This week saw the launch of another bout of drama on the world of Southern Baptist twitter. This time it was centered on a letter written by Paige Patterson in 2012 that called the doctrinal stance of minority pastors into question, with no apparent grounds for the concern except that they were members of minority groups. Now this was almost certainly part of a dialogue and there may be more clarification in sources beyond this letter, but it is hard to see how that clarification could really improve the situation. It is worth noting that this post will not be specifically about that letter or the current discussion surrounding it, but rather on a larger issue that I believe informs this situation as well as many others that have been coming to the front in recent years. However, for the sake of clarity and information, here is the letter in question, and I would like to point out the part of it that I think is most telling for the topic I would like to address.
There is a lot to be said regarding racism in the church, and much of it is being said by people much closer to the topic than I am. As much as I would love to contribute something of value to that conversation, I think right now my time would be better spent looking at a picture that I'm not hearing about as these rounds of drama come and go. To do that, allow me to highlight one sentence from that letter.
"Under Fred's leadership it would be possible for us to slide a long way back toward where we once were, and that would be devastating."
"Where we once were" is a reference to the Inerrancy Controversy, which I believe is the ghost haunting every major controversy today.
A full history of what I will be calling the Controversy or the Inerrancy Controversy, known by the two major sides of it as the Conservative Resurgence or the Fundamentalist Takeover, is beyond the scope of this post. However, to make my point, I must give a brief overview of it and highlight the most relevant facts.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a number of Christian denominations had to wrestle with the role of scripture in the revelation of truth. The primary camps this usually fell into were those who held that the Bible was fully true in both its concepts and facts (called inerrancy), and those that held it was only fully true in its concepts. The former, for instance, would hold that Jonah literally spent time in the belly of a whale or great fish, while the latter would hold that the lesson taught by Jonah's story was important but the details were probably fictional. The SBC's turn to wrestle with these issues began with commentaries and books published as early as 1961, but kicked into a real fight in 1979. Guided by men including Paige Patterson, Adrian Rogers, and Paul Pressler, the churches which held to inerrancy (which was the vast majority of them) sent messengers to the SBC annual meetings and elected Convention Presidents and entity trustees who also held to inerrancy, thereby slowly shifting the seminaries and ministries of the SBC in a conservative direction. The matter was considered functionally resolved with the publishing of the updated Baptist Faith and Message in 2000. Most of those who opposed inerrancy left the denomination.
During the controversy, nearly everything had to be called into question. People seeking to keep their jobs while opposing the shift were very careful about their wording to suggest that they believed in the truth of scripture while avoiding making any solid statements on the details of scripture. Those who considered themselves liberal or moderate described the conservatives as lusting after power and causing unnecessary division in the denomination just to claim control. Some churches that seem to have actually agreed with the inerrantists ended up opposing them out of a belief that the resurgence or takeover was about a political agenda rather than a doctrinal difference. Those who took the side of the conservatives, which ended up winning the day, were those who saw past careful wording or caricatures to look for the doctrinal root of everything that was being said and done. An entire generation started as children, went to Bible college and/or seminary, and then took posts at Baptist churches and colleges during the controversy. That generation, and the one that was leading the controversy, spent over two decades training to see the world along very specific doctrinal lines and to look for the opposition that wore the masks of allies. This was necessary, the whole fight was necessary in my opinion, because ultimately the cause of inerrancy warranted a defense and this was the defense that needed to arise at that time.
The problem comes when you take combat strategies into a time of peace.
My central claim is this: too many of those who spent so long in the thick of the Controversy have never really left it. This is to be expected, to a degree. For an entire generation, the most formative years of their lives were spent preparing for or engaging in a specific fight that had known rules. This is likely true in some degree or another in every denomination that has had some form of this fight. The cultural generational divide would say that some of those involved in the SBC's Controversy were Baby Boomers and some were Generation X (maybe even some Millennials who, like me, would have spent our youths in this and been graduating high school around the time it ended), especially those within the Southern Baptist Convention or connected to its battles; for my purposes I will refer to this group collectively as the Controversy Generation, regardless of which denomination's controversy they were actually raised in. The theology, practice, ethics, and political agenda of the Controversy Generation are defined by the fight over inerrancy. The impact of these events resonates through every aspect of their lives.
So what does that have to do with the letter, or my earlier post about the Founders Ministry dispute? The short answer is that a generation who views the world in terms of finding hidden enemies will always see enemies hiding among their friends.
The Controversy taught that generation that any difference in belief or practice is a signpost indicating a deeper attack on scripture. Those who raise questions about how the SBC handles things are trying to undermine the work of the Controversy Generation in reestablishing the authority of scripture. Those who come from a different perspective and therefore see a different application for the truths of scripture are substituting secular ideologies for the gospel. Every doctrinal or practical difference that can be associated with a different treatment of scripture must be viewed as an attack on inerrancy.
And this is what Patterson was expressing in his letter. Whether conscious or not, the fear was that minority pastors, who have a tendency to view the SBC and the Bible in light of a different set of life experiences than white pastors, are in fact interpreting the Bible as subject to those experiences. That the interpretation of scripture does not begin with the claim that the Bible is factually true and the ultimate source of truth, but rather that the truth claims of scripture can and should be measured against a different standard. This is the same complaint of Founders Ministries, and the same fear that pushes against reform in the treatment of abuse victims, and the same understanding that led John MacArthur to misrepresent the actions voted on by the SBC over this past summer, and the same standard that demanded Kanye West to display a certain level of doctrinal maturity before his conversion can be seen as valid. It is present in churches, ministries, schools, conferences, and online spaces. And the thought process can be shown by example.
Liberation Theology is a school of thought largely held in black churches and present among other minorities that sees a certain relationship between the slavery to sin and the slavery of their ancestors (and/or ongoing issues and oppression they face), and therefore read the liberation from sin and its effects as a particularly notable promise in their lives. While individual views may vary, the core idea of the theology is that freedom in Christ is an important aspect of the gospel that has specific and unique application in their lives. Patterson's letter does not cite the existence of this framework as part of his concern, it is merely being used as an example. Detractors of liberation theology, however, view the emphasis on freedom from sin as a replacement for penal substitutionary atonement (the belief that the primary purpose of the death of Christ is to take on the weight of our sin on our behalf) and, as such, a false gospel. And, of course, a false gospel must come from a different read of scripture; and a different read of scripture, to the Controversy Generation, is probably a sign that inerrancy is being denied. Therefore, by this logic, allowing liberation theology to have a place in the SBC is a challenge to inerrancy and a reversal of the Controversy's achievements. That some opponents also believe the claims of ongoing oppression are false is relevant when it comes up, but on a doctrinal level this is the actual issue.
But this mindset, while a very good tool during the fight for inerrancy, causes more problems than it solves when it is applied to differences that do not come from the issue of inerrancy. Black people who hold to liberation theology, by and large, are not wrestling with what the gospel actually is or how the Bible defines it; they are wrestling with what that gospel looks like as it interacts with their lives and communities. Disputes about the nature of the manifested Kingdom of God do not generally arise from a dismissal of the authority of scripture, but from different attempts to piece together the authoritative clues that scripture contains. Allowing for the use of secular tools designed to help victims of abuse is rarely an attempt to reject the Spirit speaking through scripture as the primary means of healing, but an attempt to understand what specific needs a victim may have and therefore what parts of scripture or aspects of the gospel will best speak to those needs, and how to apply them in a healthy manner. But when these issues are handled with the mindset instilled in the Controversy Generation, the natural response is to oppose good things being handled by righteous servants of God out of fear that anything different is an attack in disguise. This pushes people away who are actually allies, causes continued pain in people who come to the church seeking healing and find only rejection, and damages our witness to those watching how we shoot at each other over every minor dispute.
Brothers, this cannot stand. I have said before that I support the work carried out by inerrantists during the Controversy, and I stand by that; I also believe it is necessary to see the impact the Controversy has had on the people who fought in it, and the ways their scars can cause unnecessary division now. We have had to fight for inerrancy before, and it is possible we shall have to again; but the question right now is what a church that holds to inerrancy will look like in a hurting world coming to grips with a host of problems that are being brought into the light. If we will not fight the battles that really exist because we are too focused on those fought decades ago, we will face a much greater loss than the roughly 1,900 churches who left during the Controversy. It is time to lay these weapons down, pick up the scriptures we fought so hard for, and begin exploring what it looks like to live them out today.
When I was a child in an evangelical church, there was a growing sense that the church in America was failing to cross cultural borders in the way the early church did. There was recognition that the first-century church included Jews and Greeks, slaves and freemen, people from all walks of life and ethnic backgrounds coming together as equals in the shadow of the cross; and that the evangelical churches at the time could not claim that same unity. This was seen as an important issue, a failure of the church to properly practice and display the love of God to the world regardless of race, background, or culture. One of the things that began to happen in light of this understanding was a push for more diversity in our churches. Racial reconciliation was seen as a necessary part of the church pointing the way forward to a more powerful and effective image of the body of Christ.
To this end, I have watched for a couple decades as white churches have made strides toward integration. These were mostly had through visible invitation to community; singing the occasional worship song in Spanish or Afrikaans to show unity with Christians abroad, making a point of inviting people from other ethnic backgrounds to become members, having major denominations make apologies for former racist practices and beliefs and expressing interest in moving forward together. Some of it was just different styles of church that non-whites were interested in trying out. It seemed to be working. Formerly all-white churches across the country had more ethnic diversity in their seats, and that was that.
Then, a few years ago, it fell apart.
Ever since the case of Rodney King, conversation about the level of violence used by police in dealing with black people has occasionally broken into mainstream conversation in white America, but never really stuck and rarely became anything more than idle conversation. But tensions were rising and black people were having greater access to each others' stories and the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement finally forced the issue into the spotlight and kept it there. And I have talked to and read the words of so many people of color who watched what the evangelical churches that were trying so hard to welcome them did in response to that. And, by and large, white evangelicals dismissed the concerns, argued in defense of the police in case after case, and then voted for a presidential candidate who was being widely criticized by every race but Europeans partly (largely or entirely, in some cases) due to his statements on women and minorities.
So they left. Because what had become apparent was that they were never anything more than guests. What so many white evangelical churches had done was welcome people in who didn't look like them, but then kind of expected those people to start looking like them. White churches continued to have white leadership that talked about the desire for reconciliation but did not ask what it was that had kept people away to begin with. There were no changes to the culture of those churches, no involvement of new ideas about practical issues secondary to the gospel. Sermons would look at abortion debates and rail on and on about the value of life and the need to protect it at all costs and then turn away any discussion on black youth laying dead in the street because they felt racial discussion was divisive; or worse, they would condemn the dead and pray for protection of the shooter from the trials they faced for killing someone. I've known some who have left the faith, or at least the church, entirely; but many simply walked away from a place they came to understand they never really belonged anyway and went looking for the places that had always looked like them.
The highlighted segments in the trailer show, as "godless ideologies", speakers (some of whom are pastors themselves) calling for pastors to listen to the concerns of their black friends and congregants, to reach out to professionals for help in cases of sexual abuse or other areas they are not specifically trained to handle alone, and to take responsibility for making the changes necessary to facilitate varying forms of reconciliation. It also includes egalitarianism, which has been an issue in some circles but will not be discussed in this post. This has been met with a great deal of backlash, including some of the acceptable leaders shown in the video asking for their involvement to be removed because they feel they were misled about the nature and content of the documentary. One of the responses stated that he was asked to speak about Biblical authority and felt it inappropriate that his words were being used to attack leaders who were well within orthodoxy.
There are two things about which everyone involved, even the leaders being presented as attacking the church, seem to agree on. One is that the existing attempts at racial integration have not worked and probably can never work; the debate is about why it didn't work and what to do about it. The second is that there is nothing that should be allowed to take the place of the gospel at the heart of the church; the difference is whether or not other things have any place in the church.
You see, when someone comes along and says that we need to seek input from the people who feel hurt by the church, to find out how the church hurt them and if it can do anything to fix that, they are not necessarily saying that the church should then use that input as the fundamental basis for their activities. They can, of course, there are cases of that happening; but most often what is actually being suggested is that we learn how to apply the gospel in a way that more accurately shows the love of Christ and our unity in Him to the people around us. It is not a compromise of the gospel to ask how different people are hearing the gospel and what we can do to help them better understand it in their own lives.
It is true that we should not allow anything into our churches that contradicts the Bible. I would argue it is just as true that we should not allow ourselves to reject things that work alongside the Bible simply because they weren't born in the church. Social justice is not evil; it can become an idol, but so can everything else. I daresay our idea of a perfect church can be just as much of an idol. The desire to preserve the culture of the church, a culture that so often looks far more American than Christian, is not less of an incursion than allowing work to be done about real issues people in the community are facing.
And this is why racial integration didn't work. It's also why so many victims of abuse have left. It wasn't because the black people or the assault victims in the congregation demanded too much, it was because none of their requests or desires were considered important enough to try. We had decided that the culture of the church needed to look how we had designed it and then called any concern or idea that came from outside the white male experience as being a distraction. And any distraction was labeled an attempt to subvert the good work of the church, a "godless ideology." The white church was white to the core and made the mistake of thinking that anything black came from outside the church and had to be guarded against. We sought to bring them in so we could see they were there but never gave them the means to make it their home as well. The abused cried out for us to help them, to show the compassion of Christ on them and condemn the work of their abusers for their violence, and we told them they mattered and were important but refused to behave in any way that would show this to be true.
And now that they're leaving, we're bickering over whether or not it would be Christian of us to set our ideal experience aside and allow the changes that would make us look like the first century church we were trying to emulate in the first place. We told them their presence mattered but never allowed them to feel as though they mattered as people, let alone as siblings in Christ, as equal participants in a church that can cross cultural divides. We opened windows in our cultural walls and then cried foul when people on the other side pointed out that the wall was still there. We silenced people who had something uncomfortable to say and then condemned them for feeling invisible and unwanted around us.
It is true that we must not let the gospel, or the Bible that delivers that gospel, to be dethroned from the core of who we are. It is also true that in our treatment of people who have come to us asking for action regarding pain in their lives, we have been wrong. And we have people now standing up and calling us to repentance for our arrogance and dismissal of people who we invited in and then hurt. And if we will not at least be humble enough to ask if we were anything less than perfect, to even briefly consider the possibility that we are failing to live out the call God has placed on us, then we cannot expect God to have much patience with us.
A Survey of Causes and Consequences, with Particular Focus on the Role of Baptists Throughout
Note: The following is adapted from a paper originally written for my Baptist History and Distinctives class in May, 2018. The assignment was to explore an event from Baptist history, and out of curiosity, I decided to see if there was any in Ireland. This paper ended up being pretty important to me, as the process of researching it played a role in my wife and I feeling called to work in Ireland. That story will come in another post.
On an island housing nearly 6.6 million souls, the Association of Baptist Churches in Ireland can only claim 117 churches with “over 8,500 members and represent a Baptist community of over 20,000”. At barely 3% of the total population, Baptists can be overlooked in Irish life. Baptists have never held a position of great influence on the affairs of Ireland; baptist growth on the island has been incredibly stop-and-go, historically struggling against the established Roman Catholic Church in the south, the Presbyterian churches in the north, and the Brethren movement everywhere. In modern days, the rise of secularism has been both a hindrance and a blessing, as the non-religious mindset has become another hurdle to Baptist work but strides made in the face of it have been profound.
If Irish Baptists are readily ignored in Ireland, they are even more so for those outside of the island. Few books of Baptist history discuss Ireland, and those that do generally give it very little space. In its treatment of Greater Britain, H. C. Vedder’s Short History of the Baptists gives one paragraph to Ireland and two to Alexander Carson, a prominent leader in Irish Baptist life. In summarizing the paragraph on Ireland, Vedder simply states that “comment is almost needless. Baptist churches have ever found Ireland an uncongenial soil”. This is hardly surprising, given the nature of their arrival to the island.
In fact, the two most influential events in Irish Baptist history are arguably the conquest by Oliver Cromwell’s army and the Ulster Revival of 1859, and Baptists themselves, while reasonably associated with both, played very little public role in either. The concern of this post will be the latter, but it cannot be fully divorced from the former. The context of the Ulster Revival can be traced through three sources: the general tone of Baptist life in Ireland as established by Baptist arrival and initial struggles, the Prayer Meeting Revival in America of 1857-1858, and the immediate environment in which the Ulster Revival occurred. With this understanding in place, consideration can be given to the revival itself and its results, which are still felt today.
Early Irish Baptists
presented as a religious crusade by claiming that the Catholic population there had driven Protestants out of St Peter’s cathedral to hold Mass; Catholic priests in particular were targeted by the soldiers . Ultimately, 3,000 are estimated to have died at Cromwell’s hand in Drogheda. Later massacres and general disregard for the Irish set a dark view of the man and his army by the native Irish.
Owen did not remain in Ireland, but “when [he] returned from Ireland, pleading for missionaries to be sent to the island, Patient was chosen by Parliament as one of six ministers to be sent to Dublin” . Thomas Patient had already served under William Kiffen in London and signed the London Confession of 1644. Patient helped form the Irish Baptist church in Waterford, one of very few from that period still operating today, before being given the preaching position at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin. While there, “he was responsible for erecting the first Baptist Meeting House in Ireland, in Swift’s Alley, Dublin” . This is the church Vedder refers to as beginning in 1653.
The Baptists in Ireland had been strongly associated with Cromwell’s army, and Baptist churches on the island were still largely composed of soldiers and their families. When Charles II restored the throne in 1660, much of that army returned to England, leaving their churches largely empty. The remaining Baptists were caught in a vice between the crown and the Irish, both hating them for affiliation with Cromwell. In fact, “the Baptist cause is described as having ‘lingered rather than lived’” through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries .
A Revival of Prayer
In America, however, conditions were positive for Baptists and the general population right up until 1857. The first half of the nineteenth century in the United States was “characterized by tremendous economic growth and prosperity in the United States. There was a population boom and many people were becoming wealthy. The focus of many was on this world and as a result there was a deep decline in spiritual life” . Those who grew wealthy began to leave the city centers, and many churches that had historically catered to the moving elite left the city with them. Those that remained took a keen interest in evangelism of the poor, especially in the wake of economic crash in 1857.
To that end, North Dutch Reformed Church in New York City “employed a 48-year old businessman, Jeremiah Lanphier, as missionary to the inner city” . Lanphier tried an assortment of outreach activities with limited success. He prayed regularly, asking God for some direction he should take to see the gospel take root among the people in the city. The direction that came to him was a weekly prayer meeting, one hour in length, in which people from the city could come or go as needed and pray, worship, and tell of the work God was doing. On September 23, 1857, “our missionary sat out the first half of the first noonday prayer-meeting alone, or rather he prayed, through the first half hour alone” . He was then joined by five men, including a Presbyterian, a Baptist, and a Congregationalist .
A week later, twenty attended the prayer meeting, and attendance was nearing forty when the third meeting came together on October 7. With excitement building, it was decided that the meetings would occur every day, beginning immediately. As the building began to fill, other nearby churches and open spaces opened their doors for the growing prayer meeting movement. As of February 1858, “not less than one hundred and fifty meetings for prayer in this city and Brooklyn were held daily,” and that same month saw the first related prayer meetings begin in Philadelphia .
Almost immediately after, other meetings sprang up in cities as far abroad as Boston, New Orleans, St. Louis, and Chicago. Accounts began to arise about boats travelling to New York being swept up in the activity before making land. In Samuel Prime’s 1859 account of the prayer meetings, an entire chapter is devoted to the work done through Mariner’s Church in Manhattan to minister to sailors that carried word of their conversion overseas, and “ from there it spread to Canada, the British Isles, Scandinavia, parts of modern Germany, Geneva and other parts of Europe, as well as settler communities in Australia, southern Africa and India” .
An Island in Crisis
When word arrived of God’s work through these prayer meetings, Ireland was eager for good news. The century had begun in a promising manner for Protestants, with Baptist churches, for instance, “founded at the rate of almost one per year” . Baptists had turned their image around in Ireland thanks largely to their schools, which provided a solid education for both Baptists and non-Baptists. On considering the changing mindset of Ireland, Andrew Fuller wrote on behalf of the Irish Baptist Society that “the universal thirst for the acquisition of knowledge, are unquestionably in a great degree owing to the efforts of this and kindred societies, especially in the educational department, during the last thirty years” . This work was greatly reduced, and eventually rendered nearly obsolete, after Ireland introduced public schools in 1831. New troubles, and opportunities for outreach, arose through famine.
The Baptists in Ireland fared little better, if at all, than the Catholic majority during the potato blight that struck in 1842. The population was devastated, to the point that
The combined effect of disease and emigration was a sudden and catastrophic fall in population: in 1841 it had stood at 8,175,000 and the natural increase might have been expected to raise it to about 8,500,000 by 1851; in fact, the census of that year showed a population of 6,552,000. And the famine not only halted the process of growth, but completely reversed it: the decline continued steadily, and by the beginning of the twentieth century the population of Ireland was only about half of what it had been on the eve of the famine .
Baptist churches, which were still few, were estimated to have lost “more than 3,000 both through death and emigration. As a result quite a number of churches disappeared in the south and west of Ireland” .
The Baptist churches of Ireland worked hard to provide for the needs of their neighbors, but between their own suffering and the loss of large numbers of adherents, they were quickly falling into a deficit. As the blight ended, more troubles struck Ireland, these coming in the form of higher taxes owed to Britain. William Ewart Gladstone, then chancellor of the exchequer in England, explained a new fiscal policy for Ireland in 1853 that included a higher spirit duty and an income tax that was expected to be temporary and only affect the wealthy. Instead, “the net result was that Irish taxation rose by some £2,000,000 a year, at a time when the only hope for the national economy was the investment of more private capital” . Everyone in Ireland suffered to some degree under the plan.
Meanwhile, Ulster was in a war over the political influence of religion. The Roman Catholic Church was dealing with an internal struggle over the concept of ultramontanism, a strong system of belief in the power of the Catholic hierarchy. Ultimately, the ultramontanists would win that battle with acceptance of the doctrine of papal infallibility in 1870. The ultramontanist movement was gaining strength in Catholic Ireland and the Presbyterians, fearful of losing political power to the Roman pontiff, “were appalled by government concessions to popery and in 1854 the General Assembly formed a Committee on Popery to monitor the progress of Catholicism in public life and arrange lectures on anti-Catholic themes” .
The Presbyterians themselves were recovering from an internal battle, where
An Evangelical party had been making progress since the turn of the century in the largest Presbyterian grouping, the Synod of Ulster, and, during the second half of the 1820s, Henry Cooke had led this group in a campaign to expel a number of Arian ministers from the Synod. As a consequence of Cooke’s eventual triumph in 1829, Presbyterianism underwent a comprehensive process of religious reform that sharpened denominational identity and self-confidence, creating an Evangelical ascendancy within the denomination for the rest of the century .
This identity heavily incorporated Millennial hopes which saw the Papal See as the Antichrist which must be crushed before the glorious reign of Christ, and looked backward to the Six Mile River Revival of 1625-1630. They tied this revival and the rise of Presbyterianism to the newly-forming nationalistic identity of the Ulster-Scots, and eagerly sought to witness another movement like it that would stand against the growing power of the Catholic Church.
The new movement the Presbyterians hoped for would be sober and respectable. It would produce great fruit with little fuss. What they saw happening in America in 1858 sounded like an answer to their very specific prayer; however, “revivals seldom conform to the sober desires of religious professionals. The revival of 1859 was no different and unleashed forces that challenged the status quo and caused considerable unease and controversy” .
The Ulster Revival of 1859
In 1856, a woman named Mrs. Colville was sent by the English Baptist Missionary Society to spread the gospel in Ulster, especially Antrim. In that capacity, she encountered a young man named James McQuilkin, who she was able to lead to Christ. This event was “followed a few months later by three of his friends, Robert Carlisle, John Wallace and Jeremiah Meneely,” and the four of them found themselves ultimately under the care of the Reverend J. H. Moore . Moore presided over the church in Connor, “a large Presbyterian congregation of over 1000 families” . The following year, Moore took the four young men aside and urged them “to ‘do something more for God.’ He said: ‘could you not gather six of your careless neighbors, either parents of children, to your house or some convenient place on the Sabbath and spend an hour with them, reading and searching the Word of God?’ From this came the Sabbath School at Tannybrake (near Connor) and then a prayer meeting in an old schoolhouse near Kells” .
Conversions began to occur at Tannybrake and Kells, and one soul saved was a man named Samuel Campbell. Campbell returned home to Ahoghill, where he led his mother and siblings to the Lord. The last of his family to follow Campbell to faith was his brother, who in March 1859 was so stricken with the weight of his sin that he nearly collapsed upon hearing the gospel, and spent many days in dire spirits until he finally came to Christ. This would be considered the first of many manifestations that would accompany the revival that was beginning.
As conversions were starting to draw attention in Connor and Ahoghill, word reached Ireland of the work happening in America. Inspired by the Prayer Meeting Revival, R. H. Carson, son of Alexander Carson and pastor of Tobermore Baptist church, decided on “the formation of a prayer meeting on a Friday evening and this proved to be a fruitful meeting, as a fortnight after its commencement, there were conversions. From March 1859 to March 1860, ninety-two souls were added to the church” . This merged with the revival sparked in Connor as, by this time, “the Heavenly Fire was leaping in all directions through Antrim, Down, Derry, Tyrone, and indeed throughout all Ulster. From Ahoghill the revival spread until, in May 1859, it began to manifest itself in Ballymena” .
The Presbyterians had also heard of the Prayer Meeting Revival, and had “dispatched William Gibson and William McClure as a delegation to North America. Gibson published in March 1859 a report of his personal experiences in the previous autumn as an introduction to an account of the revival in Philadelphia” . The Presbyterians were encouraged by the report and sought not only to participate, but to lead the way in promoting the revival. Their efforts would ultimately cause the Revival to be remembered as a largely Presbyterian affair, despite the fact that there was some amount of Protestant cooperation throughout it. One account will suffice to show the ecumenical nature of the Revival:
Present at the revival services in [Ballymoney], without prior arrangement, were the Church of Ireland rector, Rev Harry Ffolliott, and his curate, Rev George V Chichester, and the Presbyterian minister, Rev Jonathan Simpson. Already they were having united prayer meetings in Portrush. An open air meeting was held on 6 July on Ramore Head with some 2000 present. There were short addresses by the local ministers and “converts” from Ballymoney. That evening, it is believed, some thirty folk found the Saviour. Simpson records that at another open air meeting “an Episcopalian clergyman, a Presbyterian minister, a Congregationalist and a Baptist took part” .
Meanwhile, in Belfast, Academy Street Baptist Church welcomed the news of God’s work in Canada as delivered by Rev. R. M. Henry. Henry had previously been a Reformed Presbyterian minister, but had by then become a Baptist. He encouraged the Reformed Protestant minister in Cullybackey, Rev. J. G. McVicar, to also become a Baptist during the Revival. McVicar would go on to form the Baptist church of Ballymena, which prospered in the Revival. In summarizing the Revival itself, supporters
...claimed an estimated 100,000 converts and discerned the positive effects in increased family worship, church attendance,numbers of communicants, prayer meetings, Bible distribution, Sunday schools, open-air preaching and denominational unity, as well as the decline of immoral behaviour such as gambling, intemperance, prostitution and Sabbath desecration .
The hallmark of the Revival, according to the Presbyterians who championed it, was the sobriety and sensibility of it. The Revival was touted as being the work of God, with the people taking no liberties in relying on emotion to see converts. This view of the Revival was crucial not only to suit the existing Presbyterian hopes for an orderly revival, but to verify the event as legitimate. It was argued “that one of the reasons the revival was genuine was because it ‘[had] sprung up amongst a people staid and sober to a proverb – very different in temperament from the impulsive Celts of the South and West – a people, in fact, not strongly emotional, and peculiarly exempt from superstitious and fanatical feeling’” . Aside from the problems that arise from making such distinctions among the people living in Ireland, especially when it seems to view the Irish themselves as lesser individuals, it was also likely an inaccurate description of the revival itself.
Opponents to the Revival saw a vastly different story unfolding. Their concern largely focused on stories about manifestations that “occurred in a variety of geographical locations and took different forms including stigmata, ‘convulsions, cries, uncontrollable weeping or trembling, temporary blindness or deafness, trances, dreams and visions’, though prostrations were the most common” . These are generally considered to have been relatively rare occurrences that were exaggerated by the press, but they were undeniably a factor in the Ulster Revival despite having no presence in America or the initial waves in Connor. This concern was raised during a June 1859 meeting, in which “the Presbytery of Belfast was positive towards the revival but wary of the manifestations. Professor J. G. Murphy expressed his disapproval and stated his preference for ‘the silent workings of the spirit of God, as likely to be more lasting’. Gibson likewise stated that he ‘had no sympathy with those extravagances’ and recommended a cautious approach” .
William McIlwaine, in studying the event and Presbyterian history, came to the conclusion that the manifestations and chaotic nature of some conversions held more in common with the Six Mile River Revival than previous Presbyterians had claimed. He and Isaac Nelson were also concerned about American revivalism in general, and wrote extensively on the subject in Ulster papers. Their major point of concern was that “the revivalist religion of the American Churches led to moral prevarication that permitted slaveholders to remain church members” . They held that, if revival was not sufficient to make the church address and mourn its nation’s most glaring sin, then it was not changing hearts. Ultimately, however, McIlwaine and Nelson remained in the minority, and the effects of the Revival went on without them.
Consequences of the Revival
Smaller Protestant denominations fared better in the wake of the Revival than Presbyterians did. According to Ulster census records in the decade following 1859, “the number of persons in the ‘Other’ category, which included Baptists, Independents and Brethren assemblies, rose from 20,443 in 1861 to 35,098 a decade later, while the number of Presbyterian declined by more than 26,000” . By the end of the century, Ireland boasted “thirty-one Baptist churches, with two thousand six hundred and ninety-six members” . This was despite a drop which occurred when both Henry and McVicar left the Baptist denomination to join the Brethren movement in 1863, taking a large number of congregants with them from their own churches and others.
The Revival also had very little impact on the state of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. While some accounts mentioned Catholics converting during the Revival, “it is clear that the revival made little impact upon the Catholic population in Ulster, none at all in southern Ireland and there was little or no effort made by the Protestant Churches to evangelise Catholics” . The Presbyterian church did not gain the political power over the Catholic church that it had been seeking, but did solidify its position as part of an Ulster-Scots identity. That identity would go on to fuel unionist rhetoric when the rest of Ireland sought independence from England, and heavily influenced the politics of the new Northern Ireland when the island was eventually split in two.
The wave of revival did not stop in Ulster. Scotland and Wales saw revivals in that same period, and
In 1860 special prayer meetings were organized in London and, under the leadership of the famous Lord Shaftesbury, a series of Theatre Services were held. At a number of other centres in the metropolis, and throughout the country, popular evangelistic services took place. The supporters of the Evangelical Alliance were to the fore in these efforts, but the movement had the support of other circles as well. Most Baptists co-operated wholeheartedly .
The full impact had not died down on either Ireland or Great Britain before D. L. Moody arrived, and this period is “generally accepted as the second phase of the 1859 Revival” . This wave of revival would once again hit Ulster and Wales, the latter leading into another revival in 1904 that would overflow back to the former.
The success of the Revival was largely measured by the experiences of those in it, with doctrine becoming a secondary issue. Supporters of the Revival pointed to individual piety, a clear moment of conversion, and social factors such as temperance as evidence of the work of God. The concern about personal piety and experience started a shift in Presbyterian thought, where “theologians increasingly saw religious experience as the essence of Christian faith and placed it at the centre of their inquiries, characterising the Bible as a record of the developing spiritual experience of humanity rather than as a manual of doctrine” . The battles fought within Presbyterianism at the beginning of the nineteenth century, which solidified a more concrete conservative nature to the denomination, came under a new assault as “the use of the language of experience...allowed some opinion-formers within the Presbyterian Church to adopt higher criticism and to be accused of promulgating so-called modernist theology. Those sympathetic to modernism could separate the text of Scripture from the spiritual experience to which it gave witness while the laity could retain their pietistic spirituality” .
Baptists did not seem to fall into this same error at the time, but once the idea was in place, it would arise again; the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy that split almost every major Protestant denomination in the early twentieth century can be largely traced back to the debates within Presbyterianism in the years after 1859. Both Northern Baptists and the Southern Baptist Convention would end up having this same fight in the twentieth century, with the fundamentalists breaking away in the north to form the Conservative Baptists of America while modernists were driven out of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The Irish had been increasing their attempts to control their own land in the wake of the potato blight, when it was shown (in the most charitable wording possible) that the British concern for the island was insufficient to the needs of its people. Having entered the revival period with little outside help and growing problems, the Irish Baptists came through the 1860s with a growing body and a renewed vigor for the work ahead. It was enough of a head start that, with 29 churches, “the Baptist Union of Ireland was formed in 1895 and links with the Baptist Union of Great Britain were severed” . While political independence would happen for the Irish later, the Baptists of the island had achieved some measure of religious self-determination.
It is worth noting the contrast of approach and results. Where the Presbyterians sought to dictate the expression of revival and use it for political ends, they not only failed, but suffered losses and endangered their view of scripture. Where the Baptists, Brethren, and other small Protestant groups embraced work God was already doing and submitted themselves to take part in it, with no political ends or means, they saw growth and enjoyed, if only for a short time, a unity of purpose and blessing.
Baptists played a significant role in the Ulster Revival of 1859 and benefited greatly from it, even if they are hidden in the shadow of the Presbyterian work. What had been a struggling body of believers barely holding on to its place in Ireland had come to stand on its own feet. The place they carved out for themselves is still growing, although slowly.
One woman presenting Christ to a young man in County Antrim, and one man sitting down to pray with the doors open for others to join in New York City, were used by God to change the character of Christianity in Ulster and the greater United Kingdom. This seed was not too small to see a revival--perhaps the Baptist churches of Ireland are not too small a seed to see an even greater movement of God today.
Church planter and ministry student with a bad habit of questioning authority and writing too much.
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation