WHO LABOURED DURING THE LATTER HALF OF THE
REV. SAMUEL FERGUSON, B.A.
JAMES MONTGOMERY, BOOKSELLER, CARLISLE ROAD.
THE REV. WILLIAM STAVELY. THE subject of this sketch was born at Ferniskey, a townland near Kells, County Antrim, in the year 1743, just two years before the last effort of the Stuarts to regain the throne of England was shattered by the battle of Culloden. His father was Aaron Stavely, whose family had originally come from the neighbourhood of the town of Stavely in England’. Aaron Stavely owned a small freehold property at Ferniskey, and was in comfortable worldly circumstances. He was brought up an Episcopalian, but became a Covenanter from conviction, and having joined the fellowship of the Covenanting Church, remained until the end of his life a consistent, pious, and respectable member of the Church of his deliberate choice. William Stavely’s mother was a daughter of the Rev. Patrick Vance, Presbyterian minister of Ray, County Donegal. Mr. Vance had been ordained as assistant and successor of Rev. Mr. Campbell, who was minister of Ray at the time of the siege of Derry in 16882.
Mr. Vance died in 1741, about the time of his daughter’s marriage to Aaron Stavely. William Stavely was the only son of the family, which consisted altogether of three children, the other two being Esther, afterwards Mrs. Agnew, who, with her husband, emigrated to New York, and Eliza, who married Mr. Cussack, and with her husband also emigrated to America. Aaron Stavely and his wife early dedicated their only son to God in the work of the ministry of the Covenanting Church, and determined to give him the best education their circumstances could afford. He was sent to a classical school at Antrim as soon as he was able to go, and was maintained there in lodgings, travelling home to Ferniskey generally at the week end that he might not be altogether sundered from home influences. His progress in his studies was rapid, and his perseverance some-what remarkable. The only serious illness he had in his long life was a fever he contracted during his early stay at Antrim. He was overtaken with weakness when going to his father’s on a Saturday afternoon, and, being unable to make his way home, he went to a house by the roadside, and could not be removed for three weeks, until a dangerous fever from which he was suffering had subsided. Whether this illness had any permanent influence on his character we do not know, but we do know that it did not interrupt his studies, even for one month, after his restoration to health, or change his purpose of preparing for the ministry. In due time he entered Glasgow University, where he completed the curriculum required from arts students at the time. If he graduated M.A. no record remains of the fact. It is more than probable that he did not, as he never claimed a degree from his Alma Mater.
Having fulfilled the requisite course of literary and scientific, as well as theological, training, he was licensed in December, 1769, and after acting as probationer nearly two years, he received a call from the “Covenanted Electors between the Bridge of Dromore and Donaghadee, in the County Down.” This call, of which until lately copies were extant, was signed by 92 persons, and accepted by Mr. Stavely, who was twenty-nine years of age at the time. The ordination took place at Conlig in August, 1772. Among the ministers pre-sent on the occasion we have heard the names of Revs. W. Martin, William James, and Thomas Hamilton. Soon the bounds of his pastoral charge were enlarged beyond the limits named in the call, and extended to Newry and Ballybay. After a time Knockbracken, four miles from Belfast, came to be recognised as the centre of his charge, and there the church was built about 1776. Subsequently an acre of ground was obtained on lease from the landlord, R. M’Neill, Esq., as a burying place.
The years brought changes. Rev. William James and Rev. Thomas Hamilton died in 1779; Revs. William Martin and Matthew Lynn emi-grated to America, the former in the end of 1772, the latter, with Rev. A. Dobbin, in 1773; and Rev. Robert Young, though labouring in Ireland, had no fixed charge, so that Stavely was the only remain-ing ministerial member of the Irish Reformed Presbytery. Consequently this Presbytery, which had been formed in 1763, now became extinct, and the question arose, What was to be done? Mr. Stavely quickly decided that the only course open was to resume connection with the Scottish Presbytery, and the minutes of that court for 178o state that, being met at Stirling, the submission of the congregations in Ireland was received. In 1776 Mr. Stavely married Miss Mary Donald, of Irishtown (Marymount), near Antrim, and after his marriage he settled at Annsborough House, near Newtownbreda, then a village quite two miles from Belfast, though now, it is needless to say, the very farm and house Mr. Stavely owned is included in the municipal limits of the city. His home at Annsborough was a happy one. Whatever troubles or anxieties were felt outside in his public work, he had nothing but peace and comfort in his domestic life. He had with his house a farm of twenty acres, or thereabouts, the profits from which, added to his annual stipend of, £5o (probably equal in purchasing power to £150 or £200 to-day), with the rent of his own freehold at Ferniskey, and his wife’s property at Irishtown, enabled him to live in ease and comfort and allowed him to devote his whole attention to his ministerial work. To this work, indeed, he gave himself up with whole-hearted dedication and unceasing industry. He had a solid and extensive education to begin with, and to this he united habits of great diligence as a student, so that he kept himself thoroughly abreast of the literature of his time in all subjects that claimed his attention. He was especially careful, we have been told, in his preparation for the pulpit. We have seen the MSS. of some of his sermons and the notes of many others, all of which give evidence of his industry and ability. In pastoral work he was unwearied. The journeys he took on horseback are surprising. He was often away in Counties Monaghan, Cavan, and Armagh indeed throughout Ulster in all weathers. There were few mail coaches at the time, and no railways, while the roads were, as a rule, hardly deserving of the name ; and we are not surprised to hear that on one occasion when near Bailieborough, in County Cavan, he was so utterly fatigued, when travelling in a severe snowstorm, that he got off his horse, and did not care if death overtook him by the way-side. Though weary in the Master’s service he was not weary of it. He had kind friends, and found open doors everywhere. He commanded respect, and attracted large audiences wherever he went. He was probably the first to establish a Covenanted cause at Sleeth’s Forth, in County Armagh, and was, if not the first, among the first of the Reformed Presbyterian ministers to preach to the scattered Covenanting families in Counties Monaghan1 and Cavan.
In County Down, in the neighbourhood of Ban-bridge and Scarva, he frequently preached, and, on one occasion at least, he dispensed the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper there. The old meeting-house,2 now an utter ruin on the roadside between Ban-bridge and Scarva, was, we have been told, built largely as a result of his labours.
At some of the services he held in these
places, what would now be called “scenes” took place. On one
occasion, when Mr. Stavely was officiating in County Armagh, a neighbouring
minister of the Secession Church was present. Mr. Stavely’s text was Hosea v. 15—”
I will go and return to my place, till they acknowledge their offence and seek my
face; in their affliction they will seek Me early,” and his remarks led
the Secession minister to rise in the audience and question his doctrine. The
Covenanting minister was equal to the occasion. He invited his assailant to
state his position, and then replied with such admirable judgment, learning,
and temper that he gained the approbation of the large audience. His preaching
was evangelical, and combined with a clear statement of the truth very strong
and eloquent appeals to the hearts and consciences of the hearers. The notes of
some of these sermons were published in the pages of the “Covenanter”
and the Scottish “Witness” a number of years ago, and these fragments
(skeletons as they are, though of considerable length) strike us by the grasp
of Divine truth they shew.
We have been told that on another occasion, when Mr. Stavely was preaching on Testimony-bearing at Brown’s Fort, near Ballybay, in the open air, to an audience numbering several hundreds, a man named Wiggins rose up in the congregation and shouted “Treason, treason,” and threatened to inform the authorities on the preacher. Mr. Stavely went on undismayed until he had done. Wiggins, however, was so excited that he brought a fit of apoplexy on himself, from which he died that same night.
So powerful and persuasive were Mr. Stavely’s discourses that even Roman Catholics were rivetted to the spot by them, and some of them were led to see the errors of the Roman Church and to forsake it.
Wherever he went he left a strong impression for good. There was much need for such preaching as his in Ulster at that time. A soul-destroying moderatism overspread the land, and it was the exception, rather than the rule, to find a minister of any Protestant denomination who might truly be called evangelical. Dr. J. S. Reid, in his history of the Presbyterian Church in Ire-land, mentions this lack of evangelical preaching during the latter half of the eighteenth century as a cause of so much spiritual deadness in Ulster, and at the same time he gratefully acknowledges the services rendered to the cause of truth by Rev. William Stavely and his fellow-labourers.1
It is a noteworthy fact that during the years from the date of Mr. Stavely’s ordination at Conlig in 1772, until his removal from Knockbracken to Kellswater and Cullybackey in 1800, he was the means of laying the foundations of no less than ten or twelve Covenanting congregations.2 No wonder Dr. Reid styles him in one place ” the apostle of the Covenanting Church in Ireland,” and in another connection he speaks of him as ” the most distinguished minister of that denomination in Ulster.”3
During these years while Mr. Stavely was diligent in his ministry, he was also busy in his study. One evidence of that activity we find in the works from his pen that emanated from the Press. His first literary effort—a large pamphlet (ninety pages) ” Truth Restored, or the new mode of Swearing Religious Oaths by Touching and Kissing a Book Examined ” — was printed at Newry in 1775, three years after his ordination. The subject treated in this work was at that time a burning one among Ulster Presbyterians. In the year 1764 Rev. Thomas Clarke, M.D., Secession minister of Cahans, County Monaghan, was fined 40s with subsequent imprisonment chiefly because he refused to take the oath in the manner then prescribed, by kissing the book, though he declared his readiness to make an oath or affirmation to the same effect in the Scriptural manner with uplifted hand.1 When Dr. Clarke was so severely2 treated, we can understand how it was with others. Under these circumstances it is no wonder that Mr. Stavely took up his pen in exposition and defence of the nature and manner of Scriptural oaths. In the pamphlet on Swearing he gives his reasons for rejecting the form of oath taking then in use, i.e., kissing the Gospels. It is impossible within the compass of a few lines to present a satisfactory outline of his arguments on the subject; it will suffice to mention some of the reasons he adduces in favour of swearing with uplifted hand. Among these he enumerates that an oath, being an act of worship, should be rendered as God requires ; that “kissing the book” is frequently abused ;1 that it is a custom of heathen origin ; that the decalogue requires a holy and reverent use of God’s word, and that there is complete harmony of Scripture precept and example in favour of swearing with uplifted hand. The work is distinguished by the close and accurate acquaintance with the Word of God which it reveals, while it gives evidence of the possession of no mean argumentative power. One thing we can see, Mr. Stavely was in advance of his time on this subject, and it is remarkable that only within the last twenty-five years what he so forcibly contended for has been fully granted to Presbyterians by the Executive in this country.
In 1795 Mr. Stavely published, by request he tells us, a sermon preached at Newtownards entitled “War Proclaimed and Victory Ensured” or” The Lamb’s Conquests Illustrated.” This publication runs on to 66 large pages. The text of the sermon is Revelation xvii. 14—” These shall make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them, for He is Lord of Lords and King of Kings, and they that are with Him are called and chosen and faithful.” Briefly stated, the pamphlet sets out the principles of the Covenanting Church, as will be gathered from the divisions of the sermon which are—
I. The nature, causes and origin of the war undertaken by these combined forces.
II. The nature of this royal character—Lord of Lords and King of Kings, or the nature of the authority with which He is invested.
III. By what means He has obtained the victory, with some of the times He has done so.
IV. The character and qualifications of those who are sharers in His victory.
V. Some of the grounds of assurance that all have who are in His service, that they shall be sharers in His victories.
The sermon treats with great wealth of illustration, drawn from Scripture and profane history, of these various points. Some passages in it are striking and powerful, and we can understand that it would produce a very marked effect when delivered by a dignified, eloquent, and earnest preacher. The work was extensively read and highly valued for many years, and beyond question had great influence in moulding the religious and political opinions of some of its readers.
About this time the French Revolution which broke out in 1789 was exerting a powerful influence all over Western Europe, and one of its concomitants was the infidel writings of Thomas Paine and men of his school. Thomas Paine, the author of the “Age of Reason,” to which Mr. Stavely’s “Appeal to Light” is a reply, was born in Norfolk, England, in 1737. He (Paine) had a checkered career. He was in succession staymaker, seaman, student, merchant, exciseman, usher at an academy, astronomer, grocer, editor, clerk to a committee of congress in America, historiographer to the United States, member of the French Convention, inventor, and author of infidel writings. Clearly he was a man of great but misguided genius, but at the same time of depraved character, and the companion of the very lowest members of society, utterly unreliable as “guide, philosopher and friend” to any who regarded him as such. His book, “The Age of Reason,” was extensively read, both on the Continent and in these kingdoms, and bore evil fruit wherever it was accepted. He was now at the zenith of his influence, and it betokens considerable courage in Mr. Stavely to have ventured to cross swords with him. The “Appeal to Light,” published in 1796, is the largest and most thoughtful of Mr. Stavely’s books orpamphlets.1 It consists of 144 large pages, and is a defence of the Christian religion as revealed in Holy Scriptures against the attacks of infidels and sceptics. He lays down the following five tests2 by which he tries the Bible :—(i) That the matters performed by Moses and the Prophets, by Jesus Christ and His Apostles, and the doctrines by them delivered, be of such a nature that the eyes that saw them, and the ears that heard them, be judges of them. (2) That these actions done, and doctrines delivered, be so public that every description of men may be witnesses. (3) That some significant monuments be instituted and com-memorative actions done, declarative of the rectitude of these actions, and commemorative of the truth and goodness of the words spoken. (4) That these instituted monuments and commemorative actions do commence from the time these doctrines were delivered, and actions performed by Moses and the Prophets, and by Jesus Christ and his Apostles. (5) That these same monuments and commemorative actions have been regularly and without variation observed from the time these actions were done and doctrines delivered unto the present time.
Round these points a very able argument is built up in defence of the Divine origin of the Scriptures. The statement is put somewhat in this way—if the Bible was not given by God it must then have been given by angels, or by good men, or by bad men. By angels it could not be given, by bad men it would not be produced, as they would not promulgate commandments and precepts that make for righteousness, and so condemn themselves, therefore it must have been written by good men under the inspiration of God, as these men would not lie or impose on themselves or others.
The book amply repays a careful reading, even in this age when apologetics has come to be recognized as an important branch of theological training. The last section of the work is devoted to a dissertation on the best way to advance the intelligent study of the Bible. Mr. Stavely challenged Paine to a discussion of the whole subject. The terms in which the challenge was conveyed are worthy of being reproduced. He writes—” Was my arm long enough I would stretch it over to the Gallic shore and take you by the hand as a friend of the liberties of men, and a pointed opposer of despots, but when you step out of your way and attempt to destroy the foundations of faith, I must remonstrate with you, and now inform you that if the horrors of war were over, or a free way of communication opened up, in the humble dependence of faith on the author of Divine Revelation, and a fixed trust in the truth and goodness of God, I shall meet you at any given place, and there viva voce, discuss the subject with you, of the Scripture authority, before any witnesses you please.”
In 1794 we find Mr. Stavely republishing with a preface and notes of his own, Dr. Owen’s sermon on Hebrews xii. 27. Here again his pen was called into exercise by the tendencies of the time. The revolutionary wave was sweeping with deadly effect over Western Europe, and the desire of the editor of this sermon is to call attention to the “things which-cannot be shaken.” Prophecy was a specially interesting study to Mr. Stavely, and finding many of the views he entertained on that subject already well expressed by Robert Fleming, in his Treatise on Prophecy, he published a new edition of that work, to which a few pages by way of preface were added from Stavely’s pen.
These various productions, all issued from the press previous to the troubles connected with the United Irishmen rising, seem to have exhausted Mr. Stavely’s literary efforts. We are not acquainted with anything published by him subsequent to 1798, though to the end of his days he remained an unusually diligent student.
He was now approaching the stormy part of his life. He had become a public man, travelling over Ulster and coming into contact with all sorts and conditions of men. Doubtless, he was frequently brought face to face with great hardships endured by the people, cases of oppression by the landlords, and instances of injustice by the Government. Being from his very nature, never to speak of his religious principles, a lover of liberty and justice, he hailed with delight any great popular agitation that gave promise of amelioration to the mass of the people. When the Volunteer movement (which had for its purpose the raising of an armed force for the protection of the country against foreign or domestic foes) was started in 1778 he sympathised with it, and a company was formed in the neighbourhood of Knockbracken, called the Drumbracken Volunteers, many of whom were members of his own congregation. He accepted the position of Captain and he took an active part in its organization. The Belfast newspaper the “Northern Star,”‘ of the time, tells that on one occasion he reviewed his company, being himself dressed as Commanding Officer. But after a little the movement assumed larger proportions, and took on a different hue from that which at first it seemed to have. Almost imperceptibly the United Irishmen sprang from it. The Uniting was at first a non-sectarian movement. Mr. Stavely did not like the trend it soon took, and publicly said so. He had already become concerned with the initial stage and it was difficult, even dangerous, though he was anything but a timid man, to discountenance it completely. He was generally understood to sympathise with its aims, and so became a suspect under the eye of the Government. When the affairs of the kingdom began to approach a crisis, he wisely decided to take the advice of the Scotch Presbytery as to what course Covenanters should pursue in the circumstances, and for this purpose he conferred with the Scottish brethren at Girvan. A short time afterwards, in October, 1796, the following ” Seasonable and necessary information ” was published in the ” Northern Star,”1 “At critical time such as the present is, when the public mind is so much agitated, and so many false alarms are in circulation, we, the members of the Reformed Church, called Presbyterian Dissenters (reproachfully called Mountain Men) hold it our duty to step forward from conscience, and publicly declare, that we hold in the highest abhorrence and detestation, all tumultuous and disorderly meetings, and we utterly disclaim all connection with such, whether publicly or privately held, when anything is said or done, that is prejudicial to the peace, the safety or property of any individual or civil society.
Done in the name of the Reformed Church in the counties of Antrim and Down.”
This declaration, whether it came directly from Mr. Stavely or not, evidently could not have been made without his agreement and consent. Not withstanding, information was given to the authorities, through some channel now unknown, shortly after-wards, that in the meeting-house at Knockbracken a large quantity of pikes and other arms was concealed. We do not believe there was any foundation for this allegation. The charge was enough, however, to serve the purpose of those who had made it, and on Sabbath, 25th June, 1797,1 Colonel Barber, accompanied by the “Town-Major” of Belfast, and a considerable troop of cavalry, came to Knock-bracken during Divine Service, and being in the meeting-house green attracted the attention of the large congregation assembled within the house of worship. Mr. Stavely stopped the service and inquired the cause of the excitement, and was made acquainted with the presence of the soldiers. He sent out a message asking the Commanding Officer what was wanted. The answer was given that they had come to arrest Mr. Stavely. The minister immediately closed the Bible, dismissed the congregation, and gave himself up to the soldiers with whom he rode away, his horse’s bridle being linked in the bridles of two of their horses. It was a very warm day, and when the cavalcade had ridden some three or four miles Mr. Stavely begged to get a drink of water, but one of the dragoons drew his sword and struck him on the cheek, giving him a cut, and said, with an oath, that that was sufficient drink for a rebel. He was kept a prisoner during the month of July and until the 26th August, when he was liberated on bail.1We know neither the names of the bailsmen nor the amount of the bail. The latter must have been for a considerable amount, as it is known the Government dreaded his influence with the insurgents and with the people generally. He was trusted as a leader where he was known, and he was well known over four or five counties. Indeed the authorities made seductive promises to him on the condition of his taking the oath of allegiance and throwing in his influence with them. This he utterly refused to do, and so remained under the jealous supervision of the Executive. Perhaps it was because of his determined neutrality that he suffered so much.
The charge against Mr. Stavely having arms concealed in Knockbracken completely broke down. He proved that he was away from home at the time the arms were alleged to have been concealed. He was now given his liberty until after the battle of Ballynahinch. When the soldiers were returning from that battle he was again seized at his house at Annsborough on the charge of being a general officer of the United Irishmen. This was on the night of the 13th June, 1798. His house was sacked, his furniture burnt, and the soldiers made themselves drunk with wine they found in his house. Fortunately we are able from authentic papers still in possession of Mr. Stavley’s descend-ants to allow him to tell the story of his second imprisonment in his own words. The reference to the arms being concealed in the meeting-house seems to be a revival of the charge under which he was arrested the first time. We quote the statement in its entirety, as it disproves completely the accusation that he had anything to do with the United Irishmen.
“ARTILLERY BARRACK, August 24, 1798. On the 13th day of June last past, being Tuesday, I was arrested at my own house by a party of the Trainmen, a party of the Monaghan Militia and some Fifeshiremen. No charges whatever were mentioned and no officer was present. They set fire to the house in four rooms and kitchen. They burned my turfstack and carhouse and car, also a variety of articles. They took away that night and three succeeding nights, almost all my furniture, plate and apparel, to the amount of £200 and upwards. I was very ill-used by the military on my way to Belfast, giving me the worst of language. They even refused to give me a drink though I was exceedingly warm. I was put into the common guardhouse and kept there three full weeks; eight days and nights without having a bed to lie on, or even having off my clothes. Sundry times I was insulted by the military, sundry times they threatened to hack me—to hang me—to burn me. One of them swore nine times by the Holy Ghost he would shoot me before I left that yard. On the 22nd night, being Sabbath night, I was ordered out directly under a strong guard and put into the Donegal Arms, where there were about 168 prisoners. I was put into a room with one John Hughes, and kept there ten days; when I was again removed to another apartment and kept three days and three nights, and then on the evening of the Sabbath, I and eleven more were removed to the Artillery Barrack, and here have been kept till this instant, when on a sudden we were informed of our being ordered to go into a prison-ship in the Lough of Belfast.
It is necessary that I should make some remarks on the by-past part of my conduct during my confinement. I wrote on the second day after my confinement to General Barber, requesting to know for what reason I was arrested. No return was made, but a report of a malicious nature that arms had been secreted in the meeting-house of Knockbracken. though there is no ground whatever for such report. And I do most solemnly declare that I never knew of nor was concerned in, nor believe there was any such thing in existence, as arms of any kind in that house of a hostile nature. I was in a little after called upon by Mr. Pollock, the Crown Solicitor, in the company of General Barber. He mentioned the above instance of the meeting-house, and added that on 25th December he charged me with preaching seditious doctrines, but did not instance any particular. After some time I again wrote to General Barber, to be communicated to General Nugent, requesting trial, and signifying that I neither was present not did I assist in the late insurrection, but was active in restraining all I could from joining that insurrection; and yet I was taken from my own house and my property taken away without any known cause. Then a printed proclamation was offered to all the prisoners, signifying that the King’s royal mercy would be shewn, provided important information be given, and penal obligations entered into to remove to some country not at war with the king. After I had read over this proclamation I returned to the Crown Solicitor in presence of General Barber the following denial of acceptance of said terms:—William Stavely having never taken an oath to United Irishmen, nor occupied any place or post among such men, and being a declared enemy to French principles or any foreign interference with the government of Ireland, cannot for these reasons accept General Nugent’s proclamation.—WILLIAM STAVELY.
It may here be proper to add my judgment on the public divisions and parties now existing in this country. And first I declare myself a Presbyterian. In this religion I was educated from my earliest youth, and now am so from my own personal choice. By the Presbyterian religion I mean to say that I profess the Reformed Presbyterian Covenanted religion. In the faith of these doctrines I was brought up, and to proclaim them I was ordained in the month of August, 1772, at Conlig, Co. Down. I have hitherto continued preaching and inculcating these doctrines to this time, and no party divisions have in the least altered my judgment in any particular. Neither did I change my practice in public or private, nor did I ever say with my lips or write with my hand or signify by any instrument whatever that I would join with Roman Catholics. And I now declare that I could not join with United Irishmen, because their principles are deistical, their practice very immoral, such I mean as I have any acquaintance with. Such was the practice of Israel under the Old Testament, who were bound up not to join in affinity with the people of the land, nor learn their ways, &c. 2 Cor. vi. 14-18, do most clearly point out the sinfulness of such associations. The contrary conduct is condemned and the offenders very severely punished by many natural calamities and judgments poured out on them for the same. On these, with many other grounds, I have kept myself free through the good hand of God accompanying me to this time.
Moreover in the spring and winter months past, in a course of ministerial visitation that I was engaged in, I gave solemn warning to every religious society under my inspection to beware of and keep at a due distance from all those sinful associations now existing, adding that Israel were to dwell alone among the nations,’ and this I delivered in my own name and authority, and that of the Presbytery, that they and I were under the inspection of. Yet, alas! some have been seduced away from their duty to God, and at the expense of breaking their religious vows and obligations, have apostatised from the Covenanted Testimony, which is a matter of most serious concern to me. And on these grounds I do not believe that I could be useful to nor comfortable among those people again without very serious evidences of their repentance for past sins and a returning again to God with contrition of heart, declaring that it is against God that they have sinned and in His sight done the evils they are charged with.
This narrative is drawn and subscribed by me this 24th August, 1798. WILLIAM STAVELY.”
Accompanying this paper is another written at the same time, setting forth the character and extent of his loss in money £ (70), furniture, &c., and in books. It is just possible that some valuable old manuscripts in connection with the early settlement of persecuted families from Scotland, as well as Minutes of Presbytery, may have been destroyed by the hands of these ruffianly soldiers.
It may be stated that though Mr. Stavely subsequently sought compensation from the Government for his losses, he never received one farthing. He, himself, was taken away and put on board the prison-ship in Belfast Lough. There he lay, during three or four months, a close prisoner, treated with much harshness and needless severity. Every morning, while he lay in the prison-ship, his wife or his eldest daughter used to go out to one of his fields in sight of the ship and put a white sheet on a bush, as a signal that all was well at Annsborough. During his incarceration his son Joseph (whom he never saw) was born and died. We have before us a copy of “A Declaration” of his religious and political principles, together with a solemn personal covenant founded on Jeremiah xv. 19, 20, 21, bearing date “Prison-ship, 30th September, 1798.” The latter is interesting as revealing his deep personal piety. His companions on board the ship were the famous Rev. W. Steele Dickson, D.D., and a priest. Dr. Dickson was imprisoned ten months, and was then sent to Fort George in the North of Scotland, and not finally liberated until 1802. The priest was, we believe, executed, and an annotated copy of the Bible, which Mr. Stavely purchased from him the night before his trial or execution, remains, though dilapidated, as an heirloom in Mr. Stavely’s family.1
Ultimately Mr. Stavely was liberated, nothing being distinctly proved against him.2 It is a striking commentary on the procedure of the Government at this time, that on the night before the Battle of Ballynahinch, a man came to Mr. Stavely’s house and sought an interview with him. The stranger, who pretended to be a United Irish-man, asked Mr. Stavely if he had any message to send to the rebel army. Mr. Stavely replied that he had nothing to say. Several other efforts were made to extract an incriminating message, but in vain. Afterwards the man turned out to be a noted Government informer.
It was said by some that Mr. Stavely took the Oath of Allegiance as the condition of regaining his liberty. Someone asked General Barber if this was so. His reply was conclusive, “Oh, he is too great an old rebel to do anything of the kind.”
Mr. Stavely took part in many striking incidents during those troublous years. He accompanied Mr. Orr, a wealthy farmer of Farranshane, near Antrim, to the scaffold at Carrickfergus, 17th . October, 1797. The scene on the occasion was one well calculated to move the hardest heart. Orr and Stavely had been acquainted, probably from their school days at Antrim, and when the death sentence was passed on Orr, his friend Stavely, accompanied by Rev. Mr. Hill, came at his request to cheer him by his presence and help him by his prayers. The conviction of Orr rested on very unsatisfactory and inconclusive evidence. He had been tried for administering the United Irishmen’s Oath to two soldiers named Lindesay and Wheatley. So strongly did the Judge of Assize—Chief Baron Yelverton—realise this, that he is said to have sobbed aloud when passing sentence. The populace regarded the sentence as amounting to martyrdom. The inhabitants of Carrickfergus withdrew from the town at the time of the execution, to express their abhorrence of the conduct of the Government in carrying out what they regarded as an act of shameful injustice. A few days after the trial, Orr’s wife sent a memorial to Lady Camden asking her to use her influence with the Viceroy, appealing to her as a wife and a mother to stop the execution. We have never read a more earnest, passionate supplication, but it was of no avail. The law, such as it was, had to take its course. On the day of the execution a chaise was provided to take the condemned man from the jail to the scaffold. At first he declined its use, fearing that by going in it he would be deprived of the company of his friends, Stavely and Hill. The authorities, however, allowed the three men to go together in the carriage. During the short journey, Orr and his companions read in turn Psalm xxiii. and the concluding verses of. I. Cor. xv. At the foot of the scaffold Stavely prayed aloud in the most solemn manner, the friends then embraced one another a last time on earth, and Orr ascended the ladder, and, speaking to the soldiers massed around the gallows in triangular form, and to the multitude beyond, said : —”I die for a persecuted country; Great Jehovah receive my soul; I die in the true faith of a Presbyterian.” In a few seconds the bolt was drawn, and he was in eternity.1 Hence-forth “Remember Orr” became the ominous watchword of the exasperated United Irishmen.
Another scene, even sadder than this execution, was the death of a young man named Daniel English.’ He was a Covenanter—”a pious and amiable youth ” (says Reid)—who had been charged with leading a party of United Irishmen to the house of Samuel Redmond, of Thornhill, near Connor, with intent to rob and murder. A conviction was obtained against English, and, like most drumhead sentences, it was speedily carried out. The condemned young man was led out from the guardhouse at Ballymena to Connor. He was accompanied by the soldiers and a vast concourse of the inhabitants of the whole district, who assembled to shew their sympathy with him. His arms were pinioned, he was clad in his grave clothes, and Mr. Stavely walked by his side the four miles, alternately reading portions of Scripture to him and praying with him; while the multitude from time to time, as directed by Mr. Stavely, engaged in singing such Psalms as the seventy-fourth, seventy-sixth, and one hundred and nineteenth. At length the mill bridge at Connor was reached. A grave had been dug by the soldiers on the roadside. English stepped over to it, looked into it, and calmly remarked, “It is a new tomb, wherein never man lay.” A countryman who was passing at the time with his horse and cart was pressed into the service, though most reluctantly, and the cart was drawn under the scaffold. Mr. Stavely now prayed for a last time with English, who immediately afterwards knelt by the minister’s side and prayed himself. The condemned man was then assisted into the cart, the while solemnly declaring his innocence of the crime charged against him, the rope was adjusted round his neck, and the cart driven on, leaving his body hanging lifeless. The remains were buried un-coffined, we have been told, in the grave on the roadside, despite the entreaties of his friends, who wished to have him buried in the family burying-ground in Connor Graveyard. This request was only granted by the authorities after three days. It was generally believed at the time that the charge against English was false, and the evidence quite insufficient to secure a conviction. We venture to think such a procession never marched before from Ballymena to Connor, and we trust never will again.1
These are only two of many painful incidents of those memorable times in which Mr. Stavely took part. He lived to see that the “uniting” was a mistake, and doubtless regretted any countenance he had seemed to give to it. It may fairly be questioned if at any time, beyond the advocacy of his principles as a Covenanting minister, and the testimony he thought it his duty to bear against prevalent evils in the constitution and oppressive partiality in the Executive, he had anything of a real bond of union with the rebels. Certainly he warned his co-presbyter, Rev. Wm. Gibson, of Kellswater, of the danger in being connected with the movement. Of one thing we may be sure, had the Government found any evidence against him they would not have permitted him to go free.
Still, little as he had to do with the rising, he suffered for it. He was imprisoned, and when released he found his influence for good at Knock-bracken gone. The people affected to blame him for leading them into the trouble, and he on his part suspected some of them of treachery in the matter of the arms alleged to have been concealed in the church. Afterwards when the whole matter was gone into by the Presbytery (which had been re-constituted in 1792), aided by the Scottish brethren, Mr. Stavely suggested—and the suggestion was to his credit—that he himself should be censured for any part he seemed to have had in the agitation, and actually was censured by the Presbytery—the Rev. Hans Boggs, of his own accord, standing with him. It is evident, in view of his own statement, that Mr. Stavely submitted to discipline for the sake of the peace of the Church.
He did not go back to Knockbracken as minister of the place after the rebellion of 1798. In that or the following year a call was issued for him from Bready, but through some misunderstanding or mismanagement it was never presented. In the year 1800 he was unanimously called to take charge of the congregation in Co. Antrim, comprising chiefly Kellswater and Cullybackey. He now re-moved to a farm near Cullybackey, and ministered with great diligence to the widely scattered charge, which increased very much in numbers under his pastorate. Owing, indeed, to this growth a division of the joint charges became necessary. Cullybackey and Kellswater each was anxious to have his services, and each addressed a call to him. He elected to return to his native district, and so accepted Kellswater in 1813. Again he removed with his family, this time to his wife’s property at Marymount, near Antrim, where he lived until his death.
The Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Ireland was constituted at Cullybackey in 1811, Mr. Stavely being Moderator and also father of the Synod. His sermon on the occasion was from Hebrews iii. I0, “Wherefore I was grieved with that generation and said, They do always err in their heart; and they have not known my ways.”
From the date of his settlement at Kellswater his life was uneventful, and a few sentences suffice to tell its story. Every Sabbath when at home he rode by himself six miles to Kellswater, and con-ducted the lengthened services usual at that period, and rode back home, very rarely noticing any one by the way. His rule in the session was firm—perhaps some would say severe—and yet he was universally beloved and respected. His devotional habits were most marked. He would permit nothing to interfere with family worship, and certainly nothing to take precedence of it. His text for the Sabbath was chosen early in the week, and he elaborated the subject until Saturday evening at seven o’clock, when he closed his books, had family worship, then shaved, and retired to rest. He rose early on Sabbath morning, and spent the morning hours in devotional preparation for the work of the day. After all, was it not the best preparation? He was a man of a very strong will—stern, if need were, high-spirited, and somewhat impatient of opposition. To those who knew him he was gentle, and to the members of his own family tender almost to a fault. As an illustration of his strength of will, it is told that he had learned the habit of smoking, but on one occasion at Marymount, having made repeated attempts to light his pipe, he grew dissatisfied, rose and crushed the pipe under his foot, and never afterwards indulged the habit.
He has been described by one who lived with him at Marymount as a tall and dignified man, with dark, penetrating eyes, possessing a remark- ably strong but musical voice. His manner in the pulpit was impressive and rather cantillating, after the style of preachers in the last century. His sermons produced a remarkable effect on the large congregations that flocked to hear him wherever he went. It is seldom that a minister impresses himself so strongly on his generation. It is now a century since he was in his prime, yet his name is still mentioned in many places in Ulster, and always with respect, veneration, and love.
He had much to be thankful for in the bodily health he enjoyed. During a ministerial life of fifty-three years, we do not know that he was ever, on account of his health, unfit for his work on the Lord’s Day. But even to the strongest sickness and death come. He had preached at Kellswater and announced the Spring Communion in 1825, but gave evidence of exhaustion. When he came to the Meeting-house Green, the elders gathered round him and assisted him to mount his favourite white pony. He told them that he felt really unwell, and bade them all an affectionate farewell, and turned his horse’s head homewards. When he got to the top of the little hill overlooking the meeting-house, he stopped, turned in the saddle, and looked down on the peaceful river and the sanctuary he loved so well, and bade them also farewell in solemn and affecting words. On reaching Marymount he grew worse, and after one month of rather severe suffering, his spirit was liberated. Needless to say, he died as he had lived, in the hope of a glorious resurrection, through Jesus Christ, his Lord. The Spring Communion was a sad one that year at Kellswater, for Stavely was not there.
His remains were laid to rest, attended by a vast concourse of mourners, in front of the meeting-house at Kellswater, and a monument, contiguous to that of his distinguished successor, Rev. Professor Dick, D.D., marks the spot.
Mrs. Stavely outlived her husband by twenty-three years. She died at Marymount in her 89th year, in 1848. Mr. Stavely was survived by a numerous family, their names being — Nancy, married to Mr. Andrew Ferguson, of Ardtrea, Co. Tyrone ; William John, Minister of Dervock and Ballymoney; Esther, married to Rev. Simon Cameron, of Ballylagan; Margaret, married to Mr. Francis M‘Millan; Mary, married to Mr. William Clugston, of Antrim ; Eliza, married to Mr. John Graham, of Bailiesmills, Co. Down; and Jane, who died at Marymount, unmarried.