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'A Goodly Heritage' (46): Revival Along the East Coast (1): East Anglia

R Cargill, St Monans

After the end of the tragic and costly 1914-18 war in Europe, much of Great Britain was impoverished, and many were disillusioned. The survivors of that war, and the families of those who did not return, had now to face a society that was seriously changed. Politicians made promises which seemed empty. Numerous mainstream churches appeared unable to offer any comfort or spiritual hope for the future. Many had abandoned the true Gospel of the grace of God. But God was about to move again in a mighty way. There was to be a great revival in an area of the country hitherto untouched in the way that had affected crowds of city dwellers in Spurgeon's time; likewise, under the preaching of Moody and Sankey; and among the coal miners in Wales, 15 years before. It would involve thousands of fishermen and their families - another group of hard-working people who were no strangers to danger and hardship, this time on the sea. It was to start in Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth, coastal towns of East Anglia, and then spread in a dramatic way far north and along a large part of the east coast of Scotland. What, and who, God would use to make this happen is our subject just now. Naturally speaking, it would involve the mysterious migratory habits of shoals of herring in the North Sea. Spiritually speaking, it would involve a barrel-maker called Jock Troup, from the northern port of Wick.

East Anglia

It was 1921 when the revival really happened, but God had been working in the hearts of individuals for some time before this - on the one hand to awaken His people to prayer, and on the other to cause an awareness of life's uncertainties and bring about a realisation of spiritual need. In 1916, for example, German battleships had bombarded Lowestoft (and other east coast towns) in a capricious attempt to provoke action by the Royal Navy, and many townspeople had been killed. Added to this, by 1921, there was the awful toll of injuries and casualties from the war, and a recent flu epidemic that had wreaked havoc among young and old. People were afraid.

In the London Road Baptist Church in Lowestoft, there was a godly minister called Hugh Ferguson, who had been there from 1917. Along with a few others, like the Port Missionary Peter Greasley of the Fishermen's Bethel, he consistently preached the Gospel, and many were saved. His Bible Class had 40-50 in it every Wednesday evening. For two years before 1921, the Prayer Meeting every Monday evening had up to 90 present, mostly young people, asking God to pour out His blessing and revive their needy town. But, as yet, they had no indication as to whom God might use.

One Sunday during the autumn of 1920, Mr Ferguson went up to London to hear Douglas Brown, of Ramsden Road Baptist Church in Balham, whose preaching had been greatly blessed there. He invited him to Lowestoft for a week's mission, eventually arranged for March 1921. Mr Brown agreed to come but, before he was truly ready, he was to have deep dealings with God in private about his own state of soul, and his willingness to surrender to God's will.

When the mission was advertised, the local Christians had some reservations as to how many would come and hear the Gospel. However, the venue (the London Road Baptist Church, which seated 750 people) was soon packed to overflowing, as were other churches in the town. The preaching centred on what they called the old-fashioned Gospel: Ruin by the Fall; Redemption by the Blood; Regeneration by the Holy Spirit; the Return of the Lord Jesus. During the first week, around 50 people each night came to repentance and faith in Christ for salvation. The arranged programme in most of the churches in Lowestoft was then abandoned, and the preaching continued for a month, in which it was estimated that at least 500 souls were saved. One Wednesday evening, the minister in Christ's Church had to ask those who were already saved to go into the adjoining hall and pray, in order to make room for others. Two hundred left, and their places were soon taken by those who wanted to hear the Gospel. They had been praying for showers of blessing, but they said God gave them a cloudburst!

There were many remarkable cases of conversion - some involving whole families. As individuals were saved, they prayed earnestly for their loved ones, and God answered. Professional men came and listened to the message of grace; would-be suicides were stopped on what they intended to be their last walk to the harbour, and were drawn to the Saviour; drunken men who had made their homes a misery were changed by the power of God and joined their wives in finding Christ. Another important feature of the mission was regular afternoon sessions of Bible teaching, which consolidated the work and established the young converts. Topics such as the return of the Lord Jesus and the Judgment Seat of Christ were discussed at length. At the end of March, the final meeting was held in the largest church in the town, St John's, and every space was filled, with many standing outside. The Sankey hymns they sang echoed the message of redeeming love, and precious blood to save. There was never a meeting like it, before or since. Douglas Brown came back to East Anglia again during June and July and, with the involvement of other local preachers, the revival spread to Great Yarmouth, as well as inland to Ipswich, Norwich and Cambridge. In all of these towns God blessed His Word to the salvation of many souls. In September, there was a large convention back in Lowestoft, where revival preaching was mixed with thanksgiving and praise, and with tears and prayers for God to do more.¹

Scottish Fishermen

While all this was going on, significant things were happening elsewhere. In the North Sea, the shoals of herring were again on the move from the north-east Scottish waters off Wick, Fraserburgh and Peterhead (where they stayed during the summer months), to the shallower waters off East Anglia in the autumn. Vast numbers of drift net fishing boats followed, a few still under sail, but mostly the legendary steam drifters. Wherever the boats went, an army of womenfolk followed them to gut the herring and pack them into wooden barrels pickled in salt, largely for export. Although the war had removed some of the continental markets, it was still a huge industry, and a slow decline in catches was beginning to manifest itself. So, in late September, Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth became temporary homes to thousands of Scottish women, whose menfolk would sail from these ports, along with local drifters, to catch herring. The season did not have a promising start: the fish were few and in poor condition, and lengthy spells of bad weather meant that boats were confined to port for days on end. Poor catches meant meagre earnings, in spite of hours of toil night and day, while expenses mounted up. That autumn, fishing was to be one of the poorest seasons on record for catching herring, but the rich spiritual harvest would last for generations after. Christians on the Scottish boats found good fellowship in their respective churches wherever they went, while unbelievers frequented local pubs, or wandered aimlessly at weekends.

Into such a scene came Jock Troup from Wick. Although his work as a barrel-maker was another necessary part of the industry, not too many barrels were required that autumn. But his real calling was to preach the Gospel, especially in the open air. The quayside on a Saturday evening offered great opportunities, and he took advantage of them. Hundreds of ungodly fishermen, instead of wandering to the pubs, were riveted to the spot as they heard Jock's booming voice earnestly proclaiming the way of salvation. Convicted of their sin by the mighty power of the Holy Spirit, they knelt on the hard ground and accepted the Saviour for themselves there and then. Wives and girlfriends were likewise converted; some unable to continue their work until the matter was settled. Men at sea who had not already made their decision did so in the presence of their praying shipmates. The people who lived through those momentous days never forgot them.

(To be continued …)

¹ Stanley C Griffin, A Forgotten Revival, Day One Publications, 1992.


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