Records of Congregations

The fullest list of Reformed Presbyterian records currently available can be found in Guide to Church Records, produced by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) and originally published by the Ulster Historical Foundation in 1994. An updated Guide is currently available on the PRONI website (

PRONI has originals or microfilmed copies of records from around thirty individual congregations. The records can include registers of baptisms, marriages and, though much less often, burials/deaths. None of these date from before 1830 which is fairly late and highlights the difficulties for those researching Covenanter ancestors. Even though non-Catholic marriages were registered from 1845 onwards, many of the RP marriage registers date from no earlier than the 1860s.


The scattered nature of the few congregations in the latter part of the eighteenth century would certainly have militated against proper record-keeping. In the early eighteenth century Covenanters in Ireland often had to travel to Scotland or wait for a visiting Scottish minister before children could be baptised or marriages performed. Occasionally, however, previously unknown documents will be discovered that can illuminate the early history of the Church and its members and it is to be hoped that more will continue to be found.

In some cases the lack of early records was due to the accidental destruction of them. The ‘negligence and disobedience of a female servant’ resulted in the loss of some of the records of the Bready congregation in a fire in the home of the clerk of session on 9 September 1868.

There is also evidence of deliberate mutilation of the session book of a congregation in County Donegal, where there is a gap in the minutes between 1874 and 1891. An annotation to the book states: 'Some person with evil design and reckless abandon removed the missing records, and one feels utterly unable to understand the motives that directed such a vile action to outrage justice and stifle truth.'

The session book of the Antrim congregation

Session minutes are often the earliest records of a particular congregation, in many cases predating registers of baptism and marriages. The earliest session minutes are those for the Antrim congregation comprising what are now the separate congregations of Cullybackey and Kellswater. These cover the period from c.1789-1802 and 1806-09 and are available in PRONI (CR5/9/2/1/1 and (CR5/9/2/3/1). A volume covering part of the intervening period can be found in the Presbyterian Historical Society Library.

An examination of the earliest session book for the Antrim congregation reveals much about the Covenanters at the end of the eighteenth century. The session book is in a very fragile condition and parts of it are difficult to read, but nonetheless it contains a remarkable insight into the life of the congregation at the end of the eighteenth century.

On many occasions the Antrim session was forced to discipline its members for a whole range of misdemeanours. Many of these concerned the relationship between Covenanters and the state. Voting in elections was of course banned. Some members, however, ignored this rule and were subsequently brought before the session to explain their actions.

The session was also concerned with helping the poor. In 1792 it was decided that in future the distribution of money to the poor would be supervised by session. Each of the societies was to send in a list of their poor so that they could be enrolled in the records. This would ensure that those who really needed help would receive it and would also help to prevent the misuse of funds.

A contemporaneous session book of the Bready congregation, which at this time covered a large area in north-west Ulster, reveals similar issues. Several individuals were disciplined for marrying in a Church of Ireland church. John Stewart was found guilty of forsaking public worship with his fellow Covenanters and ‘attending some times on the worship of the Methedies [Methodists]’. Other crimes for which
individuals were found guilty included, in the case of Hugh Thompson, ‘applying for the cure of a sick cow to a man under the idea of a charm’ and following ‘certain superstitious forms in applying for a cure’.

Other early session minutes in PRONI include those for Drimbolg, near Tamlaght O’Crilly, beginning in 1809, Grange, a now defunct congregation in east Tyrone, which date from 1812, and Ballenon, in south Armagh, which date from 1820.

Other records

The records for Ballenon include registers admissions, 1849-67, and departures, 1849-68. Among the Londonderry records is a list of members from 1848 with details of baptisms, marriages, deaths and emigration. The records for Limavady (originally known as Broadlane) include names of persons admitted to membership, 1896-1982, removed from membership, 1896-1933 and emigrations, 1887-93. Among the Rathfriland records are lists of members with details of emigrations, deaths and marriages, 1884-1944.

Other useful lists of names include pledge book of the Total Abstinence Association, 1869-1906, among the Newtownards records. The Kilraughts records include a renewal of the National Covenant of Scotland and the Solemn League and Covenant signed by the elders and others, 1855. Printed financial reports for individual congregations can also be found which will name those paying the stipend. The records for Knockbracken include annual reports from 1869-1959 (with gaps) as well as testimonials of the congregation to the Rev Thomas Houston, printed in 1840.

The records of Londonderry include minutes of the building committee, 1856-9, established to oversee the construction of the new church in Clarendon Street (the name by which the congregation was generally known) – ‘a doughty piece of rogue architecture’ as one architectural historian described the completed building.

Another very interesting item was a large volume containing information on Covenanters in north Antrim – especially the congregations of Ballymoney, Dervock and Kilraughts – in the first half of the nineteenth century, including almost annual censuses from c. 1804 to c. 1844 as well as baptisms, marriages and deaths/removals.

Members Lderry RPC cropped