The 1859 Revival Debate in the NI Assembly.
The Revival was debated in the Northern Ireland Assembly on …..
Mr David Simpson, MP, MLA opened the debate. Mr Speaker: In Northern Ireland dates and anniversaries are much discussed and debated. Dates and commemorations can sometimes be divisive and contentious long, long after the events themselves.
We all know this to be true. This motion however relates to one date and commemoration that can be acknowledged and accepted on all sides of this House. It is worded so as to invite support from all sides. It doesn’t mention many conversions or the tangible presence of God that swept across society. It does not mention the extraordinary outward physical manifestations that occurred, often from an overpowering sense of sinfulness and of the great gulf between the individual and his Creator. It doesn’t mention the crucial part that prayer played in the revival, nor of the preaching during that year of grace. I am sure that others will mention such things. I simply wish to lay out the motion as it is presented. Next year will indeed be a significant anniversary. Much valuable work has been done in lobbying by groups such as the Caleb Foundation for official recognition of this anniversary, but there is more that can be done.
The motion before us speaks of the positive contribution made by the Revival to society. What were those benefits?
* The revival had a massive and beneficial influence on the levels of criminality in the country. By 1860, crime was reduced. On a number of occasions judges in Ulster had no cases to try. At one point in County Antrim, no crime was reported to the police and no prisoners were held in police custody. A large Whiskey distillery in Belfast was put up for auction. The drink trade had so fallen off in the Conner area, two pubs had to close because the publicans were converted, and a third closed because of lack of trade.
* Think of the village of Ahoghill. Drunkenness, fighting and swearing were prevalent. It was described by a policeman as “ the worst wee place in the world.’’ But what a transformation took place: The local presbytery sent a deputation to examine the work and took note that drunkenness and profane language had been all but annihilated.
* Think too of Bellaghy. Before the Revival one person said it was: “The most degraded of Irish villages. Rioting and drunkenness were the order of each evening… and such a place for lying and stealing I do not know.” But when the revival came it was said: “As you pass down the street you hear, in almost every house, the voice of joy and melody.”
* No account would be complete without mentioning Coleraine in the Minister’s own constituency. He will know of the events surrounding the opening of the new town hall and of the occurrences at the Irish society school – he won’t need me to remind him of those things
* What of my own constituency of Upper Bann? The Lurgan Gazette said: "It has at once arrested the careless and ungodly, and almost put a stop to the drinking customs of the people, spreading a seriousness over the face of society, and leading men to think of the great concerns of eternity" But it wasn’t just confined to what is today Northern Ireland. It recognised no geographical or political barrier. In counties Monagan, Donegal and Cavan and in Limerick and Carlow and in Dublin its force was felt.
* But this motion also speaks of the lasting effects of the revival – the benefits that are still felt today.
It promoted sobriety. “It is impossible not to observe,” said the Dowager Countess of Londonderry, “that one re sult of the much-talked-of Revival has been the establishment of greater sobriety and temperance.” Mr. Macart ney, a Justice of the Peace and former Member of Parliament for Antrim, witnessed that in certain parishes the use of ardent spirits was almost entirely abandoned.
It worked a miraculous change in public manners. It was described as “the most striking effect produced upon national manners, in our day, in these islands”
* But it also had an extraordinary influence on the mindset of the Protestant population and in particular on the involvement of laypeople and in the rise of Mission Halls and small ground level works and ministries.
Consider the years of violence and bloodshed that this province has come through. Many have noted that Loyalist paramilitaries never enjoyed significant popular support. One reasons for that was the abiding influence of a world view and legacy handed down by the revival. All across the Protestant community there were small local independent churches and mission halls right in the heart of the community preaching the high demands of the Scriptures in relation to sin and our accountability to God. This undoubtedly had a restraining influence on families and generations ever since those days. If we were to examine the number of paramilitary funerals that proceeded from churches from the evangelical community we would see that they were very few and far between. For that we should all be grateful. This motion calls on the Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure to mark this anniversary.
How might that be done?
Well he could utilise libraries for the setting up displays. He could liaise with the DETI Minister and help create a revival trail for tourists and produce tourist information literature. He could consider working with the Ulster Museum about the setting up a display there. He could explore what could be done in partnership with the BBC regarding commemorative programmes. I have no doubt that the Minister will have his own ideas. I would though ask that he ensure that this hugely significant anniversary is not allowed to pass unnoticed or unmarked. And accordingly I would ask that all sides of the house support this motion.
Closing the debate, Mervyn Storey MLA said, -
Mr Speaker: This has been a good debate on what is a significant anniversary. In proposing the motion David Simpson stated that the anniversary of the revival is one that can be acknowledged and accepted on all sides of this chamber. Those of us who tabled it did so as to make it easier for people who may not share the particular religious themes, practices or fervour of that time, to support the call we have made. Many contributors to this debate have spoken of the truly extraordinary events that occurred in their own constituencies as the great revival swept in.
Of course there have been some historians who have sought to explain away both the phenomena, the many tens of thousands of conversions, the numerous lives that were revolutionised for the better and the uplift that the whole of society received as a result of that mighty work of Almighty God. In the materialistic age in which we live today that kind of explanation might satisfy those who can only bother to look at things superficially, but it simply does not measure up to the facts.
During that great revival, as is ran its course and as the direct and immediate result of it….
* Drunkards were made sober and never again felt any inner compulsion to return to the booze.
* People who would formerly have been casually violent or criminal were suddenly transformed and lived lives characterised by godliness and decency.
* Families that had been torn asunder by drink or cruelty were brought together and made whole once more.
* Entire communities that had once been notorious for vice, or lawlessness were changed utterly by a power that swept through them at one time.
* Prison cells lay empty… and courts sat idle.
These Mr Speaker are facts… facts recorded at the time… facts soberly reported by officers of the courts or by members of the constabulary… or by hard nosed members of the press. These are not the wishful sentiments of adherents, but the calm, measured and compelling verdict of an entire generation of first hand eyewitness accounts. If that were all that had occurred and if that was the only legacy of those days, then Mr Speaker that should still be sufficient for this Assembly to pass this motion and for the Minister to mark this anniversary. Surely in such days as these – when the press and broadcast media are awash with everything that is lewd and crude – it would stand us all to be reminded of such things and to celebrate such events.
But Mr Speaker that is far from being all that occurred. As we have already heard today there were far reaching benefits that flowed from those days of revival and there is a long lasting legacy that has passed down through the intervening generations. That enduring influence was well related to this Assembly by David Simpson right at the commencement of this debate. But there is more that could be added.
One of the effects of the revival was within the Protestant community. It had the effect of drawing different social classes and denominational allegiances together. Where Protestants had once been divided they were brought closer together as a result of the Revival. This essential commonality was to prove important in the ensuing years. Whether it was Home Rule, or the various terror campaigns that characterised the early and middle decades of the Twentieth Century, or whether it was the thirty years of sectarian violence directed against them as an ethnic group by the provisional IRA, they retained that fundamental sense of commonality. And by that they were able to continue to stand against that sectarian campaign; continue to work and trade and live and bring up their children; and ultimately come through those days having seen off those who waged that sectarian campaign. This Province was scarred and disfigured by terrorism over recent decades. The miracle is NOT that we are not yet a completely normal society. The miracle is that we are normal a society as we are.
There are many factors that have contributed to that, but one of them, indeed one of the most significant within the protestant community has been the lasting influence, unifying influence and lasting effect and benefits that flowed from the revival. It is then only right and proper for the Minister to act so as to ensure that this important anniversary is marked. Several suggestions have already been made to him.
While it is likely that it will be that members of the Protestant/Unionist community will m ore immediately identify with every aspect of that anniversary it is still the case that every member of society has cause to be glad that the revival occurred and has grounds to recognise the great good that it achieved and I commend this motion to the House.