Mourne Free Presbyterian Church, 11th January 2019.
Preacher: Rev. Ivan Foster
Scripture: “I will hear what God the LORD will speak: for he will speak peace unto his people, and to his saints: but let them not turn again to folly,” Psalm 85:8.
Stream or download Sacred Memories of Glorious Days
Whatever memories I have and which burn in my heart, it is impossible for me to convey to you with anything like the impact that I and others like me, experienced, when these events took place.
I am reminded of the old Scottish woman who, struggling to express her feelings and emotions following her conversion said to her minister that the matter was : “Better felt that telt!”
We are permitted by the wonderful mercy of God to walk with the apostles as they companied with the Saviour and witnessed His wonderful words and works and yet, even though those memories are recorded by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, they can and will convey little of the majesty and glory of those days without the blessing of God resting upon our reading of them.
John said of his memories: “And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: but these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name,” John 20:30-31.
We know, as Christians, that without the blessing of God upon the written inspired Word, the reading of it will come to nothing! May His blessing be upon these poor and defective recollections tonight.
My first encounter with the Spirit of blessing which God had begun to pour out upon the witness of the Free Presbyterian Church took place on 12th April 1964 at 7.00 pm. In truth, the Spirit of blessing had been resting upon Dr Paisley’s ministry back then from the time, in 1948, he and others, Mr Bob Scott and Mr Jim Welsh and including teenager John Douglas, had waited upon the Lord for prolonged periods of prayer, involving day and and a night sessions. John Douglas came home from work on a Monday evening, hoping to rejoin the prayer meeting only to be met by Dr Paisley at the church at about 6.30, joyfully announcing to him: “Revival has come!” This was in early October 1949.
Dr Paisley would testify that at that time he was filled with God’s Spirit, the right and privilege of every Christian as Paul makes clear. “ . . . . be filled with the Spirit,” Ephesians 5:18.
The immediate result of that infilling by God’s servant was a time of very successful soul winning in such towns as Rathfriland and Ballymena. It was shortly after the special prayer time that he went to Rathfriland. It is reported that 186 should were converted at those meetings. The mission started in the Friends’ Hall. After a night or two, the people could not get in so the Presbyterian Church made its Church Hall available, and then, eventually the Church itself had to be used in order to accommodate the crowds attending.
However, subsequent to the formation of the Free Presbyterian Church in Crossgar on 17th March 1951, the invitations to conduct such missions ceased in places where he had once been welcomed. Ian Paisley had long been a critic of the ecumenism of the Irish Presbyterian Church as well as the Church off Ireland and the Methodist Church for, while there were many evangelical congregations amongst these denominations, there were also many, many influential and dominant ministers who were outright deniers of the fundamental tenets of the Gospel of Christ.
The separation that took place in Crossgar was the result of the spirit of ecumenism within the Irish Presbyterian Church rising up to oppose the invitation given to Dr Paisley by the the elders, to conduct evangelistic meetings in the Church Hall. The local Presbytery forbade the elders from holding the meetings with Dr Paisley as the evangelist and the elders, in scriptural defiance, rejecting these instructions, withdrew from membership of Lissare Presbyterian Church in Crossgar and went ahead with the meetings in the local mission hall.
Out of that separation sprang the first Free Presbyterian congregation.
Thus Ian Paisley became a ‘pariah’, and outcast in the eyes of many evangelicals who had yet to see the full evil nature of false ecumenism.
From that time, though the church on the Ravenhill Road enjoyed God’s blessing and many souls were converted, his wider popularity as a preacher wained. New Free Presbyterian congregations such as Mt Merrion, Dunmurry, Cabra, Portavogie, Rasharkin and Whiteabbey (which became Newtownabbey) were formed but they did not enjoy the support of any great numbers.
Such is but the experience of God’s servants throughout the ages. From 1951 until the mid-60s, Ian Paisley and the Free Presbyterian Church endured a somewhat ‘wilderness’ experience. As I have said, that is entirely scriptural! “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time,” 1 Peter 5:6. “And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted,” Matthew 23:12.
However, in a wonderful way, the time in the wilderness was to give way to more bountiful days of blessing in the mid-60s.
My first impressions of the meeting that night were of an atmosphere of joy and wondering anticipation. I think that something of this was already conveyed to me in the few minutes walk down to the meeting with my parents from our home in Ranelagh Street, just off Ravenhill Avenue.
They had been attending Dr paisley’s church for some months and his preaching had made a profound impact upon them, restoring them from a backslidden, careless state. My own conversion doubtless stemmed from their revived prayer life.
The church was filled with about 400 people. There was little space between the rows of chairs as the seating arrangements were maximised. The church was filled long before the scheduled 7.00 pm start of the service and late-comers, though arriving before 7.00 pm, were forced into all sorts of corners and alcoves and the two side-rooms.
I had come to the meeting as one who had sought the Lord a week previously but due to my ignorance of God’s Word, was totally unsure of my position before God. That night, as Dr Paisley preached on the subject of ‘Popery’ from Revelation 17, and of course applied the gospel most powerfully, I was touched by the power of God and afterwards, having indicated my need in the appeal, found blessed assurance under the instructions given me by Dr Paisley.
That night my life and walk took on an entirely new direction!
A NEW PERSON
I had left my work in Ulster Television on the Friday evening, to all appearances the poor ignorant, sinful Protestant I had always been, but on Monday 13th April I came into work as a Christian and as a Free Presbyterian! I immediately confessed my conversion and my convictions regarding the Bible and the God of the Bible and His Son, Jesus Christ.
Sometime during the day, I phoned Dr Paisley’s home and asked if there were any more meetings. He told me there was one in the church that night. I was there at the appointed time. I met Joe Black, Miss Joan McDonald (Mrs Joan Cairns) and Stanley Barnes.
I had an interesting experience for though the meeting was to be a lecture by Dr Paisley, he turned it into a prayer meeting, my first! He called upon a man at the back to commence and then ‘one after another’ to pray. Since it was my first time in a prayer meeting, it took a little time for it to dawn on me that one by one the people were engaging in prayer, neighbour following neighbour, therefore those praying were gradually getting closer and closer to me! I cannot tell you the fear that gripped me as the praying got closer to me. I had no experience of public prayer. I had never, until those moments, heard people praying in this fashion. Sweat broke out upon me! I was almost fainting with fear as the person to my left drew their prayer to and end and said, ‘Amen’! But, providentially, the person sitting to my right was Stanley barnes, who likely knew the mental torment I was in from the dripping of sweat from my brow and the loud knocking of my knees, took up the chain of prayer, much to my relief!
On the Friday night, I went to the Young People’s fellowship meeting, having been invited by its leader, Noel Stevenson. They were conducting open-air meetings around the area adjacent to the church. Noel gave everyone little gospel texts printed on cards and during the open-air the young people went up to the microphone and recited the texts. I noticed that all of those who did so merely quoted the verses, since their were familiar to them. The text I had been given I had never seen before but pride kicked in and I tried to quickly learn the verse rather that read it and show my ignorance. Up I went to the microphone and as I did what little of the verse I had memorised vaporised into thin air! Sheepishly, I had to delve into my pocket, pull our the card and read it out. That is what I should have done from the first.
The group moved across the Ravenhill Road to nearby Ballarat Street and started another open-air. Noel asked me if I would give a word of testimony. Well, I felt I couldn’t very well refuse, so I said ‘yes’.
As soon as I started to speak, the open-air equipment gave up! Noel got down on his knees and started fiddling with the wires and valves that made up an amplifier in those days and shout up to me, ‘just shout away!’ So I did. That was the first time I opened my mouth for the Lord in public testimony. It was 17th April 1964.
After I had finished, Noel said to me, ‘Will you come back and preach next week?’ ‘Oh aye’ said I, full of confidence. But I was absent next week, overcome by fear.
That knocked me back for a few days but by the mercy of God I was recovered and was soon engaging publicly in the Wednesday night prayer meetings.
I tell you this in order to show that, though there were the usual fears and stumblings experienced by every generation of converts, there was nevertheless evidence of swift spiritual growth in those days. That was because of the presence of the Spirit of God in the gatherings of God’s people. Just as rapid growth follows the showers of rain in a desert, so there was a rapid growing and blossoming amongst converts in those wonderful times.
In the month of May, I visited an uncle in Co. Fermanagh who was great admirer of Dr Paisley. He attended a number of cottage prayer meetings for fellowship with those go like precious faith was difficult to come in the Fermanagh area by back then. Because I had recently come forward in an Ian Paisley meeting, he took me round to show to friends who were doubtful of Ian Paisley’s ministry and witness because of the public ridicule heaped upon him by church ‘dignitaries’!
There were five characteristics of the day which I will list
1. There was spirit of prayer abroad. There was a burden to pray. Attendance at the mid-week prayer meeting was good. In Ravenhill, there was a prayer meeting before the prayer meeting! In Lisbellaw, we ran two mid-week prayer meetings to accommodate the people!
2. There was a deep reverence and fear of the Lord. That fear gave courage to the most timid. Witness the testimony of Obadiah, a much maligned saint of God. “ . . . but I thy servant fear the LORD from my youth. Was it not told my lord what I did when Jezebel slew the prophets of the LORD, how I hid an hundred men of the LORD’S prophets by fifty in a cave, and fed them with bread and water?”
He dared to do what Elijah, for a time, feared to do – defy Jezebel!!!
3. There was a boldness in the face of much opposition. Few today realise what FP believers faced in the 60s and 70s. (Frank Bleakley’s report to me, re IRA attempt to shoot me.) UDR recruits uniform taken from him after it was discovered he attended FP meetings in Lisbellaw! Refusal to employ Ann as a teacher. Difficulties encountered in obtaining planning permission to build churches. (Attempt to burn Lisbellaw, long controversy surrounding plan to build Kilskeery!!) And many other incidents!
4. There was deep burden for souls. I witnessed that burden and the weeping that goes with it in Ravenhill and many other places. Ordinary members sacrificed most generously in order to build churches so that their families, friend and neighbours could hear the gospel.
5. There was a spirit of spiritual adventure abroad amongst God’s people. In those early days there was venturing forth to evangelise and start congregations. The enemy was challenged to debates and letters and leaflets and publications abounded, all seeking to draw attention to the betrayal of the gospel taking place. Innovations like the radio ministry were launched. The enemy was ‘chased’ wherever he hid!