Holmes, Finlay (1926–2008), presbyterian minister and historian, was born Robert Finlay Gregg Holmes in north Belfast on 19 July 1926, one of two sons of William Holmes and his wife Sophia Finlay (née Gregg). Both his parents were from the north Antrim district of Kilraughts. His mother had been a teacher before her marriage, and William Holmes was principal of Forth River school; when Finlay was a year old, his father took up the post of headmaster of Ballymena Model School, and the family moved to Ballymena to live in the principal's house. Finlay Holmes was an exact contemporary of Ian Paisley (qv), who also grew up in Ballymena, and both attended the Model School, but in later life their views on religion and politics were widely divergent. Holmes's liberal interpretations of presbyterian theology and his historical interest in the radicalism of eighteenth-century presbyterians most likely derived from his understanding of the contexts in which his parents had been brought up. North Antrim, and particularly Kilraughts, was noted in the early twentieth century as a stronghold of liberalism, and many presbyterians in the area, in particular the Kilraughts-born minister James Armour (qv), had supported home rule.
Finlay won a boarding scholarship from Ballymena Model to Coleraine Academical Institution, but later moved to Ballymena Academy. In both schools he was an enthusiastic rugby player, and also deepened his commitment to his Christian faith; he was founding president of the Christian Union in Ballymena Academy. He was also an officer in the school's Air Training Corps (he seriously considered a career in the RAF on leaving school). His academic achievements were not affected by his extra-curricular activities, and in 1944 he placed first in Northern Ireland's senior certificate examinations in English language and literature. He was awarded a state scholarship to attend TCD, where he read modern history and politics, and came out first in the examinations in all four years (1945–8). He also won the two prizes open to history students, and was auditor of the College Historical Society; he played rugby for Trinity's first XV, and was president of the college's Christian Union. The vice-president was Josephine Hunter, from Portrush, Co. Antrim, who had come to Trinity to study languages, and was known to Holmes since her school days as a boarder in Ballymena. They married on 1 April 1955.
After graduating BA with high honours (1948), Holmes was accepted as a student for the presbyterian ministry in January 1949 by his home presbytery of Ballymena. He had already begun studies in Greek and philosophy in TCD in the autumn of 1948. Having been awarded a Westminster College Lewis–Gibson scholarship, he went in autumn 1949 to Fitzwilliam House (later Fitzwilliam College), Cambridge, to study for the theological tripos of Cambridge University. He spent three years there, specialising in church history, and also playing for the university rugby team until he suffered a serious knee injury. He graduated MA from Cambridge as an affiliated student in theology in 1951, and went back to Northern Ireland to complete his training by studying for a year in Assembly's College. In June 1953 he was licensed as a probationer by Ballymena presbytery, and he spent a year as assistant in Belmont in east Belfast. Though Holmes greatly impressed Belmont's incumbent minister, this was to be the younger man's only experience of working in a traditional congregational setting.
In 1954 Holmes was ordained to become presbyterian chaplain to the RAF, and worked for six years in England and Germany, encountering members and clergy of different denominations, as well as non-believers, while providing spiritual education and pastoral care. His skills in communicating with young people were further developed in three years teaching divinity and history at Campbell College, Belfast (1960–63), and in 1963 he took up a newly created post, lecturing in church history and systematic theology in Magee Theological College in Derry, where some of Ireland's presbyterian ministers were trained. From then onwards, Holmes was able to bring together his great interest in the history of his denomination with his ability to communicate that enthusiasm to colleagues and students. In 1970 he was awarded an M.Litt. by TCD for a thesis on the presbyterian minister Henry Cooke (qv) which he had begun in 1948 under the supervision of Theodore Moody (qv).
He had barely started in Magee when he had to take on the role of acting principal after the sudden death of the college principal in February 1964. The following year, Holmes published Magee, 1865–1965: the evolution of the Magee colleges. However, Magee Theological College, as a separate legal entity, did not long survive its centenary: in 1971 it was united with Assembly's College in Belfast, to become the Union Theological College (constituted by act of parliament in 1978). In 1971 Holmes became the first Magee professor of Christian history and doctrine, and moved back to Belfast for the rest of his career. He was principal of the Union College (1987–92), and a respected and influential lecturer to hundreds of students; his kindness, courtesy and liberal theological views were paralleled by a deep faith and by ecumenical consideration of others' viewpoints. Holmes's researches into denominational, social and Christian history were described in scores of articles in journals and pamphlets; his standing as the leading church historian of his generation can be gauged from the number of forewords, reviews, and articles in reference works that he was asked to write, as well as the number of centenary and anniversary events in churches throughout the country at which he was asked to preach. He was particularly interested in the interactions between theology and politics in Ireland in the later eighteenth century, but his articles covered a much wider range of subjects. Two of his books, Our Irish presbyterian heritage (1985) and The Presbyterian Church in Ireland: a popular history (2000) were particularly successful.
Alongside his lecturing and historical research, Holmes took an active role in the general assembly of his church, in membership and chairmanship of many committees, for instance as convenor of the university education committee (1971–82) and the doctrine committee (1987–92). His election to the moderatorship of the general assembly occurred in a particularly appropriate year; in 1990 the church celebrated the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the union of synods in 1840, when the general synod of Ulster and the presbyterian synod of Ireland (seceding) joined to form the general assembly. While moderator, Holmes jointly edited, and contributed to, The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, 1840–1990 (1990). Alongside the historical focus of the anniversary celebrations, Holmes encountered considerable contemporary challenges in his moderatorial year (1990–91). Northern Ireland was deep in the tragedy of the troubles; Holmes was called upon to preach at several funerals of policemen and other victims, on occasion defying bomb threats to do so.
Several controversies brought the moderator to public attention: the Irish Times, reporting a funeral sermon in April 1991, stated that Holmes had called for the death penalty for murder; Holmes's vigorous disavowal led to an apology by the newspaper, which had reported another minister's remarks by mistake. Holmes's address on his installation as moderator (in June 1990) came under attack from Ian Paisley, who claimed that Holmes's remarks about the United Irishmen of the 1790s would encourage IRA terrorism, while Holmes's support for ecumenism was far from universally applauded within presbyterianism. However, some less controversial initiatives of the Holmes moderatorship, scarcely remarked at the time, were perhaps more important as indicators of possible changes. In May 1990 Holmes invited the Jesuit priest Fr Michael Hurley (1923–2011), a prominent ecumenist, to be his personal guest at the inauguration as moderator; catholics had never received official invitations to attend as observers. In February 1991, the moderator joined with the catholic primate Cahal Daly (1917–2009), the Church of Ireland Archbishop Robin Eames, and the president of the Methodist Church in Ireland, William Buchanan, to call for a peace initiative in Northern Ireland. Most significantly, Holmes's influence at the end of his moderatorial year brought about an unusual departure from tradition. Church House in Belfast was being renovated, and the meeting of the general assembly was very unusually held in Dublin. Large numbers of ministers and elders from Northern Ireland, many in Dublin for the first time, were accommodated by Dublin presbyterian families for the duration of the meeting, greatly benefiting mutual understanding within the denomination. Not only that, but for the first time the Republic's president was invited to attend the opening of the general assembly, and Mary Robinson, Ireland's first woman president, was welcomed by Finlay Holmes to the session held in St Patrick's (Church of Ireland) cathedral.
During Holmes's year as moderator, he travelled widely, to Jamaica, Romania, Hungary and the USA, and he also presided (to general acclaim) at a special assembly of over 1,000 members of the church at the Coleraine campus of the University of Ulster, called together to discuss the future of the denomination in a rapidly changing world. After June 1991, no longer moderator, Holmes continued to travel, to teach and to research, and publications continued to appear even after he officially retired in 1996. He had many other responsibilities and interests: he was a governor of Campbell College, and chairman of the board of governors (1987–9). Holmes received honorary doctorates from the Presbyterian Theological Faculty Ireland and from Maryville College, in east Tennessee, which was a presbyterian foundation in origin. A Festschrift in his honour, Ebb and flow: essays in church history in honour of R. Finlay G. Holmes (2002), contained a bibliography of his writings and affectionately acknowledged his influence on generations of young ministers, his support for ecumenical outreach, and his scholarly and enlightened historiography. Finlay Holmes died after a long illness on 14 July 2008, survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter.