Presbyterian Church in Ireland web site 1660-1981







Nestling in a hollow and ringed by hills, the town of Dromore is situated centrally in an area of great beauty. To the south-east stand the mountains of Mourne which sweep down to the sea. Looking west on a good day from an elevated spot, you can see the sunshine dancing on the silvery waters of Lough Neagh. To the east, the Cave Hill struggles to life its head above the smoky air of Belfast.

The town has retained something of its old-world character, but many changes have also been made. Older business premises, such as the hand-stitching firm of W. B. Miniss and Sons, have disappeared, and new housing developments have spread out around the town. However, the air still seems full of history, and the stranger settling here, quickly develops a feel and a fondness for the place. This is essentially a history of rural life, and the town having once been a market town for many years with fair days, was itself at the heart of this.


There has been a settlement at Dromore for many centuries. The name, `Drum-mor, means `a great ridge,' or `the great back of a hill.' In early days the area was fortified by a series of mottes and bailies, which extended in a crescent shape from the eastern to the western side of the town.

Settled life began around A.D. 500, when Saint Colman founded an Abbey for Canons Regular, which afterwards became the head of a See, of which he was the first Bishop. Over the years the area experienced changing tides of fortune. In those early centuries, the peace of the countryside was often disturbed by the feuding of clans, amongst whom were the O'Neills, the McCartans, and the Magennises, and frequent raids by Danish invaders meant an unsettled existence. By the tenth century, the Abbey had acquired extensive possessions.


The area was devastated, and the Cathedral lay in ruins during the Reformation period, but the See was re-established and reendowed during the reign of James 1. The Cathedral was rebuilt. In 1641, the year of the Great Rebellion, the forces directed by the Council of Kilkenny set fire to the town and destroyed nearly everything. The Down survey of 1657 said of Dromore . . `There are no buildings in this parish, only Dromore, a market town, hath some old thatched cottages and a ruined Church standing in it.'

Following the accession of Charles II the district began to recover. The area was involved in the religious battles of 1688-1690; in March 1688, the forces of James and William met in a skirmish, called the `Break of Dromore.'

By 1881 the population of the town was 2,491 (compared with 1,842 in 1831). The nineteenth century saw a fair degree of industrial development in the area. There were bleach greens, and a prosperous linen trade was established. The linen was famed for its quality, and the trade boasted the custom of Queen Victoria. There were also hemstitching factories, and a market was held two days in the week. A Town Hall, which still stands today, and now used as a library, was built in the Square, the completion having been financed by a loan from the Board of Works.

Today few factories are left. Some of the work force is employed locally but most of the working population not engaged in agriculture travels to work in Belfast, and the surrounding towns.

However, we cannot stop long with the general history. We must travel on through the town, leaving the shops behind and with the countryside around us again, there on the Diamond Road, we will quite suddenly come across First Dromore Presbyterian Church. Built on an outcrop of rock, the Church stands bold and solid, a silent witness to the loyalty and faith of generations past. Writing in 1913, the Rev. Doctor Samuel Prenter, himself a son of the congregation, said . . . `I know the sort of piety that flourishes there, the passionate love of the people for their Church, the ardour with which they cling to the evangelical creed of their forefathers, the affections which cluster round the old cruciform building, and the graveyard so often bedewed from generation to generation with tears, the memories of communion Sabbaths, and the thousand voices of the past which speak home to the heart of a God-fearing, Sabbath loving, industrious and vigorous congregation.'

It is this story which the following pages relate.


1600 - 1720

Presbyterianism was established in the area during the seventeenth century by settlers arriving from Scotland. With them, they brought their own brand of Protestantism nurtured by the teachings of John Calvin in Geneva, and John Knox in Scotland. Over the early decades of this century, the fortunes of the Presbyterians varied. From about 1615 to 1630, there were Presbyterians ministering as part of the established Church. This was made possible by the Irish Articles of 1615, which was a Calvinistic document. These articles were not forced on the clergymen, but they were required not to preach anything contrary to them.

The tolerant Archbishop of Armagh, Archbishop Ussher, ruled from 1625 and two Scotsmen held Ulster bishoprics . . . Robert Echlin of Down and Connor, and Andrew Knox of Raphoe. A. C. Anderson tells us that until about 1630, 19 Scotsmen and 2 English Puritans were appointed to parishes in Ulster, mostly in Antrim and Down, with one or two in Donegal, Tyrone and Armagh. Some were already ordained, and some were ordained by Bishops Echlin and Knox. These men, then, ministered Presbyterian doctrine to the Presbyterian settlers in Dromore

However, the winds of change soon began to blow.

All over the Kingdom, King Charles I was trying to impose one Episcopal system of government and worship on the people. In Ireland, during 1634 and 1635, the English Thirty-Nine Articles were officially accepted as the standard of the Church in Ireland. Ministers who would not conform, were deposed from their positions. Some continued in private ministry, some returned to Scotland, and some emigrated to the New World.

An uprising in October 1641, known as the Great Rebellion, brought a force of Scots under General Monroe to Ireland to deal with the situation. With this Scottish Army came Chaplains, and they began the formal organisation of Presbyterianism in Ireland. The clergy had suffered severely in the rebellion, and so the Presbyterian Church in large parts of Ulster was not organised. Invitations began to pour in to the army chaplains to supply areas with Ministers.

Within a few years, the King's reign was brought to an abrupt end, and he was beheaded in 1649. The period known as the Commonwealth lasted until 1660, in which year the Monarchy was restored, and King Charles 11 was enthroned. The King and his Ministers soon proved to be no friends to the Presbyterians. The Episcopal system came to the fore again, and Bishops were expected to root out non-conformity. Life generally became difficult for the Presbyterians, perhaps especially so in Dromore where Jeremy Taylor was the Bishop from 1660. He had no personal love for the Presbyterians, having himself suffered earlier indignities at their hands. (He had come over to Ireland in 1658 and lived under the protection of Lord Conway, but was arrested in August 1659. He was taken to Dublin Castle to answer the charge of a Presbyterian from Hillsborough that he had used the Sign of the Cross in administering the sacrament of baptism. The authorities do not appear to have taken a serious view of the charge). After his installation in Dromore, `he found that the benefices were almost universally filled by Scottish Presbyterian Ministers, who, to a man, had subscribed to the covenant to endeavour the extirpation of prelacy.' (Atkinson) Taylor proceeded to remove 36 of the Ministers, and to fill up the vacancies mostly with clergy brought over from England.

This now brings us to the fortunes of Presbyterianism in Dromore, for the congregation has always claimed to have as its first Minister, the Rev. Henry Hunter, and this man, says Atkinson, was one of those 36 Ministers ejected by Bishop Taylor. Hunter was a Scotsman, the second son of Patrick H. Hunterstown, of West Kilbride, Ayrshire. He was educated in Glasgow, gaining his M.A. degree in 1650. He came across the Channel and was ordained in Dromore some time prior to 1660. Although he too suffered for his non-conformity in 1661, he continued to minister. A few years later the position of the Presbyterians was not helped by what became known as Colonel Blood's plot, in which the authorities thought Presbyterians were involved. This led to the arrest of many Presbyterian ministers in Counties Down and Antrim, although they were soon released, and some returned to Scotland.

This was a time when to be a Presbyterian Minister was to court a certain amount of danger. Ministers were obliged to take to the fields and woods to minister in secret to groups of people. Stevenson tells us that Taylor tried to make it appear that Ministers were disloyal, but belief in the untruthfulness of the accusations spread, and by 1668, (Taylor died of fever in 1667), the people were building Meeting Houses in which their banished Ministers were emboldened to preach.

First Dromore congregation traces her origin to 1660. Certainly, there were worshipping Presbyterians then, and it seems unlikely that they had a meeting-house at that date, but one was built around 1670. What would the original building have looked like? A. C. Anderson in speaking of Church architecture generally at this time gives us a good idea. `. . . it seems safe to say that they were of two general patterns . . a plain oblong with the pulpit in the middle of the long side, or T-shaped with the pulpit facing down the leg. Probably, not all had fixed pews. The aisles would be wide to allow the long narrow communion tables and benches to be placed in them. There were of course, no organs, and the number of psalm tunes familiar to the people was twelve. Long prayers, and long sermons were a main part of the Services.' The building itself was probably made of mud walls, perhaps whitewashed inside and out, and finished with a thatched roof.

In such a building planters of Scottish descent would have worshipped. In those days many of these were probably peasants living on the landowner's property. To day, the backbone of the congregation consists of farmers.

Around 1674, the Rev. Hunter fades from the scene, and a new Presbyterian Minister appears. He was the Rev. William Leggatt (Ligat, or, Ligat), and, like his predecessor, hailed from Scotland. Mr. Leggatt was educated in Glasgow, and was ordained at Dartry (Drum) in the presbytery of Down in 1671. He served the congregation for a number of years, but his ministry too was interrupted. He retired to Scotland in 1689, at the time of the Revolution, and officiated in Paisley until 1691. So, it would appear that the congregation in Dromore, like the rest of the country, was understandably unsettled until 1691, when Mr. Leggatt returned to Dromore. In 1693 he was made Moderator of the Synod of Ulster (then the equivalent of the General Assembly). He died in 1697.

The Rev. Alexander Colville followed as Minister after a gap of three years, and was installed in the charge in 1700. Another Scotsman, he received his education in Edinburgh, and was ordained to the charge of Newtownards in 1696. He was a member of the Belfast Society, and Moderator of the Synod of Ulster, 1713-1714.

Only one reference to the life of the congregation during this period can be traced. In the records of the Synod of Ulster for 1711, there is reference made to the case of one, Mr. Mc Gill, (spelt McGill or Magill) from the townland of Tullycarne. Mr. Mc Gill's father had apparently joined in the call to the Rev. Leggatt, and was a respected member of the congregation at that time. However, due to some resentment or other, he later withdrew from Dromore and joined himself to the congregation of Donacloney. Then, around 1711, his son asked the Presbytery of Armagh to allow him to rejoin with First Dromore, and upon the decision of the presbytery going against him, he appealed to the Synod of Ulster. The Synod found in his favour. Now the interesting aspect of this dispute is that Mr. Mc Gill junior, was acting on behalf of the residents of the Tullycarne district, and he therefore wanted the whole townland of Tullycarne declared part of the congregation of Dromore. This was granted by Synod. Here we see the power and influence of what must have been one of the leading families in the district. Mr. Mc Gill senior, seems to have taken with him to Donacloney, a whole townland, which subsequently wished to return to Dromore.

What would a Minister's life have been like in those days? Stevenson quotes from the diary of the Minister of Benburb, and gives us this picture . . .

`A man could be in the saddle for a great part of the day, and night, in fair or foul weather, travelling far, baptising, marrying, catechising, visiting the sick and the dying, attending markets, buying cattle, and sometimes slaughtering them.'


1720 - 1740

The relative peace of the congregation, and indeed of Presbyterianism generally, was soon to be tried. Questions were being raised in many quarters concerning subscription to creeds and formulae. The issue was to stir up strong feelings and arguments on both sides of the debate.


In particular, ministers and people were questioning subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith. (This confession was drawn up at Westminster between 1643 and 1647, mainly by English Presbyterians, and, says Anderson, was based largely on the Irish Articles of 1616. It has become the test of orthodoxy for all potential Presbyterian Ministers, and subscription is still required from all Ministers at ordination and installation. Together with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, these remain the subordinate standards of our Church). Anderson tells us that the Synod took the practice and procedure of the Church of Scotland as its guide, and had laid down that all entrants to the ministry must sign the Confession, `but some presbyteries were being lax about this, and now the rule was being rejected.' Now, in Ireland, as in England, some Ministers were expressing unorthodox views. What they said initially, seemed, on the face of it, to be reasonable enough. The only authority for the Church and the faith is the Scripture. To it every man must repair for the instruction of his conscience, and can only hold to what his conscience informs him is right.

The Confession, on the other hand, was an attempt to answer such questions as . . .`Having examined the Scripture, what do you believe it teaches concerning Christ, The Trinity, etc.?' In the Confession, the Church nails her colours to the mast, that all may know what she believes the Scripture to teach.


However, some were beginning to say that the Scripture alone is inspired, but the Confession is not. Therefore, they questioned the whole idea of subscription to a man-made, uninspired, creed. Those holding these opinions were daubed `The New Light.' There was a sizeable number of people who held these opinions although they always remained in the minority. To the orthodox men, it seemed the followers of the New Light were holding heretical views. They believed the Deity of Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity, etc. were being called into question.

The matter was raised at the General Synod in 1721, and that body reaffirmed its belief in the Deity of Christ. Over the next few years, there were several instances of non-subscribers refusing to submit in this matter to the authority of Synod and presbyteries, and there were divisions in congregations on the issue. By 1726, we find the Synod at Dungannon deciding to exclude the New Light Party from ministerial communion with them in church judicatories.


It is against such a background that we can best understand the controversy which developed, and eventually split the congregation, in Dromore, in the early 1700's. The Rev. Colville died suddenly in the pulpit on Sunday morning, 1st December, 1719, and the people were faced with the task of finding a new Minister. Mr. Colville had a son, Alexander, who had been pursuing a course of Medical studies, which he completed. Then he spent some time in preparing himself for the Ministry and after completing his theological education, he was licensed by the Presbytery of Cupar in Scotland. This meant he had signed the Westminster Confession of Faith. The congregation in Dromore expressed a desire to hear him, which led to the issuing of a call in his favour. Now, it seems that he had changed his mind about subscription, and he was no longer prepared to subscribe. His sympathies were known in Dromore, and some in the congregation opposed the call. They suspected him of holding erroneous views of the Trinity.

Certainly, in later years, Colville expressed clearly developed non-subscribing views in various publications. In his `Queries,' he takes exception to those who `substitute subscription to an uninspired creed for subscription to the inspired Word of God.' In particular, he objected to the Confession on the grounds of what it taught about the doctrine of predestination, and the civil magistrates. These were his developed views, but certainly the seeds must have been in his mind at the time of the call to Dromore.

The situation then was this. Mr. Colville wished to be ordained into the Presbyterian Church, Ireland, but he refused to subscribe to the Confession, and those in the congregation who opposed him, took this as evidence of his errors. The matter was brought to the Presbytery of Armagh which found against Colville, and proceeded to the General Synod of Ulster, in June 1725.

Meanwhile, knowing that the majority in the Synod were subscribers, Colville took himself to London. It seems that he must have had in his possession letters of recommendation from fellow Presbyterians in Ulster. These he presented to some dissenting clergymen in London. He was then privately ordained in the vestry-room of Dr. Calamy's Church. The Ministers involved in this were themselves non-subscribers. Returning home again, Colville and the majority of his people applied to the Presbytery of Armagh to install him in Dromore. They considered that all difficulties in the way of this had been removed. However, the presbytery thought otherwise. They resented Mr. Colville's conduct and considered he had evaded Church law. Instead, they sent supply preachers to the party in the congregation which opposed him. Colville must still have been in touch with his friends in London, for a letter arrived from Dr. Calamy. He was enraged by the presbytery's refusal to install Colville, and he threatened to use his influence to have the bounty withdrawn. (Otherwise known as the Regium Donum, or King's Gift, which
was a state grant to Presbyterian Ministers first paid in 1672, and continuing until 1869). Mr. Boyse, and some other Dublin Ministers made representations to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland that the action of the subscribers was unjust and tyrannical, and succeeded in obtaining a declaration from him that his Majesty was displeased by the divisions among the Ulster Presbyterians.


So the case of Dr. Colville came before the Synod, June 1725. From the majority of the congregation, and therefore speaking for Dr. Colville, came Mr. Robert Hamilton, Mr. John Eeard, and the Commissioners, Adam Heatley, James Kerr, and George Woods, all of whom appealed against the sentence of the Presbytery of Armagh. Captain John Magill and the commissioners of the Minor Party in the congregation presented themselves to earnestly desire that Colville be not settled in Dromore, since it was against their conscience to submit to his Ministry. A dispute arose as to the proper method for proceeding. Colville and his supporters insisted that the Synod deal with the appeal from the Sub-Synod of Armagh. Others, however, wanted to investigate the conduct of Colville and his people. The latter course was adopted. On June 23rd, the relevant minute was read out to the full Synod.

It appears from this, say the Minutes of the General Synod, `That Colville had produced presbytery certificates from some Ministers in London giving an account that the said Ministers had ordained him, and Mr. Colville wanted to be a member of the Presbyterian Church. Presbytery refused, because he had, contrary to his promise of subjection to that presbytery, and even when his cause was depending before the judicatories of the Church, without their knowledge or consent or any certificates from them, withdrawn himself from under their conduct, and contrary to the rules of the Church on certificates, obtained in an irregular manner, had obtained ordination in London, and since his return from London he exercised his ministry in Dromore in a vacant congregation under their inspection, without their consent, or appointment, or the proper certificates.'

Thomas Witherow indicates that since it appears no written citation was made out against Colville or received by him, he simply went home. Therefore, he thought he could not be called or his case heard. However the Synod continued with the case, and decided to suspend Colville for three months, giving power to the Presbytery of Armagh to terminate or to continue the suspension. This did not conclude the matter. The two sides had made their stand, and neither was prepared to give way. Besides, this case had now become part of the wider subscription controversy.

The Synod appointed some Ministers to supply the congregation on the succeeding Sundays. Mr. Samuel Henry was appointed to read the suspension order to the people, and if the majority refused to give him access to the meeting-house, he was to preach to the minor party. The Synod also decided to censure all other Ministers who associated with Colville, no doubt thereby hoping to isolate him.

In the Minutes of the Synod of Ulster, dated 21st June 1726, we read that Mr. Henry went to Dromore as appointed, and read the sentence of the Synod which suspended Colville. However, we learn also, that he read this to the minor party after having been refused admission to the meeting-house of the major part of the congregation.

Dr. Colville, meanwhile, was not inactive. He continued to preach to the major part of the congregation in disregard of the Synod's sentence. Next, he applied to the Ministers in Dublin to receive him into their Association, and to install him in his charge. He knew there were there enough of non-subscribing sympathies to support him. Now here is where the future course of the wider Church controversy took a new twist. These Dublin Ministers were placed in a dilemma. They debated among themselves whether they should become involved in the case or not. They decided they should. They called on the Presbytery of Armagh to answer Colville's complaint. The presbytery refused to recognise their jurisdiction by so doing, but they forwarded an account of Colville's conduct.

A deputation from Dublin arrived on 19th October 1725, and attempted to persuade the presbytery to repeal its decision to suspend. Now the sub-synod of Armagh issued the following letter . . .

`Whereas Mr. Colville both counteracted and condemned the sentence of the suspension inflicted on him by the General Synod, and persists in his contumacy before us in renouncing all sub jection to our jurisdiction, and makes application to support him in this way, we hereby declare that he continues under the aforesaid sentence of suspension, and we therefore warn those of our persuasion not to own the said Mr. Colville in any of his ministrations, nor receive Gospel ordinances from him; and we appoint that any who shall aid him in his present course shall not be received into any congregation belonging to the Synod, or be admitted to any ordinance without certificates from the presbytery of Armagh ; and if Mr. Colville persist in his contumacy, we appoint the Presbytery of Armagh to proceed to further censure him as the rules of our discipline direct.'

The battle-lines were well and truly drawn.

Despite this, the deputation from Dublin received Dr. Colville into their Association along with the congregation . . . and installed him as the Minister of the congregation on 27th October 1725. These Dublin men were Rev. Chappin of Dublin, Rev. Mc Gachy of Athy, Rev. Woods of Summerhill, (i.e. all, of the Dublin presbytery) and Rev. S. Smyth of Limerick. This then resulted in the Synod breaking off intercourse with the Dublin Association, and forming the Presbytery of Dublin from the subscribing Ministers.


What then, of the Minor Party of Captain Magill and friends?

It seems they numbered about one third of the congregation, giving us a figure of 200 families, (the call to Colville was signed by 400 persons, each a head of a family, this being about two thirds of the original numbers). They now found themselves without a meeting-house, and little source of income. Accordingly, at the Synod, on 21st June 1726, Capt. Magill supplicated `that in regard to the paucity of their numbers, and their weakness, that Synod allow them a Sabbath Day's collection throughout the whole Church, with previous intimation the Sabbath before.' Ministers were appointed in different areas to gather the collection . . . in Tyrone, Letterkenny, Derry, Bangor, Strabane, Killeleagh, Templepatrick, Armagh, Coleraine, Monaghan. With the proceeds of this collection the congregation re-established itself, and was able to support the new Minister, the Rev. James Allen, who had been installed by the Presbytery of Armagh on May 18th 1726. This was the orthodox congregation, the mother of the present congregation. This congregation for a time held services in an old kiln at the head of Rampart Street. However on the removal of the Colville congregation to a meeting-house in Pound Street, they returned to the original place of worship on the Diamond Road.


Not surprisingly, the new congregation continued to watch out for error, as indeed did many in the whole church over the next number of years. The Synod Minutes tell us that Dromore, along with Magherally, Dromara, and Eallyronie, supplicated the General Synod in June 1747, concerning errors creeping in to the Church. A committee considered this, and a paper called `A Serious Warning' was drawn up. Synod directed it to be read to all congregations within the bounds of the Synod. The alleged errors included . . . denying the doctrine of original sin ; the proper and real satisfaction of Christ ; the necessity of His imputed righteousness in order to our justification.
Every member of the communion was warned to guard against these errors.
The letter continues . . .

`And for this end we would advise unlearned men not to read erroneous books, but rather that they apply themselves to the reading of the sacred Scriptures and such practical writings as by Divine blessing may be of use to fill their hearts with grace, and not their heads with vain disputes and dangerous errors. And we strictly enjoin all in our communion, to beware of putting dangerous books into the hands of unlearned men, which we look upon to be as dangerous as putting swords into the hands of children, who know not how to use them.'



1740 - 1815

The years 1740-1815 have proved very difficult to research. There are no available records which hint at the life of the congregation during this period. Nor do we know of any noteworthy events which would serve as reference points for further research. However, we do know who the Ministers were.

In 1753, the Rev. William Henry succeeded Mr. Allen who resigned in 1752. He came from Loughbrickland, and was licensed by the Dromore Presbytery in 1751. From May 1753 he ministered in Dromore until 1776, in which year we find he moved to First Comber. He died in 1789, `much and deservedly lamented.' He had a son who entered the Ministry, and also practised Medicine. He was the father of the Rev. Dr. P. Shulham Henry, the President of Queen's University Belfast. He was also Moderator of the Synod of Ulster in 1803.

The Rev. James Cochrane followed in May 1777. He was a son of the Manse at Connor, and was licensed by the Ballymena Presbytery. His ministry was a short one, since he died in 1779.

After the death of the Rev. Cochrane, there followed a vacancy which was to last for five years. Why the vacancy should have been so long we cannot know, but it was eventually filled in 1784 with the installation of Rev. James Waddell. He had been brought up in the Dromore district and was licensed by the presbytery in 1783. His was quite a long ministry, spanning 31 years, and he was still the incumbent at his death in 1815.