The Ulster Awakening of 1859
Summary of a 10-minute address at the Banner of Truth Leicester Ministers’ Conference, 2009.
One hundred and fifty years ago the Irish province of Ulster came under the powerful influences of the Spirit of God. The spiritual life of churches was revived and their witness to the gospel strengthened. The unconverted were deeply affected by the truth of the gospel. Great numbers flocked to the churches for spiritual relief from an unrelenting conviction of the guilt of sin.
The movement began in Co. Antrim in a particularly inauspicious manner. A small group of believers met for prayer. News of a spiritual awakening in America, begun the previous year 1858, had reached Ulster and stirred up a desire for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the moribund churches in Ireland. It was not long before prayer was answered. One by one, and then in unimagined multitudes, young and old were converted to Christ.
By June 1859 the movement had spread throughout the province, transforming thousands in both countryside and city.
Let me briefly outline some of the consequences of the awakening. This information comes from The Ulster Awakening by John Weir, first published in 1860 and reprinted by the Banner in May 2009.1
Hugh Hanna, minister of Berry Street Presbyterian Church, Belfast, wrote:
Drunkenness was a prevalent vice. The use of distilled spirits was very general. Our temperance societies were numerous and active, but they made small progress in reclaiming the masses. But the gospel has annihilated the temperance societies. A higher argument and influence than they can wield, has regenerated the masses, and the absence of drunkenness from our streets – in markets, fairs, and on fair-days – is as marked as it is gratifying. You rarely see a drunken man now; brawling and disorder are consequently rare; and our police hardly know what to do with themselves. I am myself aware of four publicans who abandoned their trade, partly from the fact that their sales had fallen off so greatly that it was not worth their while to continue the trade, and partly because they considered that such a trade is a sin against society. In other parts of the country, similar facts are reported.
The party feuds of Ireland have been exceedingly mischievous. The anniversary of the battle of the Boyne stirred up all the bad blood of the country, and Protestants and Romanists were disposed to engage in bloody strife. But on the last 12th of July there was not a blow struck over all the country . . . a new spirit animates the Protestant mind. Love (the fruit of the Revival), has taken the place of rankling enmity, and although the Romanists do not reciprocate in the same spirit, they are quiescent from the utter absence of all provocation. Ulster is now the most peaceable province in the British empire. (Hanna)
Hanna tells of one young convert who
acknowledged that she had often assisted in the street rows, and carried stones for stronger arms, wherewith to pelt the enemy. But she had no enemies now, for she would be a friend to all sinners. She would tell Romanists of the love of Jesus, and she could love them now even when they wronged her.
The following incident typified the change wrought in Belfast’s Protestant community.
A young man, driving a bread cart down Durham Street, the scene of last year’s unhappy party excitement, was, a couple of days ago, silly enough to exhibit an orange lily on the horse’s head. This very foolish act would formerly, of course, have created a tumult in the neighbourhood. A very different result followed on this occasion. A number of young lads (Protestant converts) standing at a corner, seeing the driver pass, consulted as to the proper means of putting a stop to the party exhibition. Two of their number were deputed to follow him to the first shop at which he might stop; they kindly remonstrated with him as to the imprudence of displaying the obnoxious emblem, asking him to have the goodness to remove it, with which request he at once complied.
Instead of leading to fierce fanaticism, this Revival created a love to the Roman Catholics; and those who were its subjects were solicitous about their eternal welfare, and were to be seen going about comforting their neighbours. Love for the Lord Jesus and for one another, were the characteristics of the blessed work now in operation in Ireland.
The stipendiary magistrate for the county of Antrim reported that . . . he knew of some instances in which Orangemen, who had been struck down [by the Spirit], had gone to some of their Roman Catholic neighbours whom they had ill-used, and begged them to forgive them. (Rev. H. Venn of Hereford).
3. Home and Family
There is a marked change in the homes of the working classes. Many of them were thoughtless and improvident. Many of them were destitute of any very commendable notions of domestic comfort and taste. A great change for the better has taken place. I attended yesterday evening several classes open for instruction in the lowest parts of the town. About 750 persons were present in these classes, and the neatness, cleanliness, and appearance of comfort which marked them, were most gratifying.
Rev. G. H. Shanks of Boardmills reported: ‘Mothers are happy with their kind, obedient children; wives with their kind, sober husbands; and husbands with their wives’. The refining as well as elevating influence of the Awakening on the manners of the people is strongly dwelt on: poor peasants are now truly ‘gentle’, and understand the home application of the apostolic lesson, ‘be courteous’.
One of the most striking results of the Revival is the removal of long existing enmities between families and individuals. At the hour of midnight, faults have been confessed and forgiveness asked by men who a little before were sworn and irreconcilable foes. (Moffat Jackson of Sligo)
Rev John Stuart of Ballycarry confessed, ‘Once I found it difficult to tell where family prayer was observed; the difficulty now is to tell where it is not. “Oh, Mr S.”, one woman said to me, “if you knew how happily we live now! We have family worship morning and evening.”‘
4. Social Improvement
The thirst for education is another feature in the results of this movement. A larger number of people unable to read, has been found than was supposed to exist among the people. They have laid aside the habits which prevented them from learning, and you now see the old men sitting in the class with children, spelling out the precious truths of the Bible.
As to profanity – Weir inquired of the proprietor of a large mill what results he could witness from the Awakening, among the workers in the mill. His answer was, ‘From one end of it to the other you will not now hear an oath or an indelicate expression.’
Another mill-owner has borne to me a similar testimony. A third was compelled to think favourably of ‘the movement’, from the effects he perceived among his people.
At the October sessions for Belfast, the total number for trial was seven; last year, fourteen. At Connor, the birthplace of the Revival, the constabulary prosecuted thirty-seven persons for disturbances; in the ten months of this year, only two of the Connor people were brought before the magistrates.
In 1857, Connor had one-sixth part of all the paupers in the Ballymena workhouse; in 1859 it had only the thirty-third part! At the Ballymena quarter sessions, October, 1859, the assistant barrister said there were only four cases, all of ordinary description, on the calendar, and congratulated the grand jury on the high moral tone which now pervaded the district.
In Ballymena a car-man told me that whereas before the Revival ‘a dacent man couldn’t walk the streets of a Saturday (the market) night, for fellows drunk and cursing’, now, on the last Saturday, he could count only four men, and on the Saturday before, five, the worse for whiskey. The very day before he spoke to me he had pointed out to a gentleman whom he was driving, and who, he said, ‘knew them as well as I did’, two of the worst women of the streets, ‘going to the fields to earn their bread honestly by work’.
No topic of conversation seemed more common than the wonderful change in the country. ‘Do you really believe’, I asked a woman from Ahoghill, ‘that the Revival has made any change for the better?’ She replied, ‘I’ve lived there ten years, and it’s no more like the place it was, than this is like Africa.’
A policeman in Sandy Row, Belfast, the hotbed of mischief, told me that now there is not a quieter place in the world!
The great social evil, the unblushing profligacy that infects the streets of large towns, was felt in Belfast, as elsewhere. It was a great affliction to contemplate it. Christian people did not know how to deal with it. But this movement has entered the haunts of the worst wickedness, and many a Magdalene has come to sit at Jesus’ feet. Ministers will now, in such places, get a congregation of attentive and tearful listeners. About fifteen of these unfortunate women have, to my own knowledge, abandoned their evil ways, and have returned to the paths of virtue. Other ministers can speak of similar results. (Hanna)
An Anglican clergyman reported the following:
With regard to the social evil, some of the unfortunate women have come to my house imploring me to do something to take them off the streets. One woman of herself specified the Revival as the cause; and a companion (a Roman Catholic) joined her in this. They are both of them so far reclaimed. I know of six others who have given up their unholy calling. I have been requested to go to a house where three young women of this class lived-one a Church girl, and the other two Roman Catholics. I have visited them more than once, and, when speaking to them of the gospel, the tears have flowed down their cheeks. One has left the house, another has nearly made up her mind to follow her example. Indeed, she says she would, if she had any certain means of support.
‘At Belfast, a policeman told me [the Rev. H. Venn of Hereford] that one morning he saw fourteen women of bad character going in a body to the penitentiary. They had attended a prayer-meeting the previous evening. There were twenty other women also, he said, of bad character, who were being supported in private lodgings by the congregation to which he belonged, until they could be received into the penitentiary.
Why read The Ulster Awakening by John Weir?
‘This is the finest short account of the last great awakening in the British Isles and it is full of relevance for the needs of the present time. Not only were thousands made citizens of heaven but whole communities were changed in this fallen world.’ [Iain H. Murray]
‘Read the story of the revival in Northern Ireland, a hundred years ago, that great movement which led not only to so many conversions but which quickened the whole life of the church and transformed the whole situation. The church was in a period of dryness and of drought, then thousands of people are converted to the Lord Jesus Christ. The churches become too small and larger ones are built, and the gospel spreads in a most astounding manner.’ [D. M. Lloyd-Jones, speaking on the subject of ‘Revival’ in 1959.]
An Account of the 1859 Revival in Ireland
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