Ian Paisley’s legacy is a prosperous FP church

Martyrs Memorial Free Presbyterian Church.
Martyrs Memorial Free Presbyterian Church.

The Rev Dr Ian Paisley was an unashamedly Protestant fundamentalist who interpreted Biblical scriptures as the absolute literal truth.

Over a period of 60 years, Dr Paisley, in a remarkable ministerial career, took a small evangelical sect to a Free Presbyterian denomination which today has more than 60 congregations across Ireland, the UK mainland and North America and mission stations in Europe, Africa and Asia.

Ian Richard Kyle Paisley was born in Armagh city and brought up Ballymena, Co Antrim, where his father James Kyle Paisley was an independent Baptist pastor.

While growing up, Ian Paisley felt he had a vocation to enter Christian ministry, taking theological training as a teenager at Barry School of Evangelism in Wales in the late 1940s and, later, at the Reformed Presbyterian theological hall in Belfast.

A son Kyle followed his father into the Free Presbyterian Church, ministering in England and Wales, and Dr Paisley had a brother, Harold, who was also an evangelical fundamentalist preacher.

The genesis of the Free Presbyterian Church came about when the Crossgar, Co Down congregation of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland was forbidden by denominational authorities to hold a meeting in their own church hall at which the considered firebrand Ian Paisley was to be the speaker.

In response, elders of that congregation left Irish Presbyterianism and began a new denomination - the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster. Ian Paisley became the Free Presbyterian moderator and was re-elected every year, except one, for 57 years.

The Free Presbyterian Church, framed by the dominant Paisley influence, has a fundamentalist orientation, requiring strict separation from “any church which has departed from the fundamental doctrines of the Word of God”. The church has an estimated 14,000 members, with thriving congregations in most Ulster towns.

Ian Paisley promoted a form of Biblical literalism and anti-Catholicism is often described as “Bible Protestantism”.

The website of Paisley’s public relations arm, the European Institute of Protestant Studies, described the institute’s purpose as to “expound the Bible, expose the Papacy, and to promote, defend and maintain Bible Protestantism in Europe and further afield”.

Dr Paisley’s website described a number of doctrinal areas where he believed the “Roman church” had deviated from the Bible and from true Christianity.

In the 1960s, Paisley developed a close theological relationship with the fundamentalist Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina. In 1966, he received an honorary doctorate of divinity from this institution and served on its board of trustees. This relationship later led to the establishment of the Free Presbyterian Church of North America in 1977.

Ian Paisley was a man of strong conviction and, whatever criticism he ultimately faced from church colleagues over what they saw as his political “betrayal” in entering government with Sinn Fein, his outstanding legacy was the expansive growth and witness of the Free Presbyterian Church.