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Rev. Doctor Thomas Drew (1800 – 1870)

“No conscientious man is innocent who does not protest against the atrocious injustice of slavery.” Rev Dr Thomas Drew

Opposition to Slavery

On 28 August 1833 the Act for the Abolition of Slavery received Royal Assent. This was a significant moment in the quest to destroy the nefarious practice of slavery. One prominent figure in the Abolitionist movement in Belfast was also an Orangeman: Rev. Dr. Thomas Drew.


Drew was an ardent opponent of slavery and a member of the Belfast Anti-Slavery Society. He believed it to be a barbaric and unacceptable practice which should be eradicated. Drew’s oft excited and dramatic oratory style would be put to good effect during meetings of the Anti-Slavery Society, bringing to life the excesses of a reprehensible practice that, despite the continuing efforts of the Royal Navy, could still be found operating in certain parts of the World.


Although not one of the leading lights of the Belfast Anti-Slavery movement, Drew was certainly an active member at its meetings. On occasion he also chaired meetings of the group, including a meeting on 13 July 1846 when the great abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, visited Belfast. Drew declared that the autobiography of Douglass was “…the stone in the sling to over-throw the Goliath of Slavery.” He believed that first hand accounts of slavery, such as that produced by Douglass, should be promoted and used to mobilise the campaign against the continuation of the practice. Such backing was appreciated, even by Douglass who, despite initial reluctance from his publisher, insisted that Drew’s review of his work be included in the second edition of his autobiography.

Rev. Dr. Thomas Drew

Life & Times

The Reverend Dr. Thomas Drew was born in Limerick in 1800 and attended Trinity College Dublin, graduating in 1826. In 1828 he married Isabella Dalton, but their loving marriage would be tinged with sadness with the death of eight of their eleven children before Isabella’s own passing in 1869. Indeed, it may have been the impact of losing their first three children prior to 1852 that motivated Drew to become a strong advocate of the Protestant Orphan Society. This group had been founded in Dublin as a Church of Ireland society, in 1828, but Drew would become one of its leading advocates in Belfast. It aimed to address poverty, illiteracy and other social problems impacting on Protestant orphans, especially those from working class families. For Drew, the Church, and Protestantism in general, had a biblical responsibility to look after the less fortunate in society, especially children.


Drew was ordained in 1827 and in, 1832 moved to Belfast, after a short period as curate of Skerry and Racavan, near Broughshane, County Antrim. It was during his time in north Antrim that the young curate demonstrated his passion for charitable causes and politics by establishing a clothing dispensary for the poor and becoming a founding member of the Ballymena Brunswick Constitutional Club (1828). His activities in both brought him to the attention of Arthur Macartney, Anglican Vicar of Belfast. It was Macartney who encouraged him to take up the post at Christ Church.

During his time in the city, he would inject new energy into the Church of Ireland, quickly making Christ Church the largest congregation there by 1833, and supervising the erection of no fewer than 20 new churches. His low church inclination allowed him to enthuse the working-class Protestant population and, in turn, grow the size of his congregation. At its height an estimated 1,000 people were attending Sunday Services. His attitude towards High Church clergy and practices did, however, occasionally draw him into disagreement with Bishop Richard Mant.


He helped drive the evangelical spirit of working-class Protestantism in mid-century Belfast, along with other individuals like Rev Hugh Hanna. He has been accused, at times, of feeding sectarian feeling, with his fiery sermon at the Battle of the Boyne service in 1857 being cited as a possible motivation for the inter community violence of that year.


Drew was a staunch Orangeman, rising to the position of Grand Chaplain of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland. Reflecting his church activities with working class communities, he became a champion of plebeian Orangeism as he believed that the role of the United Kingdom was to ‘Protestantise the World’. He was immensely proud of his Orange membership, a fact recorded by the Belfast Newsletter in October 1856; 

“I am likely to know the mind of Protestants more than most men.

I mix with the masses as much as any clergyman. I am the minister

Of a district of 30,000 souls, two thirds of which are Episcopalians

And Presbyterians. I am proud to say that I hold sundry offices among

The Orangemen, that bring me more into contact with the Orangemen

Of Ireland than any other clergyman or layman in Ireland.”


He believed deeply in providing a religious education for children and much of his ministry was devoted to ensuring that young people were won for Christ. This commitment to bettering the lives of poor and needy children touched a nerve in Victorian Belfast and won many advocates within the newly emerging middle class. Consequently, the congregation in Christ Church became truly representative of all the social classes in the city. Such was the success of his work with young people that almost 800 attended the annual Children’s Day festivities in 1844. The banner they carried from Christ Church, as they paraded to Botanic Gardens read ‘Feed My Lambs’. Drew believed the Church had a social responsibility to look after the spiritual and practical needs of the city’s children.


He remained at Christ Church until 1859, after which he was appointed rector of Loughinisland in County Down, as well as precentor of Down Cathedral. His contribution to Christ Church cannot be underestimated and was best summed up by A. Dawson in The Annals of Christ Church Belfast (p.51). Drew was “Intensely evangelical, energetic, innovative and often controversial, his efforts made the church into a centre for both religious fellowship and material aid.”


Drew’s desire to create an integration of the classes in church congregations was more than likely a reflection of his membership of the other cross-class Protestant alliance in his life – the Loyal Orange Institution.

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