Burning Bush Article Two

From the Presbyterian Herald May 1988. Written by Prof. John M Barkley, Principal-Emeritus and former Professor of History in Union Theological College, Belfast.

Many people have often asked why the Presbyterian Church in Ireland uses the Burning Bush as its symbol.

Sometime between October 1954 and December 1956 a student asked me in class, "When did Presbyterians start using the Burning Bush as a symbol?." I remember I had to confess I did not know, but suggested that it was probably first used by the Huguenots in France, possibly about 1592, or maybe 1584, and said I would try to trace this and let the class know.

All I could find, however, was in John Quick's Synodic in Gallia Reformata, published in 1692. He writes, "There is engraven on the Seal a Burning Bush in the midst whereof is written (Jahweh) and round the circle, Flagror, non consumor". Then I looked up The Proceedings of the World Presbyterian Alliance, published in Philadelphia in 1880, where the same symbol was given with the circumscription Synodi ecclesiae in Gallia reformatae, 1559. I knew that Dr. G.W. Sprott had questioned the authenticity of this, and on checking found that he had been told that it had simply been copied from a recent book on Protestantism in France and the date had been inserted as that of the first National Synod of the French Reformed Church.

The following year, 1957, Professor G.D. Henderson published his Burning Bush. It reveals how little we really know about the origin of the symbol. While there are many allusions in French and Scottish writings to the suffering but living Church, few (in spite of tradition) link these with Exodus 3 v.2. The main emphasis in France was rather on the fact that God is always present with his people, even in Egypt. The Latin inscription, Nec tamen consumebatur, used in Scotland is not taken from the Vulgate, but the Latin translation of the Bible by the Dutch scholar Du Jon (Junius) and Tremellius, the Italian reformer, in 1579. This led me on a search, which lasted for over thirty years. Where did Ardens sed Virens come from? They are not from the text of any known Latin translation. Then on 13th January 1988, thanks to Mr. John G.W. Erskine, Stranmillis College, I think I found the answer.



The Presbyterian Historical Society have recently purchased a new microfilm reader. Following the Council meeting on that date some of us were testing it for clarity. We used the microfilm of The Banner of Ulster. How often I had seen it when consulting that newspaper down the years and had been blind. While we looked at it John Erskine said, "There you have it, the Burning Bush, the Open Bible, Ardens sed Virens, and all". Unlike Archimedes I was not in a bath so I could not jump out of it and run naked through the streets of Belfast, shouting "Eureka! Eureka!" All I could say was, "At last, I have found it. There it is staring me in the face! There is the first use of the Burning Bush linked with the words Ardens sed Virens!" In all honesty I must admit that had not John spoken I would have failed once again to see it. There it was on the front page of the first copy of The Banner of Ulster, 10th June, 1842, the bicentenary of the meeting of the first Presbytery at Carrickfergus in 1642. Let us look at it carefully.

Banner of Ulster, 1842

The symbol includes the Open Bible, the Burning Bush, Ardens sed Virens, the Irish wolfhound, the round tower, and harp, with the shamrock and thistle intertwined. Underneath are the words of Edmund Burke: "Religion is the basis of civil society, and the source of all good and all comfort". The whole device points to the biblical basis and also the Irishness of the Presbyterian Church.

In 1851, The Banner was enlarged and a new fount used. No longer is there a symbol on the front page. This has been replaced by a new device over the editorial on an inside page. In it the Open Bible disappears as does the 'Irishry'. The flag, Burning Bush with Ardens sed Virens and shamrock wreath remain, with the red hand. A careful examination of this symbol, if it means anything, shows that underlying these changes there is a different concept of the Church's mission, or at least, in the order of its priorities.

Banner of Ulster, 1851

In September, 1865, The Banner is again enlarged and printed from a new fount. The device over the editorial disappears, and publication ceased about five years later.

Ardens Sed Virens

Historical conditions gave rise to The Banner's existence, to the changes in its logo, as well as its disappearance. Limitation of space prevents a detailed examination of these. So returning to the words Ardens sed Virens, who is responsible for them? Certainly, so far as I can trace, they do not exist in association with the Burning Bush before 10th June, 1842. The Banner was established by the Rev. William Gibson, minister of Third Belfast in Rosemary Street, and later professor of Ethics in The Presbyterian College, Belfast. His purpose in founding the paper was to guide public opinion on the relation of Church and State, in the disruption controversy in the Church of Scotland, and to uphold orthodox Presbyterian principles, which, as A.A. Campbell says, "met with scant courtesy from the Belfast Press". It was published twice weekly (Tuesdays and Fridays) by George Troup, a Scot, at 3 Donegall Street Place, who also acted as editor. It could have been either, but because of his declared purpose I believe that it is the Rev. William Gibson who is to be credited with the first linking of the Burning Bush with the words Ardens sed Virens, especially in view of their relevance to the times Irish Presbyterianism was facing.

While symbols and signs may alter from time to time, perhaps it would be no bad thing if the General Assembly today examined and proclaimed the place of the Open Bible in our calling and considered the necessity to recover the Irish factor in the doctrine and mission of the Presbyterian Church.