Visitations of Grace – 1859 Revival

Billy Bray preaching

Billy Bray preaching

This small tract references a number of historic revivals amongst English speaking people throughout the ages, but it majors on the 1859 Revival in Britain.

The author mentions the Reformers, the Puritans, the Stewarton revival and the outpouring at Shotts before moving on to the 1859 revival.

He briefly traces its progress from America, Ulster, Northern Ireland then England and Scotland.

We have included the whole tract here.

Visitations of Grace

With Special Reference to the Revival of 1859

An outstanding feature of the year recently closed has been the quickening of Evangelical interest in the subject of Religious Revival. For this two main reasons may probably be assigned.

The first is that the year 1959 marked the centenary of the great spiritual awakening that swept over the British isles during the central period of the Victorian era. Any commemoration of that visitation of grace has required that the pages of its history should again be turned, and its characteristics and results be recalled to memory: a task which could not but engender in devout minds a strong desire to see the mercies of a former day renewed in their own. To be permitted to witness the goings of God in His sanctuary such as gladdened the hearts of their fathers: to behold Christ again glorified in signal triumph of His gospel: to know that on every hand souls were being plucked from the burning: to be gladly conscious that once more, the moral tone of the nation was being lifted — such an experience, many have been led to feel, would be a privilege beyond all price.

But the second and deeper reason for this reawakening of interest in Revival is doubtless the growing conviction that only by some such Divine intervention can the exigencies of present world conditions be met. The gravity of the threat now confronting the Christian church and mankind at large can scarcely be exaggerated. The unprecedented spread of atheistic communism, propagated alike by force of arms and by underground proslytism; the resurgence of pagan religions, long believed to have been undermined by Christian missions, but which have been startlingly renewing their strength; the powerful strides recently made in Africa by Islam, largely actuated by political motives, but none the less menacing; the materialism which in an age not wholly dissimilar from that of the Renaissance is now dominating so vast a multitude; the threat of war which a spark may set ablaze; such are some of the forces which to-day are jeopardising the well-being of well-nigh every race and apparently imperilling even the Christian faith itself.

Nor is the British nation free from dangerous elements. In a volume recently issued by the Lord’s Day Observance Society, small in size but impressive in content entitled To Whom Ye Yield Yourselves, Ex-Inspector Morrish has shown how serious in England in particular is the progress of moral evil. In spite of the most earnest — and in some cases even feverish — church activity, lawlessness is steadily growing and the prisons in this once-favoured land ate full to overflowing. Men in their early twenties under restraint are found to be more dangerous criminals than those of older growth. Violence and immorality have invaded even the ranks of the very young. Motherhood — often, alas, illegitimate — is entered upon at an unnaturally early age; the freshness and frankness of boyhood and youth and the sweetness and innocence of maidenhood are becoming experiences which to many are wholly unknown.

It is for such and similar reasons, therefore, that evangelical desire to witness another period of Revival has been aroused. To foster this desire by recalling memories of former visitations, and thereby to stir up more earnest prayer that God should again visit His people, is the purpose for which these pages are written.

Religious Revivals of Earlier Days

It has been said that Revivals of Religion appear to have been wrought of God in order to check the too rapid advance of evil. and to make up the seeming lee-way in the progress of the gospel. So regarded, the Reformation of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries must without doubt be an instance of such Divine interposition. Nothing can be further from fact than to regard that great disruption of Christendom as a purely political or ecclesiastical event. “The more carefully the Evangelical ponders the Reformation,” a student of such matters has written, “the deeper is his conviction that the work was, in truth, of God. An hour seemed to strike, and new spiritual forces to be set in motion. Flames of gospel testimony, apparently unrelated, sprang up over all parts of Europe, like sporadic forest fires. The word of the Reformers, whether written or spoken, was clothed with extraordinary power. Their teaching and influence penetrated to France, to Spain, to the Netherlands, to Poland, to Hungary, to Britain, finding everywhere a readiness to receive it. William Farel’s labours in Switzerland exhibited features that we usually associate with more modern revivals of religion. He would enter a Catholic village, interrupt the celebration of Mass in the church, take possession of the pulpit, and in his voice of thunder preach a sermon, and lo, the whole village would rise, burn its idols, and become adherents of the Protestant Faith. ‘To pull down Popery,’ says d’Aubigne, ‘often took less time than was occupied by the priest in saying Mass at the altar. No sooner did this man of small stature rise in his place, with his pale yet sunburnt complexion, red and tin-combed beard, sparkling eyes and expressive mouth . . than the people collected round him. And scarcely did he begin to speak when, oh, wonderful work of God, as he himself exclaims, the multitude believed as if it had but one soul.’ “Similar instances of Divine power during that remarkable period could be multiplied; nor need they occasion surprise. Secular and sacred history alike show that God has repeatedly broken in upon His world, not only in judgement but in mercy; supremely in the sending of His Son to be the Saviour of men with all the attendant wonders of His advent. That the Ruler of mankind should thus from time to time stem the current of evil and prosecute the purposes of His redemption is wholly in accord with His character and His mode of governing the nations of the earth.

Revivals of Religion Amongst the English-Speaking People

It should be creative of both gratitude and penitence to recall that while most lands have been blessed with revival, the English-speaking race have in this particular been singularly favoured. Not only did the light of the Reformed Faith early shed its beams upon these shores, but when it began to wax dim it has pleased God to rekindle it. Sorely blown about by the winds of opposition as it has been, the martyr’s candle has never wholly been put out. It survived the persecutions of Queen Mary’s day. It was amid the oppressive legislation of the earlier Stuart kings, the debauchery of Charles II and the fanaticism of his brother James, that the Puritan Revival came into being and brought new life to the nation. It was a truly remarkable era; one which not only witnessed the rise of a body of devout and scholarly expositors of Scripture, but demonstrated the practical results of evangelical preaching. When Richard Baxter first went to Kidderminster he found, he tells us, “no more than one family in a street that sought after the Lord “; when he left, “there were many streets in which there was not more than one family that did not do so.” The Lord’s Day was reverently observed and the Lord’s house filled with worshippers. “We were led to build five galleries in the church after my coming thither,” Baxter relates, “even though the church was very capacious, the most commodious and convenient that ever I was in.” Seeking souls flocked like doves-to their windows under his preaching as they did in many another centre of Puritan ministry of the Word.

During the same period Scotland, too, was blessed. The land which God so largely gave to John Knox did not fail to receive Spirit-given renewal. Amongst the many instances the following may be noted. A work of grace broke out in Stewarton in 1625 described as “a spring-tide of the gospel in which, like a spreading moor-burn, the power of godliness did advance from place to place, the savour of which brought many from other parts of the land to witness its truth.” Similar scenes were witnessed at a convocation of ministers and people held in 1630 at the Kirk of Shotts, particularly under the preaching of John Livingstone. Towards the close of one of his sermons, we are told, “the audience, and even the preacher himself, were affected with a deep unusual awe, melting their hearts and subduing their minds. . . . Nearly five hundred had a discernible change wrought in them. lt was the sowing of a seed in Clydesdale, such that many of the most eminent Christians of that county could date their conversion, or some remarkable confirmation of their case, from that day.” In the same year like results followed the labours of a band of Scottish preachers — Brice, Glendenning, Ridge, Blair and others — who visited the North of Ireland. Their proclamation of the gospel in Ulster was attended with such evidences of Divine power that a responsible writer has declared that “ this revival in the North of Ireland may with propriety be said to have been one of the most remarkable outpourings of the Holy Spirit on record.” It was accompanied with features which are characteristic of almost all such operations of Divine grace; a widespread awakening to the reality of spiritual things; alarm at the thought of judgement to come; in some cases, deep despondency until assurance of salvation was received, “when,” says the chronicler, “adopting the beautiful imagery of Scripture, the broken-hearted were bound up; bondage and fear gave way to the spirit of freedom and love;’ the oil of joy dispelled mourning, and spirit of heaviness was exchanged for the garment of praise.

The New World has been not less favoured. One of the most fruitful results of the English Puritan Revival was the sending of the Pilgrim Fathers to America, who carried with them the purity of the Reformed Faith; and to the nation which they thus founded has been given the privilege of witnessing the power of God repeatedly put forth in the many revivals of religion which have swept over that spacious western land.

Evangelical Revival in the Eighteenth Century

It has already been noted that seasons of spiritual awakening have their floodtide and their ebb. It has frequently been so in England. The Revolution of 1688, which set William III on the throne, and established Protestantism as the national faith, was followed by a period of lifeless formality in religion and widespread infidelity in society at large. On both sides of the Channel gifted writers assailed the Christian belief with all the artillery that wit or learning could supply, and found ready disciples. Bishop Ryle’s oft-quoted summary of the times presents no exaggeration. “ Anything more deplorable,” he says, “it is difficult to conceive. . . . As to the preaching of the gospel, the distinguishing doctrines of Christianity . . . were comparatively lost sight of. The vast majority of the sermons were miserable moral essays, utterly devoid of anything calculated to awaken, convert save or sanctify.” Shameless immorality amongst all classes of the community was the companion of religious decline.

A period of like declension, though not of so gross a character, had also begun to mark the spiritual life of America. In 1702 Dr Increase Mather published a volume bearing the melancholy title of The Glory Departing from New England in which he bewails the degeneracy of his day, and the general abandonment of the high standards of the Pilgrim Fathers. Other contemporary writers bore similar testimony. Nevertheless on both shores of the Atlantic God was again to visit His people. Simultaneously with the Evangelical Revival in Britain, associated mainly, though not exclusively, with the names of Wesley and Whitefield, a remarkable work broke out in America, linked, as the human instrument, with the labours of Jonathan Edwards. In this spiritual reaping-time George Whitefield also shared. It was the privilege of this favoured Evangelist to be used in lands other than his own. Thirteen times did he cross the Atlantic, with incalculable spiritual results; while for ever enshrined in the memory of evangelical Scotland will be the great days of Cambuslang when, in company with others, he preached the gospel far into the moonlight night, and saw men so physically broken down under conviction of sin as to be carried off by their fellows, as the wounded are borne from the field of battle. in Wales, too, he shared with Howell Harris in proclaiming the good news from “the steps of windmills, the walls of wells, the tables from the kitchens, the hillocks in the fields.” Great was the in-gathering of souls wherever the gospel trumpet was blown; Jonathan Edwards’ Narrative of Surprising Conversions being the classic memorial of the work in America during the two revival periods in that country, commencing in 1734; andl there, as everywhere, a vastly uplifted tone of national life followed in their train.

The Revival in Britain in 1859

Between the years 1856 and 1860 a wave of spiritual blessing swept both shores of the Atlantic. The first country to feel its impact was America. When D. L. Moody, then a young man of nineteen, had become an employee at Westwell’s boot and shoe store in Chicago, its effects were just beginning to be felt in that city. In the January of 1857 the future evangelist wrote to his mother, “There is a great revival of religion here. I go to meeting every night. Oh, how I do enjoy it! It seems as if God were here Himself.” The work of grace to which Moody was thus early introduced continued at floodtide in America for some two years, touching the greater part of that vast country.

When the revival reached Britain, as it did in 1859, it broke first upon the most westerly of its isles. The news of what was happening across the sea reached the Protestants of Ulster, and it stirred them up to seek a similar visitation. They heard of New England ministers who toiled for years with scant success suddenly finding their churches crowded and their houses besieged by anxious inquiries. They learned that business men were setting aside a part of every day for united prayer, and that in the City of New York alone twelve hundred of them were assembling daily for this purpose. A few North of Ireland people gathered for prayer in Kells, Antrim, and found that their prayers were being answered. Remarkable conversions began to take place. Other districts became affected; the tide began to rise and finally it swept over the greater part of the British isles.

The movement in Ulster was marked by all the genuine Revival features. The first was the large number of persons that came under its influence. Whole towns, such as Ballymena and Coleraine, experienced its power. The churches and chapels were utterly inadequate to hold the crowds that gathered. Thousands of persons assembled in the squares and parks for religious meetings. On one occasion twenty thousand people, all seen to be carrying Bibles and hymn-books, met in the Botanic Gardens, Belfast. Preaching to the men on the boats which went to and fro across the Irish Channel resulted in so many conversions that it was said that, “some of the scenes on the shores of Galilee were reproduced in the harbour of Kingstown.” C. H. Spurgeon in his Revival Sermon, preached in Exeter Hall in 1860, declared that in spite of the “ excessive roughness “ of the passage, he had never spent so happy a time as when he was crossing to Dublin and back. The ships were “floating churches of God.” The Rev. William Arthur wrote that the work of grace in Ireland was so widespread that the word “shower” was inadequate; he could only compare it to a “fall” of awakening influence; for on all hands men and women were seeking God. In the end it was computed that during the Revival there were many thousands of persons savingly converted.

Further, the Revival was marked by deep conviction of sin. This conviction of sin was not confined to those that were in the habit of attending places of worship. Men in all spheres of life, religious and irreligious, were smitten with soul-agony as by an epidemic. Groups of mill-hands would be affected while tending the machinery. In Coleraine the local paper delayed publication for a whole day, owing to the fact that the compositors had suddenly sunk under the power of the Holy Spirit, and instead of setting up type were seeking God in prayer. In the same place the new Town Hall was to have been opened with a ball; instead, it was filled with a crowd of penitents waiting to be shown the way of salvation.

The Revival reached Scotland, in 1860. It crossed the channel at its narrowest point, much as an epidemic might have done. It appeared first on the coast of Ayrshire, from which on a clear day Antrim can be seen; and from thence it spread through the lowlands. The country was already largely prepared for it. Many devoted servants of God, such as Andrew Bonar and his brother Horatius — the latter being the author of the “ hymns and spiritual songs” that have so enriched the worship of the church — who had witnessed the awakening of 1839 under W. C. Burns, had kept the expectant evangelical spirit alive during the intervening years; while a number of powerful evangelists, drawn from all ranks of society and from all sections of believers, had arisen to preach the gospel before the great showers began to fall. One of these was Duncan Matheson, stone-mason by trade and Presbyterian by persuasion, who was converted under Andrew Bonar in 1846, and soon after began those evangelistic labours in Huntly, under the aegis of the Duchess of Gordon, which were so greatly owned of God. Another was James Turner, a Methodist herring-curer, whose preaching, both prior to and during the Revival, had been marked by such spiritual power that it was said of him that he “swept the coast towns like a flame,” some eight thousand souls being converted under his ministry. He lived in close communion with God! and was favoured with striking answers to prayer. He once prayed that the fishermen of a certain fishing port might be prevented from going to sea on a particular night and so leave meetings in which the Holy Spirit was working; and the storm, which, contrary to all the usual signs of its approach was the answer to his petitions, was long after spoken of as “ James Turner’s Storm.” He died at the age of 45 in the year 1863.

But the most powerful voice calling men to repentance in those early days was that of Brownlow North. He had been preaching three years when the tide of blessing reached the Ayrshire coast. He was one of the most aristocratic, dignified and impressive personalities of his time. He was the grand-nephew of Lord North, the Prime Minister of George III, and had grown up in the expectancy of an earldom. He was a daring rider, a dead shot, and a famous figure in the world of pleasure seeking and reckless adventure, and his conversion came like a bombshell on society.

As the Revival progressed, Brownlow North became one of a trio sometimes called “the gentlemen-evangelists”. Hay Macdowal Grant, of Arndilly, was another member of it. He was attached to the Church of England, which held his allegiance to the end, but he had been converted in middle life, and from that moment devoted his days, which might have been spent in dignified ease, to the service of God. He was greatly blessed to individual conversion. He would spend hours tramping the heather visiting cottages and seeking souls; being found on one occasion lying in the road, having fallen through sheer exhaustion.

The third member of the trio was Reginald Radcliffe, a Christian solicitor remarkably used of God. Toward the close of 1858, in co-operation with Brownlow North. he entered upon his wonderful work in Aberdeen. Vast crowds began to gather. When one service closed another would begin, and the churches would be crammed. Conviction of sin, in a most powerful form. showed itself at the meetings. All sorts of people were reached. Women of the streets, ladies of high rank, boys at school, mill-hands, came alike under the power of the Gospel. The work was so manifestly of God that professors, ministers, students, and Christian men and women of noble families, were swung into the tide of it. Dundee, Greenock, Perth, Edinburgh — all received blessing as Radcliffe, now joined by Richard Weaver and other evangelists, preached in their churches and halls. So the work spread until nearly all Scotland felt the impact.

The circumstances of the Revival in England were not greatly different from those of the awakening in Scotland. For some time before the showers of blessing fell, the Spirit of God had been granting the mercy drops to His people. In the Preface to Volume V of the New Park Street Pulpit (1860) Spurgeon refers to the Revival in the following terms: “The times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord have at last dawned upon our land. Everywhere there are signs of aroused activity and increased earnestness. A spirit of prayer is visiting our churches and its paths are dropping fatness. The first breath of the rushing mighty wind is already discerned, while on rising evangelists the tongues of fire have evidently descended.” Among those to whom Spurgeon thus alluded were Robert Aitken and William Haslam, Anglican ministers; Richard Weaver, introduced into the work by Reginald Radcliffe, and Radicliffe himself. After the great work of the latter in Scotland he was invited by the Hon. and Rev. Baptist Noel to come to London for services; and thus began, with others, a series of meetings in various parts of the metropolis and in the provinces at which the same remarkable results were often witnessed. Frank H. White, Pastor of the Talbot Tabernacle, Kensington, London, wrote: —” One Lord’s Day afternoon I heard him address a large number of young business men in the Marlborough Rooms. He began by saying, ‘I will speak for five minutes, and then converse with any in soul-anxiety.’ He did speak, literally, for five minutes. .

When he finished the hall was a very Bochim, full of men with many tears seeking the way of salvation. I have been with him at the same place at early ‘before-breakfast’ meetings for young men, when the floor of the room would be literally covered with broken-hearted inquirers, and one had to step among them with holy carefulness, like a surgeon on the battlefield.” Mrs Radcliffe relates that when at Great George Street Chapel, Bristol, Reginald Radcliffe and Baptist Noel were the speakers, and the building was packed to suffocation, nearly half the congregation stayed for the inquirers’ meeting. “Many of these,” says Mrs Radcliffe, “were utterly inconsolable, the burden of unpardoned sin a palpable oppression. They made great efforts to restrain their feelings, but it was impossible; the floodgates of their anguish burst forth in groans and weeping.” Other records show that such scenes were multiplied all over the kingdom.

Meanwhile Wales was being visited. Much prayer had preceded the awakening; but its actual commencement was due to the visit of the Rev. H. R. Jones, a Wesleyan minister, to a church in Cardiganshire in 1858. Mr Jones had been in the United States, and been greatly stirred during the Revival in that country. He returned to Wales with a deep longing to see his own land blessed. His desire was granted. He was joined by the Rev. D. Morgan, a Calvinistic Methodist (now United Presbyterian) minister. and from that time the Welsh Revival movement of ‘58 began.

There were no external evangelists in this work of grace; Welsh ministers and lay-preachers were the instruments used of God. Some of the results may be judged from the heading of Chapter X in Henry Johnson’s Stories of Great Revivals: —”Rapid spread of the Revival — Ten thousand people in tears — Work amongst soldiers — Movement amongst students — Quarry men converted — Seafaring people awakened — Praying children — Conversion of notoriously wicked characters — a Mocker arrested.”

It may finally be remarked that the period covered by the reign of Queen Victoria was one in which, from the religious standpoint, Britain was greatly privileged. The young Queen ascended the throne in 1837; and during the following years religious revivals, movements for Christian unity, the inauguration of home and foreign missions, and the launching of numberless philanthropic crusades, indicated the moral earnestness of the frequently belittled Victorian era. All this was in addition to the normal activities of a vigorous Christian church.

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Three brief observations may perhaps be a fitting conclusion to the events above recorded.

The first is that while a true Revival of Religion is unquestionably a sovereign operation of God, such a visitation has invariably been preceded by prayer; sometimes offered by a small company of believers, sometimes by a larger assembly. While therefore the attitude of God’s people in seeking for a spiritual awakening should be marked by reverent submission to the Divine will, let them remember that the throne of grace is always open to them. None need ever hesitate to beseech God to “pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground.”

Secondly, seeing that it is God’s normal order in times of revival to work through the preaching of the gospel, it should carefully be observed that the only preaching which He has ever thus authenticated is that of the Evangelical faith. No proclamation which it not based upon the Scriptures as the veritable Word of God, or which makes light of the Deity of Christ, or the atoning character of His death, or which does not insist upon the necessity of regeneration through personal faith in the Saviour, has ever been acknowledged by Him as the instrument of salvation. To this fact preachers and teachers should give diligent heed.

Finally, it cannot be too powerfully borne in mind that a genuine Revival of Religion is the drawing near of God to man; and that in the Divine Presence SIN — whether it be that of the unbeliever or of the back-sliding Christian — is seen to be exceeding sinful; under the sense of which the soul cries out in the deepest distress. How imperitive is it, therefore, that those who desire Revival should examine themselves, and, if the need be, seek grace to cast out ought that cannot endure the light of God’s countenance. Then, having “ purged out the old leaven,” and sheltering beneath the cleansing blood of the Saviour, let them wait upon God, uniting with fellow-believers in the ancient prayer: —