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

Chapter 6

The Methodist New Connexion; and Opening of Zion Chapel

Copied from an early 19th Century Map of Lisburn. Note the location of Refuge Chapel. 
Copied from an early 19th Century Map of Lisburn. Note the location of Refuge Chapel.
The expelled leaders, together with those who had voluntarily left the parent Methodist body, "soon painfully felt the inconvenience and loss they were under, in not having a preacher of their own."19 At Priesthill the people still had their preaching-house. The ex-members of Lisburn society for a time held meetings in their own houses, and in 1814 Refuge Chapel at Linenhall Street was opened for worship. (This was followed at a later date by Salem chapel.)

A young man lived at Malone, Belfast, named John McClure. In 1798 although only twenty years old, he was already well known in Methodist circles as a local preacher of considerable promise. He possessed many talents including a good singing voice, and had been recommended to the Conference by the Belfast District Meeting as a suitable person to become a travelling preacher. The circuit preachers took a special interest in John and lent him their books. Much kindness was extended to him by Rev. Charles Mayne, who was then stationed at Belfast. He was encouraged to improve himself and this he did, attending school in the evening when his day's work as a weaver was done. Most of the ex-leaders of Lisburn circuit knew John McClure personally, and they soon heard that on more than one occasion he had expressed his sympathy for them and their cause. They met and talked the matter over, and a deputation of two men was sent to Belfast to ask him if he would be willing to come to Hugh Murray's house at Moira and preach for them. On the appointed evening he came and addressed a large congregation assembled in the Murrays' kitchen. He consented to be their preacher, and so began his full-time ministry. This decision was not without difficulty, for his friends in Belfast (with the best motives for they loved him) tried to dissuade him from such a course, but his mind was made up and so he came to Lisburn.

Rev. William McClure states: "I find, on referring to my father's notes of plans and texts for the years 1799 and 1800, that he preached at that time in Bangor, Ballywoolley, Newtownards, Belfast, Knockbracken, Lisburn, Milltown, Broomhedge, Balmer's Quarry, Kircreeny, Maze, Moorside, Kilwarlin, Halftown, Magheragall, Moyrusk, Grove, Broughmore, Ballymacash, Hugh Murray's or Cairnban and Priesthill. . . . This was his regular Circuit, but he went beyond it, where God was not savingly known."

Contact had been made with the Methodist New Connexion in England, and at their Conference of 1799 the Irish friends were recognised as members. However, "this was mere recognition, and very little help in money or agents was rendered for many years."20 Certainly Mr. McClure and his young wife, whom he married in 1800, found themselves suffering financial hardship. To augment their income they decided in 1802 to take a house at Market Square and open a shop for grocery and hardware. Mrs. McClure attended to the business whilst her husband carried out his other duties. Their son relates: "The time of my parents' sojourn in Lisburn formed evidently the happiest years in their short journey together. Business for some time got on well, friends were very kind, my father's mind was in a comparatively comfortable state about support for his family, and while his labours were most abundant in the Lord's vineyard, seals to his ministry were many."21

In 1806 they moved to Belfast, and Mr. McClure continued his work as a travelling preacher. The following is a short extract from his diary concerning the return journey of a preaching trip which extended for more than two months, and covered parts of the counties of Tyrone, Armagh, and Down:

"11th Dec. 1807: At Blackscull; received a letter from Bro. Burke to attend at Priesthill at eleven o'clock on Sabbath for the Lord's Supper. Set off early on Sabbath morning to Priesthill; called on my way at William Coburn's; took breakfast there, thence to Priesthill; had but few people — only three tables — on account of the badness of the roads few women could come. We had a very comfortable meeting. I then went into Lisburn. Mr. Brothers preached. On Monday, 14th, set off early for Belfast; found all the family in health."

A list of ministers who served Priesthill and the surrounding area is appended at the back of this book. In the early days there were no manses, and the preachers would reside in rented accommodation or with members of the congregations.

In 1824 the New Connexion Conference in England selected Ireland as its field of missionary enterprise, and the Conference of 1825 developed the plan and appointed a committee to conduct the business of the Mission. An English preacher was sent to superintend the work of the missionaries. Another important decision was taken in 1828, when it was decided that Ireland should hold its own Conference whilst still having a superintendent of Mission. An English deputation would attend the Conference, and the Irish brethren were entitled to a suitable representation at the English Conference. In Ireland they met in either April or May, and in 1830 we find that the Conference was held in Lisburn, "a beautiful and picturesque town seven miles west of Belfast."22 Certainly from the late 1830s onward it was held in Belfast, the venue being Salem, York Street, better known today as the former North Belfast Mission.

In the year 1827 Rev. William Cooke, then aged twenty-one, was sent to Ireland as a supply. He often came to Priesthill and preached, and the following is his description of services at the preaching-house:

"The congregation was systematically arranged into a complete separation of the men and women who sat on humble forms, ranged on opposite sides of 'the house'. The singing was slow and solemn, the usual tunes being The Old Hundredth, Irish, and Martyrdom, the men and the women separately taking their own parts with rustic precision. But those were good days, and afford precious memories still. The humble sanctuary was usually crowded on the Lord's day, and so were the farmers' large kitchens on the week nights."

He also recalls the district and homes which he visited:

"Steam had then done little for manufactures in that neighbourhood, and still less for locomotion. The jaunting car plied between the towns, the thud of the flail was heard in the barn, the hum of the spinning-wheel in the cottage, and the click-clack of the weaver's shuttle was heard all around. The turf burned briskly on the hearth, canopied by a capacious chimney, within the wide area of which the whole family were usually seated at even, when the toils of the day were over, and there many an edifying conversation was held."23

1829 Rev. John Lyons reports:

"In the neighbourhood of Priesthill our prospects are very pleasing: throughout the whole of the winter our chapel was well filled. In a village called Maze, we have formed a new class, but can only give them preaching occasionally. A Mr. Bradbury, who lives near the race course, has kindly opened his house to us. Here we have large congregations, who seem to hear with attention the sacred truths of the gospel. . . . In this part of the country we have lost a sincere friend, Mr. Thomas Jefferson. For many years, the messengers of the gospel always found his house a comfortable home. . . . In the hills of Kilwarlin we have laboured with success. We have gotten another class, and Heaven seems to prosper the old ones."

At the Conference of 1833 Rev. William McClure "was transferred from the Belfast to the Lisburn circuit, taking up his abode at Broomhedge, where was the preacher's house." A chapel with a manse adjoining had been built in Broomhedge, and the chapel was opened in 1830. These buildings are now the schoolroom and sexton's house. The circuit at that time embraced the following areas: Priesthill, Broomhedge, Lisburn, Ballinderry, Stoneyford, Ballyskeagh, Ballymacash, Moyrusk, Englishtown, Moira, Bog, Longstone, Halftown.

The following are extracts from Rev. McClure's diary:

3rd August 1834: "Was in Priesthill ... examined two classes in the Sunday School in a task I had previously given them; after which I gave them their promised reward. I then gave a short address to all the children, prayed with and dismissed the school. At eleven o'clock I preached to a numerous and deeply attentive congregation, after which I baptised a child, and endeavoured to impress on the minds of all the parents present their duty to their children, and their accountability to God for the proper discharge of that duty; it was a solemn, and I hope, a profitable time. Got home for my dinner at two o'clock."

7th October 1834: "After dinner, set off for Half-town, visiting some of the houses as I passed. The house could scarcely hold the people. Their attention was deep. A very solemn sense of God's presence seemed to rest on all."

15th December 1834: "Planted some strawberries in the morning, and preached at Half-town in the evening."

Evidently strawberries were popular at the Maze and Broomhedge even then. We find that two girls from these areas bore the Christian name of Strawberry.

Below is an extract from a letter sent by Rev. William McClure to the Secretary of the Irish Mission:

"Broomhedge, January 10th, 1835

... The weather has been very unfavourable to the health of great numbers of those poor people who have cold damp hovels to dwell in, very little firing, and bad clothing. As there are great numbers of such people in this neighbourhood, sickness and death have been, and still are, very common. . . .

"My labours during the past month have been severe, owing to the badness of the roads; and the floods of the Lagan river frequently stopping up my direct paths, have caused me a good deal of extra travelling. . . . I have been distributing a good many of our catechisms among the children, whose parents are members or hearers; and I intend when the weather gets milder, to meet those children monthly, to examine them in the catechism and the Scriptures. This I had begun, but when winter came the children could not attend. . . ."

In June 1836 Rev. William Cooke returned to Ireland, this time as superintendent of the Irish Mission. He resided in Belfast, and often visited the circuit. He writes:

1836: "On Sunday, the 17th (July) preached at Priesthill in the morning. The congregation good and very attentive. In the evening preached at Lisburn to a large assembly. Both chapels neat and clean."

It is appropriate to insert here an introduction to the Carlisle family of Maze. Reference has already been made to George, Senr., who in his youthful days found peace with God after hearing John Wesley preach. He married Mary, daughter of Thomas Bradshaw, at whose home the earliest Priesthill class meetings were held. Mary was converted as a child of only nine years. George and Mary resided on a small farm on the Kesh Road, opposite where the Maze School now stands. Their home was much used for Christian work. George was a class leader, and when he died in the late 1820s it was recorded that he had entertained the ministers of the Gospel, and kept a class in his house, for more than forty years. They had several children, and not long after George's death most of the young people contracted fever, of which three died — Thomas, and two girls, one of whom was named Margaret. At Thomas's death, Margaret requested that Mr. Burke, the preacher, would stand outside the window where she and the other sufferers lay, so that they could hear the funeral sermon. Shortly afterwards she died, on 16th July 1829. She was in her twenties, and had been an earnest Christian worker, and leader of a `Juvenile Band', which would indicate a children's meeting. Her other brothers were James, William, David and George.

James, who made such a valuable contribution to the work in the Sunday School at Priesthill, was born in 1815, and would have been only 14 years old when his much-loved sister Margaret died. The memory of "her loving instructions, holy example, and triumphant death remained with him all through his life."24 It is an interesting fact that as a boy he (and no doubt the other members of the family) attended school at `Orrfield'. James committed his life to Christ when he was twenty years old, and afterwards regretted that he had spent so long in halting between two opinions. Like many others, he was too reserved or hesitant to disclose his inner feelings to those who could have helped him. When he did become deeply concerned about his spiritual condition "he read the Word of Life as if for very life, and listened to the Gospel preached with a hungering spirit. The society of God's people had new attractions for him; he would walk behind them on the way from services, stealthily listening to their conversation, expecting therefrom words of help. . . . At length, by faith, he 'saw his Lord upon the tree', and was able, by the Holy Spirit to say, 'He died for me'."25 Now he had liberty and joy in drawing near to God. James's years of indecision had a marked effect on the rest of his life, and in the Sunday School "it gave urgency to his words when he besought the young to beware of procrastination."26 He placed a high value on having the spiritual legacy of Godly parents, and he regarded their influence as the chief instrument in restraining him from sin, and in keeping his conscience awake to the claims of Christ.

George, Junr., was born on 1st May, 1811, and in the early 1830s we find him as a class leader at Priesthill. Later, "impelled by a conviction of the sinner's danger, and urged by the entreaties of his brethren, he was constrained, contrary to the natural timidity of his disposition, to become an exhorter, and then a local preacher. And from the very commencement of his labours, the grace of God was so manifested in him, that crowds of his own neighbours and relations attended his ministry, many of whom were often melted into tears by the solemnity of his manner, and fervency of his appeals. His preaching continued highly attractive and impressive till the close of his ministry. With lofty independence of human praise or blame, and with his eye steadily fixed on the account he must render to the Judge of all on the great day, he went forth . . . beseeching sinners in Christ's stead to be reconciled to God."27

In the late 1830s the preaching-house was becoming rather dilapidated. One day after a service the subject was under discussion, and James Hunter suggested that a new building should be erected. At first some of the others thought this an absurdity, but the proposition was heartily endorsed by this devoted young man, George Carlisle. At the Conference in the spring of 1838 George Carlisle was called into the Christian ministry; and according to its request, he was appointed to the Lisburn circuit, under the superintendence of Rev. John Lyons. James Hunter, who lived at Hillsborough, was a member of Priesthill leaders' board. He is described as "a man of God with great influence in the Downshire Estate Office." At the Jubilee celebrations in 1888 it was stated by Rev. Edward Thomas that the site upon which Zion chapel stands was given by the Marquis of Downshire. The Marquis also donated ten guineas to the building fund, and a quantity of stones from his quarry. The Deed of Assignment, dated 21st September 1838, is signed by the following:

Bernard Jefferson of Trooperfield (secretary of Lisburn quarterly meeting)
James Hunter of Hillsborough (leader in Priesthill society)
George Carlisle (preacher)
Joseph Watson (farmer of Annacloy, from whom the land was transferred)

The sum of £3.5s.7½d. was paid to Joseph Watson, being "consideration money". The site consisted of road frontage of 63 feet, rear measurement of 63 feet, and depth of 136 feet 6 inches.

The witnesses were: Samuel Jones, Robert Shields and William Shields.

Rev. William McClure records: "Through his (James Hunter's) influence, access was found to the Marquis of Downshire's quarries for stones to ornament and strengthen the building. So zealous was he in the laudable work that he had all the carpenter-work finished before the foundation-stone was laid, in order that no time might be lost. In fact, his own business, to a great extent, was suspended for a whole summer.

"Week after week, and month after month he was to be found on the spot, superintending the laying of every stone until it was finished." Mr. Hunter also collected most of the subscriptions towards the building fund, and the debt was soon cleared.

James Carlisle adds: "I remember one day being up at Zion when it was almost finished. James Hunter was all alone inside, and was looking round and round with delight. He called me to him and said, 'I hope while the world stands there will be a house here for God; and that there will always be faithful men to build up a church for God, and point the anxious soul to the Lamb of God. I am an old man now and you are young. I may not live to see this house too small but I hope you will. If so, I have a plan in my mind of how to enlarge it.' He then made me stand at his side just where the pulpit now is, and pointing to the two centre windows in the back wall said, 'Break out an aisle from the outside of this window to the outside of that, and run it back into the garden as far as it is needful. When you have to enlarge just tell them that James Hunter left word with you that this was the way to do it."28 (At first, Zion consisted of the portion that is level. The building was extended with tiered seating some years later, in the manner above described.)

Rev. Thomas Seymour states: "And after all that was done by others it must be acknowledged that this neat and substantial church stands as a monument, under the Divine blessing, to the vigorous efforts and untiring industry, of Brother George Carlisle and James Hunter."

The chapel was completed in readiness for its dedication to the worship of God on Monday, Christmas Eve, 1838. Rev. William Cooke, superintendent of the Irish Mission, performed the opening ceremony. The event was celebrated by holding a tea meeting, and four hundred persons were crowded into the building. Mr. Cooke had a magic lantern; he also possessed a set of slides on Astronomy, and delivered an eloquent address on the starry firmament. No doubt he would also speak of the wonderful Star in the East seen by the wise men.

That year it was a white Christmas. Perhaps we can visualise the friends wending their way home through the snow, discussing the beginning of this new chapter in the life of Priesthill in which they all had the pleasure and privilege of sharing.