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