The Year of Grace
Rev. Gareth Bourke
In the spring of 1856 an English lady by the name of Mrs Colville came to Ballymena from Gateshead because she had ‘time and money to spend for God’. She began a programme of house to house visitation with a view to winning souls for Christ. In November she returned to England in low spirits thinking that God had not acknowledged her labours and feeling that her work had been unfruitful. However, she was wrong. Just a few days before she left she had visited a certain Miss Brown who lived in Mill Street, Ballymena. On calling at this house, she had found two other ladies present as well as a young man called James McQuilkin. McQuilkin came from the parish of Connor about five miles from Ballymena and he worked in a linen warehouse in the town. Miss Brown and her companions were involved in a discussion on the subjects of predestination and freewill. When she entered the house, the others asked Mrs Colville whether or not she was a Calvinist. She did not answer this question directly but rather spoke to the little group about the importance of seeking a personal interest in the Saviour and the need of the new birth. What she had to say concerning the Saviour left a profound impression spiritually upon James McQuilkin and a short time afterwards he came to a saving knowledge of Christ. An unusual, unknown, earnest Christian lady was used by God in the conversion of James McQuilkin who was to become one of the most significant figures in the 1859 revival in Ulster.
The Old Schoolhouse, Kells
James McQuilkin worked in Ballymena but he returned home to Kells every weekend. Prior to his conversion he was known in the village as the man who reared fighting cocks. Now, however his outlook on life had changed. He came under the influence of Rev John Moore, the minister of Connor Presbyterian Church, who encouraged him to gather some of his converted friends together and to commence a Sabbath School at Tanneybrake near the village of Connor. McQuilkin and his three friends – Jeremiah McNeilly, John Wallace and Robert Carlisle – felt their own inadequacies and inexperience in the work and so in the autumn of 1857 they took an old schoolhouse near Kells where they could meet for prayer and seek God’s blessing upon the work of the Sabbath School which they had recently established.
Mr James McQuilkin
During the next few months some other believers joined with the new converts for prayer and, in a short time, in December 1857, they were encouraged by the conversion of a young man for whom they had been praying. Over the next few months several other people in the district came to saving faith in Christ, and soon conversions were taking place nearly every week. At the spring communion in Connor Church a special sense of God’s presence was enjoyed by those present and throughout the rest of 1858 conversions were taking place throughout the parish of Connor. By the end of that year some fifty met regularly for prayer at the Old Schoolhouse prayer meeting, women not joining with them but having a separate prayer meeting of their own.
On 9th December, 1858, Samuel Campbell came to know Christ in a personal, living relationship through the influence and prayers of the Connor prayer meeting. Mr Campbell worked in Kells but belonged to Ahoghill. He desired to share the good news of salvation with the rest of his family in Ahoghill and encouraged the other members of the Connor prayer meeting to pray for him as he made several journeys across to Ahoghill with the purpose of witnessing to his loved ones. His brother and sister, in response to his witnessing, sought the Saviour but his bother John remained hardened and uninterested. Campbell persisted in his witnessing and one day, on visiting Ahoghill, he boldly shared Christ with his brother whom he found out in the fields participating in a shooting match. “I have a message for you from the Lord Jesus”, he said. John Campbell immediately came under conviction of sin and there in the fields his body began to tremble. With some difficulty he reached the family home where for some weeks he remained in agony of soul before obtaining an assurance of sins forgiven.
Rev Frederick Buick of Trinity Church, Ahoghill, was greatly encouraged by what the Lord had done for the Campbell family. Recognising the contribution that the Connor converts had made to the conversion of the Campbells, he decided to hold a meeting in Ahoghill at which a number of the new converts from Connor would speak about their spiritual experiences. The meeting was arranged for 22nd February, 1859 in the Ballymontena Schoolhouse. However so many people turned up that it was decided to walk the short distance to Trinity Church. This meeting had a profound spiritual impact upon the Ahoghill district and many people began to pray earnestly that revival would come to their area.
On 14th March, 1859 at the thanksgiving service at the close of the spring communion in First Presbyterian Church, Ahoghill, there was a significant outpouring of God’s Spirit and many came to a saving faith in Christ. The minister of First Presbyterian Church was Rev David Adams who had prayed much for revival among his people since coming to the congregation in 1841. In 1858 a large new building had been erected capable of seating 1200 people. However, on the night of 14th March 1859 about three thousand people were present at the service which was conducted by Mr Adams. During the service one of the Connor converts, Mr James Bankhead, rose to pray. Interestingly Bankhead also tried to address the gathering declaring that a revelation had been committed to him and that he spoke by the command of a power superior to any ministerial authority! Mr Adams, the minister, was less than happy with the way things were developing and, being particularly concerned that, amidst the crowding and commotion, the galleries would not carry the weight of the people, he called upon them to clear the building. Outside, in the village square, James Bankhead and other converts addressed the crowd from the steps of a house. Although the streets were muddy and it was pouring with rain, people listened for hours, with many falling down in the street and crying unto the Lord for mercy.
This marvellous work of God’s Spirit – the work of revival – was beginning to spread throughout North Antrim. It is difficult for us living in the day of the internet and the mobile phone to imagine how slow communications were in 1859 and it is almost breathtaking for us to realise that the awakening which had begun in Connor in 1858 and had spread to Ahoghill in 1859 was still largely unknown in Ballymena, the major town in the county. But that was all about to change. This movement of God’s Spirit was destined to affect not just a small corner of North Antrim, but very soon Ballymena and beyond would witness remarkable scenes - scenes of amazing spiritual blessing which still stir us in our own souls today. But these ‘tales of the Lord’s doings’ must wait to another time.
1859(2) – Ballymena: ‘When revival shut the shops’
Having traced the origins of the revival in Connor and Kells we must now consider how the revival spread into other areas of the province. In this article we shall reflect on the mighty work of God’s Spirit in Ballymena and, in so doing, we shall note four significant features of the 1859 revival.
Whilst God was pleased to work mightily in salvation in the year 1859 there is no doubt that the ground was well prepared spiritually by the prayerful and faithful ministries of many godly men throughout the province. This point has been well illustrated by Dr John Lockington in his recent pamphlet on Rev John Johnston of Tullylish. (1) Another example of this kind of godly ministry is Rev S J Moore of Third Presbyterian Church, Ballymena. He was a diligent pastor who longed for the salvation of his people and he was also, like John Johnston, very active in open air preaching. These men, along with others, like Rev John Moore of Connor and Rev Frederick Buick of Ahoghill, were used by God in encouraging the Lord’s people to pray for revival and to be active in spreading the Gospel. There is a view among certain historians of the revival that God was at work in a time of great deadness. I. R. K. Paisley represents this viewpoint when he states that ‘spiritual life in Ulster prior to the Revival was at a low ebb. The Presbyterian Church re-established and consolidated on the broad basis of orthodox Christianity had a name to live but was dead.’ (2) However the present writer subscribes to the view of A. R. Scott, who argues that ‘ the revival of 1859 was not a sudden outburst but rather the result of a gradual crescendo of Christian effort over half a century, blessed by the sovereign grace of God.’(3)
The relationship between revival and prayer is one which we need to treat carefully. There is no doubt that a relationship exists, but we must never give the impression that something ‘automatic’ is happening – we pray and automatically revival will follow. Revival is a ‘sovereign work of God’s Holy Spirit’. Yet, 1859 reminds us that the Lord is pleased to work in response to the prayers of His people. In Ballymena, from March 1859 onwards, a mid day prayer meeting was held in the Town Hall and many prayer meetings were held throughout the district. As such, the town was ripe for revival.
The meetings which were held during the revival were notable in many ways not just because they lasted for hours, but because, when God began to work, people gathered night after night for weeks on end. On 15th May 1859 a meeting was held in Jackson’s schoolroom in Springwell Street, Ballymena, at which Rev S J Moore presided. In the words of J T Carson:
‘The power of the Almighty God descended upon those present, bringing a great concern about eternal things. Throughout the town a feeling of solemn awe came over the wicked and for one night or more sleep was withheld from the eyes of hundreds of people. Strong crying, with tears and prayers was heard in the streets and in almost every house there was the manifestation of a Divine agent working mightily.’(4)
For the next few weeks three services were held every night in the Third Presbyterian Church (Wellington Street) in First Ballymena Presbyterian Church and in the Church of Ireland Parochial Hall. Thousands met nightly for prayer and praise in homes and in other places. In many different homes stricken people could be found lying prostrate on the floor crying to God.
It is difficult for us to imagine exactly what these meetings were like but here is a contemporary account of one of the services in Wellington Street that gives us something of the ‘spiritual flavour’ of these amazing gatherings:
‘I could not get into the building; every open window was more than occupied. In the vestry room there were those under conviction of sin; it was a scene impossible to forget and equally impossible to describe. An old man, a boy, and a young man were in varying stages of deep concern. They all wanted to be free from sin’s awful guilt and to escape its just reward. “ I know that my redeemer liveth, the young man said. “I know that He can save my soul. I know that He can wash me from all uncleanness in the fountain of His atoning blood. But, Oh I have crucified Him, I have crucified Him. I have despised His holy name and how shall I approach Him. Oh my sins. Oh God be merciful to me.”
Every Sunday evening a large open air meeting was held in a field on the Galgorm Road where again many were converted. These meetings often broke up, only to leave groups of praying people around as many as nine to ten convicted souls. It was often near to midnight before people finally returned home and indeed for two or three nights some families did not go to bed at all and business in the town seemed at a standstill. Indeed one of the features of the 1859 revival was what could be called ‘community impact’.
This work of God’s Spirit was something which impacted communities in a very significant way. When God began to work in a district it was something which everyone knew about. The editor of the Ballymena Observer made the following comment:
‘Common street prostitutes and public nuisances who had frequently been convicted for drunkenness and loitering are now clothed with attention to decency and struggling to earn their livelihood by honest labour, and by learning to read. They are all daily and humbly beseeching pardon for their past sin and in regular attendance at some place of worship every Sabbath Day.’
In Broughshane on Saturday 21st May 1859 after the morning break for breakfast at the Raceview Woollen mills six or seven of the mill workers were found to be so smitten down so as to be incapable of work. God’s Spirit was at work convicting the workers of sin, and by twelve noon the factory had to close down as so many of the employees were crying unto God for mercy. Throughout the weekend the gracious work continued and on Monday morning nearly half the workers were absent on account of their distress of soul.
We speak today of church extension and of the importance of engagement with the communities around our churches. But here was church extension and community involvement on a scale way beyond our greatest expectations. Notice the strategy. No mission statements, five year plans or strategic development programmes. Just prayer, God’s Word and God’s Spirit.
(1) J W Lockington: ‘Johnston of Tullylish’: The Presbyterian Historical Society: 2008
(2) I R K Paisley: ‘The ‘Fifty Nine’ Revival’: Martyrs Memorial Publications: 1958
(3) A R Scott: The Ulster Revival of 1859: - a doctoral thesis quoted by J Lockington.
(4) J T Carson: ‘God’s River in Spate’: Publications Board: PCI: 1958
This article was first published in the ‘Evangelical Presbyterian’ magazine, available from The Evangelical Bookshop,
15 College Square East Belfast, BT1 6DD Tel. 028 90320529