History in Ireland
History in Holywood
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History of the First
Presbyterian (Non-Subscribing) Church, Holywood.
The Old or First Congregation of Holywood (sometimes
wrongly titled Unitarian) was the second Presbyterian congregation
established in Ulster. It traces its origins back to 1615, when the
Reverend Robert Cunningham was installed as minister, having been
ordained by the Bishop, as the law obliged, but avowedly a
Presbyterian. Cunningham was a successful minister but came into
conflict with an uncompromising Bishop, and was forced into exile in
Scotland, where he died in 1637.
The Holywood church became a member of the first
organised Presbytery established in Carrickfergus in 1642. The Reverend
Michael Bruce was ordained in 1711 and during his ministry, the question
of subscription arose in the Synod of Ulster with the result that the
majority of the Congregation and their minister were placed in the
presbytery of Antrim, which included in all seventeen ministers and
congregations who refused to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of
Faith. The majority of the congregation members were Non-Subscribers;
the minority, supporting subscription, seceded and were formed into a
separate congregation which was the origin of the Bangor Road
Presbyterian Church. For a long time the two congregations were
distinguished by the names of “New Light” and “Old Light”.
The Reverend Arthur McMechan who was installed in 1784,
became involved in the United Irishmen Rebellion of 1798 and had to flee
In the early nineteenth century, the delegates to
Presbytery included men whose family names were familiar in Holywood for
many generations; including, for example, Killips, Stewart, Greenfield
During the ministry of the Reverend J. A. Johnson,
installed in 1820, the old argument over subscription was raised again
by Dr. Henry Cooke; the result being that the Non-Subscribing
congregations were excluded from the Synod of Ulster in 1824. Holywood
was among the congregations which joined the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster
(Non-Subscribers) which first met in 1830.
Reverend Johnson died of cholera in 1832, while
ministering to the many victims of the epidemic in the Holywood area.
The Reverend C. J. McAlester was ordained in 1834, the
beginning of a ministry of fifty-seven years; which was marked by his
great interest in the education of children, both boys and girls, and
his advocacy of Temperance. He was responsible for the formation of a
well-attended Sunday School; and ran his own school in the schoolroom
below the church, hence its nickname: “The Underground School”. It was
attended by James Craig, who later became Lord Craigavon; Rosamund
Praeger and her brother, and other well-known figures. The Reverend
McAlester was the friend and confidant of Dr. Robert Sullivan, founder
of the Sullivan Schools, and was on terms of intimate friendship with
the clergy of all the denominations represented in the Holywood area,
including Father O’Laverty. He was also a founder member of, and
secretary to, the Board of Management of Sullivan Upper School. The
granite obelisk in the church forecourt was erected by the congregation
and friends following his death, at the age of eighty, in 1891.
In 1910, with the union of the Remonstrant Synod of
Ulster and the Presbytery of Antrim, Holywood became part of the
Non-Subscribing Church of Ireland.