Centenary Book of the First Presbyterian Church Portadown

Chapter II


Difficulties of a similar nature beset one in attempting to place on record a history of Presbyterianism in Portadown. The earliest church record is a minute book of the Congregational Committee, the first entry in which is dated September, 1855.

In "Mason's Parochial Survey," published in 1816 there is a chapter on Seagoe Parish written by the late Colonel William Blacker, in which he states: "There is no Presbyterian Meeting House, those of that Communion attending worship in the neighbouring town of Lurgan, but many of them frequenting the Parish Church."

This statement is doubtless true in so far as the absence of a regular church and a resident minister is concerned. It is, however, a historical fact that for some time before this date Presbyterians met for worship in the basement of a house where the Ulster Bank now stands. The congregation of Vinecash had been in existence for more than a hundred years before this time, dating back to 1697. This was and still is the nearest country congregation, and it is quite natural that the minister there would gather together those who could more conveniently worship in Portadown than in his own church, giving them an afternoon or evening service.

The paragraph is illuminating as showing that the first Presbyterian Church was not in existence at this date. It must have been erected, however, between 1816 and 1822, as the following extract from Killen's "History of Presbyterian Congregations in Ireland" clearly shows:-- "In 1821 the inhabitants of this town and its vicinity applied to the Synod of Ulster to be put under the care of the Presbytery of Dromore and to be supplied with preaching every Lord's Day. In the following year they were erected into a separate congregation and their first minister was Mr Alexander Heron, who was ordained on 12th December, 1822. He resigned this charge in August, 1826, and removed to Ballyroney, where he ministered for thirty-nine years to one of the largest country congregations in the Assembly. He married a Miss Fletcher, a daughter of his predecessor in the ministry, by whom he had four children, two daughters and two sons. One of the former became the wife of Rev. W.J. Patton, of Dromara, a most devoted minister, noted for his evangelistic zeal. One of his sons, Dr. Alexander Heron, is the sole survivor of the family. He resides at Greenfield House, Katesbridge. Through his kindness it has been possible to reproduce a photograph of his father taken late in life. Mr. Heron died on 17th November, 1865."

The Second Minister was Mr. William T.G. Dowling, M.A., son of Mr. John Dowling, of Greyabbey, Co. Down. He was ordained on 1st March, 1827, and in the "Belfast News-Letter" of 20th March it is stated that the sermon was preached by Mr. Little, Loughbrickland, and the charge given by Mr. Magowan, Portnorris. Mr. Dowling was appointed Clerk of the Presbytery in 1835, and held the appointment until his death. It has not been possible to discover any records of his work, but it is right to assume that he was held in high esteem by the congregation, as when his short ministry of eleven years was closed by death on 7th January, 1838, he was buried in the Church grounds, and a massive tombstone erected to his memory bearing the following inscription:--

By the Members of the
Presbyterian Church in this place
To the Memory of
for many years
the respected pastor
of this Congregation
who departed this life
the 7th Jany., 1838.
Aged 38 years.

A somewhat singular experience fell to the writer some two years ago. A gentleman, apparently about thirty-five years of age, called on him and stated that he was an Australian soldier named Dowling, and that he had been recently demobilised. His father had left Portadown when a young man, and he understood that his grandfather was the Presbyterian minister of the town. Considering the fact that Mr. Dowling was over eighty years dead it seemed difficult to reconcile the relationship. He explained, however, that his father had married secondly in his old age and he was born of this marriage. He was shown the gravestone of his grandfather, and when leaving the church grounds it occurred to the writer that it was possible to introduce Mr. Dowling to some one who had seen and possibly known his grandfather. This was accomplished by a visit to Mrs. A.J. Lutton, then in her ninety-seventh year. It was most surprising to discover how active was the old lady's memory. She was able to relate a number of facts regarding the Rev. W. Dowling, much to the delight of her visitor. Altogether Mr. Dowling went away greatly pleased and satisfied with his visit.

Mr. Alexander Kerr, a native of Markethill was the third minister. He was ordained on 21st June, 1838. His ministry was a short one, only lasting until 1840 and was terminated under circumstances and conditions reflecting great honour upon himself and on the Church.

The year 1840 is a memorable one in Presbyterian history. Prior to that date the Church was divided into two sections, known respectively as The Synod of Ulster and The Secession Synod. At this late date it is unnecessary to dwell upon the points of doctrine and discipline which hitherto had kept these bodies apart. The movement for union began in 1838 amongst some of the students, and spread so quickly that in two years it became an accomplished fact. Latimer in his history writes that on Tuesday, 7th July, the two Synods met as usual, one in May Street Church, and the other in Linen Hall Street Church. Some necessary business having been transacted, both Synods met on Friday, 10th July, in their respective churches and at 11 o'clock rose and proceeded to Rosemary Street Church, where the union was consummated, and the court constituted as The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. As then constituted the Church contained 432 congregations, and the total Presbyterian population of Ireland was estimated at 650,000. One of the first acts of the Assembly was to set apart two members to go to India as its first foreign missionaries. These were Rev. James Glasgow, of Castledawson, and Rev. Alexander Kerr, Portadown. Rev. James Morgan, of Fisherwick Place Church, Belfast, was appointed Convener of the Foreign Mission.

No time was lost in preparing for what was then a long and dangerous journey, for, according to Mr. Morgan's Journal, the young missionaries with their wives sailed on the 1st September, arriving at Bombay in the end of the following February. The long journey was beguiled by "doing good as they had opportunity," part of which consisted in teaching some of the sailors to read. They were cordially welcomed and hospitably entertained by Dr. Wilson of the Church of Scotland Mission. While there the wives became the joyful mothers of children. In May they sailed for Katiawar, the field selected for them by Dr. Wilson, and which has since that date continued to be the sphere of the Indian Mission of the Church. The formation of the mission was accompanied by great sorrow to those most immediately concerned, as well as to the Church at home. The infant child of Mrs. Glasgow died on their arrival. The news of this, their first sorrow and bereavement, was communicated to Dr. Morgan by Mr Kerr. In the letter he speaks of the grief of Mr. and Mrs. Glasgow, and closes the letter by writing:-- "Thus has the Lord begun to try us! Who shall be next we cannot say. May the Lord enable us all to be ready." A month later he wrote a long letter, one sentence of which has been frequently quoted': "I would say to the Church that until six labourers are in this province the work can scarcely be regarded begun." This proved to be Mr. Kerr's last letter home, fever carrying him off on 16th August, 1841. Rev. R Jeffrey in his book on The Indian Mission of the Irish Presbyterian Church, writes thus in describing Mr. Kerr's death:-- "The news of Mr. Kerr's death fell as a severe blow to the Church at home. Its whole heart was stirred in sympathy, as it had possibly never before been stirred for the stricken widow and her fatherless boy, and for Mr. Glasgow left sad and alone at his post of duty in a land to him yet peculiarly foreign.

But the affliction was a blessing to the Church. It broke the crust upon its life and set free spiritual forces that had long been gathering below and struggling for outlet. It became the source of fresh enthusiasm. The stroke was taken as a distinct trial of faith, and a call to a renewed effort; and to the honour of the Church it can be said that its faith did not wavier nor its efforts fail. It realised its duty; it rose to the necessities of the occasion and determined to do more than fill up the vacancy which had been made."

That this was so it is but necessary to say that four men, namely, R Montgomery, A.D. Glasgow, James M'Kee and Jas. H. Speers, were promptly sent out to sustain Mr. Glasgow in his work.

Wm. M'Comb in his "Presbyterian Almanack" for 1842 thus refers to Mr. Kerr:--

Lamented Kerr! My feeble pen
Attempts in vain his worth to scan;
Called by the Church, his heart and band
Came freely forth at her command.
She spoke -- he heard -- obeyed -- and died,
She mourns while he is glorified.
Well may she mourn that India's tears
Unheeded fell two hundred years.

Much kindness was shown to Mrs. Kerr both in India and at home, while a Mr. Murphy, of Belfast, presented a Memorial Tablet which was placed in the vestibule of Fisherwick Place Church. The Tablet bears the following inscription:--

To the Memory
For some time Minister of the Presbyterian Church in Portadown, and subsequently one of the first Missionaries of the General Assembly to India, where he died at Ragkkote,
on the 16th of August, 1841.
Aged 29 years.
Ardent in Piety Abundant in Labours.
Honoured in Life Lamented in Death.

Thus at the early age of 29 years this young ardent servant and disciple of Christ was called home, the work he purposed and prepared himself for left undone. Yet his was not an unfinished life. His influence and his example must have proved potent factors in the lives of many young people of his own time in encouraging them to the service of Jesus Christ, while after the lapse of eighty years one's heart glows at the remembrance of his connection with this congregation.

It is worthy of note how intimate was the relationship of this congregation to the two first Indian Missionaries. Mr. Glasgow, unlike his colleague, sustained the perils and the climate, and after long and faithful services, which included the translation of the Bible into the vernacular, he retired and settled in Portadown, and for many years acted with much acceptance as an elder in this congregation.


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