Trip to the British Isles

[Editor’s note. Here is the first installment of the promised report on the trip by Prof. Hanko and Rev. D. Engelsma to the United Kingdom.]


It is always an exciting adventure to travel to foreign lands. When such traveling is done on behalf of the work of the churches, the excitement is very much greater. Such was the case when Rev. Engelsma and I traveled recently to the British Isles on behalf of the Committee of Contact to visit the saints in that land, and to investigate the possibility of closer contact between churches there and our own Protestant Reformed Churches.

The greater part of our work was performed in Ireland, because the original request for men to come to the British Isles had come from the Session of the Bible Presbyterian Church of which Rev. George Hutton is the pastor. Those in the South Holland and Grand Rapids area will recall that Rev. Hutton visited this country last year and spoke for a number of gatherings, in which he told the people who attended these meetings of his own history and the work he and his congregation are doing for the cause of the Reformed faith in Ireland.

Ireland is an island, approximately 1/3 the total size of the British Isles, while the British Isles, composed of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland are a bit larger than the state of Michigan. Ireland has been called, “The Emerald Isle,” because of its varied green colors. Although quite different from any part of this country which I have seen, it is a very beautiful land with attractive and breathtaking scenery. It is, however, a land torn by strife. The southern 2/3 of the island is an independent country called “The Republic of South Ireland” and is about 95% Roman Catholic. The northern 1/3 is called Ulster and is about 70% Protestant, with the other 30% predominantly Roman Catholic. The Roman Catholics in the north wage guerilla war against the Protestants, because they claim that they are the objects of discrimination; most Protestants, however, are convinced that the ultimate goal of the Roman Catholics is to bring Roman Catholicism back to Ireland so that Protestantism can be rooted out. The struggle which goes on there, however, is not genuinely religious, but political.

Rev. Hutton’s congregation is a small Presbyterian Church in the city of Larne, about 25 miles straight north of Belfast. Rev. Hutton himself was at one time a minister in the Free Presbyterian Church of North Ireland, led and dominated by Rev. Ian Paisley, the titular head of the Protestant resistance to Roman Catholic rule. Rev. Hutton parted ways with Ian Paisley because of the latter’s involvement in politics and because of his departure from the Reformed faith as outlined in the Westminster Confessions. Because of this determination on his part, Rev. Hutton suffered considerable persecution, with the result that the determination to stand fast for the Reformed faith on his part and on the part of his congregation has been tempered in fire.

Rev. Hutton’s congregation is much alone in North Ireland and seeks fellowship with those who are of like precious faith with them. For this reason, he has turned to the Protestant Reformed Churches to aid him and his congregation in their struggle to maintain the Reformed faith and promote its cause in their homeland.

To accomplish this, Rev. Hutton arranged that Rev. Engelsma and I preach a series of sermons on the truth of the covenant, which series was to begin on the first Sabbath evening we were there and continue every night of the week except Saturday, concluding on the next Sabbath evening. The general topics on which we preached were these: “The Idea of the Covenant,” “The Covenant and the Fall,” “Christ, the Head of the Covenant,” “The Children of the Promise,” “The Covenant and the Jews,” “Our Calling in the Covenant,” and, “The Covenant Family. ” These were not, however, lectures, but sermons on specific passages of Scripture delivered in regular worship services. These meetings were most enjoyable. Rev. Hutton’s congregation was present at every meeting and the visitors who attended nearly doubled the size of the audience. The church auditorium was usually full, although it must be remembered that the auditorium was very small. There were probably from 60-80 present at every meeting.

Rev. Hutton’s congregation is composed of about 12 families. We had opportunity to visit in the homes of nearly all the people, and we came to know them as dear brothers and sisters in Christ, who are deeply interested in maintaining the Reformed faith in all its purity and truth. It is amazing how, when we are united with others in a common faith, there are no real barriers to fellowship. From the very start we were completely at home with the saints there and found no “cultural” barriers which kept us apart. After ten days’ stay, it was as if we had known these people for many years.

The congregation is earnestly interested in closer contact with us for a number of reasons: 1) They are concerned about their future if the Lord should suddenly take from them their beloved pastor. What would they do? Where would they turn for help? 2) They are too good Presbyterians to be content with independentism, the dead-end street on which so many congregations find themselves. 3) They want our help to extend the witness of the Reformed faith in their island. Especially would they like to have help in writing articles and pamphlets addressed to the unique problems which confront them.

To accomplish our goals for going to Ireland, we met in a long meeting with the Session of the Bible Presbyterian Church. We were thankful and happy to discover that there is complete agreement between them and our churches on all matters of doctrine and the Christian walk. The only differences were that Rev. Hutton’s church holds to “purity of worship:” i.e., exclusive Psalm singing, no instrumental accompaniment of the singing at worship, and no celebration of Christian holidays. But they recognized the fact that this was a matter of Christian liberty.

While we were in Ireland, many other labors kept us occupied. We had opportunity to preach in congregations of two other denominations. One such opportunity was to preach at a morning worship service in the Cregagh Road Reformed Presbyterian Church in Belfast, of which Rev. Tim Donachie is pastor. This denomination is a very old denomination and maintains in Ireland the old covenanter tradition of the Scats. It is approximately the size of our own Protestant Reformed Churches. It also holds to purity of worship. We had opportunity to visit the Theological School of this denomination, speak with their professor of Dogmatics, Prof. F. Leahy, and meet in an afternoon session with their Committee of Contact. Our Committee of Contact has had some contact with this denomination over the last few years, and the brethren in this denomination urged upon us the need to explore ways and means to make our contact more significant.

We also had opportunity to preach at two services in the Omagh Evangelical Presbyterian Church, of which Pastor Norman Green is minister. This denomination left the Free Presbyterian Church, as Rev. Hutton did, in the late Forties, under the leadership of the recently deceased W.J. Grier. It is a small denomination of seven or eight fairly small congregations. It does not hold to purity of worship, and this is a barrier to union with the Reformed Presbyterian Church.

Rev. Hutton has arranged a ministers’ conference which was held on an afternoon while we were in Larne. This ministers’ conference was attended by about 30 ministers representing all the Protestant denominations in the north. (Besides the four denominations mentioned earlier, this would include the Presbyterian Church of Ireland and the Church of Ireland, which is Anglican.) There was opportunity at this ministers’ conference to speak on the “Reformed Pastor” and to give a brief history of our Protestant Reformed Churches. A rather lengthy question and answer session followed in which we were closely and carefully quizzed on our views with respect to questions of the covenant, the well-meant offer, and common grace. We consider this meeting extremely valuable because, as soon as people hear that we as churches reject the well-meant offer, we are immediately branded as hyper-Calvinists. We had opportunity to explain our position, make clear why we are not hyper-Calvinists, and show that our churches are busy in the positive development of the truth of particular grace and God’s everlasting covenant of grace. To have cleared up many misunderstandings concerning these points made this meeting more than worth while.

As all our people know by now, Mr. Deane Wassink is teaching in Covenant Christian School in Newtonabbey. This school is the only parental Christian school in the whole of Ireland, and is a completely new venture on the part of the people there. The school is supported by parents of the Bible Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. We had opportunity to visit the school on an afternoon, and the 21 children, who constitute the student body, presented us with a very beautiful program. Rev. Engelsma also spoke at an evening meeting arranged on behalf of the school. The largest crowd, numbering over 80, that had ever gathered at such a meeting gave Rev. Engelsma opportunity to point out the meaning of, need for, and covenant calling to parents to give their children covenantal and Reformed education. The meeting was very profitable, and, under God’s blessing, served to promote the cause of Reformed education in Ulster.

It will interest our people to know that Deane and Donna and their family are doing well in Ireland. Deane is doing excellent work in the school, and the people are very pleased with the instruction which he is giving. We must remember Deane and Donna and the work they are doing before the face of God in our prayers.

We spent about twelve days in Ireland, and the time went by altogether too swiftly. The congregation assembled for a brief meeting on the last night we were there. At this meeting our wives were presented with a beautiful china vase and we with a gift of appreciation for our labors. Opportunity was given to say farewell to people we had learned to love. The bonds which had grown between us during this short stay made parting difficult.