The Irish Reformed Presbytery

On 2 July 1757 the first ordination of a Reformed Presbyterian minister in Ireland took place. The ordinand was William Martin. He had been born at Ballyspallen, near Limavady, in 1729 and was educated at Glasgow University, graduating in 1753. He then studied theology and in 1756 was licensed to preach the Gospel by the Scottish Reformed Presbytery. At this time it was agreed that his field of service should be Ireland. The venue for his ordination was at a place known as The Vow, a site marked by an ancient graveyard. Here was a ferry over the River Bann, making it a convenient meeting place for Covenanters in counties Antrim and Londonderry. To begin with Martin ministered to Covenanter societies scattered from Donegal to north Down.

In 1760 the Covenanters in Ireland were divided into two congregations. Martin chose the Antrim congregation and based himself at Kellswater, near Ballymena. It was here that the first Covenanter meeting-house was built. As there was no minister for the other congregation, covering Donegal, Londonderry and Tyrone, he was asked to give what help he could to Covenanters living in these counties.

Martin’s most important assistant at this time was a man named Matthew Lynn. He was from Larne and like Martin had been educated at Glasgow University, graduating in 1760 at the age of 29. While a student he had been actively involved with the Scottish Reformed Presbytery, serving at one time as its clerk. He was licensed at Carnaughts near Ballymena on 26 July 1761. He spent the next two years as an itinerant preacher, but on 26 July 1763 was ordained minister of the newly formed Bannside congregation. His ministry covered most of County Londonderry and he seems to have been particularly active in the south-eastern part of the county in the Bellaghy and Magherafelt areas.

Now that there were two ordained ministers in Ireland, the Covenanters were in a position to form an Irish Reformed Presbytery. It was at this time that the church acquired its official name, the Reformed Presbyterian Church. This Presbytery lasted until 1779 and in this time several more ordinations took place: William James at Bready in 1765; Daniel McClelland at Laymore near Ballymena also in 1765; Thomas Hamilton at Faughan in 1770 and William Stavely at Conlig, near Newtownards, in 1772.

The first Irish Reformed Presbytery was dissolved in 1779. Its collapse was the result of several factors. The first was the emigration to America of several of its ministers. These included both of the original ministers, William Martin and Matthew Lynn in 1772 and 1773. The circumstances surrounding the emigration of the former is examined in some detail in Jean Stephenson’s Scotch-Irish migration to South Carolina, 1772 (Rev. William Martin and his five shiploads of settlers) (1971). Martin was a major figure in the early Reformed Presbyterian Church in America. When in 1782 several Covenanter ministers joined with the Seceders to form the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church Martin stood apart from them and alone ‘kept alive the Covenanter Church in America’. In 1779 William James of Bready and Thomas Hamilton of Faughan both died.

With a depleted ministry the church decided to transfer its official administration to the Scottish Reformed Presbytery and a standing committee took care of local matters in Ireland. The willingness of the Irish Covenanters to forgo their independence indicates a desire on their part to maintain a regular presbyterial system of church government rather than continue in a somewhat haphazard fashion. Despite losing its independence the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Ireland continued to grow.

In 1780 the Scottish Reformed Presbytery sent a Mr Thorburn to Ulster to investigate the state of the societies and congregations in the south and west of the province. His tour took in Armagh, Monaghan, Tyrone, Donegal and Londonderry. He preached at Ballybay, County Monaghan, and preached and baptised some children at Carnteel (Aughnacloy), County Tyrone. In his report to the Scottish Presbytery he commented that he had found the people ‘in those remote parts sensible and better established in the principles of the Presbytery’s testimony than could be expected’.

The dominant figure within the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the late eighteenth century was William Stavely. He had been born into a Covenanter family at Fernisky near Kells, his great-grandfather having moved from Yorkshire to County Antrim in the 1630s. From his base at Knockbracken Stavely ministered over a vast area stretching from Donaghadee to County Cavan and was responsible for organising a further five congregations, earning himself the epithet ‘The Apostle of the Covenanters’. In 1786 William Gamble was ordained at Ballygey, near Letterkenny, the first Covenanter minister to have a settled ministry in County Donegal.

In December 1792, with six ministers and twelve congregations, the Irish Reformed Presbytery was reorganised. The increasing support for the Covenanters was giving cause for concern to some within the Presbyterian Church and this unease was given expression in published literature. One unjustifiably critical pamphlet on the Reformed Presbyterians was An address to the people of Connor containing a clear and full vindication of the Synod of Ulster from the aspersions of the people called Covenanters (1794), which though ‘written in the name of Sanders Donald late sexton of Connor’ was the work of Rev. Henry Henry [sic], Presbyterian minister of Connor.