Rev Alexander McCracken of Lisburn

An Article by Dr William Roulston

The emergence of a Scotch Presbyterian identity in Lisburn was initially against a backdrop of official hostility. Sir George Rawdon, the most powerful figure on the ground in Lisburn, was particularly hostile to Presbyterianism and in the late 1670s turned down a request from dissenters in the town to build a meeting house. Nonetheless the Presbyterian presence in the town increased in strength in the following decade and by 1687 the Presbyterians there felt ready for a minister of their own.

At a meeting of the Antrim Presbytery in April 1687 two commissioners from Lisburn, William Livingstone and John McKneight, requested ministerial support ‘in order to their being planted with a Gospel minister’. Livingstone is known to have been a merchant in Lisburn and was the nephew of Rev. Henry Livingstone, Presbyterian minister in Drumbo who was himself the son of the famous Rev. John Livingstone of Killinchy. It is possible that McKneight was the father of William McKnight who was born in Lisburn in 1685 and went on to become minister of Irvine in Scotland in 1709, where he remained until his death in 1750.

Initially the Lisburn congregation showed an interest in calling Rev. John Munro of Carnmoney, but Presbytery refused to allow them to do so as Munro seemed disinclined to accept and because it was felt that it would be difficult to replace him at Carnmoney. Instead, in November of that year, a call was presented to Alexander McCracken. Nothing at all is known of his family background. It has been said that he came from Scotland, though County Antrim has also been suggested as his place of birth. A tradition is that Henry Joy McCracken was of the same family. McCracken was educated at Edinburgh University where he graduated MA in 1673. He had been licensed in 1684 and in 1686 had turned down a call to the congregations of Duneane and Grange.

On the first Tuesday in July 1688 McCracken was ordained minister in Lisburn. Rev. Patrick Adair of Belfast, author of A true narrative of the rise of progress of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the most important account of the early development of Presbyterianism in Ireland, presided on this occasion. Prior to his ordination, some questions had been raised on his suitability as a minister. Four Lisburn Presbyterians objected to him on theological grounds. An investigation found no cause for concern and the dissidents backed down. During the troubles of 1688-89 he withdrew to Scotland for a time, preaching in Glasgow; he was back in Lisburn by May 1690.

In 1703 he had refused to take the Abjuration Oath and preached against it. He was one of number of Presbyterians who had reservations on this oath, believing that to swear it would be to recognise the Establish Church and also because it required acceptance as a fact that the Prince of Wales was not the son of James II. McCracken was strongly criticised for his refusal to take the oath by a neighbouring Presbyterian minister, Rev. John Malcome of Dunmurry, a firm supporter of the oath. Their dispute came before the Synod of Ulster in June 1704 and McCracken was admonished and Malcome rebuked.

For many years McCracken corresponded with Joshua Dawson, Secretary in Dublin Castle. One of his most interesting letters deals with the fire in Lisburn on 20 April 1707. The fire had begun while the inhabitants of the town had been at worship. Quickly returning to their homes, they gathered up their belongings and headed to the Church of Ireland churchyard believing it to be a place of refuge. However, the fire spreading to the church, their goods were destroyed. On 22 April McCracken wrote to Dawson:

This acquaints you of that terrible and sudden fire that broke out in this place on Sunday last, which in the space of little more than three hours consumed the whole town into ashes, so that, from that end which leadeth to Moyra (save a few houses in the utmost end) until you come to the other end next Belfast, there is not a standing house, except the Market-House, nor is there one standing in the other street which leadeth into the county of Down ; yea, the flames flew from the Castle into that part of the town that stood in the county of Down, so that the whole is consumed, only 4 houses in that end next Belfast, [one] of which is that house I formerly dwelt in, when Mrs Colt was with me. But the house I now dwell in was amongst the first burnt in the town. We were surprised or we might have saved more than we did. I have now a room in a house about a mile out of the town, where I find fewer chambers serve than formerly. This is a very sore and sudden stroke upon this place, and I pray God, none may ever experience the like. There are many families wholely broken, and several had not so much as to buy bread to their children last market day.

A fortnight later in response to Dawson’s enquiry about how much he had salvaged from the fire, McCracken wrote:

I have saved most of my books and my beds, so that we want not to set up again, if it please God to favour us with longer life. As for other things, we are at some loss, to about £40, but I am not so much to be bemoaned as many families who are quite broken, being in debt to others, & the effects lost, the standing of the people would be mine; but what is to be expected of a people whose habitations are ruinous and all lying in ashes, nor is it probable we can recover if not assisted by others.

In response to this letter Dawson sent him a gift of £5. McCracken again wrote to Dawson in early August observing that in the aftermath of the fire ‘my whole congregation is brought low, of which the town is the principal part’, adding:

The expectations of a charitable supply from others is that which keeps us up & together. My Lord Conway is very encouraging, giving freely what timber is necessary, for building, & gives leases of 41 years to those who have none. I have as yet come to no terms with him, for any particular of my own, only the Congregation have been with him, and he hath granted them a lease for the Meeting House, but as to my house, there is nothing done, and I am in a strait what to do, for building, I fear, will exceed what I can well do, and I am growing crazy, and also under some circumstances different from many others …

Problems arose in the following years over monies collected in the aftermath of the fire to assist those left destitute and to rebuild the town. It appears that McCracken was sent to the general assembly of the Church of Scotland seeking financial assistance. Questions were subsequently raised about donations received by McCracken, and he was instructed by the authorities to provide a list of donors and the amounts offered.

McCracken wrote to Dawson on this matter in March 1710 stating that ‘if the donors will allow, I shall give in their names and sums, but if not, I cannot do it, and further, if any have given us any money that was collected for any other but ourselves, we shall refund.’ He also set out the position, as he understood it, on the matter of the reconstruction of the Presbyterian meeting house:

We do own that we have received money for the building of our Meeting-House, both from those of the Established Church and from Presbyterians; and think that seeing it was given out all along, that the church was to be built by subscriptions, and our Meeting-House was to be built out of the public. … we think it hard, we may not receive the charity of our friends.

McCracken had other problems at this time. The question of his refusal to take the Abjuration Oath again resurfaced. McCracken concluded his above letter to Dawson in March 1710 with concerns that action was going to be taken against him on account of his refusal to take the oath, commenting ‘I would rather live in Ireland than elsewhere. But, if that cannot be, I must think of somewhere else.’

The next letter that we have from McCracken to Dawson was written from Stranraer on 21 September 1710. The Lisburn minister had fled to Scotland – where the Abjuration Oath was not imposed – to escape imprisonment on the ‘malice of two young Justices’. It is reported that after being arrested he asked permission to speak to the bishop of Down and Connor, whose house he was being escorted past. This request was granted, but McCracken, having entered through the front, escaped through the back door. He then went on to London to plead his case before returning to Scotland.

By the spring of 1713 he felt it was safe to return to Lisburn and resume his ministerial career. Things did not work out as he had hoped. On 3 August 1713 Captain Brent Spencer wrote to Westenra Waring:

I cannot help telling you of the late insolence of Mr McCracken. He has bin in this town about 3 weeks, and on Sunday 26 of last month, had the assurance to preach 3 times, which was more than usual, and great numbers from all parts came to countenance his return; and [I] being informed he would preach again on Sunday last, sent for the 2 Constables, and gave them Judge Coote’s Warrant to take him, tho’ on Sunday, and in the Meeting House, accordingly the constables went on Sunday morning, but the outward gates and doors of the Meeting-House were shut, and he did preach or teach, and the Constables could not take him; And it’s my opinion if they had got him, he had bin rescued. And I do believe the Constables had lost their lives, for I am well assured the Congregation would have rescued him, and they gave out they would. He is resolved to continue here and preach, and I have not force enough to take him, so that I think it proper, to order a Company of Foot from Belfast, if the Government thinks fit, for you cannot conceive with what insolence he and his elders behave. I sent him word on Saturday by 2 of his elders, that I would order the Constables to take him, and desired them to tell him not to preach, but his answer was that he would.

McCracken was subsequently arrested and relates his treatment to Dawson:

I was taken in to the town to the constable’s house, where I staid all night, when I went to bed the guard was sent into the room, so that I could have no rest. I rose and put on my clothes and then they went out. After some time I went to bed, and then they came in again. I asked why they did so. They told me they were ordered so to do, and then I rose and sat up all night.

The next morning McCracken asked to be taken to his own house to collect some of his belongings, but this was refused. He was then escorted to Drum bridge where he was met by the High Sheriff and sent to prison in Carrickfergus. At his trial he was found guilty and fined £500 and jailed for six months. On his release he again refused to take the Abjuration Oath and so was imprisoned until 1716.

McCracken continued to be a controversial figure within the Presbyterian Church and was a strong opponent of the non-subscribing element within the denomination. One historian has commented that he was ‘one of the loudest, nastiest opponents of the nonsubscribers during the 1720s.’ He was the author of The Confession of Faith reduced to question and answer (1726). His conduct was such that at his death in November 1730 his congregation in Lisburn had been left badly divided, and was one of the factors that led to the success of the Seceders in the Lisburn area. The historian Robert Wodrow wrote of him: ‘He was my father’s friend, and I had the advantage of his letters more then twenty years. He was a firm honest Scots Presbyterian, and though he has served God and his generation long, it’s realty a loss when such are removed.’

We are most grateful to Dr William Roulston, a member of the Council of the Presbyterian Historical Society, for giving us permission to reproduce this article.