Ireland’s historic brewers shared their faith around the world

Arthur Guinness
Arthur Guinness

Several fervent Roamer readers have politely suggested that this page has contained ‘a lot of religion’ recently.

I suppose they’re right, what with stories over the past few weeks about the founders of Methodism, the history of various Christmas carols, and last Wednesday a whole page about the Salvation Army!

But church memories, the history of hymns and our ecclesiastical past are subjects that are often mentioned in readers’ letters and e-mails, and I’m afraid there’s more here today!

But what follows comes from a completely different angle to any of the previous church-based accounts.

Three or four years ago an unsigned but quirky note to Roamer claimed that its sender had come across a church displaying large noticeboards on each side of its main door.

One notice warned “Drink is your enemy” whilst the other proclaimed “Love your enemy!”

In similar vein came a succession of readers’ letters shared here last year containing amusing ‘bloomers’ observed on church bulletin boards. One that I still smile about announced “The midweek service is about the dangers of alcohol. A full choir will participate.”

(The word ‘full’, as experienced tipplers will know, is often used to describe folk who’ve had too much to drink!)

So I wondered if it was another unfortunate gaffe when a reader’s letter this week brought to my attention a document that was headlined ‘Arthur Guinness - an Irishman and a Christian.’

I knew (who doesn’t?) that the founder of one of the world’s most famous breweries was Irish, and therefore probably boasted some sort of religious affiliations.

I’ve also got a favourite cookery book in my library written by Michelle Guinness, married to an Anglican vicar who had connections with the famous brewer’s family.

But as I read through the reader’s document, it became clear that brewery-founder Arthur was in fact a bastion of the Christian faith. Indeed, many more of his family line followed in his footsteps and upheld and spread their faith in Ireland and around the world!

Arthur, son of Richard and Elizabeth Guinness, was born in Celbridge, Co Kildare in 1725. Unknown at the time to the newborn baby the church was immediately hugely significant. Rev Arthur Price, Archbishop of Cashel, was Arthur’s godfather.

Archbishop Price died in 1752 and left his godson £100 in his will. Three years later Arthur spent it setting up business as a brewer in Leixlip, Co Kildare, about 17km from Dublin.

Back then few folk had any understanding of microbiology or bacteriology, and with rubbish, domestic waste and raw sewage contaminating their water sources, infections of all sorts were rampant.

Many people died from the horrible diseases they picked up from drinking water. So they drank alcohol instead. But whilst it killed the germs, alcohol wasn’t so good for them when they overindulged, which was common practice.

The document that was sent to me claimed that Arthur Guinness “wanted to make an alcoholic drink that would be clean and infection free, and full of goodness so that poor people could have some nourishment, and of course, compared to the poteen that the illicit distillers were making, its alcohol content was very low indeed. Guinness killed the germs that were in the water, and was actually nutritious!”

And the rest is history - except for the less known story about the collective Christian faith that ran through part of the Guinness family tree.

Arthur attended a service in St Patrick’s Cathedral to hear evangelist John Wesley, the founder of Methodism who’s been mentioned more than once on this page recently.

The wealthy brewer of the black stuff became a devoted Christian and dedicated his life and his wealth to the service of the poor. He also founded and financed the first Sunday Schools in Ireland and opened a hospital.

As boss of a major company in the days when workers were paid meagre wages he introduced proper salaries, and provided his staff with houses, medicine and health care.

Arthur married grocer’s daughter Olivia Whitmore in St Mary’s Church in 1761 and they had 21 children though in the era of high infant mortality only 10 survived into adulthood.

Arthur’s grandson Henry at the age of 21 became an internationally recognised Christian preacher, often described as a second George Whitefield, another famous Methodist mentioned here recently.

Henry pastored a church in London’s East End, where he penned theological books and tutored Christian leaders. He led a social reform movement to deal with poverty and worked with the iconic Dr Thomas Barnardo.

In March 1873 Henry and his wife Fanny started the East London Missionary Training Institute, also called Harley College, in Bromley-by-Bow in the East End of London. The college opened with just six students but went on to train thousands of missionaries for many different foreign churches.

It was so successful that it needed larger premises, and in 1883 a benefactor called Elizabeth Hulme offered Henry her mansion - Cliff House in Derbyshire.

Harley College was renamed Hulme Cliff College, now known as Cliff College. It is still known worldwide for training and equipping Christians for missions and evangelism.