Henry Cooke

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Cooke, Henry, D.D., LL.D., was born at Grillagh, near Maghera, County of Londonderry, 11th May 1788. He was the youngest of four children, his father being a sturdy Protestant yeoman, of "little education, and less pretence;" his mother "a woman of remarkable energy and great decision of character;" to her he was indebted for that fund of anecdotes, store of incidents in Irish history, and scraps of ballad poetry, which he was wont to recite with such pathos and power. His mother early perceived Henry's talents, and determined he should have the best education the neighbourhood could afford. It was but a rough one. "The house was a thatched cabin. The seats were black oak sticks from the neighbouring bog. A fire of peat blazed, or rather smoked, in the middle of the floor, and a hole in the roof overhead served for a chimney. The teacher was . . a tall, lanky Scotchman, distinguished by an enormous nose, a tow wig, a long coat of rusty black, leather tights, grey stockings, brogues,and a formidable hazle rod, . . an excellent teacher, . . a Presbyterian of the strictest sect; and religious training was, in his honest mind, an essential part of a boy's education."

At fourteen he entered the University of Glasgow; completed his undergraduate career in 1805; passed through the ordinary course of theological training; and in November 1808 was ordained to the pastoral care of the congregation of Duneane, near Randalstown. He brought to the service of the ministry a highly cultured mind of the first order, and natural graces of style and manner trained upon the best models. His ministerial income amounted at first to about £25 a year. After two years he removed to the care of another congregation at Donegore, near Templepatrick, and about the same time married Miss Ellen Mann. In 1815, anxious still further to fit himself for the ministry, he obtained leave of absence, left his young wife with her father, and resumed his studies at Glasgow for eighteen months.

In 1817 he entered Trinity College, attended medical classes at the Royal College of Surgeons, and walked some of the Dublin hospitals. Upon Sundays he occupied the pulpits of Presbyterian congregations in Dublin and other parts of Leinster, where his fervour, learning, and eloquence, made a deep impression. The 8th September 1818 found him installed pastor of Killyleagh, on the banks of Strangford Lough. It would be needless to specify the steps by which he rose to a pre-eminent position in the councils of the Presbyterian Church, and to mastering influence over the Protestants of Ulster. The great work to which he set himself from the first, and in which he was eminently successful, was the rooting out of the Unitarian doctrines, that in his youth had attained a considerable hold over Irish Presbyterianism.

In his own congregation the contest was bitter — Captain Sydney Hamilton Rowan, one of the lords of the soil, siding with the young minister in contending with the Unitarian party, led by the Captain's father, Archibald Hamilton-Rowan,once a prominent United Irishman. Cooke's evidence before a Parliamentary Committee, in April 1826, regarding the state of education in Ireland, attracted considerable attention, and was widely commented on. He had then an opportunity of condemning the course of study pursued at the Belfast Institution, and writes at the time: "There is no event in my life for which I more sincerely bless God than that I was permitted to bear testimony against Arianism before the most august tribunal of the universe." In 1829, chiefly through his efforts, matters were brought to a point with the Presbyterian ministers who held Unitarian views, and his most sanguine wishes were gratified in their withdrawing from the general Presbyterian body, and forming the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster. The same year his friends and admirers built a spacious church in May-street, Belfast, for the services of his ministry. On 8th November he preached his farewell sermon at Killyleagh, and was immediately inducted into his new cure, which he practically occupied until his death.

In 1829 the degree of D.D. was conferred upon him by the board of Jefferson College, in the United States. He opposed the new system of Irish National Education, as not permitting the free and unrestricted use of the Scriptures in the schools to the children of such parents as desired their teachings. A staunch Conservative, he bitterly opposed O'Connell's Irish policy, and boldly took his place on the platform of the great Protestant demonstration at Hillsborough, 30th October 1834, where he delivered one of the most eloquent and stirring addresses then made. In 1837 the degree of LL.D. was conferred upon him by the Dublin University, and in 1839 the freedom of Dublin was presented to him by the Corporation, in appreciation of his services to Protestant Ireland.

In 1839 the Presbyterian Synod established a system of education of its own: Dr. Cooke explained and advocated this scheme in Great Britain — in his own words, "exposing the false principles and strange acts of the Irish National Board, . . denouncing the National system as opposed to the Word of God and the fundamental principles of Protestantism." Early in 1841 it was rumoured that O'Connell was about to hold a Repeal demonstration in Belfast. Dr. Cooke immediately sent him a challenge to a public discussion of the question. O'Connell fought shy of the invitation in a rather bantering speech (at a meeting in Dublin on 9th January), in which he spoke of Dr. Cooke as "Bully Cooke," "The Cock of the North," and "Daddy Cooke." Dr. Cooke replied to this in a public pronouncement on the 14th, declaring that O'Connell skulked "from the conflict beneath the meanness of a falsehood. . . It will pursue you like a shadow; . . will drown in the ears of conscience the loudest shouts of the momentary popularity which you purchased at the expense of every honest man's respect, and, what is worse, at the expense of your own."

O'Connell then paid a visit to Belfast in promotion of the Repeal movement, which was responded to by the holding of a large and influential anti-Repeal meeting on the 21st January, the requisition being headed by 41 Peers, 14 Right Honorables, and 18 baronets, 32 Members of Parliament, 11 high sheriffs, 6 lieutenants of counties, 98 deputy-lieutenants, 335 magistrates, and 330 clergy. Dr. Cooke made a memorable speech on the occasion. His biographer says: "Dr. Cooke effectually stopped the Repeal agitation in Ulster. His bold policy and manly determination brought the boasting and the predicted processions and triumphs of O'Connell alike to an ignominious close. . . The enthusiastic cheers of loyal Protestant Ulster, inspired by the eloquence of Dr. Cooke, rung the death-knell of Repeal." A testimonial of £2,000 was presented to him for his exertions in opposition to O'Connell. In 1843 Dr. Cooke attended in Edinburgh the discussions that led to the formation of the Free Church of Scotland.

He participated in and approved the secession of the ministers from the Established Church, an event that might have been prevented, had Sir Robert Peel adopted the policy he suggested with regard to changes desirable in the establishment. For seven years nearly the whole of Dr. Cooke's spare hours were, about this period, devoted to the preparation of an Analytical Concordance of Scripture. When the manuscript was complete, he took it to London to arrange for a publisher. The hotel at which he stopped was burned, and the work which had cost him so many years' toil was reduced to ashes. There was something singularly noble in the equanimity with which he bore the calamity. He had no copy, and never found time to resume the task. His powers of concentration and of work were almost unrivalled. In the midst of other avocations, he managed to edit a new edition of Brown's Family Bible, by devoting to the task two hours (from four to six o'clock) each morning. He strenuously advocated all possible use being made of the Queen's Colleges by Presbyterians, and opposed the establishment of a separate Presbyterian college, except for theology.

In the Theological College endowed in Belfast by the Government, Dr. Cooke was appointed President, an office which he held until his death. In 1849 he was appointed the Dean of Residence for the Presbyterian students in Belfast. Already he had been appointed Almoner of the Regium Donum. At least three-fourths of the new Presbyterian churches in Ireland, besides many in England and Scotland, were opened by him; so that a considerable portion of his time was taken up in travelling. The death of a beloved daughter, in May 1863, was a blow from which he never recovered — "After my God, and her dear mother, she was all the world to me; and it is now to me, and will remain to me, a blank." In 1865 another testimonial was presented by his friends — a cheque for £1,680 and an illuminated volume containing the names of the subscribers. His early vigour again appeared in 1867, when, on the 30th October, the old man attended and spoke at the great Hillsborough Protestant demonstration in opposition to the disestablishment of the Church, at which fully 30,000 persons were present. He was hailed with an outburst of applause from the vast assemblage, so enthusiastic and prolonged that it fairly unmanned him. On 5th May 1867, he bade farewell to his congregation. On 30th June 1868 Mrs. Cooke died, and he himself passed away quietly on the 13th of the following December, aged 80. A public funeral and the speedy erection of a fine statue testified the esteem in which he was held in Belfast.

Hugh Miller described him late in life as a "tall and distinguished-looking man, touched, rather than stricken, with years. The profile is a very fine aquiline; the forehead is spacious; the cheek is denuded of whisker; and the chin is of square and massive mould. . . The depth of stock and collar, and the coat sleeve reaching to the knuckle of the thumb gave him a somewhat American look." The Athenaeum thus writes: "His oratory was powerful and effective; he had a clear mind, a memory unusually retentive, a ready wit, great powers of sarcasm, a store of anecdote, which he could draw upon at will, a vivid imagination, words of all kinds at his command, and a fine elocution. Voice, form, and manner, were striking, and contributed alike to impress an audience. He could easily carry away an ignorant or half-educated assembly, causing them to weep or laugh as he pleased. In many respects he was fitted to be a leader, and he did lead the orthodox Presbyterians of Ulster for a succession of years into the adoption of measures that seemed right in his eyes. He pursued certain plans with great energy and perseverance, till they were carried into action. The labours he underwent, the sermons he preached, the meetings he attended, the speeches he spoke, prove that he had a strong constitution and an iron will. Besides, he was seldom subject to fear, and could face an adverse assembly undaunted. He was a platform orator of a very superior type." The portrait prefixed to his Biography shows a face of wonderful power and beauty.

Sources

86a. Cooke, Life and Times of Rev. Henry: J. S. Porter, D.D. London, 1871.

233. Manuscript and Special Information, and Current Periodicals.

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