The beautiful green isle of Ireland has achieved an outstanding place in the annals of the past, and the inhabitants today take pleasure in pointing out to visitors its many places of great historical interest.
Kings reigned in that small territory and there are still abundant indications to prove that a high state of civilization existed there, many centuries ago. It is said that long before the Danes invaded the British Isles, students went from the continent of Europe, to the College of Armagh to finish their education. That invasion must have taken place early in the Seventh Century, for the Danes had possession of Ireland for four hundred years until they were defeated and driven out by an Irish King called Brian Boru at the battle at Clontarf, in the year 1014. The Gospel must therefore have reached its shores at an early date, resulting in law and order being established there while nearby countries were still in a very primitive state.
The natural beauty of the hills and glens, valleys and mountain ranges, especially in the early spring with its mantle of green, interspersed with an abundance of wild flowers of different colors, gives a very attractive appearance to the landscape, and no doubt it was because of all this that it received the name of the “Emerald Isle.” But more interesting to us is another of its well-known titles, namely, “The Isle of Saints,” for it was there that Saint Patrick and Columba proclaimed the glad tidings and, from its shores, there went forth as evangelists and teachers, some of the most noted preachers of by-gone days.
Among the many prosperous towns that are now seen in the valleys of County Down is one of note, named Banbridge. This town is beautifully situated and only a few miles from Hillsboro, the palatial residence of Lord Craigavon, the late Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. That ancient castle of Hillsboro has stood for centuries and is said to have sheltered William, Prince of Orange, shortly before he fought the renowned Battle of the Boyne, in 1690.
Here is the home of a hardy race of people with very strong religious convictions, and for the most part zealous for the doctrines of the Reformation. Some are Episcopalians, others Presbyterians, and a large number of them are descendants of the Scottish Covenanters, those men and women whose integrity was well tried and proven in the awful days when Claverhouse and his dragoons searched the hills of Scotland and persecuted to the death of martyrdom, a people whose only crime was worshiping the Lord as they believed they were taught in the Scriptures of truth.
A family named McClure lived in that peaceful town of Banbridge and were staunch Episcopalians. Of that family was one Simpson McClure, a blacksmith by trade, large of stature and possessed of unusual strength, whose name was known throughout the country far and near, because of his skill at plough-making.
One daughter, Mary Ann, had already been born bringing joy into the home, but on Christmas Day, December 25th, 1857 in the humble home of Simpson McClure and his wife there was more than the usual holiday excitement for then and there their eldest son first saw the light of day.
Thus on the anniversary held throughout Christendom as the date of the birth of the Prince of Peace, this infant son was born. While adults and children in the town and country were engaged in the usual festivities of that happy season, no outward scenes of joy attended the birth of Simpson McClure’s son. He was just another added to the family circle. A few days later he was taken to the parish church of Seapatrick, and according to the custom, christened and given the name William John. As a boy he afterwards became a regular attendant at the Sunday School of Seapatrick, and its church services. His father at that time, and for years afterwards, was unsaved, a man of the world whose example in life was far from being helpful “in bringing up his children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord,” yet, like the blacksmith of whom the poet said: “His brow is wet with honest sweat, he earns whate’er he can,” so with honest toil, Simpson McClure provided for his large family. Incidents that happened in later years, as his son was growing up, showed true marks of a father’s care and wisdom, but best of all, was the time that he trusted Christ and gave evidence of the new birth, an event which afforded great relief to the son when the father was called home shortly before William John left for America in 1881.
The subject of this memoir soon became a familiar figure in the town of Banbridge. He went to school with the other boys, joined in the pastimes of that day, and grew and increased in stature above many.
He was a strong and robust boy and early learned to work in the forge with his father. For a time he was striker on the anvil, but his ambitions were for higher occupations than spending a lifetime in a smithy, for he often had thoughts of going afar to make his fortune. However, something that he little expected would occur, took hold of him as he approached the age of sixteen. Thoughts of death, hell, and the judgment day occupied his mind causing deep spiritual anxiety. This came about in a rather singular way, but it can best be related in his own words written some sixty-two years later.