As part of the celebration of the 1859 Revival, First Presbyterian Church, Portadown has organised a flower festival entitled “Revive!”
It promises to be an interesting and creative way to celebrate what was probably the greatest religious happening in nineteenth century Ulster when thousands of people were converted to Christ and the whole tone of the community was changed. Even if you are not a flower arranger or a flower festival buff, you will be amazed at the creativity with which key aspects of the revival can be reflected in floral art.
It has been my privilege to serve in three congregations which were affected significantly by the revival: Kells, Carnmoney and First Portadown.
In the mid 1850’s the villages of Kells and Connor were considered to be rough godless places. There are many historical accounts of frequent brawls in the streets, of wild drunkenness even at funerals, and of the general low spiritual condition of the majority of the people.
In November 1856, Mrs Colville, an English Baptist lady from Gateshead, arrived in Ballymena on a door-to-door crusade to bring the Gospel to the homes. She had great zeal for her mission and she rejoiced in seeing people saved. She was a missionary of the Baptist Missionary Society. She walked many miles and talked of salvation to many without seeing much outward fruit. However the Lord used her to plant a seed which would reap a great harvest.
One day she was visiting a home in Mill Street, Ballymena where she found two ladies who were involved in spiritual conversation with a young man called James McQuilken. James came from the townland of Connor about five miles from Ballymena. He was a good Presbyterian. He knew and had learned his catechism. But he was not truly converted to Christ. Whatever was said about salvation and conversion had a profound effect on McQuilken. He could not rest until he had found Mrs Colville and was able to talk to her again. However, he was a proud young man and it was only after weeks of struggling under great agony of soul that he at last found peace and rest through trusting Jesus.
Shortly after this a meeting was held in the national School, Kells. Its purpose was to discuss repairing the building, but at the end of the meeting, three men, Jeremiah Meneely, the schoolmaster, and Robert Carlisle walked home together. Carlisle spoke about the great change that had come over James McQuilken and how McQuilken had changed so much that he had got rid of the fighting cocks for which he was notorious in the area. All three decided that this was just a passing fad for McQuilken. However Jeremiah Meneely remarked “I would give the world to know my sins forgiven”, and the others agreed.
Shortly afterwards Meneely sought out McQuilken and after a long conversation became convinced that something genuine and miraculous had truly transformed him. Meneely now wanted to get right with God and one day as he sat in the kitchen of his home in Jerry’s town, Ferniskey, Kells he was reading John 6:37: “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.”
Slapping his knee he jumped up exclaiming: “I see it now”. God had spoken to him and he was converted to Christ. Soon Robert Carlisle and John Wallace were also drawn to Christ. This was really the beginning of the Revival. Encouraged by Rev J.H. Moore, minister of their church, Connor Presbyterian, the four young converts began to meet weekly for prayer and Bible study. They met in the old national schoolhouse. These meetings, which were on Friday evenings, continued from September throughout the winter of 1857 and into 1858. Each man took an armful of peat for the fire and in the other carried his Bible. It was from this little group that the fire was kindled which blazed through Ulster and carried the Gospel message to save an estimated 100,000 souls. The cornerstone of their theology was simple and threefold. As someone has written, they believed in the Sovereignty of the Holy Spirit, the sufficiency of the Holy Scripture and the secret of Holy Supplication.
On New Year’s Day 1858, the first conversion that could be directly related to the prayer meeting took place, but after that there were conversions every night. At the end of 1858 some fifty young men were taking part in the prayer meeting. Soon the prayer meeting was thronged and many new ones were established. So many in the district were converted that by spring 1859 there were an average of sixteen prayer meetings every night of the week in Connor parish alone. Soon the wind of the Spirit of God began to blow in Kellswater, Ahoghill, Portglenone, Ballymena, Broughshane and Ballyclare. Before long almost the whole of Ulster was caught up in the fire fanned by that wind.
The impact of the Revival was widespead and one of the results was that churches were overcrowded on Sundays. Dead formal ritualism was replaced by powerful direct preaching and fervent praise. Connor Presbyterian Meeting House became too small to meet the needs of the congregation. Only 1,000 could be accommodated and that was not enough for the 900 families who now claimed connection to the congregation. As a result Ballymena Presbytery received a deputation on 4th February 1873 from “the intended New Congregation of Kells”.
Following on from this on 8th August 1873 the Presbytery decided to erect Kells as a new congregation that duly called its first minister, Rev Thomas Eaton, on 24th March 1874. I was installed there in March 1984, 110 years later, and I was the sixth minister of the congregation.
One of the key features of revival is a deep conviction of sin. Previously, people may sin and live their lives in all kinds of godless ways. But when God begins to move by his Spirit, people get uncomfortable. To use a phrase that has largely fallen out of fashion, they “come under conviction of sin”. They know that there are things in their lives that are not right and that need to be changed.
That was what happened in Carnmoney. On the first Sunday in June in 1859, a Mr Anderson who was a merchant in Belfast arrived in Carnmoney. The minister was Mr Barkley. Anderson asked Mr Barkley if he could address the congregation at the end of the service and tell them about what he had witnessed the previous week in Belfast with regard to the Revival. That evening, two girls, Mary McCurley from Mossley and Eliza McAfee from Whiteabbey were so convinced of their sin that they had to go to bed they were so weak in body. The following day they found joy and peace in believing.
The next Tuesday night a meeting was held in the church and the sense of God’s presence was so powerful that the meeting didn’t end until 2am the next morning. Between 40 and 50 people were converted at that service.
The congregation had just held their mid-summer communion on 27th June 1859, and as was the custom, there was a Thanksgiving Service on Monday night following the Communion Service on Sunday. The preacher was Rev Pollock who was minister in Ballyeaston, and as he preached, a man and a woman in the congregation cried out in the middle of the service, calling on God to save them. Later that evening, more than 50 people were so overcome with a sense of their sin that they were stricken down, and then they came to a place where they rejoiced in salvation in Christ.
The events were so remarkable that the Kirk Session in Carnmoney made a special note of them in their minutes. They said that the chief characteristic of those who professed to be converted at that period were first a deep sense of sin and crying out to God for mercy, and then a great sense of joy as they came to know that all their sins were pardoned. And that led to a complete change in their lives. Many of those converted had a wonderful gift of prayer. They were ready to forgive those who had injured them in any way. And they had an intense desire to see all their friends and relatives cemented to Christ.
The Session of Carnmoney said that during the summer and autumn of 1859 over 400 people connected with the congregation were brought to Christ.
In Portadown many people were affected. During June 1859, there were prayer meetings all over the town. There were prayer meetings in the Town Hall, in the Methodist Church, and in our own Presbyterian Church. Mr John Shillington reported on what was going on in Co Antrim, and there was great interest in what was taking place. By July 1859, the Portadown News carried seven and a half columns on the revival. The editor wrote, “We cannot but conclude that the Revival is a special means used by Him who will have all men to be saved, to drive formalism from the different parts of the church, and excite concern among all classes”.
It was reported that there were 1500 people at a prayer meeting in Irwin’s field near the railway gates. There were open-air meetings all over the place: Derryanvil, Cloncore, Drumnakelly, Seagoe and Ballydonaghy. The paper reported that on the Twelfth of July, “we never recollect seeing on such an occasion so great a number of people together with les disturbance. All was harmony and goodwill.”
It was a remarkable time. The landscape of religious life in Ulster was changed dramatically.