Wednesday, November 04, 2020

The Devil's Buttermilk - the origin of a figure of speech?

A while ago a friend who is a frequent reader here asked me to see if I could find the origin of the expression "the Devil's Buttermilk" as a euphemism for alcoholic beverages. His hunch was that the man it is usually attributed to - Rev Ian Paisley - might not have been the originator, and that perhaps a similar figure from a former time, a W.P. Nicholson, a Billy Sunday, a D.L. Moody, might have been the one to coin the phrase.

So I jumped on to the British Newspaper Archive and found this –

“... drive the devils out of the island,” adding, “My curses, and the curse of God, on any one that shall sell the jumper devils buttermilk, eggs, potatoes, that shall salute, speak to them, or enter their houses.” 

The story is from the Dublin Evening Mail newspaper on 1 September 1852. It is a report of Achill Island Petty Sessions, where magistrates heard a case regarding two priests called James Henry and William Scully who on 17 August had 'assembled a mob of one hundred persons' who attacked a man called Patrick William Joyce, described as 'a Scripture reader' at the village of Keel where Joyce lived. He had been born in Mayo, was raised as a Catholic, but had moved to Dublin where he had a conversion experience – he told the court "I swear I that I believe I was living in darkness and going stray all my life up to that, and that it was then the light came upon me; I now live in the village of Keel".

It seems that 'Scripture reader' is clumsy language for a travelling evangelist or open air preacher. A 'Scripture reader' colleague of Joyce's called Festus Flanagan, originally from Connemara, corroborated the account of events.

The report says that the priests referred to Joyce and Flanagan as "jumper devils" (ie converts who had 'jumped' to the Reformed faith) and that the villagers' children were "selling their souls to the devil for stir-about – were they were justified by stir-about and redeemed by porridge?"  

Here is Keel – an impressive spot on a good day!


So it's not the same 'Devil's buttermilk' that I was looking for, but it did open up another angle. Stir-about is of course a term for soup, and in that era is also a reference to a reputed evangelistic method that Protestant churches are said to have used during the Great Famine - ie, starving Catholic people were given soup at Prod-run soup kitchens if they 'converted', and became known as 'soupers'.

The British Newspaper Archive turns up nearly 7000 references to 'soupers' in Ireland in the 1800s. Here's a recent article about the background of 'Take the Soup', which interestingly is also set on Achill Island, in the 1830s, nearly 20 years before the Joyce and Flanagan episode. There's no indication that Joyce and Flanagan were handing out soup in 1852, but the 'stir-about' term was used against them and the audience would have known exactly what was implied.

You can still find the term 'souper' and 'taking the soup' in the present day, usually between shades of Irish nationalists, to accuse an opponent of being a sell-out.

As an evangelism method this is at worst an horrific abuse, and at best a very strange technique indeed – because it flies in the face of orthodox evangelical Reformed theology.

The Reformed view is that faith is personal, individual and voluntary (as voluntary as is possible in the sense of 'irresistible grace'). As a clumsy attempt to summarise – Everyone in our natural condition is born spiritually 'dead in sin', oblivious and/or hostile to Christ; faith is a gift from God, not something we can generate within ourselves or pretend to have; God moves supernaturally to stir up the heart, to bring awareness and 'conviction' of sin; and to point to Christ as sufficient Saviour. As the famous words explain 'twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved'. This basic understanding leaves no scope for 'forced conversions' or 'mass conversions' of whatever method. 

These three chunks of the New Testament explain the sequence very well – Ephesians 2 v 1–10 / Colossians 1 v 12–23 / Titus 3 v 3–8 – my three kids know that I nickname these passages as my 'Gospel Triple Espresso' (full-flavoured, strong and rich, with no gimmicky sweeteners required). 

How prevalent the actual practice was, compared with how dominant the concept and accusation was, other people out there will know. Others will also have a far better grasp than I of how it makes no spiritual sense at all. Nobody is "justified by stir-about and redeemed by porridge".  

So the quest for 'The Devil's Buttermilk' goes on.

• The publishers Banner of Truth website has a very different perspective on Edward Nangle and Achill Island


* Hank Williams sings a version of the same process in  “When Gods Dips His Pen of Love in My Heart”. And of course also in “I Saw The Light” and many others.