Skip to main content Accessibility help

Professor James Thomson Sr. and Lord Kelvin: Religion, Science, and Liberal Unionism in Ulster and Scotland

  • Andrew R. Holmes
Hide All

1 The standard modern biography is Smith, Crosbie and Wise, N. M., Energy and Empire: A Biographical Study of Lord Kelvin (Cambridge, 1989). Please note that William Thomson is referred to throughout this article as Kelvin, to distinguish him from his father, who is referred to as Thomson.

2 Morus, Iwan Rhys, When Physics Became King (Chicago, 2005), 8485.

3 In addition to Smith and Wise, Kelvin's Irish connections have been charted in other publications. See esp. “Kelvin and Ireland: 7 December 2007,” Journal of Physics conf. ser. 158 (2009), See also Flood, Raymond, McCartney, Mark, and Whitaker, Andrew, eds., Kelvin: Life, Labours and Legacy (Oxford, 2008); McCartney, Mark, “William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), 1824–1907,” in Physicists of Ireland: Passion and Precision, ed. McCartney, Mark and Whitaker, Andrew (Bristol, 2003), 116–25; Denis Weare, “William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), 1824–1907,” in Creators of Mathematics: The Irish Connection, ed. Ken Houston (Dublin, 2000), 55–62.

4 A sophisticated and satisfactory account may be found in David Hempton and Myrtle Hill, Evangelical Protestantism in Ulster Society, 1740–1890 (London, 1992), 161–87. For another reading, see Miller, Kerby A., “Ulster Presbyterians and the ‘Two Traditions' in Ireland and America,” in These Fissured Isles: Varieties of British and Irish Identities, ed. Brotherstone, Terry, Clark, Anna, and Whelan, Kevin (Edinburgh, 2005), 260–77, and “‘Heirs of Freedom' or ‘Slaves to England'? Protestant Society and Unionist Hegemony in Nineteenth-Century Ulster,” Radical History Review 104 (Spring 2009): 17–40.

5 Smith and Wise, Energy and Empire, 3–19.

6 Ibid., xxi.

7 Ibid., 12.

8 Ibid., 801.

9 Ibid., 810.

10 Noll, M. A., The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitfield and the Wesleys (Leicester, 2004); Wolffe, John, The Expansion of Evangelicalism: The Age of Wilberforce, More, Chalmers and Finney (Leicester, 2006); Bebbington, D. W., The Dominance of Evangelicalism: The Age of Spurgeon and Moody (Leicester, 2005).

11 Hilton, Boyd, The Age of Atonement: The Influence of Evangelicalism on Social and Economic Thought, 1785–1865 (Oxford, 1986); Larsen, Timothy, Friends of Religious Equality: Nonconformist Politics in Mid-Victorian England (Woodbridge, 1999); McColl, A. W., Land, Faith, and the Crofting Community: Christianity and Social Criticism in the Highlands of Scotland, 1843–1893 (Edinburgh, 2006).

12 Smith and Wise, Energy and Empire, 14.

13 For the development of evangelicalism within Presbyterianism, see A. R. Holmes, The Shaping of Ulster Presbyterian Belief and Practice, 1770–1840 (Oxford, 2006), 30–51.

14 These themes are discussed at more length in Holmes, R. F. G., Henry Cooke (Belfast, 1981), chaps. 6–9, and Holmes, A. R., “Covenanter Politics: Evangelicalism, Political Liberalism, and Ulster Presbyterians, 1798 to 1914,” English Historical Review 125, no. 513 (April 2010): 340–68.

15 For developments in 1886, see Walker, B. M., Ulster Politics, the Formative Years, 1868–1886 (Belfast, 1989), 234–54. See also The Ulster Liberal Unionist Association: A Sketch of Its History, 1885–1914; How It Has Opposed Home Rule, and What It Has Done for Remedial Legislation for Ireland (Belfast, 1914).

16 Walker, Graham, Intimate Strangers: Political and Cultural Interaction between Scotland and Ulster in Modern Times (Edinburgh, 1995), 1760.

17 The following discussion of Presbyterians, radicalism, and 1798 is based on Curtin, N. J., The United Irishmen: Popular Politics in Ulster and Dublin, 1791–1798 (Oxford, 1998); cBride, I. R., Scripture Politics: Ulster Presbyterians and Irish Radicalism in the Late Eighteenth Century (Oxford, 1998); Stewart, A. T. Q., The Summer Soldiers: The 1798 Rebellion in Antrim and Down (Belfast, 1995).

18 McBride, I. R., “Ulster Presbyterians and the Passing of the Act of Union,” in The Irish Act of Union: Bicentennial Essays, ed. Brown, Michael, Geoghegan, D. M., and Kelly, James (Dublin, 2003), 82.

19 King, Elizabeth, Lord Kelvin's Early Home (London, 1910), 56.

20 Smith and Wise, Energy and Empire, 8.

21 Thomson, James, “Recollection of the Battle of Ballynahinch,” Belfast Monthly Magazine 1, no. 1 (February 1825): 5664, quotes at 57, 58, 63.

22 King, Lord Kelvin's Early Home, 1–2; Smith and Wise, Energy and Empire, 8. For Edgar, see Bailie, W. D. and Kirkpatrick, L. S., Fasti of Seceder Ministers Ordained or Installed in Ireland, 1746–1948 (Belfast, 2005), 51.

23 Edgar, Samuel, “Recollections of 1798,” Belfast Monthly Magazine 1, no. 6 (July 1825): 541–48, quotes at 545.

24 Holmes, A. R., “Nineteenth-Century Ulster Presbyterian Perspectives on the 1798 Rebellion,” in Irish History: A Research Yearbook, vol. 2, ed. Augusteijn, Joost, Ann Lyons, Mary, and McMahon, Deirdre (Dublin, 2003), 4352; McBride, I. R., “Memory and Forgetting: Ulster Presbyterians and 1798,” in 1798: A Bicentenary Perspective, ed. Bartlett, Thomas, Dickson, David, Keogh, Dale, and Whelan, Kevin (Dublin, 2003), 478–96.

25 McComb's Guide to Belfast, the Giant's Causeway, and the Adjoining Districts of the Counties of Antrim and Down (Belfast, 1861), 125–27, 132–34.

26 Thomas Hamilton, s.v. “McComb, William (1793–1873),” rev. Katherine Mullin, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004), All subsequent references to this resource are likewise to the online edition.

27 Vance, Norman, Irish Literature: A Social History (Oxford, 1990), 134.

28 McComb's Guide to Belfast, 142.

29 Ibid., 142–43.

30 Ibid., 143.

31 Hempton and Hill, Evangelical Protestantism in Ulster Society, 47–61; Holmes, A. R., “The Shaping of Irish Presbyterian Attitudes to Mission, 1790–1840,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 57, no. 4 (October 2006): 711–37.

32 Holmes, Shaping of Ulster Presbyterian Belief and Practice, 30–51.

33 Edgar, Samuel, A Sermon: Preached Before the Down Missionary Society, at Rathfriland (Belfast, 1815).

34 Edgar, Samuel, The Times: A Sermon; Preached at the Ordination of the Rev. Thomas Heron, Fourtowns, Donoughmore (Belfast, 1814).

35 Ibid., 27.

36 Brown, Stewart J., Providence and Empire: Religion, Politics, and Society in the United Kingdom, 1815–1914 (Harlow, 2008), chaps. 1 and 2; Hempton and Hill, Evangelical Protestantism in Ulster Society, chaps. 3–5.

37 Edgar, The Times, 58. For Thomson, see Fourth Report of the Commissioners of Irish Education Inquiry, HC (House of Commons; 1826–27), xiii.157, 38.

38 McBride, “Ulster Presbyterians and the Passing of the Act of Union.”

39 “Some Remarks Occasioned by Reading a Late Sermon Entitled ‘The Times,’” Belfast Monthly Magazine 12, no. 69 (April 1814): 365–71.

40 [Edgar, Samuel], “The Remonstrance,” Belfast Monthly Magazine 2, no. 10 (May 1809): 327–30, 328.

41 William Dobbin, “The Rev. David McKee, of Anaghlone,” and R. G. Milling, “The Rev. David Edgar, Ballynahinch,” Presbyterian Churchman, n.s., 7 (1890): 7–10; 73–77, 94–96.

42 Edgar, Samuel, Improvement of Irish Catholics: A Sermon (Belfast, 1822), 2949.

43 Ibid., 30.

44 For Presbyterian attitudes to Catholic emancipation, see Peter Brooke, “Controversies in Ulster Presbyterianism, 1790–1836” (PhD diss., University of Cambridge, 1980), 162–70; Holmes, Henry Cooke, 63–66; Kingon, Suzanne, “Ulster Opposition to Catholic Emancipation, 1828–9,” Irish Historical Studies 34, no. 134 (November 2004): 137–55.

45 Wakefield, Edward, An Account of Ireland, Statistical and Political, 2 vols. (London, 1812), 2:483, 493; John Gamble, A View of Society and Manners, in the North of Ireland, in the Summer and Autumn of 1812 (London, 1813), 69; Angque Day and Patrick Williams, eds., Ordnance Survey Memoirs of Ireland, vol. 29, Parishes of County Antrim, 1832–33, 1835–39 (Belfast, 1995), 144–45.

46 Allen, Robert, The Presbyterian College Belfast, 1853–1953 (Belfast, 1954), 136; I. M. Bishop, “The Education of Ulster Students at Glasgow University in the Eighteenth Century” (MA diss., Queen's University Belfast, 1987).

47 Smith and Wise, Energy and Empire, 8.

48 Withers, C. W. J. and Wood, Paul, eds., Science and Medicine in the Scottish Enlightenment (East Linton, 2002).

49 Kleme, H. F., “Scepticism and Common Sense,” in Cambridge Companion to the Scottish Enlightenment, ed. Broadie, Alexander (Cambridge, 2003), 117–35.

50 See especially the work of Noll, M. A.: “Common Sense Traditions and American Evangelical Thought,” American Quarterly 37, no. 2 (Summer 1985): 216–38, and America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York, 2002). See also Holmes, A. R., “Biblical Authority and the Impact of Higher Criticism in Irish Presbyterianism, c.1850–1930,” Church History 75, no. 2 (June 2006): 343–73.

51 Fourth Report of the Commissioners of Irish Education Inquiry, 38.

52 Smith and Wise, Energy and Empire, 11–12. J. M. Barkley, “The Arian Schism in Ireland,” in Schism, Heresy, and Religious Protest, Studies in Church History no. 9, ed. Derek Baker (Cambridge, 1972), 323–39; Jamieson, John, The History of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, 1810–1960 (Belfast, 1959).

53 Brooke, “Controversies,” chap. 4.

54 For Henry, see Reid, James Seaton, History of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, ed. Killen, W. D., 2nd ed., 3 vols. (Belfast, 1867), 3:424; Witherow, Thomas, Historical and literary memorials of Presbyterianism in Ireland, 2 vols. (Belfast, 1879–80), 2:287–92.

55 Allen, Presbyterian College Belfast, 37–54; Brooke, Peter, Ulster Presbyterianism: The Historical Perspective, 1610–1970, 2nd ed. (Belfast, 1994), 115–21.

56 Cited in Holmes, R. F. G., Our Irish Presbyterian Heritage (Belfast, 1985), 9899.

57 Fourth Report of the Commissioners of Irish Education Inquiry, 71, 89, 99.

58 Ibid., 61.

59 Ibid., 49, 61–62, 93, 131, 136–37.

60 Ibid., 151–53.

61 The best overview of this dispute is Holmes, Henry Cooke, 31–80.

62 Fourth Report of the Commissioners of Irish Education Inquiry, 59–73.

63 See Holmes, Henry Cooke, 68–73, 124–28.

64 Stewart, Seceders, 198–99, 209–16.

65 Fourth Report of the Commissioners of Irish Education Inquiry, 108–9.

66 Ibid., 109. For Thomson's involvement in university politics at Glasgow, see Smith and Wise, Energy and Empire, 41–49.

67 Fourth Report of the Commissioners of Irish Education Inquiry, 112–13, 140–45.

68 Ibid., 115.

69 Ibid., 119–26.

70 Ibid., 42.

71 Banner of Ulster, 16 January 1849.

72 This letter was reprinted as an appendix in James Morgan, A Good Man: A Discourse on the Death of Charles Thomson, Esq. With an Appendix Containing the Official Documents Connected with the Origin and Establishment of the Congregation of Fisherwick Place (Belfast, 1855), 14–16.

73 Smith and Wise, Energy and Empire, 13.

74 Thomas Hamilton, s.v. “Morgan, James (1799–1873),” rev. David Huddleston, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, James Thomson to Thomas Chalmers, 29 October 1828, 22 December 1828, 10 April 1829; CHA.4.100.19, CHA.4.100.21, CHA.4.129.13, Chalmers Papers, New College Library, University of Edinburgh.

75 Holmes, Henry Cooke, 58.

76 Banner of Ulster, 16 January 1849. See also Northern Whig, 16 January 1849.

77 Bayles, Ruth, “Understanding Local Science: The Belfast Natural History Society in the Mid-Nineteenth Century,” in Science and Irish Culture, vol. 1, Why the History of Science Matters in Ireland, ed. David Attis (Dublin, 2004), 139–69; Ross, H. C. G. and Nash, Robert, “The Development of Natural History in Early Nineteenth Century Ireland,” in From Linnaeus to Darwin: Commentaries on the History of Biology and Geology, ed. Wheeler, Alwyne and Price, J. H. (London, 1985), 13–27.

78 Smith and Wise, Energy and Empire, 14–17. Thomson, James, A Treatise on Arithmetic in Theory and Practice (Belfast, 1819), Trigonometry, Plane and Spherical (Belfast, 1820), Introduction to Modern Geography (Belfast, 1827), and The Differential and Integral Calculus (Belfast, 1831).

79 [Thomson, James], “State of Science in Ireland,” Belfast Monthly Magazine 1, no. 4 (May 1825): 465.

80 David Kennedy, “The Ulster Academies and the Teaching of Science, 1785–1835,” Irish Ecclesiastical Record, ser. 5, vol. 63 (1944): 35–36; Smith and Wise, Energy and Empire, 17–18.

81 [Thomson, James], “State of Science in Scotland,” Belfast Monthly Magazine 1, no. 2 (March 1825): 269–79, and “State of Science in Ireland” (May 1825), 459–69.

82 Belfast News-Letter, 6 November 1829.

83 Belfast News-Letter, 3 August 1832.

84 Smith and Wise, Energy and Empire, 84–89.

85 Thomson, James, Remarks on the Phenomena of the Heavens: As they Appear from Different Bodies in the Solar System; Published in the Belfast News-Letter of November 23, 27, 30—1827 (Belfast, 1827), 1516.

86 H. C. G. Chesney, s.v. “Drummond, James Lawson (1783–1853),” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,

87 Belfast News-Letter, 2 May 1826.

88 Holmes, A. R., “Presbyterians and Science in the North of Ireland before 1874,” British Journal of the History of Science 41, no. 4 (December 2008): 541–65.

89 Smith and Wise, Energy and Empire, xxi.

90 Thompson, S. P., The Life of William Thompson Baron Kelvin of Largs, 2 vols. (London, 1910), 2:1145–46, 1122–25; Morus, When Physics Became King, 79.

91 Wilson, David B., “Kelvin's Scientific Realism: The Theological Context,” Philosophical Journal 11 (1974): 4160, quote at 52.

92 Ibid., 46.

93 Thomson, William, “Presidential Address,” in Report of the Forty-First Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science: Held at Edinburgh in August 1871 (London, 1872), cv.

94 Thompson, Kelvin, 2:1096.

95 For a reliable and informative survey, see Brooke, John Hedley, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge, 1991), chaps. 79.

96 Smith and Wise, Energy and Empire, 636–45.

97 Livingstone, David N., “Darwin in Belfast: The Evolution Debate,” in Nature in Ireland: A Scientific and Cultural History, ed. Foster, John Wilson (Dublin, 1997), 387408; Thompson, Kelvin, 2:649.

98 Livingstone, David N., “Science, Region, and Religion: The Reception of Darwinism in Princeton, Belfast, and Edinburgh,” in Disseminating Darwinism: The Role of Place, Race, Religion, and Gender, ed. Numbers, Ronald L. and Stenhouse, John (Cambridge, 1999), 738; Holmes, “Presbyterians and Science in the North of Ireland,” 562–64.

99 Moody, T. W. and Beckett, J. C., Queen's, Belfast, 1845–1949: The History of a University, 2 vols. (London, 1959), 1:37–38.

100 Bowler, Peter J., “James Thomson and the Culture of a Victorian Engineer,” in Queen's Thinkers: Essays on the Intellectual Heritage of a University, ed. Livingstone, David N. and Jackson, Alvin (Belfast, 2008), 5768. For Kelvin's concern, see Smith and Wise, Energy and Empire, 138.

101 Crosbie Smith, “P. G. Tait, Queen's College and Ulster-Scots Natural Philosophy,” in Livingstone and Jackson, Queen's Thinkers, 7–17. For Kelvin and Andrews, see Thompson, Kelvin, 1:426–27, 434–35; 2:611–15, 635–36, 654, 665–68, 712–13.

102 Smith, Crosbie, The Science of Energy: A Cultural History of Energy Physics in Victorian Britain (London, 1998).

103 The parallels and some of the interactions may be traced in W. H. Fraser and Irene Maver, eds., Glasgow, Volume 2: 1830 to 1912 (Manchester, 1996), and Maguire, W. A., Belfast: A History (Lancaster, 2009).

104 John F. McCaffrey, “Political Issues and Developments,” in Fraser and Maver, Glasgow, Volume 2, 199.

105 D. C. Smith, s.v. “King, David (1806–1883),” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Crosbie Smith discusses King in Science of Energy, 114–20.

106 Tom Gallagher, “A Tale of Two Cities: Communal Strife in Glasgow and Liverpool before 1914,” in The Irish in the Victorian City, ed. Roger Swift and Sheridan Gilley (London, 1985), 106–29, and Glasgow, the Uneasy Peace: Religious Tension in Modern Scotland (Manchester, 1987).

107 Smith and Wise, Energy and Empire, 806; Thompson, Kelvin, 2:1087n.

108 Thompson, Kelvin, 2:1128; Smith and Wise, Energy and Empire, 804.

109 For different readings of Whig/Liberal politics in Belfast, see John Bew, The Glory of Being Britons: Civic Unionism in Nineteenth-Century Belfast (Dublin, 2009); and J. J. Wright, “‘The Natural Leaders': The Tennent Family and the Political and Intellectual Life of Presbyterian Belfast, c.1801–1832” (PhD diss., Queen's University Belfast, 2010).

110 Bew, Paul and Wright, Frank, “The Agrarian Opposition in Ulster Politics, 1848–87,” in Irish Peasant: Violence and Political Unrest, 1780–1914, ed. Clark, Samuel and Donnelly, J. S. Jr. (Manchester, 1983), 192229; Holmes, “Covenanter Politics,” 353–66.

111 Walker, Ulster Politics, 58–62.

112 For the Liberal advance in Ulster, see Ibid., 91–175. Walker, Graham, “Thomas Sinclair: Presbyterian Liberal Unionist,” in Unionism in Modern Ireland: New Perspectives on Politics and Culture, ed. English, Richard and Walker, Graham (Basingstoke, 1996), 1940.

113 Graham Greenlee, “Land, Religion and Community: The Liberal Party in Ulster, 1868–1885,” in Citizenship and Community: Liberals, Radicals and Collective Identities in the British Isles, 1865–1931, ed. Eugenio F. Biagini (Cambridge, 1996), 253–75; J. R. B. McMinn, “Presbyterianism and Politics in Ulster, 1871–1906,” Studia Hibernica 21 (1981): 127–46; Thompson, Frank, The End of Liberal Ulster: Land Agitation and Land Reform (Belfast, 2001), 128–34.

114 McCaffrey, John F., “The Origins of Liberal Unionism in the West of Scotland,” Scottish Historical Review 50, no. 149 (1971): 4771.

115 The discussion of opposition to Home Rule and unionist identity politics is based on Alvin Jackson, Ireland, 1798–1998: Politics and War (Oxford, 1999), 215–44, and Walker, Graham, A History of the Ulster Unionist Party: Protest, Pragmatism and Pessimism (Manchester, 2004), 121.

116 Walker, Intimate Strangers, 17–60.

117 Brown, Providence and Empire, 262–67, 314–16.

118 Holmes, “Nineteenth-Century Ulster Presbyterian Perspectives”; McBride, “Memory and Forgetting.”

119 Shaw, J. J., Mr Gladstone's two Irish Policies: 1869 and 1886 (London, 1888),911.

120 Jones, Greta, “Scientists against Home Rule,” in Defenders of the Union: A Survey of British and Irish Unionism Since 1801, ed. Boyce, D. George and O'Day, Alan (London, 2001), 188208.

121 Thompson, Kelvin, 2:856; Iain Hutchison, “Lord Kelvin and Liberal Unionism,” Journal of Physics, conf. ser. 158 (2009),

122 Thompson, Kelvin, 2:1095.

123 Ibid., 2:1096.

124 Glasgow Herald, 19 October 1898.

125 Hutchison, “Kelvin and Liberal Unionism,” 8–9.

126 Glasgow Herald, 1 July 1886.

127 McKnight, Thomas, Ulster As It Is; or, Twenty-Eight Years' Experience as an Irish Editor, 2 vols. (London, 1896), 2:203.

128 Belfast News-Letter, 27 May 1886.

129 For Kelvin's peerage, see Smith and Wise, Energy and Empire, 799–814.

130 Glasgow Herald, 17 April, and 29 November, 1894.

131 Glasgow Herald, 9 March 1895.

132 Thompson, Kelvin, 2:1193, 1194, 1198, 1202.

133 Belfast News-Letter, 18 December 1907. See also Northern Whig, 18 December 1907.

134 Northern Whig, 22 January 1908.

135 “Lord Kelvin Memorial—Minute Book, 1908–13,” D/1332/3, Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. The three sites considered were the city hall, Queen's University, and Botanic Gardens.

136 Irish News, 20 June 1913. The editorial praised the scientific achievements of Kelvin while questioning his political importance.

137 Quotations from Larmour's speech are taken from Belfast News-Letter, 20 June 1913.

138 Morus, When Physics Became King, 1.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Journal of British Studies
  • ISSN: 0021-9371
  • EISSN: 1545-6986
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-british-studies
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed