I had heard about the BBC – Northern Ireland producing a documentary on Ulster Presbyterians titled “An Independent People.” Well, it is now released and was broadcast on the BBC this past week with the final part airing last night.
Since it was on the BBC it is available on their iPlayer, but that did not help those of us outside the UK. Well, this past weekend I found it on YouTube and spent some time watching it. In short – I was not disappointed!
This is a documentary that presbynerds and those interested in Presbyterian church history will enjoy and I suspect that others with a more passing history of Presbyterianism will as well. As I will explain in a moment, the first episode is a good general background for any Presbyterian and the second episode has some interesting background for Americans – Presbyterian or not.
This is a three-part documentary, each part one hour long, hosted by BBC NI religion correspondent William Crawley. The program presents the history of the Ulster Presbyterians with a wonderful balance of Mr. Crawley’s narrative, expert quotes, historical and current imagery, and plenty of location shots at historical sites. I don’t think there is a studio shot in the whole three hours.
But beyond the visual richness of the series it does a great job of explaining the history and the individuals behind it without taking sides in the many conflicts and controversies throughout the history. While it seemed to me that it presented a fairly complete history – and helped fill in several holes in my understanding of the Ulster Presbyterians – I do not have a deep enough knowledge of the history to know if there were any glaring errors or omissions.
It is also worthwhile to note that it sticks very close to the Ulster Presbyterians so when it talks about Scottish or American Presbyterians it is only to the extent that the Irish were involved. The primary exception is the very beginning when the origins of Presbyterianism in Geneva and Scotland are discussed.
The first episode titled “Taking Root” begins by recounting that early history and then the first wave of Scots to Ulster in the Plantation movement and resistance they found there. The next episode is “Seeds of Liberty” and talks about the Ulster Presbyterians in American and the ideas of the Enlightenment they brought with them that found expression in the American Revolution. It also discusses how that revolution, the French Revolution and the Enlightenment influenced Ireland. The final episode is “Union and Division” and traces the history in the Union of the UK and the divisions within Ireland as well as touching on the early Presbyterian missionary efforts.
The program was produced by Below the Radar for the BBC. You can find @williamcrawley and the show’s producer Fiona Keane (@fikeane) on Twitter. There are notices from both the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and the Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland promoting the show. In addition to the BBC the show was funded in part by the Ulster-Scots Broadcast Fund.
A trailer/ad is also available but I’m not sure it does the series justice — but what can you do in 30 seconds?
As you can probably figure out, the title reference to an independent people works on many levels. For those that think Presbyterian realignments are a new phenomenon this series makes it clear that it is not. Mr. Crawley begins the third episode with this lede:
[P]resbyterianism has always been a fractious faith. The democracy that defines it also creates division and dissent.
While the Ulster Presbyterians have components of their history that are unique in the Presbyterian universe, much of their history has interesting influences and parallels throughout global, and especially western, Presbyterianism. This documentary does a good job of helping us see where those puzzle pieces fit in the larger picture.
UPDATE: After posting this I found that Gladys Ganiel had written about the series. Some interesting insights from her background living in both The States as well as currently in Belfast. She did alert me to one error in the program – the statement that Francis Makemie founded the first Presbyterian Church in America. The program could have meant the oldest active congregation but a Long Island congregation founded by English Presbyterians in the 1640’s is generally regarded as the first. Makemie did however organize the first presbytery. But Gladys has a good point that I remember no mention of Amy Carmichael in the third episode and generally little coverage of the role of women in the history. She has also written some thoughts on the first episode.
UPDATE: Another insightful review and discussion of the program by Steve Stockman on his blog Soul Surmise. (And thanks to @alaninbelfast for bringing it to my attention.)