First Presbyterian Church, Banbridge
When the Presbyterians first built their own churches across Ulster in the years following 1668, the parishes were often very large, especially in the districts where the Scots population was more thinly spread. Only at the end of the century and beyond was the size of parishes reduced and new congregations founded to meet the needs of growing towns and villages, and of the growing population in general. This was the case in Banbridge.
The people living in and about that town were connected with the congregation of Magherally whose meeting house was then in the townland of Drumneath. In 1716 they decided to press for a church of their own. The issue was debated at length at meetings of the General Synod in 1716 and 1717, where Samuel Henry pleaded on behalf of Banbridge that the congregation be continued there “it not being practicable for them to go elsewhere in winter, because of the great waters.” In any case the people of Banbridge did not wait for the official decision, but had gone ahead in 1716 to build their new church at what has since become known as “The Old Meeting House Green” on the Lurgan Road. The Synod bowed to the inevitable and instructed the Rev Samuel Young, the minister of Magherally, to preach alternately in the two churches. In 1718 Mr Young resigned his charge, in order to emigrate to America, and the people of Banbridge prepared to call a minister of their own.
The choice fell upon Archibald Maclaine who was Ordained there on 26 th April 1720. He was an active member of the “Belfast Society” and doubtless shared in the discussions there that did so much to shape the thinking of the Non-Subscribers. His brother Alexander was later to become minister of the Non-Subscribing congregation in Antrim, and it seems clear that Maclaine sympathised with, if he did not fully share, the opinions of the Non-Subscribers. It is notable that from 1725 until the end of his ministry in 1740 the congregation was connected with the Presbytery of Killyleagh, probably the most liberal Presbytery remaining within the General Synod. There were significant in that they showed a “new light” or liberal tradition Owithin this congregation, which would come to the fore once again in the 1820’s.
The Rev James Davis was Ordained in Banbridge on 23 rd March 1814. At that time the Presbyterian Church in Ireland was a fairly broadly based denomination and contained many ministers and congregations of liberal sympathies. As the outcome, however, of a prolonged campaign spearheaded by the Rev Henry Cooke, the General Synod of Ulster took steps to ensure that in the future Non-Subscribers and kindred spirits would have no place within the church. James Davis took a leading part in the fight of the Non-Subscribers against this process. When, in the course of 1828, it become obvious that the Non-Subscribers were being overwhelmed and would have to withdraw, it was Davis who penned the document of protest, known as the Remonstrance and from which the “Remonstrant Synod of Ulster” was shortly to take its name.
His involvement in this proved unacceptable to a group of the more conservative members of his congregation who withdrew, and on the 5th August 1828 applied to the Presbytery of Dromore to be erected as a new congregation. This was the origin of the congregation now known as Scarva Street. In the following year Mr Davis and his congregation broke away from the General Synod of Ulster and became part of the Remonstrant Presbytery of Armagh. In May 1830 the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster met for the first time and the new denomination was inaugurated.
These years must have been a difficult time for James Davis and his congregation. Nevertheless the high personal esteem in which the minister was held locally did much to ease the worst of the conflict. Part of the proof of this must be in the large and impressive meeting house which was opened on the 6 th October 1846. The size and quality of the building must reflect a congregation that had continued both large and wealthy. Davis died on the 21 st July 1847, and was buried in the graveyard at Old Meeting House Green, under the site of his old pulpit.
It is unfortunate that the good work accomplished by Davis was shortly to be undermined by a dispute about the choice of his successor. The man chosen was the Rev John Montgomery, a nephew of Dr Henry Montgomery of Dunmurry. It is not apparent what was the exact nature of the objection to Mr Montgomery, but it was sufficiently strong for a substantial body of people to leave the congregation and to found a second Non-Subscribing Presbyterian congregation in the town. The division substantially injured the congregation. The bitter acrimony between the two injured the whole denomination in the eyes of the local community.
Nevertheless the congregation continued numerically strong with U960 individual members in 1850 and 910 in 1858. John Montgomery died in 1867 to be succeeded by the Rev Francis McCammon, and at this period the congregation appeared to be thriving. The Sunday School numbers over 100 pupils, with its own library of over 200 volumes. The Temperance Society and congregational socials were very well attended and for a period beginning in March 1876 the congregation actually employed the Rev HT Basford, formerly of Leicester, as “Missionary Minister.” However numbers continued to fall, standing at something like 650 in 1883.
The congregation continued to present a strong witness in the community, under a succession of ministers, into the twentieth century. The most notable of whom was Rev Percival Godding, who held a prominent position in the town through his keen interest in the work of the British Legion and also such bodies as the Worker’s Educational Association and the Board of Governors of Banbridge Academy of which he was a member for many years. Nevertheless, in spite of all his efforts and his high public profile it proved difficult to reverse the decline in numbers, which dropped from something like 260 members in 1920, the year of his installation, to something under 100 in 1953, the year of his death.
Mr Godding was succeeded by the Rev SL Johnston and then in 1963 by the Rev JW Crozier. However Mr Crozier resigned the charge in 1965 and after a long vacancy it became apparent that Banbridge could no longer support a minister of its own. On the 11 th March 1976 the Rev Angus McQ. McCormick, minister of Newry and Warrenpoint, was installed as minister of Banbridge. This linkage was broken when McCormick’s successor the Rev DH Porter resigned his charge of Banbridge in 1989. Following a further vacancy Banbridge was linked with Dromore, and on 24 th September 1993 the Rev Angus McQ. McCormick was installed for the second time in Banbridge.
At the present time the congregation, through numerically small, maintains a strong and active witness to the best traditions on Non-Subscribing Presbyterianism in Banbridge, under the care of the Rev Norman Hutton, minister of Newry and Warrenpoint and who was installed as minister in 2001.
(Source: Rev. Dr. J.W. Nelson, B.A., B.D., PhD.)
Keywords: Banbridge Church, Non-Subscribing, Presbyterian, Uniterian, architecture, church, landscape
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