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Why Pastor McConnell turned down scout who signed George Best

Published 11/10/2016

Evangelist Pastor James McConnell and his wife Margaret
Evangelist Pastor James McConnell and his wife Margaret
Evangelist Pastor James McConnell and his wife Margaret in the study
The couple on their wedding day
James McConnell and his wife Margaret attending their granddaughter Rebecca’s graduation
James McConnell as a young man
Pastor McConnell’s daughters Julie and Linda with his wife Margaret

In the second of our exclusive extracts from Pastor James McConnell's autobiography, he talks about his happy childhood.

I lost my mother at the age of eight

I was born in east Belfast on May 15, 1937. My father, Edward, was a driller in Harland & Wolff and my mother, Jean, was a great housewife, building her wee family in what was known as a "kitchen house". In those days, as the Second World War came to a close, the American GIs, the British soldiers and our local battalions were stocking up for the famous D-Day invasion.

Due to the importance of Harland & Wolff to the war effort, the German Luftwaffe sought to flatten Belfast. During those times, I remember my dad lifting my sister and me out of our beds and wheeling us in a pram quickly in the dark to the Castlereagh Hills. When the all-clear siren sounded, it was only then dad would lead us back to our home and, thankfully, it was still standing.

I had a happy early childhood, but, sadly, I lost my mother at the age of eight. I remember the day she died. I came home from school and the neighbours were waiting on me and they told me the news. She died on June 19. Mum died while pregnant with her third baby, which was late in life for her. Septicaemia had set in and she died in agony.

I am not sure whether it was the passing of my mum at such a young age that sparked off the fight against fear in my life, or if it was being moved basically overnight to live with my granny and granddad, due to my sister's illness. But I know this: fear began a vicious fight to control me and to hold me hostage to its command.

I gave my heart and life to Lord

I became born again one Sunday afternoon in 1945 in the Iron Hall: the independent, evangelical church. I knelt down beside an old wooden bench at the age of eight and gave my heart and my life to the Lord. My Sunday School teacher, Sammy Jamison, pointed me to Christ.

I had been attending the Iron Hall for several months and every time the doors would open, I would be there. Sammy would faithfully tell me about Jesus each Sunday, who He was, what He did and God's plan of Salvation. It was there young James McConnell gave his life to the Lord.

I first saw future wife inside church

It was in the Church of God in 1957 that I first laid eyes on my future wife, Margaret. Because I was so full of myself at that time, I just went over to this good looking young woman and asked her out. Thankfully, she said yes. I am happy and deeply honoured to say that we got married in 1959 in the Orange Hall that we were renting for the church services when I was 22 years old. The trial of hardship and limited resources didn't end then, but now I had a helpmate. Together we laboured to make our little church strong and healthy. A man dedicated to God is not an easy man to live with. She not only endured the stress of reliance upon God, but graciously braved those years of living with a husband who ate, slept, and drank the work of God.

My beloved two daughters, Linda and Julie, were born a few years after we married. Linda was born on January 1, 1961. A few years later, Julie arrived, on July 12, 1967. Margaret would always say that the Lord gave us those dates specifically as they were easy to remember.

Julie is the rebel of the family, but turned out a lovely rebel, who really looks after me. As a young girl, she attended all the meetings, but when she came of age she pulled away. However, I do know that she secretly listens to my sermons online. She is able to tell me all about them and also what is going on in the church. It appears that she knows more than me about Whitewell.

Football legend tried to sign me

The next George Best? I remember a time when I was made a good offer to become a professional footballer. On one occasion, I went to the prayer meeting alone without Margaret; she was at home looking after the girls. There was a knock at the door. It was Jackie Milburn, a Newcastle United centre-forward, who also played for England. He was a football scout and had actually come to sign me to Linfield. They chatted briefly, but she told him that I wasn't at home. I was flattered he wanted to sign me, but I knew I had to be obedient to my calling.

There was another day I was chosen to play in a match at Ormeau Park and this man came over to me. I was goalkeeper; we used to just throw two coats down to act as makeshift goalposts. He asked me if I played for anyone. I said I didn't and he couldn't understand why I hadn't been snapped up. His name was Bob Bishop - the football scout who discovered George Best. He said to me: "What are you doing?" I said: "I came out for a time of prayer." He said: "You what?" He looked at me as if I was mad. He asked me would I sign up, but I said no, because I was pastoring a church and didn't have the time. He made it clear that he thought I was crazy. He obviously thought I had potential, but I wasn't interested then: I just wanted to follow Christ.

How I tried to save SF’s Gerry Adams

Then there was the time I felt led to go to Andersonstown to do a gospel mission. It was unheard of that a church like ours would enter this territory - even some of my congregation were frightened to go, but I was undeterred. To me, they all needed saved. A priest, Fr Patrick McCafferty, who I'd befriended, opposed this move. This story made it on to Radio Ulster and it was also covered in the newspapers. The leisure centre was earmarked for the rally. This was received reasonably well by the residents. The priest was unhappy, however, that I was going into west Belfast. He claimed that I believed the Pope is the Antichrist and that the church of Rome is not Christian.

Fr McCafferty was the only one who publicly opposed it; the rest of the priests were quiet. They weren't happy, but they realised that it was freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Even Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams phoned me and requested me to meet him in Stormont.

At that time, I was Peter Robinson's chaplain. During our meeting, Gerry looked at me intently and asked me: "What are you going to Andersonstown for?" I said: "To get you saved and to get people saved." And he asked: "Is that to make them Protestant?" I said: "No, it's to make people children of God." I will never forget coming out of his office - the DUP representatives were staring at me and commenting upon my presence, wondering what I was doing with him.

That night, the mission took place and almost 2,000 people turned up. The leisure centre was packed, but some of our church members were reluctant to attend because of where it was situated. The television cameras were there, too, so it was quite an occasion. The people in that part of the city were lovely. During the mission, a woman's home was broken into and her savings were stolen. I think around £3,000 was taken. So, I told those present that we weren't going to keep the proceeds of the offering, but instead the money would go to replace the cash that the lady had lost. She was delighted.

I fought all night with Ian Paisley

I always seemed to be rubbing shoulders with controversial characters. Many have said that the late Rev Ian Paisley and myself have been the voice of the Gospel in Northern Ireland over the years, but let me tell you how I met the Big Man.

I first encountered the late Rev Paisley, as a boy. I used to sing and one night in the Ulster Hall he made me get up in front of everybody and sing without music and accompaniment. Little did I know then that that was just the start of me standing on stage in front of large crowds.

I remember meeting Rev Paisley some years ago in Heathrow airport at Gate 49. I was about to fly out to Spain, as we had work lined up there, and I remember saying to my friend Jim Penny that I felt there was something wrong at home. I was proved right when I heard the voice over the intercom calling me: "Would Pastor McConnell come to the phone please?" It was Margaret. She broke the news to me that my sister had died.

Jim flew out, while I made arrangements to go home. I was sitting at the gate contemplating the news when this tall figure approached me. He leaned over me and he said: "What are you doing here, McConnell?" I said: "My sister has died, brother Paisley. She was saved." He said: "Thank God. You have nothing to worry about then." And he stayed with me the whole time.

As Rev Paisley and I waited to board the flight back to Belfast, fog started to develop, which meant we couldn't return home that night. We ended up sleeping in the same room. In one sense, he stayed closed to me that night and yet, every so often, Rev Paisley, being the character he was, and me being me, would have a go at each other.

But I have to say we always had the utmost respect for each other. I laugh when I look back now, because we fought all night. Scriptural combat is what it is called. He saw Scripture one way; I saw it another.

I knew Margaret looked shocked when she saw Rev Paisley and I at the gates of Aldergrove, leaving together.

  • The Good, the Bad and Jesus Christ by Pastor James McConnell is published by Maurice Wylie Media, priced £10. It will be launched at Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle tomorrow at 8pm with a live interview on Revelation TV (Freesat channel 692, Freeview HD channel 250 and Sky channel 581)

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