Wednesday 6 July 2016

Fifty Years of Belfast Life (1866-1916) part 3



Last week I took note of the ministers of Belfast as I remember them fifty years ago and for some years afterwards. I referred to the increase of ministers and congregations in the meantime, but I did not refer to the changes or transformations of churches in the interval. I need not say that if a Belfast Presbyterian returned from the States and visited his old church he would not recognise it so far as its internal arrangements are concerned. Perhaps the only congregation that has maintained its old architectural characteristics is Rosemary Street, which is as it was of yore, only brightened and fashioned to meet the ravages of time. May Street, with its new organ, new pews, and new windows would be unrecognisable by a May Street man of fifty years ago.

But the visitor of the States would look in vain for Alfred Street, Linenhall Street, Fisherwick Place, Donegall Street, or Great George's Street. He would find the Alfred Street building a set of offices; the old Linenhall Street a seat of the linen industry; Fisherwick Place occupied by the Assembly Hall; old Donegall Street by shops and offices, and Great George's Street by a foundry. What was Alfred Street Congregation in the days of the Rev. Geo. Shaw is now known as Fitzroy Avenue, and has made a new history under that name by the pulpit ministrations of the Rev. W. Colquhoun and its liberality, especially to missions. The Fisherwick Place of old now occupies a commanding position in more senses than one on the Malone Road. In the Rev. Chas. Davey it has a minister who sustains the traditions of an able and earnest pulpit, and in all that makes for Presbyterianism, for loyalty, and liberality to Church. Fisherwick is no unworthy successor of Fisherwick Place.

If the shade wanted to find some reminiscence of old Donegall Street he would have to wander up to Cliftonville, where he would find the Rev. A. F. Moody, an able preacher and pastor, and learn that the Rev. Dr. Magill, immediate successor of the Rev. Isaac Nelson, is still alive, and senior minister of the congregation. It might be that he would find the pulpit ministrations of 1916 somewhat different from those of 1866; but he would find a much larger congregation and a more living and evangelistic spirit prevailing. The shade from Great George's Street might find it difficult to recognise his old congregation in the Macrory Memorial Church in Duncairn Gardens, and might find the Rev. Mr. Northey less humorous and eccentric than Mr. Toye; but he would find a congregation with life and spirit and earnestness, of which the greatest lover of Great George's Street or the Church would have no reason to be ashamed.

In this connection it may not be out of place to recall an incident in which two of the ministers of the earlier period of this record are concerned -- though it occurred about three or four years after 1866. I was present at a visitation in Donegall Street Church when the Rev. Isaac Nelson was its minister. I can well remember that Mr. Nelson's replies to the questions were more cynical and sarcastic than conventional. After the prescribed questions in the Code had been answered a la Nelson, the Rev. Geo. Shaw asked Mr. Nelson if he had a lease for the church. He said he had, but it would expire in a few years. "Have you made arrangements for a renewal?" asked Mr. Shaw. "No," replied Mr. Nelson. "What do you intend to do?" was Mr. Shaw's next query. "Oh," replied Mr. Nelson, "we mean to sell our church to a linen company, and build another in the suburbs." (At that time the old Alfred Street building was in possession of a linen company, and Fitzroy Avenue had been built in the then suburbs. Since that time the site of Donegall Street has passed into commercial hands as well.) But let me say this in justice to Mr. Nelson, that the Nelson Memorial Church, on the Shankill Road, is a proof that whatever may have been his characteristics as a cynic, he did not forget on his death the church of his fathers.

In my last I referred, as far as space and necessity would admit, to the churches and ministers of fifty years ago. Since that a formidable list of congregations and ministers has bean added to the Belfast Presbytery, and as part of my object is to deal not only with the past, but the present, I feel bound to give a list of the additions that have been made since. I follow no order of date or circumstances, but take them at random from the list. We have Malone, which is a new church, though not a new congregation, but a continuation of that of which the late Rev. Joseph Mackenzie was minister. The Rev. A. J. Wilson, now D.D., was the successor of Mr. Mackenzie, and is now senior minister, with Rev. Jas. Haire as his able assistant; Mountpottinger, whose first minister was my old journalistic friend, the Rev. David Hunter, followed by Rev. Mr. M'Caughan, and with the Rev. Robert Duff as their eloquent successor; Fortwilliam, with the Rev. James Maconaghie, D.D., as its first, and now senior minister, and the Rev. A. Lyle Harrison, son of my old friend of Castlebellingham as assistant and successor; the Cooke Centenary, with the Rev. Dr. John Macmillan, eloquent as preacher and speaker and brilliant and enthusiastic as temperance advocate; St. Enoch's, with its tradition of Dr. Hanna and the Rev. Charles Davey, and now represented by the Rev. John Pollock, a man of power in the pulpit and on the platform; Agnes Street, with the Rev. Samuel M'Comb as its first pastor, and now ministered to by the Rev. W. J. Baird, who in so much interested in Evangelical and religious work of the Church and the city; Windsor Church, in which, the late Rev. Mr. Ferris ministered so successfully for many years, and in which the Rev. Dr. John Irwin sustains a high reputation both for himself and his congregation by the brilliancy of his pulpit ministrations and the liberality and loyalty of his people.

Then there is the congregation connected with the Shankill Road Mission, of which the Rev. Dr. Henry Montgomery is the head; a man as unique as his work, a man of immense faith and of limitless works; Dundela, to which Professor Heron gave some years of cultured preaching, and where the Rev. James Hunter now sustains the high character for Evangelical work, carried on with vigour, earnestness, and success; Westbourne, where the Rev. W. Witherow combines great activity with Evangelical earnestness, and is doing a great work for the religious and educational life of the district; Newington, of which the late Rev. John Waddell was the first minister, devoted, earnest, Evangelical, and in which the Rev. T. M. Johnstone sustains a high reputation as the living and active minister of a living and active church; Broadway, where the Rev. J. W. Gibson has proved a pillar of sound Presbyterianism, and sound Unionist principles, in the very heart of the Falls Road district; the Megain Memorial, where the Rev. James M'Connell ministers with great energy, devotion, and success; and the M'Quiston Memorial Church, where the Rev. D. D. Boyle has taken up and worthily wears the mantle that fell from the shoulders of my old friend, the Rev. T. R. Ballantine, who has given to South Africa what proved so valuable in Mountpottinger.

But I find I am once more carried away by my feelings and my pen, and I must have some regard for space, and content myself with mentioning the Crumlin Road, with the Rev. D. K. Mitchell as its veteran standard-bearer; Donegall Pass, with the Rev. Jas. Dewar, thoughtful and cultured; Donegall Road, with the Rev. J. M. M'Ilrath, original, forceful, faithful; Castleton, where the Rev. James Knowles, a friend of my earlier years, and an earnest and practical preacher, has been succeeded by the Rev. A. P. Black; Whitehouse, with the Rev. Robert Barron, D.D., as its earnest and faithful minister; Woodvale, where the Rev. John Milliken carries on a faithful ministry; Bethany (Agnes Street), a fine new church, of which the Rev. Samuel Simms is the earnest minister; Fountainville, where my old friend, the Rev. Hans Woods, ministered for many years, and where the Rev. A. Gallagher is an able and popular minister; Cregagh, with the Rev. D. Stewart, at once preacher and historian; Oldpark, with the Rev. Wm. M'Coach, an old Derryman, as its popular minister; Bloomfield, with the Rev. Campbell M. Young, a forceful and earnest preacher; the Nelson Memorial, with the Rev. W. G. Smyth as excellent minister and active worker; and Ravenhill, Ulsterville, Strand (Sydenham), and Ormiston, of which the Revs. Messrs. Ross, Rodgers, Byers, and Tolland are the respective ministers, of all of whom report speaks well.

I should mention that several of these new churches were the outcome of the work of the church extension scheme set on foot over a quarter of a century ago, and which did much for the extension of Presbyterianism in the city.

Let me add here by way of appendix what I had written as a prefix, and overlooked last week.

If a kindly fate brought me to Belfast, a kindlier fate associated, or rather re-associated, me with Presbyterianism, whose interests in my humble way I have done my best to serve. From the "Derry Standard," with its staunch Presbyterianism, and from Dr. James M'Knight, as Editor, whose memory and worth deserved more recognition than it received, both from his qualities as a scholar and journalist and his services to Ulster Tenant Right and Ulster Presbyterianism, to the "Banner of Ulster," was but a step. And my youthful interest was not lessened by the fact that in the palmier days of that journal Dr. M'Knight had been its Editor in days when Editors were content to write for the newspapers, and not to run the universe. It was here I first met the late and great Dr. M'Cosh, then professor in the Queen's College. The fact was recalled to my mind at the time of writing by reading a tribute paid to his great work in Princeton in an American magazine by the head of another American university. Dr. M'Cosh took a great interest in the "Banner," and was frequently in the office, advising, pushing, inspiring.

He was a man of fine and strong bodily presence, and his speech was far from contemptible. There was an earnestness, an intensity of thought, a persuasiveness, a pervasiveness about his personality that left its mark upon the college and its students at a time when it had a smaller band of professors and students than it has now, but when brilliancy was the stamp of almost every one of the former and of many of the latter, as their after careers proved. It was there, too, I first made the acquaintance of one of the latter, Mr. Huston Dodd, now known to the Bench and to all the country as the Hon. Judge Dodd.

I will not say that "The Witness" arose out of the ashes of the "Banner;" but it arose out of a magazine printed and published in the office, and styled "The Evangelical Witness." This was edited by the Rev. John Hall, then of Rutland Square, Dublin, but afterwards known to all the world as Dr. John Hall, of Fifth Avenue Church, New York. Dr. Hall, like Dr. M'Cosh, was built on a large mould, and, like him, was an impressive and persuasive personality; but he gave to the pulpit and practical religion what Dr. M'Cosh gave to the Queen's College and philosophy. While both were friendly and kind to me, I must admit that I was able to read with interest, and, I hope, profit, Dr. Hall's writings, but I am ashamed to confess that I was never able to read Dr. M'Cosh's with either. He soared to heights of philosophy I could not reach, and to depths that I could not plumb.

I may here say, while I am in reminiscent and historical mood, that "The Witness" owes its origin to the present President of the Queen's College, the Rev. Dr. Hamilton, who presided with great faithfulness and fairness over its fortunes till he was called to a larger sphere of usefulness and to greater dignity than either the pulpit or the Press could offer. He has been a kind friend of "The Witness" and of myself since, and no one rejoices more than I do at the able manner in which he has sustained the new dignity that has been his.

To be continued...

From The Witness, 7th July 1916.

The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.

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