Sinclair Kelburn – The Tale of the Minister with a Musket

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Pews & Musket
Pews & Musket

Who was Sinclair Kelburn?

A chapter in Cathal O’Byrne’s invaluable book As I Roved Out (1946) is entitled Belfast Minister Who Made the Muskets’ Rattle. It tells the true story of the Presbyterian minister Sinclair(e) Kelburn.

As I Roved Out - Cathal O'Byrne
As I Roved Out by Cathal O’Byrne (No longer in print)

Sinclair Kelburn Background

Sinclair Kelburn was born in Dublin in 1754. His father was the Rev Ebenezer Kelburn. Kelburn senior was the minister of the Plunkett Street Meeting House in the city from 1749 till his death in 1773. Sinclair, the only son, was named after his maternal line, his mother was Martha Sinclaire.

Sinclair graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1774. Subsequently he attended Edinburgh University reading both theology and medicine. However, he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and enter the ministry.

Appointment to the Third Presbyterian Church

In 1780 Kelburn was appointed minister in the Third Presbyterian Church in Rosemary Street, Belfast. Firstly his role was as an assistant to the current pastor the Rev William Laird and when this gentleman retired in 1791, Kelburn succeeded him. He quickly gained a reputation as an enthusiastic and able clergyman and an impressive preacher.

Sinclair was blessed with a strong social conscience and soon became involved with the reforming movement which was growing within the city of Belfast. Some of his congregation were among the foremost radical thinkers of the day, for example Mary Ann and Henry Joy McCracken.

The Belfast Volunteers

Sinclair Kelburn became an active member of the Belfast Volunteers. This Protestant organisation began as a defensive measure. English troops were involved in a war with the American colonies and Irish landlords were concerned for their own safety.

“The Volunteer movement of 1780 sprang into being simply from the desire of the sons of a country to give her that protection from foreign insult and attack which the regular government was either unable or unwilling to grant”

S Ramsey, The Early History of Belfast, 1889

This fear increased with the success of the American naval commander, John Paul Jones, in the waters off Carrickfergus. By 1778 the Volunteer force numbered 30,000 armed men, a significant number. The Volunteers used their ‘clout’ to draw attention to political grievances. This included parliamentary reform and Catholic emancipation.

Kelburn in the Volunteers

Kelburn soon became a noted and vocal member of the Volunteers. On 15th February 1782 he attended the Dungannon Convention, convened in the Episcopalian Church of Drumglass in County Tyrone. The Convention passed a resolution to work towards the reformation of the Anglican landlord dominated political system and for the relaxation and eventual removal of the Penal Laws.

In the summer of 1784 Kelburn was one of the committee who drew up a document for King George III urging Catholic emancipation. While in November of the same year he represented the Belfast Volunteers at the Grand National Convention in Dublin.

“In the National Convention held in Dublin in 1784, to ‘press for a more equal representation of the Commons of Ireland’, Belfast was represented by Henry Joy, jun., the McCracken’s cousin; the Rev Sinclair of the third Presbyterian Congregation – the McCracken’s minister; the Earl Bishop of Derry…and two others”.

Mary McNeill, The Life and Times of Mary Ann McCracken, 1960

Kelburn’s Theological Writings & contributions to the Northern Star

Kelburn was also a noted theologian of the traditional ‘Old Light’ school of thought.

His first published work was entitled The Morality of the Sabbath Defended (1781). He also wrote The Duty of Preaching the Gospel Explained and Recommended (1790]) and The Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ Asserted and Proved (1792).

At the same time Kelburn continued to support the twin causes of political reform and Catholic suffrage. He was one of the founding members and regular contributor to the Northern Star newspaper. This publication reflected the views and aims of the recently formed Society of United Irishmen. While Sinclair was a strong sympathiser of the organisation, he himself never ‘took the test’, that is he was not a member of the Society.

Northern Star Front Page July 1794
Northern Star Front Page July 1794
Northern Star - Volunteers Letter
Northern Star – Volunteers Letter

The Minister with a Musket

However, Kelburn’s views were well-known publically. On 28th January 1792, because the venue at the Town Hall could not accommodate the crowds, Kelburn held a meeting advocating parliamentary reform in his Presbyterian Church.

In August he attended a dinner given by the Catholics of Newry in honour of Theobald Wolfe Tone and John Keogh. He was also a known associate of prominent United Irishman Samuel Neilson.

It is told that Sinclair often preached and led services dressed in the full Volunteer uniform with his musket leaning up against the pulpit. His impassioned sermons were said to have roused the congregation with many of the church-goers thumping their own weapons on the Church floor in agreement.

“…when the drums of the Volunteers beat to arms, he mounted the pulpit dressed in full uniform as a private in the Volunteer Corps, and, while preaching rested his musket against the pulpit door. The discourse delivered under such circumstances was, we can well believe, energetic, and as the Christian soldier enforced his patriotic exhortations by appropriate action and gesticulation, not only did the preacher’s own musket rattle, but his armed audience characteristically expressed their approbation by striking the butts of their muskets on the Meeting House floor”

Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out, 1946

Response to his Actions

Kelburn’s growing notoriety brought him to the attention of the local authorities. A policy of intimidation and harassment was initiated in an attempt to silence this outspoken clergyman.

In 1793, when a party of soldiers went on the rampage, his house was attacked as well as the property of Thomas McCabe and the Franklin Tavern, all places connected with the United Irishmen.

Cathal O’Byrne tells us “these raids…were made with the full knowledge and connivance of the Chief Magistrate of the town”.

Kelburn’s Arrest

In April 1797, Sinclair Kelburn along with many others was arrested on a charge of high treason. Taken from his wife Frances, he was transported to Dublin and imprisoned in Kilmainham Jail.

Northern Whig 17th April 1871 - Arrest of Sinclair Kelburn
Northern Whig 17th April 1871 – Arrest of Sinclair Kelburn

Among those held captive here at the time were Henry Joy McCracken, Dr Alexander Crawford from Lisburn, Thomas Richardson and James Dickey a solicitor from Randalstown. The prisoners were known or suspected of being United Irishmen or sympathetic to the cause. Quoting from Berwick’s History of Belfast (1817) the author S Ramsey writes –

The system of domiciliary visits and arbitrary arrests never reigned in greater rigour under the tyranny of Robespierre than it does now in Belfast – no age, no character, no profession is exempted”.

Northern Star April 1871 - List of those Arrested
Northern Star April 1771 – List of those Arrested

Calls for Kelburn’s Release

Kelburn’s loyal Belfast parishioners sent a petition with 162 signatures to the Earl of Camden asking for his release.

The second Earl Camden, John Jeffreys Pratt, had been appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1795 by the British prime minister William Pitt. Consequently, the letter was ignored. Sinclair, though not a member of the proscribed society, had been accused by an infamous informer, Edward Newell.

“They [the congregation] were greatly suffering for the loss of one who was superlatively remarkable for benevolence of heart and an ardent attachment to his pastoral duties

Harsh treatment and poor conditions in the jail severely compromised Kelburn’s health.

The Impact on Sinclair Kelburn

By the time of his release in June 1798, he had lost the use of his legs. However, he continued to undertake his spiritual duties to his congregation and friends as much as he was able.

On 29th June he accompanied James Dickey to his execution on the scaffold. James Dickey was a young barrister from a Presbyterian family in Crumlin in the north of Ireland who was active in the Society of the United Irishmen. The authorities were determined to punish those who had rebelled in 1798 and to use their fate as a warning to others.

“…now the gloomy shadow of the gallows claimed its victims. Nor had it long to wait. The first to suffer was William Magill, hanged at the market house on 12th June, his head thereafter cut off and affixed to the old and ruinous tower. Twelve days after James Dickey…followed up that dismal ladder, and again men shuddered as the distorted visage stared down at them upon the busy street. Four days more and John Storey suffered in a like manner. On 5th July the grim company on the market house was reinforced by Hugh Grimes and Henry Byers….”

S Ramsey, Early History of Belfast, 1889

The Death of Henry Joy McCracken

In July at ‘Harry’s’ request, Sinclair Kelburn also attended Henry Joy McCracken in his final hours. The strength of friendship between the two men was readily apparent.

“Mr K when he arrived was so overpowered by his feelings that it was a considerable time before his tears and sobs would permit him to utter a short prayer”

Taken from a letter by Mary Ann McKracken to Thomas Russell describing her brother’s death

The Fate of Sinclair Kelburn

In October 1799 Kelburn was asked to resign due to his ill-health. This seems to have been both physical and mental “from the precarious state of your health which appears frequently to affect your mind”.

In 1800 at synod Sinclair tendered his resignation. The congregation presented him with a commemorative plate in recognition of his valued service to the Church.

Sinclair Kelburn died on 31st March 1802 at Beersbridge in Belfast. He was only 48. Not only had his health broken but also his heart.

Kelburn is buried in the Presbyterian Cemetery at Castlereagh in County Down. A memorial at his grave was later erected by his family and members of his devoted congregation.

View of Presbyterian Cemetery at Castlereagh
Presbyterian Cemetery at Castlereagh

“He was certainly a very remarkable man in many respects, as an orator, a divine, a politician, and as a genial companion unrivalled in his day. He was a very advanced Liberal; but it does not appear that he was ever connected with the Society of United Irishmen.

He may have sympathised with their objects without connecting himself to their body or approving of all their plans. It may be taken as an indication of his personal and ministerial popularity that a great number of families in Belfast called their children by his name”

Rev John Scott Porter

The Inscription on Sinclair Kelburn’s Headstone

The inscription on the grave of Sinclair Kelburn reads:

Here rests in hope of a resurrection in everlasting life

All that is earthly of the Revd. Sinclair Kelburn

Who for 22 years with much propriety and piety

Sustained the character of Dissenting Minister

Of the 3rd Congregation in Belfast.

Obit 31st March 1802, aged 48 years.

This monument was erected to his memory Anno Domini MDCCCXII

By his relict Frances Kelburn

Sinclair Kelburn Headstone
Sinclair Kelburn Headstone

The Three Presbyterian Churches of Rosemary Street, Belfast

First Presbyterian Church interior
First Presbyterian Church interior

The First Presbyterian Church built in 1695 is the oldest surviving church in the Belfast with an eventful history

Thomas McCabe – Champion of the Poor & the enslaved

Thomas McCabe denounces slave ship proposals
Thomas McCabe denounces slave ship proposals

The name of Thomas McCabe is not well-known today – a shame given the impact of his support for the poorest and those enslaved!

Mary Ann McCracken -A remarkable woman


Mary Ann McCracken was a philanthropist, feminist, humanitarian, nationalist radical born in Belfast on 8th July 1770.

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