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PaisleyReligion and Politics in Northern Ireland$

Steve Bruce

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9780199281022

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2007

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199281022.001.0001

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Early Years

Early Years

(p.22) 2 Early Years

Steve Bruce (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter details the history of the Paisley family, clarifies the distinctive elements of Paisley's evangelical Protestant faith, describes the rural roots of his movement, and charts the slow growth of his ministry from 1945 to 1965.

Keywords:   Baptist Union, FPCU, Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, Crossgar


James Kyle Paisley was born to staunch Protestant parents in County Tyrone in 1891. Apprenticed to the drapery trade in Omagh, he was converted at a YMCA meeting and he began to preach. At that time many pious families in the country areas of Ulster held prayer meetings in their kitchens. Recent converts were encouraged to talk about their experience and those who showed a gift for witnessing to what the Lord had done for them would be encouraged to speak at more formal, larger meetings such as open‐air rallies. Kyle Paisley followed such a route into evangelism:

As I look back upon those days I can see the guiding hand of the Lord upon my life. He led me to conduct monthly meetings at Grangemore, a short distance from Armagh and this meeting continued with great blessing for approximately four years…The Third Armagh Presbyterian Church Hall was opened for me for the preaching of the gospel…for young men thirsty for the Water of Life…This was really the foundation of a great work of God in the city of Armagh and led finally to the commencement of the first Baptist church in the Mall.1

The Baptist assembly in Armagh asked Paisley to become their pastor, and he trained at the Baptist College in Dublin. While pastoring in Armagh, Paisley met and married a Scots girl from a Covenanter background. The Reformed Presbyterian Church, to give the Covenanters their formal title, was the most conservative of the various (p.23) Scottish Presbyterian churches. It was not some late schism but had always been outside the national Church of Scotland because it believed the state church had been set up on terms that gave too much influence over religion to the monarch, without the monarch making a matching commitment to impose the true faith on the populace. Although almost extinct in Scotland, the Covenanters have to this day maintained a conservative theology and an old‐fashioned style of worship: they sing only the metrical Psalms of David and those unaccompanied.2 Their rejection of the state has been diluted from open warfare to mild abstention. They generally do not vote or hold public office (though even this very limited withdrawal of consent is often now compromised).

It was to these parents—an evangelical Baptist and a Covenanter—that Ian Richard Kyle Paisley was born in 1926. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to Ballymena in County Antrim, where Kyle Paisley became pastor of the Hill St Baptist Church.

The desire to maintain religious purity, so strong in the younger Paisley's ministry, was inherited from his father. Shortly after going to Ballymena, Kyle Paisley quit the Baptist Union. Although most Irish Baptists were solidly conservative, many English assemblies were adopting modernist ideas, and some pastors were, albeit tentatively, becoming involved in the various interdenominational meetings and associations that were later collectively dubbed the ‘ecumenical movement’. With a few of his flock, Kyle Paisley started services in a disused carpet warehouse. He then ‘trusted in the Lord to provide’ and acquired a building site by the railway lines. A plain single‐storey building—the Waveney Road Tabernacle—was erected, and the small congregation set out in its Covenant its firm opposition to ‘the anti‐super‐naturalism of modernism, and the deceptions of fanaticism, and the formality of a dead and defunct orthodoxy’. In a ‘day of apostasy, declension and compromise’, the remnant would maintain a faithful witness to the belief that the Bible was ‘the whole Word of God…verbally inspired by God the Holy Ghost…the final authority on all matters of Doctrine, Faith, Practice’.3

(p.24) Although Paisley was a Baptist, his small church drew disaffected members of the Irish Presbyterian Church (IPC). The parents of William Beattie, who became one of Ian Paisley's early colleagues, were Antrim farmers, the descendants of the old Scots settlers and Presbyterian since their arrival in Ireland. But they were opposed to the modernism of Professor Davey and other leading figures in the church and they wanted to hear orthodox preaching. The Irish Evangelical Church had no congregations in the Ballymena area and there was no Reformed Presbyterian Church nearby and so they found themselves drawn to the Baptist congregation led by Kyle Paisley.

The foundation of a small independent Baptist work in Ballymena was a matter of little significance even in Ulster, but it was part of the wider fundamentalist controversy and that was signalled by Dr. T. T. Shields, one of the leading North American fundamentalists, laying the foundation stone for the Waveney Road Tabernacle.

Ian Paisley's childhood was unexceptional, except perhaps in the rigour of his religious socialization and the decor to which that gave rise. The words ‘Salvation to the Uppermost’ (now on the wall beside his church pulpit) were a text fixed to a large portrait of General William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, that adorned his bedroom wall. When other children read Enid Blyton, Paisley's favourite books were Foxe's Book of Martyr's and Wylie's three‐volume History of Protestantism. By his own account his schooling was perfectly normal and his family life happy. After a brief period working on the farm of a family friend near Sixmilecross in County Tyrone, Ian began to preach at small meetings and felt a call to full‐time Christian work.4 He was sent for a year to Barry School of Evangelism in South Wales, a non‐denominational college that offered practical training in the skills of open‐air preaching and door‐to‐door visitation, and rigorous Bible study. In 1943 he returned to Ulster and he enrolled as a student with the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Belfast, although he had no intention of becoming a minister in that denomination. There he acquired a thorough grounding in Calvinist (p.25) theology and biblical scholarship and acquitted himself well enough to win a prize in each of his three years of study.5 He also began to make contacts in the evangelical milieu. In addition to the Reformed Presbyterians who taught him, he became acquainted with W. J. Grier, who, since the death of James Hunter in 1942, had become the leading figure in the Irish Evangelical Church and on occasions he acted as a supply preacher for Grier.

On Christmas Sunday 1945 Ian Paisley preached an invitation sermon to a small congregation in working‐class East Belfast that called itself the Ravenhill Evangelical Mission Church. His performance was acceptable and he was invited to become its pastor.


The history of the small Ravenhill congregation is worth detailing, because it shows the fine threads that linked the world of evangelical Protestantism in Ulster. It had been formed as a result of a schism in the Ravenhill Presbyterian Church, the building that had been packed in 1922 by the shipyard workers coming to hear W. P. Nicholson preach against modernism. The minister of that church and his elders had been signatories to the heresy charges laid against Davey, and the congregation was generally very conservative. The occasion for the division was almost trivial and involved a large amount of personal friction in addition to the basic tension between theological positions. Some members took strong exception to modern dress and hairstyles. In particular they wanted the kirk session to censure some girls for having their hair bobbed in the fashion of the day. One of the girls was the daughter of the minister, John Ross. Despite the fact that Ross was himself deeply conservative and had been a signatory to the charges against Davey, the issue divided the kirk session against him. In March 1935 a small number of conservative members left to meet in a building 300 yards down the Ravenhill Road.

(p.26) Most schisms involve arguments about which side best represents the tradition. In some disputes, real estate is at issue. In others, it is the symbolic estate that is fought over. The formation of Ian Paisley's Free Presbyterian Church in 1951 began an argument, which still runs, over the propriety of the label ‘Presbyterian’. Such arguments are not trivial: they have major implications for the ability of contending parties to recruit others with the claim that they represent the heritage. The people who moved down the Ravenhill Road to form their own congregation were Presbyterians, and the leaders of the schism were ordained elders of the IPC. When Ian Paisley accepted their call, he was stepping into the Presbyterian tradition. However, by the time he was called, eleven years had elapsed and some of the original Presbyterians had left and been replaced by evangelical Protestants drawn from across the denominational spectrum. There were Methodists, Baptists, and Brethren, and, for eighteen months prior to Paisley's call, the congregation had been led by a Brethren evangelist. Nonetheless, Paisley was consolidating the foundations of the Presbyterianism he had acquired from his mother's influence, his own training with the Reformed Presbyterians, and his connection with Grier's schismatic Presbyterians, when he accepted the call of a secession Presbyterian church.

Different denominations have different notions of how someone is called to the ministry. The Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches have a high theory of ordination. They believe that the ability to interpret God's will correctly and to perform religious rituals was passed from Christ to his Apostles, and from them to a succession of office holders. Only people in the correct succession have a valid calling. Reformed denominations have no such magical conception of the ministry—there is no mystical quality that is passed from one generation of priests to the next—but most still have some ceremony in which representatives of the church test and endorse aspiring ministers. At the low end of the spectrum, denominations such as the Baptists and the Brethren hold that whether someone has been genuinely called to lead a community of Christians is known only by the fruits of his ministry.

Ian Paisley himself tends to the low position, while the traditional Presbyterian view has usually been somewhere between the high apostolic succession notion of Catholics or Anglicans and the free‐for‐all (p.27) of the independents. For this reason, the Irish Presbyterians have been keen to show that Paisley was not properly ordained.6 The bare facts of the ordination service in the Ravenhill Evangelical Mission Church are as follows. Professor T. B. McFarlane, a Reformed Presbyterian minister who had taught Paisley, offered a prayer. Revd Thomas Rowan, an old Irish Presbyterian minister who had worked with the American evangelists Moody and Sankey in their missions at the end of the previous century, ‘brought the charge to the congregation’—the part of an ordination in which the congregation are reminded of their obligations, especially to pray for their new minister. W. J. Grier, one of the founders of the Irish Evangelical Church, preached and charged Paisley ‘to be faithful in contending for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints’.7 Paisley's father and a number of the elders of his new church, in his words, ‘laid their hands upon me and set me aside for the preaching of the Blessed Word of God’.8 The elders had been ordained into the Presbyterian ministry (which makes no radical distinction between the minister and his elders) when they had been in the Ravenhill Presbyterian Church. Of the four ministers who took part in the service, three were Presbyterians. The only non‐Presbyterian involved was Ian Paisley's father. Thus, unless one takes a rather high view of ordination, and reformed Protestantism does not do so, Paisley was validly ordained.

However, to treat the question in this way is to discuss it only in the terms set by Paisley's critics. Paisley himself had no great commitment to a specifically Presbyterian style of ordination: ‘I don't think that the emphasis is on denominational ordination. I think the emphasis is on a Christian minister.’9 I asked him if the service had not been rather cynically designed to appear Presbyterian, to lay claim to a particular heritage: ‘Well, I mean, that was the people I was moving among and I was going to minister to: a secession Presbyterian church.’ The (p.28) service took its form, not from a clever anticipation of the day when he would have to defend his credentials, but rather from a combination of his own inclinations and those of the congregation that had called him. Paisley was more interested in establishing his evangelical credentials than he was in laying the foundations for an argument that had not yet started.

This can be seen in the attention that Paisley devotes to two other elements of his entry to the ministry: encouragement from a great revival preacher and a profound spiritual experience that followed a number of years of little success. In most of his accounts, he gives as much space to Nicholson's presence at his first Sunday service as he does to his actual ordination. He is fond of repeating Nicholson's remarks to him after the service.

After I had finished Mr Nicholson got up, walked forward to the Communion Table, rapped it and said to me: ‘Young man, have you ever seen a cow's tongue?’ I said ‘Yes, sir’. ‘What is it like?’ I said ‘It is like a file’. Then he lifted his hand and prayed, ‘Lord give this young man a tongue like an old cow.’10

A good example of Paisley's often neglected ability to laugh at himself was given when he told the story during a BBC television interview. After he had delivered the punch line, he paused and added: ‘And (p.29) some people would say perhaps that prayer has been answered far more abundantly than we can ask or even think,’ and burst out laughing.

The next few years of Paisley's ministry were trying but outwardly uneventful. In October 1949 he had a profound religious experience. Feeling a definite weakness in his ministry, he called three friends to a late night prayer meeting. They prayed through the first night, the next day, and into the second night. By the close, Paisley felt himself to have been ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ and possessed of renewed evangelistic power. This new phase in his ministry brought him into some conflict with some congregants who expected to be consulted about his work. For example, they were offended when he saw Rico's Circus tent in the grounds of the Ormeau Park and persuaded Rico to let him use it for an evangelistic rally. Without consulting his committee, he had posters printed and handbills distributed advertising the meetings and drew a crowd of almost a thousand people. Like many a group formed as a schism from a larger body and convinced of its own possession of the saving truth, the Ravenhill congregation had turned inwards. Some members drew such satisfaction from being part of a select band that knows something the rest of the world does not know that they had no great desire to see the band extended. While Paisley worked the doors of the small working‐class streets of East Belfast and held tent missions on cleared ground, resentment grew and Paisley fed it by frequently preaching against those members of the congregation whose religion was more formal than real.

Well, if my preaching lacked fire it now caught the fire, but I tell you when that happens in a Church you are in for trouble, and I was sure in for trouble. When you meet the Devil in trousers he is very vicious, but when you meet the Devil in a skirt, then you are for it! I met the Devil in a skirt. There was one woman in that congregation and she vowed that she would finish me for good.

Of course that sort of thing has to come to a head and it came to the head one night when I preached a sermon on Hell. Her unconverted father was in the meeting and she was entirely upset that I would dare to talk about Hell and offend her father. Going out she said to me ‘I want to talk with you.’ I said ‘All right, in fact I would like to talk with you.’ So we went into the little room and we shut the door and she started on me. She said ‘Your ministry is (p.30) finished here.’ I said ‘I'm glad to know it. I would like to get away, there are wider places than this, but I can't get away for the Lord has told me I'm going to be around here for a very long time.’ She said ‘You are mistaken, my husband is on the church committee, my father‐in‐law is an elder, we control this church, and young man, you are going.’ I said, ‘Isn't that strange, because I wanted to tell you for a long time that you were going. Now tomorrow night the elders will meet, and the trustees will meet, and they will make a decision and it will be very simple. They will either say ‘Preacher, you go’ or they will say to you ‘Go’. She said, ‘Right!’

So the night came and I walked into that Church. I had perfect peace. I wasn't afraid of losing a pulpit, for if I hadn't that pulpit I would have preached on the Ravenhill Road. It would not have made any difference to me. We might have had this Church built 20 years before it was. I walked in, and she had her armour on. The greatest weapon a woman has is tears, and she was there weeping. She said , ‘Oh Mr Paisley, do we need to have this meeting?’ I said, ‘We certainly do, and either you are going or I'm going.’ She said, ‘Could we not come to an agreement?’ I said, ‘I'm sorry’. I said, ‘You know what you have done? You have criticised every person I have led to the Lord in this Church, and I want to tell you, the little ones will be offended no more. It is now or never.’ I walked into that room and I said to the elders, ‘Gentlemen, I'm just a boy, a stripling, but I believe the Book, and I want to tell you men, I'm going to preach this Book. I'll either preach it in here or out there. Make a choice, I don't want to be hard, I don't want to be cruel but this woman has got to go.’ I left and in a few minutes I was recalled, and they said, ‘She has gone, and you are to stay.’ I said, ‘Gentlemen, you have made the right decision, let us get down to prayer.’

Of course she didn't go on her own, she visited every member of the congregation, she took a lot of people with her. There was I with more empty seats. So I decided that instead of having a prayer meeting sometimes, we would have a night of prayer every week and we would pray on the seats that nobody sat in. We went up into the little gallery and you could have written on the dust that had accumulated on those empty seats and we prayed at every one of them. It was a dusty prayer meeting I can assure you, but as we prayed at every seat, things started to move. Then, of course, the Lord opened the doors.11

Important for Paisley's later success was making contacts. The world of evangelical Protestantism existed outside and beyond any particular denomination. There was a milieu of conservative members of (p.31) various denominations who read the same magazines, attended the same conventions, and travelled to each other's churches and halls if some particularly attractive speaker was preaching. They might meet regularly at the Saturday night service at the Coalman's Mission in the docks or at the Monday morning prayer meeting in Berry St Presbyterian Church. Paisley's family were well known in evangelistic circles, and during his three years at the Reformed Presbyterian college he had met many like‐minded people in Belfast. Although his congregation grew little during the first few years on the Ravenhill Road, his enthusiastic preaching started to attract attention.

One outlet for Paisley's enormous energy was the National Union of Protestants (NUP). Evangelical Protestantism spreads beyond the strictly religious into the social and political. In the first place, many evangelicals wish to advertise the errors of competing religious traditions; in Ulster that means protesting against Romanism. Secondly, they wish to promote the social conditions most conducive to maintaining their religious culture. Critics of ‘the Orange state’ have rightly argued that the Stormont government promoted Protestant interests but they have missed the point that the Protestant interests in question were secular: advantages in work and housing, for example. The Orange state did little to promote religious interests. The evangelicals thus always felt the need for some public campaigning organization, and it is hardly surprising that Ian Paisley was involved in the major vehicle for public protests in the late 1940s.

The National Union of Protestants was initially formed in England to mobilize opinion against what was seen as a rising tide of ritualism—‘a Romeward trend’—in the Church of England. Such a platform had little obvious relevance to Northern Ireland, where the Episcopal Church of Ireland was pretty thoroughly Protestant and had few ritualists. Nonetheless, an Ulster branch of the NUP was formed, with an unemployed engineer, Norman Porter, as its full‐time general secretary and Paisley as its treasurer. Paisley would probably have become active in such an organization anyway, but he was invited to become involved by his uncle, the Revd Sinclair Taylor, who was the General Secretary in London. The NUP concerned itself with campaigning for the public prestige of the Protestant faith: it arranged rallies to protest against growing disregard for the sabbath, state funding of Catholic schools, and the like. It drew support from (p.32) evangelicals in all the denominations, and, until Paisley and Porter parted company in 1963 over Paisley's increasingly vitriolic attacks on the Presbyterian Church, its platforms attracted conservative Irish Presbyterian ministers.


For the first few years of his career Paisley was welcomed by evangelicals in the IPC. When a mission in Rathfriland became too popular to be accommodated in the Friends' Hall, he was granted the use of the Presbyterian Church Hall. He worked in a joint campaign in Mountpottinger in Belfast with Ivor Lewis and Donald Gillies, two well‐known conservatives in the IPC. In fact, Paisley was so little seen as a threat that Ivor Lewis tried to help him find an assistant minister for a church extension he was planning in Mount Merrion, a new housing scheme in south‐east Belfast. Lewis suggested Cecil Menary, a member of his Berry Street congregation who was then studying at the Belfast Bible College. Though he later joined Paisley, Menary turned down the offer.

Although Paisley's Mount Merrion scheme could be seen as the first evidence of a desire to build a denomination that would compete with the Presbyterians, no such plan had yet formed in his mind. The real competition with the Irish Presbyterians started six months later in March 1951. A long‐simmering theological dispute in the Lissara, Crossgar, congregation came to a head when the Down Presbytery refused the conservatives the use of a church hall for a mission to be led by Paisley.12 Four elders and a number of families withdrew and constituted themselves as the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster (FPCU). They met in the Lissara Mission Hall, a small building erected by one ‘Hallelujah’ Gibson, a local farmer, and they ordained George Stears, a retired minister of the Presbyterian Church of South America whom Ivor Lewis had introduced to Paisley.

(p.33) It is noticeable that the press statement released by the elders of the new congregation made no mention of Ian Paisley.13 His name was first brought into the public parts of the controversy by the Down Presbytery in their repudiation of the schismatics. In their view, the ‘Free’ in the title meant anarchic and the ‘of Ulster’ signified a parochial vision. ‘Presbyterian’ it would not be. Thirteen column inches down the Presbytery's press release comes the mention of Paisley, and he is introduced only so that his credentials as an ordained minister can be disputed.14 The new congregation's coyness about their inspiration was in part a deliberate attempt to minimize Paisley's role in the dispute, but it also reflected a desire to establish the general principles on which they had seceded. Obviously Paisley was central to the controversy, but it would be a mistake to imagine him plotting and planning it. Like so many crucial events in Paisley's career, the Crossgar split and the subsequent founding of the FPCU was an affair with complex roots in which others played a large part in producing the outcome, and Paisley seized the opportunity

From March 1951, Paisley was committed to active competition with the IPC. For the Crossgar split to be anything more than a commonplace congregational spat, it would have to be followed by others, and, from that point on, Paisley's preaching tours of the province took on a new meaning. He was no longer a preacher holding ‘undenominational’ rallies. He was the leader of a new sect that aimed to attract other dissident Presbyterians; and it did. In the summer of 1951, two more groups of Irish Presbyterians were added to the Free Church.

Ballymoney is the main market town between Coleraine and Ballymena in North Antrim. The Drumreagh Presbyterian Church, which covered the farming area south of Ballymoney, was attended by Alexander McAuley and his family. After his conversion in a small country gospel hall, Sandy McAuley came into conflict with two successive ministers: he thought John Barkley a liberal and William Hyndman a libertine. When he asked Barkley if he could continue to smoke now that he was saved, Barkley told him to smoke two pipes a day and not worry. When he challenged Hyndman about his personal life, Hyndman hit him.

(p.34) In the summer of 1951, McAuley invited Paisley to conduct a series of meetings in the Cabra School House. In addition to promoting the virtues of salvation, Paisley criticized the apostasy of the IPC—something readily accepted by the McAuleys—and, at the end of the mission, a handful of Presbyterians decided that they could not go back to an apostate denomination. So another Free Presbyterian congregation came into being, meeting first in the upstairs of a barn, and later erecting its own building right next to the Cabra School, the site of the mission, which had been closed to them from the moment they had announced the formation of their own congregation.

Of the first three congregations, that of Rasharkin, 10 miles south of Cabra, was least inspired by doctrinal disputes. What divided the Presbyterians of Rasharkin was their minister's divorce and accusations of ill‐treating his wife. Paisley was preaching in Cabra at the time of the dispute, and the conservatives went to hear him. They were impressed enough to create a Free Presbyterian congregation.

The formation of the new denomination at Crossgar and not at Ravenhill put Ian Paisley in a rather awkward position: his own congregation had not yet signed up! The debate about whether to join exacerbated the tension that had been there since Paisley's ordination. Paisley finally convinced the management committee to affiliate, and his critics withdrew.

The plan for an extension of the Ravenhill Church into the Mount Merrion housing scheme that Paisley had proposed to Cecil Menary in the summer of 1950 then went ahead.

In order to build up a congregation an attack was made on the battlements of hell, sin and apostasy in the neighbourhood: an old time Gospel campaign conducted by the Rev. Ian R. K. Paisley, was held in a large tent. Here God the Holy Ghost was seen in dynamic soul‐saving power and seventy‐six souls hit the cinder track for salvation. Glory to God! Having received such blessing from the hand of Almighty God in this, our first Gospel attempt in Mount Merrion, the Spirit led us again in another hell‐shaking, sin‐smashing, Holy Ghost mission conducted by a special commando team from Ravenhill Free Presbyterian Church, when over a score of precious souls sought and found God. Hallelujah! From victory to victory Jesus leads us on, and another milestone was passed when on Saturday 2 August, 1952, this building was opened to the glory of God, the quickening of the saints, the (p.35) salvation of souls, the denunciation of sin, the exposing of modernistic teachings and soul‐damning heresy, and the defeat of the old serpent.15

Mount Merrion gave the Free Presbyterians five congregations. The sixth was novel in that Paisley acquired a building before he had the nucleus of a congregation. In 1952 Cecil Harvey, a founding elder of the Crossgar church, suggested that a vacant property in Whiteabbey, just north of Belfast, might be suitable. The former police station and court house was nothing like as grand as its former purpose suggests, but it was solid and had a large meeting room. It never prospered. Despite the best efforts of lay preacher George Hutton, the founding membership of 5 grew to only 30 after five years. Ivan Foster, who was responsible for Whiteabbey while he was training for the ministry in 1965, recalls that the sight of his church always gave him a ‘sensation of dread and fear in the pit of my stomach. Whiteabbey was known amongst the ministers and students as a spiritual Siberia, a wilderness of apathy and darkness.’ Evening meetings in Mossley Orange Hall Tent, about 5 miles inland, were much better attended, and one tent mission in that area ‘was very well attended…particularly on the Lord's Day. Thirteen souls professed faith in Christ at those meetings but nothing could persuade them to come to the meetings in Whiteabbey.’16 Eventually Whiteabbey was abandoned in favour of a site in Mossley.

A year after the Whiteabbey building was leased, a more promising work began in Ballyhalbert, a small village on the Ards peninsula. A small group of people broke from the local IPC and applied for admission to the Free Church. As if to atone for the Whiteabbey mistake, the Free Church hesitated to accept this group because the reasons for the secession were not obviously theological, and there was considerable doubt that the Ballyhalbert people were ‘saved’. So the group was accepted, on probation, for preaching, and not as a full congregation. John Douglas, the first of Paisley's Ravenhill converts to train for the ministry, was given oversight of the group. In circumstances that were similar to those of Paisley's first years at (p.36) Ravenhill, some of the audience came to regret their request for preaching offices and drifted away, but others, mainly from Portavogie, a few miles down the coast, joined, and in 1958 a church was built in Portavogie.

The year 1957 saw two further branches added: at Coleraine, a small town in the eastern and Protestant part of County Londonderry, and at Dunmurry, a southern suburb of Belfast. I will explore this point in more detail later, but it is interesting to note here that the Mount Merrion and Dunmurry congregations were always small. Although set in dormitory areas with growing populations, they made few inroads into the local council estates. In part this was because potential Free Presbyterians could easily travel to hear Paisley. In part, it reflected the relative lack of interest in evangelical religion among the urban working class.

The tenth Free Presbyterian congregation was short‐lived. A Church of Ireland curate in Antrim and some of his parishioners seceded from the Church of Ireland and were admitted to the Free Presbyterian Church. Harold V. Magowan shared Paisley's dislike for modernism and for the ecumenical movement, but they had little else in common, and four years later, in 1963, Magowan resigned at the same time as the Free Church Presbytery sacked him, and the work in Antrim dried up.17

Only three other congregations were added in the period before 1966: Sandown Road in East Belfast, Limavady in County Londonderry, and Armagh City. The Sandown Road congregation, like Mount Merrion and Dunmurry, was an extension of Ravenhill. Armagh was a congregation formed after a successful tent mission, but, although it was not a schism from a Presbyterian congregation, like most Free Churches, it mainly attracted Presbyterians. The Limavady church was fairly typical of later congregations in the method of its formation. A local farmer who had been a keen Irish Presbyterian left the Dungiven congregation because its minister was a liberal, became interested in the Free Church's separatist stance, and (p.37) travelled first to Cabra and, when it opened, to Coleraine, to attend the services. He also started holding small meetings in his own house. He soon found that, although the distance to Coleraine would not put off any committed Free Presbyterian, it made it hard for him to invite local people to ‘come to the Free Church’, and so he determined to promote a meeting in Limavady.

To summarize: in 1965 the Free Church had twelve congregations. Although Paisley and his aides were leading evangelistic crusades all over the province, the Free Church had been built up only to the same sort of size and presence as the Irish Evangelical Church, which seemed thin reward for fourteen years of endeavour. The time had not been entirely wasted. The years of evangelism had brought Paisley to the attention of many evangelical Protestants and created a network of contacts that would prove invaluable once the political climate created the ‘showers of revival rain’ for which Paisley so earnestly prayed, but in 1965 there was little sign of any impending great deliverance.


Paisley's greatest problem in the early days was finding enough suitable men to pastor his new congregations. Menary had turned down Mount Merrion. Stears was an old man and obviously only a stopgap in Crossgar, and there were three empty pulpits. In July 1951 Paisley again approached Menary and asked him if he would serve Rasharkin and Cabra. This time he accepted and was ordained in August. Three months later, he passed Cabra over to John Wylie.

Like Menary, Wylie was a disenchanted Presbyterian. He told me: ‘I was brought up in the Presbyterian Church. I went to church and so on and learnt my catechism. When I got converted—now I had a very Presbyterian life, keeping the Sabbath day and so on—when I was nineteen, this was a real work in my heart.’ Once people heard of his conversion, he was invited to address farmhouse meetings and he also attended the Knock Church formed by James Hunter after the Davey heresy trial. There he heard ‘a real firey old preacher and I enjoyed him and I got a real grasp of what had happened and how they [the Irish Presbyterians] had drifted from the principles of (p.38) Presbyterianism, from the principles of the word of God’. In his own Presbyterian congregation, Wylie tried to engage his minister in argument during a Bible class. The minister refused to be drawn into debate and asked Wylie to leave.

I became a sort of wandering Jew for a while and went here and there. I went to the Methodist Church and then I used to go to the Baptists and I went here and there. Then when we got married we went to the Presbyterian Church in Gransha where the minister was an evangelical. I got to know Ian [Paisley]. We were involved in Protestant rallies. The church was formed in 1951; I must have met him in 49. I got to like the fellow. He was very sincere and he appealed to me.

Although his electrician's business in Dundonald was thriving, Wylie felt a distinct call to the ministry. He was accepted by the Free Presbyterian Church and called to take over Cabra from Menary.

The first minister of Mount Merrion differed from Menary and Wylie in not having been a Presbyterian. Robert Coulter had trained at the Faith Mission College in Edinburgh and was working as an evangelist for the Faith Mission when Paisley, who had shared a platform with him in Ballymena, invited him to take over Mount Merrion. Finding ministers was so difficult that Paisley could not be fussy about denominational background. As Coulter put it: ‘I don't think he was all that worried at the time. I think he wanted the help; people to come in and take charge of these churches that were springing up.’ Coulter did not last long in Mount Merrion, largely because he was unhappy with the aggressively controversial style of preaching that was expected. He was himself conservative in his theology but he had little taste for denouncing the apostasy of others.

I was later summoned for not preaching against individuals like Dr Davey and so on. My reply was that my first priority was to preach the gospel and, if I had any time left over after preaching the gospel, I would preach against heresy. They had to agree with it. The gospel had to come first in their thinking.

The Presbytery gave him a month to adopt a more aggressive attitude but Coulter had already decided to accept an invitation to work in America and he left the Free Presbyterian Church.

The American invitation came from an eccentric individual who played a very minor part in the early days of the Free Presbyterian (p.39) Church: Hugh Johnston. In October 1952 the Free Presbyterian Church announced the opening of its own training college with lectures from J. K. Paisley, Ian Paisley, H. H. Aitchison, and Hugh Johnston. This was Paisley's second choice scheme for staffing his church. Initially he had intended to follow the Irish Evangelical Church model and send his students to the Free Church of Scotland College in Edinburgh, but there were doubts on both sides. Paisley felt that the Scottish Free Church, although itself orthodox, was keeping bad company by associating with other denominations that were not entirely sound. The Free Church for its part consulted one of the theologians of the IPC and was told that Paisley's denomination was not genuinely Presbyterian. The failure of this scheme had long‐term advantages but it immediately left Paisley with a problem that forced him to the unhappy expedient of taking any help he could get.

Aitchison was a Scottish Presbyterian minister who had come to Ulster in 1931. After serving two Presbyterian churches in Belfast, he fell out with his kirk session and defected to pastor a Congregational church. His fourth congregation, which he was serving when he met Paisley, represented yet another link back to the Davey heresy trial. When Whitehead Presbyterian Church chose as its minister a vocal Davey supporter, a conservative faction withdrew to form its own congregation and called Aitchison to minister. Although no great intellectual or preacher, Aitchison had the paper credentials and the right associations to be at least a symbolic asset to the new Free Presbyterian theological hall.

Johnston's failings may have been exaggerated in the innumerable retellings, but Paisley remembers him as a charlatan: a serious drinker who managed to disguise his vice from Coulter and Paisley (who shared lodgings with him) by keeping his whisky in a hot water bottle. He was a reasonably talented preacher and for a few months he had made a living from collections taken when he preached before returning to America.

The short career of Harold Magowan in the Free Church has already been mentioned. Another man who came to the Free Church with experience of full‐time work was Victor Burns, a pastor in an independent evangelical church in England. He lasted only a year before returning to England. David Leatham, who ministered in (p.40) Whiteabbey and Dunmurry, also left the Free Church for the Baptist ministry.

What is clear in hindsight is that the expansion (and even the survival) of the FPCU was threatened by Paisley's inability to find enough men who shared his vision. Until his movement began to produce its own clergy it would not be able to supply the nascent demand, let alone stimulate more.


A brief account of the key points of Protestant belief, particularly those that most radically separate Protestants from Roman Catholics, has already been given. But to explain what attracted people to Paisley, we must consider what distinguished his preaching from the Ulster Protestant mainstream and what distinguished his movement from the already extensive world of undenominational meetings and gospel halls.

People such as Sandy McAuley and Bob Wilson's father were not just swapping churches; they were also being converted. Their new‐found faith was qualitatively different from their old religion. Evangelicals believe that salvation requires more than just intellectual assent or the correct performance of religious ritual. No amount of faithful attendance at church will win salvation. What is required is a ‘born‐again’ experience. It is difficult to compress a complex faith into a few propositions, but the core of evangelicalism can be summarized in this way. Since Adam's rejection of God's will, man has been in a state of sin. God sent his only Son Jesus Christ to suffer and die as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. His death pays off our debt. But we have to accept that sacrifice and take it into our hearts. God has chosen some of us for salvation; nothing of our doing saves us. God's offer of salvation is a free gift—an idea commonly expressed in the term ‘sovereign grace’.

Becoming saved is a two‐stage process. God has laid the foundation by calling some of us, but we still have to respond to that call. The job of the preacher is to make that clear to us; we then respond. We should appreciate our sinfulness (or ‘come under conviction of (p.41) sin’), appreciate Christ's sacrifice, and take the gospel into our hearts. This then makes effectual—or cements—the foundation laid by God in our being called. Being saved is similar to those adhesives, such as Araldite, that come in two tubes. Neither element on its own is a glue, but mix the two together and one has a fast hard‐setting adhesive. The analogy is a good one because another element of evangelical Protestantism is the certainty of salvation that follows conversion. Being born again brings the security of knowing that one is saved.

The evangelical emphasis on a personal response to Christ's sacrifice distinguishes it from more liberal interpretations of Protestantism. There have periodically been movements that openly assert that all of God's creation will be saved and that differences in doctrines between this or that church are, in the final outcome, unimportant. More common than such overt universalism is a general tendency to think that way. Evangelicals insist that only those people whom God has called and who respond to the gospel message will be saved from eternal damnation and hell fire. Things such as behaving well all one's life or performing religious rituals will not do it: ‘Being a real Christian is not ultimately a matter of things that you do. It is a relationship that you enter into, between a holy God and a broken sinner, saved not by anything that he or she can do but only by the blood of Jesus Christ, shed on the cross at Calvary.’18

Free Presbyterian converts often described their lives in two epochs. In the first period, they were good Presbyterians and went to church regularly and lived moral lives, but were not saved. They blamed this firmly on the unsaved Presbyterian ministers who did not preach the whole gospel to them. In the words of a working‐class Belfast man who later became a Free Presbyterian minister: ‘I was completely ignorant of what not only Presbyterianism was but also what the gospel was. I had no idea. Sunday School boy all my life. Youth fellowship all my life. Went to church every Sunday practically. Never, never, was confronted with the fact that the Bible condemned me as a lost sinner.’

Bob Wilson was converted at the same time as his father who had been an elder in the Rasharkin IPC: (p.42)

It wasn't until February 1952 that I answered an appeal being made in the church to trust Christ as my saviour. I answered that appeal, went through to the enquiry room…I discovered that Dr Paisley was talking to my father, and to his son, at the one time. He wasn't aware of it at the time, but when we had a prayer together after I trusted Christ in that prayer, he asked me to shake hands with the person beside him. Here was my father!

This fundamental difference over the meaning and necessity of conversion explains the desire for a separate organization. Nicholson, an encyclopaedia of couthy proverbs, used to say ‘you never get live chickens under a dead hen’. Sandy McAuley's son uses the same theme to describe the need for the formation of a new church.

I never heard the Gospel really preached in the Presbyterian Church that I went to. Many of the others were the same. They were modernistic in their views and they didn't preach the new birth, that you had to be saved. And we felt, well, to send young converts to churches such as this, well, it would be wrong, so that's why we considered this with much prayer and at the end of the day we felt led of the Lord to commence a Free Presbyterian Church.

The above describes a common core of conservative evangelical thought. What distinguishes Free Presbyterianism are the following additions: a vigorous anti‐Catholicism, the insistence on separation, a suspicion that we live in the end‐times, and an unusually tolerant attitude to the baptism argument and other minutiae of conservative debate.


The sensible observation that theological objections to Catholicism chimed well with the political circumstances of Ulster Protestants is sometimes stretched to imply that they invented antipathy to Rome.19 They did not. The Reformation was ‘anti’ what we now call the Catholic Church; the Catholic Church was subsequently anti‐Protestant. The Westminster Confession of 1646, the codification of British reformed belief, referred to the Church of Rome as the ‘anti‐Christ’, ‘anti’ here meaning ‘taking the place of’. The Church of England's founding Thirty‐Nine Articles contains similar language. (p.43) The FPCU is being old‐fashioned but it is not innovating in reading chapter 17 of the book of Revelation, of which the following is part (verses 1–6), as a description of the Roman Catholic Church.

And there came one of the seven angels which had the seven vials, and talked with me, saying unto me, Come hither; I will show unto you the judgement of the great whore that sitteth upon many waters: With whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication. So he carried me away in the spirit into the wilderness; and I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hands full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication: And upon her forehead was the name written, Mystery Babylon the Great, the Mother of Harlots and abominations of the earth. And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.

If this text is an allegorical reference to a person or organization, then Rome seems a plausible candidate, especially given other references to sitting astride seven hills. Those who wish a naturalistic interpretation for this and other references to the ‘Mother of Harlots’ suppose it to be a veiled denunciation of the Roman Empire, written in allegory to safeguard the author from the wrath of the occupying imperial power. Largely because they take biblical prophecy to be enduringly applicable (and hence having current and future referents), Free Presbyterians follow the conservative Protestant tradition of taking this and other passages to refer to the Roman Catholic Church. In their eyes Rome goes beyond offering false teaching. It is actively evil in that it has a history of persecuting true Christians. It has also opposed liberal democracy, which Free Presbyterians believe is a result of the Reformation and which they value as the system that offers the best conditions for maintaining and promoting the true religion.

There is no problem in finding evidence of Roman Catholic persecution of Protestants in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These were times when few thought there was anything wrong with coercing religious conformity. More recent examples can be found in Franco's oppression of Protestant missionaries in Phalangist (p.44) Spain.20 And Free Presbyterians suppose that the Roman Catholic Church is quietly supportive of ‘physical force’ republicanism, the statements of the Irish Catholic hierarchy to the contrary notwithstanding.

But even lack of evidence is no problem because one can always posit a secret conspiracy. If the Jesuits, the storm troopers of the Vatican, are not apparently conspiring to subvert Protestantism and democracy, that is just because they have become more devious. At first sight, clinging to theories for which there is little evidence by invoking a conspiracy may seem like evidence of the irrationality of Free Presbyterians, but such reasoning is commonplace. Free Presbyterians believe that there is a God and that all that occurs in the world happens ultimately at his behest. The Bible is the word of God and contains his plans for the world. Suppose one finds in the Bible the prophecy that Rome will grow in power and, as the end of the world approaches, will actively persecute the saints. If there is a temporary shortage of evidence that Rome is actually doing this, then one can conclude that the word of God is fallible (in which case he is not much of a God), that one's interpretation is mistaken, or that Rome is engaged in secret conspiracy.

This faith in the power of Rome leads Free Presbyterians to attribute most things they do not like to its influence. They do not see the ecumenical movement as a genuine, if misguided, attempt to create a Christian movement that is sufficiently united to be able to stand against secularization. They do not believe that ecumenical Protestants have promoted reconciliation for their own reasons. Instead, the ecumenical movement is seen as Rome‐inspired and Rome‐led. Some Free Presbyterians were so firmly convinced of the hidden hand of Rome that they claimed that Michael Ramsay, leader of the Anglican Church in the 1960s, was not really an Anglican archbishop seeking better relations with the Roman Catholic Church; he was actually a Roman bishop, having secretly been ordained by the Pope.21

Free Presbyterians discover unity in ancient enemies of the true religion and some argue that Rome is actually Babylon. After all, the (p.45) verses of Revelation quoted above tell us that the Mother of Harlots had ‘Mystery, Babylon the Great’ written on her forehead. Hislop's The Two Babylons, which is on sale in Free Presbyterian bookshops, lists hundreds of similarities between Babylonian worship and the practices, beliefs, and symbols of Roman Catholicism. Thus Rome is seen, not just as being like Babylon in that both religions are wrong, but as actually being the continuation of Babylon, which explains why Romanism is wrong. In his pamphlet on the Jesuits, Paisley argues that the Order is not even Christian. Although the Jesuits claim that their sign—IHS—stands for ‘Jesus Hominum Salvator (the Latin ‘J’ being written as ‘I’), Paisley believes that it actually stands for ‘Isis, Horub, Seb’: the pagan Egyptian trinity of the Mother, Child, and Father of the Gods. ‘IHS pay the semblance of a tribute to Christianity, but they are in reality the substance of devil‐worship. The cloven hoof is upon them.’22 Thus Rome is not a permitted variant of Christianity. It is not Christian and never has been.

As well as linking together all the enemies of the true faith in a grand and ancient daisy chain of Antichrist‐led error, Free Presbyterians like to expand the vices of their enemy. They take real cultural differences (which often have social‐class origins) and amplify them into positive and negative stereotypes. So they will claim that Protestants are self‐reliant, hard‐working, diligent, honest, loyal, responsible, and temperant. In contrast, Catholics are discouraged from thinking for themselves by priests who wish to keep their people in a state of dependency. They are slothful, dishonest, and untrustworthy. Because they owe a higher loyalty to Rome than to their own country, they are politically disloyal. They are sexually irresponsible and produce large families that they cannot support. They fritter away their earnings in gambling, smoking, and drinking alcohol. Because their religion allows them periodically to wipe clean the moral slate through confession, penance, and repentance, Catholics are not encouraged to accept responsibility for their actions.

The authority of the priest, the requirement for priestly celibacy, and the nature of confession are taken to combine to encourage sexual perversion among the Catholic clergy. Because they are not (p.46) inclined to believe any of the positive claims made by the Roman Church, Free Presbyterians scorn the notion that the repression of sexual urges leads to a state of enhanced spirituality and suppose instead that priests regularly exploit those to whom they minister.

In sum, Free Presbyterians view Catholicism as both false religion and the source of a wide range of social vices.


What marked Paisley's preaching from that of many who held similar evangelical beliefs was his insistence not only that his people must not be in error but that they must also avoid associating with those in error. ‘Throughout its history, the Free Presbyterian Church, in obedience to the word of God and by the grace and help of God, has sought to adopt a separatist position in matters personal and ecclesiastical.’23 This position is based on Paul's instruction in his Second Letter to the Thessalonians (5: 22): ‘Abstain from all appearance of evil.’ ‘He did not say abstain from all evil but took it one step further by advising that if something be perceived as evil, refrain from it. We should resolve to jealously guard our Christian witness if we are to be effective instruments used for extending God's Kingdom.’24

Separation can be presented either in positive terms—as the requirement that God's people be ‘separated unto the Gospel of God’—or negatively, as a wish to avoid contamination and confusion in the mind of any audience. In practice, separatism can often appear as an ill‐tempered refusal to accept the humanity of those with whom one differs on matters of substance, and the Paisleyite separatism often went further: to require the regular denunciation of those who held very similar views on matters of substance but who refused to distance themselves sufficiently from those with erroneous beliefs. In the ecclesiastical climate of the 1950s and 1960s, with the ecumenical movement in the ascendancy in mainstream Protestant churches, this ‘double separation’ meant that the attacks on Protestant ministers who remained in the mainstream churches were often more (p.47) animated than the criticisms of Catholicism that all ‘true Protestants’ knew to be profoundly wrong. As is common in left‐wing politics, those claiming the same ideological ground fought with each other more bitterly than they fought with those on the other side of the hill.


Eschatology—knowledge of the impending end of the world—is a profoundly difficult subject, and, unlike sects such as the Seventh‐Day Adventists, which were created specifically to embody a particular view of how and when the world would be brought to a close, the FPCU has always been careful to avoid making any one particular theory a test of the faith. In his Dictionary of Theological Terms, Alan Cairns asks ‘each believer to hold his views in humility and with due love and regard for the equally sincerely held views of differing brethren’.25 Harry Cairns, an early FPCU minister, said: ‘There are some things I am not dogmatic about because I am not settled in my own mind.’ Stanley Barnes, the minister of Hillsborough, one of the largest congregations, advised caution: ‘I always think it is a danger to try to interpret situations around us into the scriptures because they had Hitler as the Antichrist, they had Henry Kissinger as the Antichrist at one stage in a book I read, and there was Mussolini and looking back it was ridiculous.’ Nevertheless, there is considerable agreement about certain points that I will introduce in the context of Ian Paisley's views on the European Community.

In the 1984 election campaign for the European Economic Community (EEC), Paisley denounced British membership. He shared the common concern that membership would entail a loss of sovereignty. The Christian moral standards of Ulster were already threatened by unrepresentative and undemocratic rule from Westminster. To subordinate Britain to the European Community with its Court of Human Rights and law‐making powers would further reduce the ability of Ulster people to control their own future. There had already been a case in point. In deference to Ulster conservatism, the 1960s (p.48) Westminster legislation that had legalized consenting adult male homosexuality was not extended to cover the province. In 1981 the European Court of Human Rights judged Britain to be in violation of basic freedoms by permitting this exception. The government bowed to the Court and passed an Order in Council extending the law to Northern Ireland.

But Paisley had a particular reason for opposing continued membership: the countries of what was then the European Economic Community were overwhelmingly Catholic. The legal basis of the EEC—the aptly named Treaty of Rome—was drafted by Konrad Adenauer, Jean Monnet, and Robert Schumann: all Catholics. The Roman Catholic Church has diplomatic representation at the EEC, and Pope John Paul II had expressed a desire for European unity. Thus the general threat to sovereignty was compounded by it also being a Catholic threat. These considerations were offered by Paisley to the electorate in his election literature.26 In a series of sermons in Martyrs' Memorial, he presented a complementary analysis that examined the place of the EEC in Bible prophecies about the end of the world. In brief, the creation and then‐impending expansion of the EEC was a sign that the end of the world has fairly well nigh.

Those Christians who believe that Christ will return, that there will be a Day of Judgement, and that there will be a thousand years of righteous rule on earth, may disagree about the order in which these things will occur. One school expects the judgement to come before the thousand years of righteousness and is sensibly called ‘pre‐millennialist’. Others expect the millennium, seen as a period of unprecedented success for the Church, to be followed by the judging of the quick and the dead; hence the title ‘post‐millennialist’. A third view, amillennialism, either denies the reality of the millennium as it is depicted in the other two schools or is deliberately agnostic, and a large proportion even of conservative Protestants have no firm views about this.

The majority of Free Presbyterians in the church's first two decades were pre‐millennial, which is something of a departure from the dominant Presbyterian position of the nineteenth century, although it is not unprecedented and is part of the general decline in the (p.49) popularity of the rather optimistic post‐millennialism.27 What is important for understanding Free Presbyterians is the role that Roman Catholicism is supposed to play in the approach to the end‐times. Elements of Revelation and the books of Daniel and Isaiah are taken to prophesy the rise of an ‘Antichrist’ who will not only dominate the Church but who will also be a major political force in the ‘tribulation’: the period shortly before the Second Coming when the Jews and the Christians will be persecuted for not worshipping the Antichrist. There is some difficulty with the figure of Antichrist, who can variously be seen as an individual or a system. When someone such as Paisley calls the Pope the Antichrist, he is applying that designation to all popes and not just to the current holder of the office. It is the office of the papacy that usurps the place of Christ in the Church. Some pre‐millennialists expect two Antichrists: one in the Church and one in politics. Others see just one, with two spheres of influence, but, whichever view is taken, Rome and the papacy are still taken to be the driving force: an identification that is defended by arguing that there is no worldwide organization other than the Roman Catholic Church that has the power, influence, and reach to be the sort of comprehensive anti‐Christian force suggested in prophecy. Interestingly, Catholics themselves have at times fuelled Protestant fears by making grandiose claims for authority over all peoples and all spheres of life. For example, in the 1930s, Monsignor Ronald Knox addressed meetings in Edinburgh on the subject ‘Wanted: a world leader! Why not the Pope?’

Most contemporary Protestants dismiss these eschatological speculations as misplaced fantasies, and many of those who trouble themselves with the interpretation of the relevant scripture passages explain them as covert references to the original Roman Empire. Free Presbyterians need not deny such naturalistic interpretations. One minister suggested that Bible prophecies have the peculiar quality of being able to refer to more than one event in more than one era so that any particular prophecy could be a veiled reference to something in the writer's time, in his future but our past, and in our future. Thus the Whore of John's Revelations could be the original (p.50) Roman Empire, the present Roman Catholic Church, and the future world Church created by the return of the ecumenical Protestants to Rome.


Considering how aggressive the FPCU has been in pressing its distinctive beliefs, it is interesting that it has been able to avoid some of the most divisive arguments in Christianity, and there are few issues more contentious than the baptism of infants. What is at stake is simple. Those who see the churches possessing some sort of magical power regard the baptism of babies as an important act that changes the salvational status of the child. In the Middle Ages this was held to be sufficiently important for midwives to be taught a simple formula for baptizing babies thought unlikely to live long enough for a priest to arrive. At the other end of the theological scale we have those who regard salvation as being given only to those who consciously accept Christ as their saviour. This clearly requires a degree of consciousness that a baby or even a young child cannot possess. Hence the preference for adult baptism (which is generally taken to mean full immersion after the manner in which John baptized people in the New Testament book of Matthew 3).

The FPCU does not have an agreed position on baptism. Some congregations practise infant baptism, some do not, and most avoid the issue by having a service of dedication for infants. That the church has not divided over this is explained by some critics as resulting from Paisley's awkward relationship to Presbyterianism. Presbyterians generally accept infant baptism, but Paisley himself comes from an adult baptizing tradition. This seems too cynical and misses the more obvious point that what is worth fighting over always depends to some extent on the context set by external threats. If everyone accepts the basic Christian doctrines, they are free to squabble about other differences. In an increasingly secular world, where the mainstream Protestant denominations are abandoning even the few tenets listed in the Apostles' Creed, it seems more sensible to concentrate on preserving the truly central beliefs and allowing liberty of conscience on the rest.


To the liberal Christian or the atheist, conservative evangelical beliefs seem so strange that it is easy to suppose that those who hold them must have come to them by some strange route. Many commentators imply, even if they do not openly state, that Free Presbyterians are not only mistaken in their beliefs but flawed in the ways they have arrived at them. One wrote of the ‘weak and wanting minds’ who are attracted to Paisleyism.28 Clifford Smyth describes Paisleyites as ‘closed‐minded’ and ‘anti‐intellectual’.29 A Church of Ireland rector wrote that Paisley's gospel has

commanded wide acceptance among the grass‐roots Unionists and the near‐illiterate Protestant element of the population…A close acquaintance with Paisleyism confirms the credibility of brainwashing: nothing short of a mental, emotional and spiritual upending could account for the oddities of thought, speech and behaviour it can bring about.30

More often the same point is implied by using words to describe Free Presbyterian thought that the author would not normally use to describe his own beliefs: Gallagher, for example, uses the term ‘mentality’.31 Elaborate social‐science versions of such a dualism (I have beliefs; you have a mindset) were popular in the 1950s and 1960s,32 but were largely given up, mainly because of the circular nature of the evidence. You explain why someone becomes a fascist by saying he has an ‘authoritarian personality’, but the only evidence for his possession of such a personality is the very thing you wish to explain: the fact that he is a fascist. What at first sight looked like an explanation turned out to be just renaming. But that serious social science has abandoned the search for types of minds does not prevent it being widely supposed (p.52) that people who believe strange things must be odd beyond just the strangeness of their beliefs.

If we are to take this seriously we must clarify the problem. First, we should note that Free Presbyterians beliefs are not in any obvious sense odder than those of liberal Christians who deride them. If, as all Christians do, you can believe in an omnipotent divine being, there seem few grounds for dividing subsequent minor propositions about the actions of God into those that are more or less plausible. If God can create the world, there seems no reason why he should not preserve Jonah in the belly of a large fish. Secondly, we can somewhat reduce the apparent credulity of Free Presbyterians by noting that some of their assertions about Catholicism are not as ill‐founded as is commonly supposed. While critics of Catholicism (and many of those are Catholics) are obviously making political capital out of the Catholic Church's opposition to liberal democracy, they are not entirely wrong. Until the 1960s, the Church's own social teachings were firmly opposed to representative democracy, to the separation of church and state, and to the idea that freedom of conscience was an inalienable human right. Where Free Presbyterians are wrong is in failing to recognize the extent to which the Vatican has come to accept that which it could no longer effectively oppose.33 To take a second example, Paisley's claim that the Vatican supports European integration because it wishes to re‐create a political entity that it could dominate is not his invention. Because he presents them in extravagant and archaic language, his views are dismissed as paranoid fantasies, but Catholic academics have said much the same (but without the apocalyptic gloss).34 Even the accusations of clerical sexual perversion that were the staple of Victorian anti‐Catholic street theatre no longer seem quite so ill‐founded. The torrent of convictions for sexual abuse that rocked the Catholic Church in the 1990s has caused many neutral observers to argue that insisting that (p.53) clergy remain celibate inadvertently encourages harmful and oppressive sexual practices.35 My point is not that Free Presbyterians are right; it is the more general one that they are not so glaringly wrong that we must suppose them to be feeble‐minded.

A third observation may set us in a more useful direction: much of what Free Presbyterians believe now was commonplace in mid‐nineteenth‐century Protestantism.36 Claiming to occupy the same ground as their forebears is an important part of Free Presbyterian self‐image (and is common currency among conservative unionists), but it has a basis in fact. Before I consider why conservative evangelicals in Northern Ireland have been unusually resistant to change, it is worth briefly describing the major changes in British religious culture.


Over the course of the twentieth century the Christian churches in Britain declined drastically. In 1900 almost all the population had some familiarity with Christianity and about half the population attended church at least once a month. By the end of the century a majority of Britons had little or no contact with Christianity and less than 10 per cent attended church. Associated with that general pattern of decline are two important and related minor trends: the mainstream churches became increasingly liberal and church members become more selective about which of their churches' doctrines they would accept. Even those who continued to attend church regularly (p.54) became increasingly consumerist about their faith. Their church involvement was no longer a taken‐for‐granted expression of loyalty but a matter of personal preference. What had once been a powerful social institution became an impotent collection of small voluntary associations.

That the decline of Christianity in Britain is mirrored in almost all modern liberal democracies is good reason to suppose that it has been caused by general social forces. I have explained the process of secularization at great length elsewhere.37 Here I want to mention just those parts of the process that are particularly relevant to understanding Northern Ireland.

Religion is most persuasive when a single faith is shared by an entire people. Then it can be supported by the state (for example, funding the church from taxes and promoting the faith through a national school system). It can also be routinely affirmed and reinforced through the church celebrating the agricultural seasons (as we see in harvest festivals). The church can link individual biographies to the life of the community by managing such rites of passage as birth, marriage, and death. And most importantly religious beliefs can be expressed and reinforced in the conversation of day‐to‐day life. There was a time when the common parting expression ‘Goodbye’ was known to speaker and hearer to be a contraction for ‘God be with you’.

There are a number of ways in which a religion consensus can be weakened. Migration may bring religious innovation, and the expansion of the state may bring into its boundaries different Gods. A third, and potentially more potent source of diversity, arises from within a modernizing economy. Protestant cultures have a natural tendency to fragment. Because they reject the idea of a hierarchy of enlightenment, with an apex that is closer to God than is the mass of the people, they are vulnerable to schism. That potential is turned into a reality by two common features of modernization: the gradual division of a population into competing classes and a growing sense of egalitarianism. In simple societies where there are few significant differences in life circumstances and styles it is possible to maintain a common religious culture that overarches and encompasses the entire people. (p.55) In more complex and economically developed societies such as those of medieval feudal Europe there could be great differences of wealth and power but there was still considerable closeness between all ‘stations’. Differences in station were accepted and the masses so little regarded that such disquiet about the propriety of the dominant religious images generated little dissent. But, as economies grew, social structures became more complex. New classes began to develop versions of the dominant religion that better suited their social situations. The elites who controlled the religious establishment were for a time able to suppress dissent, but economic modernization, especially when it was associated with the growth of nationalism (which encourages members of the putative new nation to see themselves as brothers and sisters in a common enterprise), also brought an increasingly egalitarian ethos. This gloss simplifies enormously, but we can say that the Reformation, with its assertion of individual rights in the narrow sphere of religion, inadvertently laid the foundations for a slow but gradual expansion of the idea of personal liberty. In the seventeenth century, the British state was willing to use force to coerce religious conformity. By the end of the eighteenth century the constraints on dissenters had been reduced to some financial penalties and exclusion from certain offices of state. By 1851 Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Independents and Quakers had become so numerous that the Census of Religious Worship showed that more people in England worshipped outside the state Church of England than attended its offices.

The proliferation of religious diversity, when it is accompanied by an increasingly egalitarian ethos, has two sorts of consequence. First, the state has to become increasingly neutral. If it regards social harmony as more important than religious rectitude, it must reduce its active support for the dominant religious tradition and allow religious affiliation to become a private matter. The newly formed United States in the first amendment to its constitution announced the new settlement: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’38 The British state got to the same end point by slow accommodation. (p.56) The state churches (and there was already a large dose of diversity in the fact that Britain had three state churches rather than one) were allowed to retain a few symbolic advantages but gradually lost all real power. While this allowed dissenting sects to flourish, it removed central state support for religion. As the modern state developed its complex apparatus of social welfare, education and social control, these systems became increasingly secular. Precisely because the changes were gradual, their importance was often not perceived clearly at the time. For example, in the late nineteenth century, the two main Presbyterian churches in Scotland handed their schools over to local government control. Because they were then popular organizations that could count on the at‐least‐nominal attachment of the vast majority of the population, they did not seek any legal protection for specifically Presbyterian forms of religious education. They took it for granted that the schools would remain Presbyterian. Within fifty years they had become largely secular.

In brief, the proliferation of competing religions gradually creates a religiously neutral public sphere and hastens the acceptance of the idea that the rights of subjects or citizens should not be conditional on them worshipping the correct God in the correct way. Religion becomes a matter of personal preference.

Diversity changes the formal operations of the state; it also changes the way that ordinary people hold their beliefs. It is easy to believe that your religion is the only true faith and that all others are dangerous falsehoods when your religion is so thoroughly dominant that others are known only in the abstract and through invidious stereotypes. Some novelty may pose no threat if the new religion is the preserve of a minority that can be dismissed as a lesser form of life. But when your own neighbours and kin, people whom you like and who are like you, promote an alternative religion, then the taken‐for‐granted certainty of your own beliefs is inevitably undermined. When it becomes clear that good men can differ, it becomes hard to avoid the suspicion that you have chosen God, rather than the other way round.

To put it rather formally, there are two possible responses to diversity: avoidance and toleration. Either you try to insulate yourself from alternatives or you scale down the claims made by your religion. The majority of British Christians followed the second route. The mainstream churches gradually reduced their exclusive claims (p.57) and came to accept an ever‐broader range of alternative faiths as being almost as pleasing to God. Most Christians became in effect relativists and universalists. Instead of seeing their interpretation of God's will as binding on all his creation, they supposed their faith was right and proper for them but need not apply to others. And, instead of supposing that only they were going to heaven and everyone else was going to hell, they supposed that all decent people would be saved. While this had the great benefit of allowing harmonious relationships with those of other faiths, it had the debilitating consequence of reducing the impetus to ensure the survival of any particular religion. If there are many ways to God, why work hard to ensure that your faith survives? If we are all God's children and nothing very bad will happen to those who do not worship in the correct manner, then why work hard to raise your children in your faith?

In brief, pleasant and rewarding interaction with those of other faiths weakens commitment to one's dogmas and doctrines. Religion ceases to be a necessity and becomes a matter of taste. This effect is much amplified when attachment to any particular religion becomes so weakened that people are willing to marry out. Where religions are strongly embedded in group identities, intermarriage is rare and it results in one partner changing sides. Where religion is seen as a matter of personal preference, intermarriage becomes common, and, instead of one partner shifting, both partners loosen their attachments. The odds on their children keeping the faith of either parent are much reduced. A large body of recent survey evidence allows us to be fairly specific about this: the odds on the children of a mixed marriage having any active involvement in organized religion are only half those for the offspring of a same‐religion marriage.39

Northern Ireland is both more Christian than Britain and more conservative in its Christianity. In 1998, 88 per cent of survey respondents in Northern Ireland described themselves as Christian; the same figure as for 1991.40 For Britain the 1991 figure was 56 per cent. (p.58) More telling, the gap between nominal identity and participation is much smaller in Northern Ireland than in Britain. There may be some exaggeration in the claim by two‐thirds of Catholics and one‐third of mainstream Protestants surveyed in 1998 to have attended church at least once a month, but no allowance for scepticism can bring these figures down close to the less than 10 per cent of British people who attend weekly.

This high degree of church involvement is reflected in responses to questions about beliefs. In a 1991 survey, 57 per cent of Northern Irish respondents but only 10 per cent of British respondents chose ‘I know God exists’: the most certain of the options. On a wide range of questions about orthodox Christian doctrines (belief in heaven, in miracles, in the status of Jesus as the son of God), Northern Ireland respondents showed themselves far more firmly Christian than their British counterparts. But equally important for our interests is the conservatism of Ulster Protestants. A number of items in the 1991 Life and Times survey make the point. Unfortunately the question ‘Would you say that you have been “born again” or have had a “born again” experience—that is, a turning point in your life when you committed yourself to Christ’ was not asked of the British sample, but the answers for Northern Ireland are still revealing. Almost all Brethren respondents, 70 per cent of Baptists and two‐thirds of Free Presbyterians claimed to have been born again. Given the general ethos of these groups, such figures are no surprise, but 28 per cent of Irish Presbyterians and 19 per cent of Episcopalians claimed a conversion experience and 21 per cent of Methodists—who in Britain are typically very liberal—claimed to be born again.

To get a general sense of conservatism I constructed a scale by merging responses to questions about life after death, the possibility of miracles, the existence of the Devil, and the like. Here the difference between Ulster and British members of the same denomination was striking. Among Episcopalians, 14 per cent of those in Ulster but only 1 per cent of their British counterparts chose the conservative options. For Methodists the respective figures were 15 and 2 per cent; for Presbyterians 20 and 2 per cent; and for Baptists 30 and 18 per cent.

A question about the nature of the Bible produced even larger differences. Respondents could choose between ‘the actual word of God…to be taken literally word for word’, ‘the inspired word of God (p.59) but not everything should be taken literally, word for word’, and ‘an ancient book of fables, legends, history and moral teachings recorded by man’. The first, literalist, response was chosen by 31 per cent of Ulster Episcopalians but only 2 per cent of their British colleagues and the respective figures for Methodists were 25 to 1; for Presbyterians 35 to 3; and for Baptists 45 to 15.

There have been some signs of secularization in Northern Ireland.41 For example, in 1968 two‐thirds of survey respondents claimed to attend church every week; by 2004 the figure was just 41 per cent. But the decline started later and has been less severe than in England or Scotland, and the explanation is hardly difficult to find. My very compressed account of secularization above took as its hypothetical case a society where religion is not closely tied to other important social divisions (such as national or regional rivalries or structured differences of social status) and it assumed that the society was sufficiently stable politically for elites not to feel the need to use religious affiliation as a ticket for entry to the body politic. In such circumstances most people are happy to accept religion being relegated to a matter of personal taste. Or, to put it another way round, there is nothing inevitable about secularization. If a society is deeply divided between competing ethnic or national groups pursuing irreconcilable political ambitions, then religion may well remain powerful.

Consider intermarriage. There has been some relaxation of the sectarian divide in Ulster. A 1991 survey allows us to compare Catholic–Protestant intermarriage rates for respondents (who typically married in the three previous decades) and for their parents (which would take us back a further two decades). For the survey respondents in Northern Ireland the rate was 9 per cent and for their parents 2 per cent; the corresponding figures for Britain were 13 and 10 per cent (which is extremely high considering the small number of Catholics).42 In Scotland in 2001 just over half of Catholics under 35 who were married were married to non‐Catholics; that is, for young (p.60) people in Scotland religious identity is not an important consideration in choosing a spouse.43

Secondly, consider the politics. In Britain the link between citizenship and religion was slightly revitalized in the 1790s when fears inspired by the French Revolution created new ‘Church and King’ movements, but it was weak even then and it was broken when the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 gave the vote to Catholics and when the Reform Act of 1832 gave the vote to the rising (and often Nonconformist) middle class. Apart from a brief flourishing of anti‐Catholic politics in local elections in Scotland in the 1930s, religion has played little or no significant part in British public life since the nineteenth century.44 As was made clear in Chapter 1, religion has always been deeply implicated in politics in Northern Ireland and nothing that has happened since partition has weakened that association.

All of the above might seem like a very long way to state the obvious, but it is important to spell it out. There are some very general changes that come with modernization that undermine religion but there are also strong retarding factors. The conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland gave each side good reasons to remain committed to their religion and to avoid the sort of social mixing that, in other settings, caused dogmatic and doctrinaire religion to be gradually displaced by liberal and tolerant versions.


It is not difficult to see how the political conflict in Northern Ireland exerts a restraining influence on those general social changes that elsewhere have diminished the importance of religion and encouraged a shift in a liberal direction. Hence it is no surprise that its Protestant churches seem more like their nineteenth‐century British (p.61) counterparts than their contemporary sister churches. This in turn explains why Paisley could hope to recruit followers. Having dismissed the idea that Paisley's appeal is explained by some personality or intellectual flaw, I want to consider whether there are any shared social characteristics that might distinguish those Protestants who joined Paisley's church from those who did not. I do not want to suggest that we can entirely explain why some people rather than others are attracted to a new set of ideas by identifying background social similarities, but it is often the case that new religious movements flow along particular channels. For example, Pentecostalism often appeals far more to the poor than to the rich. Protestant dissenting movements (such as the Methodists in late‐eighteenth‐ and early nineteenth‐century England) often attract skilled artisans, craftsmen, and independent small farmers and have relatively little appeal either to the gentry or to their peasants. The reason for this is simple: people will be more receptive to a reworking of the dominant religious tradition that particularly speaks to their circumstances. If, as the landed gentry did, you see this world as properly hierarchical, with the rulers clearly divided from the ruled, then an egalitarian religion, which stresses the equality of all before the eyes of God, will seem less plausible than one that supposes that a clerical elite has privileged access to the will of God. And if you are a peasant who has absolutely no say in the affairs of this world, you are unlikely to feel qualified to make independent judgements about the next world.

It would be illuminating to have detailed information about the social background of those who were attracted to the FPCU in its early days. Unfortunately we have only the biographies of those prominent enough to be remembered in historical sketches of church formation. Those show that, outside East Belfast, most early Free Presbyterians were small farmers and small businessmen running agriculture‐related businesses. Of ten people profiled in an account of the Crossgar split, six were small farmers, one was a gardener, and one a grocer. Only two people did not work on the land—a salesman and an architect—and they both came from farming families. The same could be said for the founders of Cabra and Rasharkin. The Ravenhill and Sandown Road congregations were predominantly working class with a smattering of small shopkeepers and other self‐employed business people.

(p.62) The picture we get from such biographies is confirmed by the 1981 census data (presented in more detail in the Appendix). Compared to Irish Presbyterians, Free Presbyterians were relatively scarce at the top of the occupational scale. Fewer of them were professionals such as doctors and teacher (1.5 per cent compared with 4.5 per cent for Irish Presbyterians) and they were under‐represented among professionally qualified engineers (2.0 per cent as compared with 4.4 per cent for Irish Presbyterians). Among those described as managers, Irish Presbyterians were much more likely to run big operations than were Free Presbyterians. Although similar proportions worked in manufacturing or assembling, Free Presbyterians were concentrated in more types of processing work connected with agriculture than with urban hi‐tech engineering. Free Presbyterians were more likely than Irish Presbyterians to be self‐employed but the self‐employed Irish Presbyterians were more likely to employ other people. This suggests that more Free Presbyterians were businessmen in what the Victorians called ‘a small way’. The differences in social class and occupation are mirrored in differences in educational qualifications. According to the 1981 census 90.8 per cent of Irish Presbyterians had no post‐school qualifications; the figure for Free Presbyterians was 97.5.

We should be cautious of making too much of these differences because the links between them can be extremely complex and the numbers involved are small, but we can be confident of something like the following composite. In its early days, the FPCU tended to attract farmers and people who ran small rural businesses (such as shopkeepers, hauliers, and builders). Even the town churches such as Lisburn and Omagh drew a large part of their congregations from the surrounding farmlands. Very obviously, its people were not cosmopolitan; they were not university‐educated mobile professionals who were exposed to a diverse range of social and cultural influences and whose working lives brought them into frequent contact with people from diverse backgrounds. They were firmly rooted local people.

If this gives us some idea of what sort of people were most receptive to Paisley's evangelical preaching, it also identifies a fascinating question that can be illustrated by an event from the early 1980s. The Irish Presbyterian church in Limavady, a strongly Protestant area in the middle of the predominantly Catholic county of Londonderry, called as its minister David Armstrong. Although a committed evangelical (p.63) as a student, Armstrong had moved in a liberal direction to an extent that set him at odds with his congregants. Armstrong's problems began when he accepted an invitation from the local Catholic priest to attend the opening of the new chapel (the building of which had been slowed down because it had been bombed at an early stage in its construction). Against the expressed wishes of some members of his congregation, he attended and thus initiated a conflict that grew in intensity when the new priest, Kevin Mullen, made the novel gesture of crossing the road on Christmas Day 1983 to wish the Presbyterians a Merry Christmas. Seeing this as precisely the sort of civilized gesture and antidote to sectarian tension that Christians should promote, Armstrong reciprocated. His elders took their objections to the Route Presbytery. Armstrong expected to be supported by his fellow ministers and was greatly disappointed by the Presbytery's failure openly to endorse his stance. In the spring of 1985, he felt he had no alternative but to leave the Presbyterian Church. Although a Presbyterian congregation in Bangor made it known that they would have him, Armstrong had already concluded from the hostile reception to his acts of reconciliation that there was no place for his version of Christianity in Ulster and he went to Oxford to train for the Anglican ministry.45 The important point about that anecdote is that, although the local Free Presbyterians played some small part in stirring up the controversy by picketing Armstrong's church, it was his own people who drove him out. In that part of the world, there was almost nothing in doctrine, in culture, or in political preferences that separated the typical Irish Presbyterian member of the Orange Order who voted UUP from the Free Presbyterian member of the Independent Orange Order who later voted DUP—except how they felt about Paisley!

To return to the chronological thread, across the province in the 1960s there was a large constituency of conservative Protestants who would have agreed with a great deal of Paisley's positive teaching but did not accept his insistence that they should abandon their churches because they were insufficiently pure.


The Free Presbyterian Church did not have a monopoly of conversionist and separatist ascetic Protestantism. The same creed could have been found in any number of tiny gospel halls and Brethren meetings. What did make it stand out from the general evangelical milieu was the willingness of its people publicly to confront those with whom they disagreed. The Paisleyites were quite unapologetically objectionable. They saw the ‘Protest’ in Protestant both as a necessary requirement of faith and as an extremely useful publicity device.

Sometimes you've got to—before you can heal, you've got to wound, and, just to be, like, using an illustration: if a person is in a house sleeping and the house is on fire, well, who's going to be that person's friend? The one that goes past and says ‘I wouldn't like to disturb them. I'll just let them sleep’ or the person that…goes in and breaks the door or breaks the window and goes in and raises the alarm and tries to get them wakened up?

Paisley and Wylie were active in Protestant rallies, and in the meetings organized by the National Union of Protestants, but their most public action of the 1950s was, as so many key episodes, thrust upon them.

Maura Lyons was a young Catholic girl from West Belfast. At work she started to attend a lunchtime prayer meeting, and one of her colleagues took her to attend the small Dunmurry Free Presbyterian Church. Unwilling to court adverse publicity, David Leatham, the minister, advised her to keep quiet about her conversion until she was legally of age. One evening she returned home to find her parents talking to two priests. Thinking that she would be taken away to some convent for what would now be called ‘de‐programming’, Lyons left the house and sought the sanctuary of David Leatham. A lady missionary working for the Sentinel Union took Maura Lyons to England.

There was a huge outcry in the local press. Paisley and the Free Presbyterian Church were accused of kidnapping an under‐age girl. Wylie was contacted and asked to assist in moving the girl from her first hiding place in Dorset to Preston. Paisley decided to take the (p.65) initiative and he announced a ‘great Protestant rally’ in the Ulster Hall and promised some startling revelations. Wylie went to Preston and tape‐recorded Maura Lyons ‘giving her testimony’. So that Paisley could continue to claim that he did not know where the girl was, Wylie delivered the tape to his doorstep, and Mrs Paisley found it the next morning behind the milk bottles.

The tape was played at a large, well‐publicized rally in the Ulster Hall in Belfast and there were immediate calls for Paisley to be arrested and charged with abducting the girl. A few weeks later, when she came of age, Maura Lyons turned up at Paisley's house and asked for his protection. The police took the girl and, in a court case in which Paisley refused to give evidence, Maura Lyons was made a ward of court and returned to her parents. For Lyons that was the end of her dramatic career in evangelical Protestantism. She later renounced her Protestant conversion and married a Catholic.

For Paisley and the Free Presbyterian Church the episode generated a great deal of publicity, all of it hostile, but for some evangelicals it established Paisley's public reputation as a man who would stand up to the Church of Rome. For critics of Paisley's style, the Lyons case was a good demonstration of a weakness that he has shown on many occasions since. While they would not deny him the right to represent his religious beliefs as forcefully as he can and hence to protest against those beliefs that he sees as heretical, they objected to the ‘fly dodges’ in which he engaged to promote his cause. He maintained throughout the police and media search for Maura Lyons that he had not been responsible for her disappearance (which was strictly speaking true) and that he did not know where she was and so could not tell her parents. This was only minimally true in that Leatham had been involved in her first move, Wylie had been involved in her second move, and Wylie had returned to make the tape recording. Paisley had only to ask Wylie a simple question and he would have known where the girl was.

Although it is not important for understanding the success of Ian Paisley's movement, it is interesting to speculate on aspects of the character of the man. What the Lyons case demonstrated was that he was capable of taking a very legalistic view of morality and ethics when it suited his cause. Like the Jesuits he is so fond of criticizing, Paisley was willing to be less than forthcoming. To his less scrupulous (p.66) followers, this showed ‘that there's no flies on the big man’. His more sensitive and thoughtful followers had to persuade themselves that this sort of activity was justified by the nature of the opposition. The Free Presbyterians were battling not only against secular liberalism and the heretics within the Protestant churches but also against the forces of Rome, and with enemies such as these one must on occasional use tactics that are not as honourable as one might wish them to be.

Now that it is commonplace for people to change religion and most have none, it is difficult to appreciate the public interest that was generated by events such as the disappearance of Maura Lyons and the broadcasting of her taped testimony. In the 1940s and 1950s, an evangelistic rally that had some theatrical element, such as the testimony of an ex‐Catholic, was a crowd‐puller, as was the staged performance of the blasphemous Mass by ex‐priests. Even in the late 1950s, Paisley and Wylie could think it worthwhile to sponsor a tour by an ex‐priest who would perform, and then denounce, the Mass. Largely as a result of television and cinema, the market for such performances has disappeared. If we wish a public display of sin to stimulate our sense of righteousness, we do not have to arrange a mimic Mass; the modern world, brought by television into every rural Protestant home, provides enough sin and apostasy to satisfy any curiosity.

The decline of Protestant street theatre has to be seen in the context of several important changes in the general cultural climate and not as a result of a change of attitude by evangelical Protestants. Paisley thinks it is as important now as he did then to save any soul from the clutches of Catholicism. If such souls have ceased to be an important part of his presentations, it is because there are so many of them that they are no longer newsworthy, and because the general climate has shifted to produce so many other challenges to evangelical Protestantism. It is no longer a straight fight between Protestantism and Rome. The Protestants are beset by so many other threats, most of them related to the liberalization of Protestantism. As Paisley put it:

In those days people were Protestants. It was the natural thing. I mean, even the Clerk of the Belfast Presbytery was one of the referees [of the National Union of Protestants]. In all the denominations there was a sprinkling of (p.67) good strong evangelical men and Protestants. And almost all the clergymen were in the Orange Order. We're living in a different Ulster today.

And it is an Ulster that probably would not care much if a young Catholic girl becomes a Free Presbyterian or if an ex‐priest demonstrates the Mass for the entertainment of a Protestant rally.


Paisley began his soul‐saving mission in 1945. Over the next two decades, he built the foundations of his Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, but the growth was slow. Although there were many conservative evangelicals in the main denominations who shared Paisley's basic theological beliefs, few responded to his claim that Protestantism was so threatened by traitors within and by a resurgent Romanism without that a separatist witness was required. And, whatever latent demand there was in Ulster, Paisley was constrained because, although he was extraordinarily energetic, he was not divisible. He could hold a week of meetings here or there and stimulate initial interest, but he needed a cadre of lieutenants to move in and service this interest on a regular basis. From the foundation of the Free Church, he had problems in recruiting competent professionals. As the careers of those ministers already mentioned show, even if he could find people willing to work with him, he had so little choice that he had to take anyone who shared his core objection to modernism. He could not afford to select only those who agreed with him on the whole range of doctrines and practices that gave the Free Church its ethos. Thus the growth of the Free Church was retarded until it could produce enough young men who had been thoroughly socialized within the Free Church and who were competent to give the new organization a solid foundation. And even some of his most loyal lieutenants were reluctant to embrace Paisley's aggressive attitude to competitors. Bert Cooke, who was one of the first men to join the ministry training programme, enrolled only reluctantly and only came to think of himself as a committed protesting Free Presbyterian when, as a student in charge of the Mount Merrion congregation, he was challenged by moderates in his congregation to oppose the (p.68) Free Church's pickets of the Irish Presbyterian General Assembly. After serious thought and prayer, he concluded that Paisley was right: that a genuine Christian commitment required a willingness publicly to denounce apostasy.

As the key activists came to a commitment to aggressive evangelism and public protest, there was a weeding‐out, as some people who had a tentative commitment found that they did not want to pursue the narrow sectarian ideology of the Free Church. There was a considerable departure of members from Paisley's Ravenhill congregation. People left Mount Merrion when Bert Cooke committed himself to the protesting position. In Ballyhalbert, John Douglas found that many of those who had initially asked the Free Church for preaching offices were not prepared for the preaching they received. To describe the process in general terms, the Free Church was tapping a seam of discontent, but the general unease of individuals and groups with what they were getting in the main churches had yet to be channelled into a coherent shared ideology, and, in the process of refining discontent, some people rejected Paisley's leadership and abandoned the fledgling organization. Those who stayed through this period became convinced Free Presbyterians.

To summarize the story so far, by the start of the 1960s Paisley had moved from being a freelance preacher to being the leader of a small church largely made up of disaffected Irish Presbyterians. To understand the next phase in the history of the Free Church, we must shift our attention from theology and church disputes to the wider sphere of public reputation and political conflict.


(1) R. J. Beggs, Great is Thy Faithfulness: An Account of the Ministry of Pastor James Kyle Paisley and a History of the Separatist Testimony in Ballymena (Ballymena: Ballymena Free Presbyterian Church, n.d.), 12.

(2) The FPCU does not support exclusive psalmody. For its justification, see ‘Exclusive Psalmody—is it Commanded by God?’, Burning Bush, 35 (Feb. 2005), 2–3.

(3) Beggs, Great is Thy Faithfulness, 17.

(4) It is an interesting sign of the extent to which critics of Paisley will go to uncover anything to his discredit that biographers have tried to make something of the fact that he did not enlist, and one potential author asked me if it was not the case that he had been sent to college to avoid the call‐up! He was only 14 in 1940.

(5) I am grateful to Prof. Adam Loughridge, a former Principal of the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Hall, for making these details known to me.

(6) J. H. Withers, Our Past Years: Fisherwick Presbyterian Church, 1823–1973 (Belfast: Fisherwick Church, 1973), 172.

(7) I. R. K. Paisley, These 28 Years (Belfast: Martyrs' Memorial Publications, 1974), 2.

(8) I. R. K. Paisley, Life's Four Windows: A Sketch of my Life Story (Belfast: Martyrs' Memorial Publications, 1983), 7.

(9) This and all subsequent quotations that are not followed by a reference to a published source come from interviews conducted either between November 1984 and January 1986 or in 2005. The context makes it clear which.

(10) Paisley, Four Windows, 8. To put oneself in the tradition of which Nicholson was part is to claim an important resource. Paisley wishes to claim it—the Bangor Free Presbyterian Church was named the ‘W. P. Nicholson Memorial’—and his opponents, especially conservatives within the IPC, are keen to deny his inheritance. In a radio documentary I wrote for the BBC, I presented Nicholson as a forerunner to Paisley. Sidney Murray, an admirer of Nicholson, wrote to Evangelical Voice, a magazine of a pressure group in the IPC, to contest my analysis and save Nicholson from Paisley by showing that Nicholson was not a separatist. Murray is correct that Nicholson, although highly critical of its liberals, continued to support the IPC. He did attend Paisley's Ravenhill Mission Church, but he also worshipped at the Ravenhill Presbyterian Church when he returned to Belfast in the early 1950s. Nicholson's lasting impact on Ulster religious life came through the Christian Workers Union: a ginger group within the church rather than a separatist movement. But I would argue against Murray's conclusion that Paisley was motivated by beliefs that Nicholson did not hold. Paisley and Nicholson were very close in theology. What had changed between the world of the late 1920s and 1930s, and Paisley's world of the 1950s, was the degree of ‘apostasy’ in the IPC. Nicholson was concerned to stem and reverse an emergent trend. Paisley had come to the conclusion that the rot had set in so firmly that only radical separation would do. I see nothing in Nicholson's beliefs that would have led him to act in a manner different from Paisley had he been faced with the same circumstances.

(11) Paisley, Four Windows, 12–13.

(12) The Free Presbyterian version of the dispute has been given many times. For an account that includes an interview with Hugh James Adams, one of the founding elders, see Revivalist (Feb. 1969). See also G. Moore and S. Dick, The History of the Crossgar Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster: A New Beginning (Crossgar: Crossgar FPC, 2001).

(13) Belfast Telegraph, 13 Mar. 1951.

(14) Ibid., 15 Mar. 1951.

(15) Revivalist (July–Oct. 1952), p 1.

(16) Brian McClung, These Fifty Years: A History of Newtownabbey Free Presbyterian Church Marking Fifty Years of the Congregation 1953–2003 (Belfast: Quinta Press, 2004), 47–8.

(17) In an advertisement placed in the Belfast Telegraph (4 Jan. 1964), Magowan's supporters gave as his reasons for leaving the absence of annual elections for moderator, the preponderance of a political element to the detriment of spiritual life, and, somewhat implausibly, ‘the recent growth of modernism in Presbytery’.

(18) W. McCrea and D. Porter, In His Pathway: The Story of Rev. William McCrea (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1980), 15.

(19) See, e.g., J. Brewer and G. Higgins, Anti‐Catholicism in Northern Ireland 1600–1998: The Mote and the Beam (London: Macmillan, 1998).

(20) S. Bruce, Politics and Religion (Cambridge: Polity, 2003), 95–111.

(21) Revivalist (Jan. 1970), 1.

(22) I. R. K. Paisley, The Jesuits: Their Start, Sign, System, Secrecy and Strategy (Belfast: Puritan Printing Co., n.d.), 6.

(23) J. Greer, ‘Why We Stand: Biblical Separation’, LTBS Quarterly (Apr. 2001), 22.

(24) Sandown Road FPC Sunday School and Bible Class, These Forty Years (Belfast: Sandown Road FPCU, 2004), 11.

(25) A. Cairns, Dictionary of Theological Terms (Gilford, Co. Down: Whitefield College of the Bible, 1982), 92.

(26) I. R. K. Paisley, The EEC and the Vatican (Belfast: DUP, 1984).

(27) For a good survey of such beliefs, see A. A. Blaising and R. B. Strimple, Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001).

(28) D. Boulton, The UVF, 1966–73 (Dublin: Torc Books, 1973), 31.

(29) C. Smyth, Ian Paisley: Voice of Protestant Ulster (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1987), 137.

(30) Irish Times, 19 Feb. 1971.

(31) T. Gallagher, ‘Religion, Reaction and Revolt in Northern Ireland: The Impact of Paisleyism in Ulster’, Journal of Church and State, 23 (1981), 427.

(32) T. A. Adorno, E. Frenkel‐Brunswick, D. J. Levinson, and R. N. Sandford, The Authoritarian Personality (New York: Harper, 1950); M. Rokeach, The Open and Closed Mind (New York: Basic Books, 1960).

(33) The extent to which the Catholic Church has since Vatican II been on the side of democratization is detailed in J. Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

(34) M. Hornsby‐Smith, ‘The Catholic Church and the European Project: Catholic Social Teaching, Roman Realpolitik and Lay Practice’, Religion, Culture and Ideology paper given at the conference, BSA Sociology of Religion Study Group, St Mary's University College, Strawberry Hill, April 1996.

(35) A draft survey prepared for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops said that more than 11,000 complaints of sexual abuse had been made against 4,000 priests between 1950 and 2002: www/cnn.com/2004/US/02/16/church.abuse.

(36) Liberal Christians such as Dennis Cooke want to contest the Paisleyite claim to be in continuity with Reformation teaching. Cooke is correct that FPCU views of the Catholic Church are more thoroughly condemnatory than some of the sentiments to be found in Luther and Calvin, but the hardening of ideological differences long pre‐dates Paisleyism and can be found in the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1646 (the subordinate standard of Presbyterianism) and the Church of England's Thirty‐Nine Articles. See D. Cooke, Persecuting Zeal: A Portrait of Ian Paisley (Dingle: Brandon, 1996); The Westminster Confession of Faith (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, 1967), and B. J. Kidd, The Thirty‐Nine Articles (London: Rivingtons, 1899).

(37) See S. Bruce, Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), and God is Dead: Secularization in the West (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002).

(38) E. S. Gaustad, Proclaim Liberty throughout the Land: A History of Church and State in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

(39) D. Voas and A. Crockett, ‘Religion in Britain: Neither Believing nor Belonging’, Sociology, 39 (2005), 11–28.

(40) These data are taken from S. Bruce and F. Alderdice, ‘Religious Belief and Behaviour’, in P. Stringer and G. Robinson (eds.), Social Attitudes in Northern Ireland: The Third Report (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1993), 5–20, and C. Mitchell, Religion, Identity and Politics in Northern Ireland (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006).

(41) For a detailed description of changes, see Mitchell, Religion, Identity and Politics, ch. 2.

(42) V. Morgan, M. Smyth, G. Robinson, and G. Fraser, Mixed Marriages in Northern Ireland (Coleraine: Centre for the Study of Conflict, University of Ulster, 1996).

(43) S. Bruce, A. Glendinning, I. Paterson, and M. Rosie, Sectarianism in Scotland (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004).

(44) The situation in Scotland was somewhat similar to that of Northern Ireland for a short while (ibid.).

(45) Armstrong's version of the dispute is given in D. Armstrong and H. Saunders, A Road Too Wide: The Price of Reconciliation in Northern Ireland (Basingstoke: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1985).