A brief summary of the emergence of the Free Presbyterian Church seventy years ago and the influences which brought the denomination to the Clogher Valley area in the west of Ulster.
The Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster commenced on 17th March 1951, when a company of Christians separated from Lissara Presbyterian Church in Crossgar. The formation of Crossgar Free Presbyterian Church was quickly followed by Rev Ian Paisley’s congregation at Ravenhill, and by the two North Antrim congregations, Cabra (Ballymoney) and Rasharkin.
In each of these congregations there had been a growing dissatisfaction at the trends within Presbyterianism towards a modernistic liberal interpretation of Scripture. The old Gospel was not preached in many pulpits and some ministers denied the necessity of the atonement. The passionate and Holy Ghost anointed preaching of Ian Paisley, stirred many hearts and led to the formation of the Free Presbyterian Church. In Crossgar, however, it was what our former Clerk of Presbytery, Dr John Douglas called the “blundering decision” of the Presbytery of Down to prohibit the Lissara Kirk Session from convening a Gospel Mission in their own meeting house, which sparked off the desire to establish a new evangelical Presbyterian denomination. This antagonism towards the Gospel crystallised the happiness which many felt regarding the division between evangelicalism and modernism within the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.
Over the following fifteen years the progress of the witness was slow. Nevertheless, the small group of congregations was growing. Congregations had sprung up in Mount Merrion, Whiteabbey, Portavogie, Dumurry and Coleraine during the 1950’s as God’s people answered the call to join a gospel preaching separated witness.
The events of 1966, however, were the catalyst that projected the witness of this small and insignificant denomination into the wider Protestant consciousness, accelerating growth into many parts of Ulster, including the Clogher Valley.
The Presbytery of Ulster had, by this time now made a far-reaching decision that the modernism and ecumenism within the major Protestant churches must be confronted.
There was good reason to publicly expose The Irish Presbyterian Church because she had joined the World Council of Churches which was, and remains to be, an ecumenical and liberal body, which the General Assembly left at a later time.
What really brought matters to a head, however, in 1966, was the invitation to a representative of Irish President, Eamon De Valera to the General Assembly, which was accepted. At that time the Republic of Ireland was under the control of the Roman Catholic Church. Younger readers who have only witnessed a secular Ireland may consider this to be a gross exaggeration of the historical reality. This is certainly not the case. Writing in 1967, Italian author, Avro Manhatten, when describing what he called “the religious-political climate of a typical Catholic country”, wrote:
“Since top Catholic politicians can be motivated by such low religiosity (superstition), it is but child’s play for the Church to translate their spiritual infantilism, to her own advantage. That is to use them as docile instruments for imposing her dicta without altering one comma of the written constitution…The above remarks can be applied to France, Belgium, Ireland.”
Protestants were also politically sceptical of the Irish Republic because the infamous Articles Two and Three, which claimed jurisdiction over Northern Ireland, continued to be part of the constitution. Northern Ireland, at that time, was only fifty years old, and the difficulties experienced by southern Protestants, causing many to flee the Irish Free State, and later the Irish Republic, were well known.
The then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Captain Terence O’Neill was engaged in diplomacy with the Taoiseach, Mr Sean Lemass, which was causing justifiable concern among many Protestants, bearing in mind the climate of the day. Therefore, the General Assembly, in their spiritual courts were making a very political statement, showing their support for O’Neill’s policies.
On this basis, therefore, the Presbytery of Ulster, organised a protest march of witness. Not only was that march violently attacked by Republicans in the Cromac Square area but two ministers, Rev Ian Paisley and Rev John Wylie, and one student, Mr Ivan Foster, were arrested and sentenced to prison. It was suspected, with good reason, that the decision to arrest these men was taken by senior figures within the Unionist Government of Captain Terence O’Neill, in a bid to discredit and curb the growing influence of Ian Paisley. The plan backfired spectacularly, as Satan’s schemes always do, because even he is subject to the mysteries of divine and overruling providence.
The imprisonment of three godly men, whose only crime was the exercise of their Protestant conscience and civil rights, only served to highlight the ecumenical and liberal trend that was entrenched within not only the Presbyterian Church in Ireland but also the Church of Ireland and Methodism. As a result, interest in establishing Free Presbyterian congregations was being expressed in parts of the province where there was no witness. This began a phase of spectacular Church growth. Those who were part of this movement in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s knew that they were part of a significant move of the Holy Ghost where many souls were saved and congregations planted.
After his imprisonment Ivan Foster returned to his native Fermanagh to church plant, where he was ordained to the ministry. In 1966 a protest rally was convened in Lisbellaw, which demonstrated that there was a nucleus who were willing to respond to the call for separation. After a gift of £700 from some ladies in Ravenhill Free Presbyterian Church a shop was purchased in Lisbellaw, and converted into a meeting house. Rev Foster commenced the first meetings in Fermanagh in this building in 1967.
In the following years a number of people from the Clogher Valley area of Co Tyrone attended these meetings and were greatly influenced by the faithful and clear Gospel preaching of Rev Foster. Some of these people, including Fivemiletown businessman, Mr Baskin Boyd and his wife Mollie, would in time become part of the nucleus of the Clogher Valley congregation. In 1968 Omagh Free Presbyterian Church was established after a tent mission organised by Mr Ernie Monteith, with Rev Paisley as the guest preacher. It was gradually becoming evident that there was the possibility of establishing a congregation in the Clogher Valley.
In February 1970, at the invitation of Mr Baskin Boyd, Rev Foster commenced a Gospel Mission in an Orange Hall, situated only a mile from the current Church building, in a disused school, known locally as Andrews Wood School. These meetings continued for around two months and received a wide support. Some would join the congregation when it was founded while others would join in later years. Seeds were sown in those months, a fruit that remained, as a consequence of what can only be described as Holy Ghost anointed preaching.
The growing witness of the Free Presbyterian Church was opposed, mocked and despised throughout Protestant Ulster. Those who attended were nicknamed “Paisleyites”, their first buildings were called “hen houses” because of their wooden temporary nature and some to this day would refer to the “DUP Church”, because of Dr Paisley’s political associations. Opposition in Fermanagh and South Tyrone tended to be fiercer, with some even arguing that those who were married or buried by Free Presbyterian ministers were improperly so. In an area where Protestant identity is so intertwined with the old established Church it was inevitable that those who did not understand the Gospel issues at stake would feel threatened by the emergence of a new Protestant denomination.
In April 1970, Rev Foster led a protest at Clogher Cathedral, where an ecumenical service was taking place. By this time a decision had been made to commence regular Sunday services in Andrews Wood School, which had been kindly granted for the mission. In the week before the first Sunday service the local orange lodge decided to withdraw the permission. One can certainly understand that members of the lodge felt offended because this new emerging congregation was part of a denomination which challenged practices within existing denominations, of which they were members. As Protestants and Christians, however, we must never be obstacles to the preaching of the Gospel, and this is a lesson everyone should learn from this sorry incident. Ultimately, the real culprits in the affair were professing Christian ministers who failed to expose their members to faithful Gospel preaching. Therefore, the most charitable comment on this event is that this was a sin committed in ignorance. Nevertheless, the God who rules overall would use this incident to strengthen the new gathering of people in the community.
As a consequence, the first Sunday service took place in lay-by, underneath a tree, as a testimony that the congregation would be established. Dr Paisley preached that afternoon to a large congregation.
The following Sunday the Bingham family, who owned Claremore Mission Hall, permitted the new group to meet in their premises. Meanwhile local farmer, Mr James Irvine, generously gave a field to the congregation, where one of the infamous ‘Paisley’s Henhouses’ was erected. The most important fact was that this was a place where the unsearchable riches of Christ were proclaimed, with greater faithfulness than in many grand buildings which due to apostasy had become hollow shells. Baskin Boyd’s simple comment that instead of stones the people now received bread, stated a grand and glorious truth.
In September 1970 a decisive step took place when Clogher Valley Free Presbyterian Church was constituted by the Presbytery of Ulster. Mr Michael Patrick, who was serving as a student minister in Lurgan, was ordained in December of that year, becoming the first minister of the congregation.
During the subsequent years the congregation grew steadily, until the current meeting house was opened in 1977.
One of the most memorable testimonies to those early years, which I heard, when in private conversation with one of our senior elders related to the core purpose of the church: “Our main interest was in building a church where our children could hear the Gospel”. That for me captures the spirit of Free Presbyterianism. The work developed during days of political and social upheaval in Northern Ireland with the demise of Unionist Party rule, the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and the eruption of Republican and Loyalist terrorism which cost the lives of thousands. In such a time of crisis, when political ideas were expressed with strength of feeling, many people confused the witness of the denomination with a political ideology and even sectarianism. At its heart, however, the Free Presbyterian Church is a gospel preaching witness. This is our driving motivator and passion.
It has been my privilege to have known many of the major characters who influenced the emergence of the Free Presbyterian Church. Dr Ian Paisley, Rev John Wylie, Dr John Douglas and Dr Bert Cooke all played important roles in shaping my convictions and ministry. When I was ordained to the ministry in Clogher Valley Rev Ivan Foster was appointed as my senior minister and I have also enjoyed fellowship with all the men who preceded me in the pulpit (Rev Michael Patrick, 1970-1977, the late Rev Austin Allen 1979- 1985, Rev Ron Johnston 1985-1991 and Rev David Priestley 1991-2000). I have benefited greatly over the years from the insights and wisdom of all these brethren.
As a small denomination established on what I call solid ground we benefit from a strong sense of unity. It is this unity and purpose which gives us a sense of being part of a continuity where the personalities differ but the consistency of the message and the underlying convictions remain unchanged. Today we are the custodians of a rich spiritual legacy; a legacy to be guarded and passed onto the next generation.
For further information about the history, theology and distinctives of Clogher Valley FPC & and the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster our publication is still available at £7 plus p & p. To purchase contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org