1859 – an amazing year. A year of revival. A time when the Spirit of God moved in a mighty way and many were converted. For a time the face of Ulster church life was deeply affected. The impact on the wider society was also profound, with crime rates, for example, dropping significantly. The best means of social reform was clearly a widespread turning to living Christian faith. For an exhilarating time the preaching of the gospel was heard and accepted by large numbers. Congregations grew by the addition of new members and, just as importantly, existing members who had actually been unsaved were soundly converted. Those must have been heady days to live through.
It was, as we might expect, not all plain sailing. There were those who opposed the revival, in whole or in part. For some it was a matter of opposition to the kind of religion that spoke of grace, sin, salvation and conversion: they simply could not stomach it, and various means were found to explain it away in purely material or psychological terms. Crowded factory conditions were blamed, for example, despite the many conversions that took place in the open air. But if the very idea of conversion is rejected, any other explanation becomes acceptable.
Others objected to elements of the revival, without dismissing it entirely. For some the common scene of uneducated people, even women, preaching and leading meetings was too much. For others, and this was not an uncommon reaction, the strange phenomena accompanying many of the revival meetings were problematical. Shouting, weeping, groaning might be acceptable under the pressure of emotion, but the sometimes dramatic bodily prostrations caused anxiety and raised questions in the minds of many observers. Could such physical manifestations be the work of God? Could such disorder be the result of the Holy Spirit’s ministry?
From the safe distance of one hundred and fifty years it is easy to assume that we would have been among the hearty supporters of the revival. We can readily see how much good was done during those days. We can find explanations for the phenomena that make a degree of sense of them. And yet some of the objections voiced are not all that different from the kind of criticisms heard in our own circles regarding various contemporary religious movements. We may we be warranted in our criticisms, yet would we have been sufficiently discerning in 1859 to accept what was good and reject what was dubious without writing off the entire movement?
We often hear Christians say that what we need is revival. Are we prepared for what revival might actually mean? If 1859 is any guide, the demands that would be placed upon church leaders and church members would be extreme. There were daily prayer meetings in some places, many gatherings for preaching and the sharing of testimonies. For some ‘normal’ life must almost have come to a stop. As always when there is a work of God, the devil too will be active, and if anything the ferocity of spiritual warfare will increase. 1859 was not only a year of revival – it was also the year of the first publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, a book which enabled Richard Dawkins to describe himself as an ‘intellectually fulfilled atheist’.
Revival, wonderful as it might be in many respects, would not be the final and complete answer to the spiritual state of the world. The effects of the 1859 revival did fade in time. The Lord may work in revival if he so chooses – he is, after all, utterly sovereign. His usual way of working, however, is the slow spread of the gospel through the witness of his people and the preaching of those he has called to the task. Not as spectacular as revival, but that is the work most of us have been assigned.