Pastor McConnell: How he became well known evangelical preacher

Pastor James McConnell
Pastor James McConnell

Orphaned as a schoolboy, he endured a lonely and at times difficult childhood.

But Pastor James McConnell built up a family of thousands through his huge house of prayer in north Belfast.

With hard-hitting sermons and a dynamic delivery, the 78-year-old, who retired last year, became one of Ireland’s best known evangelical preachers, filling the massive £12 million Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle week in, week out.

Born and raised by his elderly grandparents in the Woodstock area of east Belfast, the controversial cleric, whose comments about Islam have landed him in court, is said to have “given” his heart to God when he was a child at Sunday School.

The death of his mother during the birth of a sibling and loss of his father and sister to tuberculosis when he was aged just eight years old further cemented his deep Christian faith.

“I spoke more to God than I did to other people,” he said.

Having left Park Parade school at the age of 14, Pastor McConnell’s first calling was to Belfast’s bustling shipyard where he worked in the Harland and Wolff drawing office.

Three years later, he was in full-time ministry.

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

He also met and married Margaret, the mother of his two daughters, Linda and Julie.

Although his first service, in 1957, was in front of just 22 people, the charismatic, ambitious young preacher was soon packing the pews of the rented Orange Hall and beyond with former paramilitaries, police officers and prominent political figures among those seduced by his unique style of ministry.

His so-called “gospel crusades” drew some of the biggest-ever crowds to venues such as Windsor Park football stadium, the Kings Hall and Ormeau Park - where, as a young boy, he used to sleep rough below a fir tree.

In 1994, he opened one of the country’s largest churches - the £12 million, 3,600-capacity Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle on the Shore Road.

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

Pastor McConnell has rarely shied away from publicity and last year sparked a major controversy claiming Islam was “satanic” and “spawned in hell” in a sermon which was posted online.

The 78-year-old initially defended his remarks but, following a huge public outcry, apologised for any offence or distress caused.

He has since vowed to go to prison rather than retract the remarks.

Among those 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.

Mr Robinson was heavily criticised after he said he would not trust Muslims for spiritual guidance but would trust them to “go down to the shops” for him.

The police were called to investigate the fundamentalist cleric for a potential hate crime but the region’s Public Prosecution Service decided to pursue the case under the misuse of public communications.

Now aged 78, Pastor McConnell’s health has been in decline.

He has undergone major heart surgery including a quadruple by-pass and heart valve replacement and has also been treated for prostate cancer. He also suffers from diabetes and has had an operation on his liver.

He retired last year after 58 years as Whitewell’s senior pastor but continues to preach on invitation.