Influential Presbyterian minister Henry Cooke was ‘the father of Ulster Unionism’

The statue of Rev Dr Henry Cooke outside Royal Belfast Academical Institution in Belfast city centre
The statue of Rev Dr Henry Cooke outside Royal Belfast Academical Institution in Belfast city centre
Share this article

Rev Dr Henry Cooke died on December 13, 150 years ago. Historian Gordon Lucy looks at his life and legacy

Henry Cooke was born at Grillagh, near Maghera, Co Londonderry.

He was actually born Macook, but by the time of his ordination in 1808 the ‘Ma’ was dropped from his surname. The ‘e’ was added later.

As the Rev Dr Henry Cooke, he became one of the most influential Presbyterian ministers of the 19th century and one of the great public figures of Belfast.

Lord Cairns, the Belfast-born Conservative politician and lord chancellor in both of Disraeli’s administrations, observed that Cooke’s life constituted “a large portion of the religious and public history of Ireland”.

In his own lifetime Henry Cooke was referred to by his opponents as the ‘Presbyterian Pope’ because they believed that he wished to exercise more influence than the office allowed. Certainly annually elected Presbyterian moderators do not exercise the same level of authority and control over their denomination as Roman pontiffs exert over theirs.

In the 1820s Cooke was also hailed as ‘the Presbyterian Athanasius’ on account of his role in the Second Subscription Crisis.

St Athanasius of Alexandria (circa 296-373) was the champion of Trinitarianism in the conflict with Arius (who denied the divinity of Christ) and Arianism, the heresy which bears his name, at the First Council of Nicea in 325.

It was said of the young Athanasius – he was in his late 20s – that he stood ‘contra mundum’ (against the world) in defence of the biblical doctrine of Christ when it seemed ‘all the world’ would follow Arius’s heresy.

Many Presbyterians viewed Cooke as fulfilling the same role in the doctrinal disputes which convulsed Presbyterian Ulster in the early 19th century.

Cooke gave shape to the theology of Ulster’s largest Protestant denomination.

As F S L Lyons observed in Culture and Anarchy in Ireland 1890-1939, that ‘the victory of the so-called “Old Light” [ie traditional Presbyterianism/Calvinism] over the “New Light” [ie more liberal Presbyterianism] meant in broad terms, the deliberate adoption by a majority of Presbyterians of an equivocally evangelical stance’, and quoted J E Davey’s volume commemorating the centenary of the General Assembly to the effect that it was ‘the choice of grace and faith and revelation in place of the seeming alternative of law and logic; it was a conscious suffrage cast for God and religion rather than for man and his speculations’.

Politically, Henry Cooke has been held responsible for the fusion of conservative evangelicalism and Conservative unionism and accused of – or credited with – leading the Presbyterian community away from a liberal past to a more conservative future. This has prompted him to be called ‘the father of Ulster Unionism’.

In the late 1790s Cooke’s family had faced intimidation because of their hostility to the United Irishmen. This experience helped shape Cooke’s underlying political conservatism. At Hillsborough in October 1834 he anticipated the formation of the Unionist Party in the mid-1880s by publishing ‘the banns of a marriage’ between the Church of Ireland and the Presbyterian Church. Cooke’s vision was not realised in his own lifetime.

In January 1841 he famously repudiated Daniel O’Connell’s case for Repeal of the Act of Union by highlighting how Belfast had grown and prospered under the Union.

Cooke was never the spokesman for all Presbyterians. The Rev A P Goudy of Strabane, the grandson of the Rev James Porter of Greyabbey (who was hanged in close proximity to his own meeting house in 1798) on his mother’s side, shared Cooke’s theology but not his Conservative politics.

The Rev Isaac Nelson, a Protestant nationalist and the future Parnellite MP for Co Mayo, was as hostile to Cooke’s politics as he was to Cooke’s theology.

A robust Liberal strand survived in Presbyterianism right up until the first Home Rule crisis of 1885-6. However, with Gladstone’s conversion to Home Rule Cooke’s pan-Protestant alliance became reality – less than 20 years after his death. Arguably, it was Gladstone’s conversion to Home Rule rather than Cooke which destroyed (or enfeebled) political liberalism among Ulster Presbyterians.

Cooke died on December 13 1868. The following day the conservative-leaning News Letter announced that ‘A Prince of the church had fallen’ and carried an obituary which extended over four and a half columns.

Cooke’s admirers disregarded his wish for a private funeral. At a public meeting held in the Town Hall a resolution was passed to accord the great man a civic funeral. William Johnston of Ballykilbeg, one of the two recently elected MPs for Belfast, proposed the motion, which was seconded by the Bishop of Down. The funeral on December 18 was attended by civic and ecclesiastical dignitaries, the mourners included the moderator of the Presbyterian Church, the Church of Ireland primate of All Ireland and the Roman Catholic bishop of Down & Connor.

The presence of the Roman Catholic bishop of Down & Connor may occasion some surprise but stern Protestant although Cooke was, Cooke regarded the Roman Catholic Church as a Christian church, albeit in error, and no one was more ready to assist a Roman Catholic neighbour in time of need.

Cooke had a capacity for friendship which transcended political and religious boundaries. Barney Hughes, the celebrated Belfast baker and Roman Catholic member of Belfast Corporation, was a close personal friend.

The funeral procession stretched for two miles, 154 carriages following the hearse. Thousands lined the route, businesses closed and shops along the way to Balmoral cemetery were draped in black. The News Letter reported that it was ‘in all respects like a royal or imperial demonstration’.

In March 1876 a statue of Henry Cooke (by F S Lynn) was placed in front of Royal Belfast Academical Institution. Perhaps appropriately Cooke’s back was turned towards the school which during his lifetime he had regarded, rightly or wrongly, as a hotbed of Arianism. Significantly too, the statue was erected not by his fellow Presbyterians but by members of the Orange Institution.

Although Cooke had never been a member, he had long been something of a hero to Orangemen.

Presbyterians celebrated the centenary of what they believed to be Cooke’s birth by building Cooke Centenary Church on the Ormeau Road in Belfast in 1888.