Hall, John (1829–98), presbyterian minister, was born 31 July 1829 in Ballygorman, Co. Armagh, eldest among eight children of William Hall, farmer and an elder in the presbyterian church, and Rachel Hall (née Macgowan). John was sent to a local school at Loughgilly and at the age of 12 proceeded to Belfast College, run by Dr Henry Cooke (qv), the most eminent presbyterian minister of the day. He left school in 1849 and was immediately sent by the Student's Missionary Association to proselytise in Connacht. He lived at Camlin, where his work included inspecting schools, establishing Sunday schools, preaching, and distributing tracts to the surrounding regions. After his ordination (9 October 1850) as a minister in Ballina, Co. Mayo, he preached fortnightly at the Wesleyan church at Boyle, Co. Roscommon. Many of his congregation were catholic and the majority did not speak English as their first language; Hall therefore developed a practice, which he said stood him in great stead throughout his life, of preparing strong, simple sermons with homely references, which were still of interest to educated listeners. From this period also stemmed his lifelong adherence to the temperance movement and his practice of proselytising through the local press; under the pseudonyms ‘P’ and ‘Autos’, he wrote frequently for the weekly Leitrim Gazette and Irish Messenger. His reputation as a preacher spread and on 30 January 1852 he was appointed to the First Church of Armagh, a leading presbyterian congregation. In June of that year he married a widow, Mrs Emily Irwin (née Bolton) of Monkstown, Co. Dublin, the mother of three sons whose care he took on, as well as that of his younger brothers and sisters, his father having died in 1849. In Armagh he was known as a compelling preacher, able to rivet both the townsmen and the farmers who made up his congregation, and as a tireless worker much involved in charity work for orphans and the deaf and blind.
In 1855 he established the Children's Missionary Herald, which he edited for five years, and he continued to throw his energies into the temperance movement. On 8 September 1858 he was called to Dublin as the colleague of Dr William Kirkpatrick in St Mary's Abbey, the chief presbyterian church in the capital. There he drew substantial numbers, which persuaded the congregation of the need to build a larger church; this was principally financed by Alexander Findlater (qv) who donated £8,000 for a church at Rutland (Parnell) Sq., completed in October 1864. The irony of the teetotaller Hall being financed by the capital's leading wine merchant was not lost on Dublin people. Hall also helped establish the congregation at Rathgar in 1859 and the following year founded the Evangelical Witness, a monthly paper which he edited until his removal to New York in 1867, after which it continued under the title Witness. Initially a participant in the evangelical revival of the late 1850s, he subsequently became alarmed by its excesses and in a letter (September 1859) to the Armagh Guardian questioned the wisdom of exhibiting to tourists people believed to have been visited by the holy spirit, and also cast doubts on the spiritual value of trances and mass meetings: ‘Would not the temptation to mere ephemeral excitement be more likely to abound on such occasions than in the quiet enjoyment of the ordinary means of grace?’ (cited in Lundie, 28).
Though theologically opposed to Roman Catholicism, Hall was against enforcing protestantism. This sprang from his conviction that the truth of evangelicalism was innate, self-evident, and would prevail regardless. He attacked the Orange lodges and aligned himself with the cause of non-sectarian education, a stance that alienated many more senior ministers in his church but led to his being appointed one of three commissioners of education in 1860. Hall, who was politically a liberal and a strong advocate of disestablishment, was not in line with the main body of presbyterians, whose policy at this period was to work closely with the Church of Ireland. It is suggested that he was purposely made a delegate to the presbyterian assembly in New York in 1867 to get him out of the way; a colleague allegedly asked him: ‘I thought you were to have been [general] moderator?’, to which Hall replied: ‘My brethren have transported me’ (cited in Lundie, 30). The outcome of his American visit was that he was asked by the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church to serve as their minister and in September 1867 he accepted this offer and emigrated permanently to New York.
In America he had remarkable success and by tireless pastoral work and preaching (often three sermons a day) built up over thirty years the largest protestant congregation in the city, which had to be accommodated by a new church at Fifth Avenue and 55th St., completed in 1875. He wrote regularly for the New York Ledger and continued his interest in education by becoming chancellor of the university of the city of New York (1881–91). He faced an assassination attempt in November 1891 by an insane homeless man, but lived to die of natural causes on 17 September 1898 in Bangor, Co. Down, while on a visit to Ireland. His remains were shipped to New York, where his large funeral took place on 4 October 1898. He was survived by three sons and a daughter.
Hall remained an adherent all his life of Henry Cooke's modified Calvinism with its strict theory of Biblical inspiration; his strong faith combined with his natural tolerance made him unafraid of rival dogmas; though opposed to Darwin, he did not prevent his young children from reading him. His Lyman Beecher lectures to the Yale divinity school in 1874–5 were published as God's word through preaching (1875). A full list of his published sermons and writings is found in Allibone.