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.