1859 Revival open-air meeting

Our efforts at an open-air meeting beside the River Bann in Portadown to comemmorate the 1859 Revival were somewhat frustrated by the weather. After some hesitation, the meeting went ahead despite the grey skies, and by the time we concluded the shortened service, the rain clouds had passed. I was only able to deliver part of my address, so I thought I would post it all here.

The 1859 Revival was the most amazing time in this land. Nothing like it has ever happened before or since. The whole of Ulster was caught up in the movement of God which began in the parish of Connor in County Antrim. It began amongst Presbyterians and it was largely through the zeal and devotion of ministers of the Presbyterian Church that Christ’s Kingdom was advanced. However the Revival was not limited to Presbyterians. Many ministers of the Established church and smaller denominations played no small part in the great movement.

It has been my privilege to serve in three congregations which were affected significantly by the revival: Kells, Carnmoney and First Portadown. Let me tell you what happened in those three locations.

In the mid 1850’s the villages of Kells and Connor were 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. Something dramatic was needed to transform the situation and the Lord did not disappoint.

In November 1856, a Mrs Colville, an English woman 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 lost souls saved. She was a missionary of the Baptist Missionary Society and her mission brought her to County Antrim. 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 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 Mr 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 wondrously converted. Soon Robert Carlisle and John Wallace were also drawn to Christ. This was 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. 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 Spirit of God spread His influence to Kellswater, Ahoghill, Portglenone, Ballymena, Broughshane and Ballyclare. Before long almost the whole of Ulster was caught up in the fire fanned by that Divine wind.

The impact of the Revival was tremendous 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.

And here in Portadown many people were affected. During June 1859, there were prayer meetings all over this 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.”

In II Chronicles 29, Hezekiah led the priests and the people of Israel in an act of consecration. Verse 16 says that they went into the sanctuary of the Lord to purify it. This was the inner part of the house of the Lord, the most holy part of the temple.

There are two things to note about that. Firstly, it was the part of the temple which was furthest from the eyes of the people. The priests could have overlooked it and let it stay as it was because few others would have seen it. They could have shoveled away all the dirt from the outer court and swept the place spotless around the great altar outside. They could have emptied out the stale and stagnant water in the great bath in front of the altar and filled it with fresh water. Everybody would have been very impressed. But instead they went into the sanctuary and started there. They began at that point which no one really saw.

That is really a picture of what happens when God begins a work of revival and renewal in people’s hearts. The things that no one else can see, the secrets of the heart, are dealt with and are brought out into the open. Revival starts when we become alarmed at the sin which lurks in the dark corners of our lives.

When Paul writes in the NT he never encouraged his readers just to make general and vague promises of repentance. He always called them to take action. He puts it bluntly:

“Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness.”

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn”. And he wasn’t referring to us mourning over the loss of a loved one. He was referring to those who feel their sin and who cry and mourn over it. They are truly blessed, he says. Revival always deals uncomfortably with those things which other people do not see or are not aware of. When God begins to work in revival he throws light into dark places. He makes you aware of your sin and of how you need to deal with deep and hidden issues in your life.

Back in 1904, in the days prior to the great Welsh revival, Evan Roberts reminded the people that God would not come in blessing until the people were ready and prepared. And he focused on the relationship between people in the churches.

“We must rid the churches of all bad feeling”, he said, “all malice, envy, prejudice, and misunderstandings. Bow not in prayer until all offences have been forgiven: but if you feel that you cannot forgive, bend to the dust, and ask for a forgiving spirit. You shall get it then.”

But the second thing to note about the sanctuary is that while it was the furthest from the eyes of other people, it was the nearest to the eyes of God. It was the holy place. It represented God’s presence among his people. It was the place where the glory-cloud of God’s holiness was present.

And the Bible says that the priests brought out to the courtyard of the Lord’s temple everything unclean they found in the temple of the Lord. The Levites took it and carried it out to the Kidron Valley.

The Kidron Valley begins north of Jerusalem, passes the Temple and the Mount of Olives and ends in the Dead Sea. Most of the year it is a dry, sun-baked river-bed, but in the rainy season it becomes a torrent. And all the rubbish left there would be swept downstream. Kidron represented a complete clean-up. The Levites didn’t just leave the rubbish outside the temple. They wanted it dealt with completely.

Moses ground Aaron’s golden calf to powder. King Josiah crushed the pagan altars and scattered them in the Kidron Valley. The Ephesians burnt their books of magic. And Jesus spoke of gouging out your eye or cutting off your right hand. And all those stories remind us that sin must be dealt with radically and decisively.

When God comes in revival, people act decisively to turn away from their sin. They weep and mourn and are deeply ashamed.

That is precisely what is recorded in II Chronicles 30:15: “The priests and the Levites were ashamed and consecrated themselves.” All their past failures and sins came before them. They were sick and ashamed of what they had been entertaining for so long. Hezekiah had reminded the leaders of the people of the disgrace of the past and how they had sinned. He wanted them to become aware of how far they had fallen.

It seems that when revival comes, it is the leaders of the people, as well as God’s own people, who are affected first. The emblems of idolatry, the worship of the fertility goddess, and the idols of Baal were all removed.

In revival the desire to be holy becomes a burning passion. And those affected take action.

“They began the consecration on the first day of the month, and by the eighth day of the month, they reached the portico of the Lord. For eight more days they consecrated the temple of the Lord itself, finishing on the sixteenth day of the first month.” (29:17)

It was a 16-day spring clean that saw everything unclean being removed from the temple. The priests started at the centre and a week later they came to the vestibule and then they started all over again. They didn’t give up until all the rubbish that had accumulated had been removed. And then they reported to Hezekiah:

“We have purified the entire temple of the Lord, the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils, and the table for setting out the consecrated bread, with all its articles. We have prepared and consecrated all the articles that king Ahaz removed in his unfaithfulness while he was king. They are now in front of the Lord’s altar.” (29:18,19).

Revival is always a revival of holiness. And it begins with a terrible conviction of sin. Sometimes the experience is crushing. People weep uncontrollably. They are prostrated and they are in tears. But there is no such thing as a revival without tears of conviction and sorrow. Revival does not persuade people that Christianity is fun or entertaining, but rather that it is essential. The first work of the Spirit is not to tell us that we can be happy, but to tell us that we must be holy, because God is. And that is why before the joy and the thrill of discovering salvation in Christ, there is something disturbing, something that hurts deeply.

It is only when we see our sin that we see why we need a Saviour. We come to realize that no matter how hard we try and no matter what efforts we make, we cannot be our own saviours. And it is then that we can rejoice that there is one who alone can save us and pardon us from our sin.

And what joy fills our hearts when we see Jesus as our Saviour! It is the truth of the verse that was used to transform Jeremiah Meneely’s life in 1859: “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.”

This is the great and glad message of the Gospel. We are sinners. In all of our hearts, there is corruption and evil and sin that will condemn us forever. But in Jesus Christ there is a perfect Saviour. He died for our sins. By his death, we can live. He is the One who bore all our punishment and wrath. And because of Him we can be right with God. “Whoever comes to me I will never drive away.”