Project Description



Should it be Remembered?

1966: To most in the United Kingdom the year means only one thing: the triumph of the English soccer team in the World Cup – an event all the more memorable because it has not been repeated in the fifty years since! But for Free Presbyterians, there is something more. 1966 was a seminal year in the history of our denomination, the year three of our preachers found themselves imprisoned by the authorities.

It happened before many of our readers were born. So, does this event have any relevance for today? Has it anything to say to us as we move ahead in the twenty-first century? Is there any point remembering?

How exactly did three Free Presbyterians end up spending the summer of ‘66 in prison cells? Dr Alan Cairns, in his biography of the late Rev John Wylie, recalls that “the early 1960’s were times of great unease among Protestants in Ulster. On the religious front there was an increasingly blatant attachment by leading churchmen to the ecumenical programme of the World Council of Churches. Then on the political front there was a new Prime Minister who appeared to desire to take those same ecumenical principles and apply them to the affairs of state.” It was against this backdrop, a series of contentious commemorations of the Easter Rising, and the Presbyterian Church’s invite to the representative of the President of the Irish Republic, that the annual protest at the General Assembly was mounted. Having obtained permission to march to Assembly Buildings, the protesters found themselves under attack at Cromac Square. Relieved to escape without serious injury, they continued on their way. After two circuits of the designated route, on the third they found their way blocked by police cordons to allow a group of dignitaries to proceed from the Assembly for hospitality at another location. In the wake of some extremely skewed press coverage and a pledge by Prime Minister O’Neill to crush ‘Paisleyism’, action was taken. “Summonses were issued against Paisley, Wylie, Ivan Foster and four other people, alleging unlawful assembly at the General Assembly protest. In court the police case was that the gathering of Free Presbyterians at the General Assembly constituted an illegal assembly. They had had permission to march; once they stopped they became an illegal assembly – despite the admitted fact that what stopped them marching were ropes slung across the road by the police!” (Dr Cairns) The three Free Presbyterians were found guilty, fined, and bound over to keep the peace. They refused to pay the fines or to be bound over – this would have prevented their participation in further public protests.

And so, the due process of the law was enacted. On July 19 Rev Ian Paisley was arrested as he set out for the prayer meeting in Ravenhill church – so began three months incarceration in HM Prison, Crumlin Road, Belfast. The next day, prisoner 1271 was joined by his two colleagues, Rev John Wylie and Student Minister Ivan Foster.

We return to the initial question: What has all of this to do with us in 2016? Are there lessons to be learned as we seek to maintain the distinctive witness of Free Presbyterianism fifty years on?

Jude acknowledged a desire to write to his fellow Christians concerning their “common salvation”. But he felt compelled to change tack and to urge them to “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” (v3) The intensity of the language indicates a severe struggle, and the context affirms the existence of enemies within and without. This is part and parcel of standing for Christ in a world that is ever more hostile to Him and to His claims – yet such resolution is not appealing. Indeed it is far easier to be ‘men-pleasers’, to take the path of accommodation, to stay silent, not to rock the boat. But is it right? If we believe this is the path to take, we must ask ourselves if it was wrong of Christ to confront the Pharisees or to cleanse the temple. Perhaps Paul’s counsel is pertinent: “Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong.” (1 Corinthians 16:13).

Many have embraced the foolish notion that to receive Christ means we will be at peace with the world, that no-one will disturb us ever again. How different the verdict of the Saviour! “Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:20) If we are faithful to the Lord, we must expect to bear His reproach. We may never see the inside of a prison cell – though we have brothers and sisters in other lands in that very predicament, and it may come again in this realm – but there is a price to pay for following Christ. We will be scorned, mocked, vilified, ostracized, discriminated against – and more – for the sake of Christ. It is never comfortable “outside the camp” (Hebrews 13:13).

Readers familiar with the life of the Godly tinker John Bunyan will know that much of his literary output can be traced to his sojourn in Bedford jail. In like manner, Rev Paisley’s celebrated ‘Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans’ was penned in prison, together with a series of memorable letters to his waiting congregation. And there were other opportunities to serve. The three men had occasion to witness to many of their fellow inmates, and there is reason to believe that God blessed some of these spiritual conversations. Thus God often takes us along a hard road so that we might find doors we would not otherwise enter. The wave of persecution after the martyrdom of Stephen compelled many believers to leave Jerusalem and to serve God in places they never anticipated (Acts 8:1,4; 11:19-21). Would they have gone if God had not thrust them forth?

Prison was no picnic in 1966. It was a far cry from what inmates have come to expect in these days. It was difficult for the men themselves, and hardly less so for their families on the outside. They had the companionship of one another, the prayer support of an increasing number of fellow-believers across the world, the encouragement of visits – but, most of all, they had the Lord. They were sustained by the grace of a never-failing God. Paul knew what it was to see the inside of a prison cell, and he knew that even should he be forsaken by those from whom he might have expected succour, the Lord would never leave him! (2 Timothy 4: 14-18) In times of great need, we prove that we have a great God, even One who is “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” (Psalm 46:1).

Those who believed that they would deal a fatal blow to the Free Presbyterian denomination by imprisoning the protestors were to be disappointed. Such was the response in the land that numerous congregations were established across the province (the so-called ‘prison churches’; see, for example pages 16-17), and a record number of young men offered themselves as candidates for the ministry. Indeed more progress was made in eighteen months than in the previous fifteen years! And it has often been so. God has been pleased to use opposition and persecution to further His cause. The well-worn observation that ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church’ is not without foundation. Only in relatively recent times have we discovered proof of this in those countries formerly under the heel of communism – that the church was driven underground did not hinder it, but rather prompted expansion, and a degree of commitment not witnessed in ‘better times’. Christ has promised to build His church despite all opposition, even that from the very “gates of hell” (Matthew 16:18).

Those who doubt the wisdom of remembering the events of the past might care to ponder the counsel of the Lord in, for example, Deuteronomy, or the book of Psalms. Time and time again, God’s people are warned in respect of the folly of forgetfulness. True remembrance, of course, is not just about memory, but about meditation. There is little value in having the clearest recollection of events long past if we do not learn from them, and if they do not impact our lives here and now in any meaningful way.

We must be thankful for the courage of those who have gone before. We must reflect on how best to conduct ourselves, and to represent our Saviour, as we face the peculiar challenges of this age. We must be confident, not in the successes or the resources with which we have been favoured over five decades, but in the God who has bestowed them upon us. And we must recognise that, in a world given more and more to pragmatism and expediency, there really are some things not negotiable, even those with which “we were allowed of God to be put in trust” (1 Thessalonians 2:4).

Rev Timothy Nelson.