1912: Covenant or Contract

Being convinced in our consciences that Home Rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster as well as of the whole of Ireland, subversive of our civil and religious freedom, destructive of our citizenship, and perilous to the unity of the Empire, we whose names are underwritten, men of Ulster, loyal subjects of His Gracious Majesty King George V., humbly relying on the God whom our fathers in days of stress and trial confidently trusted, do hereby pledge ourselves in solemn Covenant, throughout this our time of threatened calamity, to stand by one another in defending, for ourselves and our children, our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom, and in using all means, which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland.

Ulster Covenant

In his book ‘Covenant and Conversation’, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks makes three points about Covenant within the Old Testament and particularly the Sinai Covenant.

  • Covenantal societies are those who place their value on consent, on citizenship as a whole and insist on dignity, equality and justice.
  • The Sinai Covenant was different from other covenants in that it was 'unprecedented beforehand and unrivalled since because in it an entire nation committed itself to the sovereignity of God’.
  • The Sinai Covenant has within it nothing less than the first ever statement of a free society. ‘The free God seeks the free worship of free human beings’.

Donald H. Akenson writes that the Ulster Covenant reflects the spread of ‘contract theory’ from Scotland to Ulster in the time preceding the signing.

The contract theory that emerged... posited that individuals give up liberty only by their own consent. Governments come into being by the consent of the governed and for the good of the community. Government undertakes to the general good and can be removed for violating this contract within the community.

According to Akenson, this contractarian thinking came to replace typical Calvinist thought on governance.

Calvinism, which largely formed the basis of Presbyterianism in Ulster at this time, argued that the scriptures require obedience to kings, even the bad ones. However, Akenson writes that an ‘indigenous version’ of the concept of covenant emerged; in order to mobilise radical Protesants against absolutist governments and indeed ‘popery’.  If the monarch follows the ways of God, we will be allegiant to him, otherwise, no.

Miroslav Volf  distinguishes between contract and covenant in general:

Contracts are conditional: we are obliged to keep the terms only if our partners are doing the same. Covenants, however, are unconditional. We are obliged even if our partners break the terms. Contracts are temporary: we are bound by them only as long as it suits us (provided we pay the consequences for breaking them). Covenants are durable.

Elsewhere he writes, ‘a contract is strictly reciprocal; the contract is designed to make the parties mirror each other's behaviour.’

Thus it seems to us that within the Ulster Covenant we can see:

  • A Covenant concerned with economic and political demands rather than moral or ideological standards.
  • Part of a nation committing itself not to the sovereignty of God but to a political struggle, but with apparent confidence that this is indeed God’s purpose.
  • A contractarian attitude towards rather than a covenantal relationship with the state and God.

And so, one hundred years on and with the perspective offered by time, we ask ourselves whether the Ulster Covenant signatories’ refusal to obey those who do not serve Yahweh takes away from God’s desire for each of us to be ‘free’ to worship Him. Further, we wonder why exactly the choice was made to diverge from typical Calvinistic thought on obedience to the government; was the basis of this covenant truly religious, predominantly political or indeed economic?And finally, if, as individuals and as Churches, we could alter the covenant to represent where we stand today, what would we change? Would we sign at all?

Olive Hobson  and Alex  Bartholomew.

Olive Hobson is a member of Society of Friends and Associate Member of Goshen College Mennonite Church, Goshen, USA.

Alex Bartholomew is Olive's daughter. She studied Theology at Queen's University and attends Fisherwick Presbyterian Church. Jonathan Sacks. Covenant and Conversation: Exodus: The Book of Redemption. Toby Press Ltd, 2010.

Donald Harman Akenson. God's peoples: Covenant and Land in South Africa, Israel, and Ulster. Cornell University Press, 1992.

Miroslav Volf. Against the Tide: Love in a time of petty dreams and persisting enemies. Eerdmans, 2010.

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4 Responses to 1912: Covenant or Contract

  1. Jason Blean says:

    It’s clear from the alarmist language in the Ulster Covenant that its writers saw any Home Rule in Ireland as a “threat” to the civil and religious freedoms they enjoyed as part of the then British Empire, not to mention their “material wellbeing”. And yet The Third Home Rule Bill (to which this covenant was written to oppose) did not propose Ireland leaving the United Kingdom but rather some devolution as we have today, so their citizenship was not in fact threatened. Reference to a God that would defend only one section of the population and one political viewpoint is clearly not “Yahweh”.
    It is a political statement primarily, with a secondary reference to God. The “calamitous” Free State in Ireland that emerged in 1922 (still under Braitain) not only upheld the civic and religious freedom of protestants in Ireland but also paid for the upkeep of protestant schools. Ireland (The Republic), as a member of the UN and signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has sworn to uphold religious freedom for all its citizens (including those in Ulster), rather proving unfounded these fears written in the Ulster Covenant. Most unfortunately its loose language (“any means possible”) has led to sectarian bloodhed in Ireland, including the murder of many innocent Roman Catholics by “protestant” paramilitaries. Its interesting to note that those same paramilitary groups are organising to celebrate it while the main protestant churches in Ulster do not seem to want to “celebrate” its signing on its centenary. It has to be rejected as invalid in the light of history since 1912 and is certainly not Biblical. Such covenants as The Scottish and Ulster ones only fuel fears and insecurities since as Christians Christ has already made for us The New Covenant by His blood. An outoworking of our lives in accordance with Scripture to bring God’s kingdom wherever we live is our only obligation.

  2. Alex Bartholomew says:

    While obviously God himself is not the recipient of the terms outlined in the ‘covenant’, what I am actually suggesting is that the attitude behind the document isn’t actually ‘covenantal’ as described by Volf.

    Would it be fair to say that a covenant or statement like this inevitably involves another whether they are explicitly addressed or not?

    God was not necessarily the other party in this contract. I suggest the ‘other’ party in this instance was either the state, or the community that the signatories found themselves in.

  3. AndyB says:

    I think it’s worth noting that the Covenant signatories were only concerned with whether the Government was following what they thought was God’s way. The Covenant committed them to a new god, the god of an Ulster governed by the UK, regardless of what the true God might want if he were asked.

    The challenge remains to this day. Are we willing to tell God “Your kingdom come, your will be done – even if it should be the opposite of my political preferences?”

    Until Christians on both sides are willing to say this, I’m not convinced we can move on.

  4. olli says:

    Ultimately I think this line of argument is irrelevant. The key thing about either a contract or a covenant is that two parties (at least) are required. Since God was not a party to either a covenant or a contract with Ulster unionism what unionists committed themselves to was neither.

    To me this is a much more significant line of argument in ongoing debates over the significance or otherwise of the Ulster covenant.

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