The Three Presbyterian Churches of Rosemary Street, Belfast

Published by P&P on

Home » Places » Places to See » The Three Presbyterian Churches of Rosemary Street, Belfast
First Presbyterian Church Entrance
First Presbyterian Church Entrance

Background – The Early 17th Century

The early seventeenth century saw the defeat of the Gaelic clans in the north of Ireland. As a result Arthur Chichester was granted large tracts of land in the Province of Ulster. This included the little town of Belfast.

To consolidate his position, and in line with English policy at the time, he imported Anglican folk from his home county of Devon in England and Presbyterians from lowland Scotland to settle on the confiscated lands. These Protestants would owe their livelihoods and positions to the Chichester family and so would be loyal to them.

At first the Presbyterians held their services in the established Anglican ‘Corporation Church’ in High Street [see From Capello de Vado to St George’s]. However, when Cromwell’s troops lay siege and took over Belfast, this ecclesiastical building was commandeered as their garrison (1649-1656). Scottish Presbyterian ministers were ousted from Belfast.

The First Presbyterian Church in Rosemary Street

After the restoration of the monarchy, the Presbyterian population began to expand. By 1668 a meeting house had been built at the corner of North Street and Hercules Lean (now Royal Ave). This was on the outskirts of the town near the North Gate.

Belfast 1685
Belfast 1685

When this became too small for the growing congregation the first Presbyterian Church was constructed in Rosemary Street. The Rev McBride had secured an informal lease from the Earl of Donegall and the Church was opened by 1695.

First Presbyterian Church from Benn, Historical Account of the town of Belfast
First Presbyterian Church from Benn, Historical Account of the town of Belfast

The Second Presbyterian Church in Rosemary Street

Just thirteen years later a new church building was required to accommodate Presbyterian church-goers, who numbered over 3,000. Presbyterians far outnumbered Anglicans in the town.

The Catholic population had been decimated and relatively few remained in Belfast at this time.

The second church was built on land just to the rear of the first establishment.

Second Presbyterian Church from Benn, Historical Account of the town of Belfast
Second Presbyterian Church from Benn, Historical Account of the town of Belfast
Drawing of First Presbyterian Church with the larger Second Presbyterian Church to the rear
Drawing of First Presbyterian Church with the larger Second Presbyterian Church to the rear

The Third Presbyterian Church in Rosemary Street

The Doctrinal Split

In 1720 doctrinal controversy caused a split within the congregation of the first two churches. This surrounded the tenets of the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Those Presbyterians who accepted the articles left the church and built their own 3rd Presbyterian Church further down Rosemary Street. George Benn, himself a Presbyterian, tells us

“…on this occasion on doctrinal points and questions of Church policy; and being reluctant, perhaps, to wander too far from the old ancestral home, they settled down but a few perches distant from it, building the house long known as the Third Presbyterian Congregation….”

George Benn, A History of the Town of Belfast

Financing the Third Church

The building of this place of worship received much financial help from its brethren across the water.

“The congregations of the Presbyterian Churches in Rosemary Lane largely consisted of recent Scottish settlers. It was natural therefore, that one, Samuel Smith, an energetic merchant, should proceed to Scotland to raise the bulk of the large sum of £1,300  required for building ‘The New Erection’ in which the third congregation was established (1723)”

Belfast Telegraph 1st July 1941

In recognition of this generosity several pews in the new Church were reserved for those visiting Scottish folk and for sailors from Scotland.

Third Presbyterian Church from Benn, Historical Account of the town of Belfast
Third Presbyterian Church from Benn, Historical Account of the town of Belfast

Three Churches – One Street

Those who did not subscribe to the Westminster doctrine remained in the 1st and 2nd Churches. They became known as Non-Subscribing Presbyterians and later Unitarians.

Hence by 1722 there were three Presbyterian Churches in the one street in Belfast.

“Down to the early part of the last century it was Rosemary Lane, later changed to the more dignified ‘street’. For the greater part of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries presented  the uncommon spectacle of being the home of three Presbyterian meeting houses as they were called in that day”  

Belfast Telegraph 10th February 1941

The Dissenters

In the seventeenth century Presbyterians, or Dissenters, as they were known, laboured under certain restrictions for not being members of the established Church.

While not suffering nearly as much as Catholics (see St Mary’s Church Belfast – an Inspirational Story), their chances of rising through the hierarchy of the town were curtailed.

Presbyterians could not serve on the town council or become sovereign (mayor). They were also banned from being officers in the army or studying at Trinity College.

The Flight of Rev McBride

In 1705 the Rev McBride, minister of the 1st Presbyterian Church, was forced to flee to Scotland. He had refused to take the Oath of Abjuration. The English Queen Anne insisted that all those in public position swear the oath. It claimed that James Stuart, a rival to the throne, was not the son of James II, so his claim to the monarchy was dismissed.

When McBride returned to Belfast, an arrest warrant was issued and the minister had to flee again, escaping to Donaghadee and a boat to Scotland.

When the soldiers arrived at the reverend’s manse he was nowhere to be found. In rage and frustration the sovereign, Roger Haddock, attacked a portrait of the Rev McBride with a sword. The ‘stabbed’ painting still hangs in the session room of the Church to this day.

Rev McBride Painting
Rev McBride Painting

Radical Belfast – ‘The Little Town on the Lagan’

In the eighteenth century many Presbyterians were among the most liberal thinkers in Belfast. The city itself had a reputation for radical ideologies and had warmly supported the insurgents of the American War of Independence and the French Revolution.

“…and it may safely be said that no public event of any importance occurred in either hemisphere which was not commemorated by a ‘demonstration’ in Belfast… fact Belfast was almost as far gone in republican frenzy as Paris, and no event occurred in the great city on the Seine which was not duly celebrated in the little town on the Lagan”

S Ramsey   Early History of Belfast, 1889

Some of the most prominent United Irishmen were members of the Presbyterian Churches in Rosemary Street. Perhaps the most famous, Henry Joy McCracken, attended the Third Church. His family home was almost directly opposite.

First Presbyterian Church balcony seating
First Presbyterian Church balcony seating

Another important United Irishman was Dr William Drennan, who had actually been born in the manse. Other Presbyterians and members of the Society included Samuel Neilson, William Tennant and Thomas McCabe.

Famous Presbyterian's remembered
Famous Presbyterian’s remembered

The First Presbyterian Church Rebuilt

The New Design

In 1782-83 the First Presbyterian Church was rebuilt on the original site. It was designed by the Belfast architect Roger Mulholland. The front of the building was rectangular in shape but the interior opens up into an ellipse.

First Presbyterian Church
First Presbyterian Church
Side view First Presbyterian Church
Side view First Presbyterian Church

The two storey classical frontispiece displays two arched windows and a doorway on the ground floor while the upper level has three rectangular windows. In 1833 a balustrade parapet was added. The original grounds were planted with trees and shrubs.

In 1832 the current portico was added to the Church building. It contains a memorial commemorating those of the congregation who died in World War 1. This is the work of County Down sculptress Rosamond Praeger.

Rosamond Praeger War Memorial
Rosamond Praeger War Memorial

Inside the First Presbyterian Church

Inside are dark wood box pews. A beautiful curving balcony is supported by dark green Composite columns. The balcony is adorned with intricately carved wooden urns. The ceiling is decorated with plaster-work panels in tones of white and soft-grey.

Balcony urn & church view
Balcony urn & church view

As the pews had to be leased we are able to see were various members of the congregation regularly worshipped.  An incomplete record of the Pew Rent Books 1726-1873 is held on microfilm in the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland.

 The upper windows are arched and composed of plain opaque glass however, the ground floor windows are of stained-glass. These windows commemorate well-known Belfast families such as the Andrews, Ward and Riddel. The windows are works of art in themselves and all were made by Meyer & Co. first established in Munich in the 1850’s. Their distinctive rich colours add vivid warmth to the Church building.

Stained Glass Window 1
Stained Glass Window 1
Stained Glass Window 2
Stained Glass Window 2
Stained Glass Window 3
Stained Glass Window 3

The finely carved dark wood pulpit was a gift to the new church building from the ‘ladies of Belfast’. While the Lewis organ installed in 1907 was a donation from the Riddell sisters.

Pulpit & church organ
Pulpit & church organ

Several plaques within the church recognise past church members and ministers such as The Hamilton Memorial, The John Houston Memorial and the Dr William Bruce Memorial. Another interesting commemorative tablet is that to John Scott Porter, a nineteenth century advocate for integrated education in the city.

This Presbyterian Church was the first church in Belfast to install electric lighting in 1895.

Closure of the Second Presbyterian Church

The Second Presbyterian Church closed in 1896.

Its congregation moved to All Souls’ Church in Elmwood Avenue near Queens University.

The Third Presbyterian Church Rebuilt

In 1831 the Third Church was replaced with a new building described as the “most splendid Church in the three kingdoms!”

The new Third Church was designed by Mr John Miller, whose family originally were stone and marble merchants in Berry Street. The contractor for the project was Mr John Brown. The front facade of the construction featured an elegant Grecian Dorric portico with an Attic balustrade.

The interior furnishings of Honduran mahogany were the result of a shipwreck at Cloughey Bay. An enterprising member of the Building Committee, hearing of the event, snapped up the cargo of wood for a bargain price!

“For in 1831 the building which had served since the foundation of the congregation 108 years before was demolished to make room for a larger and better erection, one that would more adequately meet the demands of the quickly growing population….The history of the Rosemary Street congregations can be described in large part a history of the development of Belfast itself”

Northern Whig 11th April 1931

It is said that during the digging of the foundations of this church, an ancient weapon was discovered. This was described as “a fine example of the double-edged Celtic sword” Northern Whig 11th April 1931. The artefact was presented to the Museum by congregation member Councillor Gibson.

Opening of the new Third Presbyterian Church

The new Third Church was formally opened on 15th April 1832. Many of Belfast’s elite attended the ceremony including the Marquis of Donegal, Lord Dufferin, Sir Stephen May, Mr Macartney and Mr Batt.

Notable ministers of the Presbyterian Church who resided in the manse in Rosemary Street include the Rev Thomas Drennan, father of patriot and poet Dr William Drennan and Dr Crombie founder of the Belfast Academy. The manse itself was destroyed during the Blitz of 1941.

James Crombie Memorial
James Crombie Memorial

The Rev Sinclaire Kelburn

A renowned minister of the Third Presbyterian Church was the Rev Sinclaire Kelburn (1754 – 1802). He was an enthusiastic member of the Belfast Volunteer movement. This was an entirely Protestant body formed for defensive purposes.  The Volunteers were firm supporters of Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform. Kelburn is famous for preaching while dressed in full Volunteer uniform with his musket leaning against the pulpit.

“He seems to have combined the preaching of evangelical doctrine with a lively sympathy with the reforming movements in politics of his day”

Belfast Telegraph 1st July 1941

The Rev Kelburn was to suffer greatly for his views.  Although never a member of the United Irishmen he was a well-known sympathiser. For this reason he was arrested on a charge of high treason and imprisoned in Kilmainham Jail.

Due to harsh treatment and appalling conditions he became severely disabled. When released he was no longer fit for the ministry. Rev Sinclaire Kelburn died on 31st March 1802 and is buried at Castlereagh Presbyterian Cemetery.

Closure of the Third Presbyterian Church

In 1941 the Third Presbyterian Church decided to amalgamate with the Presbyterian Congregation of Ekenhead on the North Circular Road away from the city centre. The church building had been badly damaged in the Belfast Blitz of April 1941.

Belfast Telegraph Report on the destruction of the Third Presbyterian Church
Belfast Telegraph Report on the destruction of the Third Presbyterian Church

The decision was taken not to rebuild on the historic site. Fortunately the old church records were not lost in the blaze. A Masonic Hall built in the 1950’s now occupies the location.

“Historic Rosemary Street Presbyterian Church, which was demolished in a recent air raid, is not to be re-erected on its city centre site. The congregation is uniting with that of the Ekenhead on the North Circular Road, where it is hoped to build the ‘new Rosemary’ at the end of the War”

Northern Whig 2nd July 1941

Visiting the First Presbyterian Church

The First Presbyterian Church is still a religious community in the heart of Belfast. It is the oldest surviving church in the city.

The wealth of history contained within these walls is simply amazing. We would like to thank church historian Mr Raymond O’Regan for sharing his knowledge which was a great help in writing this article.

All are welcome to visit this historic church.

First Presbyterian Church Leaflet
First Presbyterian Church Leaflet

See Useful Information at the foot of the post for the Church address and details of related records.

Gallery of Images

Church view from the balcony
Church view from the balcony
Henry Joy's Pew
Henry Joy’s Pew
First Presbyterian Church interior
First Presbyterian Church interior
Stained Glass windows behind the pulpit
Stained Glass windows behind the pulpit
First Presbyterian Church session room
First Presbyterian Church session room
Ground floor view
Ground floor view

Related Posts

Sinclair Kelburn – The Minister with a Musket

Pews & Musket
Rev Sinclair Kelburn was blessed with a strong social conscience and became involved with the reforming movement within the city of Belfast.

From Capello de Vado 1306AD to St George’s Church, Belfast

Ghosts of St George's, Belfast Telegraph 20th April 1923
St George’s Church is a place of peace within Belfast’s city centre that visitors cherish, on a site used for worship since Capello de Vado 1306 AD (Image: Ghosts of St George’s, Belfast Telegraph 20th April 1923)

The Ghosts of St George’s – The Cemetery of Forgotten Souls

Church Lane and the Cemetery of Forgotten Souls
The story of the ‘forgotten cemetery’ at St George’s Church, Belfast and the fate of the dead beneath our streets

Thomas McCabe – Champion of the Poor & the enslaved

Spinning cotton (© Microsoft Bing Image Creator)
The name of Thomas McCabe is not well-known today – a shame given the impact of his support for the poorest and those enslaved!

Useful Addresses

First Presbyterian Church, 41 Rosemary Street, Belfast Bt1 1QB  (Tel: +44 996660065)

Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland, Assembly Buildings, Fisherwick Place, Belfast BT1 6DW (Tel: 028 90417299)

Records in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI)

First Presbyterian Church

  • Baptisms: 1723-1867 with an index
  • Marriages: 1741-1846 with an index

Ekenhead Church

  • Baptisms; 1880-1967
  • Marriages: 1866-1926

Records in the Presbyterian Historical Society

Elmwood Church

  • Baptisms: 1880-1967
  • Marriages: 1862-1974

Due to illness it is likely that BelfastEntries posts will appear less frequently for the near future. We hope to see things back to normal in coming months. P&P
Do you want to see all new BelfastEntries Posts?
If you like our Facebook posts and would like to see more then please add yourself as a friend to our PandP profile screen or follow our BelfastEntries page. We cannot add posts to all groups and the only way to be sure of receiving notifications of new posts is to follow our page. You will see that the Belfast Entries page has a 5 star rating from readers

If you enjoyed this article please consider a small donation

Belfast Entries is a husband & wife hobby website featuring articles on our shared history, memories and entertaining stories of our past. To help us meet rising website hosting costs please click the coffee cup below to learn how to make a small donation. Please note that every contribution is valued and that we will not contact you directly in order to respect your privacy.

Buy Us a Coffee
Buy Us a Coffee

Donations this month 2 🙂

Thank you O

Thank you J

We had 4 donations last month

Help Us Find New Readers

If you like our posts please help us to grow our readership by sharing any posts that you like using the social media sharing icons shown with each post.

What are others reading now?

Galboly cottage view

Galboly – The County Antrim Village Lost in Time

By P&P / 30 September 2021 / 4 Comments
Mill chimney - a common sight in Belfast

Ardoyne – The Story of a Village

By P&P / 13 November 2021 / 2 Comments
Bodies Illustration at the scene Belfast Telegraph 13th March 1890

Nora’s Grave 1890 – Love & Death

By P&P / 19 March 2022 / 0 Comments
Belfast Long Bridge crossed the River Lagan between 1688 and 1841

Unusual Laws in Old Belfast 1613 – 1816

By P&P / 11 March 2022 / 0 Comments

Cost of Living Crisis

Given the current cost of living crisis that will impact so many in coming months we have added a page signposting organisations that may be able to offer support. We have no relationship with these organisations and cannot offer financial advice but we hope that some of the links may prove useful.

Ancestry Antrim Arthur Chichester artist Belfast Belfast Entries Belfast Family belfast roots Carrickfergus Castle Cemetery Church Clifton House County Antrim County Down Department Store Donegal education. family tree Famous Folk Forgotten folk Genealogy Ghost graveyard Historical places History Hotel Ireland Irish Census Records Irish Family Irish genealogy irish roots Mary Ann McCracken Operation Overlord Otto Jaffe Outlaw People Philanthropist Places to see Poor House Sailortown St Patrick Titanic Tourism United Irishmen

Belfast Entries posts & photos are our intellectual property and copyrighted to us. Where we use photos that do not belong to us, it is because we believe them to be in the public domain or shared under a Creative Commons licence with appropriate attribution. None of our content or images can be used without our consent. Note that a link to our Copyright & Takedown notice is included in the website footer on all pages.


We are a Belfast couple adding information on Belfast and the surrounding counties. Over coming months we will add a range of posts covering the people, places, products and stories that interest us and will hopefully be of interest to you. Over time we hope to build up information of use to locals & visitors alike and welcome your feedback on subjects of interest or stories that might be interest to the wider audience. Let us know what you think.


JK · 22 January 2023 at 10:09 am

Does the Second Presbyterian Church still exist behind the First? If not,could you please elaborate on it’s fate.

    P&P · 22 January 2023 at 3:22 pm

    The Second Presbyterian Church congregation moved in 1896 to Elmwood Avenue and unfortunately the church was demolished in the 1960s.

Joan Dawson fleming · 22 January 2023 at 12:17 am

Excellent srticle

    P&P · 22 January 2023 at 3:17 pm

    Thank you Joan. · 25 January 2022 at 8:18 am

I pay a visit day-to-day some sites and sites to read content, buut this weblog provides qality based content.

    P&P · 25 January 2022 at 11:26 am

    Thank you · 31 December 2021 at 5:25 pm

We asolutely love your blog and find most of your post’s to be
just what I’m looking for. Would you offer guest writers to write
cntent for youu personally? I wouldn’t mind writing
a post oor elaborating on most of thhe subjects youu wrte about here.
Again, awesome site!

    P&P · 31 December 2021 at 7:06 pm

    I’m sorry but we are a husband and wife team working on the blog based on subjects personal to us.
    Thank you for your kind offer but we want the blog contents to remain exclusively ours.


Jim Scott · 16 December 2021 at 6:38 pm

A great article. I grew up across the road from North Circuiar Church and have memories of playing on the building site. Later early 60’s I became a member. Many thanks for bringing back fond memories.

    P&P · 17 December 2021 at 11:12 am

    Glad you enjoyed it Jim. We try to hunt out stories that may be of interest to the wider audience. The posts have a way of joining up with recurring characters and these feed new ideas – see the St Mary’s Church or Thomas McCabe posts for example as related to this. These are the histories that are seldom told.

Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Would you like notifications of new Belfast Entries posts? OK No thanks