Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster

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Distinct from Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland and Free Church of Scotland (post 1900)

Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster
Transparent Free Pres Logo.png
OrientationFundamentalist Calvinism
ModeratorJohn Armstrong
AssociationsWhitefield College of the Bible
Regionmainly Northern Ireland but also Great Britain[1]
FounderIan Paisley
Origin17 March 1951
Crossgar, Northern Ireland
Separated fromPresbyterian Church in Ireland
  • 61 (Northern Ireland)[2]
  • 22 (elsewhere)[3]

The Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster (Irish: Eaglais Phreispitéireach Saor Uladh) is a Calvinist denomination founded by Ian Paisley in 1951.[note 1] Doctrinally, the church describes itself as fundamentalist, evangelical, and separatist, and is part of the reformed fundamentalist movement. Most of its members live in Northern Ireland, where the church is headquartered, and in County Donegal. The church has additional congregations in the Republic of Ireland, Great Britain and Australia,[3] and a sister denomination in North America that has congregations in Canada and the United States. It also has a sister denomination in Nepal which was formed from the Nepal mission to the Unreached in November 2013.[4]

John Armstrong was Deputy Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church, and became Moderator in 2020, with Colin Mercer from Omagh as Deputy Moderator; Armstrong succeeded Gordon Dane, minister of the founding church in Crossgar.


The Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster began on 17 March 1951 (St Patrick's Day) as the result of a conflict between some members of the local Lissara Presbyterian[5] congregation in Crossgar, County Down, Northern Ireland, and the Down Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. At a meeting on 8 January 1951, the Down Presbytery banned the elders of the local congregation from using the church hall for a Gospel mission. When two elders refused to accept the Presbytery decision, they were immediately suspended. As a result of this disagreement with the Presbytery, five of the seven session members, all the Sunday School teachers, and 60 members of the congregation withdrew from the Down Presbytery and the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.[6]

College lecturers of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland have suggested that the above story, though often quoted, is incomplete. While the Gospel Mission was a reason for the breakaway church forming, the Presbytery objection was not to the Mission or to the Gospel, but to the invited preacher, Ian Paisley. The Lissara Mission went ahead with a different preacher and Lissara Presbyterian Church continued to exist (albeit with fewer members), and a number of dissenting members later returned. However Free Presbyterians from Crossgar dispute that there ever was such a mission.

Lisburn Free Presbyterian Church

The departing elders felt the Presbyterian Church in Ireland denomination was inconsistent in allowing dances and parties to be held in the church halls while at the same time refusing a Gospel mission under the leadership of Ian Paisley. The Free Presbyterian Manifesto, which was published during the time leading up to the founding of the new church, also mentioned other reasons for the secession, such as the failure of the 1927 heresy trial in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) to unseat Professor Davey for his controversial views, membership in the World Council of Churches (which the PCI later left), and poll irregularities in the election of elders.[7] In that year, under the leadership of Paisley, four new congregations joined to form the Presbytery of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster.

Sydney Lince served as Moderator of the new church for a few months, but perceiving that Paisley was keen to take on the role, he stood down and asked Paisley to replace him.[8] One of the inaugural elders of the new church, George Gibson, was expelled for his views on the doctrines of holiness as he was an Arminian, and subsequently rejoined Lissara Presbyterian Church in 1958. He had been the first secretary of the new church, had served as the architect of the first church building in the new denomination, and his office had been used as the registered office of the denomination.[9]

Recent history[edit]

Internal strife[edit]

The appointment of Paisley as First Minister of Northern Ireland in May 2007 led to a great deal of controversy within the Free Presbyterian Church. Many members of the church claimed that such an appointment put Paisley, as Moderator, at odds with many of the core beliefs of his church. The church had declared some years previously that it would be unbiblical to have terrorists or ex-terrorists in the government of Northern Ireland. The church is also strongly opposed to homosexuality, yet the First Minister's office is responsible for protecting LGBT rights in Northern Ireland. One of Paisley's strongest critics was his erstwhile ally and former prison cellmate Ivan Foster. A stormy meeting of the Presbytery of the church in September 2007 resolved the crisis by agreeing that Paisley would step down as Moderator in January 2008. The Presbytery met in Dungannon on 18 January 2008 to elect a new Moderator and selected Ron Johnstone, who had been Deputy Moderator. Paisley was therefore replaced as Moderator after more than 50 years in the post.[10]

Opposition to homosexuality[edit]

Following a number of high-profile comments made by Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) Member of Parliament (MP) Iris Robinson, the Advertising Standards Authority upheld a finding that an advertisement placed by the Kirk Session of the Sandown Free Presbyterian Church breached advertising codes. The church had taken out the 540-word advertisement in the News Letter on 1 August 2008 (one day before the annual Belfast Gay Pride event) describing "homosexuality as an abomination, defined homosexuals as perverts and called on religious followers to maintain a very public stance against the gay community."[11] The decision was later overturned and the church cleared of all wrongdoing.[12]


The church adheres to Calvinist doctrines. It also self-describes as fundamentalist which it sees as an appropriate term to describe its stance of being anti-liberal. Fundamentalism has evolved over the years to where the original five essential doctrines that one had to hold to be considered fundamentalist—namely: the inerrancy of the Bible, the literal nature of the Biblical accounts, the Virgin Birth of Christ, the bodily resurrection and physical return of Christ, the substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross—were mixed with "biblical separatism", a doctrine that advocates avoiding any public or private worship with people of other denominations that it considers apostates or heretics. At the start of Paisley's ministry this separatism was focused heavily on the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, a denomination from which it drew many of its initial members. For the FPC, the main target of its doctrinal ire, however, has always been and still continues to be the Roman Catholic Church. From 2011 until 2015, its main website greeted visitors with a statement on the FPC's disapproval of the Catholic Mass, disputing "the false notion... that there is little difference" between the Mass and Protestant communion.[13]

Baptism and the Lord's Supper are recognised as sacraments of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster. Members are allowed to determine the proper mode (immersion, pouring, sprinkling) and subjects (adult believers or believers' children) that they prefer, but the church does not adhere to baptismal regeneration. The Lord's Supper is observed monthly, unless a local congregation prefers a more frequent observance. The ordinance of woman's headcovering is observed.[14] Alongside the Free Presbyterian Articles of Faith, the Westminster Standards are considered doctrinal standards subordinate to the Bible.[15]

For many outside the church, political and religious opposition to the Catholic Church, considered by the Free Presbyterians to be a Protestant Reformation principle represents the single most distinctive characteristic of this denomination, not least because this was a distinctive characteristic of Ian Paisley's own theological outlook.


The FPC (on 18 May 2005) published a Book of Church Order in which its governmental policies and procedures are set forth publicly.[16]

The polity of the FPC includes allowing a cleric such as Paisley to hold an apparently indefinite term of office as Moderator. However, following a dispute over Paisley's political activities, he agreed to step down as Moderator in January 2008. He was succeeded by Ron Johnstone.[17] The North American branch of the denomination has elected its own moderator since 2005.

Churches worldwide[edit]

From four churches in 1951, the denomination grew and peaked at 75 by 1997. Today[when?] it has about 60 congregations in Northern Ireland and a total of about 100 throughout the world, including England, Scotland, the Republic of Ireland (chiefly in County Donegal and County Monaghan), Canada, the United States, Nepal and Australia. According to the 2011 Northern Ireland census, 10,068 people identified as Free Presbyterian in Northern Ireland.[18] As of 2004, missionaries were serving in India, Jamaica, Kenya, the Republic of Ireland, Spain, the Philippines and Germany.[19] Since then new mission fields opened in Liberia, Nepal and Uganda.

In Kenya, the church's 4 missionaries work with the Bible Christian Faith Church. In Liberia the forming Free Presbyterian Church in Liberia has 4 congregations.[20][21]

The church currently[when?] operates two Bible colleges for the training of ministers and missionaries. These are the Whitefield College of the Bible, formerly based in Banbridge, County Down, but now relocated to Belfast, and the Geneva Reformed Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina, USA.

The church in North America has been independent of the Ulster Presbytery since 2005, and has its own Moderator. Frank McClelland was the first Moderator, and was succeeded in 2006 by David Mook (a minister in Phoenix, Arizona). The two Presbyteries are in full communion with each other. A Free Presbyterian International Congress was held 19–23 June 2006 in Martyrs Memorial Free Presbyterian Church in Belfast, attended by Free Presbyterians from all over the world. The Nepal Free Presbyterian Church elects its own Moderator, currently[when?] the Paul Thapa. This Presbytery is also in full communion with the other two.

Church layout[edit]

Free Presbyterian Churches are usually of simple design, following Protestant ideals dating back to the Reformation. This contrasts with traditional Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches, which tend to be ornamented. The church states that this shows humility and allows the member to focus on worship.

Interior of Tandragee Free Presbyterian Church

Churches usually include the following:

  • Pulpit – Generally centre focal point, adorned with a pulpit fall.
  • Communion table – Sits in the centre of the church, at the front, usually in front of the pulpit (if the pulpit is in the middle).
  • Pews – These differ in design and shape.
  • Organ/piano – Nearly all churches will have some sort of musical accompaniment. This is usually a piano, with larger churches owning an organ.
  • Verse of Scripture – A verse of the Bible is placed on the wall behind the pulpit, where it is most visible. This can be painted or letters which are affixed to the wall.
  • Prayer room/crèche – A prayer room is located via a different door to the main hall. Depending on the financial capabilities of the church, the prayer room and crèche may be together. The crèche is used for young children, and has a window whereby one can see the preacher, and perhaps a speaker system for audio.
  • Depending on the size and finances of the church, there may be additional rooms such as Youth Fellowship rooms, Sunday School rooms, and kitchens.


Burning bush logo and motto

The motto of the Free Presbyterian Church is the same as the Presbyterian Church in Ireland: Ardens sed virens ("burning but flourishing"). It is incorporated in a scroll form on the logo, shown here.

In all Free Presbyterian Churches, the pulpit fall bears the motto and logo of the Church, albeit in slightly different designs.


  • Sydney Lince – 1951
  • Ian Paisley – 1951–2008
  • Ron Johnstone – 2008–2012
  • John Greer – 2012–2015
  • Thomas Murray – 2015–2018
  • Gordon Dane – 2018–2020
  • John Armstrong – 2020


Glynn Moore and Sharon Dick, The History of Crossgar Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, A New Beginning ..(Crossgar, Co. Down: Crossgar Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, 2001) ISBN 1-84030-116-3

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Paisley founded both the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster and the Democratic Unionist Party; however they are not officially linked, and DUP politicians are not necessarily church members.


  1. ^ "Free Presbyterian Churches". Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster. Archived from the original on 9 August 2016. Retrieved 2 May 2014.
  2. ^ "Church List". Presbyterian Church of Ulster. Archived from the original on 9 August 2016. Retrieved 20 February 2013.
  3. ^ a b "Free Presbyterian Church Information Page". Free Presbyterian Church. Archived from the original on 21 September 2013. Retrieved 20 February 2013.
  4. ^ "Nepal" (PDF). FPC Mission. Archived (PDF) from the original on 26 January 2016. Retrieved 16 December 2016.
  5. ^ "What's New - Lissara Presbyterian Church". Archived from the original on 17 January 2007. Retrieved 20 February 2011.
  6. ^ "Free Presbyterian Church - About us". Archived from the original on 11 April 2011. Retrieved 20 February 2011.
  7. ^ Moore and Dick, pp26–30
  8. ^ Smyth, Clifford (1987). Ian Paisley: Voice of Protestant Ulster. p. 5. ISBN 9780707304991.
  9. ^ Moore and Dick, pp151–152
  10. ^ "Church elects new moderator". BBC News. 19 January 2008. Archived from the original on 8 September 2017. Retrieved 19 January 2008.
  11. ^ "Free Presbyterian advert ignites fresh anti-gay storm". Belfast Telegraph. Archived from the original on 11 August 2008. Retrieved 22 September 2008.
  12. ^ "Judge overturns ASA sodomy ad ban decision". BBC News. 22 March 2011. Archived from the original on 10 November 2018. Retrieved 20 June 2018.
  13. ^ "FPC website June 2011". Archived from the original on 18 June 2011.
  14. ^ "Distinctives". Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster. Retrieved 12 July 2022.
  15. ^ "Free Presbyterian Church - FPC Articles of Faith". Archived from the original on 9 August 2016. Retrieved 8 October 2013.
  16. ^ "FPC Book of Church Order". Archived from the original on 9 September 2012. Retrieved 8 October 2013.
  17. ^ "Report of Rev. Ivan Foster's visit to Czech Republic and Romania". July 2012. Archived from the original on 22 July 2012.
  18. ^ "Religion - Full Detail: QS218NI (OpenDocument spreadsheet)". Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA). 2011. Archived from the original on 9 September 2021. Retrieved 20 June 2021.
  19. ^ "Free Presbyterian Church - Church Information". Archived from the original on 9 August 2016. Retrieved 8 October 2013.
  20. ^ "Kenya | Free Presbyterian Church of Indianapolis". Archived from the original on 19 September 2013. Retrieved 8 October 2013.
  21. ^ "Liberia | Free Presbyterian Church of Indianapolis". Archived from the original on 19 September 2013. Retrieved 8 October 2013.

External links[edit]