The Ulster Revival of 1859

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Over 150 years ago, a revival of incredible proportions shook the country of Ireland, especially the North of Ireland.  You can read about the revival as detailed in the Elmer Town’s book, Ten Greatest Revivals Ever, below.  Please pray with me that God would send revival again, as we seek Him and obey Him.

In September 1857, the same month Jeremiah Lanphier began the Fulton Street Prayer Meeting in New York City, James McQuilkin, a young Irishman, began a prayer meeting in the village schoolhouse near Kells with three other men. The four young men were concerned for the unsaved in their community and began interceding for them by name at their weekly meeting. By December, the group rejoiced to see the first conversions among those on their prayer list. Many Irish church historians view that prayer meeting as the beginning of the Ulster Revival.

Ulster is the northernmost province in Ireland. While McQuilkin and his friends gathered for prayer, other Christians throughout Ireland were doing the same. Throughout 1858, hundreds of prayer meetings were started and many Irish preachers were speaking about revival in their sermons.

Early in 1859, the Spirit of God began to move in remarkable ways. Sometimes these manifestations of God’s convicting power took place in churches, but not always. In the midst of a crowded market in the town of Ballymena, for example, a young man suddenly fell on his knees and cried out to God, “Unclean!” He began praying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”

The incident in Ballymena quickly became known throughout the town. In response, James McQuilkin and his friends invited Christians to a special prayer meeting at the Ahoghill Presbyterian Church. The crowd that gathered on the evening of March 14 was larger than any had expected. Because those responsible for the maintenance of the building were concerned that the large crowd might put too much stress on the galleries, they cleared the building as a precaution. The crowd thus had to stand outside in a chilling rain as a layman preached with unusual spiritual power. By the end of the meeting, hundreds were kneeling in the rain in repentance, calling on God in prayer. The meeting was the first of many conducted throughout Ireland in the revival that followed.

According to some estimates, the revival that swept through Ireland in 1859 brought 100,000 converts into the churches. In both large and small meetings, people came under great conviction of sin. Often even physically strong people fell prostrate on the ground, unable to move for several hours. There was deep repentance and lasting change in lives, demonstrating the reality of the revival.

One distinctive feature of the Ulster Revival was the spiritual movement among children and teenagers. It was not uncommon for teenage boys to conduct street meetings among their peers. In these meetings, according to some reports, children would often “swoon, fall down, tremble, shake, and weep.” Adults critical of the movement called it “juvenile sickness,” but the children responded, “This is not taking ill. It is the soul taking Christ.” At one such meeting, an Irish clergyman counted forty children and eighty parents listening to the preaching of twelve-year-old boys.

The phenomena that sometimes accompanied conviction in the Ulster Revival weren’t nearly as dramatic as the social change growing out of the meetings. According to civic records, crime was greatly reduced in 1860, and judges in Ulster found themselves on several occasions with no cases to try. In County Antrim, it was reported that the police had no crimes to investigate and no prisoners in custody. The Maze horse race typically drew 12,000 gamblers, but their numbers dwindled to 500. A Belfast whiskey distillery was listed for auction because of the decline in business. In Connor, the landlords of the local inns were converted and closed their pubs.

In short, according to some estimations, the Ulster Revival “made a greater impact on Ireland than anything known since Patrick brought Christianity there.” One observer described the effect of the revival in terms of “thronged services, unprecedented numbers of communicants, abundant prayer meetings, increased family prayers, unmatched Scripture reading, prosperous Sunday schools, converts remaining steadfast, increased giving, vice abated, and crime reduced.”

News of the Ulster Revival had a stirring effect in other parts of the British Isles. Similar revivals broke out in England, Scotland, and Wales. In Wales alone, an estimated 10 percent of the total population was won to Christ during the revival. Similar results were reported in many other communities as the revival swept through England and Scotland. As had been the case in Ireland, lives changed by the revival resulted in a significant decline in crime in many communities.

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