Having regard to my "Witness" associations, it is not unnatural that I should give an early thought to the religious side of Belfast, and especially to the Presbyterian side of half a century ago as compared with the present. Then, as now, the Presbyterians were the leading religious body in Belfast in numbers and influence. Their activities at the time were many, and their labours as abundant relatively as now. The population has more than doubled since that time, and so have the churches and ministers, but I question if the wants of the masses of Presbyterians are better supplied in proportion to the demands. Fifty years ago we had talk of the lapsed masses just as wie have to-day, but while the agencies are much more numerous I am afraid the tale of lapsed and lapsing is as doleful as it was half a century ago. Indeed, I am afraid the tendencies and temptations of these times are greater than they were, and the indisposition to church-going, if possible, more general and baneful.
On looking over the Minutes for 1866, I find there were about thirty congregations and ministers in connection with the Belfast Presbytery at that time. Now there are sixty-three, but I do not think the proportion of increase is as great as the increase of the population. This may not be the time or place to raise that question, but it is one that should be kept before the members of the Church even more than it is.
The Belfast Presbyterian pulpit was well manned fifty years ago by men many of whom left their mark not only on their own congregations, but on the Church and country at large. The Rev. Dr. Cooke at that time was nearing the close of his brilliant career, but his very name was a tower of strength, and even in his decline, he was great. I heard him more than once in his historic pulpit in May Street, a church that was built for him, and his presence and look suggested greatness as well as goodness. His glance may not have been as keen, his voice as full, or his frame as powerful as at the time "he shattered to atoms the fabric of falsehood" the no less great Dr. Montgomery, his Arian antagonist, had created "with the talisman of truth," but one could not look at him, or listen to his clear and resonant tones, without at once realising the truth of all that had been told regarding him or done by him.
Then there was Dr. Morgan, of Fisherwick, saintly, gentle, good, and kind, a man who was consumed by the love of God and the love of his people, and gave himself up not only on the Sabbath, but on the weekday, to the service of his people and the Church. The relations between Dr. Morgan and his people were peculiar and special. It was not a case so much of pastor and people as of friend and friend, a sort of elder brother relationship, of which sincere and deep affection was the bond. Dr. Morgan did all his ministering so gently and sweetly that love went hand in hand with duty and grace with both.
Then there was the Rev. John Macnaughtan, Scotchman of Scotchmen, Presbyterian of Presbyterians, preacher of preachers, orator of orators. He was a man of small stature, but well-knit body and mind. He was a lamb in his normal state, but a lion when roused, and when roused his oratory was forceful and inspiring. On great public questions he was as firm as a rock, and in the defence of truth and principle his arguments and his oratory flowed like a torrent. A Liberal of Liberals, a great opponent of the Established Church, he was once attacked for his co-action with Roman Catholics in this matter. I can remember to this day the ringing cheers with which, replying to the taunt he justified his action, he wound up with the declaration that if at any time the action of the Church of Rome should threaten or endanger Protestantism he would be found with his back at the Cathedral wall.
Then, there was Wm. Johnston, not then doctor, full of youth and fire, restless in mind and body, his tongue and his heart alike rushing him into every activity that made for the good of his Church or his fellows. The youth in his case was father to the man, and the man was the faithful preacher, the endless organiser, the friend of all good work and good men, the founder of the Orphan Society, the Society for Widows and Orphans, and I do not know how many more beside. Of him, perhaps, more than of any minister of his time, it might be said that the good he did lived after him in the practical and material, as well as in the moral, religious, and conventional acceptance of the term.
But what shall I say of the others? Space would fail me to tell of T. Y. Killen, my beloved friend and pastor and valuable assistant and adviser till his death, a solid man in every sense of the word, a man of faith and of works, a man of heart as well as head, a lover of his Church as of his God; of Hugh Hanna, the man of wondrous energy, of fearless spirit, of undaunted courage, the man who feared not the face of man, and who, out of small beginnings in Berry Street, raised that magnificent pile at Carlisle Circus, a monument at once of his zeal and energy, his enthusiasm and loyalty to Church, and which overlooks that which was raised to him for his loyalty to the King and the cause of the King in Ulster; of Rev. Thomas Hamilton, now President of the Queen's University, minister of York Street, earnest, kindly, and able, who was my friend and colleague in "The Witness" for many years, to whom, indeed, I may say "The Witness" owes its origin, and who has earned many laurels since in educational and public life; of R. J. Lynd, who, gravitating from Whiteabbey to May Street, sustained the burden of that great pulpit for many years, and whose graceful compositions, reproduced with such polished elocution, rendered him a power in the pulpit and on the platform; of the Rev. James Martin, of Eglinton Street, a most faithful and earnest pastor and preacher, who laboured incessantly and successfully in connection with an interesting congregation, the pulpit of which is now filled by the Rev. Mr. Morton; of the Rev. Dr. Gray, of College Square, cultivated preacher, philosophic thinker, logical reasoner, loving his congregation and by it beloved, devoted upholder of Church and King, a man of many gifts and many graces; of the Rev. John Moran, a man of great culture and refinement, a poet in feeling and a Christian in spirit, who, by his great energy and high tone and character, built up the congregation of Belmont, of which Rev. Dr. MacDermott is now the able and popular minister; of the Rev. Geo. Shaw, of Alfred Street, the good, earnest, zealous, and faithful preacher of the Gospel, and the promoter of so much good work in his own congregation and in the Church.
Then there was the Rev. Henry Osborne, of Holywood, the cultured preacher, the graceful poet, the polished writer, with whom it was my privilege to be so long and so pleasantly associated. With the exception of President Hamilton, to whom I have referred above, Mr. Osborne is the only one of the ministers of the Presbytery at that period now alive. When I saw him recently he was as clear in mind as ever, and as interested in Church and public affairs, and looking wonderfully well for a man of four score years and five. The Rev. Henry Henderson I could not forget, as many a time and oft I listened to and reported his speeches in various assemblies of Orangemen, to whom he was devoted, and by whom he was idolised. He was a man of rare fluency and readiness of speech, who could say what was in him with fearless force. He was perhaps the most pronounced politician in the Presbytery at the time, but his politics were not those of the majority of his brethren, but he was liked by them all for his genial kindliness and good humour, and for the consistency with which he clung to the political faith that was in him. I should not forget the Rev. Robert Montgomery, of Great Victoria Street, whose work in the cause of his congregation and of education was unceasing and fruitful, and who left so many brave sons to the service of his country and Church, and a widow no less brave than any of them; the Rev. Dr. Knox, of Linenhall Street, the energetic and earnest worker in the Church, and the warm supporter of many of its best schemes; the Rev. John Moore, of Elmwood, the earnest preacher of a pure Gospel, and the man of sample faith and deep sincerity, the man of great originality, punctured with humour, the man who concerned himself more with the salvation of souls than with the clashings of controversy and the Rev. John Mecredy, the great advocate of temperance when the cause was not as popular as it is now, who built up and! sustained a fine congregation, that under the Rev. Samuel Thompson continues to prosper; of the Rev. Joseph Mackenzie, of Malone, who was a man of quiet earnestness and high Christian character; and last, but not least, the Rev. Adam Montgomery, of Ballycairn, who was for half a century Clerk of the Presbytery; an eloquent and scholarly, preacher, a man of unaffected simplicity of character, with a ready wit, much humour, and the kindest of hearts.
There are others I should like to dwell on, but space forbids. John Greenlees, the gentle and pacific; R. J. Arnold, eloquent and dignified; John Meneely, prudent, practical, and sagacious; Joseph Barkley, an earnest and practical preacher and worker; and James Young, who sustained a fine congregation in the Falls district; John Given, D.D., stately and dignified, yet simple and kindly, scholar and gentleman, who crowned his career as one of the first professors of the old Magee College.
There are two of special note at the time who differed from their brethren as much as they differed from each other; Isaac Nelson, forceful in expression, fertile in vituperation, a vigorous preacher and erratic thinker, whose prayers were sermons, and whose sermons were shafts of cynicism, satire, and railing; "Tommy" Toye, a child of nature and of grace, earnest, unconventional, more of an evangelist than a preacher, with eccentric characteristics relieved by an Irish brogue and Irish wit.
When I set out I had only intended to refer to half-a-dozen of these men, but as my mind was revolving the past I seemed to see a grand procession of old familiar friends and faces, which recalled traits of look, speech, and manner, that made it impossible for me to pass them over. This must be my excuse for recalling so many, names and in brief their characteristics as they appeared to me and, I am sure, to others.
To be continued...
From The Witness, 30th June 1916.
The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.