Rev Matthew Woodburn

1862 - 1877

Eighth Minister of Ballywillan Presbyterian Church

Five months after Mr Huey’s death his successor, Mr Matthew Woodburn of Ballintemple, Garvagh, was ordained.  On Tuesday, 24th June 1862, a congregation of fully 1000 persons (according to the Chronicle report) assembled at Ballywillan.  As it was felt that the church was not large enough to hald all those who wished to attend the ordination service, arrangements were made to hold the service in an adjacent field.  Unfortunately June 1862 was a very wet month, and the ordination day was cold and wintry, ‘the foliage on trees and hedgerows, and the verdure of the fields, alone tending to keep up the illusion that it was a summer gale stirred the sea and rustled in the grass’(Chronicle).  However a screened platform was provided so that the ministers could conduct the service in comparative comfort.

Mr Woodburn lived at Islandmore after his ordination, and the manse must have been built shortly after, as the births of all the Woodburn children are noted in the Baptismal Register as taking place at the manse.

There were six children:

Annie Barkley, born 8th August 1865
George, born 9th September 1867
Jane, born 6th June 1869
Mary Georgina, born 5th January 1871
James Barkley, born 12th March 1872
Elizabeth Brown (Lily), born 10th April 1874

Both of his sons entered the ministry, George Woodburn was Professor of Logic and Philosophy and later President of Magee College, and Dr James Barkley Woodburn was minister of Castlerock and later Fitzroy Avenue, Belfast, and was the author of ‘The Ulster Scot’.  In July 1897 Annie, the eldest daughter, married William Johnson of Belfast , apparently the other Woodburn girls did not marry.  Janie lived at Annadale, Newtownbreda, where her mother’s brother, D.G.Barkley, a former Judge in the Supreme Court, N.W.P. India, lived.  She and her sister Lily later lived at Greenock , where they both died.

During 1876 the Rev Woodburn became ill, and was no longer able to continue his work at Ballywillan.  Sadly, his younger brother, James, who also intended to enter the ministry, died in January of that year while still a licentiate of Coleraine Presbytery, aged only 26 years.

At a meeting of the Coleraine Presbytery on 10th February 1877 ‘several members expressed sincere sorrow upon hearing that Mr Woodburn’s recovery was so slow, and the Rev J Simpson, at the request of the Presbytery, engaged in solemn and affecting prayer on his behalf.
A few months later Mr Woodburn wrote the following letter to the congregation:

A Voice from the Border Land

Dear Friends,

It is now almost a year since God in His Providence laid me aside from my work amongst you, and called me to bear the burden of affliction.  It is fitting, at the close of this year of sorrow both to you and me, that as I am still unable to speak to you by word of mouth, I should ask your kind indulgence to allow me a few words by letter.  I am sorry to say that my illness still continues, and that no permanent improvement in my health has taken place.  I had fondly hoped that this summer would have restored me, but this hope seems mow fated to be disappointed.  At the same time I have much cause to be thankful that my suffering has not been greater, and that there is still reasonable hope that time and care may, with God’s blessing, restore me so that I can again resume work, and be privileged to live and labour for my Master in the ministry of the Gospel.  That God may be pleased to grant this is my earnest prayer, in submission to His will, as I know it is yours also.

Allow me to say how much I have been gratified by your whole conduct towards me during the past year.  It has been an inexpressible consolation to me to be the subject of your manifold prayers.  It has greatly relieved my sorrow to receive from you such repeated expressions of your sympathy.  It has helped me to bear with patience my long affliction that you have shown me such forbearance and kindness.  When oppressed with sorrow, and depressed in spirit, my heart has been cheered and relieved with the thought that you felt for me such affection; and interested yourselves so deeply in my welfare.  This affliction is not joyous, but grievous, yet I could thank God for it, even if it had no other result than letting me see the depth and strength of your love.  I thank you all for having me so much in your thoughts, and upon your hearts.

One of my greatest sorrows has been that I was unable to attend upon the sick and dying.  Many of my esteemed friends have been in the furnace, and I felt sad that I could not be near to pour a drop of comfort into their hearts.  Many of my loved ones have gone away, and I have mourned that I could not speak a word of promise to the dying ear, or help to lift up the departing soul in living faith to God.  I sorrow greatly that I shall see their faces no more.  But whilst I can only give the suffering and bereaved my sympathy and prayers, He who is the God of all grace and comfort can enter fully into our trials.  He can say to the troubled and fearful soul, “Peace be still”.  “Fear not I am with thee”.   I trust and pray that God may so reveal Himself to every tried one as to turn their sorrow into joy, and to give them the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.

Although I have been prevented from preaching the Gospel, yet I am glad that my place has been efficiently filled by others.  I trust a rich blessing may follow their labours.  I desire “fruit that may abound to your account,” and have no greater pleasure than seeing “my children walking in the truth.”  There is nothing I desire more earnestly than your salvation.  What greater blessing can I wish you than the blessing of eternal life.  Let me urge you to lay hold on this.

Brethren, the time is short, and the matter at stake is inconceivably precious.  What is aught else compared with the salvation of the soul?  What matters it what we have, or enjoy, if we have not an interest in Christ, and do not enjoy God forever?  What can fit us for the duties and toils of life; what can support and comfort us in affliction; what can brighten our dying hour; what can open to us the gates of glory but a saving interest in Christ.  Suffer me then to exhort you – it may be for the last time – to take Christ as your Saviour, and put all your dependence on His righteousness, and, as His people, to walk in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, that so an abundant entrance may be administered unto you into the everlasting Kingdom of God.  I trust that, even if my work be done, I shall not have spent my strength for nought, or laboured in vain; but that I shall have the great joy of meeting you all at the right hand of the King when He cometh in His Kingdom.  What the future may bring to me – whether sickness or health, life or death – we cannot know.  God has hidden it from us.  But we know whatever it be it shall be both wise and good.  His ways are higher than our ways, and His thoughts than our thoughts.  Pray for me, that I may be restored to health, and to work among you, if God will; but if not – if the present shadow should deepen until it shuts out the light of my life – that God may lift up upon me the light of His countenance, and that I may be prepared, by His grace and power, to triumph over death, and enter into the joy of my Lord.

I am, dear Friends,

Your loving Pastor,

Mathew Woodburn
Maghera, August 1877

On 28th November 1877, Mr Woodburn died at the manse, aged only 36.  An obituary in ‘The Witness’ mentions that he died of consumption.  It goes on to say that Mr Woodburn was a fine scholar, whose people ever found in him not only an able expositor of the Word of Truth, but a kind and attentive friend.

Mr Woodburn had wished to be buried in the grounds of his own church, but as the lease of the church lands prohibits burial there, he was buried in Ballywillan old graveyard.  The funeral service was attended by a very large number of friends and neighbours, in spite of the bleak and biting November day. (Chronicle 8th Dec 1877).  Rev J Simpson and Rev Professor Witherow conducted the service at the grave.

After her husband’s death, Mrs Woodburn and her children went to live with her brother in Maghera.  Mrs Woodburn died in 1885.