Belfast Telegraph

Philip Orr: Why we should remember the Rev Isaac Nelson, radical Presbyterian and friend of the slave

Rev Nelson is largely forgotten now, but he was one of Ireland's leading opponents of slavery in the 18th century. Ahead of a series of talks in Belfast tomorrow, historian Philip Orr explains why this great figure from the city's past deserves to have his reputation rehabilitated

Tucked away in a corner of the ancient graveyard on the Shankill is a neglected tomb that links our city to the titanic struggle to abolish slavery in the United States - a struggle that culminated in the tragedy of the Civil War.

This forgotten grave contains the remains of the Reverend Isaac Nelson. Few people know that this Presbyterian preacher and scholar was probably Belfast's most vehement opponent of American slavery. Indeed, when the famous freed slave Frederick Douglass came to the north of Ireland in 1845, Nelson shared a platform with him.

Nelson's name retained recognition in Belfast because of the beautiful Nelson Memorial Church, standing a few yards away from his grave on the Shankill Road. But that church's congregation dwindled in the 21st century and it was recently closed.

Good work is still undertaken in the building, where David Boyd's Beat Initiative is bringing community arts to the district. But there is probably now even less public memory of this man who challenged his fellow citizens to rise up against one of history's most grim injustices.

For Nelson, the fight against slavery wasn't just an option for the local community, it was an imperative. And there was a good reason.

Many people in the still largely Protestant town of Belfast had very close ties with Scotland - as they do now. Presbyterians had close links with the Free Church, a denomination that had been newly established there due to a split with the Church of Scotland. Yet the Free Church was beginning to receive money from wealthy donors in the United States, many of whom were slave-owners.

Nelson was incensed, as a Presbyterian clergyman and Belfast citizen. He asked how a so-called 'Free Church' could be so wrong as to tolerate a system which took away the freedom of others on grounds of their race. He was one of the most active members of the Belfast Anti-Slavery Society, which supported the abolitionist cause.

It was a cause with a pedigree. Mary Ann McCracken was still around and active. She and her brother had been prominent citizens of an 18th-century town which contained merchants intent on making money from the slave trade, but also a radical humanitarian culture that opposed it deeply.

The Anti-Slavery Society's opportunity for speaking out was greatly enhanced in 1845 with the arrival of Douglass. Frederick Douglass was about to embark on a highly successful tour of Britain and had just completed a momentous speaking tour of southern Ireland, where he and the Irish politician Daniel O'Connell had found common cause.

In Belfast, Douglass spoke on several occasions to audiences made up of those who had crammed into Protestant churches and meeting-houses to hear him. There was good support from a number of businessmen and politicians, including the Co Down landlord, avid Chartist and MP for Rochdale, William Sharman Crawford.

Douglass was unsparing in his condemnation of Christians who condoned slavery and especially those who had the temerity to support, advocate and benefit from it. He called on the Free Church to "send back the blood-stained money".

And when Isaac Nelson joined Douglass on a platform in Bangor he recounted with satisfaction that a certain Presbyterian man, recently returned from the USA as a vocal advocate of slavery, had been locked out of the annual General Assembly of the Church for his iniquitous views. "We will have no fellowship with slave-holders," Nelson said.

Later, he would utter one of his most memorable phrases on the subject, proclaiming that it was shameful to see Christian leaders "holding the Bible in one hand and a slave-chain in the other".

But it was a series of events in following decades that started Nelson's eclipse from public memory. In 1859, an Evangelical Revival broke out in Ulster and it was soon seen as a signature event in local Protestant identity. Its fame would continue down through the years and the Revered Ian Paisley would write a book which praised it.

However, for Nelson the Revival was a shameful event. The inspiration for its highly emotional religious services had been explicitly drawn from the revivalism of the United States, a land of religious enthusiasm, where four million enslaved Africans lived and where professed Christians owned most of these slaves. The revivalist who turned a blind eye to this massive irony was in his opinion a "traitor to the Gospel".

Nelson's book, The Year of Delusion, was an attack on those who had fomented the revival, including senior figures in the Presbyterian church.

Nelson was wrong to assume that all supporters of revivals, here or in America, were pro-slavery. And he was surely wrong to see the Ulster Revival as fully inauthentic. Many lives were changed for the better in 1859. And, indeed, there was an anti-slavery body inside the Free Church, which he and Douglass had berated.

However, Nelson was soon seen only as a misguided maverick who had become an opponent of the true faith. This was despite his continued Evangelical orthodoxy.

Nelson's reputation was further blackened on the Shankill Road, where his wealthy father's home, called Sugarfield, was based. He became convinced of the need for a restored parliament for Ireland and eventually arrived at Westminster as the Home Rule MP for Mayo.

Although his sister had sufficient wealth to build a church in his memory on the Shankill Road after his demise - and to create a tomb for him in the local graveyard - the memory of Nelson's moral crusade was forgotten as was the visit to Belfast of Frederick Douglass.

Tomorrow, there will be a chance to make amends, no matter how his notorious outspokenness may be viewed, or his final choices in Irish politics.

The cultural activists Reclaim the Enlightenment have picked up on the Nelson story and, indeed, the bigger narrative of Belfast, Ireland and slavery, then and now. So, at Shankill Library, from 9.30am to 2pm, they are hosting a themed series of talks.

I will talk briefly about Nelson, then there will be three other lectures. The author Nini Rogers will discuss slavery and anti-slavery in 18th-century Belfast, Professor Christine Kinealy will describe Douglass' visit to the city and Aidan McQuade will talk about the terrible blight of enslavement in today's world. Aidan has been heavily involved with the anti-slavery cause across the globe for many years.

Visits will be made to the former Nelson Memorial Church and to his tomb, where a musical tribute will be paid to all those from our city who have opposed and who still oppose slavery. Guests are very welcome, although it would be helpful if those who read this article and wish to come could leave a message at reclaimtheenlightenment@gmail.com.

This event is a chance to think about the relevance of these issues for today and about our own potential for compromising our values in a world that is still unjust in so many ways.

Philip Orr is a writer, historian and community activist. Ireland and Slavery: Then and Now, Shankill Library, Shankill Road, Belfast, tomorrow, 9.30am-2pm

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