From the first Synod to the present day

By 1800, although the number of congregations had increased to nearly thirty, there were only three ministers, each of whom had a very heavy workload. The work of these ministers was somewhat alleviated by the ordination of ten new ministers between 1802 and 1809. One of the most significant ordinations was that of Josias Alexander, the first minister of a congregation in Belfast. Hitherto nearly all Reformed Presbyterian congregations had been in rural areas or small towns.

With the increase in the number of congregations and ministers, the Irish Reformed Presbytery decided at a meeting in Maghera on 7 November 1810 to divide the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland into four presbyteries, to be called simply the northern, southern, eastern and western presbyteries, and to form a synod which would have oversight of the presbyteries.

The first synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church was formally constituted at Cullybackey on 1 May 1811 under the moderatorship of Rev. William Stavely. It is this same structure that continues today. From being a scattered remnant in the late 1690s, the Covenanters had now established themselves as a recognised denomination in the early 1800s.

The subsequent history of the denomination may be sketched briefly. The Church continued to grow in terms of membership and the number of congregations in the nineteenth century. The Church’s uncompromising stance on various issues won it support from sections of the population. For example, the Covenanters clear opposition to Arianism, a teaching that questioned the deity of Christ, appealed to those Presbyterians who were concerned that their own denomination was vacillating on the issue and some defected to the Church. Rev. John Paul, the Reformed Presbyterian minister of Loughmourne, was regarded as a champion of orthodoxy for his forthright challenging of proponents of Arianism.

Paul was later involved in a major controversy over the Covenanter attitiude towards civil government that resulted in a split in the Reformed Presbyterian Church and the formation of the Eastern Reformed Presbyterian Church. The Eastern RP Church began to disintegrate in the late nineteenth century and ceased to exist before the end of the first decade of the twentieth. Several congregations came back into the Reformed Presbyterian Church, but others joined the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church or disappeared altogether.

In the twentieth century the Church has faced the same problems that have affected other denominations across the north of Ireland. Rural depopulation has weakened many rural congregations. The Troubles significantly affected urban congregations. One Belfast church was destroyed in a terrorist bomb in 1972, while another was forced to relocate outside of the city because of civil unrest. The church in Londonderry closed in 1990 and its membership was transferred to a rural congregations seven miles outside the city.

The general decline in church attendance affecting all denominations has also had an impact on the Church. Nonetheless the denomination continues to be outward looking. A new theological college was opened at Knockbracken recently and new works are in the process of being established at a number of places. Furthermore, a high level of commitment means that many existing congregations can survive with a relatively small membership.