The Church in the 1790s

The reorganisation of the Irish Reformed Presbytery came at a time of unrest in the north of Ireland. The previous year the United Irishmen had been founded in Belfast by radical Presbyterians influenced by the American and French Revolutions. Many within the Reformed Presbyterian Church found it impossible to, as one historian has put it, ‘escape the revolutionary contagion’. In 1793 Rev. James McKinney of Dervock and Kilraughts preached a sermon on the ‘Rights of God’ that was denounced as treasonable and was forced to flee to America to escape arrest.

Another to go into exile was Rev. William Gibson of Kellswater and Cullybackey who preached to large crowds in County Antrim, reputedly prophesying the ‘immediate destruction of the British monarchy’. [When he left for America in 1797 Gibson was accompanied by two students for the ministry, John Black and Samuel Brown Wylie. The following year they met up with McKinney and established a presbytery in Philadelphia marking the formal beginnings of what is now the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America.]

Undoubtedly for some it seemed that the years of active state persecution had returned. In Maghera a young man of the Reformed Presbyterian Church was executed after information against him had been given by the Church of Ireland minister. The circulation of Life and Prophecies by Alexander Peden, a Covenanter preacher from the ‘Killing Times’, which prophesied an invasion of the British Isles by the French heightened tensions still further.

Even more so than any of his ministerial colleagues, Rev. William Stavely was drawn into the political and revolutionary intrigue of the time. He was initially associated with the United Irishmen, but withdrew from the movement when he saw the direction it was taking. He remained, however, a figure of suspicion to the authorities.

A Sunday service in Knockbracken in June 1797 was interrupted when a detachment of troops arrived to arrest Stavely on the grounds that he had hidden arms in the meeting house. He was a prisoner for two months on this occasion. In October 1797 he accompanied the United Irishman William Orr to his place of execution in Carrickfergus and, in the minds of many, publicly identified himself with the revolutionary cause.

In June 1798 soldiers returning from the Battle of Ballynahinch burned Stavely’s house and carried him a prisoner to Belfast. There he was ill-treated by the guards who ‘threatened to hack me, hang me, burn me’. He was then transferred to a prison ship in Belfast Lough and eventually released, again with no charges proven against him.

Though vindicated, Stavely’s relationship with his congregation had been pushed to breaking point by recent events, and moved to the joint congregation of Cullybackey and Kellswater. This was where he had been born and raised and it provided him with an opportunity to make a fresh start in pastoral responsibilities after the pressures and difficulties of the 1790s. Here he enjoyed a successful ministry until his death in 1825.