A Tale of Two Churches
Two Centuries of Methodism at Priesthill:
1786 — 1986

Chapter 5

First Preaching-House; and Division in Irish Methodism

At Priesthill some relatives of the Cunningham family resided. In the year 1784 one of these, a young woman, died very suddenly. Her parents were in deep grief and Patrick thought it was a suitable time to make some religious impression on their minds. He requested Francis Hamilton to assist him in holding a meeting at their home, and it must have been publicised, since Patrick writes: "As this was something new in the midst of a populous neighbourhood, it drew a great many people together, and we gave them an exhortation. The people appeared attentive and serious, and desired us to go again." In this family there was a grandson whom Patrick describes as "a very wild young man." He lent him some religious books and by reading these the young man found the Saviour.

When they had recovered somewhat from their sorrow the relatives would not allow their home to be used for meetings, and difficulty was experienced in finding another house for this purpose. The people in the district were afraid of incurring the displeasure of their landlord, the Earl of Hillsborough, who shortly afterwards became the first Marquis of Downshire. During the previous decade he had restored the beautiful church at Hillsborough at his own expense. After some hesitation Thomas Bradshaw of Puddledock Road allowed his home to be used for meetings, and in a little time he also opened the door of his heart to Christ. Later, his wife and some of his family were converted to God. Patrick relates: "In this place we soon saw the fruits of our labour; several were awakened to a sense of their danger ... we joined them in a class, and gave every assistance in our power. Whenever we met together we felt the Divine Presence was with us. . . . There was soon a change observable in the neighbourhood, the most flagrant sinners became honest, sober and peaceable. Instead of dancing, gambling and quarrelling, the worship of God was set up in their houses; instead of blaspheming the name of God, they were singing His praises. . . . From my first entrance amongst them, I endeavoured to give them an exhortation as often as possible. I made no pretensions to systematic divinity, but spoke about the most familiar things, and was not afraid to mention hell and damnation. I wanted them not only to see the truth, but also to feel its divine force.

"The class soon grew so large that we had to divide it, and in a little time we had three classes. I now requested Joseph Cherry to come and help me. . . . He could clothe his ideas with a fine diction, and had a graceful delivery; and his discourse received additional advantage, from a gravity and solemnity almost peculiar to himself. But at the time I spoke to him, he had lost some of his zeal . . . he refused to come. . . . At last he consented to come and assist me, and his coming was not in vain. He soon caught the divine flame that was kindled at this place, which consumed his dead formality, and made him a burning, as well as a shining light. . . . The Lord continued to prosper His work among us, our numbers increased, and the people grew in grace; in a little time we had five classes, consisting of about sixty members."

It now became necessary to erect a preaching-house, and this was built on a site close to Thomas Bradshaw's home. It was a simple structure with mud walls and a thatched roof, like many of the homes in the district. The windows were small-paned and leaden, the floor was earthen, and forms were used for seating. The approach from the road was via a narrow lane.

By this time the Earl of Hillsborough had heard many unfavourable reports concerning the revival of religion and the new place of worship which had been built on his estate. One day he came down to see his tenants. He let them know he was much displeased at what they had done, and told them that he understood there was one Cunningham making them all go mad. "When he comes again", he said, "put him over head in the canal, but do not drown him." Patrick records: "One of our people began to pray for him, another desired him to come and hear me himself, and not one of them would promise to give up the cause in which he had embarked. So he went away seemingly dissatisfied, but he never molested them afterwards. The work still continued, and its blessed effects are seen to this day. . . . I consider it the greatest favour, next to my own salvation, which Heaven can bestow on this side of the grave, to be made useful in the vineyard of God."

A Sunday School was opened in the preaching-house, and it was one of the earliest in Ireland. The superintendent was Johnny Woods, and he first met with the children on 15th April 1786. We are told: "He had not a clock or a watch, but he thought upon a plan of making certain marks on the wall, and when the sun's rays came to a well-defined mark, the closing exercises of the school began."

The services would have been conducted by the travelling preachers appointed to Lisburn circuit, and by local preachers. In those days the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper were not administered in Methodist preaching-houses since it was John Wesley's wish that members of the societies would attend their local parish churches and receive the ordinances there. Speaking of the proper function of his preachers in a sermon delivered about a year and ten months before his death he said: "We received them wholly and solely to preach; not to administer sacraments. And those who imagine these offices to be inseparably joined, are totally ignorant of the constitution of the whole Jewish as well as the Christian church."

When he died in 1791 there were years of upheaval. An expectation was prevalent among Methodists in different parts of the British Isles that some alteration would be made to the rules concerning the receiving of the sacraments. A petition was sent from the stewards and leaders of the Lisburn circuit to the Irish Conference of 1795. They received the following reply:

"Dublin, 13th July 1795

Very Dear Brethren, The Conference desire us to inform you, that they took your affectionate letter into long and serious consideration. They assure you, that it would give them great pleasure, as far as consistent with the glory of God, to serve you in, and indulge you with everything in their power. But when the sense of the Conference was taken by vote, it was the unanimous opinion that: 'It is not expedient to introduce the Administration of the Lord's Supper, by the preachers, into this Kingdom now.' The Conference wish you every blessing of the New Covenant.

Signed on behalf of the Conference,
Thos. Coke, President.
John Crook, Secretary."

An interesting sidelight of this period is given in C. H. Crookshank's History of Methodism in Ireland. "During the previous year (i.e. 1795) the Lord's Supper had been administered by Messrs. Sutcliffe and M'Farland in Cork, and Gordon in Lisburn, and for this breach of discipline they were all three put back on trial. The desire for the ordinances was very strong in these places, especially on the Lisburn circuit."16

At the British Conference of 1795 a 'Plan of General Pacification' was introduced, which authorised the preachers in England, under certain circumstances, to administer the sacraments.17 Clearly the Irish Conference was beset with difficulties: there were those who wished for a change (some Methodists had never belonged to the Church of Ireland); there were others who did not desire a change but wanted to continue as the revered founder of Methodism had instructed; and there were possibly those who wished for a change but at the same time feared that a break with the Church of Ireland (which was then the Established Church) would be damaging to Ireland's link with Britain in the current unsettled situation. In 1816 when the Irish Conference eventually took the decision to have preaching in Church hours and allow the administration of the Lord's Supper in their own chapels to such only as desired it, there was a substantial schism and the Primitive Wesleyans came into being. However, a careful consideration of the membership returns of both Wesleyan and Primitive churches shows that after the schism there was a period of remarkable church growth. In 1819, for instance, three years after the division, the total membership (from figures reported by both Conferences) shows over 34,000. Both sides were warmly evangelical and committed to vigorous outreach, so that on reflection the schism was not as harmful as was at first envisaged.

Another source of dissatisfaction on the Lisburn circuit was the matter of church government. Only travelling preachers were eligible to attend the District Meetings and the Conference. The dispute seems to have started in 1795 when the superintendent preacher expelled a steward from office. The other stewards and leaders called a meeting and protested. The superintendent was able to prove before a special District Meeting that he had acted according to the rules. Subsequently the stewards and leaders prepared a printed address (dated 2nd April 1798) for circulation amongst the Methodist societies. It contained a complaint that the societies were governed exclusively by preachers, and advocated the principle: "That the Church itself is entitled, either collectively, in the
persons of its members, or representatively, by persons chosen out of and by itself, to a voice and influence in all the acts of legislation and government." The upshot of it was that 32 stewards and leaders from the various societies on the circuit were expelled. They were:

Duncan Livingston, Local Preacher Phelix Cunningham, Steward
William Black, Leader and Trustee John Whiston, Leader
James Richey, Leader Nathaniel Dickey, Leader and Trustee
William Balmer, Leader James Carson, Leader
George Pike, Local Preacher and Trustee David Patterson, Leader
William Boyce, Local Preacher and Leader William Woods, Leader
John Scandrett, Leader Joseph Cherry, Leader and Trustee
Francis Hamilton, Leader Moses Buchannon, Leader
Patrick Cunningham, Leader John Kelly, Steward
Timothy Rusk, Trustee James Wright, Leader
Hugh Murray, Steward, etc. Thomas Bradshaw, Leader and Trustee
Robert Lilley, Leader William Johnston, Trustee
John Pearce, Leader John McCabrey, Leader
Robert Bailley, Leader Thomas McPherson, Leader
William Coburne, Leader Charles Hall, Leader
William M'Dowell, Leader Jeremiah Smith, Leader

Against this expulsion they prepared an appeal to the Conference of 1798, of which the following is an abridged copy.

"Lisburn, July 9th, 1798

Dear Brethren, We think it our duty to address you. ... As long as the sun and moon shall endure, we wish real Methodism to flourish and increase. ... We think that there is not any complaint contained in our address that is not well founded, nor anything contained in the propositions, but what is reasonable and Scriptural. . . . We think that a few of those (brethren) delegated from the whole body, to District Meetings and Conferences, to help to make or revise any law or laws, would not, in the least degree, militate against the dignity (or sanctity) of the preachers. . . . We are determined to persevere in God's good cause until our grievances are redressed."

(Here follows the names of the 32 leaders)

An abbreviated copy of the reply received from Conference is given below:

"Dublin, July 19th, 1798

Sirs, Your letter has been read in Conference, and we are desired to send you the following answer: The Conference consider the plan of electing, by the votes of the people, and sending to the Conference and District Meetings, and Committee, delegates, is founded on the principles of Jacobinism, principles which we abhor. .. . We are, therefore, determined in the most resolved manner, and with the most unanimous spirit, to reject the plan of delegates in whatever shape or manner it may be proposed: we are ready to receive any complaints from our people, to consider them duly, and redress them as far as they appear to be real grievances; yea, to make every sacrifice which we believe consistent with the prosperity of the work of God, to the satisfaction of their minds. As to you, gentlemen, we consider your late conduct so perfectly opposite to what we believe to be the true spirit of Christianity, that we can, on no account, have any further connexion with you, till God, through His grace, has given you repentance.

Signed on behalf, and by order of the Conference,

T. Coke, President
A. Hamilton, Junr. Secretary"

It will be noted that the year was 1798, when there was strife and commotion throughout Ireland. Commenting on the dismissal of these men from the societies C. H. Crokshank observes: "Evidently the preachers considered that the views of the delinquents were the result of the spirit of insubordination and lawlessness so prevalent, and therefore should be dealt with in a very summary manner. . . . The dissentients were, in general, devout and conscientious . . . men eminent in piety and zeal. "18

Amongst the 32 names are Thomas Bradshaw and Patrick Cunningham, of Priesthill, and also William Black of Lisburn society, who was the only lessee and trustee of the Lisburn Wesleyan preaching-house. Writing about it later, Patrick Cunningham explains: "We had no dispute about the doctrines of the gospel, nor any with the people at large, but only with the preachers. It was not about their moral characters, for we believed most of them to be holy men, and we held them in high estimation. The sole ground of the dispute was, the Government of the Church. The preachers claimed the right of governing the people as they thought proper: on the other hand, we thought the people ought to have some share in the formation of their own laws — in the choice of their own preachers and in the management of their own property. We requested to have the Sacrament administered by our own preachers; for we thought our Lord's command 'Do this in remembrance of Me' was binding on all Christians — and we knew, that if it were not given amongst ourselves, that many of our people would never take it at all. Many of them could not go for it to those places of worship in which they had been brought up."

This was an unhappy episode in the life of the Lisburn circuit. Upwards of two hundred people left the parent Methodist body, and later, in 1799, joined with what was at first termed 'The New Itinerancy', later to be called 'The New Connexion'. (Connexion in Methodist terms signifies the fellowship between members of a church; their union with other societies on the circuit; links with other circuits; and the union of the corporate body at Conference.) This English division of Methodism had come into being in 1797, arising from similar circumstances to those described above.

The Psalmist has said: "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity", and we all would concur with this sentiment. We think of another division which occurred in apostolic times, when the contention was so sharp between Paul and Barnabas that they departed asunder, one from the other. Paul took Silas, and Barnabas took John Mark, and so there were two missionary enterprises. Perhaps this Methodist division also worked out for the furtherance of the gospel. It was more than one hundred years later, in 1905, when a happy reunion of the parent Methodist body (Wesleyan) and the New Connexion in Ireland took place. By that time lay representation had been introduced into the Irish Wesleyan Conference and District Meetings (in 1877).