Articles on the Revival

Some Thoughts From 1859

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the great spiritual awakening in Ulster known as the “1859 Revival”. By any standards, and however it is viewed, it was an event of huge significance when some 100,000 people were saved, and we are encouraged that it has generated so much interest. We are grateful to all who are raising its profile through lectures, exhibitions, special services, articles in church magazines, and in the media. The 1859 Revival is not only of academic and historical importance, however, for it is also a reminder of how revival comes and what happens to both church and society when it does. Limited space in our magazine prevents us from a detailed narrative and assessment of the Revival, but as we reflect upon 1859, we should seek to learn some lessons and apply them to 2009.

Today, as the economic recession bites, people are fearful of what the future holds. Sociologists, economists, business leaders, politicians and many others are queuing up to predict the future and suggest solutions. But the fundamental problem is that society today has departed from God, and we are now reaping the harvest of what we have sown. We are sinking into a moral abyss. However, there is nothing new under the sun. Prior to the 1859 Revival, Ulster society was marked by growing criminality, lawlessness, drunkenness and immorality. It was a different day to ours in many ways, but man’s sin and depravity manifests itself in similar ways in every generation.

The condition of the church in the 1850’s appears to have been mixed. Some Protestant churches, although orthodox in doctrine, suffered from spiritual lethargy. One evangelical minister said that his congregation “seemed dead to God, formal, cold, prayerless, worldly, and stingy in religious things…All along I believed that the faithful use of the means of grace would be followed by their effects, as certainly as the tillage of a field is followed by a good crop, or as diligence in any profession is attended with success; and great was my disappointment, as year after year passed, yet still no fruit; no outpouring of the Spirit. I wondered and was grieved at what seemed so mysterious. What alarmed me most was the indisposition, almost hostility, of the people to meetings for prayer. They seemed mostly to think that they were well enough, and that I was unnecessarily disturbing them. I had never been so despondent or distressed as during the weeks immediately preceding the awakening. I had almost ceased to hope”. Another said, “There seemed great coldness and deadness. I had preached the gospel faithfully, earnestly, and plainly, for eleven years; yet it was not known to me that a single individual had been converted."

Bible and church history teaches us that intense spiritual darkness can often precede a mighty outworking of God’s Holy Spirit, and it also teaches us that God often works in and through a few faithful believers. We often lament that we are so few in number, and this can cause us to fear that the cause is all but lost. However, God “hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty” (1 Cor 1:27). This is well illustrated by what happened in Ulster in 1859. The origins of the Revival can be traced to the villages of Kells and Connor, Co Antrim in 1857, where God chose to work in an extraordinary way through four very ordinary men. The first was James McQuilkin, who came under conviction of sin under the ministry of Rev John Moore, and who, like Luther and Bunyan, wrestled long and hard with his spiritual condition and confusion before he came to saving faith in Jesus Christ. Soon the news spread around the village of Kells that a man known for rearing fighting cocks had been converted. Jeremiah Meneely, who had been a religious man but who had no assurance of salvation, met up with McQuilkin and, after talking to him about his conversion, also came to Christ. Shortly after, McQuilkin led two other young men, Robert Carlisle and John Wallace, to Christ. Beginning in September 1857, these four men met weekly in the Kells schoolhouse for prayer and Bible study. They persevered and, in His own time, the Lord blessed their efforts. Others joined them and, by 1859, He poured out His Spirit in Revival in cities, towns, villages and townlands across Ulster.

We must never forget that we cannot create an anxious thought, save a soul, or produce a revival for, as Jonah discovered, “salvation is of the Lord” (Jonah 2:9). But we are honoured to be God’s servants, His remnant, standing for Him in this evil age, and, as we examine our lives, we surely ought to pray with the psalmist, “Wilt thou not revive us again: that thy people may rejoice in thee?” (Psalm 85:6). Before the unsaved can be awakened, God’s people need to be revived. We must be actively involved in our churches, encouraging each other in the work of the kingdom - “And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not”. (Galatians 6:9). We must also take every opportunity to proclaim the Gospel and evangelise those who are dead in sins - “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Tim 2:4).

One of the key lessons we must learn from 1859 is the importance of prayer. As we have seen, the prayer life of many churches was dead in the days preceding the Revival, and it was the prayer meetings in Kells that sparked the Revival. Today, we must make prayer a priority in our personal, family and church life. If we are honest, most of us would have to confess that our prayer lives – and those of our churches - are at best weak and half-hearted. Too many Protestant churches have either abandoned the prayer meeting or demoted it in favour of other activities. Joel Beeke summed it up well when he said, “our prayer life is more like a toy that Satan sleeps beside than a missile of war that crushes Satanic powers…why do the giants of church history dwarf us today? Is it because they were more educated, more devout, more faithful, and more full of grace? No, they were men of prayer, possessed with the Spirit of grace and supplication. They were Daniels in the temple of God”. Our prayer must be “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1).

The well-known words of 2 Chronicles 7:14 sum it all up so well, “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land”.

Revive Thy work, O Lord,
Thy mighty arm make bare;
Speak with the voice that wakes the dead,
And make Thy people hear.

Revive Thy work, O Lord,
Give Pentecostal showers;
The glory shall be all Thine own,
The blessing, Lord, be ours.

The author of this article is Rev. Gareth Bourke, minister of Stranmillis Evangelical Presbyterian Church

Kells Schoolhouse

OF 1859
By William Henry Harding.

THE spiritual awakening which rendered the year 1859 forever famous in the annals of Ulster, also furnishes one of the most remarkable illustrations in all history, of Christianity suddenly and potently revived and exercising a transforming influence, swift in its action and wide in its sphere, upon all classes of society.

The Revival led to the reclamation and conversion of vast numbers of people of careless or debased life but primarily it meant the kindling afresh of apostolic zeal and enthusiasm, the setting up of magnificent ideals regarding the extension of the Kingdom of God throughout the world, and, first and last, the reassertion on a majestic scale of the great basal verities of Evangelical religion.

The Revival was sometimes described by opponents as “a satanic delusion,” but this was sufficiently met by the comment of one who attended an “altar lecture” on the subject: “If it is the divil who has done it, then there must be a new divil, for I’m shure the ould wan woaldn’t do it at all, at all.” It was shrewdly remarked too, by a convert, in addressing a congregation, that “certainly it was not Satan who took him away from whisky drinking.”

In the Broughshane district, within an area of more than two miles, almost all the mothers of families were converted. They held prayer-meetings together and exercised a mighty influence. Two public-houses were closed. The Bible became the book of constant study, and the young men in the churches gave splendid help to the ministers. On Fair day, when a band of strolling performers made their appearance, a prayer-meeting was immediately commenced opposite their platform, so that the players were left with a total audience of two policemen, both of them Roman Catholics. A day so admirably begun could have only one appropriate conclusion; the Fair terminated with a Gospel meeting attended by five thousand people.

Rev. Hugh Hunter, of Bellaghy,( Co. Derry), wrote to Dr. Massie (Secretary of the Irish Evangelical Society):
“Before this, our day of merciful visitation, Bellaghy was the most degraded of Irish villages. Rioting and drunkenness were the order of each evening. Profane swearing and Sabbath desecration were most fashionable sins; and such a place for lying and stealing I do not know. Many a time I longed to get out of it. Well, we have a change now that is truly gratifying. As you pass down the street you hear, in almost every house, the voice of joy and melody. Stop in the way, name the Name of Jesus, and old and young crowd around you. Raise the voice in praise or prayer and every dwelling pours out its inmates to join the company of anxious hearers. Those who heretofore were at ease in Zion, now tremble as in the presence of God. A minister from a distance heard of the Lord’s work in Bellaghy. He could not credit the extraordinary accounts. He came, he saw—Jesus conquered him. As I was conveying him out of the village, he exclaimed, as the holy sounds reached his ears from the humble dwellings of the poor: ‘I feel as if I were breathing the atmosphere and treading the golden streets of the New Jerusalem.’”

So intense was the desire after God that it was recorded of one district: “Whole townlands are awakened, all outdoor labour suspended, and the people in crowds follow the minister from door to door, to engage in prayer.” For example, at Crossroads, near Omagh, ( Co Tyrone) a meeting in a Presbyterian church was described as “truly astonishing and awful,” as cries for mercy and salvation rang through the building. Literally for hours neither singing nor audible congregational prayer could be conducted, every heart being so subdued; nor did the meeting close until near the break of day.

Again, at Kilmacrennan, ( Co. Donegal) after the devotional exercises of the Sabbath morning service were concluded, cries of mercy suddenly arose from various parts of the congregation. The persons affected were led to the entrance hall, to the schoolhouses, or out on to the church green; the friends of each assembled round them. Thus, the entire premises were given to many lesser congregations, engaged in prayer and praise, Public worship could not be proceeded with until late in the afternoon; and night after night the good work went on.

Summing up the general characteristics of the movement it must be said:—
1. The Revival was a work of the Spirit. It had its origin in profound conviction of sin, manifested in vast numbers of people who were further led to find rest in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Hon. and Rev. Baptist Noel, one of the most earnest and spiritually-minded ministers of his time, computed that there were a hundred thousand converts. Beyond these, of course, there were multitudes who, although not “new creatures in Christ Jesus,” at least reformed their ways of life.
2. It made for Temperance. “It is impossible not to observe,” said the Dowager Countess of Londonderry, “that one result of the much-talked-of Revival has been the closing of public-houses and the establishment of greater sobriety and temperance.” Mr. Macartney, 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.
3. It worked a miraculous change in manners. Rev. William Arthur, noting how the Boyne anniversary passed in a peaceful way that astonished the most sanguine, described the effect as “the most striking effect produced upon national manners, in our day, in these islands, by the sudden influence of religion. I saw people coming away quietly, in streams, from a fair, where before they would have been reeling by dozens. I heard masters tell of the change in their men, boys of that in their comrades; heard gentlemen, doctors, merchants, shop-keepers, tailors, butchers, weavers, stone-breakers, dwell with wonder on the improvement going on among their neighbours. I knew the people and I believed my own eyes.”
4. It called forth the sacrifice of praise. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church appointed a day "for prayer and thanksgiving to Almighty God for His gracious mercy vouchsafed in the revival of religion.” Joy in God was exultant: there was an earnest desire after holiness of life. Millions of hymn-books were sold.
5. It was a work wrought largely through humble and local means. Hundreds of the men and women who exhorted and prayed and visited with such ardent love for God and souls were mill-hands, porters, shopmen, ploughmen and the like.
6. It made for unity. Evangelical believers were at one, brotherly love prevailed, and love and zeal transcended every ignoble thought of denominational aggrandisement. “The great things of the Revival,” said Dr. Massie, “did not concern the polity of the Churches, but the peace of a sinner with his God.”

Assuredly, if solemnity of mind, contrition for sin, tenderness of conscience, love towards God, a yearning to do His will, and an intense missionary spirit that goes out to all the world, are characteristics of the Divine conquest of man, then the Ulster Revival was truly a work of the Holy Spirit. If to our duller ears their words sound strange and mystic, as of music from the higher spheres, the fault is ours, since Christ is none the less the Mighty to Save, nor is our God less willing than in 1859 to hear the cry of His people.