FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, NEWTOWNARDS
The Clannaboy 0’Neill family controlled this part of Co. Down but in the early part of the 17th
Century the then Lord, Con 0’Neill fell foul of Queen Elizabeth and was imprisoned in
Carrickfergus Castle. His wife arranged with Hugh Montgomery, the laird of Braidstone in
Ayrshire, who had trading connections with Carrickfergus, for him to help Con escape from prison
and arrange a pardon for him from James I. In return Montgomery would receive
two-thirds of Con’s ancestral lands. He did assist Con to escape but to obtain a pardon for him he
had to enlist the help of another Scot James Hamilton who in turn received half of Montomery’s
portion of the land. Montgomery found himself in control of the Ards and he worked hard to attract
Scots to his new lands in north Down and had reasonable success in this venture. In 1641 there was
a rebellion of the native Ulster chiefs which was countered by a force raised by local planters. The
following year help arrived in the form of Monro’s Scottish army some of which was stationed in
Newton and district. Presbyterian clergy accompanied the army and this was the beginning of the
establishment of Presbyterianism. The third Viscount Montgomery, grandson of Hugh, wrote to
the Scottish General Assembly requesting two clergymen, one for the army and the other for the
parish church of Newton. The result was that the Rev John Greg was called to Newton. In the
early 1650s he was deposed by Cromwell, took shelter in Scotland for a time, and when harsh
measures were dropped to be replaced by milder ones, John Greg returned and resumed his
ministerial duties. However in the meantime Bishop Jeremy Taylor had been appointed to the
Diocese of Down & Connor and finding that the Presbyterian ministers would not submit to his
government he declared their charges vacant in about 1661. John Gregg was affected by this and
like most of the Presbyterian ministers affected, lingered in his parish where he could find suitable
habitation and depending for support on private resources and the offerings of his people. There
was a futile plot against the Viceroy, the Duke of Ormonde, in which some of these ministers were
suspected to be involved and were unfairly imprisoned in Carlingford Castle. After full enquiry the
conspiracy charges were deemed to be groundless and the ministers emerged from their
imprisonment and attempted to return to their ministry. The pulpits in which they had preached
were now occupied by others but the congregations still adhered to them and were glad to get back
their former pastors. Bams became sanctuaries one day in seven. With the freedom to worship
“Preaching Houses” as they were described began to be built in various localities and Newtownards
was one of the first places to embark on this. John Greg died in 1670 and it must have been about
the close of his ministry that the first meeting house in Newtownards was built somewhere between
Greenwell Street and Chapel Brae Street (now Movilla Street). It was a humble single story
building devoid of any pretensions to architectural beauty with a thatched roof.
Rev James Kennedy succeeded Mr Greg in 1671 and during his lengthy ministry there was
comparative peace and tranquillity resulting in the borders of Presbyterianism being enlarged with
new churches planted.
In 1720 John Mairs , jnr.,was ordained as minister. His unorthodox views gave rise to complaints
from the congregation that he wished to conform to Anglican procedures, and that he advocated
non-subscribing principles. This caused the Presbytery of Down at a meeting in 1723 to form the
non-subscribing persons into a separate congregation. The date stone on the Unitarian Church in
Newtownards states : “This house was built by the old congregation of Newtownards in the year 1724.” As
result of Mr Mairs joining the non-subscribers, a new congregation was formed in
1723. The Rev Thomas Moorehead was called from Ballymoney to be its minister.
In 1800 Rev James McCullough was ordained as minister and as the roof of the original Church
needed a considerable amount of repairs a new church was built and opened in 1815 on the site of
the present Church. He died in 1842 - 43 and was succeeded by his son the Rev Julius McCullough
who had been ordained as assistant and successor to his father in 1834. He was acclaimed for his
ministerial faithfulness and kindliness of heart. At a time when fever and pestilence caused
suffering to many in the area he “visited and relieved the afflicted of all denominations in this
The Rev Julius McCullough was succeeded in 1865 by Rev Matthew Macauley who after an
acceptable and fruitful ministry resigned ini879 to take up a charge in London. The next minister,
ordained ini 879, was the 23 year old Rev William Wright, one of the most outstanding ministers to
serve in First Newtownards. He ministered for 40 years until his death inl919. He was described
as a man gifted with talents of oratory and expression much above the average, an able expositor of
the Scriptures and endowed with a cheerful and winning personality. When he arrived the pews
were high-backed and boxed-in and virtually belonged to those families who paid the pew rent.
The young minister persuaded the Committee to take away these pews and to reseat the church in a
modern style. About 1882 a manse was purchased - previously the minister dwelt in rented
property. The Revised Version of the psalms was gradually introduced and eventually some
Paraphrases but no hymns during the whole of his ministry although he was in favour of using
hymns especially at Childreif's Services. There was need for a congregational hall and in 1899 the
Guild Hall was completed costing £2,000. A number of activities were started both for young and
old. Four Societies were established, Musical, Debating, Literary and Reading. Rev Wright was
manager of the East Street School built in the church grounds and of five rural schools, namely,
Ballyalton, Ballycullen, Drumhirk, Loughries No. 1 and Loughries No 2. To raise funds for their
upkeep he enlisted the aid of the Church Choir for concerts and other fund raising activities. When
the Union was in danger under Mr Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill of 1886 he openly joined the
Unionist cause and spoke at several meeting both in Belfast and in England and Wales. In 1912, the
Faculty of the Assembly’s college Belfast, in recognition of his long and valuable services to the
General Assembly conferred on him the degree of Doctor of Divinity. He died on 13 August 1919
and is buried in Movilla Cemetry.
Dr Wright was succeeded in 1920 by his son Rev A.R. Wright who had ministered in the United
States and he disapproved of the finances of the church being dependent on Bazaars and Sales of
Work. He held that the method of collecting the Stipend and Sustentation once every three months
was not suitable and he persuaded the Committee and the Congregation to adopt the Freewill
Offering System which in fact in its first year more than doubled the church’s annual income.
On Sunday 17 June 1923 as the Evening Service was about to commence a rumbling sound was
heard followed by the collapse of part of the gallery. It transpired that one wooden pillar had
collapsed and that this was full of dry rot and many of the adjacent pews were similarly affected.
After much discussion it was decided that what was needed was a new ground floor, new gallery,
new pews, new windows, new ceiling and re-plastering of the walls estimated to cost about £8,000.
In Augustl924 Rev A.R. Wright resigned as minister and returned to the United States.
Rev George F McQuitty was installed in December 1924. He wished to introduce instrumental
music and hymns into the praise service. Initially there was significant opposition to this but he
bided his time and gently won over these people to his opinion. The extensive renovation work in
the Church was complete by May 1925 and Mr McQuitty knew that change could be brought about
after that. On 5 September 1926 the memorial tablet erected in memory of members of the church
who fell and served in the Great War (1914 - 1918) was unveiled and dedicated. He resolved to
clear off the debt on the refurbishing of the church and this was achieved in a little over three years.
Mr McQuitty then turned his thoughts to bringing about the changes he desired and at an annual
meeting of the congregation he announced that he had received from an anonymous donor the gift
of an individual Communion Service. It was unanimously agreed that this was a very acceptable
gift, and from a hygienic point of view desirable. It was agreed to lay aside the old cups and
substitute the new set. Four years later the possible introduction of an organ and the singing of
some hymns was discussed at the annual meeting and a majority of those present were in favour but
there was some opposition. A sub-committee was appointed to explore the whole question and in
their report they unanimously recommended that an organ be installed and a limited number of
hymns used. This was tactfully worded so as not to cause “loss of dignity or honour on the part of
those who were or had been opposed to the change”. A few members of the Congregation
purchased the organ and had it installed without expense to the members. The Boys’ Brigade and
Girls’ Life Brigade Companies were set up in 1943, 1944 marked the tercentenary of the
church/Presbyterian worship in Newtownards. As part of the celebrations it was decided to
establish a Tercentenary Organ Fund with the object of installing a three manual pipe organ. Rev
McQuitty, who was not married was ably assisted by his sister in the work of the church who took a
deep personal interest in the Girls’ Auxiliary, which preceeded the GLB, and in the promotion of
missions. She introduced the idea that each home should have a Collection Box for Missions. In
1946 it was decided to form a branch of the Woman’s Missionary Association under her leadership.
In 1946 Rev McQuitty accepted a call to a lighter charge after 19 years of faithful ministry and the
introduction of several innovatory ideas.
In 1947 he was succeeded by Rev Andrew M Adams. The Tercentenary Organ was installed in
1950 requiring considerable alteration to the church building itself in the form of large apertures
and a heated chamber behind the pulpit. Other innovations in Rev Adams’ ministry were the
introduction of a Creche for infants and Children’s Church for 4 - 8 year olds on Sunday mornings.
In 1971 Mr Adams was awarded the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Divinity by Union College and
in the same year he accepted a call to a lighter charge.
At this time it was decided to build a new manse on land owned by the church. In 1973 Rev Robert
Cobain succeeded Dr Adams and initially he and his family lived in a bungalow owned by the
Church in Sketrick Island Park but in 1974 were able to move into the new manse. After a relatively
short ministry resigned in 1976 to take up the post of Publications Editor in Church House.
In September 1976 Rev Thomas S Reid was installed as minister. By the end of the 1970s the old
Minor Hall and Session room were in an advanced state of decay and urgent remedial action was
required. It was decided to demolish the old buildings and replace them with new accommodation
attached to the church, as the old buildings were separate from it. The new Minor Hall, Session
Room, Minister's Room, kitchen and toilets were officially opened in December 1980. In
September 1983 Rev Reid resigned to take up his new post as Professor of Practical Theology at
Union Theological College.
In January 1984 Miss Isabella Purdy was Commissioned as a missionary to South Korea and in
August 1987 Miss Barbara Corrie was Commissioned as a short term missionary to China.
Towards the end of 1984 Rev David Johnston was installed as minister. Following the completion
of the new Minor Hall complex it became apparent that part of the Guild Hall, in particular the East
Street side needed renewal or replacement. This part was demolished and an extension built
comprising kitchen toilets and four rooms. This was opened in March 1988.
To attempt to lighten the load on Rev Johnston the Session obtained the services of a
Deaconess, Miss Mary Henderson, who was inducted in January 1990 and resigned in December
1993. She concentrated mainly on the young people and the elderly and helped to form the
Wednesday Friendship Hour a weekly afternoon meeting for the more senior members of the
congregation and community. Following Miss Henderson’s resignation the Session obtained the
assistance of The Rev Dermot McMorran, recently retired as minister of Trinity Church, Bangor to
help Mr Johnston. His ministerial help both in visiting and in preaching was very acceptable to the
people of First Newtownards.
On the evening of Thursday 3 March 1994 due to an accidental electrical fault in the roof space a fire engulfed the main church building reducing the interior to smouldering rubble in a very short time. A structural engineer indicated that the main walls could be retained thanks largely to the new strengthened gallery put in place in the 1925 restoration. The building was restored and refurbished basically in the style existing before the fire and in addition a larger two-story vestibule suite with a stairway to the gallery. This was officially opened and dedicated by the Moderator of The General Assembly, Right Rev Dr John Ross on Saturday 7 October 1995.Rev Johnston after fourteen years of dedicated ministry in First Newtownards retired in January 1999.
After a short vacancy the Congregation called the Rev Jim Campbell, then minister of Ballynure Presbyterian Church, and he was installed in September 1999. His preaching and his ministry have been much appreciated by the congregation and we trust that he will be with us for many years to come. In 2002 the Session appointed Miss Jan Carson as Youth and Family Worker on a three year contract. She developed a good rapport with our young people and indeed with many un-churched young people of our town making a very useful contribution to the work in First Newtownards. A Mums and Tots Group started in 2002 and this very worthwhile project has had strong support from the Congregation but also from many others. As a result some children, not originally from the Congregation have joined the Primary Sunday School and the Girls" and Boys" Brigade Companies. Our Assistant Minister, Mr Mark Catney commenced in that role in October 2007 having acted as Summer Assistant in July and August of that year. His ministry has been very valuable.
It is our intention in 2009 and beyond to continue to reach out to the community in our parish area and further afield in our town and district.