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Rev John Edgar (1798 - 1866):
Clergyman and philanthropist

Rev John Edgar was a Presbyterian minister noted as an untiring, dedicated and influential social activist, from famine relief to promotion of the Irish language. 

Edgar was born at Ballykine, near Ballynahinch, eldest son of the Rev Samuel Edgar, minister of Second Ballynahinch (Secession) Presbyterian Church, who ran an a school (sometimes styled an “academy”) at his home and was the first Seceder’s Professor of Theology at Belfast Academical Institution (after 1831 the Royal Belfast Academical Institution) until his death. (The term “Seceder”, very basically, connotes rather strong evangelical views and subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1646.) John Edgar was educated at his father’s school, at the University of Glasgow (links between Ulster and Scottish institutions were always very strong) from 1812-1814, and at Belfast Academical Institution, whose Certificate in Arts he obtained, in the process winning four silver medals. In 1820 he was ordained in a new and small secessionist Presbyterian congregation in Alfred Street, Belfast, where he continued to minister even after he was appointed to succeed his father as Seceder’s Professor of Divinity at Belfast Academical Institution, on his father’s death in 1826. 

Edgar, whatever his students thought of what were apparently rather rambling lectures, but virtually no good cause failed to arouse his interest, support and energy. He became known as a Temperance campaigner: his letter, published in the Belfast News Letter 14 August 1829 in support of Temperance, predated by nearly a decade Theobald Mathew’s Cork Total Abstinence Society on 10 June 1839. Edgar’s letter seemed to have spurred on the establishment of local Temperance societies, the first in Ulster, the Ulster Temperance Society, was formed fairly soon afterwards, on 24 September. Edgar was not above the theatrical: he opened a window of his manse in Alfred Place and dispensed the remains of a whiskey barrel into the street. In fact, his and Mathew’s aims were no entirely convergent: at first it was precisely whiskey to which he objected, while Mathew argued for total abstinence from all alcohol. Edgar was not so rigid as to demand the total abstinence pledge as did Father Mathew; he saw this as unbiblical. The Presbyterian Assembly wavered between the policies of Temperance as against Total Abstinence; in 1876, long after Edgar’s death, it was urging total abstinence, even banning the use of wine, that is, alcoholic fermented grape juice, for communion services. Not even the Catholic Church went so far. 

Edgar further was one of the principal movers behind the Deaf, Dumb and Blind Institute in Belfast, inspired by the southern Irish doctor, Charles Orpen, a pioneer in the field of care of deaf-mutes who had founded in 1816 the National Institution for the Deaf and Dumb at Glasnevin, Dublin. 

Though some have pointed to his Temperance campaigning as his most significant work, others have pointed up what he began when on an evangelising trip to Connaught in 1846. What would come to be known as the Great Famine (there were many others) had commenced the previous year and for various reasons was more obvious and deadly in the west of Ireland, with its millions of population of which a high proportion were dependent for basic subsistence on the potato, the very crop attacked by a “murrain” (today called “blight” – in fact, it was not known until later in the century what it was at all). At first, Edgar was interested in the practice known in English as “keening”, a kind of wail of lament to be heard at funerals (the original Irish word being “caoin”). He published a tract, A Cry from Connaught, published in November 1846 in the Missionary Herald, selling 26,000 copies. This was in part an appeal for support for relief work, aimed at Presbyterians everywhere in Ireland (this effectively meant Ulster). £16,000 was raised, a sum which in 2012 would be into the millions. 

This was not entirely without controversy, however. The full title of the work was A Cry from Connaught: An appeal from a land which fainteth by reason of a famine of bread and of hearing the words of the Lord. Accusations of proselytism were voiced, waht was commonly known as “souperism” or variants, the basic charge being a crude food-for-faith deal. Initially Edgar denied trying to proselytise, and it could be noted that Catholic clergy did co-operate in the relief work, but Edgar’s later stances tended to echo the subtitle of the 1846 publication. He was critical of the attitude of the Established (Anglican) Church and in his paper read at the 6th Annual Conference of the British organisation of the Evangelical Alliance in August 1852 stated: he said:  

“Is it at all surprising that the Reformation made small progress in Ireland when those in authority persisted in attempting to spread it by means of a language which the people did not understand?” 

The language to which was referring was English, and he set himself with characteristic energy and assiduity into supporting Irish language schools. There is little doubt that his attitude was consistent. In 1842 he had already stated: 

“My highest and holiest ambition, my fervent wish and prayer for my two sons, is that they may faithfully and successfully preach in the Irish language to the Irish people.” 

Thus, while essentially an evangelising clergyman, he was no linguistic conquistador.

Edgar’s other social concerns included concern for prostitutes, redundant sailors, and he was an opponent of slavery. He was sufficiently well-known outside Ireland to be awarded two honorary degrees from institutions in the United States: a Doctorate in Divinity from Hamilton College in 1836 and a Doctor of Laws from New York in 1960. He was Moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly in 1842. He died in Dublin, where he had gone for an operation for throat cancer. He was interred in Balmoral Cemetery, south Belfast. His headstone inscription reads: 

“The memory of the just is blessed.”  Here lie the remains of John Edgar D.D., LL.D., Professor of Theology for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Christian Philanthropist and founder of the Temperance Reformation, who died August 26th 1866 aged 68 years. 

Born: 13 June 1798
Died: 26 August 1866
Richard Froggatt

Brian Todd: A Remarkable Belfast Institution: The Royal Belfast Institution, 1810-2010, Belfast, RBAI, 2013; Dictionary of Irish Biography; Roger Blaney: Presbyterians and the Irish Language, Ulster Historical Foundation, 1996; Laurence Kirkpatrick: Presbyterians in Ireland: An Illustrated History, Belfast, Booklink, 1996