Pictured in Crossgar on March 17, 1951 at the opening of the first Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster. L to R: Jack Gibson, George Hutton, Cecil Harvey, Rev. Dr. Ian Paisley, William Emerson, Rev. George Stears (Minister Protem), James Morrison, George K Gibson, William Miscampbell, and Hugh James Adams.
I first set foot in Ravenhill Evangelical Church with my parents in 1948. We belonged to a country church where, for me as a twelve-year-old boy, the most interesting activity was to guess at what stage one of the leading elders would fall asleep. He always did— and little wonder, with the droning of the uninspired clergyman. At that time, our family was religious, but unregenerate.
What a complete change we experienced that first Sunday morning in Ravenhill. The church was well filled with ordinary people who seemed to be genuinely happy as they anticipated the beginning of the service. Fascinated, we watched as the young preacher made his way to the pulpit, looking younger than his twenty-two years. He smiled radiantly, but I was under the impression that Christians were supposed to look miserable as a badge of their superior piety.
The hymns were bright and happy, the prayer was powerful, and the preaching was dynamic as the Rev. Ian Paisley expounded the gospel. The whole service had such an impact on us, even as unbelievers, that we never went back to our ancestral church again. Sometime thereafter, my mother and stepfather were converted to Christ; however, I did not get right with God for another seven years.
In the beginning
The first Free Presbyterian Church was founded on March 17, 1951, a story that will be told by many in this Seventieth Anniversary year. It came into being through a gospel mission in Crossgar, Northern Ireland, conducted by Dr. Paisley. The mission was attended by much controversy, mostly because of the general compromises of the major churches, and specifically in this case because of the last-minute withdrawal of permission to hold the gospel campaign in the church hall of Lissara Presbyterian Church in Crossgar. The services were speedily moved into a little “tin” mission hall where many souls were converted to Christ during the course of the meetings. Although I was still unconverted, I remember attending that mission and the excitement of those formative days.
New converts always need to be sent to a faithful, Bible-believing, gospel-preaching church, where they can be nourished in the Christian faith, but because of the events in Crossgar, it was not possible there. So, a decision was taken that a new denomination was needed not only for Crossgar, but to meet the needs of Christians throughout Northern Ireland, also known as the province of Ulster. Hence, the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster was born in Crossgar on March 17, 1951. The fact it was St. Patrick’s Day was merely coincidental. The Ravenhill church quickly joined ranks, followed in that first year, by churches in Cabra (Ballymoney) and Rasharkin. This led to the formation of the Ulster presbytery.
The mainline churches were most unhappy at this development and for those hardy souls, who joined the movement, life was not easy. They were regarded as traitors to the historic denominations, which largely had left off gospel preaching and joined the ecumenical movement, including the World Council of Churches, which was founded in 1948. The Free Presbyterian Church was the implacable foe of the ecumenical movement and was not afraid to publicly denounce its apostasy.
Public protests against religious modernism raised the profile of the new denomination in Ulster. Believers began to question what the Lord would have them do. Many were like the elder’s wife who told me she felt led of the Lord to leave her church and join us. The Lord spoke to her through Micah 2:10, “Arise ye, and depart; for this is not your rest: because it will destroy you, even with a sore destruction.” She and her family obeyed God. And thousands more followed the Lord outside the camp and formed thriving congregations across the country.
In his excellent book, The Work of the Holy Spirit, Octavius Winslow said, “Be sure of this that when the Lord is about to favour you with some great and peculiar blessing, He may prepare you for it by some great and peculiar trial.” Four churches were formed that first year. Growth was slow but steady for the next few years. By 1966, there were twelve new congregations, and in that year the denomination witnessed what could only be called a revival.
A trial came, however, when three of our ministers, including the founder, were imprisoned for three months for taking part in a peaceful protest against the Presbyterian Church’s alliance with the Roman Catholic Premier of the Republic of Ireland. I was in secular employment as an aircraft design engineer in Canada and the United States from 1963-69. In 1966, while home in Ulster on holiday, I was asked to preach for Dr. Paisley on his first Sunday in prison. What a day that was! The church was packed half an hour before the service time. The atmosphere was electric.
I was asked to read Psalm 142, including the words, “Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise thy name.” I was also asked to read a personal letter from the prison cell from the pastor to his people. I think it was the most emotional meeting I was ever in. Nearly everyone was weeping. Later I was able to visit “Doc” in jail with his two ministerial companions, Revs. John Wylie and Ivan Foster. The jail term was important for the Free Church, because those who opposed Dr. Paisley and the new denomination now saw its ministers willing to suffer for their Christian convictions.
A moving of God
Following their release from jail, the Lord blessed the church with much growth. Congregations sprang up, young men were called into the ministry, and souls were saved. It was 1969 and Ulster entered that lengthy period of crisis known as the “troubles.” There were murders, bombs, and much civil unrest all across the province. Yet in spite of the trouble, the Lord graciously quickened His people.
In those days we were continually attending ground breaking services, stone-laying ceremonies, and openings for new church buildings. There were continual ordinations of new ministers and elders. Many souls were saved. This time of accelerated growth lasted from the mid-sixties until the mid-eighties. Upon reflection, it was a blessed time of revival.
“Go ye into all the world”
In 1976, the Lord opened a door in Toronto for the first Free Presbyterian Church outside N. Ireland. Amid fierce opposition from the media, Toronto Free Presbyterian Church was born. This was followed the next year by Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (now Malvern) and Greenville, South Carolina. Initially, the Free Presbyterian work was under the care of the Ulster presbytery, but in 2005 the North American Presbytery was formed to represent the churches in North America. Under the new presbytery, there are in excess of twenty congregations with missionaries in Jamaica, Mexico, Liberia, Czech Republic, and S. Korea.
The impact of the Free Church in Ulster has been considerable. From its first extension in Toronto, it has established churches in the Irish Republic, mainland UK, and Australia, with missionary works in Spain, Africa, Nepal and affiliations in S. America, India, Romania, Philippines, and more. There are currently over 60 congregations in Ulster. One of the biggest challenges facing the North American Free Church is manpower. The Fredericton (NB) church has no minister, nor has Victoria (BC), and with the soon coming retirement of the present moderator, Rev. Ian Goligher, the Canadian arm is in serious need of an injection of young men for the ministry. Also, the Phoenix (AZ) minister and presbytery clerk, Rev. David Mook, will be retiring soon. The absence of these two brethren will weaken the North American presbytery considerably. We are looking to the Lord to send laborers into these needy harvest fields.
All churches have been badly hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Free Presbyterian Churches are to be commended for their use of social media to get God’s Word out. The founder of sermonaudio, Steven Lee, was a member of the Toronto Church in the mid- eighties, until his father relocated his family to Greenville, South Carolina, to pursue business opportunities. Steven is an elder of Faith Free Presbyterian Church, Greenville. He founded SermonAudio that now broadcasts the gospel worldwide with the largest library of over one million free audio sermons.
Jesus shared one of His last signs of the end-time with these words: “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations: and then shall the end come” (Matthew 24:14). For seventy years, the Free Presbyterian Church has been privileged to play a small part in the furtherance of the gospel of Christ. May the Lord be pleased to allow it to continue for many more.