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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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…..in 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Gallery of Images
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
- Baptisms; 1880-1967
- Marriages: 1866-1926
Records in the Presbyterian Historical Society
- Baptisms: 1880-1967
- Marriages: 1862-1974
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
The construction of Saint Mary’s Catholic Church in Belfast in 1784 with widespread Protestant support reflected the end of the Penal Laws
The name of Thomas McCabe is not well-known today – a shame given the impact of his support for the poorest and those enslaved!
Sophia Rosamond Praeger, born on 17/4/1867, in the town of Holywood near Belfast was destined to become a trail-blazing artist & sculptress
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