The Cork Unitarian Church was one of the first buildings erected outside of Cork’s old city walls on an area then known as Dunscombe’s Marsh. It was built to house a congregation of Non-Subscribing Presbyterians, whose numbers had outgrown their previous place of worship in Watergate Lane (West of the current South Main Street). The foundations for this church were laid in 1713 and the first service in the new building was held on Sunday 1st August 1717. It has been a place of regular worship since then, making it the oldest church in continuous use in the City of Cork.
The Early Congregation
During the mid 1600’s, various Protestant communities resisted hierarchical structures and rigid dogmas, preferring instead to study the Bible and Gospels for themselves rather than following the dictums of the Bishopric. The Act of Uniformity in 1662 required the Anglican ordination of all Protestant clergy and prescribed the form of public prayers, administration of sacraments, and other rites of the Established (Anglican) Church of England. English Dissenters or Non-Conformists opposed state interference in religious matters and founded their own churches and schools.
Presbyterians derive their name from the presbyterian form of church government, which is government by representative assemblies of elders. They operated outside of the authority of the Established (Anglican) Church and were also subject to the Penal Laws along with Roman Catholics and others. Fortunately, they were provided with more toleration here in Ireland than in Scotland or England.
The Westminster Confession of Faith (first ratified in 1648) was again adopted in 1690 by King William III (William of Orange). The Westminster Confession states that the Pope is the Antichrist, that the Roman Catholic mass is a form of idolatry and that the civil magistrates have divine authority to punish heresy. Presbyterian groups who rejected the Westminster Confession were known as Non-Subscribing Presbyterians and this Church today remains part of the Synod of Munster of Non-Subscribing Presbyterians.
The Westminster Confession also includes common Christian doctrines such as the Trinity as well as the more controversial doctrine of predestination which states that God has already determined whether an individual will reach salvation or whether they are damned, regardless of that individual’s faith, worship or actions.
Unitarians rejected these doctrines, believing that whilst Jesus was the Son of God, he was not divine and did not exist before his birth and life on earth. (Unitarians today represent a much broader selection of beliefs). Rejection of the Trinity was a dangerous belief which, at the time, could get a person in a lot of trouble. In 1697 in Scotland, Thomas Aikenhead was executed for publicly stating his non-Trinitarian views, so it is understandable why these early Unitarians worshiped under the Presbyterian banner.
The original church was known as the Presbyterian Meeting House and this section of Princes Street was named Presbyterian Meeting House Lane until the late 1700’s.
Throughout the 18th century, the church provided a place of worship for three distinct groups; Presbyterians and Non-Subscribing Presbyterians, who both professed belief in the Trinity and the more prominent Unitarians. Relations between these groups, although mostly cordial were sometimes strained. It was common for separate services to be held in the church and at times the building accommodated two or three ministers, each with their own congregations.
Conditions outside of the church however dictated some common causes for the different ministers. Aside from the Penal Laws which precluded their shared congregations from numerous posts and political representation, the main problem was the issue of tithes which were payable to the Anglican Church of Ireland. Originally, tithes were introduced with the Anglo Norman conquest as specified in the papal bull Laudabiliter as a duty to pay yearly from every house the pension of one penny to St. Peter’s Church in Rome. However collection outside the Pale was rarely successful up until after the Williamite conquest of 1691, when the tithes were changed to a tax of 10% on every household payable to the Anglican Church regardless of one’s religion. Collection was often rigorously enforced by local magistrates with the assistance of police militias. The payment of tithes to a church to which one did not belong was greatly resented and often resisted by the Presbyterians, Quakers, Jews and especially by up to 85% of the Irish population who were Roman Catholics.
Access to education was also a problem, particularly for Catholics, but it was poverty, lack of political representation and absentee landlordism which were the greatest causes of dissension. Documents from the church show continuous efforts by members of the Church’s congregation to deal with these issues. During the 1700’s, whilst the economy of Cork largely boomed, the majority of the native Irish population existed in extreme poverty, particularly in the wake of the 1740 famine. The Corporation who ran the city and controlled all levels of trade appeared to exist solely for the benefit of the minority Anglican population. Thomas Dix Hincks who was the sole minister in the church from 1792 to 1815 started the Royal Cork Institution in 1803 to promote education, science, agriculture and industry. His 1798 sermon promoting religious tolerance “On Dwelling Together in Unity” was widely read at the time and a copy is available at the church. The recently published book by Fergus Whelan “Dissent into Treason” charts the involvement of Dissenting Presbyterians in establishing the United Irishmen and their leading role in the 1798 Rebellion.
Thomas Dix Hincks’ son William Hincks followed his father into ministry at this Church from 1815 to 1818, before going on to be the first professor of natural history at University College, Toronto and president of the Canadian Institute (now the Royal Canadian Institute)
Throughout the 1800’s, members of this congregation were active in many social and political initiatives including the Ani-Slavery Movement, Father Mathew’s Temperance Movement, the Mechanic’s Institute, the School of Art & Design, the establishment of Queen’s College (University College Cork), the Anti-Tithe Association and the Young Irelanders.
Richard Dowden who alternatively was secretary or treasurer of this Church for over 40 years, was a strident supporter of Daniel O’Connell and Catholic Emancipation. He was politically active in the Repeal Movement, which sought repeal of the 1800 Act of Union and sought self-governance for Ireland. He was also prominent in the Reform Movement which pushed for social and political reforms to improve the lives of all Irish men and women. He continued Thomas Dix Hincks work with the Royal Cork Institution which resulted in the establishment of many of Cork’s present day institutions, including the Opera House, Crawford Gallery, UCC and the CIT. Whilst serving as Mayor of Cork in 1845, Dowden’s work the Anti-Slave Movement resulted in a visit to city by Frederick Douglass. He was also prominent in attempting to deliver relief to victims of the Great Famine which broke out that same year. Richard Dowden was one of the founders of the Cork’s Blind Asylum and also the Lunatic Asylum. His personal papers are in the Cork City Archive and provide a valuable resource for students of this period.
The laws prohibiting Unitarian views were eventually repealed in 1812 and the schism betweenthe Trinitarian Presbyterians and the Unitarian congregations was somewhat resolved with the establishment of the Scots Church in 1841 and Trinity Presbyterian Church in Summerhill in 1861.
The church today is wholly Unitarian and continues to operate on the Unitarian principles of Freedom, Reason and Tolerance.
The Minister in charge is Rev. Bridget Spain and services are held at 11.00am every Sunday.
Unitarians do not promote any set dogma or creed and persons of all beliefs are welcome to attend our services.