Irish historians – and Irish people in general – are currently revisiting important moments in their national past as part of the hundred-year anniversaries of the Easter Rising and subsequent War of Independence and Civil War. Donald Akenson’s new book also seeks to revisit and revise a formative moment in the Irish past, albeit one that has been mostly forgotten: the emergence in the 1830s of a distinctly Irish variant of apocalyptic Evangelical Protestantism. This came about at a moment when Irish Catholics, long dismissed as second-class citizens, were making new demands for civic equality under the leadership of their “Liberator,” Daniel O’Connell. The Irish Protestant Establishment, wavering in the face of this Catholic power, ceded some of their previous privileges.
Discovering the End of Time
Irish Evangelicals in the Age of Daniel O’Connell
Donald Harmon Akenson
McGill-Queen's University Press
But Akenson’s primary goal is to reconstruct the “social physics” of these people – a ponderous phrase he regularly employs without ever really defining. He seems to mean the class forces, fears of Protestant decline, and generational divides at play amongst Darby and his co-agitators – in short, the complex interplay of community tensions and anxieties that fed into the rise of the Plymouth Brethren’s theology. He certainly shows a keen eye for social detail in all of this and Discovering the End of Time provides an intimate feel for the milieu that produced this millenarian movement.
Yet the result is also a sprawling and unwieldy narrative. Across almost five hundred pages, Akenson meanders and side-winds, piling up anecdotes upon trivia about the Anglo-Irish gentry that populated the world of the early Brethren. Family gossip, inheritances, architectural designs of aristocratic mansions, the minutiae of religious retreats; the list goes on. Akenson doesn’t even spare us some unnecessary asides about the fat consort that tagged along with King George IV during his visit to Ireland in 1821 and the “porcine fornicating” that was duly engaged upon in the guest bedrooms of an Irish aristocrat. This emphasis – on the micro-historical, the personal, the private, the intimate even – goes at cross-purposes to Akenson’s stated goal of showing the relevance of the Brethren to broader macro-historical forces. Simultaneously, Akenson undergirds the book with recurring critiques of the Brethren’s in-house historians, pointing out the factual flaws and self-aggrandizing claims in various Brethren works. This might be a useful exercise for a specific subset of scholars who study this movement, but it gives a pedantic air to the proceedings. Is it really necessary to continuously point out that Evangelical hagiographers are prone to factual flights-of-fancy?
John Nelson Darby was much taken with nostalgic visions of the Church Fathers and ancient and medieval Christianity. A well-known stereotype of such medieval Christians is that they could devote countless hours to debating how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. From the layered picture Akenson draws, the “earlies” (as the first Brethren have become known) were similarly given over to acts of dense casuistry with scant appeal to outsiders. The major weakness of this book is that it, too, makes little concession to neophytes and non-specialist readers. And while its sketches of upper crust Protestant religiosity are richly drawn, Discovering the End of Time never really steps out of the confines of that cloistered world.