2009 marks the 150 anniversary of what is commonly described as the '1859 revival.'
As is so often the case however, mere words are wholly inadequate to recall what was probably the most powerful, tangible and long-lasting move of God’s Spirit in Irish history.
Without exaggeration, the ‘1859 revival’ changed society in Ireland and arguably across the world in a way that no Government could ever to do.
Remarkably, it began in Connor amongst Presbyterians but was by no means restricted to one denomination with other churches most certainly playing their part.
Throughout the mid-1850s, Kells and Connor were godless villages. History recalls frequent street brawls, incidences of wild drunken behaviour and little respect for the things of God amongst people there.
Only a change of cataclysmic proportions could alter this bleak scenario and God duly obliged.
November 1856 saw the arrival of a lady from Gateshead in England called Mrs. Colville. A member of the Baptist Missionary Society her God-given mission and wholehearted desire was to see men, women and children saved and won for Christ. That incredible calling brought her to County Antrim, where she travelled for miles and spread the gospel without seeing much fruit for her labour, at least in the initial stages.
One day, the Lord took her to an abode in Mill Street, Ballymena where two ladies were deep in spiritual conversation with a man called James McQuilkin from Connor. That conversation affected McQuilkin deeply and he was later compelled to go to Mrs. Colville to discuss things further.
Though his conscience was stirred and his heart heavy with sin, human pride meant that it was several weeks before he trusted Jesus as his Saviour and found peace.
Soon afterwards, a gathering took place in the national school at Kells. The function of this was to talk about repairs to the building in which they sat. However, at the close of the meeting, Jeremiah Meneely, the schoolmaster and Robert Carlisle set off for home. As they walked, Carlisle remarked on how McQuilkin has changed, sins for which he was notorious seemed to have been cast aside. The three walkers dismissed McQuilkin’s transformation as a passing phase but admitted that they would love to know the joy of sins forgiven.
A brief time later, Jeremiah Meneely went to find his acquaintance McQuilkin and after a lengthy conversation, the former became certain of his deep transformation.
Meneely was eager to get right with God himself and as he sat at his home in Fernisky, he read John 6 v 37: ‘All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away’
God spoke to Jeremiah through that verse and he surrendered everything to the Lord.
John Wallace and Robert Carlisle came to Christ soon afterwards and encouraged by Rev. J.H. Moore of Connor Presbyterian Church, these four men met every Friday evening in the national schoolhouse throughout the winter of 1857 and into 1858 for prayer and Bible study.
In front of a tiny peat-fuelled fire they lit a flame and would blaze through Ulster and save 100,000 souls.
Their theology was simple but sound; it emphasized the key message of Christ crucified along with, the Sovereignty of the Holy Spirit, the sufficiency of Holy Scripture and the secret of Holy Supplication.
1 January 1858 witnessed the first conversion to occur as a direct result of the prayer meeting. It was the first of many to happen there and by the close of that year, somewhere in the region of 50 men came to the meeting.
By the arrival of the first shoots of spring in 1859 one prayer meeting had become 16 within the Connor Parish alone. In a remarkable answer to those simple prayers the Spirit of God swept through Kellswater, Ahoghill, Dramaul, Portglenone, Ballymena, Broughshane, Ballyclare and eventually, the whole of Ulster.
The once sceptical Jeremiah Meneely became a great preacher who took the gospel across Ireland and Great Britain. The Lord took him to his heavenly reward on 24 March 1917 and his remains are interred close to the Schoolhouse in Kells.
The revival’s incredible impact caused Sunday Services to be overcrowded with people. Powerful preaching and heart-felt praise usurped formal ‘religion.’
Connor Presbyterian Church, with a seating capacity of 1000 people could not accommodate the 900 families who became connected to it. The result was that, following a deputation to Ballymena Presbytery in February 1873, it was decided in August of that year that a new congregation would be planted in the neighbouring village of Kells. The fledging fellowship called their first Minister, Rev. Thomas Eaton, on 24 March 1874.
That body of God’s people is still flourishing and have decided, in partnership with their friends from Connor Presbyterian, St. Saviour’s Church of Ireland and Kellswater Reformed Presbyterian, to organise a series of event to celebrate and build on that great revival.
The first of these is a series of ‘Rewind’ events led by Rev. Joe Thompson, which will focus of ‘The History of the 1859’ Revival.’
Divided into three sessions, the first one will take place on Sunday, 25 January 2009 in Connor Presbyterian Church. (Start time: 6.30pm)
Subsequent meetings on this subject will be held on Sunday, 1 March in St. Saviour’s Church of Ireland, Connor and Sunday, 9 April in Kells Presbyterian Church, again at 6.30pm.
Everyone is welcome to attend any of these events. Further details will be published in future editions of the Ballymena Times.