It’s 150 years since Railway Street Presbyterian Church was founded in the spiritually heady days following the 1859 Revival. Like many other Ulster towns, there just wasn’t enough room for everyone in First Lisburn and a second congregation was necessary. (It’s interesting how few Presbyterian congregations want to be known as “Second” and opt for an alternative name.) I had the privilege of preaching in Railway Street Presbyterian Church at the beginning of their anniversary year, and it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
Part of the fun of the occasion was the presence at lunchtime of Lisburn’s ubiquitous and energetic photographer, John Kelly, whose contributions to this week’s Ulster Star is certain to ensure the sale of some additional copies, especially among the good people of the Railway Street congregation.
The congregation gave me a copy of their history, Footsteps on the Sands of Time, written by the same John Kelly, and superbly illustrated from his stock of excellent and interesting photographs. The longest serving minister of Railway Street was Rev Dr R.W. Hamilton who was minister of the congregation from 1885-1930, and Moderator of the General Assembly in 1924. The challenges and changes that came during the years of his ministry reflect the issues that afflicted the wider denomination at that time, and that continue to challenge the church today.
Alcohol abuse was a big problem in Lisburn at the end of the 19th century. Apparently drunkenness in Lisburn on a Saturday night had to be seen to be believed. Liquor was cheap. Stout cost a penny ha’penny a bottle and whiskey was two and sixpence or less a bottle. The mill owners complained that their key workers were not in their best form on a Monday morning. Mr Hamilton formed the Total Abstinence Society in 1886, and the Lisburn Temperance Institute was formed in 1887.
When the congregation decided to change from serving fermented wine to serving unfermented wine at communion, there seems to have been quite a bit of debate in the Session. Mr Hamilton wrote, “We had earnest, good men on both Session and Committee, and while from time to time there was little differences of opinion, there never was any unseemly conflicts but much Christian forbearance and goodwill. It could not be expected that independent Presbyterian people in making radical changes should be all of one mind. So, in changing from fermented to unfermented wine at communion, we had considerable variance of opinion, and I must confess the teetotal people were the least tolerant at the time, but the ill-feeling soon passed.”
Another issue was the inclusion of hymns in worship and the introduction of instrumental music. It all sounds so familiar. Mr Hamilton was minister of Railway Street for twenty years before he sought the consent of the congregation to allow hymns to be used in worship. He told the congregation that he had come under the power of the Gospel where hymns as well as psalms were used, but, out of respect for the views and feelings of the congregation he had not urged their use hitherto. Young people liked hymns, he said, and his own conviction was that “we were never meant to be confined in worship to the psalms in which the name of Christ did not occur and in which there was nothing of noonday clearness about his atoning work”. The congregation agreed to allow hymns to be used although Mr Hamilton added “some of our best people did not like them, but with fine Christian magnanimity acquiesced in their introduction”.
In 1899, an American organ was offered for use in the church, but some members of the congregation objected and, to the regret of many, this offer was not accepted. However, an organ was installed in 1908 and dedicated on 16 February of that year. In that same year children’s addresses were introduced for the first time. Worship wars are not a new phenomenon in Irish Presbyterianism, and those who now campaign for “traditional worship” need to remember that not many years ago their “traditions” were considered revolutionary.
There is a great spirit of enthusiasm and energy about the congregation under Brian Gibson’s ministry and we wish Brian and his leadership and pastoral team well in their anniversary year as they seek to fulfil their calling of “Following Christ…Serving the Community”.