Outspoken Pastor attracted thousands to his ‘Gospel crusades’

Evangelical preacher Pastor James McConnell speaks to the media as he leaves Belfast Magistrates' Court after being found not guilty of making grossly offensive remarks during a sermon in which he described Islam as "heathen" and "satanic"

Evangelical preacher Pastor James McConnell speaks to the media as he leaves Belfast Magistrates' Court after being found not guilty of making grossly offensive remarks during a sermon in which he described Islam as "heathen" and "satanic"

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Pastor James McConnell is one of Northern Ireland’s best known evangelical preachers with a congregation in which politicians, ex-paramilitaries and police officers worship side by side.

He described himself as Pentecostal with a “capital P” and his trial heard how he was not the average “watery clergyman” but someone who connected with society’s “untouchables”.

During his heyday in the 1980s and 1990s he pulled capacity crowds into the multi million pound 3,600 seater Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle he built on the edge of north Belfast.

He also filled massive venues like the Windsor Park national football stadium and Kings Hall with thousands of born again Christians who flocked to his so-called “gospel crusades”.

Born and raised by his grandparents in the working class Woodstock area of east Belfast - a staunchly Protestant suburb -- he endured a lonely and at times difficult childhood.

The death of his mother during the birth of a sibling and loss of his father and sister to tuberculosis left him an orphan at the age of eight.

Like many of his peers he left school at 14 to work in Belfast’s bustling shipyard but having “given his heart to God” as a child he was drawn towards full-time ministry three years later.

After a brief stint in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, he returned to his native city aged 19 and set up a makeshift church on the Whitewell Road.

He also met and married Margaret, the mother of his two daughters, Linda and Julie, who was at his side during every court appearance.

Mr McConnell’s first service, in 1957, was in front of just 22 people, but the ambitious and charismatic young preacher who had a unique style of ministry was soon packing the pews and in 1994 he opened one of Ulster’s largest sanctuaries - the £12 million Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle on the Shore Road.

Under his leadership, Whitewell parishioners have funded the building of schools and orphanages in Kenya, Ethiopia and Romania.

Mr McConnell has rarely shied away from publicity and when his sermon about Islam sparked a major controversy he took to television and radio to defend himself.

In the speech, delivered to 2,000 people and watched by another 700 online in May 2014, he described Islam as “heathen”, “Satanic” and a “doctrine spawned in hell”. He also said he did not trust Muslims.

Following a public outcry the elderly preacher apologised for any offence or distress he may have caused but declined to retract the remarks.

The police initially investigated a potential hate crime but the Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service decided to pursue the case under the misuse of public communications.

Leading up to and throughout his three-day trial in December Mr McConnell remained defiant and said he would rather go to prison rather than stop preaching the Christian gospel.

He also revealed that he declined the lesser punishment of an informal warning because it would be an insult to Jesus and that he did not want to be “gagged”.

Among the high profile figures who sprang to his defence was Stormont’s First Minister Peter Robinson - who has attended services in the Whitewell Tabernacle on a number of occasions with his wife Iris. Mr Robinson faced a barrage of criticism when he said he would not trust Muslims for spiritual guidance but would trust them to “go down to the shops” for him.

Other supporters have included East Antrim DUP MLA Sammy Wilson - a Whitewell parishioner who gave evidence in defence of the pastor, the DUP’s deputy leader Nigel Dodds, Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister, former health minister Edwin Poots as well as Catholic priest Fr Patrick McCafferty and Muslim academic Muhammad Al-Hussaini.

Now aged 78, Mr McConnell’s health is in decline.

He has undergone major heart surgery including a quadruple by-pass and heart valve replacement, has also been treated for prostate cancer and suffers from diabetes.

He retired as Whitewell’s senior pastor after 58 years in 2014 but has but continued to preach on invitation.