The Ulster Revival broke out on March 14, 1859.
James McQuilkan had been converted three years previously when a visiting English lady (a Baptist Missionary), Mrs Colville, had witnessed to him. The initial contact led James to several weeks of desperate searching for conviction of salvation. Once this was gained, James began to witness to others and so attracted the interest of Jeremiah (Jerry) Meneely, a faithful church-goer who lacked assurance of salvation. Shortly thereafter Jerry also came to confidence in his salvation and James had also led two other young men, Robert Carlisle and John Wallace, to Christ.
Reading George Mueller’s autobiography, Life of Trust, had fired McQuilkan’s prayer life. McQuilkan was also impacted by reading ‘The Life of McCheyne’ and Finney’s Lectures on Revivals. McQuilkan began to long for revival.
So, in September 1857 the four young men agreed to meet weekly for prayer and Bible study, to edify themselves and win souls. The Schoolhouse at Kells became their prayer closet.
“During the long winter of 1857-1858 every Friday evening, these young men … 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.” They focused on three great fundamental truths, “the Sovereignty of the Holy Spirit, the Sufficiency of the Holy Scripture, and the Secret of Holy Supplication”.
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On New Year’s Day 1858 the first convert was won. A year later there were 50 men meeting to wrestle and travail in prayer, despite being ridiculed and mocked by those who did not believe in their fervent praying.
Several of the initial band of men belonged to the Presbyterian Church in Connor, where Rev Hamilton Moore encouraged their prayer activities. His prayer meeting filled up and others were started and a hunger for God’s reality swept people out of their passivity. Moore was asked to report on these doings to the General Assembly that same year.
Word has also come that similar stirrings were afoot in America and further investigation revealed that a prayer movement had begun there, also in September 1857, with ordinary men initiating prayer meetings. 12,000 men were gathering in New York City to pray for revival.
By early 1859 the church in Connor had 100 separate prayer meetings each week, in homes, barns, schools and workplaces. One meeting in a mill had 500 attendees and the preaching was done by a local farmer. The ordinary folk were not only praying but taking the ministry roles as well.
On March 14, 1859, the Presbyterian minister at Ahoghill invited McQuilkan and his three friends to organise a prayer meeting. The church was crowded, we are told … and hundreds more gathered outside ‘in the chilling rain’ … on their knees in the mud!
Edwin Orr describes this as “the first outbreak of mass conviction of sin to occur anywhere in the British Isles during the mid-19th century …” “This revival made a greater impact spiritually on Ireland than anything else known since the days of St Patrick …”
Revival broke out and the prayer meetings became revival meetings, attracting crowds of thousands and mass open air meetings of 25,000. James McQuilkin emerged as a most powerful preacher and later in 1859 he travelled to many towns to preach in churches and the open air to great crowds. He saw a bountiful harvest.
“When this Revival hit Ballymena it was dramatic and sudden. Many families had not gone to bed for two or three days. Everything seemed at a standstill and the noise of people crying for mercy or the singing of praise came from many homes night and day. One Minister said ‘The difficulty used to be to get the people into the church, but the difficulty now is to get them out’.”
Churches were packed … sinners were converted. Statistics show that crime was reduced by half. Colin Whittaker, member of the executive council of the Assemblies of God, in his book Great Revivals (page 78), makes the interesting observation that although “amazing physical manifestations occurred,” the principle one being that people were often physically prostrated, “these prostrations were very different from some current phenomena of people falling down when prayed for in healing meetings …”. Prostrations in the Ulster Revival attended deep agony over sin, then led to great outbursts of praise.
Among the many evangelists used in this spreading revival fire were H.G. Guinness and Brownlow North of Scotland. People not only collapsed or were struck down, but people fell into trances and others had visions as well. The Catholic leaders anticipated a rise in anti-Catholic sentiment, since this was a Protestant revival, but the opposite occurred. The normally strife ridden areas became trouble-free as hearts were turned to God and away from the politics of religion.
The Ulster 1859 Revival is credited with bringing 100,000 souls to Christ in one year in Ireland, but it spread to other parts of Great Britain as well. “Wales also saw 100’000 converts added to the church (one tenth of the total population). In Scotland a harvest of 300’000 souls came in. Then in England a greater harvest still.”
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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com