By Rev Tom Shaw
In the first half of the 19th century Ulster was at a low ebb spiritually, so much so that The Irish Presbyterian magazine recorded in 1853, “Many seem to put on religion with their Sabbath clothes… The Bible lies unopened on their shelves… And what a mass of baptised heathenism surrounds our doors! ”
Yet there were many pulpits with godly preachers who carried a burden for the spiritual state of the land. Feeling burdened by the need around them, they tried to get their congregations interested in prayer, without much success.
One lamented over his people: “The congregation was in a most unsatisfactory state…year after year passed yet still no fruit, no outpouring of the Spirit. What alarmed me most was the indisposition, almost hostility of the people to meetings of prayer. They seemed mostly to think that they were well enough and that I was unnecessarily disturbing them.”
One of these faithful ministers said, “There was no power to bring home to the people the message of the gospel.”
Early in the year 1856, an English lady, Mrs. Colville, came from Gateshead near Newcastle-on-Tyne to do house-to-house visitation in Ballymena. It seems she was working under the auspices of The Baptist Missionary Society in England. One day she visited a home where some people were discussing Christian matters. Among them was a young James McQuilkin. As he listened to Mrs. Colville explain the way of salvation, a seed was sown in the heart that eventually led to his conversion some time later.
Later that year Mrs. Colville returned to England very discouraged, as she felt her work had not been very fruitful. Little did she know what would later be achieved for the glory of God through that seed she had dropped into the heart of James McQuilkin.
James McQuilkin came from the village of Connor, about five miles from Ballymena. He attended Connor Presbyterian Church where, at one particular service, the minister challenged the young men present: “Do something more for God. Could you not gather at least six of your careless neighbours, either parents or children, to your home or some convenient place on the Sabbath and spend an hour with them, reading and searching the Word of God?”
Sunday School and more prayer
McQuilkin and a few other young men took up the challenge and started a Sunday School in a rural community called Tannybrake, near Connor. The Sunday School was wonderfully blessed by God. They felt the need for prayer, so James McQuilkin, Jeremiah Meneely and two recent converts of James, John Wallace and Robert Carlisle, met for prayer. The venue was the old schoolhouse near the village of Kells. This building is still there today, converted into two cottages and still inhabited. These prayer meetings began in the September of1857. This was exactly the same month that a prayer meeting began in Fulton Street, New York, under the leadership of Jeremiah Calvin Lamphier. This was to be the prelude to revival in New York. By the end of 1858 about fifty young men gathered each Friday night for the Kells prayer meeting, pleading for God to revive His church and send a spiritual awakening in the land.
The news of what God was doing in America had reached them and they were convinced that if God could send revival to America he could send it to Ulster.
Unparallelled since the Apostles
The power of God certainly came to the Province of Ulster and in 1859 the country was swept by a mighty Revival. Dr. Edwin Orr, in his book The Second Evangelical Awakening, states that one hundred thousand people were converted in Ulster at that time.
The London Morning Advertiser printed, “It is not only the most wonderful movement in our day, all things considered, it has, perhaps, no parallel since the days of the Apostles.”
More churches had to be built to hold the growing numbers wanting to attend worship, and existing churches were enlarged and extended.
Radical social change
The whole of the country was changed. The drink trade suffered greatly, with drinking houses closing as owners were saved and in Belfast a large distillery had to close down. Courts were idle because no cases were coming before the magistrates. At the Ballymena Quarter Sessions there was not a single case of indictment upon the record. At the Quarter Sessions for Londonderry the assistant barrister was presented with a pair of white gloves because there was no criminal business.
Fair days in Ulster were usually times of unruly behaviour and drunkenness. One clergyman wrote of the fair day when the revival came, “The last fair day was like a prayer meeting and not a quart of whiskey was sold according to the publicans.” In Co. Tyrone, the local publican was saved, gave up his trade and built a new church, Donaghey Congregational. He became the first pastor.
As a result of the revival, coarse, vulgar language was seldom heard from any tongue, but many were the voices of praise in song and prayer from those who had previously been notorious blasphemers.
Across the land there was a desire for worship, prayer meetings and sound, strong preaching and meetings were often packed long before they were due to commence.
The story of the 1859 Revival is wonderful and much too long for this article, but may the expression of our hearts be: “Wilt thou not revive us again?” ?
Rev. Tom Shaw is a retired minister and former President of The Faith Mission. At one time he was minister of the Donaghy church founded by Hugh Kelso, the converted publican mentioned above.