Accounts of revival challenge us as we realise how ardently Christians in different places longed for blessing. While young men were praying in the Old National Schoolhouse in Kells, Northern Ireland, daily prayer meetings commenced in July 1858 in Aberdeen, 'The Granite City' by the North Sea. Learning how God answered prayer in 'sovereign grace o'er sin abounding' as the Gospel was preached in various parts of Britain and Ireland "in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance" (1 Thess 1.5) is soul thrilling.
Salvation comes to Aberdeen
On 27 November 1858, a young evangelist arrived in Aberdeen for the first time. Reginald Radcliffe had been invited by William Martin, Professor of Moral Philosophy at the city's Marischal College. Radcliffe was born in Liverpool in 1825, the sixth son of an eminent lawyer. He had a wonderfully clear voice, which had been used to good effect in open air preaching in the streets of Liverpool. He was a keen distributor of tracts among the large crowds attending events such as fairs, race meetings and public executions (not abolished in Britain until 1868). Professor Martin had hoped to obtain use of a parish church but was initially disappointed, so meetings began in a small mission hall in Albion Street where Mr Radcliffe spoke to a few children. The Lord blessed, and many of them were converted. The change in heart and life was so evident that parents began to attend and were touched by God's Spirit. Mr Radcliffe's gift in addressing children was such that he was invited to speak in the Bon Accord Free Church, with areas reserved for children while adults sat in the gallery. Brownlow North had arrived in the city around the same time for a fortnight's mission, and he sought the active co-operation of Reginald Radcliffe. Their preaching came with freshness and force to the hearts of men and women, and was always followed by personal dealings with definite and growing results. When Mr North had to leave he encouraged all to support Mr Radcliffe's meetings. Preaching by laymen was a rock of offence to many of the clergy of the Free and Established Churches, but there were exceptions. Reverend James Smith, minister at Greyfriars, the collegiate church of Marischal College, was deeply stirred by the work of grace in progress. He opened his doors to the evangelist and, in the closing days of 1858, the work deepened and widened.
On 17 January 1859 Mr Radcliffe wrote,
Last night the parish church was filled before we arrived and people were going away. What a sight it was! The building crammed in all directions, and this just to hear a repetition of the simple Gospel. We closed the first service in an hour; recommenced, and closed again within the second hour. Then we retired and took a cup of tea, with something to eat, and returned to the church for a third hour, specially for the anxious. Then we had conversations in the pews – there were too many for the vestry – until twenty minutes to ten. I went home quite fresh; it is wonderful how the Lord gives bodily health. Oh that He may keep me in the dust!¹
The work grew until Mr Radcliffe was preaching three or four times daily, and even more on Sundays. Professor Martin, humble, prayerful and full of faith, counselled anxious souls. Early in February Mr Hay Macdowall Grant, Laird of Arndilly near Craigellachie on Speyside, one of the most earnest and indefatigable evangelists of the time, joined the work. Mr Grant had been saved when 20 years old, but had been a 'closet Christian' for years, enjoying the uneventful life of a country gentleman. All this changed following a conversation with Brownlow North in Elgin in 1855. He forthwith determined to nail his colours to the mast, and began to speak for the Lord Jesus as he had opportunity. He became a striking instance of "a man of the world transformed by grace into a man of the world to come".²
Meetings continued in Aberdeen until 18 March 1859. It was a time of extraordinary blessing when many repenting sinners became adoring believers. In retrospect, it was recorded that
"with tremendous earnestness and force Brownlow North proclaimed in those days the most awful and glorious of all fundamental truths – 'God is'. With singular and persuasive power, Reginald Radcliffe preached – 'God is love'. Mr Hay M Grant with uncommon clearness set forth salvation as a gift".³
Blessing further afield
The evangelists went into Aberdeenshire. Dr R McKilliam4 had just begun his professional life in Old Meldrum, a small town 17 miles north of Aberdeen. He recalled,
I was humbled and tendered in conscience, and cast more entirely upon the Lord, when tidings of wonderful revival began to reach and stir the hearts of many. We got together for prayer and a spirit of great expectancy of coming blessing was given to us. Our little town was visited by Mr Brownlow North and Mr Grattan Guinness, before Mr Radcliffe was invited to preach.
Of the last named he wrote,
Our brother was with us for only one night. Yet for many months we continued to reap, and the place was literally changed. For a long time the ordinary topics of conversation were forgotten in real, serious, spiritual talk.
The final meeting in Aberdeen had been attended by the Duchess of Gordon, widow of the fifth and last Duke, and a sincere believer.5 She resided at Huntly Lodge, where for some months 12 Free Church ministers had been meeting regularly for prayer. She encouraged the evangelists to visit Banffshire, where great blessing ensued throughout 1859 in many of the small towns and villages. The wave of revival led to the three-day Huntly gatherings, held successively in the years 1860, 1861 and 1862 in the park adjacent to Huntly Lodge. The Duchess provided five tents, one of which could accommodate 1,000 persons. Mr Gordon Furlong described the scene early on 25 July 1860 when long and heavily laden trains were rolling towards Huntly, some from the north, but more from the south. The banks of the railway resounded that morning with songs of praise. You could seldom hear the guard's whistle so loud was the sound of praise. It rejoiced one's heart to see about four thousand souls gathered to hear God's glad tidings.
This must have made a tremendous impact upon a small market town in a rural area.
Mention of Huntly demands reference to Duncan Matheson, another noted evangelist of the period, born there in 1824. His father was employed as the mail runner between Banff and Huntly. His income was slender to support his wife and five children, but diligence and thrift kept them just above want. Duncan received his first spiritual impressions at his mother's knee. Her godly uncle, George Cowie, a Secession Church minister, had been thrust out from his church after opening his pulpit to the famous lay preacher James Haldane. Conviction deepened after the death of his sister Ann, then of his mother. Duncan, who had become a stone cutter and builder, was a strong young man of upright moral character, but restless and troubled. One Lord's Day he heard Murray McCheyne preaching with "eternity stamped upon his brow". Another time he listened to Andrew Bonar preach from Psalm 11.6, "Upon the wicked he shall rain snares, fire and brimstone, and an horrible tempest". Solemn thoughts of coming judgment gripped him until, on 10 December 1846, he stood at the end of his father's house, meditating on John 3.16, and was enabled to take God at His word. The burden fell away and he was saved. He wondered why he had stumbled at the simplicity of the way.
Further spiritual conflict and discipline fitted him to become a faithful minister of Christ, and how Duncan Matheson and James Turner, another evangelist of humble origin, were used by God in revival in the coastal communities of the region will be the subject of the next article. (To be continued…)
¹ Jane Radcliffe, Recollections of Reginald Radcliffe, p 46.
² Mr Hay McDowall Grant … his life, labours and teaching, p 64
³ Ibid, quoting from Revivals by Rev Mr McPherson.
4 Robert McKilliam practised as a physician in Old Meldrum and in Huntly prior to succeeding to a practice in Blackheath in 1880, where he was in fellowship with an assembly of Christians. He edited the magazine Morning Star from its commencement in 1894 until his death in 1915.
5 This was in marked contrast with her mother-in-law Jane, a striking beauty called 'the bonnie duchess', who encouraged recruitment to the Gordon Highlanders when the regiment was raised in 1793, by offering a kiss to every man who took the King's shilling.