It was 1742. Parts of Scotland were still feeling the after-effects of the turbulent Covenanter movement of the previous century, and the harrowing killing times of 1660-1688. Other parts, mostly in the Highlands, were embroiled in the political aspirations of the Jacobite cause, which would end disastrously on Culloden Moor almost four years later. At such a time the Spirit of God was moving in a mighty way in Cambuslang, a relatively unknown place five miles south-east of Glasgow, with a population of about 1,000 whose work was coal-mining, weaving and agriculture. Soon, crowds of over 30,000 would gather there from far and near to listen to the Word of God, and it is estimated that 3,000 people were saved that year. For comparison, the population of Glasgow was then around 18,000.1
18th Century Scotland
In the 1550s, John Knox had shaken up Scotland and left a lasting impression. In the next century there were revivals at Stewarton and Kirk of Shotts, leading to what many called a Second Reformation in 1638; the background to the Covenanter movement. But, in the middle of the 18th century, the general spiritual condition of Scotland was low. Moderatism and Deism had become the norm in the Church of Scotland, with little attention to what the Scriptures taught. Sermons were about a lifeless morality instead of the salvation of sinners. Few of the godly Covenanting ministers who had been removed from their pulpits were still alive, and those who survived were now elderly and broken in spirit due to the great hardships they suffered. Cambuslang had already heard the preaching of Robert Fleming, a Covenanter, who was ousted in 1662 and exiled abroad. After him there was a period of stagnation and neglect, until William McCulloch was chosen by the parishioners to be their minister, against the wishes of their landowner, the Duke of Hamilton.2
McCulloch was born in 1691 at Whithorn, and found salvation as a lad of 13. He attended universities in Edinburgh and Glasgow, where he excelled in Maths and Languages, especially Hebrew. In 1731 he began his ministry in Cambuslang, but it soon became evident that his preaching was not up to the standard of his scholarship. When he began to preach, many in his audience left the church for the nearest ale-house! However, three ‘Praying Societies’ were active in the parish when he came, and nine more began within the next year. At this time revivals were being experienced elsewhere: in England under the ministry of George Whitefield and John Wesley, and in America under Jonathan Edwards. McCulloch was stirred by these great events, and it changed his ministry. He began preaching on the new birth around 1741. In that year Whitefield made the first of his 14 visits to Scotland, preaching to crowds in Edinburgh, Glasgow and a few other towns, where he found thousands of deeply interested and receptive individuals, many with open Bibles, following what he was teaching.
In 1742, some of Whitefield’s converts in Cambuslang raised a petition, subscribed by more than half the population, requesting Mr McCulloch to instigate weekly lectures. This he began to do on Thursday 4th February. The next Sunday, after he preached on “Except a man be born again ...”, a woman called Catherine Jackson and her two sisters left the church weeping and seeking salvation. In the manse many others gathered, also weeping and seeking. Catherine cried “My sins are so many that Christ will not receive me!” “But He will”, said Mr McCulloch. “If you are willing to come and accept Him, I can assure you in His name, He is willing to accept you.” The meeting continued for three hours, and many found Christ as Saviour. McCulloch wrote out an account of this memorable meeting and read it the next day to the Prayer Societies, who were greatly affected by it, and were encouraged to pray even more. The next Thursday the subject of his lecture was Jeremiah 23.6, “The Lord our Righteousness.” Many wept, and many were deeply stirred. Fifty men and women went for further help and prayer which continued into the night, with at least 15 finding salvation. News of these happenings began to spread. Crowds came from far and near to listen to the preaching every day. Other ministers came from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee to assist. McCulloch was moved to write to George Whitefield, “Why are you so long in coming to poor Scotland again? For the Lord’s sake, do not lay aside thoughts of coming, whatever work you may have in England.” So, Whitefield arrived in Cambuslang on Tuesday 6th July. He preached three times that day, and wrote:
Such a commotion surely was never heard of, especially at eleven at night. It far outdid all that I ever saw in America. Mr McCulloch preached after I had ended, till past one in the morning, and then we could scarce persuade them to depart. All night in the fields might be heard the voice of prayer and praise.
The annual ‘Communion’ was due that month, and Whitefield preached on the Friday to over 20,000 people. On the ‘Communion Sabbath’ at least 1,700 ‘communicants’ partook of the Lord’s Supper, and the long summer day allowed at least 20,000 people to listen in the open to God’s Word. It was thought that above 500 souls were saved. Because of this outpoured blessing of God, a second ‘Communion’ was suggested. Such a thing was unknown in the Church of Scotland, but the Kirk Session agreed - it would be held on 15th August. On this occasion, estimates of attendance varied from 30,000 to 50,000. People came from Glasgow, Kilmarnock, Irvine, Stewarton, Edinburgh, and some from parts of England and Ireland. In the open air, probably 3,000 partook of the emblems of the death of the Lord. Worship began at 8.30am, and concluded at 10.00pm as daylight was fading. More than 24 ministers continued to preach to large crowds on the Monday. One of them was John Bonar,³ who had served at Torphichen for 50 years. In his frail old age he took three days on horseback to travel the 18 miles to get there. As he left, he used the words of Simeon from Luke 2.29-32: “[let] thy servant depart in peace ... mine eyes have seen thy salvation ...” McCulloch closed his account with “May our exalted Redeemer still go on, from conquering to conquer, till the whole earth is filled with His glory.”
By 1743 the effects of this great revival had spread far beyond its centre. In the early months of the year almost everywhere within 12 miles of Cambuslang had seen blessing. By August, revival came to Perthshire at Muthil, near Auchterarder, under the ministry of William Halley, and reached Golspie, well north of Inverness, under John Sutherland when, after a year of earnest prayer, around 70 people were awakened. In the latter half of the 18th century, many hitherto cold and formal churches were stirred to evangelical fervour. The Evangelical party of the Church of Scotland emerged under Dr John Erskine, who had been at Cambuslang in 1742, and later became well known as minister in Old Greyfriars Church, Edinburgh. For at least a hundred years Evangelicals had a major influence, offsetting the more dominant Moderatism which was paralysing most churches. Praying Societies continued to meet regularly in many places, and God answered. These underpinned the later revivals of the 19th and 20th centuries, which we have briefly surveyed during the past few months.
As we conclude this ‘Revivals’ section of our ‘Goodly Heritage’ subjects, will we hear the call to pray more frequently and earnestly, to preach more seriously and sincerely, to live more humbly and godly, and to wait more patiently and expectantly upon Him who alone can give the increase (1 Cor 3.6)? So very long ago the psalmist prayed “Wilt thou not revive us again: that thy people may rejoice in thee?” (Ps 85.6). Can we not pray like this, as so many godly men and women did before us? Don’t we need to?
¹ Grateful acknowledgement to The Cambuslang Revival (1742) and its Worldwide Effects, John J Murray, www.reformation-today.org
² The traditional system of ‘patronage’ gave landowners the sole right to appoint ministers, leading to many abuses. This was behind the ‘Disruption’ of 1843, and the formation of the Free Church in Scotland.
³ John Bonar was grandfather of the well-known Andrew and Horatius Bonar of the 19th century.