Trembling, shaking and falling were some of the characteristics of the 1859 Ulster Revival - but the most dramatic effect was of social change
The Church in Northern Ireland in the 1850's was in a state of general slumber. One minister complained that he could not even persuade his own church to meet together for prayer. Yet in 1857 news crossed the Atlantic of revival in the churches in America. The consequences of this were far-reaching.
Four young men covenanted together to pray to God for revival. At first little seemed to happen, but as prayer continued, a new awareness of God came over the people. Ministers who previously had little to do, now found themselves flooded with enquirers. Conversions began to happen and there was a freshness and urgency in prayer. One pastor reported, "There is a network of prayer meetings over the whole district. Never has there been such a time of secret and public prayer, or such a burning earnestness for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and for the conversion of souls."
Early in 1859 remarkable things began to happen. A young man fell on his knees in the middle of a crowded market in Ballymena, crying, "Unclean! God be merciful to me, a sinner!"
In Coleraine, so many people turned up to a prayer meeting that the building was in danger of collapsing. So the crowd met outside, and the Holy Spirit moved on them so strongly that hundreds fell in the mud, many of them crying aloud for God to have mercy upon them and their land.
From these beginnings, God's river began to flow through Northern Ireland. People of all ages and classes earnestly sought salvation and the power of the Holy Spirit. It was not uncommon at this time to see three or four prayer meetings in progress at the same time in the same street, the rooms so full that some people had to crowd round the windows outside. Conviction of sin spread far and wide. One pastor recorded, "I have seen anything from one to a dozen persons struck rigid by the Spirit of God. Strong men have staggered and fallen down under the wounds of their conscience."
In many places, other business was neglected whilst people looked to their souls. Everyday conversation centred around Jesus Christ. One visitor records that some families had not been to bed for two nights, such was the excitement in the air. One delighted minister wrote, "Humble, grateful, loving, joyous converts are multiplied. The Spirit has descended in power."
One particular feature of this revival was the work of God among children and teenagers. They proved very open to the new work of the Holy Spirit among them. Some held meetings of their own, with boys of 14 preaching the gospel to attentive crowds of their friends.
Often in these meetings, children would swoon, fall down, tremble, shake and weep. Some adults were inclined to dismiss this as juvenile "sickness", yet one young boy responded to this accusation by saying, "Don't call this taking ill - it is the soul taking Christ!"
The fruits of revival were considerable. Not surprisingly, the quality of life in Ulster was radically changed. In Coleraine, a magistrate declared that he only had one case brought before him in three months.
The Maze horse race, which normally attracted up to 12,000 gamblers, now drew only 500. A large Belfast whiskey distillery was put up for auction through lack of trade. In Connor, the landlords of the local inns were converted and closed their bars. Most of all, an estimated 100,000 souls (a significant percentage of the population of Ulster) were swept into the churches by this wave of God's power.
Useful Sources: Great Revivals by Colin Whittaker, pub: Marshalls, 1984.
The '59 Revival in Ireland, Revival Publishing Company, Belfast.