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"A Goodly Heritage" (36): The Ulster Revival of 1859 (Part 1)

J Brown, Peterhead

Matthew Arnold, a son of Thomas Arnold the famous headmaster of Rugby School, has been ranked, after Tennyson and Robert Browning, as third of the eminent poets of the Victorian era. Dover Beach, one of his most famous poems, though not published until 1867, is thought to have been written while visiting Dover in 1851. In the fourth verse Arnold uses the imagery of an ebbing tide to lament the retreat of faith in a modern industrial age:

The sea of faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.
But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating to the breath
Of the night-wind down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

The poet's bleak and pessimistic meditation seems to take no account of the Gospel of Christ being "the power of God unto salvation" (Rom 1.16), or of God's gracious desire to "open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it" (Mal 3.10). But our eternal and infinite God is not bound by the human condition, or by the current of man's thoughts, opinions, maxims and speculations. Within eight years revival power unexpectedly broke out in America and then in Ulster with a mighty wave of blessing beyond man's capacity to contain. The reverberations of the 1859 revival would echo in the spiritual consciousness of generations yet unborn even to this day.

First fruits

Revival in Ulster had quiet and humble beginnings. In the spring of 1856 a lady named Mrs Colville from Gateshead came to Ballymena. She engaged in door to door visitations, with a view to winning souls for Christ. Just a few days before she left Ballymena she called at the home of a Mrs Brown. Two other ladies and a young man were present, and they were discussing the subjects of predestination and man's freewill. Mrs Colville was asked whether she was a Calvinist. Wisely she did not answer the question directly, but stressed the importance of seeking a personal interest in the Saviour and the need of the new birth. The young man was James McQuilkin and for two weeks he had no peace day or night until he found it by trusting the Lord Jesus. Mrs Colville thus became the instrument in the Lord's hand for James McQuilkin's conversion.

McQuilkin was employed in Ballymena but returned to his home village of Kells each weekend. He came under the influence of Rev. John H Moore of Connor who encouraged him and his friends, Jeremiah Meneely, Robert Carlisle and John Wallace, to commence a Sunday School in nearby Tanneybrake. Feeling their need, the four young men began to hold weekly prayer meetings in the village schoolhouse in September, 1857. Remarkably, that was the month that the Fulton Street prayer meeting commenced in New York. The young men were inspired by three books acquired by McQuilkin, one of which described George Muller's experiences of answered prayer at the Bristol orphanages. After a time two others joined the little group, which had moved to the Old National Schoolhouse in Kells. On New Year's Day, 1858 the first conversion took place and by the end of that year about fifty young men were taking part. At the beginning of 1859 the power of prayer began to be known and seen. J H Moore described it thus: The winter was past, the time of the singing of birds had come. Humble, grateful, loving, joyous converts multiplied…the great concerns of eternity were realised as they had never been before. Many walked about in deep anxiety about the one thing needful; while others rejoiced in the experience of a present peace and a complete salvation.

Fervent Prayers

Two Presbyterian ministers in Ahoghill, Frederick Buick and David Adams, had been praying for a spiritual awakening in their community. Mr Buick arranged a testimony meeting in the Ballymontena Schoolhouse on 22nd February so that converts from Connor could speak about their spiritual experience. The schoolhouse proved to be too small, and the meeting had to be held in Trinity Church. Deep spiritual impressions were made, and people began to pray earnestly that revival would come to the Ahoghill district. Mr Adams conducted a service on the evening of 14th March. The building, capable of seating 1,200 people, was vastly overcrowded and had to be vacated. A recent convert named James Bankhead then preached to about 3,000 people from the steps of a house in the square. People listened for hours in pouring rain and many fell down on the street crying to the Lord for mercy.

Young men including James McQuilkin then held prayer meetings in Ballymena, where by June the Presbyterian Magazine reported: It is not unusual to see thousands assembled for prayer in a graveyard…or one or other of the spacious Presbyterian Churches of Ballymena filled to overflowing by an intensely serious congregation. Soon the tide of revival swept north to Coleraine. There a schoolteacher noticed a young pupil distressed and clearly under conviction of sin. He advised the boy to go home and call upon the Lord in private. The teacher sent an older pupil who had found peace the previous day, to accompany him. After the two boys had travailed in prayer the younger one found peace through believing and returned to school with a beaming face to tell his teacher, "Oh sir, I am so happy. I have the Lord Jesus in my heart".

In Belfast Mr Thomas Toye invited three young men from Connor and Ahoghill to speak in his church. They had little learning but great earnestness, and God blessed their testimony. In a service in Linenhall Street individuals came under severe conviction of sin. One evening at the end of the service hundreds remained behind and the service had to be reconvened as people yearned for peace with God. On 29th June crowds estimated as over 35,000 persons gathered in the Botanical Gardens for prayer and the preaching of the gospel. Such occasions must have been memorable for all who experienced them and so many were soundly saved that the character of many communities was transformed. Public Houses were closed and attendances at worldly entertainments greatly diminished!

Characteristics of the Revival

An outstanding feature of the revival was how it demonstrated the power of prayer beginning with the four young men in the little schoolhouse by the roadside, and bursting out in large meetings in towns and villages where Christians entreated God in earnest prayer. Such prayers were neither long nor formal, but brief and heart-felt. Another marked feature was that God used humble men and recent converts with scant education to preach to multitudes. "But 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).

As in Whitefield's and Wesley's days hymn singing was notable. Presbyterian congregations had been familiar with Paraphrases and the Psalms. Now such great evangelical hymns as Just as I am without one plea; There is a fountain filled with blood; All hail the power of Jesu's name were also sung and became widely known and loved. Many dear folk found themselves in Alfred P Gibb's apt phrase, Out of the mire into the choir.

As the gospel was preached in Kells, many were saved, including a number from the Randalstown area. In 1861 after some had gone to Kells and observed the order of brethren already meeting there, an assembly was formed in Groggan, two miles from Randalstown, in a little two-roomed house warmed by a peat fire. This assembly moved to a more central location at Clonkeen.¹ There was fertile ground for further movement of the Spirit of God and a need to instruct the many new converts. C H Mackintosh, editor of Things New and Old, sought to address such need by writing on relevant subjects in that magazine. No doubt the teaching was helpful to those seeking guidance for their future path, for many hearts were deeply stirred by the wonders God had wrought in their midst.

The many assemblies gathered throughout the Province in the years following remains an enduring legacy of faithful preaching and teaching in the wake of the revival.

To be continued.

¹ Brethren: The Story of a Great Recovery by David J Beattie.

Information gleaned from A Pictorial History of the 1859 Revival and related awakenings in Ulster is acknowledged.


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