|1707 Great Fire of Lisburn|
It happened on a Sunday. In the words of a contemporary writer, Dr Molyneaux, it was after “a long drought of weather”, which would have telling consequences for the people of Lisburn.
The construction of the houses of that period was also a significant factor in their misfortune. The roofs were made of shingle, that is a rectangular wooden tile, very vulnerable to fire. The walls of the houses were commonly made of timber and plasterwork, which involved even the chimney. Lighting and heating of the home consisted of some form of naked flame.
It began like any other restful Sunday morning. A brisk wind was blowing in the direction of the town. In one of the many entries and side streets off Bow Lane (Bow Street) at the Moyra side (Moira) the whole episode unravelled. In particular, it is alleged that this fire began in the house of Widow Walsh of Sluice Street. The circumstance at first seems rather trivial: “Only some turf ashes, thrown on a dunghill, which a brisk wind blowing towards the town raised and threw on the shingles of the next house.” This rather mundane procedure sparked off a devastating chain of events. The great problems at the start were inaction (many people were at church) and, more critically, the lack of a steady supply of water, before things would develop exponentially. About a year later, to the very month, the problem of water supply would cost Lord Donegall his three daughters, who were burnt to death in Belfast Castle.
Meanwhile, people in the fields saw the sky swept with a sheet of flame as it caught hold on the roofs. It “burned with great fury along both sides of the street, consuming everything as it went.”
People, on hearing, fled from the church to recover their possessions and bring them back to the churchyard. Listen to the eye witness account: “The churchyard being very big and near the church, and not being near any of the burning houses, it was considered a safe place, but the fire, having seized the church, descended on the goods in the yard and completely consumed them.” Rev. Mc Cracken wrote: “This is a very sore and sudden shock……I pray God you may never experience the like. There are families wholly broken…..not so much as to buy bread.”
Stand still with Dr Molyneaux and view the scene: “When I stood in the churchyard I thought I had never seen so dreadful a scene before. All around me the church burnt to the ground. The tombstones all cracked; vast trees burnt to their trunks. Lord Conway’s Castle, some distance from the rest, burnt to ashes and all his gardens in the same condition.”
So great was the misery that two locals, Isaac McCartney and Alexander Adair, went to Belfast to raise funds on April21st, the first of several, for “The Straits of the Distressed”. Rev. Joseph Wilkins records in the cathedral register: “On the 20th day of April1707, the town of Lisburn with the church and castle were consumed by an accidental fire.”
I have a burning desire to explain to you the gospel. The way to be safe in a fire is to stand where the fire has been. This is the principle of the “fire-break” – the fire will never pass over the scorched ground that has experienced fire. So it is in the spiritual realm; there is a Saviour who has been in the heat of God’s judgement as my substitute: “Christ died for our sins” (1st Corinthians 15:3). I accept this and believe it; I stand upon His ground. “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him” (John 3:36). To stand on my own works and character is to perish in my own sin. “There is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good and sinneth not” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). “The soul that sinneth, it shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20).
Stand still and view another scene. We are not now looking at things from the aspect of Lisburn’s churchyard. In thought we are moving swiftly back through the centuries. In the words of a poet, it is to “a hill lone and grey, in a land far away…..” Luke’s gospel takes up the vivid scene: “When they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified Him” (Luke 23: 33).We are telling now of the Saviour “who was wounded for our transgressions” (Isaiah 53:5).
While the fire in Lisburn was accidental, the cross of Calvary was no accident of history. “Him being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain; whom God hath raised up…”(Acts 2:23,24). It was God’s immense purpose of love to save perishing humanity from a burning hell. Many people harbour wrong thoughts about God, concluding that He is vengeful. Nothing could be further from the truth. Take note of this: God is “a God ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness” (Nehemiah 9:17). God, however, is a God of righteousness, who “will by no means clear the guilty” (Exodus 34:7). This is why Calvary was necessary that “He might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Romans 3:26). There was no other way but Calvary. We cannot achieve forgiveness of sins by our own efforts: “If righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain”(Galatians 2:21).
To say you are saved is not presumption, but a fact firmly grounded in the Bible: “He that heareth my word, and believeth on Him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life” (John 5:24).