Robert Blair became priest and deacon here in 1623. John Livingstone wrote the following about him.
Mr Robert Blair, born in Irvine, was first a Regent in the College of Glasgow, at which time also he began to preach in public, and was from the beginning zealous for truth and piety. Meanwhile, Mr John Cameron was brought from France, and placed Principal of that University of Glasgow, that he might promote the cause of Episcopacy and ceremonies...so with the Bishop of Glasgow and some others, Mr Blair was forced to leave the College (as a result of a dispute on doctrine). This was about the year 1623.
After this, Mr Blair was invited by the Lord Clannybuy, and had a call, and was settled minister at Bangor, in the county of Down, and was indeed a chief instrument in that great work of God that broke out thereafter in the Six-Mile-Water, and some other parts of the county of Antrim and Down, and elsewhere in the North of Ireland; and this not only by his own ministry, wherein he was both diligent and faithful, but especially by stirring up other ministers, as Mr Robert Cunningham, minister at Holywood, with whom he kept a most intimate friendship, and all the rest of the ministers herafter named. One time, occasionally hearing Mr James Glendinning, then minister at Oldstone, who at that time followed the Bishops and their way, but he finding him to have a rare gift, drew him aside, and dealt with him to follow another way of preaching, and to deal with the people’s consciences to waken them, which so prevailed with the man, that he fell upon a thundering way of preaching, and exceedingly terrified his hearers; and although thereafter he fell into some revery, and in some distemper left the place, yet this proved a preparation to that people, that when thereafter the Lord sent among them Mr Josiah Welsh, they were fitter to receive the Covenant of free grace in the Gospel; and this proved the beginning of that remarkable work in the Six-Mile-Water.
Mr Blair was a man of notable constitution, both of body and mind, - of a majestic, awful, yet amiable countenance, - one thoroughly learned, of strong parts, a deep invention, and solid judgement, of a most public spirit for God. His gift of preaching was such as seldom any could observe withdrawing of assistance in public, which in some others is frequent. He was seldom ever confused in his assurance of salvation. He spent many days and nights in prayer alone, and with others, and was one very intimate with God. The Lord gave him express warning by that place, Ezek. 24. 16, of the death of his first wife, Beatrix Hamilton, which accordingly came to pass, and after that, the scattering of the Church in the North of Ireland. While he was attending at Court in England, for an answer to his petition to the king, desiring that himself and some other ministers, who were by the Bishops falsely accused as Enthusiasts, might be tried therein, and, being found innocent, might be somewhat forborn for their non-conformity, one day lying at prayer at Greenwich Park, while the Court was at hunting, the Lord assured him that he would hunt the violent man to destroy him. And while he was earnest with the Lord for some dispatch and answer to his petition, and adventured to propound a sign, that if the Lord would make the reeds growing nearby, which were so moved by the wind as he was tossed in his spirit, to cease from shaking, he would take it as an assurance of a dispatch, - within a little, there was such a calm, as none of the reeds once moved; and, accordingly, in a short time he got a dispatch to his mind.
There was a courtier at that time who favoured both his person and his cause, Sir Robert Ker of Ancrum, after made Earl of Ancrum, said to him, when he desired his help in his business. He told him that ‘if he had killed his brother, and committed incest with his sister, he would have more hopes to help him, as matters stood, than in his business of nonconformity, seeing Bishop Laud guided all Church matters at Court’. One time, as he journeyed, his horse broke away out of his hand, and although he had the help of three or four persons, could not be caught. He said he was challenged because he had not made use of faith and prayer for getting of his horse again, and he retired to a quiet place and prayed, and so soon as he came back to rest, the horse stood still till he was taken.
He was once suspended, and twice deposed, by the Bishops in Ireland, after which he was the chief promoter of the intended voyage to New England; but when that was disappointed, and being in danger to be made prisoner in Ireland, he retired to Scotland, and at the change in the year 1638 was settled minister at Ayr, but shortly after, by the General Assembly, was transported to be minister at St Andrews, where he continued till the other change in the year 1660, after which he was thrust out by the Council, and within four or five years after died.
John Livingstone and Blair wrote the following.
In the spring of the year 1631, the Presbyterians of Ulster, wearied out by the intolerance of Charles I, and Archbishop Laud, and the consequent exactions of the ministers of the crown, particularly the Lord Deputy Wentworth, afterwards Earl of Stafford, by which their cup of bitterness was made to overflow, turned their eyes to the new settlements in the wilds of America. The Puritans of England, who were contending and suffering for the same rights of conscience, had planted colonies in Massachusetts, which cheered them with the expectation of a refuge from the ills they could neither be freed from, nor endure, in their native land. The flourishing colony had been planted at Salem, in the year 1628, and had been even more successful than Plymouth. These prosperous efforts to secure the enjoyment of liberty of conscience, turned the attention of the distressed congregations of Ireland to seek, in the deeper solitudes of distant America, what had been promised, and sought for in vain, in depopulated Ireland; or enjoyed only while they reclaimed the desolations of the previous rebellion. The ministers that had come over from Scotland, whose names have been enumerated, had not attempted to form a Presbytery. The whole country had been laid off into parishes and bishoprics of the Church of England; and as the emigrants from England or Scotland found their residences, they were consequently included in some parish, and the ministers that came over to preach to them were admitted to occupy parish churches, and enjoy their own forms and ceremonies. Archbishop Usher was most mild and tolerant in his views of church order and government; and so, for a time at least, were some of his bishops; and in the different Dioceses of Ulster might be seen priests and deacons of the Established Church, and here and there intermingled a Presbyterian or Puritan minister, with a flock of their own peculiar creed and forms, under the bishop's supervision. The great revival had broken up some of this quietness and order that had prevailed, by exciting jealousies between the favourers and composers of that blessed work: the bishops mostly withdrew their favour and protection, and were ready to carry into effect the rigid orders from Laud and the Deputy, and proceeded to silence those that would not conform strictly to the rites and ceremonies of the establishment, and began with Blair and Livingston: but by the good offices of Archbishop Usher these men were restored to their ministry. Their enemies, however, made representations at Court which resulted in shutting out from the exercise of the ministry, Blair, Welch, Livingston, and Dunbar.
These oppressed ministers, with many of their respective charges, began to make preparation for removal to America. Two persons were appointed delegates to visit New England, the Rev. John Livingston and Mr William Wallace, and, if circumstances were favourable, to choose a place for their future residence. They proceeded to England to find a passage to America; but some unexpected difficulties caused their return to Ireland, and prospects in Ireland appearing more favourable, the project was for a time abandoned. In 1634, these ministers, who had been restored to their office, were three of them again suspended, and the next year the fourth, Livingston, shared the same fate; their only crime charged was their opposition to Episcopal forms. During the same year four other ministers were forbidden the exercise of their ministry on account of their adherence to Presbyterian forms; Brice, who was amongst the earliest that visited Ireland, and after a laborious ministry of twenty years, died the next year after his suspension, aged sixty-seven years,--Ridge, who went to Antrim in 1619, and had been most laborious and successful, and after his suspension returned to Scotland, and died 1637,--Cunningham, who had gone over in 1622, and returning to Scotland, after his suspension, died in 1637,--and Colwort, minister at Oldstone, where the great Revival began.
Once more preparations for emigration were commenced, and a correspondence opened with the colonies in New England. Cotton Mather, in his Magnolia, tells us, Book 1st--"That there were divers gentlemen in Scotland, who, being uneasy under the ecclesiastical burdens of the times, wrote on to New England the inquiries:--Whether they might be there suffered freely to exercise their Presbyterial church government? And it was freely answered--that they might. Thereupon they sent over an agent, who pitched upon a tract of land near the mouth of the Merrimac River, whither they intended to transplant themselves. But although they had so far proceeded in their voyage as to be half-seas through, the manifold crosses they met withal, made them give over their intentions; and the providence of God so ordered it that some of these very gentlemen were afterwards the revivers of that well-known Solemn League and Covenant, which had so great an influence upon the nation." There is one error in this extract. The conclusion would naturally be, that the expedition was from Scotland; and very probably Mather understood it to be from that country,--whereas, the company sailed from the North of Ireland. The error arose undoubtedly from the fact, that the correspondence was carried on from Scotland, and the agent was a Scotchman, the ministers were from Scotland, and of no small eminence, and the colonists themselves were either Scotchmen by birth, or the children of Scotchmen reared in Ireland.
The deposition of their ministers, which took place August 12th, 1636, hastened the preparations for emigration, and on the 9th of the following September, the EAGLE WING, a vessel of one hundred and fifty tons, set sail from Lockfergus (Groomsport) with one hundred and forty emigrants prepared for the voyage, and a settlement in a new country. The colonists took with them the necessary implements for carrying on fisheries, and also a considerable amount of merchandise to assist them by traffic to meet the expenses of the voyage and necessities of the new settlement. Among the emigrants were four noted preachers, ROBERT BLAIR, JOHN LIVINGSTON, JAMES HAMILTON, and JOHN McCLELLAND: all afterwards promoters of the cause of truth in Scotland and Ireland. Among the families that composed the company were the names Stuart, Agnew, Campbell, Summervil, and Brown. Many single persons united in the expedition, and with them sailed Andrew Brown, a deaf-mute, from the parish of Larne, who during the revival had been deeply affected, and had given satisfactory evidence, by signs connected with a godly life, of having been truly converted. Like the voyagers in the MAYFLOWER, this devoted people met with difficulties. The New England Memorial traces them in the former case to the knavery of the shipmaster, first in springing the leak, then in landing them far north of the intended harbour; in the present case the parties concerned referred them to the providence of God. "We had," says the Rev. John Livingston in his account of the voyage, "much toil in our preparation, many hindrances in our out setting, and both sad and glad hearts in taking leave of our friends. At last, about the month of September 1636, we loosed from Lockfergus, but were detained some time with contrary winds in Lock Regan in Scotland, and grounded the ship to search for some leaks in the keel of the boat. Yet thereafter, we set to sea, and for some space had fair winds, till we were between three and four hundred leagues from Ireland and no nearer the banks of Newfoundland than any place in Europe. But if ever the Lord spoke by his winds and other dispensations, it was made evident to us, that it was not his will that we should go to New England. For we met with a mighty heavy rain from the northwest, which did break our rudder, which we got mended by the skill and courage of Captain Andrew Agnew, a godly passenger; and tore our foresail, five or six of our champlets and a great beam under the gunner's room door broke. Seas came in over the round house, and broke a plank or two on the deck, and wet all that were between the decks. We sprung a leak, that gave us seven hundred, in the two pumps, in the half-hour glass. Yet we lay at hull a long time to beat out the storm, till the master and company came one morning and told us that it was impossible to hold out any longer, and although we beat out that storm, we might be sure in that season of the year, we would foregather with one or two more of that sort before we could reach New England.
"During all this time, amidst such fears and dangers, the most part of the passengers were very cheerful and confident; yea, some in prayer had expressed such hopes, that rather than the Lord would suffer such a company in such sort to perish, if the ship should break, he would put wings to our shoulders, and carry us safe ashore. I never in my life found the day so short, as at all that time, although I slept some nights not above two hours, and some not at all, but stood most part in the gallery astern the great cabin, where Mr Blair and I and our families lay. For in the morning, by the time everyone had been some time alone, and then at prayer in their several societies, and then at public prayer in the ship, it was time to go to dinner; after that we would visit our friends or any that were sick, and then public prayer would come, and after that, supper and family exercises. Mr Blair was much of the time sickly and lay in the time of storms. I was sometimes sick, and then brother McClelland only performed duty in the ship. Several of those between deck, being thronged, were sickly; an aged person and one child died and were buried in the sea. One woman, the wife of Michael Calver, of Killinchy parish, brought forth a child in the ship. I baptized it on Sabbath following, and called him SEABORN."
The report of the master and company filled them with distress,--the storm was upon them and before them;--oppression had driven them from Ireland and waited their return. After prayer and long and anxious consultation, they agreed to return; trusting in the good providence of God for their future welfare. The next morning as soon as the day dawned, the ship was turned, and they made for Ireland. On the third of November, after a prosperous sail, they came to anchor in Lockfergus, the place of their departure, after an absence of about eight weeks, cast down under this providence of God, and anticipating hostility, ridicule and suffering. Having sold their effects in preparation for the voyage, and having vested their property in provision and stock of merchandise, suitable for their expected residence, they experienced great loss in disposing of their cargo and reinvesting the proceeds in things suitable to their emergency. The persons, they had hired to go with them to assist in fishing and building houses, demanded their wages and were dismissed at great disadvantage to their employers.
Their reception by their friends, like their departure, was mingled with "gladness and sorrow;"--by their enemies with anxiety and disdain. Their friends commiserated their calamity and rejoiced in their safety. Their enemies disliked their return, fearing the consequences, and were for a time divided in their opinion how they should be treated. Some were for exercising greater lenity; others poured out their ridicule in no measured terms, and in ballads, and notes to printed sermons, compared these oppressed and disheartened people to asses, which the same vessel had a little before brought from France,--and their religious ministrations to brayings so sad, that Neptune had stopped their voyage, and sent them back to Ireland to be improved. The next year, 1637, the ministers finding no peace in Ireland, went over to Scotland and met a most cordial reception from ministers and people. Mr Blair was settled at Ayr; Mr Livingston at Stranraer; Mr Hamilton at Dumfries; Mr Dunbar at Caldir in Lothian; Mr McClelland in Kirkcudbright; Mr Temple in Carsphain; Mr Row at Dunfermline; and Mr Robert Hamilton at Ballantises. These nine were zealous promoters of the National Covenant, which was renewed for the third time in Edinburgh, 1st March 1638. Four of them were members of the famous assembly that met in Glasgow, in November of the same year, and took an active part in the doings of that body, by which Prelacy in Scotland was abolished,--the bishops deposed,--and Presbytery re-established. Those, who were settled on the western coast of Scotland, kept up their intercourse with Ulster, and many of their former hearers removed to Scotland to enjoy their ministrations. On the stated communions, great numbers would go over from Ireland to enjoy the privileges they could not have at home; on one occasion five hundred persons went over from Down to Stranraer, to receive the sacrament at the hands of Mr Livingston. At another time, he baptized twenty children brought over to him, for that purpose, by their parents, who were unwilling to receive the ordinance from the Prelatical clergy.
This church was built in 1617 out of the ruins of its predecessor.