Isaac Nelson

BookIsaac Nelson

Isaac Nelson

Radical Abolitionist, Evangelical Presbyterian, and Irish Nationalist


April 20th, 2018



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This book reconsiders the career of an important, controversial, but neglected figure in this history of Irish Presbyterianism. The Revd Isaac Nelson is mostly remembered for his opposition to the evangelical revival of 1859, but this book demonstrates that there was much more to Nelson’s career. Nelson started out as a protégé of Henry Cooke and as an exemplary young evangelical minister. Upon aligning himself with the Belfast Anti-Slavery Society and joining forces with American abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, Nelson emerged as a powerful voice against compromise with slaveholders. One of the central objectives of this book is to show that anti-slavery, especially his involvement with the ‘Send Back the Money’ controversy in the Free Church of Scotland and the debate over fellowship with slaveholders at the Evangelical Alliance, was crucially important to the development of Nelson into one of Irish Presbyterianism’s most controversial figures. His later opposition to the 1859 Revival has often been understood as being indicative of Nelson’s opposition to evangelicalism. This book argues that such a conclusion is mistaken and that Nelson opposed the Revival as a Presbyterian evangelical. His later involvement with the Land League and the Irish Home Rule movement, including his tenure as the Member of Parliament for County Mayo, could be easily dismissed as an entirely discreditable affair. While avoiding romantic nostalgia in relation to Nelson’s nationalism, this book argues that Nelson’s basis for advocating Home Rule was not as peculiar as it might first appear.


‘An interesting, probing, and thoroughly documented study of an importantly unconventional protagonist in several major religious and political debates, with reverberations far beyond Belfast or Ulster, which will make a considerable impact not merely on students of Ulster’s religious history, but on the broader field of Irish political history.'
Professor David Fitzpatrick, Trinity College Dublin

Author Information

Daniel Ritchie was an Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of History and Archives, University College Dublin between 2014-16.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents
Section TitlePagePrice
List of Abbreviations9
1. The Making of an Evangelical22
The Belfast Academical Institution26
Inquiry into the Teaching of Moral Philosophy32
First Comber38
Return to Belfast41
2. ‘The Eloquent and Fearless Friend of the Slave’51
Background: The Free Church of Scotland and the Evangelical Alliance53
Ideology and Circumstances: The Making of an Evangelical Abolitionist58
American Abolitionists and Belfast Anti-slavery64
Anti-slavery and the Irish General Assembly89
Nelson’s Response to the Proslavery Compromise of the Disruption Worthies98
The London Meeting of the Proposed Evangelical Alliance: Nelson and Standfield on the Centre Stage104
The ‘Honourable Exception’116
Farewell to the Belfast Anti-Slavery Society124
3. The Year of Delusion135
Overview of the Revival136
The 1857–58 American Revival and Proslavery Religion142
Signs and Wonders148
Histories and Fallacies158
Doctrinal Integrity167
Church Order and Morality177
Assessing Nelson’s Critique185
4. ‘A Man after Parnell’s Own Heart’?195
The Emergence of an Irish Nationalist196
Personality and the Irish Question205
Preaching the Gospel of Peasant Proprietorship213
Ideology and the National Question220
Defeat at Leitrim235
Victory at Mayo240
The Parliamentary Parson244
The Presbyterian Home Ruler252