“No conscientious man is innocent who does not protest against the atrocious injustice of slavery.”
Rev Dr Thomas Drew
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 prominent member of the Belfast Anti-Slavery Society. He chaired meetings of the group, including a meeting on 13 July 1846 when the great abolitionist, Frederick Douglas, visited Belfast. Drew declared that the autobiography of Douglas was “…the stone in the sling to over-throw the Goliath of Slavery.”
The Reverend Dr. Thomas Drew was born in Limerick in 1800 and attended Trinity College Dublin, graduating in 1826. The following year he was ordained and in 1832 moved to Belfast, after a short period as curate of Skerry and Racavan, near Broughshane, County Antrim.
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 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 was at Christ Church until 1859, after which he was appointed rector of Loughinisland in County Down as well as precentor of Down Cathedral.
His desire to create an integration of the classes in church congregations may have reflected his membership of that other cross-class Protestant alliance in his life – the Loyal Orange Institution.