I have just returned from an excellent conference organised by Westminster Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Newcastle, England on the thrilling subject of revival. We were reminded of some of the many great works of God in the past, not just in one or two corners of the world but in many and diverse places, frequently throughout history. (If you'd like to hear some of the conference addresses you can find them here). In keeping with this theme, here is an account I wrote on the 150th anniversary of the 1859 revival in the town where I was ministering at the time - Coleraine, on the north coast of Ireland...
On Tuesday 7 June, 1859, the town of Coleraine was visited by a supernatural phenomenon. It didn’t involve UFOs or little green men or monsters from outer space. It was something far more amazing that affected many thousands of the people who lived in our town at that time. It was something that happened in many other places in Ulster that same year, a supernatural event that has occurred at many times and places in the world. But on 7 June 1859, it happened in Coleraine.
It started on what used to be called the ‘Fair Hill,’ behind First Presbyterian Church. 6,000 people met for an open-air meeting to hear reports from different speakers of how they had been suddenly and dramatically converted by God in meetings that had been taking place throughout Ulster in recent days.
One speaker reported his experience just the night before in the neighbouring town of Portrush. As he listened to a preacher, he said he felt ‘an indescribable spirit of awe’ and was overwhelmed by a sense of the holiness of God and his own unfitness to meet him. Later that night he tried to ignore the feeling and go to sleep, but in the end he had to go out to his barn and cry to God for mercy. Other speakers testified to similar experiences. As they spoke, many people in the large crowd started to cry out in distress. Mass hysteria? That’s what one of the ministers in charge was worried about, Rev. Canning of New Row Presbyterian. So he decided to calm things down by reading a short speech from a script as unemotionally as possible.
The Chronicle [a local newspaper] reported not just the meeting itself, but what happened next: ‘The ministers were… untiring in their attendance on the people, and… were kept out of bed all night that they might answer the calls of distracted friends, for assistance to dear ones in trouble. [There were] not fewer than 150 cases of decided conviction. There is not a street or lane in the whole town but can number three or four of those who have been enlightened.’
The Chronicle knew what it was talking about—three of its staff had been among those deeply affected by the meeting of that Tuesday night and when they came to work the next day, the time was spent praying with the rest of the staff and talking about what God had done for them. As a result the Chronicle was late going to press that week. And it wasn’t just in the newspaper offices that this kind of thing was happening. The Chronicle reported, ‘Trade, except in Bibles and Testaments, if not suspended, has been partially paralysed—those who conducted it having for the present given it up or became incapable of transacting it… Our readers will excuse us when they know the cause of delay, should they not receive the Chronicle at the usual time… when they read of the glorious things the Lord had been doing for our town and neighbourhood.’
On Wednesday evening (8 June) another huge crowd gathered in the market place to hear preaching. While they were praying for the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit, a flash of light lit up the sky for a few seconds, bringing the whole crowd to its knees. Once again many people were physically collapsing under the strain of their guilty consciences and longing for forgiveness. A Methodist minister, coming down the town about midnight, worn out from telling so many people how to become Christians, found one of his Presbyterian colleagues busy at the same task with a group of people in the middle of the street.
On Thursday evening, after another large open-air meeting, the ministers of the town decided that they needed a venue to take people who were brought under conviction of sin—somewhere quieter and more private where they could receive the prayer and spiritual help from the Bible they needed. The place they settled on was the brand-new Town Hall in the Diamond. Building work had just recently been completed, and a grand Ball was planned for its opening. Instead it was first used as a kind of ‘spiritual A&E ward.’ Some hundred people ‘agonised in mind through conviction of sin and entirely prostrate in body’ were carried into the Town Hall for counselling until the early hours of the morning. The Chronicle wrote, ‘Instead of the joyous dance and stirring music of the ballroom, the walls of the hall gave back the almost despairing groans of the stricken sinner, the heart-felt prayer of a believing penitent, or resounded with the adoring thanks of a redeemed saint…’ The hall was opened, said the Chronicle, ‘by one of the most glorious celebrations that could possibly be imagined.’
On Friday (10 June) took place what the Chronicle called ‘the most remarkable instance of the Divine power that has yet marked this spiritual and practical religious revival.’ It happened at the Irish Society school. One of the schoolboys was so deeply affected by the Holy Spirit at work in his conscience that he couldn’t do his work. So his teacher sent him home to pray, along with an older boy who had become a Christian the day before. On their way home they passed an empty house, which they decided to use for prayer. They stayed there until the younger boy had found peace with God. But then he wanted to go back to school to tell his teacher what had happened. When he got back to class he said, “Oh sir, I am so happy I have the Lord Jesus in my heart.” He was so earnest that the rest of the class was deeply moved. One boy after another left the classroom to go out to the playground to kneel in prayer and ask God for forgiveness and mercy. A contemporary describes what happened, ‘Their silent grief soon broke into a bitter cry. As this reached the ears of the boys in the room, it seemed to pierce their hearts as… they cast themselves upon their knees and began to cry for mercy. The girls’ school was above, and the cry no sooner penetrated to their room, than… they, too, fell upon their knees and wept. Strange disorder for schoolmaster and mistress to have to control! The united cry reached the adjoining streets, and soon every spot on the premises was filled with sinners seeking God.’ Ministers came and spent the day in the school. The last person didn’t leave until 11 p.m. that evening.
For weeks afterwards open-air meetings took place every night, attended by thousands. The Town Hall was kept open all night, until 5 a.m., and even then people were reluctant to leave. A daily prayer meeting was begun in the Town Hall, which met every morning at 9.30, during the workers’ breakfast time. Normally about 1000 people came along each day—one fifth of the population of the town at that time! They came to give thanks to God for his miraculous work in the town and to pray for more blessing. One visitor described it as ‘an assembly of all ranks and ages, including an ex-M.P., strangers from a distance, and many of the labouring classes and the very poor of the town, who had been brought to Christ.’
There were many changes in Coleraine at that time because of this mighty work of God. Drunkenness, which had been a serious problem in the town, almost disappeared overnight. The Saturday of this remarkable week was a market day—usually a day blighted by much drunkenness. But this week there wasn’t a single incident. The Chronicle mentioned one pub which, until 3 p.m. that day, hadn’t sold a single glass of whiskey—unheard of on a market day in Coleraine! In fact, the most successful publican in the town had to close down because of the fall in demand for alcohol.
The revival led to a drop in crime in the area. ‘The Superior Officer of Police, who had work experience in most of the counties of Ireland, claimed he had never seen such a quiet town. There had been, in his view, a “complete reformation” in the habits of many people. The Head Constable, with eighteen years experience in Coleraine, said the Petty Sessions held on 17 June 1859 was the first he had ever attended where nobody was prosecuted for both riot and drunkenness.’
The 1859 revival in Coleraine was a spectacular, powerful, supernatural work of the Spirit of God. A contemporary, the Presbyterian minister John Weir, wrote in 1860 that in Coleraine, ‘the spiritual power of the Revival seems to have been manifested, in a degree, perhaps, surpassing any other place, at least up to that time.’ It wasn’t limited to any one class or personality or age. Old and young, rich and poor, religious and pagan were all alike brought to see that they needed to be rescued from the judgment of God upon them for their rebellion against him. In their hundreds they cried to God for mercy, and, as he promises, God heard their cries and saved them. ‘For whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.’ It was surely the most amazing and significant thing that has ever happened in our town. Certainly that was the Chronicle’s opinion, ‘Nothing at all approaching it in absorbing interest has ever before visited our country.’
That was many years ago however. By 1865 the Fair Hill, where it all began, had become a rubbish tip. Several years later the crime rates in Coleraine were extraordinarily high. Many thousands of men and women and children were transformed forever by the 1859 revival, but the history of the following years is proof that every generation, every human being, needs to be born again by God’s Holy Spirit. We cannot live in the past.
The ugly, evil things that have happened in our town in the last few months are a stark reminder to us that our town still needs today, more than anything else, this powerful, life-transforming work of God. Nothing else can change the human heart. Relatively few of us, by the mercy of God, are bigoted murderers or rapists or thieves, but all of us have turned our backs on God and gone our own way. All of us have sinned and fall short of God’s glory. All of us deserve his judgment for our rebellion against him.
And the good news of the Christian message is that there is mercy and forgiveness and salvation available for anyone who asks God for it. God’s power to save was shown in a dramatic way in 1859, but he still saves people today. We may or may not live to see a repeat of 1859 in our town, but you can experience that same release from guilt and judgment for yourself. For the God who turned our town around all those years ago is the same today as he was then. He can change you today every bit as profoundly and lastingly as he did so many who lived in our streets then.