John Abernethy

Abernethy, John, Rev., an eminent Presbyterian divine, was born at Coleraine, where his father was minister, 19th October 1680.

In his thirteenth year he entered as a student at the University of Glasgow. There, and at Edinburgh, where he completed his education, his brilliant abilities were recognized by the most eminent of his cotemporaries and by his professors.

Before he was twenty-one he received licence to preach, and in 1703 was appointed minister of an important congregation in Antrim.

In 1717 he incurred the displeasure of the Presbyterian Synod by refusing to leave Antrim and accept a call in Dublin: a violent difference ensued, which gradually widened into what was known as the controversy between the “subscribers and non-subscribers.”

There can be no question that he and his associates sowed the seeds of that after struggle in which the Arian and Socinian elements of the Irish Presbyterian Church were thrown off as a separate body.

In 1730 he responded to a call from Wood-street congregation, Dublin; and next year sprang up the most memorable controversy in which he was ever engaged—that in relation to religious tests and disabilities.

He took an unflinching stand against all laws that, upon account of mere differences of religious opinions and forms of worship, excluded men of integrity and ability from serving their country.

He was nearly a century in advance of his time, having actually to controvert the position that a Catholic or a Dissenter could not be a man of integrity and ability!

“And so,” says the Encyclopædia Britannica, “John Abernethy through life was ever foremost where unpopular truth and right were to be maintained; nor did he, for sake of an ignoble expediency, spare to smite the highest seated wrongdoers, any more than the hoariest errors (as he believed).”

Although austerely temperate, he was carried off by gout in the head, in December 1740, aged 60.

“He was a burning and a shining light in his day. Polished in manners, possessing a rich fund of intelligence, with uncommon powers of conversation, etc., he was esteemed and admired as a man in the private intercourse of life. … His Sermons on the Being and Perfections of God were widely celebrated, as is evinced by the many editions which have been printed.”[16]

His grandson, John Abernethy, the eminent surgeon, has often been spoken of as an Irishman, but the latest authority (Encyclopædia Britannica, 9th Edition) places his birth in London.

Note from Addenda:

Abernethy, John, Rev.—It is more probable that he was born at Brigh, near Stewartstown, County of Tyrone. The controversy between the “subscribers” and “non-subscribers” originated in a difference of opinion as to whether a church had a right to exact from its clergy subscription to a creed. Abernethy was the leader of the free-thinking school of Presbyterians.[233]


1. Abernethy, John, M.A., Sermons, with Life of the Author. 2 vols. London, 1748.

16. Authors, Dictionary of British and American: S. Austin Allibone. 3 vols. Philadelphia, 1859–’71.

125. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 9th edition; as far as published.

233. Manuscript and Special Information, and Current Periodicals.