Mr James McAlonan was born and brought up in the neighbourhood of Ballymena, Co. Antrim. During the Revival of 1859, when a lad of sixteen, he attended gospel meetings and became aware of his condition as a sinner before God; this resulted in deep conviction of sin. One evening, sitting by the fireside in real soul trouble, he was reading Isaiah 53. On reaching v.5, the words "we are healed" seemed to let in the light of God and, taking God at His word, he had "peace through believing".
Shortly after his conversion he had a dream which was fulfilled in his later life. He dreamt that with a great crowd of people he was walking along a beautiful country road when he suddenly came to a deep chasm in which the road ended. He immediately turned back and called to the others who were coming thoughtlessly along that there was danger ahead. The greater part of his life from that time onwards was spent in warning sinners "to flee from the wrath to come" and telling of the love of God in Christ.
He went to live in Dundee where, like Paul the pattern preacher, he worked with his hands during the day and preached the gospel in the evenings wherever opportunity offered. Before leaving Ireland he attended a course of three lectures in which his minister, who belonged to the Presbyterian Church, sought to show that baptism by immersion was unscriptural. He went to these lectures fully believing in infant baptism, but at the end of the first his confidence was somewhat shaken; ere the end of the third lecture he was fully convinced that only believers ought to be baptised and that baptism by immersion was the only Scriptural mode. However, just then he was not baptised and, on going to Dundee, he united with the Free Church. A little later, when he was baptised, some of the elders requested the minister to visit him and ask him to leave the church as they objected to him having been baptised and remaining there.
Soon after this he was offered a post as a missionary in the north-east coast of Scotland which he accepted and removed to live in Peterhead where he laboured for about a year. During that time the Lord graciously granted a time of revival. Hundreds of souls were "born again" and the Lord's people filled with love and zeal for their Master. Mr McAlonan visited the fisher-folk in their homes, at their boats, and preached the gospel nightly in the villages of Barnhaven, Buchanhaven, and Boddam, as well as in Peterhead. Sometimes quite a number would profess in one night; there was great anguish of heart amongst the unsaved and the Lord's people were filled with such a sense of the love of God that some said it was almost too much to bear. One night, toward the close of the meeting, a women left her seat and coming up laid her head on the little pulpit and cried out, "Oh, sir, what must I do? I am lost, lost, lost". Many wept, some in sympathy, others for themselves. People often came to the house crying like the jailer, "What must I do to be saved?". Mrs McAlonan, a devoted Christian and true helpmeet, was able to tell them how to be saved, and God saved them.
One feature of the Revival was the number of prayer meetings held by the young converts, some of them meeting several times a day in houses, or the corner of an old boat, or anywhere they could. The strain of all this was great on the body and mind of this conscientious man and his health gave way. He left Peterhead and accepted the pastorate of a Baptist Church in Ballymoney, Co. Antrim. Here, in a community permeated with deep religious formality, he laboured for the Lord, witnessing by lip and life to the power of the gospel. He had hoped that, as in Peterhead, he would see God at work but was disappointed, for only a few were brought to Christ during his labours.
His exercise of heart before the Lord was great and led him, as he closely studied the Bible, to see the unscriptural nature of a one-man ministry and the forming of sects and parties with men's names, and rules of conduct for worship and service. In a little while he left the Baptist Church and, while feeling his parting from some of God's people that he dearly loved, he loved the Lord and His truth more and "outside the camp" he went to associate with the Christians in assembly fellowship.
He was now free to act as an itinerant preacher and, looking solely to the Lord for guidance and support, he continued to evangelise a great deal in the North of Ireland and some more in Scotland, where he was the means in the hand of God of leading souls to Christ and edifying the people.
After long, patient, fruitful years of service, in the summer of 1906 his health began to fail, but still he could not be persuaded to give up and rest for a time. On Lord's Day morning, 9th December, 1906, he attended the "Breaking of Bread" in Adam Street Hall, Belfast, where he took some part, speaking much of Calvary and the resurrection. The following morning, his daughter found him as if asleep, but he was "asleep in Jesus".