Drummond, William

William DrummondWilliam Hamilton Drummond (August 1778-October 16, 1865), a leading 19th century Irish non-subscribing Presbyterian minister and Unitarian Christian theologian, was also an honored poet, an educationalist and an early advocate of the rights of animals.

Born in Larne in August, 1778, Drummond was the son of William Drummond, a naval surgeon, and Rose Hare. In 1783 his father set himself up in practice in Ballyclare, but died shortly afterwards. His mother moved to Belfast and saw to it that her sons were educated at the Belfast Academy under the tuition of James Crombie and William Bruce, two of the most notable non-subscribing Presbyterian ministers of the day.

After a short, unhappy period of commercial employment in England, at age 16 Drummond entered the University of Glasgow and followed a course in Arts. While yet a student he published some of his poetry, including The Man of Age and Hibernia, A Poem. His earliest writing illustrates his sympathy with the United Irishmen, a largely Protestant led organisation, fired by revolutionary ideals and advocating Irish independence. Indeed, in the year of the rebellion, 1798, Drummond’s radicalism put his life in danger at least once when in the town of Larne he encountered a detachment of cavalry just returned from the battle of Antrim. One of the officers placed his pistol to Drummond’s head and reportedly told him: “You young villain, it is you and the like of you that have brought this upon us, with your infernal poetry!”

He did not take a degree, partly for lack of finances, and after leaving Glasgow worked for a time as a private tutor in county Louth before continuing his studies in preparation for the Presbyterian ministry under the care of the Presbytery of Armagh, 1798-99, and the Presbytery of Antrim, 1799-1800. In 1800 he received calls from two congregations, and accepted the call of the prestigious congregation of Second Belfast.

Having a vision of Belfast as a “northern Athens,” Drummond was prominent in the intellectual and social life of the town. In 1801 he was a founder member of the Belfast Literary Society. He opened a boarding school in his home soon after his arrival in Belfast. During this period he delivered public lectures on natural philosophy, which included performance of experiments. He encouraged the development of various charitable institutions and was much in demand as a preacher of charity sermons. In 1806 he saw the installation in his church of the first organ used by a dissenting congregation in the North of Ireland. Some of his contributions to a new volume of hymns for his congregation achieved popularity on both sides of the Atlantic.

For many liberal Presbyterians like Drummond the revolutionary zeal of the previous few years was replaced by confidence in commerce, industry, education and science, a confidence underpinned by the 1801 Union with Great Britain.

Some poems of this period reflect his support for the Union, though the subjects of his considerable body of poetry are more often Irish history and myths. In 1810 Marischal College, Aberdeen honored him with a degree, Doctor of Divinity, largely in recognition of his First Book of T. Lucretius Carus, 1808, a verse translation of Lucretius’ De Natura Rerum. Drummond’s taste was quite eclectic and the range of his knowledge extraordinary. Both are evidenced in the most successful of his published works, The Giant’s Causeway, 1811, which demonstrates his great love for nature and the natural environment as well as his considerable knowledge of natural history and geology, classical literature and Irish mythology.

Drummond was both an early supporter of the establishment of the Belfast Academical Institution, the first attempt to bring higher level education to the town, and a candidate in 1815 for the Chair of Logic and Belles Lettres. He was not appointed, it was said, because many of the electors, who were also members of his congregation, did not wish to see him devote less time to his ministry. His disappointment was a factor in his acceptance, in October, 1815, of a call to the Strand Street congregation, Dublin.

Drummond served as minister in Dublin for half a century. There he consolidated his reputation as a poet, published his free translations of ancient Irish legends, and became a controversialist of note in vigorous defense of the doctrines of Unitarian Christianity. He ably put into print strong and lucid Unitarian theological arguments to counter Presbyterians, Anglicans and Roman Catholics, his topics and positions clearly indicated in his sermon titles: The Doctrine of the Trinity, 1827; Unitarian Christianity the Religion of the Gospel, 1828; Unitarianism no feeble and conceited Heresy (an address to Archbishop Magee of Dublin refuting an attack on Unitarianism), 1829; The Unitarian Christian’s Faith, 1830; Tritheism Exposed, A Letter “To the Church and Congregation Assembling in Union Chapel, Abbey-Street, For the Worship of One Jehovah, Father, Son and Holy Ghost” from A Worshipper of the One, Only, Living, and True God, and a Believer in Jesus Christ, whom He hath sent, 1834. An opponent of the doctrine of original sin, Drummond was an eager advocate for the place of reason in religion, described in a sermon, Reason the Handmaid of Religion, 1829, as “the light which God has given us, and which it is incumbent on us to employ in all our investigations.”

Drummond was also a student of Unitarian history and widely involved as well in Unitarian activities and concerns. His Life of Michael Servetus, 1848, an early account in English of the Unitarian martyr, amply shows the author’s distaste for the intolerance of Calvinist doctrine in an earlier century. A published sermon marked the death of the Indian exponent of liberal religion, Rammohun Roy, who was planning to visit Dublin when he died in Bristol. Drummond edited the autobiography of Archibald Hamilton Rowan, a leading United Irishmen, 1840. In 1828 he delivered the charge at the ordination of James Martineau at the Eustace Street meeting house in Dublin.

He also developed a passionate concern for the rights of animals, indeed, of all creatures, not only those typically eliciting people’s affection. In Humanity to Animals The Christian’s Duty; A Discourse, 1830, later enlarged into a book, Drummond laid out a careful argument that animals are “not proper objects of contempt or disregard, much less of inhumanity”. He declared that animals have rights, and that respect for these is part of our obligation to God. He opposed not only the blatantly cruel practice of bear and badger baiting, but also recreational hunting and fishing. “Man” he wrote, “is cruel when he seizes animals, not for food but for pleasure; when he tortures before he kills; when he hunts or destroys for his amusement”.

Such was the clarity and liveliness of Drummond’s writing style that his sermons, even those on timely local subjects of no present interest, are even now surprisingly readable. But, neither his poetry nor his hymns had staying power; they are nowadays little read or sung.

Drummond died in October, 1865. He was buried at Harold’s Cross cemetery near Dublin. One son, Richard Blackley Drummond, was minister of St Mark’s Church, Edinburgh. Another, James Drummond, was Principal of Manchester New College, one of the two seminaries in England for the training of Unitarian ministers. His grandson, also named William Hamilton Drummond, was called a hundred years after his grandfather served to be minister of the Second Congregation, Belfast, by then renamed All Souls’ Church.

Drummond’s main works, apart from those mentioned above, include Juvenile Poems: By a Student of the University of Glasgow (1795), Clontarf a Poem (1822), Bruce’s Invasion of Ireland (1826), The Pleasures of Benevolence a Poem (1835), The Rights of Animals and Man’s Obligation to Treat them with Humanity (1838), and Ancient Irish Minstrelsy (1842). His sermons were collected in Sermons by the late Rev. W.H. Drummond, DD, MRIA with Memoir by the Rev. J. Scott Porter (1867). Porter’s memoir is the most valuable biographical account of his life and the source for all subsequent biographies including Alexander Gordon‘s article in the Dictionary of National Biography (1888). The following works shed some light on aspects of Drummond’s life: Glasgow University Class Catalogues, 1794-1838; John Julian, A Dictionary of Hymnology (1892); S. Shannon Millin, History of the Second Congregation of Protestant Dissenters in Belfast (1900); S. Shannon Millin, ‘The Poetry of William Hamilton Drummond, DD, MRIA’, Ulster Journal of Archaeology (January 1901); Belfast Literary Society, 1801-1901 (1901); R. Blaney, Presbyterians and the Irish Language (1996); and David Steers, ‘Edward Bunting and Belfast’s Second Presbyterian Congregation’, The Bulletin of the Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland (1996).

Article by David Steers
Posted January 23, 2002