About : History

History of Tobermore Baptist Church (Carson Memorial)

Tobermore (Tubbermore) Baptist Church has the distinction of being one of the oldest Baptist churches in Ulster. Its origins can be traced back to the early nineteenth century. In order to condense such a long history into a short space it is necessary to consider only some of the major milestones.

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Dr Alexander Carson

An exact date for the formation cannot be found but it gradually evolved from independent church around 1807. Seven years later a building was erected in Main Street. This served as a meeting place for the Tubbermore Baptist Church, until 1897, when it was replaced, on the same site, by the present Carson Memorial Baptist Chapel.

The founder and pastor was Dr Alexander Carson. He was a renowned theologian and scholar whose prolific writings were widely recognised and circulated.

He began his ministry, at the age of 22, in Tubbermore Presbyterian church in 1798, where he ministered for some years. However he experienced a crisis of conscience, having theological differences with the Synod of Ulster, the Presbyterian ruling body. In 1804 he severed his connection with the Synod of Ulster, forfeiting his income, but continuing to preach in the meeting house for some time. However steps were being taken to oust him from the pulpit. When he had preached for the last time in the building, as he made his way out he was accompanied by many of the congregation.

Carson and his followers continued to worship in a variety of places - the open air, fields, barns, even the local cooper’s forge! But while they worshipped as Independents they were not yet Baptists!

When some of Carson's congregation came under the influence of Scottish preachers, who were advocating Believer's Baptism, he at once set about studying the subject in order to convince his people that these preachers had got it wrong. After some weeks of deep study, he found that he agreed with their position and pronounced himself a convinced Baptist.

Gradually Alexander Carson's followers were baptised one by one and Tubbermore Baptist Church came into being. Initially, however, they did not use the title Baptist but locally they were known as the Baptists. In 1814 a simple building was erected in Main Street where the current building now stands.

Dr Carson's ministry was greatly blessed and the church grew to over 500 members. At times upwards of a thousand people gathered to hear him preach. This made it necessary to extend the building by adding a wing and a gallery at each end. A Sunday School was established in 1832 which had 18 teachers and was attended by 135 children. Several preaching stations were opened in the area, including Carndaisy where a church was formed in 1829. (This church lapsed for a while after Carson's death.)

Alexander Carson died as a result of an accident on 24th August 1844 and is buried in Dromore Parish Churchyard, outside Desertmartin.

After a good deal of hesitation, one of Alexander Carson's sons, Robert Haldane Carson was invited to become pastor. His early ministry seems to have been turbulent as differences which had not been apparent under his father's leadership came to light, and the effects of the Potato Famine were also being felt. Membership dropped to 130 and RH Carson left the church for a period of five or six years to minister in Perth. He returned to Tobermore in 1850 due to ill health and received a unanimous invitation to pastor the church once again. This he accepted and during the 1850's rapid progress was reported, spiritually, and numerically. Several "preaching stations" were opened, the most successful being in Draperstown, where up 230 people attended

During the Revival of 1859 very many were added to the membership. Sadly, this influx of new members at time of spiritual euphoria was to create some problems in a few years' time. Discipline had to be exercised again and again with quite a number being excluded from the fellowship altogether.

Towards the end of RH Carson's ministry, the roof of the meeting house was in need of massive repairs. An appeal for funds was launched to erect a new building, as a memorial to the founder of the work, Dr Alexander Carson. An influential leading and gifted member of the church, Surgeon Colonel Watters, just retired from service in India devoted his energies to gathering funds for and overseeing the building. The list of subscriptions includes one from a WS Churchill. Who could this be?

Much of the basic work was carried out by voluntary labour and local craftsmen erected the whole structure, which was opened, free of debt, around 1897, before RH Carson retired. The stones for the building came from a quarry of a member, Mr Hugh Donnelly of Gortahurk

The next pastor of the church was Rev George Marshall. He was the first occupant of the new Belle Vue Manse and served about fifteen years in Tobermore.

The years between his departure and the arrival in 1921 of the youthful Pastor George McKillen cover the short pastorates of three other men – Pastors Brown, Henderson and Maxwell. Incidentally, Pastor Henderson moved to the Great Victoria Church where in the mid nineteen twenties he baptised a young man, Robert Boggs, who later became pastor of Tobermore in 1938.

In 1921 George McKillen was invited to pastor the Tobermore church. Mr McKillen's pastorate covers a period of spiritual awakening in Ulster. His was a very fruitful ministry. He was responsible for formation of the South Derry Evangelistic Association.in which the church became deeply involved. (This was probably a forerunner of the current Northern Baptist Association) He saw churches established in Magherafelt and Coagh and re-established in Carndaisy. Sadly, Mr McKillen died suddenly, at the age of 40, following a medical procedure and the family returned to the Ballymena area.

Pastor William Weir succeeded Pastor McKillen In 1932. He served the churches at Tobermore and Carndaisy faithfully and well from 1932 to 1938. It has been recorded that when he left, the effects of the economic depression and spiritual reaction to it were being felt in the church. The South Derry Evangelistic Association was also on its way out.

Mr Weir's pastorate was followed in April 1938 by that of Robert Boggs. At that time, the weekly programme consisted of two services in Tobermore and one in Carndaisy on a Sunday, a prayer meeting on Thursday evenings in Carndaisy, a prayer meeting in Tobermore on Friday evenings, sporadic meetings in Upperlands and Sunday schools in Tobermore and Carndaisy. Soon a Christian Endeavour Society was formed. This new venture prospered and later became the BYF which continues to serve the young people.

The outbreak of war in September 1939 naturally affected some aspects of the work. To facilitate the "black out," Sunday evening services were moved to the upstairs room. The more homely atmosphere resulted in a rise in attendance with 80/90 attending during the winter months. Cottage meetings were held in Leacocks of Luney, Desertmartin, as an outreach to the nearby American army camp. Although this did not attract many soldiers, quite a few neighbours attended and some from the camp came regularly to the Sunday Services.

In the post war period the church held many missions. This was a time of reaping and an annual convention week was introduced. Pastor Boggs was deeply involved in the work of the Northern Baptist Association, (NBA), preaching in the open air around the various fairs. (The NBA was the successor the South Derry Evangelistic Association started by Pastor McKillen). A branch of the Baptist Women's Fellowship was also started.

Gradually, as the evangelical message was proclaimed in the other churches in the village, united services became a feature of Tobermore Church life. This still continues in a spirit of co-operation without compromise. In 1958 the 1st Tobermore BB Company was formed, sponsored by the Presbyterian, Church of Ireland and Baptist churches. Later a company of the Girls' Brigade was formed, jointly between the Presbyterian and Baptist churches.

Prior to the retirement of Pastor Boggs, two elders were appointed, Mr Harry Davidson and Mr William McKee. In 1978, when he retired, these men faithfully steered the church through the first vacancy in the lifetime of many of the members. Robert Boggs was called home on 5th November 1989 and is buried in Kilcronaghan Parish churchyard.

The years between his retirement and the appointment of the current pastor, Dennis Murphy, on 1st September 2009, cover the relatively shorter pastorates of three men: TC Brock, G Logan and JR Grant. During this period, it was realised that the accommodation was no longer adequate for the modern generation. A hall, porch, prayer room and kitchen were therefore constructed. Pastor Grant instigated running of the Sunday School concurrently with the morning service. Staffed, on a rota basis, this has proved a very successful move. The hall has recently been extended and four extra classrooms added.

History has once more been made with the appointment in September 2011 of Pastor Murphy's son Paul as Assistant Pastor.

With each succeeding generation the culture of the church has changed slightly but the message is still the same as it was in Alexander Carson's day. It is still the desire of the church to enable people to discover Christ and to follow Him.

(To put the formation of Tobermore Baptist Church in its historical context requires a study both of the theological state of Presbyterianism nineteenth century Ulster and influences from Scotland of such men as James and Robert Haldane. Norman Wilson gives a good account of these topics in his book, "Grange Baptist Church")