Exploring Methodism in Glenavy


At the conclusion of a local Methodist Sunday School excursion in 1925 to Killultagh 'the little ones' were treated to sweets, gingerbread and pears.

At the conclusion of a local Methodist Sunday School excursion in 1925 to Killultagh "the little ones" were treated to sweets, gingerbread and pears. This photograph, depicting a similar event, is from that era and was amongst the family collection of the McKeown family who originally resided in Glenavy.

METHODISM in Glenavy village turned a new chapter in the history books when the new hall, complete with modern facilities, was dedicated on September 12 2009.

The following March I was permitted to visit the church and examine a number of historical artefacts on display in the building. I collected a church member and we travelled out to the church together. On the way I remarked favourably on my companion's etiquette, as he removed his cap promptly as a mark of respect when a funeral procession passed us by. Coincidentally, it was the last earthly journey of the wife of a former local Methodist minister.

On arrival at the church and new hall I was pleased to see that the original date stone, bearing the inscription "Primitive Wesleyan Methodist Preaching-House A.D. MDCCCXXX" had been retained, restored and mounted in the front wall of the new hall.

In the early part of the 19th century the Johnston family had purchased a substantial amount of land in the Glenavy area from Doherty Gorman. A member of the family, John Moore Johnston born in 1799, was introduced to Methodism whilst in his early twenties.

Irish Methodism at that time had gone through a division centering on the debate of the administering of communion by ministers. Subsequently a Primitive Wesleyan Society of Ireland was formed. John Moore Johnston had been convinced by the Methodist teaching and he attended meetings in the Glenavy area in the home of Sergeant Cardwell. It was decided to follow the Primitive Wesleyans and the Glenavy Methodists continued to attend the local village Established Church to partake of communion.

John Moore Johnston generously permitted a building in the vicinity of his house in which to hold meetings. It was known as "The Turret" and there are still those who can recall this round tower being used in later years by local man and gardener William John Christie to store apples.

John Moore Johnston later donated part of his garden to progress the Methodist cause and in 1830 a meeting place was opened by the Rev. Adam Averell. A brass wall-mounted plaque inside the church reminds the visitor that Mr. & Mrs. John Moore Johnston "were the means of bringing Methodism to Glenavy about the year 1826."

It would be 43 years after the untimely death of John Moore Johnston in 1848 before a church was erected adjacent to the old meeting house at a cost of approximately £1500.

The foundation stone and two memorial stones at the front of this building are dated October 10 1891. The foundation stone was to be laid by John Kelly, the father of Sir Samuel Kelly who had close family ties to the area, but he was unable to be present at the ceremony. The inscribed silver trowel that was to be presented to John Kelly in 1891 is now on display inside the church. The memorial stones were laid by the daughters of John Moore Johnston - Mrs. Henry Thompson and Miss Johnston in memory of their parents.

The interior of the church is adorned with numerous gifts bearing the names of donors and members of the church from its early history. The Collier name name is synonymous with Methodism and the Colliers were an old established family who resided in the Ballynacoy area of Glenavy. Charles H. Crookshank refers to the family in his book "A History of Methodism" published in 1885 and he informs readers that Thomas Collier was said to have settled in Ballynacoy in 1789. Several descendants became Methodist ministers.

A plaque on the organ light is a reminder to the important role in which the church played in the lives of soldiers billeted in the area. The light was presented to the church in December 1943 by members of the 15th Air Formation Signals (Royal Corps of Signals).

One of the gifts presented to the church in 1940 by Jane McKeown, Sunnyside, Glenavy in memory of her husband William James, is a fitting tribute to a man who held the office of Sunday School Superintendent for 30 years and 20 years as a church steward.

The McKeown family played an active part in village life. A daughter of William, known as Mona, penned her childhood memories in the late 1960's which give an insight into village life from the early 20th century.

The Methodist church purchased the Manse in 1885. It was then situated at Main Street and had previously been used by the Church of Ireland. It became the temporary home of many circuit Methodist ministers.

One of those ministers was the Rev. John A. Walton. He arrived in the village in 1932, the year in which his son Ernest Walton, eminent nuclear physicist and Nobel Laureate, together with John Cockroft succeeded in the transmutation of atomic nuclei. Professor Philip Walton, the son of Ernest Walton, informed me that he recalled taking his father, before his death in 1995, to see the church in Glenavy which had been the last posting of the Rev. Walton who passed away in 1936.

As you wander through the church you will notice the original Girls Life Brigade flag still on display. Other well known surnames associated with Methodism in Glenavy are amongst the many other gifts on display in the church and include Addy, Brown, Jackson, Harbinson, Peel and Downer.

The original meeting house has now been replaced by the new hall and the Methodist Manse relocated many years ago from the Main Street to the Belfast Road.

For further historical notes and photographs relating to Glenavy Methodist Church log-on to www.glenavyhistory.com. Thanks to Ivan Harbinson for his time and assistance in the preparation of this article.

The Digger can be contacted at The Ulster Star Office or by email: diggerarticle@hotmail.com.

Next: A picture turns up at Glenavy Methodist Church that sheds light on the author of a 1910 ballad about Ballymacash, Lisburn.