HOW REVIVAL CAME TO CLYDESIDE IN 1859
The story has already been told of the mighty movement of God’s Spirit which, first manifesting self in Canada and the United States of America, engulfed the protestant counties of Northern Ireland in the “year of grace” 1859. We are now to tell something of the manner in which the flame leaped from Ireland to Scotland beginning a ministry of salvation which was to extend to every part of Great Britain, as well as to a number of European countries.
An evangelist names Brownlow North held meetings in Rothesay during the year 1858, and in July 1859 he returned to tell of his experiences in Ireland in the early part of the revival there. There were more than a hundred enquiries at the close of this meeting. On the North bank of the Clyde, at Helensburgh, persons with a heart burden for revival started a united prayer meeting, and attendances at this meeting mounted rapidly finally exceeding the thousand mark. Across the water, in the little shipbuilding town of Port Glasgow, a godly Free Church minister struggled in prayer for revival, and exhorted his congregation to do the same. Across in Ireland, in the town of Coleraine, where the revival had broken out on the 7th June, the union prayer meeting was requested to make special prayer for the needs of the town of Port Glasgow; and shortly after this, a Coleraine man, who had two sons living in Port Glasgow, felt constrained to make the journey to Scotland in order to seek to win them for Christ.
FIRST REVIVAL CONVERTS.
Arriving in Port Glasgow, the gentleman from Coleraine lost no time in telling his sons of the great things which God had been doing in his home town, and in urging them to flee from the wrath to come. He obtained permission from one of his sons to hold a kitchen meeting on the morning of Sunday, 24th July to which interested neighbours were invited. The meeting which was quite well attended, concluded without incident, and the Irish gentleman left the house. But soon after his departure, a girl in the house was suddenly taken ill. Those about her thought at first that she had some bodily ailment, but soon discovered differently, as she began to cry out to God for mercy. The Coleraine gentleman was recalled, and it was not long before she found peace and had begun to rejoice in Jesus Christ as her Saviours. The Irish gentleman’s son then began to realise the significance of theses happenings, and he cried out, “oh father, what must I do” “Why what is wrong?” he was asked. “Oh, I am such a sinner!” came the reply. As the sense of sin deepened, the young man was bent down to the ground as if by an intolerable burden, and he continued to cry for mercy until peace came to his heart. Another meeting was held after this, and during the prayer a young man staggered and fell full length on the floor. For a while he continued in dreadful agony of soul; but three or four hours later he was to be seen with his hands clasped, and tears in his eyes, saying to those around him, “Oh, if you knew the precious Saviour I have found, you would come to him too!”
PORT GLASGOW’S PROVOST lends a hand.
But the gentleman from Coleraine was not the only visitor to arrive in Port Glasgow that week. Provost William Birkmyre, the owner of the Gourock Ropework Company, a Christian business man of the highest calibre, had been following the development of the revival in Ireland with deep interest; and his concern for his employees’ spiritual welfare, quickened and directed by the Spirit of God, led him to consider a bold move!
The revival in Ireland was being spread from place to place through the witness of the revival converts; then why should not he bring one of the converts across to Port Glasgow, to bring the Spirit of Revival to his workers? The fact that most of them were Irish immigrants made the plan seem all the more reasonable. Now who, of all the Irish converts, would be a more fitting messenger than James McQuilken, the first convert of the Irish revival, and leader of the prayer band which, humanly speaking, had been the instrument by which the revival had broken out in Connor six months previously? And so the invitation was sent and accepted; and on July 19th, James McQuilken arrived in Port Glasgow.
It does not appear that he was able to stay in Port Glasgow more than a few days. But during that time he was, according to a contemporary reported, “the means of greatly stirring the minds of the population upon the subject of religion by his account of the revival in Ireland, and by his hortatory addresses, so that “during the week ended 30th July, between forty and fifty persons in Port Glasgow became know to the ministers and missionaries as having been brought under deep conviction of sin, and in some of these cases there is no room to doubt that a real saving change has been effected”. It was during this week that the Greenock Telegraph first took notice of the revival. “Great sensation has been created in Port Glasgow” it told it’s readers, “by various parties residing in the different parts of the town holding exciting nocturnal, meetings, and exhibiting symptoms of a so-called religious revival. The proceedings have, it is understood, originated in the visit of one of the converts from Ireland, brought at the instance of the Provost of Port Glasgow, William Birkmyre, for the purpose of converting the work people in his employment at the Gourock Ropework Company, all or nearly all being Irish people.” The editor, who was clearly not in sympathy with such goings-on, went on to quote the opinion of “a certain medical gentleman” that such exhibitions of “Hysteria and excitement” would undoubtedly end in madness, if continued much longer.
On Friday, July 29th, a large meeting was held in Provost Birkmyre’s Ropework store in the sail loft, at which the preacher was the Rev. James Fraser of Gourock, moderato of the Greenock Free Church Presbytery. On Thursday, 4th August, at a similar meeting in the sail loft;. We are told that “there were a great many cases, and during the singing numbers were carried out in great distress of mind. The people were much agitated, and some even ran out of the meeting in fear. On the next evening, Friday 5th August, the meeting in the Gourock Ropework sail loft was attended by more than 2,000 people,” according to the reckoning of Rev. Mr. Paterson of Dunoon, who was present. L Mr. Paterson had been in Ireland, and he arrived in Port Glasgow on the morning of that day. He was met by the gentleman from Coleraine, who took him from house to house where persons labouring under conviction were known to be. As he found another, and another crying to God for mercy, Mr. Paterson says, “I just thought I was in Sandy Row in Belfast”. Concerning the meeting at night, Mr. Paterson says “that the Gourock Ropework Company sail loft was crammed with people. One cried out” he reports “then another, and some of the cries were as piercing as anything I had ever heard in Ireland. And several of those thus brought under deep conviction were characters who were notorious in Port Glasgow. After the meeting had been desired to separate, a great many remained behind, most anxious to hear the Word of God.” Mr. Paterson emerges from the hall to find a large crowd gathered outside, and when he asked if they wished to hear more, they said they did. So he spoke to them of Christ and the way of salvation until 10 o’clock, and even then they were unwilling to go away. But the meeting had to be dismissed so that the work of dealing with persons in distress of souls could begin; and this work continued until an advanced hour of the night.
The meetings in the Gourock Ropework store continued nightly until 11th August, after which the business requirements occasioned the return of the sail loft to it’s normal use. But Provost Birkmyre immediately put in hand a project for furnishing as a meeting house a large store room beside the dry Dock, and the meetings were being held there nightly until the beginning of October. A report dated 4th October said. “these meetings attract a class that would not so readily go to a church, and there has been no lack of ministers and others to give suitable addresses. Souls were saved these meetings from the opening night.”
THE MAN WHO PREVAILED IN PRAYER
It seems plain that much of the credit, humanly speaking, for the outbreak of revival in Port Glasgow must go to Rev, John Kelman, minister of the Hamilton Free Church. He it was who, with a heart full of hopes and longings, quickened by the reports from America and Ireland, laid hold of God in intercessory prayer, and urged the people of his church to do the same. In a letter he wrote during the first week of August, Mr. Kelman made these significant statements: “We have been visited here with the blessed times of refreshing. We had long been praying much for the gracious manifestation of God’s presence and power among us; and when the intelligence of the revival in Ireland reached us, this gave new impulse to our faith and prayer. God, I have reason to believe, was working among us in some measure before , but at the beginning of the last week He began to manifest gloriously His mighty power to save, convincing, convicting, and filling with peace and joy in believing; and the whole week was a week of wondrous power. The work is not confined to any one denomination. Persons connected with all four Presbyterian bodies in the town have shared the blessing, as well as some who belong to the Episcopal Church, and some of the Church of Rome, and many who were living in neglect of ordinances altogether.”
On Saturday 13th August, Mr. Kelman was present at a prayer meeting in Glasgow. He was asked to say something of the work going on in Port Glasgow and this is part of what he had to say “We have had a blessed time in Port Glasgow. Last week looks to us almost like a dream. For five nights of the week I was called into the town at ten, eleven, twelve p.m. and one o’clock and spent hours of the night going from house to house among those whom God’s blessed Spirit had smitten deeply under a sense of sin; and on some occasions, not only have ministers, but all the elders, and everyone who had it in his heart to speak for Christ had full occupation. Probably not fewer than 40 persons have undergone a saving change since the movement began in Port Glasgow. There were few cases of bodily prostration this week, but a general feeling of solemnity pervades the community. The present movement has been brought about by prayer, the prayers of God’s people, in their closets and families, and in such prayer meetings as this. I have seen strong men lying prostrate on the ground in an agony of conviction; and next morning, if one wished to draw a picture of joy, he could not have found a better subjects than the faces of those same men to whom Christ had given joy, Last week we were concerned to find that few men were known to have been brought under conviction. This was made a matter of special prayer, and that very night God brought strong men under a sense of sin.”
TWO REMARKABLE INSTANCES OF CONVICTION
A correspondent of the Dundee Post, in a letter to that paper published on 17th September, 1859, wrote as follows: “Passing the door of the Police Office in Port Glasgow on Tuesday, in the company with the town missionary, we heard fearful; shrieks from a Roman Catholic woman who had been cleaning there. A few moments before, it appears she had scoffingly remarked to a painter who was working beside her that “Willie M. had so come out of his trance and given his aunt a sound thrashing”. When we saw her, a little after that, she was in the most fearful state of excitement and soul agony, calling out that she was the greatest sinner on earth tossing about her limbs, and shrieking in the most unearthly way, till she fell exhausted in a state of stupor.”
The story is told of Thomas O’Neil, the town sweep a man well know in Port Glasgow. He was down on the quay, and was just knocking the ashes our of his pipe, when he felt a great burden on his heart, and was constrained to go home. There he threw himself upon his bed, and cried to God for mercy. An eye witness says “There he lay upon his bed, with hands clasped in an agony of supplication, and face turned upwards. He cried mightily ‘Jesus , Jesus, have mercy upon me, have mercy upon, me! Take, oh take away this hard and stony heart! O Jesus, come down upon me now ! O Jesus, I was mocking, I was mocking yesterday! O God, take away this hard heart! O Jesus have mercy upon me!’ and so he continued for a great while. Next morning, when asked how he was, he replied, ‘Better; but I have not got Jesus enough yet.’ A Christian worker said to him ‘You were in great distress last night?’ ‘Oh, yes, I was’ he answered, ‘I saw myself hanging by a thread over a bottomless pit.’ ‘Why did you not call to the Virgin in your distress?’ ‘Oh no’ he replied, shaking his head. ‘Jesus was the best yonder!’ A week later he testified that he would not exchange Christ for ten thousand worlds. He began to attend the services in one of the Presbyterian churches, and the nightly meetings in the Gourock Ropework store.
THE REVIVAL SPREADS TO GREENOCK
The first symptoms of revival in the neighbouring town of Greenock were evident in a meeting held on Sunday August 7th. From this time on, daily prayer meetings were held, and public services at which distinguished clergymen connected with the revival movement were speakers. The following Saturday, the local papers held reports of “a crowded meeting the previous evening in the Well Park Free Church, when the Rev. S.J. Moore of Ballymena, Rev. Mr. Canning of Coleraine, and Dr. Denham of Londonderry officiated”. In this way the revival movement in Greenock was endowed from it’s inception with an air of dignity. Here there was no wildfire enthusiasm stirred by illiterate fanatics; but a movement support by ministers known both for their scholarship and godliness of character. A second public meeting was held during the following week, at which converts from Ireland gave their testimony. After this nightly meetings were held alternately in the Free Middle Church and the Gaelic Church, and it was a common sight to see the people waiting in the street for the church doors to be opened. After every meeting, anxious enquirers remained behind to seek God’s pardon and peace.
One of the men most notably used in the Greenock revival was Capt. Brotchie, the missionary of the Seamen’s Chapel. At the end of January 1860, he gave this account of the revival as it affected his own ministry. “In the month of August 1859 we saw a particular desire among the people to hear the Word of Life. So we opened the chapel each night for prayer. Since then, I myself have conversed with about 200 persons in an anxious state. I think I can safely say that a thousand people in Greenock have been brought to a saving knowledge of the truth, and these are chiefly among the working people. Young men and others are engaged in holding prayer meetings in the working men’s homes in the lowest streets of the town.”
In May of that year 1860 Rev. Mr. Douglass of Inverkip stated at a Free Church Synod meeting “In regard to Greenock, I believe there is one of the most striking works of grace going forward in that town of . which we have any example in Scotland. There is a very widespread and deep work going on;, not among one class, but in every class of the community. One town missionary a very humble and zealous Christian, has on his roll the name of nearly 900 individuals who have waited on him for conversation in regard to their spiritual interests.”
OBJECTIONS TO THE REVIVAL
Objections to the revival were almost entirely connected with the physical manifestations – the prostration of the suddenly convicted – the visions which some converts claimed to have seen. But the reasonableness of these in consideration of the circumstances in which they occurred, was ably defended by the revival leaders. Rev. John Kelman at the height of the revival in Port Glasgow, wrote these words “If we remember the effect that worldly losses and bereavements, for example often have through the mind upon the body, and if we remember the solemnity and results in people’s lives, we should not be surprised, and we should rejoice.”