Belfast Telegraph

Ian Paisley mellowed in his politics, but never in religion

Ian Paisley's deeply-held beliefs underpinned everything he did in his life, writes Religion Correspondent Alf McCreary

Throughout his long career Ian Paisley remained a deeply conservative evangelical Protestant with an unflinching opposition to Roman Catholicism and its successive Popes.

A man of contradiction, it stood in stark contrast to his attitude to individual Catholics among his North Antrim constituents, whom he was said to represent strongly and fairly.

Paisley was born into a strongly Baptist family, and his father James Kyle Paisley was an Independent Baptist pastor.

Paisley was saved at an early age, and preached his first sermon at 16. He became minister of the Ravenhill Evangelical Mission Church in August 1946. Five years later, he established his own Free Presbyterian Church on the Ravenhill Road and was moderator without a break from 1951 to 2008.

Paisley's dramatic preaching style and conservative evangelism gained him many followers, and in 1969 he opened his Martyrs' Memorial Church.

The essence of the Reformation martyrs runs through the building, and three pairs of great bronze doors at the entrance are engraved with extracts from Martin Luther's theses, alongside a selection of Old and New Testament texts.

Paisley's preaching was always firmly rooted in Reformation principles, with a fierce opposition to Roman Catholicism. Often his religious fundamentalism spilled over into his political protests, as in 1963 when he led a demonstration against the Union flag flying at half-mast on Belfast City Hall following the death of Pope John XXIII.

In 1966, he protested outside the Presbyterian Church's General Assembly because of its "Romeward trend". He and his followers also shouted abuse at the then Northern Ireland Governer Lord Erskine and his party, which greatly shocked Lady Grey – wife of the then Governor of Northern Ireland – in particular.

Many years later, he would lead a more orderly – though still vociferous – protest outside the Presbyterian Church House when Cardinal Sean Brady attended the General Assembly as a guest of an incoming Moderator.

Ian Paisley not only preached against Rome theologically, but he also fought it personally, protesting loudly in the European Parliament at the presence there of Pope John Paul II in 1988. He denounced the Pope as "the Antichrist" and was removed forcibly from the chamber, while the Pontiff looked on benignly.

In 2010, Paisley and his followers protested directly during the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the UK.

Sometimes, this criticism had the veneer of humour, such as when he called various Popes "old red socks". But those who regarded Paisley as a funny but ridiculous bigot were missing the point. The key to his entire career was his fundamental evangelical Protestantism.

In later years, he appeared to mellow politically, but not so theologically. In his last sermon to his beloved Martyrs' Memorial congregation in January, he said during the farewell service that he was "in a place I love, in my own pulpit – for 65 years I have preached Christ and Him crucified".

During the service, he also prayed that God would "put the brake on those stepping on the road to hell". Paisley's philosophy was simple: if you were not saved, you were going straight to hell, with all its fire and brimstone. For ever.

In essence, Paisley began and ended his public life as a 17th century Protestant evangelical. He may have moved politically but his theological view was always no surrender.

He had not given an inch.

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