In the providence of God, the summer of 1859 was exceptionally warm and pleasant. This helped the large open-air meetings for prayer and preaching that were convened in various parts of Ulster. The preachers were often laymen and, to their credit, many of the clergy acknowledged God's approbation of these earnest men. "The river of God, which is full of water" (Ps 65.9) flowed through the land and thousands were eternally enriched. But among the many conversions one unusual case caused astonishment, and not a little controversy, because of what followed.
A remarkable convert
John G McVicker, minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Cullybackey, near to Ballymena, welcomed the revival preachers. He had become deeply discontented with his own spiritual life and was moved by the revival experiences. One night he prayed with his wife "Lord if we are already Christians make us sure of it; and if we are not, Lord, make us Christians".¹ Just weeks later, on Sunday, 26th June that year, McVicker was saved, seven years after his ordination in Newtownards. It was not that he had been insincere. He had been devoted to God by his parents for the ministry and, when 18 years old, recognising the importance of the duties of ministry, he had drawn up for himself "a form of covenant". Nevertheless he lamented that during years of spiritual struggle "I had never met any person who asked me if I was born again, or who told me that he knew God had saved him". In light of his conversion he felt it his duty to resign his charge. His profound salvation experience led him to examine closely the doctrines to which he had subscribed. Three months later he was baptised by Jeremiah Meneely in the River Maine. It was a courageous step for which he was sharply criticised by former colleagues. With others likeminded he formed the first Baptist Church in Ballymena, but as his understanding of Christian ministry became clearer he resigned from the Irish Baptist Society in December, 1862. Thereafter he met with brethren gathered unto the Lord's name in Ballymena where he preached in a building in High Street and in the surrounding districts. These developments brought many unjust attacks upon McVicker, and pamphlets were written charging him with a range of heresies. From such false charges he ably defended himself. He later moved to London and was in fellowship with the assembly at Clapton Hall, Stoke Newington until he was called home on 5th January, 1900.
1859 was memorable for the preachers. Ten years later C H Mackintosh wrote to the warm-hearted evangelist Andrew Miller, author of Papers on Church History, "You and I were privileged to move through these soul stirring scenes in the province of Ulster; and I doubt not the memory of them is fresh with you, as it is with me, this day".² The Holy Spirit's power energised men both unknown and well-known. On Dunmull Hill near Bushmills, Brownlow North (1810–1875) and two converts from Connor preached to a crowd of about 7,000 persons. When the meeting was supposed to end the people were still so eager that North gave a second message, and throughout the gathering folk were stricken down under conviction of sin. North was the grandson of an Anglican bishop and was related to Lord North, the Prime Minister at the time of the American Revolution. His godly mother had prayed for him but, until he was 44 years old, he had been a careless profligate. Since being saved in Dallas, Morayshire, in the north of Scotland he had become an ardent witness for Christ and a faithful evangelist.
Jeremiah Meneely, who had baptised McVicker, became a gifted evangelist. In the wake of the revival there was great controversy concerning baptism. Meneely saw clearly from the New Testament that only believers should be baptised and that immersion was the Scriptural mode of baptism. His example and leadership encouraged others to see these truths for themselves. Meneely became instrumental in the commencement of an assembly at Ballymacvea near Kells in 1860. He laboured much in Ulster and south-west Scotland until he was called home on 24th March, 1917. One writer commented "He died an old man full of years but with the revival fire still burning in his heart". He was buried close to the little schoolhouse where he had prayed so effectually and fervently when a young man.
A quite remarkable character came to Ulster in that revival year. He was Henry Grattan Guinness (1835–1910), the grandson of Arthur Guinness, founder of the famous brewery, who had also established the first Sunday schools in the Dublin area after hearing John Wesley preach in St. Patrick's Cathedral. His father, John Grattan Guinness, was Arthur's youngest son. His mother was Jane Lucretia D'Esterre whose first husband, John Norcot D'Esterre,³ had challenged Daniel O'Connell, the famous Catholic Irish barrister and campaigner for Catholic Emancipation, to fight a duel. O'Connell's pistol shot proved fatal to D'Esterre.4 Henry went off to sea when 17 years old and travelled through Mexico and the West Indies. He was saved when he returned home after a violent storm at sea, and went on to study at New College, St John's Wood, London. After ordination as a non-denominational evangelist in July, 1857, he began his work in London and quickly became a very popular speaker. He often spoke at the Moorfields Tabernacle where George Whitefield had preached, and was offered a pastorate there but declined. During Guinness's time in Belfast an eye witness recorded how he "stood for an hour and a quarter, on a Sunday evening, in a crowd, estimated at five thousand people, who were listening with breathless attention to a sermon by Henry Grattan Guinness on 'Many waters cannot quench love'".
After his marriage in October, 1860 Henry Grattan Guinness and his wife travelled widely for twelve years preaching the gospel. The couple had a deep interest in foreign missions and applied to join the China Inland Mission founded by James Hudson Taylor. Hudson Taylor advised him to continue at home. He accepted that advice and, in 1873, established the East London Institute for Home and Foreign Missions (also called Harley College) for the training of young men and women for missionary work. In 1903 he embarked on a five year missionary tour around the world. His daughter Mary Geraldine married Hudson Taylor's son Frederick. Grattan Guinness was also a prolific author on prophetic subjects and preached and wrote extensively concerning Israel's future. He had a deep interest in Christian missions to the Jews.
As 1859, that momentous year, drew to its close, the rulers of the darkness of this age were also active. On 24th November Charles Darwin published his book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. What a challenge to divine revelation! What a test to Britain! Lines from Cowper's poem Conversation are relevant:
Well – what are ages, and the lapse of time
Match'd against truths as lasting as sublime?
Can length of years on God Himself exact,
Or make that fiction which was once a fact?
No - marble and recording brass decay,
And, like the graver's memory pass away;
The works of man inherit, as is just,
Their author's frailty and return to dust.
What can we say of Britain 150 years and more since that great revival? Another quote from Cowper (the opening lines of Truth) aptly describes its condition:
Man on the dubious waves of error toss'd,
His ship half-founder'd and his compass lost.
Our current challenge is to continue to preach the gospel. And let us not neglect to pray "that the word of the Lord may have free course, and be glorified" (2 Thess 3.1).
To be continued.
¹ F Roy Coad, A History of the Brethren Movement, p.171.
² Edwin Cross, The Life and Times of Charles Henry Mackintosh, p.121.
³ The D'Esterres were French Huguenots who came to Ireland in the late 17th Century. Jonathan Darby of Leap Castle, an ancestor of J N Darby, married Anna Maria D'Esterre in 1693. Her surname appears in some family members of later generations e.g. Admiral Henry D'Esterre Darby, JND's uncle.
4 O'Connell was conscience stricken at taking a man's life, and vowed never to fight another duel even if he was branded a coward. He paid a pension to the widow for the maintenance of her daughter for over 30 years.