Non-Subscribing Presbyterian History

The Academy Building, Leiden University. One of the places where Rev Samuel Haliday studied

Over recent weeks our online Sunday services have included a number of addresses covering the history of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland. I have now re-edited the first three of these and re-mastered them into four short illustrated talks. I have made a few small editorial changes and added some illustrations and some music.

Together these constitute the first section of a history of the denomination. This section tells the story of the Presbytery of Antrim and the influences and streams of thought that led to its foundation.

A Victorian imagining of the Westminster Assembly in 1644
(John Rogers Herbert c.1844 Wikipedia Commons)

Each of the videos can be accessed from this page. They deal with the events leading up to the Non-Subscribers being placed in the Presbytery of Antrim in 1725 (the plate at the top of this page was presented to the Presbytery on its 250th anniversary by the International Association for Religious Freedom in 1975).

Part One: Origins

Part Two: Enlightenment

Part Three: Scripture Doctrine

Part Four: New Light

The History of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland – part three

Our worship this week comes from Ballee Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church and among other things it considers the next step in our history of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church. This year is also the tercentenary of Ballee NSP Church building, although the lockdown caused by the pandemic has so far prevented us from celebrating this milestone in the way we had intended.

Artwork at Ballee celebrating the church and its activities made as part of the Neighbours Project organized by Down Community Arts in 2001

Service for Sunday, 14th March 2021. Click on the above video for the service (after 9.45 am on Sunday, 14th March)

The reading is taken from Psalm 145 v.1-9. Church organist John Strain plays the hymns Come let us sing of a wonderful love (Junior Mission Praise 29) and Courage friend and do not stumble (Hymns of Faith and Freedom 329). As well as marking Mothers Day our service also considers the third part of the history of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland.

International Women’s Day

Click on the above video to see Time for a Story: Four Inspirational Women

For this week’s ‘Time for a Story’ Sue Steers has put together this short film for the week of International Women’s Day. It looks at the lives of four women, from different eras, who made a difference to society and the world around them.

In part two of the history of the NSPCI mention was made of Rev Samuel Clarke, Rector of St James’s Piccadilly (or Westminster depending on which location you prefer) who published ‘The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity’ in 1712. A radical and widely read Anglican theologian in the early eighteenth century, Ballee NSP Church (which has had its own library since the 1830s) actually has eight volumes of Samuel Clarke’s sermons.

But although these were published in 1743 they didn’t come to Ballee then. A signed dedication reveals that they were given by the Rev David Maginnis (who was born in Downpatrick and became minister of York Street in Belfast) to the Rev John Porter, born in Moneyreagh and, in 1850, about to commence his ministry in Ringwood, Hampshire where he stayed for ten years before coming to Ballee in 1860. An interesting indication of a friendship between two radically inclined Non-Subscribing ministers in the mid-nineteenth century, still valuing the works of an Anglican radical of one hundred years before.

It is interesting to note that the volumes originally belonged to an owner who had their own coat of arms which was reproduced in the books as a bookplate. But at some point the name or motto that appeared underneath the coat of arms has been scored out. So, unless an expert in heraldry can tell us who the arms belonged to, we don’t know who the original owner was.

The History of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland

A small but historically important liberal Christian denomination, the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church was born out of the interaction between faith and the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. This act of worship includes this first part of a video series telling the history of the Church. In this film detailing the origins of the denomination in the Presbytery of Antrim in 1725, the work of John Abernethy, the Belfast Society, the influence of Glasgow University, and the Church’s place in a Europe-wide movement are all discussed.

The University of Glasgow in the late seventeenth century

The service is filmed at Downpatrick, a distinctive building of 1711, and one of the best examples in Ulster of a traditional T-shaped meeting house. The organist is Laura Patterson, who plays ‘Christ be our light’ and ‘The power of the Cross’. The reading is Isaiah ch.51 v.1-6.

You can see the service and the address on the history of the denomination in the following video:

Service of Worship from Downpatrick, including part one of the History of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland (available from 9.45 am on Sunday, 14th February)

Old Meeting House Antrim

Earlier this week I was pleased to get a look inside the Old Meeting-House at Antrim in the company of Rev Dr John Nelson and architect Dara O’Malley. This is the original Presbyterian meeting-house in the town which became Non-Subscribing under the leadership of Rev John Abernethy, the ‘father of Non-Subscription’ in Ireland.

Antrim June 1913

The meeting-house in 1913

Not a very large building but the home of an active and important congregation for a long time. In the 1970s the congregation was faced with a struggle to maintain the building and it was transferred to the local Council which was then Antrim Borough Council. From 1980 it was let out as a boxing club which closed some years ago and this year the meeting-house was returned to the church. As the photos show the building has faced some years of neglect but this point marks the beginning of the restoration of the meeting-house and the renewal of the congregation’s witness in the town.

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The interior in 2018

It is quite a prominent building as you come into the town and nearby a large three-storey building is the original manse. I wrote about the story of the manse a couple of years ago, the post can be read here:

https://velvethummingbee.wordpress.com/2015/05/07/a-vestige-of-protestant-dissent-in-antrim-town/

Antrim Exterior front including manse

View of the meeting-house, the old manse is on the extreme right of the picture

Most of the graveyard is now managed by the Council and this includes some interesting grave stones including the tombstone of the family of Rev William Bryson, minister at Antrim from 1764 to 1810. He was married to a granddaughter of John Abernethy and whilst holding a very radical theology was less radical in the political upheavals of the 1790s.

Antrim Bryson family tombstone

Bryson family tombstone

Inside there is little obvious reminder of the building’s life as a church although a memorial to John Carley, a barrister at law and the son of the Rev John Carley (minister 1811-1861) , can be found, as well as the outline of the decorative moulding around the long vanished pulpit and the place where the sounding board was once attached.

Antrim John Carley memorial

Memorial to John Carley

Antrim pulpit moulding

Moulding above the site of the pulpit of 1891

The interior was ‘turned’ in 1891, that is the location of the pulpit was moved from the centre of the long wall to the short wall at one end and the pews re-arranged accordingly. All those fittings are long gone but there is now tremendous potential for this survival from 1700.

Antrim Datestone

Datestone

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