Edwardian Bangor was a burgeoning resort town that by 1910 was claimed to be “the wealthiest urban district in Ireland”. Growth during the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth century had been rapid and by 1911 the census recorded a population of 7776. It was during this same period that Hamilton Road (originally called Hamilton Street) was first laid out and developed to include three of Bangor’s leading churches: St Comgall’s Church of Ireland (begun in 1881); Wesley Centenary Methodist church (built in 1891) and Hamilton Road Presbyterian Church, for which planning commenced in 1897.
There was however no Baptist church in the town. It is recorded that in the mid-nineteenth century Welsh miners who were working in the lead mines at Conlig had established a Baptist church there. This had gone into decline with the departure of the miners and by the start of the twentieth century there was no Baptist witness in the district.
This changed in 1907 when a group of Christians with predominantly Baptist convictions began to meet regularly in the Orange Hall on Hamilton Road. In previous years such meetings had been confined to summer services but as the meetings continued through the winter months of 1907 and into 1908 the conviction grew that a church should be formed. On Wednesday 15 April 1908 a formal meeting was convened under the chairmanship of Rev J H Boyd (deputation secretary to the Baptist Home Mission) and the Baptist church was constituted.
Mr A Ferguson was appointed Secretary and Mr WS Mitchell took on the jobs of both Secretary and Superintendent of the Sabbath School. It is interesting that the first name on the membership roll was Mr Alex Sloan, who had previously been involved with the Conlig church. The Bible passages chosen for this inaugural meeting were Psalm 133 and Hebrews, chapter 13, which speak of unity and brotherly love.
The meeting in April was followed in May by an application for admission to the Baptist union of churches. The next milestone in the history of the church was the appointment of a pastor – David Henderson took up the post in September 1910. At the AGM held on 1 January 1914 in his house at 31 Clifton Road he informed the members of his resignation to accept a call to Tobermore.
He left a healthy church, with 36 members , a thriving Sunday School and a church programme of visitation and open-air work. It is claimed that in his time in Bangor, Pastor Henderson visited every home in the town. The church minutes record his departure as “a great loss to Bangor and especially to our church”. It is interesting to note that at this time when the church had no building of its own baptismal services were held in Great Victoria Street Church, Belfast.
In the months that followed many names were proposed for the pastorate, however within 10 months Pastor W Campbell had taken up office and remained until the summer of 1917. Throughout this period, and indeed until 1931, the church was generously supported by the Home Mission, but concerns about finance were a regular feature of officer’s meetings.
The church continued to meet in the Orange Hall throughout these early years but there are frequent references to raising funds for building. In 1915 a sum of £54.4.6d was set aside for a new building. Pastor Samuel Ruddock was called to the pastorate in July 1918, but resigned in May of the following year. In June 1919 Mr John Ravey who had been looking after many of the services was appointed elder.
The 1920’s were a time of significant development in the church. In April 1920 Pastor David Burrows joined the church from Hill Street, Ballymena. His was a long and productive ministry that lasted until November 1937. During this period a new building was erected on Hamilton Road adjacent to the Laundry at a cost of £3000. The site had been acquired in 1919 when it had been chosen in preference to another site on Castle Street.
The opening services on Sunday 3 September 1922 were fully reported in the county Down Spectator and the text of the morning sermon was printed in full. The preacher was Rev J Pearson Harrison of Harcourt Street, Dublin. Within 6 years the membership had risen to 72 and there were 106 children and young people in the Sunday School. During the 1930’s there was further building on Hamilton Road and both the Tonic Cinema and the Savoy Hotel became the church’s near neighbours. The esteem in which Pastor Burrows was held was reflected in his appointment as President of the Baptist Union. A less prestigious but nonetheless important milestone for the church came in 1936 with the advent of electric lights; hitherto they had been gas.
Throughout the 1930’s there was an emphasis on outreach and bringing outstanding preachers to Bangor. Amongst them were Jack Atkinson (the boy preachers), Rev Marsh Hayford, Dr Herbert Lockyer, Dr Jesse Sayers and Dr Shields of Toronto. There were also discouragements in the work and in the 1930’s a small group from the church split away to hold separate meetings in the Good Templar Hall. This rift lasted for some years but was healed before Pastor Burrows moved on in 1937. Indeed Psalm 133, which had been read at the foundation of the church, was the test that the Pastor used in bringing the group back into fellowship.
In July, 1939 Pastor Arthur Chandler from Staffordshire was asked to fill the vacancy. He remained for one year until July 1940 and later that year a call was extended to Pastor David Hood of Dromore. He remained until 1945, when he left to join the Mildmary movement. The war years did not greatly affect the church, but ARP measures included keeping the baptistery filled with water and purchasing a stirrup pump, buckets and sandbags. A panel of fire-fighters were also provided with steel helmets, although the minutes record that appeals for fire watchers met with a very poor response. Troops stationed in the Savoy Hotel and elsewhere in the town also provided fresh opportunities for outreach and arrangements were made to “get some soldiers from Holywood Barracks who are well known and gifted preachers of the gospel”.
In 1944 the church took some tentative steps towards beginning a meeting in Bangor West but this was subsequently discontinued. In March 1945 the church recognised that in view of the likely post war shortage of housing the purchase of a manse may be helpful. This led to 4 Ward Avenue being bought at a cost of £1800. A call was then issued to Pastor George Weir in July 1945. This was accepted and he subsequently became the longest serving Pastor (20 years) in the church’s history to date. He and his wife gave themselves fully to the work of the church and it prospered under his leadership, notwithstanding the personal tragedy they suffered in 1949 when their eldest daughter Jean died in a drowning accident at a church youth camp. The church magazines of the period reflect a lively church with thriving youth activities, women’s work and missionary interest.
As the membership grew, so did the need for space. In 1953 a small hall was added to the north side of the church (known thereafter as the minor hall) but with a membership reaching 222 the longer-term solution was to plant a new church. Rosemary Park Baptist Church was opened by Pastor Weir in September 1964. In October of the following year he moved on to Gilnahirk to take up the pastorate there. In January 1967 the manse at 4 Ward Avenue was sold for £3750 and a new manse purchased at 46 Moira Drive for £8000.
An Ulsterman who had been ordained into the Church of England, he subsequently bid farewell to Anglicanism, principally on the matter of baptism, and in September 1967 was inducted into the pastorate at Hamilton Road. Such were the numbers present that the service was relayed to the neighbouring Millar Craig Hall. Dr Martin Lloyd –Jones delivered a stirring address. Herbert Carson was a gifted preacher and author who broadened the missionary vision of the church and remained as pastor for 15 years until 1982, when he accepted a call to Knighton Evangelical Free Church in Leicester.
During his ministry the church had appointed an associate pastor in March 1979. Derek Hutchinson soon became involved in the work to establish a third Baptist church in the town, which opened in January1983 when 60 members transferred from Hamilton Road to form the new Ballycrochan Church. Pastor Hutchinson was called to be their first pastor and Hamilton Road again found itself with a vacancy to fill. In June 1983 a call was issued to Rev Tom Lawson, then pastor of New Prestwick Baptist Church in Scotland. He felt unable to accept at that time but subsequently became pastor of Hamilton Road in 1985.
During the vacancy Mr Michael Healy served as church assistant for 18 months before moving to East Anglia to take up the pastorate in Horsham Baptist church. This period also saw the beginning of further work to expand the site on Hamilton Road. In 1984 the church paid £24,500 for the semi-detached house at 114 Hamilton Road with an option to buy 112 when it came on the market.
During Pastor Lawson’s time the church undertook a number of holiday Bible schools, attracting up to 90 children and conducted a number of joint open-air services with Hamilton Road Presbyterian Church in Ward Park. The 1980’s drew to a close with momentous events in Eastern Europe. Pastor Lawson had taken a particular interest in Romania and in August 1990 he resigned as pastor in part to devote himself more fully to his growing ministry in Eastern Europe. He subsequently became pastor of the church at Milltimber in Aberdeen.
The vacancy that arose was short-lived and in November 1991 a service of induction was held for Pastor Fred McClaughlin. Within a year the church had developed a number of strategic goals and the 1990’s were a period of numerical growth. They also saw significant development of the property. In 1992, 112 Hamilton Road was purchased at a cost of £30,500. This paved the way for the building of new halls in two stages, the first being opened in September 1993 and the remainder being completed by December 2007. In 1996 further work was carried out that remodelled the exterior of the main auditorium. A development of a different sort during this time was the appointment of an assistant pastor. Andrew Reid joined in this capacity in September 1995 and remained until September 1997.
In September 2000 Pastor McClaughlin left to take up the pastorate in Newtownbreda. During his time in Hamilton Road the membership grew from 129 to 205 and he left a strong church eager to meet the challenges of a new millennium. Once again the vacancy was relatively short and in October 2002 the church welcomed Pastor Adrian Judd and his family from Cheam. With a strong emphasis on outreach both at home and abroad the church has continued to grow. A further church plant has been developed in Kircubbin. Following years of children’s work, regular Sunday meetings commenced in September 2006 and by January 2007 weekly services were attracting 30 to 40 into the community hall.
One hundred years from its foundation, the membership of Hamilton Road Baptist Church stood at 227, with two daughter churches meeting in the town (Ballycrochan and Rosemary Park, which has since moved to the Gransha Road to become Bethany Baptist church) and a thriving church plant in Kircubbin.
Since the centenary in 2008, there have been further changes. Pastor Judd resigned in January 2011 and Pastor Johnny McClaughlin, who was then Assistant Pastor, was asked to take on the role of Associate Pastor from June 2011. Johnny is the son of Pastor Fred McClaughlin and he followed in his father’s footsteps to become the church’s senior pastor in September 2012. In that same month the church began a building programme to provide a larger auditorium, which was completed in 2013.
The church has always recognised the importance of children and young people and in 2011 asked its youth worker, Keith McIlwaine, to accept the post of Youth Pastor. Reaching out into the local community and beyond has been a recurring theme since the centenary and has been evidenced by events such as “Christianity Explored” and “Free for All” and by a growing number of overseas missionaries sent out by the church.
In October 2013 the fellowship meeting in Kircubbin will be constituted as a church within the Association of Baptist Churches in Ireland.
This is a time of renewal and rededication for the church. We invite you to journey with us.
To God be the glory.