The Editor in conversation with Rev. and Mrs. James Beggs
“Four churches opened in 1951—even for young people it was very, very exciting!” These words, spoken by Mrs. Beggs, highlight what happens in the hearts of God’s people when God is at work. She counted it a great privilege to have been a teenager in the founding years of the Free Presbyterian Church (FPC).
Young person, do you count it a privilege to be involved in the FPC? What do you look for in a church? What is it that makes church exciting? There are those who are Free Presbyterians due to the convenience of birth or location, but what about being a Free Presbyterian out of conviction? Have you considered what characterizes the FPC? To help you with this, I want to relate a Zoom call with a couple of people who were teenagers when the FPC was formed in 1951.
Rev. James Beggs is the Minister Emeritus of Ballymena FPC, serving as pastor there until his retirement in 2000. He wasn’t a Free Presbyterian in the early 1950’s. He attributes meeting a certain Miss Margaret Paisley in college as one of God’s providences leading him into the work! Mrs. Margaret Beggs (née Paisley) was the younger sister of Dr. Ian R.K. Paisley by ten years. As a teenager she recalls attending the opening of the first Free Presbyterian churches founded in 1951: Crossgar, Martyrs’ Memorial, Cabra, and Rasharkin. Mrs. Beggs knew that God was moving. Souls were being saved and there was a genuine excitement to see God at work. Ninety-four souls professed faith in Christ in the gospel meetings conducted by Dr. Paisley in that first Crossgar mission.
While Mrs. Beggs was attending these special meetings, Mr. Beggs was being raised in a staunch Irish Presbyterian church. With sadness, he recalls how rare it was to hear the gospel being preached. Even though he was a young person and unsaved, he could detect the difference between a visiting “evangelical” preacher and the regular messages. He was saved while at college in Belfast and, when a friendship began to blossom with Miss Paisley, he was introduced to the preaching of Pastor J. Kyle Paisley and his two sons, Harold and Ian.
I’ll let Rev. Beggs relate his reasons for leaving Irish Presbyterianism and embracing the work of the FPC:
“I came to the position where I could no longer support the [General] Assembly. There were three things that led up to the formation of the FPC. First of all, there was the heresy trial of Professor Davy (1927). When you read the records of his teaching, there was no question that he was guilty and yet he was exonerated by the Assembly and later even elected as Moderator. This was evidence of a departure from the faith and the acceptance of apostasy. As a Presbyterian, how could anyone who believed the Word of God accept this? Then there was the rise of ecumenism in the Irish Presbyterian Church. One leading man in the formation of the World Council of Churches said, “This is a reversal of the trend that began at the Reformation.” For me that was sufficient. But thirdly, there was the rejection of the gospel in Crossgar.”
Though Rev. Beggs was not in the FPC in 1951, the recollection of those events was determinative in his decision to join the fledgling denomination.
Very early on, Rev. Beggs identified a new form of preaching in the new denomination. In his own words,
“The early preaching had a tremendous impact on me. The application of the Reformed faith to the need of the sinner—I had never heard that! The preaching got to me!”
From my own experience, I can confirm that what struck Rev. Beggs in the early days of the FPC molded his own ministry. I heard him preach in 2004 about the essence of Free Presbyterianism. I recall his passion as he presented with joy the fact that the Free Church sought to preach Christ evangelistically to sinners, upon the foundation of the historic doctrines of Christ. It was this combination of zeal for truth and zeal for souls that convinced me to plant my flag in this denomination. These things ought to burn within all of our hearts. It is a privilege to sit under such preaching.
As our interview came to a close, Rev. Beggs was eager to make one last point about the early days.
“I came into the church as a young believer and we had late-night prayer meetings. I learned to pray amongst those men and there was a spirit of prayer. If the Free church is here today, I believe it’s in answer to prayer. The Free Church is far from perfect, but the Lord has been good and I see much of what happened as an answer to prayer.”
Reflecting on the unique characters of those present, Rev. Beggs, told me with a smile, “Those prayer meetings weren’t always ‘orthodox’ but the Spirit of God was there. They were men whom God had taught to pray. We should never lose sight of the place of prayer in the work.”
The point is this–young people in the 1950s and 60s in Northern Ireland lived through times when God came down. The Lord’s presence drew them to meetings where they simply praised God and sat under the preaching of the Word. The Lord moved in their hearts so that they gladly met for seasons of prayer, longing that others would know the joy that they knew.
Young people, do not seek a manufactured excitement in your church life. The church may allow the world to come in and determine what will draw people and produce joy. Genuine joy in the things of God arises when the Lord comes in His presence. Power in preaching, prayer, and praise results. Understand that the heartbeat of the FPC is the preaching of Christ and Him crucified. It is our earnest desire to apply that truth powerfully to saint and sinner alike. When we fall short of this, we fail. When other things cause us to forget this, we fail. Young person, join with us in praying for this denomination, that we would know the power of God upon us. I want to know the “exciting times” when God comes down!