The forerunners of the Free Presbyterian Church

“Glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen,” Luke 2:20.

Read Psalm 145.

Stream or download Sacred Memories of God’s goodness, Pt 1

What I will be attempting to do in these meetings is really a development of a message I preached in Mourne Free Presbyterian Church, at the invitation of the minister, Rev Andrew Patterson, back on January 11th this year. I am grateful to the elders here in Kilskeery for the invitation to enlarge upon what I said in Kilkeel over the three nights of these meetings.

I hope to deal with the topics:

May the Lord be pleased to bless us and help in this task.

It is a great sin to forget God’s merciful dealings with our forefathers. It is also a most dangerous thing to do! I must confess that I fear that such a folly is breaking out amongst us!

Such a sin is often reported in the Scriptures. Jeremiah 2:32 is an example. “Can a maid forget her ornaments, or a bride her attire? yet my people have forgotten me days without number.” It is clear that such a sin was common and furthermore, such forgetfulness illustrates what little value is placed upon a remembering of God’s mercy and love toward His people!

Oftentimes one can detect an unwillingness to recall the former deeds of God for the possible reason that such recollections highlight just what it was that our fathers did that pleased the Lord. Seeing what it is that pleased the Lord in the past, we might well be challenged by the question: “Well, why are we not doing that today?”
That is question some would rather the people did not ask, for giving an acceptable answer is very difficult indeed!

May we be delivered from such an improper spirit and attitude!

Let us therefore, not be guilty of such forgetfulness but rather let us treasure the record of God’s gracious dealings with us and our fathers.

I want to go back further than 1951, the year in which the Free Presbyterian Church was founded. I want to go back further than Dr Ian Paisley, who was God’s instrument in the formation of the Free Presbyterian Church. I want to go back nearly 100 years to the days of revival blessing in Ulster under the ministry of the Presbyterian evangelist, William Patterson Nicholson, or WP as he was affectionately known.

Northern Ireland was a very recent political entity back then, being formed in 1921 as a result of the ‘Home Rule Crisis’ which brought Ireland as a whole to the verge of civil war.
The six north eastern counties of the Province of Ulster refused to join with the other 26 counties in Ireland, which desired to be separated from the United Kingdom. Because of the predominance of Roman Catholicism in the 26 counties, our Protestant forefathers feared becoming a minority within a Roman Catholic Ireland. Ulster Protestants had centuries of experience of “the tender mercies” (Proverbs 12:1) of the wicked Irish Roman Catholic, anti-British and anti-Protestant activists!
Sinn Fein was the predominant party in the 26 counties and it pushed for Home Rule and the British Government granted it to them. Of course, then as now, Sinn Fein and its armed wing, the Irish Republican Army, desired to force the Six counties of Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom and join with the rest of Ireland. The terrorist war it had waged against the United Kingdom forces was now concentrated upon Northern Ireland and there was great public disorder in the very early years of Northern Ireland’s existence.

W P Nicholson

It was during this time of terror and disorder that God was pleased to call His servant W P Nicholson back to his homeland to undertake a time gospel missioning. He was then in his mid-40s. When back home, he later recalled what it was he witnessed. “When I arrived in Ulster I found the country terribly disturbed, there was a curfew and Belfast City was deserted”.

His first of many missions was in the Albert Hall on the Shankill Road. It was attended by many men who worked in the shipyard. Hundreds of such men were saved. While the ensuing days were fruitful days they were also testing days. The Albert Hall was one of the largest auditoriums in Belfast in 1920 and to fill it in normal times was challenging enough but in an atmosphere of fear generated by the terrorist strife it was most challenging. W P refers to this time by saying, “Those who came to the early meetings in the Albert Hall had to lie flat in tram-cars because of the bombs that were going off as they passed by. Even during the meetings, shots being fired outside could be heard frequently inside by those brave enough to attend the meetings”.

Those were the beginning of a new season of glory days, not only for Ulster but also for W.P. Nicholson. The Nicholson Revival, which brought him to almost every main town in the six counties, was under way.

Professor Davey.

There was another ‘religious stir’ taking place at that time which was of a very different kind. I refer to the ‘Heresy Trial’ of Professor Davey. It took place in 1927. I would readily believe that it was a direct result of the revived spirit amongst Presbyterian believers which stemmed from the WP Nicholson meetings and his very direct and pointed denunciations of liberal theological teaching in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. A revived soul is bold in the defence of his Saviour’s honour and will not silently ignore the Lord’s truth being denied.
It is to be remembered that revival does not banish sin or stop apostasy! God’s answer to apostasy is judgment. The world in Noah’s day learned that as did the Sodomite’s in Lot’s day!
Many believe that revival would cure a denomination that has allowed apostasy to find a home. So they stay within such a poisoned church and pray for revival. It is a vain and unbiblical hope! The revival of Nicholson’s day did not cure the Irish Presbyterian Church from apostasy. That disease has grown and advanced since the first days of its appearance in the person of J E Davey.

‘German Rationalism’

Professor J E Davey was a graduate of a number of universities, including that of Heidelberg, from which he brought back to Belfast the false and destructive notions of ‘German Rationalism’. In June 1917, he became the youngest person ever appointed to a chair at Assembly’s College, the Presbyterian College in Belfast. It is now called ‘Union College’. There is evidence that even before Davey’s appointment, there were modernist professors lecturing to Irish Presbyterian ministerial students. However, the rot grew worse with his appointment to the Chair of Church History. He would subsequently hold chairs of Biblical Literature, Hebrew and Old Testament, and New Testament Language, Literature and Theology. Dr Davey had already, in 1923, published a book, “The changing vesture of the faith: studies in the origins and development of Christian forms of belief, institution and observance”. This book highlighted his profane anti-Bible theology. Rev James Hunter, then Minister of Knock Presbyterian Church and a member of the committee of management of the College, led the protests against this modernist. Doubtless he would have been encouraged to do so by the sermons of WP Nicholson and his attacks upon liberalism in the pulpits.  On one occasion WP had said of the Assembly’s College Principal, Dr James Haire: “There couldn’t be anything good from a hare for the Bible teaches it is an unclean animal!” He was right.

Rev James Hunter and others were accused of ‘dirty tactics’, when they issued leaflets against Professor Davey and heckled him at public and church meetings. Just what would they make of the Saviour’s denunciations of His enemies in Matthew 23 and of His purging of the temple and driving out those he called thieves and robbers?!

Rev Hunter issued one particular leaflet entitled: “The Assembly’s College, a seedbed of Rationalism”, and in these papers warning notes were sounded, quotations were given from the text books used in the College. As a result, as Dr Paisley put it in a sermon preached in 1983,  “the whole of the Church was alarmed – alarmed that a group of ministers should dare to attack ‘The Holiest of All’, the Assembly’s College, and point the finger at the leading Professors of the Church.”
In his sermon, Dr Paisley goes on to say: “Instead of trying the Professors for their heresy they tried Rev. James Hunter. They rebuked him for daring to go out and publish these pamphlets, and when he appealed to the General Assembly he was publicly rebuked, by 499 votes to 115, for the action he took in warning the Church about the leavening process of apostasy and heresy which flowed from the Assembly’s College.”

Rev James Hunter and Rev W J Grier, who as a student in Assembly’s College and had sat under Davey’s lectures, and was a key witness against Davey in the trial, were amongst those who formed the Irish Evangelical Church, now called the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, in October 1927. That took place a very short time after the General Assembly upheld the decision to acquit Davey of all charges brought against him by a verdict of 707 votes to 82.

Pastor James Kyle Paisley

Another important factor in the emergence of the Free Presbyterian Church was the separation of Pastor James Kyle Paisley from Hill Street Baptist Church in Ballymena in 1933. He had raised issues about of the sale of alcohol and of immoral behaviour amongst members of the congregation. This created a controversy which resulted in him seceding and forming the Independent Baptist Tabernacle in Waveney Road, Ballymena. Ian Paisley was seven years old.

Amongst those who supported Pastor Paisley was Mr Charles Beattie, father of Rev William Beattie, Mrs Eunice Douglas, wife of Dr John Douglas and Mrs Ann Foster, my own wife. Mr Charles Beattie became an elder in the Tabernacle and its treasurer until, his death in 1963, aged 54 years. He had been saved in W P Nicholson’s mission in Wellington Street Presbyterian Church, Ballymena in 1923. W P Nicholson’s preaching in Ballymena was wonderfully blessed with some 2500 people coming forwarded inquiring about salvation, the highest number of any of his campaigns.

The Sabbath morning after Dr Paisley’s ordination on August 1st, 1947, WP Nicholson was in the congregation and that was significant for the Ravenhill Evangelical Mission Church in which Rev Ian Paisley had just been installed as minister. Its founders had been very much in favour of WP Nicholson’s stand on worldliness and his denunciation of modern trends amongst Christians.

The founders of Ravenhill Evangelical Mission Church, elders who had seceded from Ravenhill Presbyterian Church in 1935, had decided to withdraw, not so much about doctrinal or theological issues, though they were arising in hearts, but more about what the seceding elders saw as worldly trends beginning to emerge in the Ravenhill congregation and in the Presbyterian Church generally.

These various events form part of the mosaic of our church.

12th April, 1964

When I first attended Dr Paisley’s church on 12th April, 1964, the Spirit of blessing had been resting upon his ministry from the time, some 16 years earlier, in 1949, when he and others, Mr Bob Scott and Mr Jim Welsh and teenager John Douglas, had waited upon the Lord for prolonged periods of prayer, involving day and and night sessions.

The prayer times had been convened with a view to obtaining God’s blessing upon open-air witnessing, but after a short time it became a specific seeking of God for revival blessing.

John Douglas came home from work on the Monday evening, hoping to rejoin the prayer meeting which had begun on the Friday evening, September 30th. The prayer warriors had felt compelled to stay before God until the blessing came, though youthful John Douglas was forbidden by his father to stay at the overnight seasons of prayer. He rejoined the prayer times each morning though he had to go to work on the Monday. When he rushed down to the church on Monday evening he was met by Dr Paisley at the church at about 6.30, joyfully announcing to him: “Revival has come!” This was  early 3rd 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 of 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.
Those times were considered to be real times of revival blessing.

But after some two years of such blessed times, a change came.

Events in Crossgar in 1951 altered the affairs of Ian Paisley and the path God was leading him on.