The 1859 Ulster (N. Ireland) Revival (part 1)
by David Leach
The 1859 Ulster (N. Ireland) Revival
by Keith Malcomson
Edwin Orr noted that this Revival made a greater impact on Ireland than anything known since Patrick brought Christianity there. Through the work of God in the hearts of four new converts who were moved to seek God in prayer, 100,000 souls came to Christ in one year. This is the extraordinary story of this stirring, reviving and outpouring of the Spirit of God that came to be known as 'The 1859 Ulster Revival.'
Before this Revival there was little to encourage genuine believers who had prayed and labored hard for many years with little result or change to the spiritual condition. Many ministers were discouraged with a seeming fruitless ministry. This can well be seen by the experience of three such ministers.
"Hitherto, our condition was deplorable. The congregation seemed dead to God, formal, cold, prayerless, worldly, and stingy in religious things. Twice I tried a prayer-meeting of my elders, but failed; for after the fifth or sixth night I was left alone… What alarmed me most was the indisposition, almost hostility, of the people to meetings for prayer. They seemed mostly to think that they were well enough, and that I was unnecessarily disturbing them.”
Another reported "There seemed, great coldness and deadness…I had preached the gospel faithfully, earnestly, and plainly, for eleven years; yet it was not known to me that a single individual had been converted."
And a third, "The congregation, was in a most unsatisfactory state; in fact, altogether Laodicean."
This paints a depressing and hopeless picture of the spiritual state of the land. Even amidst such darkness there were still those scattered across the land who prayed faithfully for a mighty work of the Holy Ghost.
Vessels Chosen and Prepared
In the spring of 1856 an English lady by the name of Mrs Colville came to Ballymena from Gateshead because she had 'time and money to spend for God'. She began a program of house to house visitation with a view to winning souls for Christ. In November she returned to England in low spirits thinking that God had not acknowledged her labors and feeling that her work had been unfruitful.
However, she was wrong. Just a few days before she left she had visited a certain Miss Brown who lived in Mill Street, Ballymena. On calling at this house, she had found two other ladies present as well as a young man called James McQuilkin. McQuilkin came from the parish of Connor about five miles from Ballymena and he worked in a linen warehouse in the town. Miss Brown and her companions were involved in a discussion on the subjects of predestination and freewill.
When she entered the house, the others asked Mrs Colville whether or not she was a Calvinist. She did not answer this question directly but rather spoke to the little group about the importance of seeking a personal interest in the Savior and the need of the new birth. What she had to say concerning the Savior left a profound impression spiritually upon James McQuilkin and a short time afterwards he came to a saving knowledge of Christ. An unusual, unknown, earnest Christian lady was used by God in the conversion of James McQuilkin who was to become one of the most significant figures in the 1859 revival in Ulster.
James McQuilkin had fallen under deep conviction of sin. He was cut to the heart and led into long weeks of agony as he wrestled over his spiritual condition before God. Finally he found Christ, salvation, peace and forgiveness. Immediately he began to witness to others around him and the news spread in the village of Kells, near Ballymena that this man who was once known for his love of this world now loved Christ and His Word. One of his friends Jeremiah Meneely (or Jerry as he was well known) who was a faithful church goer but lacked a sure knowledge that his sins were forgiven sought out James.
After a long conversation Jerry found himself in a state of seeking God. As he read the Bible one day wrestling over these things and confused in mind the Spirit spoke clearly a scripture to his heart. He slapped his knee exclaiming, "I see it now" and arose assured of his sins forgiven and of his name written in heaven. Around the same time McQuilkin led two other young men to Christ, Robert Carlisle and John Wallace. And so here was Gods raw material to work with.
James McQuilkin sent off for a first edition of George Mueller's narrative of his life and labors called Life of Trust. This had a profound effect upon him in starting the prayer meetings. Also The Life of McCheyne and Finney's Lectures on Revivals sowed deep seeds of hunger for genuine heaven sent revival. Beginning in September 1857 these four banded together in a bond of fellowship to meet weekly for prayer and Bible study. Their sole desire was their own edification and the salvation of others around them. The simple place they chose to meet was the Schoolhouse at Kells.
"During the long winter of 1857-1858 every Friday evening, these young men gathered an armful of peat each (as fuel to keep a fire going), and taking their Bibles made their way to the old schoolhouse. There they read and meditated upon the Scriptures of truth and with hearts aflame with a pure first love, poured out their prayers to the God of heaven." Everything that they steadfastly held to over the next year centered around three great fundamental truths of scripture, these were "the Sovereignty of the Holy Spirit, the Sufficiency of the Holy Scripture, and the Secret of Holy Supplication."