Our History

Our History

There has been a Christian witness in the Newtownards since at least 540 when Movilla Abbey was founded by Finnian on a hill on the eastern side of the present town. Eighteen years later, Comgall founded a similar monastery six miles away, in Bangor. Despite the secular concerns of the monastic movement and the theological variations from his own position, a Reformed Presbyterian can find much to admire in the piety, enthusiasm for scholarship and missionary endeavour of some of the monks from these two monasteries during the Golden Age of the Celtic Church. However, by the sixteenth century, the church in the area was weak and although the government had initiated a reformation, it was in name only.

The seeds of a Reformed Presbyterian congregation in Newtownards were sown in the second, third and fourth decades of the seventeenth century. The Ulster Plantation brought thousands of Scottish Presbyterians to north Down. They were privileged to have the ministry of Robert Blair in Bangor and John Livingstone in Killinchy. Both men were in Samuel Rutherford’s circle and instrumental in the revivals in Six Mile Water in 1625 and Shotts in 1630.The new settlers maintained links with their relatives and co-religionists in Scotland. Indeed, some rowed across the Irish Sea from Donaghadee to Scotland to partake of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and returned to north Down on the same evening. When Charles I sought to impose his preferred style of worship and doctrines upon the Church of Scotland, a protest movement arose there, which culminated in the signing of a National Covenant in 1638. Blair and Livingstone were instrumental in establishing a similar Covenanting movement in north Down. The cause of covenanted reformation was progressed when the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643, a pledge to maintain a reformed and reforming church throughout the British Isles, was agreed by the governments of England, Scotland and Ireland. This covenant was administered in Bangor, Comber and Newtownards: in all, sixteen thousand people are known to have taken this Covenant in an area south of Bangor, comprising fifty miles by twelve miles.

In this part of County Down, a number of people who believed in the continuing obligation of these Covenants – Covenanters – met in societies for worship, instruction and fellowship. Rev David Houston, the Scottish Covenanter, exercised leadership and influence in the area for a few years after 1689. Rev William Martin, the first minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church to be ordained in Ireland, lived in Bangor between 1757 and 1760.

By 1772, these societies were strong enough to make a call to William Stavely of Ferniskey, County Antrim, and to acquire a meetinghouse. The call came from ninety-two men, mostly heads of families, who lived ‘between the bridge of Dromore and Donaghadee’. The new congregation met for worship at Conlig, a village about two miles north of Newtownards. By the mid 1790s, the Covenanters moved into the town of Newtownards, worshipping in a meetinghouse in Ann Street. William Stavely has been justly described as the ‘apostle of the Covenanters’ as he set up perhaps as many twelve congregations across Down, Armagh and Monaghan. He ministered jointly to Knockbracken and Newtownards from 1772-1800. The two congregations were separated in 1809.

Under the energetic leadership of the Rev William Henry, the congregation was organised into nineteen societies and stood at 215 members by 1827. When the controversy on the role of the civil magistrate divided the Reformed Presbyterian Church in 1840, Dr Henry and the majority of the Newtownards congregation, withdrew from the parent Synod and the congregation was attached to the Eastern Reformed Presbyterian Synod until the congregation was dissolved in 1891.

In 1854, the minority that survived the secession purchased the building in Regent Street, which the present congregation now occupies, from the Methodists. The new congregation comprised 21 families and fifty members. Prayer meetings which preceded the 1859 Revival were held in the church building and as a result of the Revival the congregation was enlarged to 87 members.

Twelve ministers have served the congregation since 1772. Despite the many changes in the congregation’s 230-year history, there has been some continuity. Three members of the Session in 2003 are great-grandsons of Rev Robert Allen, who was ordained and installed in the congregation in 1867, and their grand children are among the baptised youth of the congregation. In 2004 the congregation will have worshipped in its present building for 150 years. In 2012 the congregation has 38 families and 70 communicant members and about ninety gather for worship on Lord’s Day mornings.

Click here for the history of The Blue Banner

The following publications make reference to the congregation:

1. Adam Loughridge, ‘The turbulent career of David Houston’ in The Reformed Theological Journal, (1985).

2. Adam Loughridge, ‘William Stavely: the apostle of the Covenanters’ in The Reformed Theological Journal, (1989).

3. Mid Antrim Historical Group, William Stavely (1993)

4. Trevor McCavery, ‘A Covenant Community: a history of Newtownards Reformed Presbyterian Church’ (1997).

5. Trevor McCavery, ‘The Rev William Stavely, 1743-1825’ in The Reformed Theological Journal, Vol. 14 (1998).


Ministers of Newtownards Reformed Presbyterian Church

1772 – 1800 William Staveley
1805 – 1812 Hutchison McFadden
1813 – 1842 William Henry
1859 – 1860 William Hanna
1861 – 1867 John Newell
1867 – 1906 Robert Allen
1907 – 1925 Torrens Boyd
1938 – 1950 Adam Loughridge
1952 – 1959 Alexander Gilmour
1959 – 1973 Creswell Blair
1973 – 1983 Hugh Wright
1985 – 2011 Knox Hyndman
2012 – present Robert McCollum