William Sturgeon ..... By Desmond Rainey. uploaded 17/11/2021
Slaters' Directory of 1856 cites William Sturgeon as master at the National School, Cow Lane, Comber. Cow Lane is what is now High Street, and the National School was attached to 1st Comber Presbyterian Church. The foundation stone of the original schoolhouse was laid in June 1841, during the ministry of the Rev Isaac Nelson. That old building still stands today, although in 1866 it was replaced as school by a larger edifice, later to become the Minor Hall.
We know that William Sturgeon taught here from 1st November 1853 until 1st November 1856. He was a young man in his mid-30s, having been born c.1819. Rev James Miller Killen was minster of 1st Comber at the time. When Sturgeon left the school, Rev Killen gave him a glowing report. "By his assiduity and his untiring zeal, he raised the school from being exceedingly small to a daily average attendance of upwards of eighty pupils". He also took a great interest in the Sabbath School, and was in particular an excellent teacher of music. "He has uniformly maintained a most unblemished moral character, and has always set himself to oppose most faithfully and strenuously whatever he considered inconsistent with the Word of God, or with a true Christian character". But these do not appear to have been Rev Killen's true feelings. Nor indeed of the session and congregation of 1st Comber, if Mr Killen is to be believed. For he claims that they had been greatly annoyed with him and considered him to be a very indiscreet person. Rev Killen claimed that he had only written such an excellent reference so that Sturgeon would leave without causing any fuss. So what had been going on?
We get some insight from 1858 when William Sturgeon took out a court case against the Rev Killen and two other members of 1st Comber congregation, George McMorran and William McKee. This related to a musical soiree in aid of the Sabbath School held in the schoolroom on 15th October 1856. Sturgeon claimed that, even though he had purchased a valid ticket, he had been forcibly removed from the soiree by McMorran and McKee on the instruction of Rev Killen. There is an inference that Sturgeon had denounced in a letter the newly formed music class who organised the soiree, and that Rev Killen had left the room and said he would not return while Sturgeon was there. This was announced publicly to the meeting who were called upon to hiss Sturgeon, which they did.
But the problem goes back beyond Sturgeon's criticism of the music class. There was also a dispute about money. Sturgeon claimed that Rev Killen owed him school fees for teaching his children, among other things. Rev Killen denied this. My reading of the situation is that Sturgeon had been making a nuisance of himself, and was spoken to by Rev Killen about it in March 1856. It was about this time that Sturgeon announced his intention of leaving the school, as he intended to become a Presbyterian minister; he had already been attending classes at the College. He got no encouragement in this from Rev Killen.
William Sturgeon did become a Presbyterian minister. After attending Queen's College, Belfast and the Presbyterian College, he was licensed to preach in 1860 and was ordained as minister of 2nd Dunboe, in the Presbytery of Coleraine, on 29th March 1864. He had a difficult time here, and a Presbytery visitation in 1868 found that his relations with the congregation were strained. There were many reasons for this, and I'll just cite a few: he wanted a reduction in the amount of wine on the Communion table; no smoking in the Session room; he refused to censure offenders publicly before the congregation; he asked for standing during prayer; he rebuked those attending fairs for blaspheming and censured attendance at horse and boat races; he refused certificates to those he thought unworthy. The Presbytery were also unhappy with a sermon he preached at Garvagh as containing heresy.
Added to all this, his behaviour in yet another court case was heavily criticised. William Sturgeon had married Sarah Robinson in 1866. Sarah's father William Robinson is described as a farmer living at Ballyrickard, Comber. The marriage was performed at Newtownbreda Presbyterian Church by Rev John Rogers, an ex-Moderator of the General Assembly who was also minister of 2nd Comber church. In 1868 Sarah's brother James died, and there was a dispute relating to money owing from his estate to the Sturgeons. Rev Sturgeon was said to have written letters with intent to deceive and using fraudulent means to obtain this money. The Coleraine Presbytery thought his actions totally inappropriate for a minister, and he was advised to resign from Dunboe. This he did in July 1872. After further investigation he was deposed as a minster by the General Assembly.
William Sturgeon died on 7th March 1882 in Belfast, aged 63, in dispute with the Presbyterian Church until the last. His career was described as "by no means a successful one".
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