Presbyterianism in Lurgan

Vol. 5 No. 1 - 1984

Presbyterianism in Lurgan


by D.B. CasselLs

"For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ". 2 Cor. 4:6

The Brownlow family arrived in Lurgan in 1609, thus the English plantation was established with a hamlet of some forty cabins around a manor house. The Brownlow family were members of the established Church of England though they did not penalize other religious denominations. Presbyterianism reached Ulster early in the 17th century but there is no record of its establishment in Lurgan until 1684. The early dissenters first met in rooms at the rear of a house in High Street thought to be near the site of the first church building in Hurst's gateway, off High Street. This building dates from 1718, and was known as the Presbyterian Meeting House.

High Street Presbyterian, Lurgan

The first minister, Rev. Hugh Kirkpatrick was not ordained until 1686 and due to the perilous times he was forced to return to his Scottish homeland some four years later. There were troubled times during the Williamite wars of 1688-1691, the outcome of which was to influence European politics. Many of the Protestant Huguenot families were arriving in Ulster at this time from religious persecution in France. Evidence of the religious acceptance of the Brownlows is the fact that Arthur held the unique distinction of being the only member of parliament to sit in both the parliament of James II and the Williamite parliament.


Despite the difficult times the town continued to grow for the population in 1693 was reckoned at 500. However the early eighteenth century saw an increase in the number of Scots and Irish emigrating to the New World, so the early part of this century was a difficult time for the struggling congregation. The town was beginning to acquire the shape it still displays, built along the long ridge of land bounded on both sides by small streams.

The first minister to speak in the new permanent "meeting house" was Rev. James Fleming a notable, popular figure. When the Rev. Fleming received a call to Belfast in 1719, Mr. Brownlow under pressure from the local inhabitants, requested the Belfast Presbytery to allow him to remain in Lurgan.

John Wesley

By the mid-eighteenth century the town was flourishing, largely due to the manufacture of linen. The weekly linen market attracted many visitors to the town wishing to avail themselves of the high quality woven fabric. The various visits of John Wesley, a man burning with love of his Master, had a profound effect on the various churches of the town. Wesley was a workaholic; a comment borne out by a remark made early in his career, "Leisure and I have taken leave of one another."

At this time the Rev. Menagh was ministering to the congregation which was described as having "much spiritual dead-ness". This "deadness" seemed to disappear over the subsequent years as the congregation continued to grow in numbers, many of its members being tenant farmers or employed in the flourishing linen business.

The Rev. William Magee who came to the town in 1780 was married to the daughter of a prominent Lurgan family named Stewart. It is questionable which partner made the greater impact on the area, for Mrs. Magee was to inherit a large fortune. After her death Magee College in Londonderry was built as a Presbyterian College from a bequest of £20,000. Among many other generous bequests Mrs. Magee was to donate £500 to the building of a new church in the town.

The present church is built

The present church was built in the years 1827 - 1828 during the ministry of the Rev. Hamilton Dobbin. The foundation stone was laid by Mr. Brownlow. The ground which was bought simply as and when it came on the market extended from High Street to the wall of Lord Brownlow's estate. Much of the land had been owned by Mr. F. Watson, thus the name Watson's Lane. The stone and mortar building cost approximately- £800.

The latter part of the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century saw a tremendous expansion of the linen industry and by 1850 Lurgan was well established as an important industrial centre, with a population of about 4,500. The number of schools being established in the area reflected the concern for education and in 1845 a school house at the rear of the church was erected. The Rev Thomas Millar had much to do with this concern for education.

Millar was closely associated with the Lurgan Literary Society and was editor of a journal that circulated throughout Ireland. Sadly this popular local figure was killed trag-ically in a train accident near Nuneaton in 1858. A monument was erected to his memory at the corner of Charles Street.

The revival of 1859

The Rev. L.E.Berkeley came to Lurgan a year prior to the revival of 1859. Extracts from the Lurgan Gazette of 9th June give us an insight into this tremendous mile-stone. "All have heard of the great revolution which this `awakening' - which it had been termed - has made in the social and moral position of the localities into which it has come; how it has at once arrested the care-less and ungodly, and almost put a stop to the drinking customs of the people, spreading a seriousness over the face of society, and leading men to think of the great concerns of eternity". The Rev. Berkeley established the church and school of the Montiaghs, known as Belville.

Major repairs and refurbishment were carried out at the end of 1859. During this period the services were held in the Episcopal Church at 3.00 pin which, it was stated, was "most kindly and readily granted for the purpose". Nearly 240 additional seats were added among numberless other improvements to the church and schoolhouse. The special collection amounted to £110. From 1850 to 1860 the population of Lurgan doubled.

Hill Street Presbyterian Church, Lurgan

Hill Street church established

In 1860 after much deliberation, Mr. Berkeley and some leading members of 1st Lurgan established 2nd Lurgan, known as Hill Street. After many exhausting years of tireless labours as editor of a monthly magazine, chaplain to the workhouse and Moderator of the General Assembly, he resigned in 1878.

Many of the succeeding ministers of First Lurgan were to attain the honour of being Moderator of the General Assembly. The clergy continued to play an ever-increasing part in the oversight of education in the area; this is borne out by the success of the various educational establishments.

Music is introduced

Originally there was no instrumental music in the church. Indeed it is interesting to note that an early advert for a teacher in the day had listed as part of her contractual obligations, the leading of the praise on the Sabbath Day. The first organ was purchased in 1920 while the present pipe organ, built by Evans & Barr, was installed in 1932, a gift from Mrs. Frank Boston in memory of her husband. At the same time certain other modifications were carried out to the church building, the gallery was partially rebuilt, and considerable new wood-panelling was added. Electric lighting was installed in 1936.

The motto chosen for our tercentenary year sums up the feelings of our Presbyterian family in Lurgan: "The Lord hath done great things for us".