Allen, Robert (1904–68), presbyterian minister, was born 30 March 1904 in Ballymena, Co. Antrim, son of Robert Allen (1865–1951), farmer, from near Cullybackey, Co. Antrim, and Emma Allen (née Crooks), from a farming family in Co. Armagh. Although born in Ballymena, he grew up and lived in Belfast. His life spanned the emergence of Northern Ireland, the first and second world wars, the great depression, and the establishment of the welfare state. He entered the Belfast City Mission in 1926, where he worked as a missionary till 1935. In 1931 he entered QUB as a mature student with the intention of qualifying for the ministry of the presbyterian church, and from 1934 to 1937 he studied in Assembly's College, where he won every academic prize in his year. This was a courageous decision in view of the fact that he had a speech defect and ‘sermon tasting’ was a feature of Belfast presbyterian life in the interwar years. He combined his studies for the ministry with a postgraduate three-year course in economics, and as he had an interest in languages he acquired a fluent knowledge of Spanish and later German, then the main language for protestant theology. In 1936 – his final year in college – he became assistant minister to the Rev. J. W. Johnston in Townsend St., then a large and multi-faceted congregation serving all sections of Belfast society. Although his ministry in Townsend St. was brief, it laid the foundation for a lifelong friendship between the two ministers, based on their common calling and intellectual interests.
On 1 November 1938 Dr Allen was called to the Kingham Mission, the presbyterian church's principal outreach to the deaf, dumb, and deaf-blind. This was to be his life's work and a fitting outcome for his earlier interests in languages and economics. He began his ministry in the Kingham mission during the great depression and one of his chief concerns was to find employment for the unemployed among his congregation. Dr Allen's interests in communicative skills made him a very effective minister in this sphere. He quickly acquired the Diploma of the Missionary to the Deaf (with honours) then being offered in London, and he had a widespread reputation for the elegant hand movements of his sign language. In appearance he was a large, handsome man in contrast to his pretty, diminutive wife. Both were genuinely kindly and unfailingly interested in the numerous and varied people who surrounded them. For many years he was secretary of the Irish Presbyterian Historical Society. History, particularly the history of the presbyterian church, was an abiding interest, and this is commemorated in the annual Allen lecture which has been given since 1971 by a series of distinguished academics of all denominations. His MA and Ph.D. degrees were awarded by QUB for theses that considered aspects of the problem of non-subscription, which is central to the conflict in the presbyterian church between agreed doctrine and intellectual freedom. He is perhaps best known for his biography of James Seaton Reid (qv), the nineteenth-century historian of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (3 vols, Belfast, 1867). His other publications include, among a number of articles – one in the festschrift for Professor J. E. Todd (qv), the most influential teacher of Irish history of his generation – the centenary history of the Presbyterian College, and the biography of Arnold Frank, who was born a Jew but converted to Christianity and conducted the famous presbyterian mission in Hamburg; Frank was persecuted by the Nazis and concluded his ministry as father of the Irish presbyterian church. Allen's writing is remarkable both for its fluency and its clarity. He died in Belfast on 24 June 1968.
Robert Allen married (1929) Doris Shaw. They had four daughters: Professor Dame Ingrid Allen, CBE, Dr Grace Allen, Dr Gwyneth Allen, and the artist St Claire Allen.