The purpose of this guide is not to provide a comprehensive survey of genealogical records that would be of assistance to those researching the history of Presbyterianism and Presbyterians in Ireland. This would include a wide variety of records, such as civil registration, census returns and wills.
Rather this guide is primarily concerned with records deriving from a Presbyterian source, such as registers of baptisms and marriages, and minutes of session and presbytery meetings. Its aim is to highlight the range of different Presbyterian records that can be used by researchers and to indicate where they might be found.
Registers of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials
The basic information provided in a baptismal register is the name of the child, the name of the father and the date of baptism. The mother’s name will usually be given as will a specific location. The occupation of the father and the date of birth of the child may also be provided. Occasionally an entry of some interest might appear. One such entry appears in the baptismal register of Crossgar Presbyterian Church in County Londonderry. Following a record of the baptism on 4 May 1888 of David Campbell at the age of 46 the entry continues: ‘This D. Campbell spent 21 years and 43 days in the Army (4 years in England, 1 in Scotland, 3 in Ireland, 12 years and 27 days in India) before his baptism. While in the Army be was an Episcopalian, having gone over from the Presbyterian Church like a great many others; when he got off he attended the Episcopal Church in Macosquin for some time, but he wrote on a letter asking me to baptise him which I did on sincere profession of his faith’.
Prior to the standardisation of marriage registers after 1845 for non-Catholics and 1864 for Catholics, these will give in their simplest form the date of the marriage and the names of the bride and groom. The residence and the name of the father of each party are often provided. The names of the witnesses may also be given. After 1845 information on the individuals getting married includes their name, age, status, and occupation. The names and occupations of their fathers are also given. The church, the officiating minister and the witnesses to the ceremony are named. In most cases the exact age of the parties is not given, and the entry will simply read ‘full age’ (i.e. over 21) or ‘minor’ (i.e. under 21). If the father of one of the parties was no longer living, this may be indicated in the marriage certificate by the word ‘deceased’ or by leaving the space blank, but in many cases it is not.
Few Presbyterian congregations have very old burial registers. Those that do survive were mainly started in the late nineteenth or even the early twentieth century. Burial registers can be fairly uninformative, with the name of the deceased, the date of burial and occasionally the occupation and age at death given.
Other Congregational Records
A variety of other items may be found among the records kept by individual Presbyterian congregations. Some of these are set out below.
For a number of congregations there is a surviving census or even censuses. These can take different forms. At their simplest they may be a list of members of the congregation. More detailed census returns will provide the townland and will include the names of all members of the family. For Carrigallen in County Leitrim there is a visitation book with details of each family by townland and dates of baptisms of children, 1837-92.
Very extensive lists of names of families survive for 1st Garvagh Presbyterian Church in the form of visitation returns and these are available online.
The returns include:
- 1796 – about 1954 names in some 405 families
- 1818 – in two parts, July 1818 and August 1818
- 1825 – some 348 families
- 1840 – in two parts: part 1 Some 348 families; part 2 Some 132 families, 693 individuals
Lists of Emigrants
For a number of congregations there are lists of people who left the congregation to emigrate abroad. For Gortin there are names of emigrants for 1854 to 1884.
Lists of Communicants
These are similar to congregational census, but they only list the names of communicant members of a particular congregation. Sometimes there may be a separate list of the names of new communicants. Occasionally lists of communicants are annotated with additional information, such as when a communicant married, emigrated or died.
Members of one congregation who wished to transfer their congregation to another would be issued with a certificate testifying to their good standing in the church. Frequently a transfer certificate would be issued to those who were emigrating. For Loughaghery Presbyterian Church in County Down there are transfer certificates from 1808-42.
The issuing of printed financial reports became increasing commonplace in the course of the nineteenth century and can provide useful information on members. For Ballinderry, County Antrim, there is a copy of a financial report showing the amount paid by each seat holder to stipend and to the sustentation fund, 1888-9.
Occasionally there may be an unpublished church history among the records. For Crossroads, County Donegal, there is a history of the church from c.1780 to 1880 among the congregational records in PRONI (ref. MIC/1P/259).
Calls to Ministers
When a congregation had settled on their choice for a new minister a ‘call’ was issued to him. It was then up to the individual to whom the call was issued to decide whether or not he wished to accept that call. A call issued to Thomas Clark by the Presbyterians of Ballyalbany, County Monaghan, in 1751 contains the names of over 160 individuals. It was published in S. Lyle Orr and Alex Haslett, Historical Sketch of Ballyalbany Presbyterian Church (Belfast, 1940), pp 10-12. Robert H. Bonar’s Nigh on three and a half centuries: A history of Carnmoney Presbyterian Church (2004), includes a call to Rev. John Thomson sen., 1730 (pp. 328-9) and a call to Rev. John Thomson jun. (pp. 330-31).
Minutes of Session Meetings
The session was composed of the ministers and elders in a particular congregation. Session records cover a range of matters, many of which relate to the internal discipline of members of the congregation for a variety of misdemeanours. Occasionally they may contain baptisms and marriages. A large number of session books are among the congregational records on microfilm at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.
Minutes of Meetings of Presbytery and Synod
The presbytery was the middle layer of government in the Presbyterian Church, above session and below Synod. It comprised the ministers and ruling elders of the congregations affiliated to the presbytery. It dealt with matters that could not be settled at the level of session, either because there was a dispute of a nature that could not be resolved without recourse to a higher authority or because the issues related to more than one congregation. Presbytery meetings were held on a regular basis. Presbyteries were frequently reorganised. In addition, individual congregations could change presbytery if it meant that a dispute would be resolved.
The Synod of Ulster was the highest authority in the Presbyterian Church in Ulster. It met once a year, usually in June, and was composed of representatives from every congregation in each of the presbyteries. The records of the Synod of Ulster meetings for the period 1690–1820 were published in three volumes by the Presbyterian Church in 1891. A typescript index in three volumes is available for consultation in the library at PRONI. Much of the minutes deal with matters of a fairly routine nature. Occasionally, however, an item of real value will be recorded. From 1840, when the Synod of Ulster and the Secession Synod United, there are the printed minutes of the General Assembly, a set of which is in the library of the Presbyterian Historical Society.
The Location of the Records
The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) has done a tremendous job in acquiring originals or copies of records kept by individual Presbyterian congregations. Most of the Presbyterian records in its custody are on microfilm. The coverage is so extensive that there are relatively few congregations whose records have not been deposited in some form in PRONI. Its website is www.proni.gov.uk.
The Presbyterian Historical Society has copies of most of the microfilms of Presbyterian registers held by PRONI and can be viewed on a microfilm reader at the Society’s office at Assembly Buildings, Fisherwick Place, Belfast. A small number of Presbyterian records are only available at the Presbyterian Historical Society. These include some very early session books, including those of Dundonald and Aghadowey, as well as some registers of baptisms and marriages. A few pre-1900 records are still in local custody.
In the majority of cases Presbyterian registers do not pre-date the nineteenth century. This may be for the very simple reason that the congregation was not established until the 1800s. Less systematic record keeping also a reason for the lack of early records in some instances. Some records were accidentally destroyed as the following extract from the baptismal register of West Church, Ballymena records: ‘I preached at Churchtown on the 5th of November 1848 according to appointment by Presbytery and the list of children baptised on that day having been accidentally destroyed in my absence, I am necessitated to leave blank in the register at the same time noting its cause’.
Many, but by no means, all Presbyterian meeting houses have adjoining burial grounds. Few of the inscriptions in graveyards surrounding Presbyterian churches pre-date 1800 and in fact the practise of burying within the grounds of Presbyterian churches does not seem to have happened until the late eighteenth century. The burial ground attached to Castlereagh Presbyterian church is unusual in having several memorials dating from the late eighteenth century. An exception to this generalisation is the graveyard at Drumbo Presbyterian Church, which includes memorials from the late seventeenth century. However, in the case of Drumbo the meeting house is unique, so far as the present writer knows, in that it stands on the site of a medieval parish church.
The background to the opening of Balmoral Cemetery in 1855 was an incident in which a Church of Ireland minister obstructed a funeral being conducted by two Presbyterian ministers. One of the ministers involved, Rev. Joseph Mackenzie, secured the ground for the cemetery, and remained its owner, though it was managed by a board of trustees. Though the cemetery was never exclusively Presbyterian, it was predominantly so and was the only burial place of its kind in nineteenth-century Ulster.
The inscriptions from many Presbyterian churchyards have been published in one form or another. The Ulster Historical Foundation has published the inscriptions from more than 50 Presbyterian churchyards in County Down as well as several more in County Antrim. These are available on its History from Headstones Online website (www.historyfromheadstones.com). Irish World Ltd has also transcribed many gravestone inscriptions and these are available online at www.irishgenealogy.ie. A number of local historical societies have also been involved in transcribing and publishing gravestone inscriptions.