Romans 12:12 “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, and faithful in prayer.”

As I mentioned in my last blog, in retirement I have been writing the history of my previous congregation, First Presbyterian Church, Armagh. After twenty-eight years of caring for the living, I am now caring for the dead of the congregation.

Starting in the mid-17th century, I have reached the mid-20th century. I have recently been researching one of my predecessors, Rev AW Neil, who served in First Armagh from 1938 to 1948. Like myself, he was called from ministering in Limerick. I have discovered that Alfie Neil was a prolific writer, a precursor to today’s blog writers. Not only did he write a monthly article for “First Armagh News”, but he also wrote a weekly article for the Saturday edition of the Northern Whig, at that time one of Northern Ireland’s most popular newspapers.

However, I began to feel frustrated failing to find any of these articles in the British Newspapers Archive. Eventually, after some detective work, I realised he published these articles from 1940 to 1948, under a pen name “Elpis,” the Greek word for “Hope”. In 1948, when he was elected Moderator of the General Assembly, he revealed his identity and explained his choice of his pen name.

When approached in 1940, as the Second World War raged, he was contemplating Paul’s triple virtues of faith, hope, and charity. He writes of how his editor exercised faith in him, his readers might need to exercise charity, but he would exercise hope. He wonders,

What virtue was most necessary during the ever deepening gloom of the war? To lose hope meant to lose everything. So, I determined, God helping me, to do all that in me lay to keep hope alive and shining in the hearts of my readers. However menacing the situation might become it was my ambition to stimulate and uplift by constant reference to all our problems and distresses to the God of hope who is our Saviour.

Week in week out for eight years until his sudden death in October 1948, Neil scanned the horizon for examples of how God was still working even in the darkest days. He watches with the eyes of God so that he may speak and write with the power of God. He searches for metaphors, stories, and poems to inspire his readers to practice their Christian faith in difficult days. My favourite article came from 6th September 1947. It is entitled “Bus ride Sermon”. Neil tells the story of sitting beside a Scottish Roman Catholic widow, who kept a boarding house, on a holiday bus tour of Scotland. She possessed a loud voice, so all the occupants of the bus overheard the conversation. She told a story about coming across a German prisoner of war who patted a dog. Its owner started an altercation, when she angrily blurted out, “How dare you touch my dog, you German swine.” When one woman spat in the German’s face, Neil’s companion courageously intervened, “You’re a nice Britisher. Christ did not die for the British only, or for Catholics or Protestants only. Christ died for us all.” The German prisoner of war thanked her profusely, telling her how he had lost four brothers in the war. The Scottish widow goes on to tell about taking in an African American airman, who was having bother finding lodgings.

Neil confesses that he wishes he could deliver his sermons to as eager and attentive an audience as sat on the bus in Scotland. Neil discerns God’s presence in the bus in the form of “this obscure boarding house keeper whose heart was in the right place”. In writing this story, he is able to create “elpis” or hope for the future of a time where people from whatever background, or colour, or nation, can worship together the Lamb who sits on the throne.

Sectarianism, prejudice and racism still create arguments and divisions in our society.

We must still keep searching for “Elpis”.


Tony Davidson is Minister Emeritus, First Presbyterian Church, Armagh.

Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article of those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.