The Hebrides Awakening of 1949

Church attendance was in decline after World War II. Not a church in the Hebrides Islands off the coast of Scotland could boast of having a single young person attending Sunday services. Instead, the youth of Scotland flocked to “the dance, the picture-show and the drinking-houses.” Although the region had experienced many revivals in its past, the postwar years weren’t encouraging for those committed to the progress of their faith.

Peggy Smith, an eighty-four-year-old blind prayer warrior, and her sister Christine, ailing with severe arthritis that left her in pain most of the time, were the human instruments responsible for revival. The two sisters were no longer able to attend services in the Parish of Barvis, but their humble cottage just outside of town had become a sanctuary of prayer for revival. As the two sisters prayed together, blind Peggy had a vision of the churches crowded with youth, and sent for her minister.

The Reverend James Murray MacKay visited the two shut-ins and listened intently to the account of the vision. His own wife had had a similar dream only a few weeks earlier. Neither the pastor nor his wife had told anyone of the dream, but Peggy’s vision confirmed it. The pastor knew what he had to do next.  Reverend MacKay called his leaders to prayer. For three months, they prayed two nights each week among bales of straw in a local barn. They asked God to send revival.

After several months, a young deacon rose in the meeting one evening and began reading from the Scripture: “Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart” (Ps. 24:3-4). He paused, closed his Bible, and began to speak.

“It seems to me so much humbug,” he said, “to be waiting and to be praying, when we ourselves are not rightly related to God.” Then, lifting his hands toward heaven, he prayed, “O God, are my hands clean? Is my heart pure?” The words had barely come out of his mouth when he went to his knees and fell into a trance. Some observers mark that night as the beginning of the New Hebrides Awakening.

Even so, Pastor MacKay knew he needed help. He considered inviting Duncan Campbell, an experienced Scottish revivalist, to preach in his parish. Then MacKay received word that Peggy Smith wanted to see him again. God had told her in prayer, she informed him, to have Pastor MacKay invite Duncan Campbell to preach. “God is sending revival to our parish,” she insisted, “and he has chosen Mr. Campbell as his instrument.”

So MacKay invited Campbell for ten days of meetings. This evangelist, who had been raised in the Highlands of Scotland and spoke fluent Gaelic, had a burden for the Gaelic-speaking people of the Highlands and the islands. Yet, even though he was willing to minister in Lewis, he had other commitments. Campbell thus declined the invitation but agreed to come a year later if the invitation were still open.

MacKay wasn’t sure what to think when he received Campbell’s response. He believed that God was about to send revival to the area, and wanted Campbell to be a part of it, but as a Calvinist he also believed strongly that God would work his work on his own schedule, quite apart from the involvement of Campbell or anyone else. The difficult task that now faced him was communicating the bad news to Peggy. “That’s what man says,” Peggy replied when the pastor told her Campbell’s response. “God has said otherwise! Write him again! He will be here within a fortnight!”

Unaware of these events in the town of Lewis, Campbell was beginning to wonder whether he’d done the right thing in turning down the invitation to preach. He felt strongly impressed by God to accept the invitation he’d rejected, but the decision had already been made. About the time Peggy Smith and her sister began praying for revival, God began preparing Duncan Campbell for the revival. At home he was preparing a sermon in his study when a granddaughter asked him, “Why doesn’t God do the things today that you talk about in your sermons?”

The child’s question brought deep conviction on Campbell. He shut the study door and fell on his face before God, praying, “Lord, if you’ll do it again, I’ll go anywhere to have revival.” A little time later he sat in the front row getting ready to preach at the famed Keswick Bible Conference. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, a place Campbell had always dreamed of preaching.

Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit told him to leave immediately and go to the New Hebrides Islands to accept the invitation he had previously turned down. Turning to the moderator, Campbell excused himself, saying, “Something has come up; I must leave immediately.” He left the building and went to catch the next boat to New Hebrides.

As Campbell stepped off the boat, he didn’t look well. Crossing from the mainland to the island on a choppy winter sea had left him sick. The church elders who met him wondered whether he’d be able to preach that night. Yet preach he did, drawing from the parable of the ten virgins (see Matt. 25:1-13), challenging Christians concerning their responsibility toward those who were “asleep in sin.” “There’s fire here,” thought one of the elders. So instead of going home that evening, he walked across the moor to pray by a peat-bank.

The next night, according to one report, “a solemn hush came over the church as Campbell preached.” After the benediction, the people left. As Campbell stepped out of the pulpit to leave as well, a young deacon raised his hand, moving it in a circle. “Mr. Campbell,” he began, “God is hovering over us. He is going to break through. I can hear already the rumbling of heaven’s chariot-wheels.”

At that moment, the door opened and the clerk of the session (the church elders) beckoned to Campbell, calling, “Come and see what’s happening!” When he went outside, he discovered that the entire congregation had remained outside the church. Others had joined them as well, drawn from their homes to the church by some irresistible force they couldn’t explain. The faces of more than 600 people in the churchyard were marked by deep distress.

Suddenly, a cry from within the church pierced the silence. One young man, agonizing in prayer, had felt such intense anguish that he fell into a trance and lay prostrate on the floor. The crowd streamed back into the church, filling the building beyond its capacity. A witness later recalled: “The awful presence of God brought a wave of conviction of sin that caused even mature Christians to feel their sinfulness, bringing groans of distress and prayers of repentance from the unconverted. Strong men were bowed down under the weight of sin, and cries for mercy were mingled with shouts of joy from others who had passed into life. A mother was standing with her arms around her son, tears of joy streaming down her face, thanking God for his salvation.”

“Oh, praise the Lord!” she cried out. “You’ve come at last.” Peggy and Christine Smith, though still at home, also shared in the revival that night. “We had a consciousness of God that created a confidence in our souls which refused to accept defeat,” Peggy explained the next day. She told how she and her sister “struggled through the hours of the night, refusing to quit praying.” They reasoned: “Had God promised and would he not fulfill?” So far as the Smith sisters were concerned, the New Hebrides Awakening was a “covenant engagement,” God’s faithful keeping of a promise.

The revival spread quickly to neighboring districts, “traveling faster than the speed of gossip,” according to one observer. Campbell received a message one night that a nearby church was crowded at one o’clock in the morning and wanted him to come. He arrived to find a full church and crowds of people outside. Two hours later, a group of more than 300 people were still praying in a nearby field. Unable to get into the church, they had begun their own prayer meeting.

In the village of Arnol, people were generally indifferent and opposed to the revival. Nevertheless, a prayer meeting was organized there. Shortly before midnight one night, one of the men present stood to pray. As he prayed, the room in which they met shook as “wave after wave of divine power swept through the house, and in a matter of minutes following this heaven-sent visitation, men and women were on their faces in distress of soul.”

The New Hebrides Awakening had a significant impact on life throughout the island. In one village, “the power of God swept through the town and there was hardly a house in that village that didn’t have someone saved in it that night.” On Sundays, the rural roads of these remote islands were crowded with people walking to church. Drinking houses, which were common before the revival, remained closed for a generation following it.

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