For many years the only record of the life and ministry of Reformed Presbyterian ministers was to be found in a notebook in the handwriting of the late Rev. James McConnell. The work, while bearing the stamp of Mr. McConnell’s painstaking research and careful compilation, was rather incomplete and some of the notes were mere fragments. Some years ago at the suggestion of some friends in the Presbyterian Historical Society I undertook the preparation of a Fasti of Reformed Presbyterian ministers. The first part has just been published jointly by the Presbyterian Historical Society and the Committee on Church History of the Reformed Presbyterian Church.
The size of the publication, some 16 pages, makes a small contribution to historical literature, but it represents a great amount of effort. The historically minded will readily understand that genealogical research is a time consuming and sometimes frustrating occupation. The main sources of information are the obituary notices in the Press and in Church magazines. The difficulty that confronts the student of history lies in the fact that 19th century obituary notices were eulogies full of purple patches in which facts were few and far between. We turn, for instance, to a copy of the Covenanter of 1875.
We note in the index that on page 160 there is an obituary of the Rev. John Smith. We are hopeful that the record will supply the facts that are looked for. We find instead that John Smith was born towards the end of the previous century of excellent parentage; that after passing through various unnamed local schools he had a fine scholastic record and graduated with academic distinction; that he was licensed to preach the gospel; that after serving the Church of his fathers for more than 50 years he passed away peacefully after a brief illness. With records like these, and there are many of this sort, the historiographer's work is like that of making bricks without straw!
Yet research of this nature gives unexpected pleasures and rewards and the writer is stimulated with the sense of satisfaction that Old Mortality must have felt on the hills and moors of Scotland, as yet another tribute in stone to a worthy saint of God was uncovered and adorned by loving hands.
The fasti’s earliest subject is David Houston, the turbulent contemporary of Cameron and Renwick, who, though a thorn in the flesh of the Route Presbytery, earned the fine tribute from Renwick : “As for Mr. David, he carries himself very straight”. Others of outstanding interest are William Martin, the first Irish Covenanter to be ordained, and William Staveley, “the apostle of the Covenanters”, who in an effective ministry from 1772 to 1825 was responsible for founding twelve congregations.
It is hoped at a later date to complete the record by issuing a second part dealing with ministers of the Eastern Reformed Presbyterian Synod, and ministers of the R.P. Church of North America who were born in Ireland.
This article was originally published in The Bulletin of the Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland, December 1970.