STEPPING BACK IN TIME: Free Presbyterian Church marks its 40th anniversary (1991)

The rafters of Belfast’s King’s Hall were sorely put to the test at the end of March 1991 as about 10,000 Free Presbyterians tried to raise the roof, reported the News Letter.

Friday, 16th April 2021, 10:00 am
The Reverend Dr Ian Paisley with his wife Eileen, daughter Sharon and shy grand-daughter Lydia at the Free Presbyterian Church's 40th anniversary celebrations at the King's Hall in March 1991. Picture: News Letter archives
The Reverend Dr Ian Paisley with his wife Eileen, daughter Sharon and shy grand-daughter Lydia at the Free Presbyterian Church's 40th anniversary celebrations at the King's Hall in March 1991. Picture: News Letter archives

The church had celebrated the 40th anniversary of its founding on St Patrick’s Day, 1951, in “an impressive, joyful and, on occasionally humorous way”.

“Believe it or not,” quipped Moderator, the Reverend Ian Paisley during his sermon, “but Patrick was a Free Presbyterian.”

The church was set up in Crossgar, Co Down, on March 17, 1951 and hundreds of the church’s membership in Northern Ireland had turned out at the King’s Hall to mark the important milestone.

Free Presbyterians from throughout Northern Ireland travelled to the King's Hall in March 1991 for the church's 40th anniversary celebrations. Picture: News Letter archives

Two services, one of morning worship and the other an anniversary rally, were held at the King’s Hall, often the venue of for the top names in the music industry.

Congregations from the 54 Free Presbyterian churches across Northern Ireland came – with many attending both services. They were ferried to the King’s Hall in a fleet of coaches.

The correspondent at the event wrote: “Women in their finery – splendid in gay colours and hats – babies in prams, bright-faced youngsters and grey-suited men filled the hall.”

There were also “overseas guests” representing the church’s congregations in Eire, England, Canada, the United States of America, Australia, West Germany and Spain.

Congregations from across Northern Ireland as well as overseas attended the the Free Presbyterian Church's 40th anniversary celebrations at the King's Hall in March 1991. Picture: News Letter archives

The correspondent added: “For those with obstructed views of the platform, on which the church’s ministers were seated, television monitors displayed video pictures of the proceedings.”

A 1,100-strong choir, made up of young people, dressed in white tops and black bottoms, led the singing.

Mid-Ulster MP and Magherafelt Free Presbyterian minister the Reverend William McCrea who conducted the hymn singing from the platform, also gave solo performances at both services.

Mr Paisley presided, and told the congregations that by the end of the day it was hoped to raise £50,000 in donations, out of which an expected £20-£25,000 would go to pay for the celebrations.

A small section of the choir who were in fine voice at the Free Presbyterian Church's 40th anniversary celebrations at the King's Hall in March 1991. Picture: News Letter archives

The remaining money would be added to a special fund set up by Mr Paisley and through which it was hoped to hand over £100,000 to the presbyteries by the end of the year. Mr Paisley disclosed that a new church, the Free Presbyterians’ 63rd, had been formed in Jamaica with 70 members.

Among those attending the services were councillor Joe Coggle, the Independent Unionist High Sheriff of Belfast, and Ballymena’s DUP Mayor alderman Sandy Spence. East Belfast MP Peter Robinson and his wife Iris were also present.

In his sermon, Mr Paisley said that his church would not be in existence if “the authorities and political powers had had their way”.

He said that there was “a greater need now for the Free Presbyterians than there had ever been”.

Mrs Francis Burton of Dungannon and her nine-month-old daughter Jacqueline at 40th anniversary celebrations at the King's Hall at the end of March 1991. Picture: News Letter archives
Rhonda Paisley and Cherith Caldwell take a break from the main hall for chat at the Free Presbyterian Church's 40th anniversary celebrations at the King's Hall in March 1991. Picture: News Letter archives
Enjoying their lunch during the Free Presbyterian Church's 40th anniversary celebrations at the King's Hall in March 1991 are Alison Sproule, left, Linda Humphrey and Jennifer Sproule. Picture: News Letter archives
Nigel Dodds, right, with Gregory Campbell and Mrs Diane Dodds at the Free Presbyterian Church's 40th anniversary celebrations at the King's Hall in March 1991. Picture: News Letter archives