Edward Nangle and the Revival on Achill
Achill Island lies off the west coast of Ireland. It is a small place, now reached by a bridge from the mainland. In the mid-nineteenth century this island was the scene of a remarkable work of God’s grace in which hundreds of islanders were drawn to saving faith in Christ. The ethos of the island was transformed.
Conditions on Achill in the early part of the nineteenth century
Before missionary work began, Achill island did not have a regular school. Those who could read had learned from itinerant teachers commonly known as the ‘hedge schoolmasters.’ The Bible was an unknown book. When Edward Nangle arrived on Achill he noted, ‘I could only discover one man who had so much as a copy of the New Testament.’
Nangle’s biographer, Henry Seddall, made this observation, ‘It would have been hard to find anywhere a larger amount of gross ignorance and degrading superstition.’ Typical of those superstitions was the practice of hanging round the neck a small piece of cloth folded and containing a piece of paper on which the first verse of John’s Gospel was written in Latin. This was blessed by the priest and was supposed to protect those who wore it against the fairies.
It was to this island, a stronghold of Roman Catholicism and pagan superstition, that Edward Nangle felt compelled to take the gospel. He believed that God had called him to the work and that in his sovereign purpose that gospel would bear fruit among the islanders. In one of his unpublished papers he expressed the belief that ‘God had a chosen remnant among the long neglected inhabitants of Achill.’
The years of preparation
Edward Nangle was born near Athboy in County Meath. His father was a commissioned officer in the army, the Sixteenth Regiment of Infantry, and held the rank of captain. The family had settled in Ireland during the reign of Henry II. Among the knights who accompanied Strongbow were Gilbert de Nangle and his two sons. Edward Nangle seems to have had no inclination to join the army, but, as his biographer states, ‘was content to be a good soldier of Jesus Christ rather than bear arms as many of his predecessors had done.’
Edward was educated at the Royal School in Cavan. Part of that education required him to repeat by rote the Church Catechism. However the catechism was never explained and no attempt was made to apply it to the lives of the young students. In later years Nangle used to tell his friends that for a long time he thought that ‘and thirdly’ was a woman’s name which he took to be Anne Thurley.
Nangle had an artistic temperament and was also a keen sportsman and was known as a ‘fearless horseman.’ When very young, Edward was deeply affected on hearing of the ‘happy death of a young Methodist peasant’ in his village. It prompted serious thoughts about what true religion was and that there must be something enjoyable in the service of God. However these impressions were short-lived and Nangle finished his college education as an unconverted man.
His original intention was to study medicine, but strangely his closest friends persuaded him that he should pursue a different profession. They suggested that he ‘enter the church,’ which was regarded at the time as a very respectable career for a well-educated young man. Nangle agreed with this suggestion which in the providence of God was used to lead him to saving faith in Christ. The thought of becoming an ordained clergyman prompted in Nangle a desire at least to possess a copy of the Bible and begin to read it. Through this reading of Scripture the Holy Spirit enlightened the young student and he experienced true conversion.
Nangle was ordained as a minister in the Church of Ireland in the summer of 1824 and began his ministry in Athboy. In those early months he lamented how little he knew about the Bible and how little experience he had of Christian living. He did, however, describe himself as being ‘full of zeal to live for God’s glory and to win souls for Christ.’ This zeal was not tempered with wisdom and within a relatively short time he was drained emotionally and physically and had to resign his post. ‘He seems to have formed the opinion that the care of the bodily frame was altogether unworthy of the attention of a true Christian. Frequently his breakfast consisted only of a crust of oaten bread and a glass of water. His evening meal was the rest of the oaten bread and another drink of water.’ During the years when he was unable to serve as curate the vision for mission work in Achill was taking root in his heart. Nangle’s biographer is surely right in saying that while the withdrawal from his work was a severe trial for the young man, it ‘was part of God’s providential dealing and discipline by which Edward Nangle was gradually being prepared for a more important ‘sphere of service.’
His theological understanding was changing too. Initially he held to an Arminian understanding which, given the prevalence of Methodism in the area where he lived and worked, is not surprising. But through conversations with Rev. William Krause in Dublin, Nangle came to an understanding and acceptance of Reformed doctrine. Later he testified to the fact that he was often helped through periods of trial and difficulty by the doctrine of election, which he described as very full of ‘sweet, pleasant and unspeakable comfort.’
On a journey by horseback Nangle spent the time meditating on the words of Isaiah ‘by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many.’ These words seemed so glorious, he says, that he longed to communicate this truth to the whole world.
The Achill Mission
Nangle’s desire to take the gospel to Achill was strengthened by reading Christopher Anderson’s book Historical Sketches of the Native Irish. He was moved by the realization that so little had been done to bring the gospel in their own language to the Irish speaking population.
His first visit to the island was in 1831 as a passenger on a steamer which was taking supplies of food to the inhabitants at a time of severe shortage – a precursor of the great famine which occurred not many years later. He found the people ‘in an appalling state of destitution.’
My knowledge of the Irish language was very imperfect; I therefore found much difficulty in expressing myself. I spoke however with stammering lips about Christ, His tender love to poor sinners and His great salvation and the people heard me with the most reverential attention.
Nangle’s initial attempts to raise the necessary finance to begin mission work on Achill were unsuccessful. He had added discouragement in other ways too. Some regarded planting a church on the island as ‘wild speculation.’ Others were adamant that it would be irresponsible to take his family to such a wild place and it would also mean that he would lose any opportunity of making progress in the church. Some of course warned of the opposition he would undoubtedly encounter from the local Roman Catholic priests. One of those issuing this warning was a prominent evangelical minister. ‘You will not be six weeks in the island until the priest will have blown you into the Atlantic’ was his dire prediction. Nangle was undeterred: ‘”God,” said I, “is stronger than the priests.”‘
Nangle took up residence on the island in 1834 in one of two very simple dwellings which had been built by the authority of the Achill Mission Committee of the Church of Ireland. A schoolmaster and a Scripture reader were appointed to work alongside Mr. Nangle.
Living conditions were primitive and food was scarce, with meat only very rarely on the menu. The mission workers soon came to prize highly stew made from rabbit or curlew. Henry Seddall comments that the missionaries’ adventures resembled those of Robinson Crusoe on his desert island.
Preaching began in August 1834 and Nangle found a people who listened willingly and showed great respect for the Bible.
Nangle’s strategy included the establishment of schools. The first was opened at the end of 1834 in Slievemore and within the first two days had an attendance of fifty three. Almost immediately the local priest started a rival school in an attempt to undermine Nangle’s work. This opposition did affect the numbers attending the mission schools. Appearing before an inquiry in the House of Lords, Nangle presented the evidence. In 1835 four hundred and twenty were in attendance at the school, but just four years later the number had dropped to two hundred and forty three. When asked the reason for this decline, Nangle gave this answer, ‘I attribute it to the violent persecution of the Roman Catholic priesthood as detailed in a petition presented to this House by the Bishop of Exeter.’ The priests also encouraged islanders to pour verbal abuse on the missionaries, while shopkeepers were urged not to sell anything to the ‘heretics.’
Opposition came also from other quarters. Liberal churchmen, such as the Bishop of Norwich, denounced Nangle’s work and others ‘resented as impertinent all allusion to the errors of the Church of Rome.’ The prestigious journal The Athanaeum wrote against the Achill Mission and, while claiming to be impartial, still refused to give Nangle the right of reply to its criticisms.
In spite of opposition, the Mission progressed and in 1835 the foundation was laid for a church building – the first Protestant church ever erected on Achill. In December of that year Nangle installed a printing press which had been paid for by supporters in London and York. He began to publish a monthly paper, The Achill Missionary Herald and Western Witness. Because this paper was ‘a stamped publication’ it was entitled to free circulation through the Post Office. Circulation initially reached six hundred copies each month, but soon the Roman Catholic authorities attempted to have the right to free circulation cancelled. This attack only served to raise the profile of the Herald and circulation soon reached the astonishing figure of three thousand.
Nangle’s vision was wide ranging and in 1838 another arm of the Mission was in place when an orphanage was established ‘for the education of destitute children.’
By now attendance at the church was around one hundred and twenty. Five years before there had not been a professing Protestant believer on the island. The converts began to show evidence of growth and maturity. In October 1844 several expressed the desire to make their profession of faith in Christ in public. On successive Sundays small groups of about ten or twelve came forward before the congregation and answered questions on their faith put to them in both English and Irish. Remarkably that same year saw the first stone laid for the building of a house for priests who had renounced Roman Catholicism and were now preparing for work in the Church of Ireland.
The effects of the Famine
1846 was a dark year in Ireland. In the early part of the year Nangle wrote, ‘We regret to have the painful task of stating that the potato disease is making rapid strides in this island.’ Nangle regarded the famine as a special judgment on the nation. He identified those national sins which he believed had called down this divine judgment – ‘unatoned for blood [murders for which no-one was brought to justice], idolatry in the professing people of God; and the profane neglect of the House and ordinances of God.’
Nonetheless Nangle displayed a deep compassion for the people in their need. He travelled to England to raise funds for a shipload of meal he had ordered in faith. This became in fact a great test of his faith, and he began to fear that he had made a great mistake. However, through his reading of the Report of George Muller’s work, his faith was strengthened. This reading prompted him to spend a whole night in prayer and acquaintances said that ‘from that moment he never faltered in his faith.’
Achill suffered from famine for two years, but Nangle made the following observation as he later reflected on that terrible time: ‘We are thankful to say that a gracious movement of God’s Holy Spirit on the hearts of the people seems to accompany the heavy calamity with which he has visited them.’ Nangle could write of many conversions which took place during those years.
An island transformed
Dr. Mcllwaine, Rector of St. George’s in Belfast paid a visit to Achill in the autumn of 1849. He was there at the time the foundation stone was being laid for another new church building and reported the event: ‘Mr. Nangle addressed the people at considerable length in Irish. There were altogether no less than twelve hundred present.’ Dr. Mcllwaine’s assessment of the blessing which had come on this missionary work is significant:
Seventeen years ago there was not a solitary instance of a member of the Protestant Established Church among the thousands of native inhabitants on Achill. It was then that the Providence of God sent forth his servants to labour in this most barren and dry land. A process of evangelization goes on throughout the whole island; five places of Protestant worship are established; fifteen hundred children are in constant attendance at Scriptural schools. The demoniac beings who raged against the Gospel sit clothed and in their right minds to hear its joyful sound.
Nangle himself on a return visit to Achill from Screen, Co. Sligo, where he had gone as rector, commented,
Looking at the dangers and difficulties with which the missionary work in this island was encompassed, and contrasting the state of things now with the state of things as they were then, we may well exclaim, ‘What hath God wrought!’
An imperfect servant
Nangle himself, like all gospel preachers, was a mixture. He was impulsive and often harsh in his judgment of others. He often refused to be guided by other men who were in many respects wiser than he was. There could be no doubt however that he had a burden for the glory of God and the salvation of his fellow Irishmen on the island of Achill. In the pursuit of this he was, according to a friend, ‘self-sacrificing and self-denying to the last degree.’ When Nangle found that he could support and educate his family by the publication of The Herald and by the sale of his books, he gave up his salary of £150 per year. For forty years, rather than be a burden to the mission, he preferred to ‘feed his children out of his inkstand.’ Nangle often expressed thanks that he would die a comparatively poor man.
His own diary records long rides on lonely roads and small congregations assembled in school houses or farm houses. He dealt on a personal basis with people who sought his help in their spiritual need. He distributed copies of the Bible and numerous tracts. He sought to ensure that the people would be able to read when the Bible was placed in their hands. He lived with a deep awareness of the presence of God. The revival on Achill came of course in the sovereign purpose and at the time of God’s appointing. It lasted for his appointed time.
The ministry of Edward Nangle on Achill has several lessons which continue to search the church and its mission today. We are challenged by his confidence in God’s sovereign grace which kept him labouring in a remote and hostile locality; by his deep love for people who had been overlooked by the church; by his perseverance in the face of unwarranted criticism and open hostility. Revival on Achill in the nineteenth century testifies that the gospel is always in jars of clay so that the excellent power is of God and not of men.
Source Material: Edward Nangle, The Apostle of Achill: A Memoir and a History by Henry Seddali and Lord Plunket (1884).
Knox Hyndman is Lecturer in Church History at the Reformed Theological College, Belfast, and minister of Newtownards Reformed Presbyterian Church, Co. Down.
Taken with permission from the Reformed Theological Journal, November 2010.
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