Notable Clergy

Reverend Dr. Adam Clarke

Adam Clarke was a native of Moybeg, near Maghera, but in 1779 lived at Cappagh close to Flowerfield House in Portstewart. Following his conversion to faith in God, Adam Clarke preached in the immediate area. He had been apprenticed to a Coleraine draper called Bennett but, in 1782, on the recommendation of the Superintendent of the Londonderry circuit, he was invited to England, by John Wesley, to take up training and in September of that year became a Methodist preacher in the Bradford upon Avon circuit (near Bath but in Wiltshire).

He was to serve only eleven months probation, less than one quarter of the usual period, before being accepted into “Full Connexion”, the youngest man to receive this degree of approval, at the Methodist Conference of 1783. From then he served as an itinerant preacher in various circuits until his appointment as Superintendent in Bristol in 1789. In 1790 he was appointed Superintendent in Dublin, a position regarded as the senior in all Ireland.

Clarke was a man of exceptional ability and in 1795 he was appointed to London. Clarke had been gaining a reputation as a Classical scholar and here he began his vast range of literary works: a huge six volume commentary covering every book of the Bible; Persian, Hebrew and Greek grammars; a history of the Wesley family; and many more. His scholarly reputation continued to grow and in 1802 he was asked to help decipher the Rosetta Stone, which was eventually found to contain the key to the under­standing of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

In 1806 he was elected for the first time to the Presidency of the Methodist Conference and in the same year was appointed a member of the committee of the British and Foreign Bible Society. He helped in the preparation of Arabic, Syriac and Greek language Bibles and also advocated the printing of the Bible in Irish. He was in the forefront of the government of the church; and as a member of many learned societies he had contact with many very eminent people. He was thus in a position to wield considerable influence.

It had become a habit of Dr. Clarke’s, on each of his excursions to Ireland, to visit his boyhood haunts. He did so in 1816 and again in 1823 and in about 1830 decided to settle in Portstewart when he retired.

From 1825, Dr. Clarke had had responsibility for the work of the Methodist Church in the Shetland Islands. He found the needs of the people there as much material and educational as spiritual and set out to answer them by setting up schools as well as churches.

In 1830, about the time he was thinking of returning to his native shore, he was implored by Mr. Harpur, the Superintendent at Coleraine, to begin a similar work in the northernmost parts of Ireland. All things came together: Dr. Clarke’s abilities and influence, his feelings for his native country and his inclination to settle there. It was decided to establish six schools in places around Coleraine where no “school… existed or where any class of religious people was making any attempt to educate the poor.”

These schools were to be at Cashel, near Macosquin, Prolusk, near Ballintoy, Lissan, near Ballycastle, Billy, near Bushmills, Gorran, near Aghadowey and, as Dr. Clarke later wrote:

“. . . on the sea-coast parts of the county Antrim, Port-Rush, and its vicinity, where there was a large and rapidly-increasing population3, owing to their enlarging the port, and carrying out a breakwater to defend it, and where for miles there was no school of any kind, nor any sort of instruction, and where consequently, ignorance and vice had almost an uncontrolled sway.”

Of the six places chosen, Dr. Clarke wrote . . .

“… the Port Rush district seemed to be the most destitute of all, and therefore I begged the Rev. S. Harpur to procure for me a proper teacher for a school in that place; and as the excellent persons who had wished me to enter into this labor of love, desired me, if possible, to procure Methodist Local Preachers as teachers of the schools, in order that they might by their qualifications be capable instructors of the children, and by their grace and endowments be no less able to spread religious knowledge among the parents; — I entreated Mr. H. to look for men suitable in all these respects . . .

Early in 1831, Mr. Harpur, reported to Dr. Clarke.

Dear Doctor,

We have commenced our school in Port Rush, the people were growing impatient, and although it blew a hurricane and was piercingly cold, thirty-seven children came and were for the most part accompanied by their parents: I mentioned to them your object, and what you, assisted by some English friends, contemplated, the regulations for attendance &c &c. All these things were cordially agreed to; and although the weather from that time has been unusually severe, the children are encreasing in numbers rapidly. The teacher has commenced his labors in the fear of God, and is remarkably well received both as a master and a public Christian teacher.

In April 1831, Adam Clarke himself visited the schools. From the description in his journal the people and children of Portrush had undergone a miraculous change under the influence of the school and its schoolmaster/ preacher. The children were clean, even to their bare feet; all eighty of them, about equal numbers of boys and girls; and they were “all behaving with the utmost decorum . . . wicked words are no longer heard, and decency of behaviour is everywhere observable … “. This change was attested by “some of the principal inhabitants” who bore witness “to the great good . .. produced by this school not solely among the children but also among their parents.”

Dr. Clarke was, at this time, attempting to improve the accommodation: “… I am struggling hard to get them a piece of ground on which a chapel and school-house may be erected, and I believe I shall ultimately succeed.” While he was pleased with the spiritual development of the children he was gratified also by the educational success of the enterprise. The children “are now brought under teaching and discipline: all learning to read, and improving rapidly; several were acquiring writing, and casting accounts …”

The building was begun in the spring of 1832 and despite illness, Dr. Clarke visited it — the only one of the schools his illness allowed him to.

June 14. — … I purposed to attempt a visit to Port Rush and Port Stuart. … I got to the place where the edifice, which is intended for a chapel and school-house, is now at the square in building, and looks well.

He did not see the town or his school again; he returned to England and died in September. Shortly before his death he received reports from the masters of his Irish schools, among them one from James Devers of Portrush; the figures indicate the average of the numbers of pupils who attend and are studying the subject; presumably those who were learning to write or figure were already proficient in other areas.

Alphabet 8, Spelling 22, Reading 18, Writing 14, Arithmetic 12. The School-house which will serve for a chapel is now in building: the place at present occupied is too small: in the fine weather several children sit out of doors: they are all remarkably well behaved and make great progress in learning. Average attendance 74. Total in this school 100.13

Following Adam Clarke’s death, the chapel-school (and the others in the area) were handed over to the Missionary Committee of the Methodist Church who had them inspected by the Rev. Elijah Hoole.

He found Portrush impressive:

None of the schools already mentioned, presents a more imposing or interesting appearance than that at Port-Rush. In some respects it exceeds them all…. the school­room and chapel, for it answers both purposes, attracts the attention on entering Port-Rush, on the road from Coleraine. It is a neat and substantial stone-building, forty-two feet long and twenty-two feet broad, in the clear. The entrance, which looks out upon the northern sea, is by several stone steps, on which rests a portico of very neat appearance. The roof is of slate, and leaded: the whole is surmounted by a handsome belfry, supported by pillars, which the Doctor promised to furnish with a bell of superior tone which he had received from Russia.

Portrush Methodist Church is one of a very few Methodist churches in Ireland to have a bell. Its arrival here was the result of a suggestion by that redoubtable lady, Rebecca Rice. She commented to Dr. Clarke that all was needed to complete his chapel-school was a bell to fill the little cupola on its roof. He is said to have “paused a short time, and then said that he had a bell, which had been given him by the Duke of Newcastle, and which it was supposed had been given to the Earl of Durham, Russian Ambassador, by Alexander I., Czar of Russia.

The bell must have been for a lengthened period in the possession of the Russian Imperial Family, as it was manufactured in Amsterdam in the year 1681. As it was presented to Dr. Clarke for the use of a Methodist Church, he said he would give it to Miss Rice for the use of the church at Portrush.”

This bell has provided a tangible and audible link with Portrush Methodist Church’s founder ever since. It hung in the chapel-school and it now hangs in the vestibule of the present church in a position where its famous inscription may be readily read:

1681, Franciscus Legillon Mammes Fremy Me Fecit Amstelodam

Extracted from “Methodist in Portrush” by Mr John Moulden 1987

Reverend Jonathan Simpson

The need for a new congregation to be organised within the growing town of Portrush, along with the provision of a suitable meeting house, had been noted by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the 1830s.

Ballywillan Presbyterian Church, established in the 17th century to serve what was then a rural community, was a mile outside the rapidly expanding urban area, not to mention being at the top of a hill. Initially, evening services for Presbyterians were held during the summer months, in the Methodist chapel, of course. Rev. James Huey of Ballywillan took a keen interest in the establishment of this fledgling congregation and frequently conducted these services.

In 1842 the Presbytery of Coleraine invited Rev. Jonathan Simpson of Aghadowey to become the first minister of Portrush. He was a young man, ordained just two years previously, and he later admitted that it was with reluctance that he accepted the call. He found at Portrush a congregation of around 250, a debt of just over £64 and no church. A start had been made on a building but the money ran out, leaving about two feet of brickwork. The nearby Methodist meeting house/schoolroom was used for worship, the building being shared with two other denominations. Jonathan Simpson first preached there on Christmas Day 1842 and it is recorded that the collection on that first Sunday amounted to one shilling and three and a half pence (about seven and a half pence in modern money). Two days later, he was formally installed by the Presbytery in a service in the same church.
Presbyterians were to continue to enjoy Methodist hospitality for four years, but on 22 June 1843 Mr. Simpson sailed for America from which blossoming nation many messages of support had been received. In the course of a year’s preaching tour, Mr. Simpson visited 22 states in the US and Canada, covering more than 7,000 miles and raising £1,150. In September 1844 the fledgling Portrush congregation entered its new church free of debt.
Over the next few years Mr. Simpson returned to America three times, as a result of which a manse, school/lecture hall and teacher’s house were provided. The church building was then more than doubled in size in 1861 to cope with increasing congregations.
A powerful man of God, Jonathan Simpson was also somewhat eccentric in his ways and many tales are told of his unusual manner of preaching and praying – with unnecessary words left out – and his communion with the Almighty was often surprisingly informal. He was once heard to murmur with some irritation: “Lord, this is too much!” when a sudden shower of hail struck the windows of the church just as he was praying for a good harvest. He was known to go into a detailed description of someone he was praying for so that the Lord might know exactly to whom he was referring!

A strong swimmer, he saved around a dozen lives from drowning in both sea and river in the course of his life and will always be remembered with great gratitude in Portrush for the campaign he waged to have the lifeboat retained at the port in 1863. He eventually became the Portrush Lifeboat Station honorary secretary (operations manager) for 30 years, winning several awards. Despite seafaring exploits with the lifeboat – he went out as often as he could – he is said to have been a poor sailor. This did not stop him capping his four transatlantic trips with a voyage round the world when he was 76! His many adventures are related in a fascinating autobiography Annals of My Life published when he was in his eighties.

Rev. Simpson ministered in Portrush with much success for 50 years. He never married and retired in 1890. On 22 December 1900 he passed away in the manse at the age of 84.

Extracted from “Portrush – The Port on the promontory” by Mr Hugh McGrattan 2015