The Craigs Conventicle
Enabled by God Dr Paisley ensured that no one left the field without knowing they were sinners and in need of Christ and His wonderful salvation.
Many of our readers will be familiar with the term ‘conventicle’. For them, it will ever be associated with a particular period of Scottish church history. Seventeenth century Stuart kings believed in the Divine right of the monarchy, and that they were legitimate rulers in the church. For the Covenanters – signatories of the National Covenant of 1638 – there could only ever be one head of a truly Christian church, Jesus Christ Himself. The battle lines were drawn, and so severe was the ensuing persecution of Covenanters that the next fifty years became known as ‘the killing times’. Estimates of those martyred or banished for the faith approach 20 000, with hundreds of Godly ministers ejected from their pulpits. As a result, believers took to the fields and to the moors, often assembling in their thousands to attend upon faithful ministry. These gatherings were known as ‘conventicles’.
Three centuries on, in an area with strong ties to Scottish Presbyterianism, another conventicle was established. The townland of ‘Scotch’ Craigs – so-called because many of its residents are descendants of the Scottish settlers of Plantation times – lies some eight miles north of Ballymena. And it was here, fifty years ago, on 9th July 1967, that the ‘Craigs Conventicle’ was inaugurated. The decision to organize this open-air witness grew out of a conversation between two men associated with the local Mission Hall. Stewart Logan and George Wright had a vision to have Dr Ian Paisley preach in Craigs. Such was his popularity at that time that only an open-air venue would accommodate those expected to attend, and a suitable location was secured on the property of Mr William Selfridge just south of the Craigs crossroads. This natural amphitheatre hosted the Conventicle for its first eleven years. A series of other fields was employed, before extremely wet weather necessitated removal to the firmer ground of the Cullybackey Livestock Mart in 1985.
At first the meeting was simply styled the ‘Craigs Open Air’, but a comment by Dr Paisley in 1977 caused the adoption of the term ‘Conventicle’. Dr Paisley was the designated preacher for all but two of the annual gatherings – Revs T Baxter and W McCrea deputising when he was out of the country – and he presented the Gospel faithfully and winsomely, in his own inimitable manner. Rev James Beggs was present at many of the meetings, and he remembers the preaching: “By the time Dr Paisley came to read the Scriptures, he had the rapt, full and undivided attention of every person present. There was no restlessness as the clear Biblical message of Christ and Him crucified was faithfully presented. With what authority and faithfulness did God’s servant preach the Word! It was fully evident that here was a man filled with the Holy Ghost and power. Enabled by God Dr Paisley ensured that no one left the field without knowing they were sinners and in need of Christ and His wonderful salvation.” Mr Beggs is convinced that “we will not hear preaching of this spiritual calibre again during this generation.”
From the first the congregations were large, numbering many hundreds, and sometimes over a thousand. Most were from the locality, but others travelled considerable distances. The holiday month often attracted those who were visitors to the province, and these came from the mainland and much further afield.
At the outset, it was never envisaged that the ‘Conventicle’ would become an annual event, spanning over three decades – but that is how it turned out. A special presentation was made to Dr Paisley in 1991, marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the event. The last conventicle was held in 2000.
Many believers testified to the blessing of God received at Craigs. Only eternity will reveal how many were re-born at those gatherings, as God’s servants heeded the commission to ‘go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature’. To Him alone be the glory!
Mr. Timothy Nelson.
*The Editor acknowledges Mr George Wright, a member of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, as the source of much information included in this article. George has compiled a very interesting written and pictorial record of the Craigs Conventicle. Anyone interested in purchasing a copy may contact him on 028 9446 0412. Co-founder of the Conventicle, Stewart Logan, is a long-standing elder in our Portglenone congregation, featured in the last issue. Many members of Portglenone were stalwart supporters of the Craigs meeting. A current photo of the congregation, omitted last time, is included here.