“For all my Lord was crucified
For all, for all my Saviour died”.
Rev. Charles Wesley, 226 Hymns & Psalms
Methodism was born in the midst of revolution. The Glorious Revolution that saw William III take the British throne caused deep upset to those who believed in the Divine Right of Kings. Political uncertainty led to revolutions in America and France. The Industrial Revolution saw millions of rural workers move to polluted and congested urban areas. Most Churches had become careless or inward looking and failed to move to where the people now were. Workers once thought of as no more than farm hands were now seen as mere factory hands. No one seemed to care about them beyond that.
Then God breathed new life into the Churches through his Holy Spirit. It became known as the evangelical revival. Among those who came under conviction of sin was Rev John Wesley. Already a Minister in the Church of England, he had had an unsettling experience when on the way to America to serve as a missionary. Along with most of the passengers and crew he was terrified during a storm. A group of Moravian Christians had no fear. In fact they were enjoying a time of hymn singing. His missionary work did not go well. He later said that he went to America to convert the Indians, but discovered that he himself was not converted.
Some time later he went along to one of their meetings in London. “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, London, where someone was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart of a person through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” A number of others including his brother Charles, the great hymn writer, and George Whitfield, a wonderful preacher, had similar experiences and many denominations experienced a renewed sense of God. It was a movement of the Holy Spirit that spread to the collieries, factories, tenements and big houses.
Religious societies were not uncommon at the time and the Wesley brothers set about forming those who were serious about growing in their faith into groups for spiritual encouragement. Larger groups met in homes, barns, lecture rooms and preaching houses to hear God’s word. These fellowship meetings would be further divided into small groups (Class Meetings) and even smaller groups (Bands) to develop the leaders. All of these would meet at a different time to the Parish Church. Numbers grew rapidly. The world Methodist Community now numbers about 70 million.
Methodism in Newtownards can be traced back to a preacher called Thomas Walsh. His father, a Roman Catholic, was a hard working Co. Limerick carpenter who invested heavily in the education of his children. Having become a Protestant the young Thomas directed his energies towards educating the poor and needy children of his city. He then heard a Methodist preacher exhort the people of that city with the gospel words “Come to me, all that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”. After some weeks of struggle he found the peace and rest that he sought. John Wesley was so impressed by him that he said “Give me half a dozen men like Tommy Walsh and I’ll turn the kingdom upside down”. He loved the scriptures and believed that all should be given a chance to hear about God’s love for them. His preaching in the open air led to him being stoned in Roscea. He was warned never to return (he did). He was imprisoned in Clonakilty (he continued to preach out the window of the prison). And he was beaten in Newtownards. Having planned to preach at the bowling green (where the War Memorial now stands) he was attacked while in prayer beforehand. A man by the name of Mortimer tried to strangle him. He managed to get free with the help of a Mr Beers and made a second attempt to preach. This time the mob became even more ugly and Walsh had to escape for his life to the refuge of Scrabo. The wetting led to the disease that took his life at the age of just 28. However others soon watered the seeds sown. On Friday 12th May 1758 John Wesley wrote “I preached about noon in Comber, and then rode on to Newtown. This seems to have been a place of strength, large fragments of walls still remaining. I preached at seven on the Green to the largest congregation I have seen since I came into the kingdom. All were quietly attentive, and when I had done, went away in deep silence”. Next day Wesley went into what is now known as The Old Priory. “We went into the church, the burial place of Mr. Colvin’s (sic) father and ancestors. The choir, turned into a chapel many years ago, is grand and well finished. But no man cares for it, since the estate was sold, it is swiftly running to ruin. In the evening we had a larger congregation than before. I was afraid that my voice would not reach them all; but God gave me strength.”
Wesley returned repeatedly, visiting Newtownards on eleven occasions. The work was slow to get off the ground. In 1773 he wrote, “I went to dreary Newton. This place always makes me pensive. Even in Ireland I hardly see anywhere such heaps of (spiritual) ruins as here; and they are considerably increased since I was here before. What a shadow of human greatness! The evening congregation in the new market-house (built in 1771) appeared deeply attentive, especially the backsliders; several who determined to set out afresh”.
This tenacious old missionary made one last visit to Newtownards in 1789. He was 86 years old. The days of battling against the elements in the open air were now over and the town hall was not big enough. He was graciously received in the Non- Subscribing Presbyterian Church on Frances Street. “All of them seemed to be not a little affected”. Mr A. Menown of the Non-subscribing Presbyterian Church in Newtownards generously donated two Loving Cups on the centenary of the present Church in 1954. His ancestors maintained that Wesley used these cups during a love feast in their church. These are now kept in a specially built cabinet.
Over the next number of decades the Methodist movement began to become a denomination with Sunday morning services including the sacrament of Holy Communion. The great Methodist historian C.H.Crookshank recorded that the Rev Matthew Lanktree set out from Belfast and presided at a number of sacramental services, including Newtownards. The new chapel on Regent Street (now the Reformed Presbyterian Church) “was crowded with communicants, and the ordinance was crowned with the presence and blessing of the Redeemer”. Not all agreed with this and some left to form a Primitive Methodist congregation, continuing to attend the Parish Church for the sacrament, as had been the practice of the Wesley brothers. There was a further disruption over the use of fermented wine at communion. Some argued that fruit juice was not strictly wine at all so two tables were tried. The cure was considered more divisive that the original problem and others left. The Methodist New Connexion, an English based denomination operated from what is now the Church of God in Zion Place. In time all these denominations reunited and Zion Place became a centre for youth and children’s work and gospel missions.
Lanktree also made advances for the gospel among the lead miners in Whitespots. He wrote “I preached regularly in Groomsport, Crawfordsburn, Conlig, and occasionally in various other parts. In several places I adopted my usual catechetical plan of instruction, with pleasing prospects. In Whitespots, the seed fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit to the glory of God. Here I formed a promising Society, of which my son John became the leader. It continues to do well, and two of its steady members have already joined the church triumphant”. It is not surprising to read that two were already dead. A thirty-year-old miner was considered an old man in those days. This little insight into the times illustrates beautifully that passion to reach out to all and many continued to respond necessitating the building of a larger Church in 1854.
The Irish Evangelist of 1860 has an interesting account of what happened in the Regent Street congregation during the time when the 1859 revival was sweeping Ulster. “One Sabbath morning, as Rev. William Brown preached in the beautiful chapel erected about five years previously in Newtownards, a woman started to her feet, and in tones that startled and thrilled the congregation, shouted, “Jesus is come! Jesus is come!” She was removed by the leaders to the school room; but soon another, and then another had to be taken away, until preaching had to give place to prayer and praise, for many a stout heart was subdued. The news spread; in the evening the chapel was crowded, and thus the revival extended, until its blessed influence was felt in almost every house”.
There was a similar seeking for mercy from God in 1904. In those days a penitent form to the right of the pulpit were called the “hallelujah seat” and over a 15 day period some 1,300 people availed of prayer here, often shedding tears of repentance and joy.
During the war years of 1914-18 and 1939-45 the church was involved in providing entertainment at the local camp and supper after the evening service.
The desire to make Christian men and women out of the boys and girls of the town led to Regent Street Methodist Church forming the first Company of the Boys Brigade in the town. Mr. J. Wesley Sandford M.B.E. was the driving force and when he moved to Larne he founded the first company of the Boys Brigade in that town also. A similar organization was formed for girls in 1939 (known then as the Girls Life Brigade). The company had to be careful to observe the black out regulations during their early years.
There have been a number of Youth Clubs down the years. One founded in 1970 under the leadership of Mr. Russ Payne had great success in Methodist Association of Youth Clubs events in the Albert Hall, London.
In 1977 God blessed the congregation through a Lay Witness Team from America. They stayed in homes, led services in the Church and coffee mornings in eight homes.
A daughter church was birthed in Movilla two years later. It shares a building with the Church of Ireland.
For a fuller history please ask for a copy of the booklets printed for the centenary in 1954, and for “Memories between the years, 1756-1980”. They convey a passion for God and a desire “To know God’s love and to share it with others”.