Radicals in Rosemary Street
A REGULAR FEATURE of early autumn in Northern Ireland is the European Heritage Open Days when we ordinary folk are able to visit private houses, public buildings, churches and gardens that are not generally open to the public.
One building which has always fascinated me, although I had never previously set foot in it is the First Presbyterian Church in Rosemary Street in the centre of Belfast. Presbyterians have met together on this site since 1695 although the congregation was founded in 1644. The present meeting house dates from 1783, which makes it Belfast's oldest surviving place of worship within the old town boundaries. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, preached there in 1789.
At one time there were three Presbyterian churches in Rosemary Street. The Second church stood behind the current building. The congregation moved to Elmwood Avenue in 1896. A multi-storey car park occupies the site today. The Third church had a fine building further down the street. This was destroyed by German aircraft in 1941. The Masonic Hall with its fine John Luke mural of the building of the temple of Solomon now stands on that site. This congregation now meets in a building on the North Circular Road - Rosemary Presbyterian Church. Despite damage from terrorist bombs during our own recent troubles, the First Church still thrives and keeps its building in good order.
The first thing to catch my eye in the vestibule was a magnificent marble 1914-18 war memorial by the sculptor, Rosamund Praeger. The inscription reads, “They whom we gratefully commemorate were, 'numbered among those, at the call of King and Country, left all that was dear to them, endured hardness, faced danger, and finally passé out of the sight of men by the path of duty and self-sacrifice, giving up their own lives that others may live in freedom. II Sam X.12.”
Entering the main meeting area the most unusual feature of the church becomes obvious. The building is oval. Indeed, with its carved wooden pews it resembles a boat. The elevated pulpit gives a commanding view of every part of the building, so the preacher can be seen and heard from every space in the pews.
The sides of the building have a number of carved memorials and plaques to the memory of former members and ministers of the congregation. There appear to have been two William Bruces. A fine stained glass window showing jesus teaching children is in memory of Samuel Martin of Shrigley, Co Down, Founder of the Sick Children's Hospital, Belfast who died in 1872. A carved tablet of a man studying a book commemorates William Tennent 1759-1882 “A consistent advocate of free inquiry and rational liberty.”
This last inscription gives us a clue that the First Church was a major player in the political and religious controversies that engulfed Presbyterianism in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.
William Drennan of the United Irishmen was born in the manse of the church where his father was minister. He wrote a number of political pamphlets and became a founding member of the Society of United Irishmen. In 1794 he was tried for sedition, but was acquitted, whereupon he withdrew from the Society but without giving up his interest in radical politics, particularly the question of Catholic emancipation.
He wrote a good deal of poetry, largely forgotten today, but coined the phrase, "the Emerald Isle," his poem When Erin First Rose. He is buried in the Clifton Street graveyard. A blue plaque to his memory can be seen on the Central Hall, the site of the manse where he was born.
A major religious issue was over the subscription to a doctrinal standard known as the Westminster Confession of Faith. The orthodox 'subscribing' party was led by Dr Henry Cooke whose statue -the black man - stands at the top of Wellington Place. The champion of the liberal 'non-subscribing' party was Dr Henry Montgomery. He led seventeen congregations out of the Synod of Ulster to from the Remonstrant Synod in 1830. This merged with another body in 1910 to become the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church which has some 34 congregations, largely in eastern Ulster.
Anyone curious to see what they're all about can attend Sunday services at 10:30am only. I understand that the building is now also open to the public on Wednesday mornings and is well worth a visit. The sedentary can check out www.firstchurchbelfast.com