The congregations of Downpatrick, Ballee and Clough held their joint Candlelight Carol Service on Wednesday, 6th December at Downpatrick at 7.30 pm. The church was attractively decorated and as well as Alfie McClelland on the organ we were delighted to have the Laganvale Ensemble accompanying the carols and playing some other pieces. The mellow sound of the band filled the eighteenth-century meeting-house magnificently.
Underneath the pulpit
We had readers from all three congregations, including one passage read first in German by Eleanor to commemorate Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible, begun 500 years ago. The readers were Amanda Ramsey, Thomas Rooney, Eleanor Baha, Tierna Kelly, Megan Neill, Elsie Nelson, Robert Neill, Doreen Chambers, Roy Kelly, and Charles Stewart.
The view from the Squire’s Gallery earlier in the day
On my History of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland blog I have been gradually posting two images of every church in the denomination together with a short description of the building. My aim is to include every active church plus as many of the former churches for which images survive. You can view them here:
I have amassed a large database of images in various formats over the years but passing near the Mountpottinger church in Belfast recently I decided to stop to take an up to date view.
Looking at the church close up I noticed something that I had never seen before, namely that there are four corbel heads at the base of the main entrance arches which depict crowned heads. I know I am not alone in having previously missed this intriguing detail but close up you can see four regal faces, two of them male and two female:
Who are they meant to represent? Biblical figures? Historical? Shakespearean perhaps? Or are they purely decorative? It seems clear that they were added when the church was extended in 1899. The foundation stone for the original church was laid in 1874 but the young congregation was very successful and in 1899 they extended the building.
Adrian Moir, the congregational treasurer and representative elder, has sent me the follwing interesting photograph of the original building as it looked before 1899. Standing in front, he thinks, is the Rev William Jenkin Davies minister from 1896 – 1903 who was married to the niece of Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence who donated the new schoolroom as a memorial to her following her death:
Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence was a major Unitarian benefactor, an MP who declared the Unitarian College, Manchester open when it moved to Summerville in 1905, a friend of the Rev Alexander Gordon and the leading proponent of the theory that Shakespeare’s plays were actually the work of Francis Bacon!
A comparison of the new buildings of 1899 with the old one shows how they added a schoolroom and ancillary rooms on both sides of the original church with a common frontage uniting all the structures. In very recent times a disabled ramp was added to the church.
A view of the church published in 1907, showing the new additions to the building
But it would be interesting to know the identity of the four regal heads who adorn the outside wall of Mountpottinger church.
It is hard not to imagine that every feature of dissenting meeting-houses has been subject to some serious scrutiny at one time or another. The regular publication of surveys of non-conformist churches and the work of the Chapels Society are testimony to the ongoing interest that there is in these types of buildings. But I was led to reflect on one aspect of the history of old meeting-houses that may not have had too much attention over the years by the ‘discovery’ recently of a long discarded pew number in my church at Ballee.
It wasn’t really a discovery since I and many people knew it was there all along but, for the first time, I took a close look at it and realised that it is a work of art in its own right. When the Ballee meeting-house was refurbished in 1912 they replaced the old box pews with ‘modern’ open ones. They may have re-used the timber from the old pews to make the new ones, they certainly used the old pews to make partitions and features in the rooms they created in both ends of the long arm of the ‘T’ of the church.
This number 12 is in the inside of a cupboard in the vestry. When you look at it, a lot of the wood which was used there and in the library and in the store room at the other end of the church, must clearly have once formed the original box pews, probably dating back as far as the early eighteenth century. Much of it has been stained a very dark colour but in some places the original colouring can be seen and there are two places where the pew numbers are visible. One is a slightly faded number 22 but the other is this one inside the vestry cupboard.
Inside the cupboard
It has been protected from the sun for over a hundred years and it is clear that at some point after it was painted on the door of the pew when in situ someone had carefully left it untouched when re-varnishing the rest of the door. An expert could probably date this number more or less exactly. I would guess it dates from the end of the eighteenth or the start of the nineteenth century. It is certainly very carefully done. It must have been an important project for the congregation at that time to see that their pews were so clearly labelled, and done in such an attractive manner.
A panel high in the corner of a store room – number 22
For most types of dissenting congregations pew numbers and pew rents were a central feature of the finance and management of a church or chapel. Who owned which pew and who sat where were important questions so their clear numbering was an important thing. For the historian financial records of pew rents are an important source but I can’t remember much discussion of the way numbers were added to pews.
In the nineteenth century, and probably before, it was possible to buy ceramic or brass numbers to fix on pew ends or doors. But very often the numbers were painted on. The pews in Ballee today are all unnumbered, as they are in Clough. In Downpatrick, which still has its original box pews, the numbers have all been removed downstairs but they survive in the galleries. These are very neatly done and to me look like eighteenth-century adornments.
Some of the Downpatrick numbers
But the now almost completely vanished pew numbers from Ballee must have looked very impressive. I will look out for more examples of historical pew numbering from now on.
The General Synod of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland was only created as recently as 1910 but it represents a liberal theological tradition that runs through Irish history back to the origins of Presbyterianism. Surprisingly there is no generally available history of this small but significant denomination. Over the summer of 2017 I was asked to deliver a series of addresses on this history, I have now put these together on a new website which is intended to give an outline history of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland (NSPCI) in five chapters.
Ballee Pulpit Fall featuring the logo and motto of the Church
The site is broken down into:
The First Subscription Controversy [of the 1720s]
The Second Subscription Controversy [of the 1820s]
The Dissenters’ Chapels Act [of 1844]
Division and Controversy [the second half of the nineteenth century]
Consolidation [the reunification of the different Non-Subscribing elements in 1910]
It is an interesting and valuable history and one that is increasingly overlooked or misunderstood even by those who are involved in the NSPCI. But I hope this website will go some way to providing an accessible way of learning about this history both for those who are familiar with something of the story and for newcomers. I hope also to make it a useful database for images connected with NSPCI history.
Sheila McMillan’s new book Telling Tales was officially launched at a reception in Waterstone’s, Lisburn on 30th June. It is good to see a large retailer like that supporting local authors and it was encouraging to see such a lot of people there for the occasion.
As the wife, daughter, granddaughter and great niece of ministers Sheila is well placed to write about life inside the manse. But this is no pious collection of platitudes and improving tales as one suspects that many ministerial or ministerial family memoirs must be. Sheila writes well and entertainingly. As one of the speakers said at the launch she can handle humour which is a rare skill and the book is full of good stories told with great humour. What makes them funnier is that they are all true (although in some cases the names have been changed to protect the guilty) and they have an honesty and directness which appeals.
Some of the people Sheila has known are truly remarkable. Her pen portrait of Elizabeth Law Barbour Andrews (who considered her names unsuitable and preferred to be known as Elba), the orphaned daughter of Thomas Andrews who designed the Titanic, and who bustled into Sheila’s life with some force is one that stays in the mind.
Some of the tales told will make you laugh out loud but Sheila also has some very moving stories. If you want to know what it felt like to be a mother anxious about a son who had disappeared for 24 hours in Belfast at the height of the Troubles then her story ‘A Nightmare in the Northern Ireland Eighties’ does that.
The benefits of coming from a clerical household are enormous. Having to ascertain from an elderly patient with a neurological complaint whether he was unable or unwilling to speak the answer comes when he remembers her clergyman grandfather who shut down the only pub in his village. In ‘A “Religious Experience”’ Sheila recounts a trip to Japan to take part in an IARF inter-faith conference and to experience the Shinto religion first hand. This is insightful and witty and tells you more about such encounters in a few pages than most earnest official reports of such gatherings ever do.
But it is a good read and one that can be recommended. All proceeds go to the Northern Ireland Branch of the Multiple Sclerosis Society.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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 Servants of the Lord, bless ye the Lord pays tributes to the Bruces and incorporates the colours of the Bruce tartan.
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.
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.
Festival of Floral Art, First Holywood (NS) Presbyterian Church 23-26 April 2015, to celebrate 400 years of Presbyterian witness in Holywood.
When I was editor of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian I wrote a column entitled ‘Ponder Anew’ (and might still do from time to time – indeed my initial intention was to give this blog the same name but this proved not to be possible). Anyway I thought I would review some of those pieces and came across the following which was published in March 2011 and concerned the number of members of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland counted in the 2001 Census in Northern Ireland. The Census showed what is certainly an underestimate of the total numbers of Non-Subscribers by a large degree. Having looked at this piece I suddenly realised that I had not noticed what the 2011 Census itself actually recorded – happily the information is easily found. I will add a short appendix to the original article to make a comparison with 2001. But here is the slightly amended article from the March 2011 Non-Subscribing Presbyterian:
This year sees another Census. Every ten years the citizens of the United Kingdom are asked to provide a vast amount of information for the government’s use. At the last Census, for the first time, residents of England, Scotland and Wales were invited to disclose their religious affiliation. This revealed a large number of people (390,127 no less) who declared their religion as being Jedi…..However, a very curious result was thrown up in Northern Ireland in the most recent, 2001 Census, concerning this denomination which I have never seen referred to by anyone in our churches.
The 2001 Census reported that the total membership of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland in Northern Ireland was 1,233. That figure includes adults and children but obviously excludes those resident in the Republic. That means that only 1,233 people identified themselves as Non-Subscribers. This is a very small number and without doubt is a significant underestimate.First of all, we might ask, does it matter? Well, the Census figures are used, not unreasonably, by authors producing surveys of religious affiliation. Indeed, in a paper produced for the Irish Council of Churches Norman Richardson has said that the apparent drop in our numbers “indicates one of the most notable proportionate declines in comparison with the 1991 figures.”But secondly, is this true? Without doubt we can answer that question with a resounding ‘No’. Our own statistics for 2001 reveal 3,529 adult members and 511 Sunday School members making a total of 4,040, that is a full 228% higher than the official government figure. The Synod’s figure, with members in the Republic excluded, is largely made up of those who make a financial contribution to a church. Yet every minister knows that beyond the official list of members there is generally a large mass of individuals who at times will claim membership, famously described by the late Rev Robin Williamson as “those who neither pay nor pray”. Indeed in Northern Ireland it is said that of those who don’t go to church everyone knows which church they stay away from. This is reflected in much of the Census statistics where most denominations (unlike us) actually record higher figures in the government numbers than in their own records.But how then do we explain this enormous reverse discrepancy in our figures? Well part of it is explained by the 342 people who recorded themselves as Unitarians. If we add this figure to the 1,233 we get a total of 1,575. But this is still far less than half of our official and hardly exaggerated total. If my memory serves me right the Non-Subscribers/Unitarians appeared as a single category in 1991, although generally they had been separated out in previous years, this in itself being an interesting area of analysis. Another difference between 1991 and 2001 was the complete disappearance of the 152 people who declared themselves as Old Presbyterians in 1991 (certainly part of our group as well) by 2001.It may be that some of our members simply wrote Presbyterian (another separate category totalling 985) but it must be also true that a very large number of those who belong to our denomination chose not to answer the religious question. There is some evidence that this has been a long term practice. However, one person has suggested to me that the sudden drop in those declaring themselves as Non-Subscribing Presbyterians was caused simply by the lack of space on the form for the answer to the religious question. There may be something in this. The ‘big four’ denominations all had a tick box, while all others had to be written in, in a space with less characters than we have in the first two words of our name!However, whatever the reason, with the next Census due at the end of this month we all have the chance to declare our allegiance. If we all do that then on paper our numbers will enjoy a massive jump and we can produce a notable proportional increase this time. It will at least give the statisticians something to talk about.
So what was the result of the 2011 Census for Non-Subscribers? Well, it does not look good. Non-Subscribing Presbyterians numbered only 646 (down from 1,233). Unitarians numbered 265 (down from 342). Once again there were no Old Presbyterians at all and those who could be no more specific than stating ‘Presbyterian’ were up from 985 to 1,494. So adding the Non-Subscribing Presbyterians to the Unitarians this makes a total of 911. How does this compare with the denomination’s own statistics? With the numbers for those resident in the Republic of Ireland again removed the total number of adult members recorded in 2012 (which effectively means those counted in the same year as the Census) was 2,900 plus 373 children – a total of 3,273. Again, as in 2001, there is no reason for this figure to be inflated. Admittedly there may be some people who are members of more than one church and so are counted twice but they will be more than outweighed by those whose allegiance is only important when a rite of passage is suddenly required. It is a big drop from the 4,040 of 2001 but still a far greater total than the government statistic. The most recent numbers issued by the denomination in 2014 show numbers for adults and children (again excluding the numbers for the Republic) of 3,133 and 368 respectively, a total of 3,501. So numbers are actually going up. It is certainly my experience that some churches are growing. But what a curious statistical anomaly the Census provides.