Ballyculter Parish Church (1776)




SOON after the conversion of Mrs. Edward Smyth her husband was likewise brought to a saving knowledge of the truth, and began to evince fervent zeal, not confining his labours to the church, but holding services in private houses, both in his own parish and in the neighbouring one of Dunsfort. These meetings were greatly owned of the Lord in the salvation of many, most of whom were at once enrolled in classes as members of the Methodist Society. Mrs. Smyth wrote in January, 1776: "I believe there has seldom been a greater revival of religion than in Dunsfort parish. The Lord bath confirmed it by signs and wonders. He seems truly to be pouring out His Spirit upon all flesh. Persons come five miles, and return home in the midst of the snow, to hear the word preached. Many young strong men have roared out through the anguish of their spirit. Some people were seized with fainting, trembling, contraction of their limbs, and violent crying. Mr. Smyth exhorted in a barn in that parish on Tuesday last, and it was thought he had six hundred hearers. Wonders are to be seen almost every time of our meeting."

Margaret Davidson having met with the Rev. Edward Smyth and his excellent partner at Derryaghy, was invited to spend some time at their house. She had not been there very long when Mr. Smyth took her with him to a meeting at Dunsfort, and there insisted on her declaring to the people what the Lord had done for her soul. Such was the impres­sion made by her address, that Mr. Smyth considered it advisable to leave her to work amongst the people. Meetings were arranged for each evening; large numbers flocked to bear the poor blind woman; some of these were brought into great distress about their souls, and persevered in prayer until they found rest in Jesus. The services were continued with signal success until, within a month, she could number one hundred who had been brought out of darkness into marvellous light.

Although there was much opposition to this work, a won­derful moral and religious change took place throughout the neighbourhood, which was most apparent. Amongst the many then brought into connection with Methodism, whose names were household words for more than half a century in that dis­trict of country, were David Thompson, of Ballyculter, a man of much piety, integrity and zeal, who was appointed to take charge of the first class formed, and was most acceptable as a leader and local preacher; Bernard Clinton, of Sheepland, who had been a zealous Roman Catholic; Thomas and Barbara Teer, of Killough, where a society of eleven members was formed; John and Jane Coates, of Slieveroe ; Mr. and Mrs. Coulter, of Kilclief ; and a host of others of like spirit.

The second Sunday school in Ireland of which there is any record, was one of the fruits of this gracious revival. It was opened by the Rev. Dr. Kennedy, incumbent of the parish of Bright. He was painfully impressed with the total dis­regard of the Lord's day amongst the young people in some villages through which he had to pass, and assisted by Thomas Teer, got the boys and girls together on Sundays to practise psalmody. This made a little stir. Soon to singing was added exercise in reading the Psalms and lessons for the day, which being rumoured abroad, excited great attention, and the num­bers that attended increased considerably. Those who came were desired to bring what bibles and testaments they could in order to being better instructed and examined in what they read, and children of other denominations were invited to share the advantages of the meeting. Thus in the year 1778 the gathering, which had begun as a singing class, had matured into a school, held regularly every Sunday for an hour and a half before the morning service. The good work went on and prospered until the latter part of 1785, when Dr. Kennedy having heard of the establishment of Sunday schools in Eng­land, thought that his plan should be more comprehensive and systematic, according to the English method. During the winter information was circulated on the general subject, and funds obtained from persons interested in the project. The necessary preliminaries having been arranged, the Bright Sunday school was re-opened on the first Sunday in May, 1786, well organized, with an efficient staff of teachers, including the devoted Thomas Teer.

Under a sense of duty Mr. Smyth wrote a letter of admonition to the great man of the parish, who was living in open sin. This, instead of leading him to repentance, excited his hostility, so that he deprived the writer of his house, and ordered his tenants not to receive him. Thus the faithful minister and his family were compelled to seek shelter in a little thatched cabin, with only two rooms and no attendance; but this reverse of fortune did not give Mrs. Smyth an uneasy thought. She could write, "Glory be to God for such a shelter! It is more than the King of kings was always assured of." Animated by this spirit, she entered heartily into the duties of her new position, rising early and late, taking little rest, and denying herself all but the mere necessaries of life.

The fearless testimony and faithful preaching of Mr. Smyth, accompanied by the saintly life of his devoted wife, made a deep and gracious impression on the mind of the Hon. Miss Sophia Ward, daughter of Lord Bangor, showing her the transitory and unsatisfactory nature of worldly pleasure, and leading her to see the necessity of a life devoted to God in order to happiness. So that during the dispute between Mr. Smyth and her father, not only were her sympathies with the faithful minister, and not the faithless parent, but she was enabled by Divine grace to lay hold for refuge on the hope set before her in the Gospel. She also formed a high estimate of Irish Methodism, which she retained during her subsequent pro­tracted life, and generally manifested in the final disposal of her property.

In the meantime, through the influence of Lord Bangor, a petition was sent to Dr. Trail, Bishop of the diocese, charging the Rev. E. Smyth with erroneous teaching and irregularity in conducting public worship. He was therefore cited to appear before his lordship at Knockbreda on October the 21st. The Rev. Wm. Bristow, the vicar-general, a clergyman of liberal Christian principles, who had been appointed vicar of Belfast in 1772, was summoned to appear for the prosecution ; and when called on said he had heard Mr. Smyth conduct public worship, and pray and preach extempore, and that his prayers and sermons were highly instructive and scriptural, in accord­ance with the Articles, Homilies and Liturgies of the Church of England, and well fitted to promote the spiritual improve­ment of the people.* Mr. Smyth also had an opportunity, which he improved, of giving a public testimony to the truth, proving that the doctrines he preached were in harmony with the Word of God, as well as the teaching of the Church. Although he completely refuted every accusation, he was deprived of his cure, through an illegal stretch of power. This circumstance, though most trying, was over-ruled for good, as Mr. Smyth resolved to accept no preferment in the Church, and give himself wholly to the work of God in connection with Methodism. Although living on a very small annuity, he never lacked either food or raiment ; his sphere of usefulness was greatly enlarged, and many souls were con­verted through his instrumentality.

Meanwhile the good work prospered in Dunsfort and Ballyculter. Mrs. Smyth writes: " I can give you but a small notion how the Word of the Lord runs and is glorified. All around, young and old, flock to the standard of Jesus, as the doves to their windows. I think the class in this town (Strangford) consists of thirty-six, almost all alive to God ; and particularly some girls, who seem resolved to take the kingdom of heaven by violence." 'History of Methodism in Ireland' by Crookshank,p301-2 and p306-7.

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