The Beginning of the 1859 Revival in Ulster
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 programme 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 labours 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 Saviour and the need of the new birth. What she had to say concerning the Saviour 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.
The Old Schoolhouse, Kells
James McQuilkin worked in Ballymena but he returned home to Kells every weekend. Prior to his conversion he was known in the village as the man who reared fighting cocks. Now, however, his outlook on life had changed. He came under the influence of Rev John Moore, the minister of Connor Presbyterian Church, who encouraged him to gather some of his converted friends together and to commence a Sabbath School at Tanneybrake near the village of Connor. McQuilkin and his three friends – Jeremiah McNeilly, John Wallace and Robert Carlisle – felt their own inadequacies and inexperience in the work and so in the autumn of 1857 they took an old schoolhouse near Kells where they could meet for prayer and seek God’s blessing upon the work of the Sabbath School which they had recently established.
During the next few months some other believers joined with the new converts for prayer and, in a short time, in December 1857, they were encouraged by the conversion of a young man for whom they had been praying. Over the next few months several other people in the district came to saving faith in Christ, and soon conversions were taking place nearly every week. At the spring communion in Connor Church a special sense of God’s presence was enjoyed by those present and throughout the rest of 1858 conversions were taking place throughout the parish of Connor. By the end of that year some fifty met regularly for prayer at the Old Schoolhouse prayer meeting, women not joining with them but having a separate prayer meeting of their own.
On 9 December, 1858, Samuel Campbell came to know Christ in a personal, living relationship through the influence and prayers of the Connor prayer meeting. Mr Campbell worked in Kells but belonged to Ahoghill. He desired to share the good news of salvation with the rest of his family in Ahoghill and encouraged the other members of the Connor prayer meeting to pray for him as he made several journeys across to Ahoghill with the purpose of witnessing to his loved ones. His brother and sister, in response to his witnessing, sought the Saviour but his bother John remained hardened and uninterested. Campbell persisted in his witnessing and one day, on visiting Ahoghill, he boldly shared Christ with his brother whom he found out in the fields participating in a shooting match. ‘I have a message for you from the Lord Jesus’, he said. John Campbell immediately came under conviction of sin and there in the fields his body began to tremble. With some difficulty he reached the family home where for some weeks he remained in agony of soul before obtaining an assurance of sins forgiven.
Rev Frederick Buick of Trinity Church, Ahoghill, was greatly encouraged by what the Lord had done for the Campbell family. Recognising the contribution that the Connor converts had made to the conversion of the Campbells, he decided to hold a meeting in Ahoghill at which a number of the new converts from Connor would speak about their spiritual experiences. The meeting was arranged for 22 February, 1859 in the Ballymontena Schoolhouse. However so many people turned up that it was decided to walk the short distance to Trinity Church. This meeting had a profound spiritual impact upon the Ahoghill district and many people began to pray earnestly that revival would come to their area.
On 14 March, 1859 at the thanksgiving service at the close of the spring communion in First Presbyterian Church, Ahoghill, there was a significant outpouring of God’s Spirit and many came to a saving faith in Christ. The minister of First Presbyterian Church was Rev David Adams who had prayed much for revival among his people since coming to the congregation in 1841. In 1858 a large new building had been erected capable of seating 1200 people. However, on the night of 14 March 1859 about three thousand people were present at the service which was conducted by Mr Adams. During the service one of the Connor converts, Mr James Bankhead, rose to pray. Interestingly, Bankhead also tried to address the gathering declaring that a revelation had been committed to him and that he spoke by the command of a power superior to any ministerial authority! Mr Adams, the minister, was less than happy with the way things were developing and, being particularly concerned that, amidst the crowding and commotion, the galleries would not carry the weight of the people, he called upon them to clear the building. Outside, in the village square, James Bankhead and other converts addressed the crowd from the steps of a house. Although the streets were muddy and it was pouring with rain, people listened for hours, with many falling down in the street and crying unto the Lord for mercy.
This marvellous work of God’s Spirit – the work of revival – was beginning to spread throughout North Antrim. It is difficult for us living in the day of the internet and the mobile phone to imagine how slow communications were in 1859 and it is almost breathtaking for us to realise that the awakening which had begun in Connor in 1858 and had spread to Ahoghill in 1859 was still largely unknown in Ballymena, the major town in the county. But that was all about to change. This movement of God’s Spirit was destined to affect not just a small corner of North Antrim, but very soon Ballymena and beyond would witness remarkable scenes – scenes of amazing spiritual blessing which still stir us in our own souls today.
Rev Gareth Burke is Minister of the Stranmillis, Belfast, congregation of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Northern Ireland. This article is taken, with permission, from the Evangelical Presbyterian January-February 2009.
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