exeter, being appointed by the English Unitarian Fund to visit the Province of Ulster, intends shortly to commence his missionary labours by preaching in Belfast, Carrickfergus, Lisburn, Saintfield, Downpatrick, Killyleagh, and adjoining districts. His object will be to advocate the cause of Christian truth without any reference to sect or party."

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.

Henry Cooke challenging the Arians. Those who brought Rev. J. Smithurst over to Ireland had made a great mistake in arranging a meeting in Killyleagh. Henry Cooke was one of the first to take his seat in the meeting.

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.

Hearing that Smithurst had fled, Cooke announced, at the close of his sermon, that he would follow Smithurst from village to village, and from town to town, through Ulster and Ireland. He declared that wherever heresy was broached within the bounds of his Church he would meet and expose it. 

Cooke kept his word. Wherever Smithurst spoke, Cooke was on hand with a triumphant and withering reply. Every pulpit was opened to him. Thousands crowded to hear him, and listened with rapture to his refutations of error and expositions of truth.

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.

This success by Henry Cooke, and the discomfiture of Smithurst, encouraged Cooke to assail that other stronghold of Arianism, namely the Belfast Academical Institution. The battleground for Trinitarianism would be the Synod of Ulster. For seven years, 1821-27, at every annual meeting of the Synod of Ulster Cooke did battle for the truth. 

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. 

At first Cooke stood alone. At the Synod meeting held in Newry in 1822 he said: I seem this day to stand alone. Yet I am not alone. Men may draw back in fear, but God and truth are with me

He rose to speak seeking solemnly to warn his brethren and the whole Church of the danger of permitting men professing Arian views, however profound their scholarship, however high their qualifications in other respects, to instruct candidates for the Christian ministry.  Cooke said:
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.' 

Thus I believe, therefore I speak. I cannot, I dare not be silent. Misrepresentation, obloquy, persecution, and if there even be one stroke beyond them all,—yet, through the grace of God our Saviour, I shall meet them all, endure them all, contending earnestly for the faith once delivered to the Saints. 

I shall not quail before the most powerful adversaries of the truth ; nor shall I suffer myself to be drawn aside by the timidity or the interests of its mistaken friends. I do not stand here now, nor have I ever yet stood, as contending for petty doctrinal distinctions. The foundations of our faith are at stake. 

There are three doctrines peculiar and essential to the Christian system—the Trinity, the vicarious atonement of Christ, and the necessity of the work of the Spirit of God to originate faith and repentance in the heart of man. He that holds these principles, whatever be his name, I call a brother in Christ, and offer him the right hand of fellowship; but, he who denies these, or any of them, I look upon as fatally in error. 

In my opposition to the appointment of Arian professors, I seem this day to stand alone. Yet I am not alone. Men may draw back in fear, but God and truth are with me. I believe, too, that the hearts of many of my brethren in the ministry are with me. I know that the great body of the Presbyterian laity are with me. They will never quietly look on while the enemies of every doctrine they hold sacred are here, as elsewhere, scaling the walls, and entering the inmost chambers, and occupying the highest towers of their Zion.

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. 

The result of his effort was, in his opinion, worse than a defeat. There was an apathy, a faltering timidity, a humiliating cowardice, shown on the occasion by some of his orthodox brethren, which made him fear that the regeneration of his Church was hopeless. He almost resolved to relinquish the struggle in despair. 

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

Cooke felt that purity of faith, firm belief in the fundamental doctrines of the Gospel, was the first requisite in Christ's Church; and he resolved to secure it to the church of his fathers, even though peace should fall a sacrifice in the struggle.
Although at first there was little enthusiasm for contention against Arianism Cooke's warnings were beginning to find acceptance. This is to be observed by the fact that in 1824 Henry Cooke was elected as Moderator of the Synod of Ulster. 

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. 

Henry Cooke was aware of all this. He was the first who resolved on thorough reform. He knew how severe would be the conflict, and he had made preparation for it. He was willing to stand alone. He made no secret of his object. He announced it publicly in the Synod at Coleraine in 1825: We must put down Arianism, or Arianism will put us down.

The battle for truth took its toll on Cooke. During 1826 he was ill and had to take time aside to recover his health. The stress and strain of the conflict evidently played a part in his ill health.

In 1827 the controversy approached a climax. It had been long been known that Arianism existed in the Synod; but hitherto it had generally been exhibited in a negative aspect. Its advocates were known as Non-subscribers. They refused to sign any confession, or to acknowledge their belief in any doctrine. They refused to answer any question regarding their faith, whether put by individuals or Church Courts. 

However, before a Committee of Parliament, Rev. William Porter, the Clerk of Synod, avowed himself an Arian. He affirmed that there were more real Arians than professed ones in the Synod. He stated that Arianism was gaining ground among the thinking few.

Such statements could not be passed over in silence. Certainly not by Henry Cooke.

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. 

Cooke, therefore, proposed the following motion:
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: 
On Saturday, after some consultation among the Orthodox party, and to overcome a point of order which had been raised, it was agreed that the latter part of the original motion should be modified as follows: "That the members now absent be, and are hereby, directed to attend the next meeting of Synod, to express their belief concerning the foregoing doctrine ; and that such of them as do not attend shall send to said meeting an explicit declaration of their sentiments on this important point, which declaration shall be addressed to the clerk.

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. 

Montgomery, attempting to stave off defeat, employed his oratorical powers to maximum effect. He waxed eloquently on the folly of man-made creeds, and the blessings of unity and peace in the church rather than dealing with the issue of the person of Jesus Christ.

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. 

It is a false interpretation, and a false application of the Apostle's words. The context which shows their true bearing and meaning, was forgotten—'There is one body and one spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling! one Lord, one faith. ' The unity of the spirit, then, is a unity of faith. Have we this? 

Do Trinitarians and Arians hold one Lord and one faith? The Spirit is a spirit of truth. He is truth. Can he reign—can peace reign, where truth and error co-exist? Peace here, under existing circumstances, is a delusive cry. It is a syren song luring to destruction. Hearken to it, be lured by it, and your influence is lost, your religious character is lost, your Church is lost.

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.

It was a solemn moment. J. L. Porter stated that: It was a solemn moment—one of the most solemn perhaps in the history of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. Before the view of the Synod was taken four ministers obtained leave to withdraw. The roll was then called. One hundred and seventeen ministers and eighteen elders voted 'believe'; two ministers voted 'not'; and eight ministers declined to vote. 

Cooke and the cause of truth were not finished yet. At the next year's Synod the matter was revisited and those not present the year before were asked to declare where they stood on this all important theological issue. In all over the two Synod meetings 155 ministers & 77 elders declared that they believed the answer to the sixth question in the Shorter Catechism. In all, 26 denied, declined to answer or didn’t answer to their name when called upon to do so.

A feeble protest was tabled, and eventually signed by ten ministers and five elders; but it was felt that the Arian influence was at an end in the Synod; and that the only honourable course open to the defeated party was a speedy withdrawal from the church body. 

At the same Synod meeting in 1828 Cooke also proposed the establishment of a committee for the examination of all candidates for the ministry, with a view to the exclusion from the office of all persons holding Arian or other unsound sentiments. 

Cooke had won the battle for Trinitarianism in the Synod of Ulster. He won the day by almost 3:1. 

The Arians tried over successive Synods to recover ground they had lost but to no avail. Eventually they left and formed the Remonstance Synod, later to be known as the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church. This was just what Cooke wanted. He feared that the extreme measure of a motion for their expulsion might fail, or might be carried by such a narrow majority as to endanger the stability of the Church. It was, therefore, a wiser policy to pass a law so clear and stringent that it would make a voluntary withdrawal of the Arians a matter of necessity.

Over subsequent years, by 1836, unqualified subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith was a requisite on the part of all wishing to become licentiates, elders, or ministers. 

Cooke had led the battle and Trinitarianism had won the day!!!

It is not without notice that in years afterwards the two Synods united and God was pleased to pour out revival blessing upon the northern part of Ireland especially in Presbyterian circles. 

This short account has been compiled from various sources, chiefly from 
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

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