1859 – the year of grace
In 1856 a lady called Mrs Colville returned home to Gateshead in a state of despondency. She had spent several months visiting homes in Ballymena, County Antrim, with the aim of winning souls for Christ and felt her work had been unfruitful.
Little did she know how the Lord would use her efforts in a work of his Spirit, which was to become known as the 1859 revival.
Kells and Connor
A young man called James McQuilken had been present in one of the last homes visited by Mrs Colville. So challenged was he by her witness, that he came to a saving knowledge of Christ.
James worked in Ballymena, but spent every weekend at his home in the village of Kells, where he was known as the young man who reared fighting cocks.
Soon the minister of Connor Presbyterian Church, Rev. John Moore, asked James and three friends to run a Sabbath school in a nearby area. The four young men felt their inadequacies keenly and so, in autumn 1857, started holding prayer meetings for this work in the old schoolhouse in Kells.
During the next few months, some other believers joined with the new converts for prayer. Within a short time they witnessed the conversion of a young man for whom they had been praying. Soon, others came to faith in Christ, and before long there were weekly conversions in the district.
At the spring communion services there was a special sense of God’s presence in Connor Church. By the end of that year some fifty men met regularly for prayer at the school house. The women had a separate meeting.
Ahoghill and Ballymena
Samuel Campbell was one of those converted in Connor. He was from Ahoghill, and he witnessed to his family there until he had the joy of seeing them come to faith. The minister of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Rev. Fred Buick, recognising the contribution that the Connor converts had made in the conversion of the Campbells, invited a number of them to address meetings in Ahoghill.
This had a profound spiritual effect on the district, and many began to pray that revival would come there. On 14 March, at the close of the thanksgiving service for the communion season in the First Presbyterian Church, there was a significant outpouring of God’s Spirit, with many coming to saving faith.
This marvellous work of God’s Spirit – the work of revival – was beginning to spread throughout north Antrim. Ballymena was the main town in the area. From the beginning of May, services were held every evening in Wellington Street Presbyterian Church, in First Ballymena Presbyterian Church, and in the Church of Ireland parochial hall.
Thousands met for prayer and praise in various locations. In many homes stricken people could be found lying prostrate on the floor crying out to God.
Every Saturday evening an open-air meeting was held. It was often near to midnight before families finally returned home. Businesses seemed to come to a stand-still in the town, so concerned were people about their souls.
Coleraine and Londonderry
In Coleraine, a new town hall had just been completed and a ball arranged to celebrate its opening. In the event, the ball had to be cancelled and the hall used as a place to counsel and pray for those seeking salvation.
The Spirit of God was now sweeping across the Province in convicting and converting power. Sunday 12 June was a significant day in Londonderry. At 10.30am a service was held in East Wall Methodist Church, followed in the afternoon by a large open-air gathering in Victoria Market.
One of the notable features of the Londonderry work was how the revival touched every class of the community: from the educated man of business to the poor and illiterate.
Perhaps an even more challenging aspect was the co-operation between the different churches. Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregational and some Episcopal clergy worked closely together, in prayer and counselling.
In 1859 the population of Belfast was 120,000. The city was blessed with a number of notable and godly ministries, including those of Rev. Hugh Hanna of Berry Street Presbyterian Church and his colleague, the somewhat eccentric Rev. Tommy Toye of Great Georges Street, and Rev. Theophilus Campbell of Holy Trinity Church of Ireland. These men had been conducting prayer meetings for revival for some years prior to 1859.
On the last weekend of May 1859 some of the converts from Connor spoke at meetings in Belfast. Throughout the following week, services were held all over the city and many people were converted.
Unfortunately, the unity which had characterised the Londonderry work was not found in Belfast. Tensions and differences of opinion existed, and so a meeting was arranged in the Victoria Music Hall with the purpose of achieving greater co-operation. As a result the ‘Union prayer meetings’ came into being.
On 29 June an enormous gathering was held in the Botanic Gardens. Around 35,000 attended, travelling in from far and wide. The purpose of the meeting was to review the work of revival, hear reports on the progress of the work, and pray for further outpourings of the Lord’s Spirit on the land.
The main speakers, however, were difficult to hear due to the size of the crowd, and this led to a dispersal of the crowd into smaller groups all around the gardens. These groups were placed under the care of elders and godly men, but there seems to have been some excessive behaviour. The organisers learned lessons from this occasion.
The second meeting held in Botanic Gardens on 17 August was not so large and seems to have been more spiritual, with excellent addresses given by Rev. Hugh Hanna and James McQuilken, among others.
Every year on the 12 July the Orange Order organised, and still does, a huge procession to celebrate the victory of King William III over King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. In Belfast 12 July parade had often been boisterous and troublesome. It was evidence of the spiritual work which had been taking place in the city that in 1859 it passed off peacefully with not a single stone thrown.
The revival was marked by four important characteristics:
Whilst God was pleased to work mightily in salvation in 1859, there is no doubt that the ground was well prepared by the prayer and faithful ministries of many godly men throughout the province.
There is a view among certain revival historians that God worked in a time of great deadness. I. R. K. Paisley represents this viewpoint when he states that, ‘spiritual life in Ulster prior to the Revival was at low ebb. The Presbyterian Church re-established and consolidated on the broad basis of orthodox Christianity had a name to live but was dead’.1
The present writer, however, subscribes to the opinion of A. R. Scott, who argues that, ‘the revival of 1859 was not a sudden outburst, but rather the result of a gradual crescendo of Christian effort over half a century, blessed by the sovereign grace of God’.2
The relationship between prayer and revival is complex. It is no doubt an intimate relationship, but we must never give the impression that something ‘automatic’ happens if we pray enough so that revival inevitably comes along.
Revival is a sovereign work of God’s Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, a study of the countless prayer meetings which took place before and during 1859 reminds us that the Lord is pleased to work in response to the prayers of his people.
Meetings held during the revival could last for hours. When God began to work, people gathered night after night for weeks on end. We can scarcely imagine what it would be like to be in a room with so many broken down through conviction of sin, and then overcome with joy when they realised their sins were forgiven.
On 15 May in Jackson’s schoolroom in Ballymena: ‘The power of Almighty God descended on those present, bringing a great concern about eternal things. Throughout the town a feeling of solemn awe came over the wicked and for one night or more sleep was withheld from the eyes of hundreds of people. Strong crying was heard in the streets and in almost every house there was the manifestation of a divine agent working mightily’.
Powerful social impact
The work of God’s Spirit was something which impacted communities in a significant way. When God began to work in a district everyone knew about it. Even the secular press reported on the spiritual movement.
Not all newspapers were sympathetic and the press tended to emphasise physical prostrations and other phenomena that took place at some meetings, but on the whole the reporting was favourable.
For example, the editor of the Ballymena Observer commented: ‘Common street prostitutes and public nuisances who had frequently been convicted for drunkenness and loitering are now clothed with attention to decency and struggling to earn their livelihood by honest labour, and by learning to read. They are all daily and humbly beseeching pardon for their past sin and in regular attendance at some place of worship every Sabbath Day’.
Schools, mills, even the offices of the Coleraine Chronicle were unable to continue their usual business because so many of the people connected with them were unfit to work due to their convicted spiritual state. The effects of so many converted and living a new life were felt in every aspect of the community.
We speak today of the importance of church extension and engagement with the communities around our churches. Here both occurred on a scale beyond our greatest expectation.
Notice the strategy! No mission statements, five-year plans or strategic development plans; just prayer, God’s Word uplifting Christ and God’s Spirit.
‘Grant, O God, we beseech Thee, a still greater outpouring of Thy Spirit upon our country and dominions; so as to cause a deep and wide revival of a living faith in Christ, working by love and bringing forth all the fruits of the Spirit … Be to our country a wall of fire around her and the glory in the midst of her’.3
1. I. R. K. Paisley, The Fifty Nine Revival, Martyrs Memorial Productions, 2009.
2. A. R. Scott, ‘The Ulster revival of 1859’, a doctoral thesis quoted in J. W. Lockington, Johnston of Tullylish, Presbyterian Historical Society, 2008.
3. From a prayer card used during the revival and quoted in John T. Carson, God’s river in spate, Presbyterian Historical Society, November 1994.