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Were Your Ancestors Presbyterians?

Transcript of the records of the 1st Boardmills Presbyterian Church, County Down, dating to 1782. FHL 941.65/K7 K29

Based upon the 1861 census of Ireland, about 9% of the population of Ireland was Presbyterian, mainly centered in the northern counties (where 26% were Presbyterian).   During the Protestant Reformation, John Knox brought the religion to Scotland, and the Plantation of Ireland (1606-1610) brought many of the lowland Scots Presbyterians to Ulster.  Initially, they were promised freedom of religion, but by the mid-1600s many of the Presbyterians were again emigrating, this time to America for the same reasons of religious intolerance and persecution.   The story of the first ship, the Eagle Wing is told on the site of the Presbyterian Historical Society.  

   In the late 1600s, legislation was introduced in Ireland that required all Presbyterian ministers to swear an oath to the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland.  Failure to do so, meant that ministers could be deposed making any marriages performed invalid and children born of those marriages illegitimate.  It wasn’t until 1782 that marriages performed by Presbyterian ministers were considered valid.  Because of this,  you should always check records from the Church of Ireland for marriages of Presbyterians, especially if they owned any property.  You might also find burials in the Church of Ireland since dissenting religions frequently did not have their own cemeteries.

4 July 1783 Stewart Moag, the 4th child of John Moag and Mary Pettigrew of Saintfield

   Although the Presbyterian churches started early in Ulster and the earliest register dates to 1674 in Antrim, the records for many congregations don’t begin until the early 1800s for the same reasons as the Catholic records.  Also, Presbyterian ministers were not required to keep registers until 1819.  Having said that, I have found records for my Presbyterian family in County Down dating to the 1780s, including burials.  The list of  births (above) is a transcription and gives the date, name, birth order (how many other children previously born to the same parents), father, mother including maiden name and townland address.  The list shows Stewart Moag baptized 4 July 1783 as the 4th child of John Moag and Mary Petticrew.  Unfortunately, since the records only begin in 1782, I don’t have the names of the first three children!  Be aware that the format will vary from church to church. The Loughaghery Presbyterian Church for many years didn't seem to feel the mother had anything to do with a child's birth so left her name off the baptismal register.

   Finding the name of the Presbyterian church can be a little more difficult, as the denomination does not have the parish and dioceses structure of both the Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland. You also might find multiple churches in the same area.  When beginning your search for Presbyterian church records, start with  Choose the county and civil parish from the sitemap, then click on church records to see what is available.  

The Loughaghery Presbyterian Church has baptismal records from 1801-1939 and they are on microfilm at Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI).  My next step is to check RootsIreland to see if they have been indexed.  In this case, only the baptismal records have been indexed. There are no indexes for marriages or deaths.  Not all Presbyterian churches have been indexed, so it’s important to check. In the case of the Loughaghery Presbyterian Church, there are microfilms of marriages from 1801-1955 at PRONI, and burials from 1868-1917, however only baptisms from 1801-1939 are indexed., Presbyterian Sources for County Down

A search of the index turned up no result  for my 2nd great grandfather, William Moag.  On a visit to PRONI, I searched the registers page by page, beginning in 1820 and found him in 1825. The register simply states: "May 1 Wm Moge, son to John Do [ditto] Ballycrune." I’m still looking for his mother’s name. Once I found the record, I tried finding it in the index with the spelling of Moge with no luck. It would appear that it might have been indexed as "Magee." Just another reminder to be very flexible when using indexes to find your ancestors.

Microfilm of Register of Loughaghery Presbyterian Church at PRONI

   The Presbyterian church has suffered from many schisms over the years, with various groups identified as seceding, non-subscribing (Unitarian), or reformed (Covenanters) congregations and each keeping their own records.  By 1840 most had come back together.  When you see a reference to 1st Boardmills or 2nd Derry, keep in mind these were likely different types of Presbyterians, each keeping their own records.

   The records kept by the Presbyterian church include baptisms and marriages, and occasionally burials.  Unlike the Catholic church, children were not necessarily baptized immediately after birth…sometimes multiple children in a family would be baptized at the same time.  Be careful, therefore, when assuming age based on a baptismal date.

   Kirk session minutes (similar to the Vestry minutes of the Church of Ireland) can also provide information.  Prior notice of marriage was required, so even if the marriage registers don’t exist you may find information in the session minutes.  Also frequently found in these minutes are “examinations” of unmarried women who gave birth as well as "examinations" for misdemeanors, such as couples whose first child was born less than nine months after their marriage.

Dec 13, 1807 Appeared Jas Rush (son of James) + Mary Pollock his wife professing sorrow for the sin of ante-nuptial fornication - were publicly rebuked twice and restored. Session Minutes, Loughaghery Presbyterian Church 1807. On microfilm at PRONI.

Many of these records are still in local custody, but I have found some on microfilm at  PRONI.  Other records you may want to check are Communicant’s roll books and Certificates of Transfer (from one church to another).


   The Presbyterian Historical Society located in Belfast has information on their website regarding the records of the church.  Most of the congregational records on microfilm are also available at PRONI.  They have a link that shows records that are only available at the Presbyterian Historical Society including some session minutes and certificates of transfer.

Happy Hunting!

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