Perhaps the first Methodist preacher to visit our district was George Whitefield. He had made several preaching trips to southern Ireland. His first visit was in 1738, but 1751 was the year in which he decided to travel to the north. In July he arrived in Belfast, and on the way either to or from Lurgan he passed through the Maze and preached. Below is an extract from his letter to a friend:
"Belfast, July 7th, 1751
. . . Last Monday about noon I left Dublin, but with what concern in respect to many poor weeping souls, cannot well be exprest. On Wednesday evening I came thither, and intended to embark immediately for Scotland, but the people by their importunity prevailed on me to stay. In about an hour's time, thousands were gathered to hear the Word. I preached morning and evening, and since that have preached at Lisburn, Lurgun, the Maize, and Lambag, towns and places adjacent. So many attend, and the prospect of doing good is so promising, that I am grieved I came to the north no sooner. The country round about is like Yorkshire in England, and quite different from most southern parts of Ireland. I am now waiting for a passage to Scotland . . ."
Another young colleague of John Wesley's to come to the neighbourhood was John Cennick, one of the first Methodist lay preachers. Later he left the Methodists and became a minister of the Moravian Church. He travelled to Ireland and conducted evangelical campaigns, reaping a rich harvest. As a result several Moravian churches were founded, amongst which was the first church at Kilwarlin, built by John Cennick in 1755.
The first of John Wesley's twenty-one visits to Ireland was in 1747. He came to Dublin and didn't travel north; in fact, it was not until the sixth trip, in 1756, that he made his initial visit to Ulster. In July of that year he arrived at Lisburn where a Methodist cause had already been established, possibly through the preaching of George Whitefield five years earlier. John preached at the Market House in Lisburn. On 27th July he rode to Lurgan, most probably along the same route as that covered by George. He greatly admired the scenery through which he passed, with its views of orchards, and thought this part of Ireland resembled Berkshire. It seems that John also regretted that he hadn't travelled north sooner. From that time onwards, with the exception of two visits to Dublin alone, northern Ireland was always included in his Irish itinerary, and he visited Lisburn and district on at least fourteen occasions, the last being in 1789. He doubtless made many friends in the vicinity during that period of thirty-three years. Amongst the earliest to open their home to the Methodist preachers were Mr. and Mrs. Hans Cumberland, who kept a bakery in the town. They afforded hospitality, and meetings were held at their home. John Wesley was their guest on his first visit. Their son-in-law, William Black, had the honour of entertaining Mr. Wesley in 1767. He later recalled the service held that year at the Linen Hall (where the Post Office now stands):
"Mr. Wesley preached in the area of the Linen Hall from
Today is salvation come to this house. He afterwards administered the
sacrament to about forty or fifty persons, nearly all the Methodists in the
counties of Down and Antrim. Whilst I received the sacrament from his hands,
I felt Christ precious to my soul, to such a degree as I had never before
experienced." 10 Mr. Black was a Lisburn class
leader, and for a time he and thirteen females constituted the society in
Lisburn; for two years he was the only man in fellowship with them. Soon he
and another began prayer meetings in different parts, classes were formed,
and the cause prospered.
At Kilwarlin someone opened their home for preaching in 1765 and a society was established. In 1771 John Wesley visited Kilwarlin. He recorded: "I preached at Kilwarlin, where a few weeks ago Thomas Motte died in peace."11 (This preacher had travelled two years only, worn out with excessive toil.)
In the Gayers' home, a beautiful residence at Derriaghy, John also found a welcome and Christian fellowship. Mainly through the generosity of Mrs. Henrietta Gayer, a preaching-house was erected in Market Street in Lisburn around 1772, on the site where the Christian Workers' Union Hall is now situated.
Concerning his visit to Lisburn in June 1778, John Wesley wrote: (Wednesday, 17th June): "At eleven our brethren flocked to Lisburn from all parts, whom I strongly exhorted, in the apostle's words, to 'walk worthy of the Lord.' At the love-feast which followed we were greatly comforted, many of the country people declaring with all simplicity, and yet with great propriety both of sentiment and expression, what God had done for their souls."12
We are indebted to Dr. Ben Megarry for the following valuable and interesting story, told to him by the late Mr. Jonathan Richey: The latter's grandfather — James Richey — and two other men from Broomhedge — Mr. Anderson and Mr. Bennett — went to hear Mr. Wesley preach at Banbridge. They were all converted and were the means of bringing Methodist preachers to the Broomhedge neighbourhood.
There is a reference to Mrs. Bennett in the year 1778 in C. H. Crookshank's History of Methodism in Ireland: "On the Lisburn circuit the preachers persevered in their arduous and self-denying work. Frequently during the winter for want of room they had to preach out-of- doors, sometimes standing in the snow. Such excessive labours brought on an attack of fever which nearly closed the career of Mr. Jeremiah Brettell. He had no pain but slept perpetually. . . . During his illness two deaths from the same complaint took place in the household of Mrs. Bennett of Broomhedge, by whom he was so kindly nursed — her eldest son and a servant maid — and both died happy in the Lord."13 Jeremiah Brettell was one of the travelling preachers appointed to Lisburn circuit in 1777.
As a youth George Carlisle of the Maze was convinced of his sin and need of a Saviour whilst listening to John Wesley preach. Soon afterwards he was converted to God and joined the Methodists. He married Mary Bradshaw and their home at Kesh Road was a hallowed place. For more than forty years before George's death a class meeting was held there, and his family grew up to serve the Lord in that locality. We shall have occasion to mention the Carlisle and Bradshaw families later in our story.