- Where we have come from
- A Tale of Two Churches
Where We Have Come From
A Methodist society has been in existence at Priesthill for two centuries: from the opening of the first preaching-house on Puddledock (now Aghnatrisk) Road in April 1786, and of Zion chapel (our present church) on Christmas Eve 1838.
Perhaps the first Methodist preacher to visit our district was the Rev George Whitefield who had made several preaching trips to southern Ireland. His first visit to Ireland was in 1738, but 1751 was the year in which he decided to travel north from Dublin. In July he arrived in Belfast, and on the way either to or from Lurgan he passed through the Maze and preached. Writing to a friend in July 1751 he told of preaching at Lisburn, Lurgan, the Maze and Lambeg and of how thousands gathered to hear the Word. He wrote, "So many attend, and the prospect of doing good is so promising that I am grieved I came to the north no sooner. I am now waiting for a passage to Scotland."
His colleague, the Rev John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, made 21 visits to Ireland, the first one being in 1747. He came to Dublin and didn't travel north. It was not until his sixth trip, in 1756, that he made his first visit to Ulster. In July of that year he arrived at Lisburn where a Methodist cause had already been established, possibly through the preaching of the Rev George Whitefield five years earlier. John Wesley's earnest and eloquent proclamation stirred hearts to new life and faith. There was a revival and district meetings flourished. The after-care of those spiritually awakened was an important element in John Wesley's work and the societies formed for this purpose were the backbone of his itinerant journeys. A Methodist society had been established at Kilwarlin in 1765 and he visited there in 1771. He was due to preach at Halftown in July 1775 but was seriously ill with a fever and was being cared for at Derriaghy. In total he came to Lisburn and district on at least 14 occasions, the final one being in 1789.
The Rev Edward Thomas in his biography of the life of James Carlisle gives the origin of Priesthill (Zion) Methodist Church. A Roman Catholic named Patrick Cunningham, a horse racer and a very dissolute young man who lived in County Antrim, not far from Lisburn, came under a deep sense of sin and guilt, and in many ways sought to drown the voice of his conscience, plunging into orgies and revels. He tried priest and penance but was nothing better and rather worse. He had a twin brother who emigrated to America, and Patrick began to think that perhaps if he were married he would be able to lead a better life. He found someone with whom he believed he could be happy and they were married in his twenty-fifth year. However, his ways did not improve, and he was for a time even more outrageously wicked. Sometimes at the thought of his wrongdoing he trembled and fell on his knees before God. In this manner of sinning and repenting he continued for some years. The burden on his mind increased, and he feared that his despondency would end in suicide. In his anxiety he went to Lisburn and heard a sermon by the Rev Edward Smith, who had left the Established Church and adopted the Methodist persuasion. In his autobiography he states: "Under the sermon a ray of heavenly light broke through the cloud which had so long involved me in darkness. The Divine impression went home with me, and that night, at family prayer, God set my soul at liberty. I was enabled to believe with all my heart unto righteousness, my burden of guilt was removed, and I received the witness of the Spirit." The date was June 1776, and Patrick was then aged 34. He h^d already been accepted into a Methodist society by the Rev John Bredin, Methodist minister in Lisburn as John Wesley's only condition for membership was to have "the desire to flee from the wrath to come," and Patrick had been attending Methodist house meetings at Moyrusk prior to his conversion.
The class that Patrick attended was led by men of good sense and piety and eventually he was appointed leader although he thought he was unfit for such a position. For some years he conducted the class, and then in 1784 he and a friend started a prayer meeting in a house at Priesthill. When this was shortly denied them they had difficulty in procuring another, as the Methodists then were "everywhere spoken against." After some hesitation Thomas Bradshaw who lived in the area gave them the liberty of his house and in a little time opened his heart to Christ. Here the circle went on widening and a regular meeting house was called for.
In 1786 the first chapel at Priesthill was erected. Like most houses in the neighbourhood it was built of mud and thatched with straw, and stood just off the Puddledock Road. This meeting place was used until 1838 when a better site was chosen on the Kesh Road. Worship has been celebrated here ever since and in former years it was known as Zion Chapel. The ground was given by the Marquis of Downshire. So rapidly did the cause gain fresh adherents that the building had to be enlarged in 1851. At times there were over two hundred children attending the Sunday school. It was decided to erect a schoolhouse when a small piece of land adjacent to the church premises was acquired in 1866. This building served many purposes and was used extensively until the new church hall was built in 1974. Afterwards it was used for storage of outdoor equipment for the Youth Club but gradually the building degenerated and became unsuitable for storage. When it was discovered that the Youth Service Branch of the Department of Education at Rathgael House, Bangor was making Capital Grants available for the refurbishment of premises, the necessary approval was sought from the Church's Board of Trustees and was sanctioned. This Grant provided 85% of the total building costs, up to a maximum of £100,000. The work was entrusted to a local builder who carried out the complete renovation and extension to an impeccable standard. A re-dedication service of the Minor Hall was held on Sunday, 16th September 2007. It is proving most useful in outreach work to older teenagers and providing extra space for sections of the Girls' Brigade, as well as being used for storage of equipment for the youth groups. During 1999-2000 a major building scheme took place to extend and update the new church hall built in 1974, resulting in three additional rooms and storage space. There are plans to use adjoining land for outdoor sports.
A Tale of Two Churches
In 1986 to celebrate two centuries of Methodism at Priesthill the church and congregation published a history of the church titled "A Tale of Two Churches". The book includes details of the Methodist Revival, Priesthill's ministers, the Methodist New Connexion, etc. The book is available to read online at lisburn.com, thanks to James Collins.