History of the First Presbyterian (Non-Subscribing) Church Downpatrick

The meeting house of the First Presbyterian (Non-Subscribing) Church in Downpatrick was opened in 1711 at the start of the ministry of the Rev Thomas Nevin. Recognised as one of the most significant architectural examples of the T-shaped meeting-house in Ireland the building celebrated 300 years of continuous worship and witness in 2011.

Central high pulpit originally built for Thomas Nevin (Down Museum photograph)
Central high pulpit originally built for Thomas Nevin (Down Museum photograph)

To mark the tercentenary of the church building the congregation published the History of the First Presbyterian (Non-Subscribing) Church Downpatrick. Written and compiled by Mary Stewart, the church secretary, the book is a remarkable record of three centuries of church life in the historic building. The book details the history of the congregation in the context of Downpatrick and Irish Presbyterianism, the conflict between subscribers and non-subscribers in the 18th century, the history of the building, the congregation’s engagement with education and much more. The book includes biographies of all the ministers of the congregation going back to the 17th century, extracts from the records of the Synod of Ulster, accounts of services, special events and financial matters, and contains details of committee and session members over the centuries, lists of members going back to the 1860s, and a complete record of all the graveyard inscriptions. It will be valued by all those with an interest in Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church history, local history, and genealogy.

Celebrating the tercentenary
Celebrating the tercentenary

In the first of the two Forewords the Very Rev William McMillan says:

Miss Stewart is to be congratulated on a truly comprehensive publication. She not only presents us with a history of the Downpatrick congregation but has collated a remarkable number of newspaper accounts, together with other printed material which will be of considerable help to future historians.

 Her commitment to the congregation is evident from the immense research that she has done and I am delighted to recommend this valuable contribution to the Denomination’s Historical Record in which Downpatrick congregation has played such an important role.

and in the second Foreword the Rev Dr JohnNelson says:

The congregation of Downpatrick has a long and notable history, reflected in the lives of the ministers and lay people who have been part of that church. A congregation which has held a significant place both within Non-Subscribing Presbyterian circles and the wider Presbyterian community.

 Perhaps the most outstanding theme of that history is the fact that for the last 300 years the congregation have worshiped in the wonderful building that is Stream Street Meeting House. While that building has always been well maintained, the interior has never been substantially altered, leaving it to-day essentially as built and evoking a sense of history, of presence, and of worship in all who enter there. It is highly appropriate that this book is published as part of the celebrations to mark the 300th anniversary of that meeting house.

Mary Stewart is to be congratulated in producing such a thorough and detailed history of the congregation. Not only does she give the story of the church, but her painstaking researches have produced a wealth of source material which will be a delight to historians, church members, and everyone interested in the heritage of Downpatrick town and community.

This book both opens a door on the past and links it with the living present.

At the tercentenary service
At the tercentenary service

The book contains 408 pages and over 150 illustrations. It is bound in a full colour hard-back cover the book and is excellent value at only £15.

The cover of the book
The cover of the book

A sense of what it contains can be seen from the list of contents:

Chapter 1        Background History of Downpatrick

Chapter 2        Arrival and Settlement of Presbyterians

Chapter 3        Subscribers and Non-Subscribers, the Faith of the Non-Subscribers

Chapter 4        Presbytery Records from 1691 including Thomas Nevin’s Trial and Consequences

Chapter 5        List of Ministers of Downpatrick, Details of Ministers

Chapter 6        The Church Building

Chapter 7        Church Site and Schools

Chapter 8        Life and Times of Samuel Craig Nelson   

Chapter 9        Special Services

Chapter 10      Special Events and Reports

Chapter 11      Church Excursions from 1881

Chapter 12      Social Evenings and Gatherings

Chapter 13      Harvest Services from 1908

Chapter 14      Financial Matters (Inc. Committee Record from 1886)

Appendix I       Rules and Regulations of the Downpatrick Congregation

Appendix II    Church Elders, Committee and Sunday School Teachers (From 1861-2007)

Appendix III   The Church Graveyard and Inscriptions

Appendix IV   Sermon by Alexander Colvill A.M. M.D. on the Death of Thomas Nevin 24th March 1744

Congregation at the tercentenary service
Congregation at the tercentenary service

The cost of the book is just £15. Postage within the UK is £5. If you are interested in having a copy posted abroad please enquire for postal rates. Details of how to purchase the book can be found on the Church’s website: http://www.downpatricknsp.org.uk/History.html

Festival of Floral Art First Holywood (NS) Presbyterian Church, co. Down

The Very Rev William McMillan has many strings to his bow. He is not just a distinguished and much loved pastoral minister, he is also a highly regarded historian who shares his knowledge readily with all enquirers. In both these areas – and others – he is highly respected but the area in which he is most pre-eminent is undoubtedly that of floral art. His fame in this role is world-wide and a few years ago he was appointed world champion no less. The Rev Mac regularly travels the world as a floral artist and over the decades must have helped to raise thousands of pounds for various charities through his artistic efforts. His latest exhibition is at Holywood Non-Subscribing Presbyterian church which not only utilises a wonderful space but also incorporates his historical knowledge and feel for the theological traditions that have contributed to the development of the church.

Rev Colin Campbell (left) and Rev Bill McMIllan in front of the portrait of Rev C.J. McAlester, in the vestibule of the church
Rev Colin Campbell (left) and Rev Bill McMillan in front of the portrait of Rev C.J. McAlester, in the vestibule of the church

Holywood N.S. Presbyterian church is a substantial classical fronted church dating from the mid-nineteenth century (and designed by Sir Charles Lanyon) but the congregation dates back over 400 years and this exhibition is part of the celebration of the continuation of all branches of Presbyterian witness in the town over that long period. Mac uses the Benedicite, the Song of Creation, as the theme for the exhibition and incorporates references to the rich history of the congregation including the Praeger and Bruce families.

Sophia Rosamond Praeger was, in the words of the exhibition brochure, an “acclaimed sculptor, poet and artist” and as a member of the congregation there are numerous examples of her work housed in the church. Most notable of these is the First World War memorial which she designed to include two children carrying baskets of flowers representing hope; they kneel on either side of the names of those who were killed, including one of her own brothers. Her other brother, Robert Lloyd Praeger, was a world famous botanist who became librarian of the National Library of Ireland.

Rev Michael Bruce was one of the first members of the Presbytery of Antrim and introduced the principles of non-subscription to the congregation in the 1720s. Supposedly a direct descendant of Robert the Bruce his family produced generations of Presbyterian ministers in Ireland.

The exhibition contains material that is both traditional and strikingly modern. The line O ye Seas and Floods, bless ye the Lord takes as its cue the fact (quite new to me) that the first two buildings used by the congregation are now both submerged by the sea, and marine plants, shells and liquid are used in the design.

O ye Seas and Floods, bless ye the Lord
O ye Seas and Floods, bless ye the Lord

O ye Servants of the Lord, bless ye the Lord pays tributes to the Bruces and incorporates the colours of the Bruce tartan.

O ye Servants of the Lord, bless ye the Lord
O ye Servants of the Lord, bless ye the Lord

O ye Children of men, bless ye the Lord is inspired by the logo of Sullivan Upper School as a tribute to the Rev C.J. McAlester, nineteenth-century minister of the church and a scholar and a teacher. He was involved in the foundation of this school and also ran an “underground academy” in the basement of his church.

O ye Children of men, bless ye the Lord
O ye Children of men, bless ye the Lord

Panels on the front of the gallery were inspired by a sketch by Rosamond Praeger entitled “County Donegal” as well as Robert Lloyd Praeger’s most famous book The Way that I Went.

The Burning Bush symbol of the two varieties of Presbyterianism found in the town are both represented by sculptures in dried plant material and the communion table has a suitable decoration. My photographs probably don’t do the whole exhibition justice but it is nice to record at least some of what is on show in Holywood.

Burning Bush H2

Festival of Floral Art, First Holywood (NS) Presbyterian Church 23-26 April 2015, to celebrate 400 years of Presbyterian witness in Holywood.

Inside the church
Inside the church

Liverpool Unitarians: Faith and Action. Essays exploring the lives and contributions to society of notable figures in Liverpool Unitarian history. Edited by Daphne Roberts and David Steers

In September of 2014 we launched – in fine style, it must be said, in the impressive surroundings of the Liverpool Athenaeum, thanks to Philip Waldron – the book Liverpool Unitarians: Faith and Action. Essays exploring the lives and contributions to society of notable figures in Liverpool Unitarian history. Published by the Merseyside District Missionary Association it should also be added that the District took to the role of publisher with great aplomb – not necessarily the most usual role for any church administrative body.  The book is available in many book shops and museums in Liverpool as well as online from the District and via Amazon.

Liverpool Unitarians was a long time in preparation but I think is a better book for the extra time spent on its production. All the contributors have some connection with Merseyside Unitarianism and all write about different aspects of the contribution made by members of this household of faith to wider society over the centuries.

The full list of contributors and subjects is as follows:

Introduction, David Steers; Memorials of the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth Park, Bernard Cliffe; Jeremiah Horrocks 1618 – 1641, Bernard Cliffe; William Roscoe 1753 – 1831, David Steers; A Short History of the Rathbone Family, Annette Butler; The Unitarian Family of George Holt, Bernard Cliffe; Noah Jones 1801 – 1861, Philip Waldron; James Martineau 1805 – 1900, Len W. Mooney; Joseph Blanco White 1775 – 1841, David Steers; Kitty Wilkinson 1786 – 1860, Daphne Roberts; John Johns 1801 – 1847, David Steers; William Henry Channing 1810 – 1884, Richard Merritt; Charles Pierre Melly 1829 – 1888, John Keggen; Sir Henry Tate 1819 – 1899, Richard Merritt; Sir John Brunner 1842 – 1919, Len W. Mooney; Lawrence Redfern 1888 – 1967, Elizabeth Alley; Sir Adrian Boult 1889 – 1983, Richard Merritt; The Visitors’ Book of the Ancient Chapel, Bernard Cliffe

It was particularly pleasing to see Len Mooney’s contributions published in the book in light of Len’s sad death just a few months later. Someone who had been a devoted member of Ullet Road Church for many decades Len was a thoughtful and wise person whose gifts shine through in his chapters published here.

The cover of the book
The cover of the book

The book has a full colour cover designed by Alison Steers which incorporates ‘The Triumph of Truth’, the central detail from the library ceiling of Ullet Road Church, painted by Gerald Moira; the Good Samaritan Window at Gateacre Chapel, which was erected in memory of Sir Henry Tate; a bronze representation of the James, (the ship on which Richard Mather and the local puritans sailed to Massachusetts in 1635) made in 1934 for the hall door at the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth; the front elevation of Ullet Road Church built in 1899; and detail of the Liverpool Town Plan of 1725 by J. Chadwick.

 

The book also contains more than fifty illustrations, many of them never before published, and all of them helping to tell the story of Liverpool Unitarianism. Some of the stories told in the book are well known, others are not so familiar to the general reader, yet others break entirely new ground – Bernard Cliffe’s analysis of the memorials and graves in the Ancient Chapel is a first, as is his examination of the chapel’s visitors’ book.

In the Introduction I say:

This book is not intended to be hagiography but it does try to outline how one group of people – members of a particular faith community with deep historical roots but with an aversion to fixed creeds – were inspired to serve their fellows in different ways. Their legacy can be seen all over the city – in its parks, in its monuments, in the university, in hospitals, in education, in art galleries and museums – and it exists in the long and continuing struggle to create a society that gives equality and opportunity to all its citizens. It is not meant to be an exhaustive account of all the eminent members of the churches and chapels in the region. Readers will notice that the names mentioned are part of wider connections of family and business which includes many others who could be included. There are other figures who could be the subject of such biographical accounts. But this is a selection of some of those who have followed the call of faith to be of service to wider society.

 

It is pleasing also to report positive reviews in various publications.

In Faith and Freedom Peter Godfrey says: a splendid book… chapters that are full of interest and fill the reader with admiration and often wonder at the scope of the achievements of these Liverpool Unitarians

and in The Inquirer Alan Ruston says:

readers of this book will come to the conclusion that Unitarianism has not been just a faith of the mind but one of action as well.

The title and full publication and order details are as follows:

Liverpool Unitarians Faith and Action Essays exploring the lives and contributions to society of notable figures in Liverpool Unitarian history

Edited by Daphne Roberts and David Steers

Published by the Merseyside and District Missionary Association 2014 ISBN 978-0-9929031-0-7 Price £12.99 plus £2.50 post and packing 128 pages, 52 illustrations, full colour cover

Available from: Philip Waldron, Ullet Road Church, 57 Ullet Road, Sefton Park, Liverpool L17 2AA or liverpoolunitarians@gmail.com also available for purchase on Amazon

Joseph Blanco White (Ullet Road Church)
Joseph Blanco White (Ullet Road Church)

 

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

These words of the Chinese philosopher Lau Tzu seem appropriate for the beginning of any new enterprise, they also tie in, for me personally, with the picture of the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth, a place which was very much a starting point for me. But the purpose of this blog will be to flag up things that interest me particularly in relation to the journals Faith and Freedom and the Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society, both of which I edit. Not that I intend to confine myself to either of those publications – anything that catches my eye will go in here – the blog will have a special remit towards faith, religious history and associated matters but it will by no means confine itself to matters of religion.