It was midsummer 1859 and revival was sweeping across Ireland’s northern counties. For months, a handful of young Christians, concerned about the spiritual state of the churches, had been praying that God would visit his people in an unusual way.
The first fruits of the movement were witnessed in the village of Connor. Congregations increased in size and the minister preached with greater power.
Family worship was more regularly observed, and informal fellowship meetings sprung up throughout the parish. Their prayers were being answered.
That summer, like a tidal wave, the Spirit of God swept across the Ulster counties, as church after church felt the quickening of his power. Lethargic believers were restored and unconverted people, shocked by the new vitality of genuine Christianity, were drawn by grace to faith.
Soon the north of Ireland was ablaze with stories of sudden and remarkable conversions. Sinners of the worst kind were transformed as their lives were impacted by the gospel.
But the revival’s most unusual convert had never indulged in a life of extravagant vice. Rather, he was a well-respected and theologically orthodox Calvinistic pastor.
Faithful to his ordination vows, and his concern for the spiritual well-being of his people, John Galway McVicker had been active in the revival.
Raised in the Reformed Presbyterian Church, the strictest and most orthodox of Ireland’s Calvinistic churches, his biblical interests led him to train for the ministry at the RP seminary in America.
Returning to Ireland, he was ordained in Newtonards in 1852, and soon became pastor of the RP church in Cullybackey. But it was not until Sunday 26 June 1859 – seven years after his ordination – that John Galway McVicker was converted.
It was a spiritual revolution. In an instant, McVicker’s new faith shattered the trust he had placed in his denomination.
Nothing on trust
The annual Synod of his church was meeting in Belfast the very next day and, as a pastor, it was McVicker’s responsibility to attend.
In view of his conversion, he felt it his duty to resign. He requested that his name be withdrawn from the documents he had signed at his ordination, and requested the patience of his brother ministers as he investigated the doctrines to which he had formally subscribed.
There followed a theological about-turn: ‘Confessions, catechisms, covenants, testimonies, etc., were as wholly stripped off me as the old skin from a serpent in sloughing time’, he later recalled. McVicker now accepted nothing on trust.
Three months after his conversion, in September 1859, McVicker renounced infant baptism and was immersed as a believer in a local river.
With his re-baptism, he lost his job as a pastor and any influence he might have had among his former friends. To them, his baptism by immersion smacked of the fanaticism that revival often seems to bring.
McVicker was excommunicated, but not silenced. ‘The whole thing was a human system’, he lamented; ‘members without faith, elders without faith, a minister without faith.
‘The whole business of church-making and minister-making as it goes on around us, I saw to be a terrible sham.’
McVicker quickly gathered a number of others for whom the revival had brought new life. With a shared commitment to Baptist ideals, they established themselves as the first Baptist church in the local market town of Ballymena.
The formation of their church had a major impact on local life. The newspapers expressed horror at the development.
But criticism only began to mount when McVicker’s continuing concern to ‘get things right’ caused him to resign from the Irish Baptist Society in December 1862.
The Baptist press expressed its appreciation of his service: ‘The Rev. J. G. McVicker holds certain views of the Christian ministry which induced him to decline the aid of the Society’s funds and prompted him to retire from the chapel. His sincerity and Christian devotedness are acknowledged by all’.
As the report recognised, McVicker no longer adhered to Baptist views of the pastoral office. Together with a few followers, the former pastor established the first of Ballymena’s Brethren assemblies.
McVicker refused to admit the name, of course. As far as he was concerned, he was leaving denominations behind and had no thought of starting anything new.
His preaching took on a warmer tone, less interested in promoting intensive self-scrutiny and more full of the wonder of full assurance of faith.
He emphasised the nearness of the second coming of our Lord, and promoted the ideal of separation from mixed communions.
The new development encouraged a rash of local pamphleteers. One commentator charged him with ‘holding that Jesus Christ was not made of a woman, and that he is not the believer’s righteousness, with denying that believers should confess sin, with denying the obligation of the moral precepts of God’s Word, with holding that Christians should follow their business on the Lord’s Day, with denying repentance, with forbidding Christians to use the Lord’s Prayer, with insisting on baptism as necessary to salvation, with teaching that believers are justified from all eternity, with teaching imputed sanctification, with teaching that men are saved by believing that they are saved, and not by believing on Christ, with holding that the Holy Spirit had no existence before Pentecost, with denying a separated ministry in the Church of God, with denying that there ought to be acknowledged elders or rulers in the Church, and I really could not say with how many things besides’.
McVicker ably cleared himself of the charges, but local clergy remained unconvinced. For the Presbyterian minister of Broughshane, a local village, the issue of baptism was of defining importance.
He criticised local farmers who had been immersed by ‘this new-fangled sect of the Dippers’. His description of McVicker made the preacher sound more like a cult leader than a servant of Christ.
McVicker, he complained, ‘condemns all creeds, because his own, like the moon, is ever changing. One year, a staunch Presbyterian, the next a zealous Baptist, and the next a Plymouth Brother, until few people would be surprised, if the year following he would turn Mormon, and with a band of converts for Brigham Young, set sail for the Great Salt Lake’.
The Mormon smear was attractive for McVicker’s enemies. Another Presbyterian minister wrote that Brethren are ‘sometimes called Latter-Day-Saints, as many of them consider themselves the peculiar people of the Lord, the select few, ready to receive … the Lord when he comes to reign personally upon the earth a thousand years’.
Defying cold orthodoxy
‘You may get something like the gospel through the iron or leaden pipes of the Plymouthists,’ the antagonist continued, ‘but you had better draw the water from “the wells of salvation” as it springs up ever fresh in the New Testament and is tasted in the beautiful gardens of our well-beloved Presbyterian Church.’
But defying the cold orthodoxy of the Presbyterians, McVicker steadfastly insisted on the need for true faith and the priority of believing.
‘Men tell you to pray,’ he said, ‘and use means, and wait on ordinances, and assure you that this is the way to Christ.
‘It is the religious way to the pit … O Christless ministers, Christless Sunday school teachers, Christless church members, I protest to you with tears that you are being directed to the wrong way. It is the way I tried for many years without finding peace.’
Child of revival
McVicker later moved to London and spent many years establishing a Brethren witness there. But, as a child of revival, he always pinned his hopes on its return.
In 1871 he declared his ‘hope to see such a day of awakening yet in this province before the Lord returns’.
In March 1899, shortly before his death, he wrote about the 1859 revival and prayed: ‘May the Lord, in his own unexpected way, send us another awakening time!’
But others were less sure. A number of Presbyterian ministers grew increasingly sceptical of the enduring value of revival. Their concerns were for the promotion of orthodoxy, but also reflected their fear of the new life that the Spirit brought.
If their cold proclamations of God’s love were not bringing conversions, would other young believers look back and realise, as McVicker had done, that the churches they trusted had betrayed them?
McVicker’s new-found faith rocked his world, challenged his contemporaries, and ought still to shock evangelical Christians.
It is profoundly shocking that a church that is admirably committed to the truth of God’s Word could foster unbelief. Yet no church is free of that danger.
We are ‘men of like passions’. Only with difficulty do we marry truth in the mind to new life in the heart – our love for the one too often stifles a concern for the other.
McVicker had excelled in catechism, Bible class and seminary. Yet in all the time he spent in the church of his fathers, no one had ever asked: ‘Have you been born again?’
All churches face the same danger. From such damning oversights, good Lord deliver us!
The author’s new book The Irish Puritans – James Ussher and the reformation of the church in Ireland, published by Evangelical Press, is due next month.