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A History of the Methodist Church in Carrickfergus

There are far more erudite documents which will give a much better and certainly more comprehensive description of Methodism in Carrickfergus, so this page is really only giving a flavour of its history. Even in that, I am indebted to a document entitled "History of Carrickfergus Methodist Church", produced by the minister and leaders of the church in 1984 (the occasion of its centenary), but which was compiled by Mrs Marion Kelly of the Wesley Historical Society, to whom we give our thanks.

Most of the text from that document I use verbatim, although for brevity purposes not all of it is reproduced, but hopefully any reader will get the overall picture, and I'm sure if further information is sought, the local library in Carrickfergus could provide it. (Failing that, Google it, like everyone else!)

In the beginning...

It is generally accepted that about 1752 the first class meeting of' Methodists in Carrickfergus was formed among men of the 42nd Regiment, the Highlanders, later known as the Black Watch.

The Rev. John Wesley visited the town on eight occasions between 1756 and 1778 and his journal tells us that in 1762 he "added a few members lo the Society, and left them in peace and love". On his visit in 1773, Wesley records: "There was a lovely congregation at Carrickfergus - very large and very serious; nor was it much smaller at five on the next morning. I added several to the Society, and could not but hope that there was seed sown here that will never be rooted up".

A Methodist society was clearly active for twenty years but left no further record until 1798. Then Rev. Charles Mayne as junior minister on the Belfast circuit revived interest by re-forming a Society with the help of Sergeant James Davison, in the Royal Artillery serving in the town, Mr. Samuel Hay, a calico printer of Fairview and Mr. John Sloane.

A roof over our heads...

The re-organised Society continued to meet and received visits from the preachers on the Belfast circuit. In 1806 Rev. Charles Mayne was appointed to the Belfast circuit and, finding that Carrickfergus were meeting in a loft in Sailor's Row, he directed his influence towards the erection of the preaching house for which permission to build was given by the 1808 conference.

A site was leased in West Street for a period of 99 years at an annual rent of 6 shillings and sixpence, but building was delayed for lack of funds. A common practice of the time was the appointment of preachers to specified areas for named collections. After "Brothers Mayne and Doolittle" had raised collections and subscriptions on the Belfast District for the preaching house and preacher's house in Carrickergus, sufficient funds were found to build the chapel, opened by Mr. Mayne in November, 1812.

[Here's an interesting quotation by a historian, which gives us a flavour of the finances of Methodism, and consequent hardships suffered by some of its preachers]

The historian of Carrickfergus and the Methodists, the late F.J.Cole, said:
"It is unlikely that Mr. Mackey's achievements during his three years' ministry in Carrickfergus have ever been equalled in the annals of Irish Methodism . . . Four chapels and two ministers' residences built and practically the whole interior of a fifth chapel rebuilt." These were Larne, opened May 1827; Ballyclare, September 1828; Hyde Park, June 1829; Islandmagee, September 1829; the entire floor of the Carrickfergus chapel replaced and the centre of the chapel pewed in 1827 and preachers' houses built in Larne and Ballyclare. As in other parts of the North, Rev. Matthew Lanktree faced the subsequent financial problems of others' commitments. Indeed, in 1829, he was appointed to the circuit, but found "there was no place nor provision for his family on the circuit". Carrickfergus, however, was not alone in these difficulties as the entire Irish Connexion was seriously embarrassed with debt at this period of disunity and economic distress.

Heinz 57...

To the Methodists of to-day, it may be difficult to appreciate that in the two centuries since John Wesley's visits, the term Methodist could have been applied to several variations including Wesleyan Methodists, Primitive Wesleyan Methodists, English Primitive Methodists, Wesleyan Methodist Association members and Methodist New Connexion, sometimes co-existing quite peacefully.

In the 1830's only the last named division was not apparently represented in Carrickfergus, while the Wesleyan Methodists can claim unbroken witness since the days of Sergeant Davison and the Rev. Charles Mayne. Since Carrickfergus was one of the eight circuits to receive permission in 1816 for the administration of the Sacraments by the preachers, it is not surprising that the Primitive Wesleyan Methodist Conference had little support in the town although there are traces of a small Society in 1831. The English based Primitive Methodists are said to have erected a small chapel in Scotch Quarter but this branch mission was later withdrawn. These divisions of Wesleyans were widespread in Ireland but the body known as the Wesleyan Methodist Association had a very limited sphere of influence, yet it caused the most serious division in the Carrickfergus Wesleyans' Society about 1839. Supporters of this Association, about 1847, built a small chapel in Irish Quarter which was sold in 1871 after their return to the Wesleyan congregation.

Social Witness

The laity of Irish Methodism has buttressed the work of the itinerant preachers through the valuable support systems of Sunday schools, uniformed organisations and missionary or connexional fund collectors, but perhaps the most important contribution throughout the history of the work of the Society has been made by the members of the Leaders' Meeting and their appointed stewards and officials. Their willingness to stand guard over public morals and welfare has been evidenced by the active and sustained participation of members in local and parliamentary representation. In 1916, for example, the question of the Government acquisition of a Racing Stud and the suggestion to introduce the Premium bond system were subjects, of a resolution from the Carrickfergus Quarterly Meeting, More recently, concern about the use of a house near the church as a commission agent's office and its influence on young members of the congregation, or the need to make emergency arrangements in the event of prolonged industrial action showed the Methodist congregation caring for and keeping in touch with the young life of the town.

Though the names of highly respected laymen will immediately spring to mind as portraying the best exponents of the social gospel, the women of Carrickfergus have shown the same caring
spirit, revealed in practical terms, whether as Miss Anne Hay in frequent visits to the local prison in the nineteenth century, or as Miss Emily Beauchamp, one of the earliest missionaries to India under the auspices of the Women's Auxiliary, or indeed in providing valuable financial aid as in the gifts of valuable sites by Mrs Jane Alexander and Miss M.C. Wheeler. Women also played their part in convincing and converting the Carrickfergus Society members on the matter of Sacramental wine. Around 1870, an active Methodist woman wrote to Conference deploring the use of intoxicating wine at the Lord's Table. After protest to the Quarterly Meeting had failed, a group of sympathetic Society members assembled on Communion Sundays in a private house in Governor's Place where they united in the sacred ordinance. This dispute was soon brought to a conclusion by the mutual accommodation of two sacramental tables and later by the adoption of unfermented wine alone.

Where two or three are gathered...

Methodist involvement over a period of two hundred years in any area will inevitably mean a series of plans for proposed buildings, completed chapels, preachers' houses, recurring repairs, and the removal or replacement of buildings while the fire of Methodism burns and where stewardship is conscientious and in the hands of capable leaders. Carrickfergus follows the usual pattern which has been enlivened here with the occasional scheme of acquiring investment dwellings to secure an income for the society.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Carrickfergus could claim to have excellent premises consisting of a beautiful church, a fine school house with daily and Sunday-schools and a comfortable minister's residence.

The church, opened in 1812, needed extensive re-roofing in 1837; in 1853, a pipe organ was installed and remained in use for 54 years; the Sunday school previously held in the chapel was transferred to the schoolhouse, erected in 1870, which subsequently housed a National day school until 1893 when numbers in attendance had declined.

The comfort and accommodation afforded by the old church was inadequate for the development of Methodism in Carrickfergus. The opportunity to build on a larger site was taken in 1883. A contemporary account of the service in connection with the laying of the foundation stones on 17th March, 1883 and details of the opening of the new Methodist church 18th June, 1884 have been reproduced from the Irish Christian Advocate. The church was described as "a commodious Gothic building planned to seat five hundred people. It contains lancet windows, and at the south western end has an octagonal tower, which can be used for stairs to a gallery. It is entered through a porch at the southern end and has transepts to the east and west. The total cost came to over £2,100."

Some early problems of poor acoustics in the new church were partly solved in 1892 by erecting a new ceiling of Caroline pine some feet below the existing one.

Consolidation and Outreach

The story of twentieth century Methodism in Carrickfergus is of consolidation and outreach. A chronological account would record further changes, in 1907, to improve the sound conditions in association with the installation of a two-manual pipe organ with necessary alterations in the position of the pulpit and communion rails; the dedication of the beautiful stained glass windows of 1921 and 1928; the novelty of electricity for church lighting in 1937; the remarkable Wesley Commemoration Service of 1953 within the Castle Courtyard, addressed by the Rev. R. Lee Cole, President of the Wesley Historical Society, and attended by a congregation of 650, including the Mayor and Mayoress, and members of the Borough Council; and the opportunities taken to celebrate 50 years of the 1907 Lewis-built organ and the 80th anniversary of the present church with its re-decoration, carpeting, baptismal bowl and other gifts.

The vision of former years was fulfilled when the six houses, bought in 1956, were demolished in 1968 to make way for the new Wesley Halls. These were dedicated with the new Church Gallery in October 1970, when the large room upstairs was named to honour the memory of the Rev. S.D. Ferguson, who had been closely associated with this venture in faith at the time of his sudden death on 27th September 1970.

You can count on us!

In common with other societies, Carrickfergus activity ebbed and flowed with the arrival and departure of strong characters with innovating powers and it is to their credit that the local members appear to have welcomed newcomers warmly and to have given them opportunities to indulge their enthusiasm while the core of faithful families provided the continuity essential to steady growth. Measuring growth by numbers can be misleading in an industrial area where population figures fluctuate and further problems are caused when the frame used for statistical returns is changed.

A figure of 560 members in 1811 covered a circuit which not only included the town, but also Hydepark, Doagh, Ballyclare, Straid, Larne, Islandmagee, Glenarm and Carnlough together with the surrounding country and represented a period before the main divisions in Methodism. Membership in 1884 is recorded as 157 and reflects the separation of the Larne circuit as well as the effects of the decline in total Irish population. The comparable figure for 1983 was 501 members. Carrickfergus Methodists of today can be justifiably proud of the exceptionally fine class records of the early period.

And finally...

Since the opening of the church building (just recently demolished) a hundred and twenty five years ago, the honoured position of President of the Methodist Church in Ireland has been filled on twelve occasions by men who served at Carrickfergus – a tradition nobly upheld by the Rev. Cecil A. Newell, B.D., the first to hold this office while stationed at Carrickfergus, and the present incumbent Rev. Aian Ferguson, President of the Methodist Church in Ireland 2008-09

MINISTERS WHO HAVE SERVED IN CARRICKFERGUS DURING THE PAST 127 YEARS

1882-1885 Andrew Armstrong
1885-1888 John Wilson
1888-1891 George Alley
1891-1894 Charles H. Crookshank
1894-1897 John W. Jones
1897-1900 Robert Byers
1900-1903 Richard Cole
1903-1906 Robert Jamison
1906-1909 Horatio Collier
1909-1912 James Cathcart
1912-1915 Hugh M. Watson
1915-1919 Henry McConnell
1919-1922 James Ritchie
1922-1925 Edward B. Cullen
1925-1930 James W. Parkhill
1930-1933 Beresford S. Lyons
1933-1937 James P. Carter
1937-1942 R. Roycroft Sayers
1942-1947 Richard M.L. Waugh
1947-1952 John Fleming
1952-1957 Walter Hill
1957-1961 James Wisheart
1961-1965 William H. Hayes
1965-1970 Samuel D. Ferguson
1971-1978 William L. Alford
1978-1984 Cecil A. Newell
1984-1992 Trevor Kennedy
1992-1998 Denis Anderson
1998-2003 Sam Allen
2003-2014 Aian Ferguson
2014-        David Clements


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