First Derry Presbyterian Church (1859)




BY THE REV. RICHARD SMYTH, M.A.

DURING several months in the summer of 1859, it was difficult for an eye-witness to describe, with perfect coolness and impartiality, the marvels of Divine grace which were then transpiring in this city. It was no matter f surprise that the judgment was occasionally a little overborne by the fervour of the heart, and carried away by the intensity of the emotions that had been excited. Hence courses of action may have been taken, and statements may have been made, in the rush of enthusiastic joy, which would barely stand the strict scrutiny of a sober retrospect. Where the whole soul was so intensely interested, and the heart so entirely absorbed, it was not a little difficult to give un­biased testimony; and the suspicion sometimes entertained by those at a distance from these scenes was excusable, that facts and figures had expanded under the heat of an unparalleled excitement.

By these dangers a writer is not now beset. The work has had time to be tested; we can survey it calmly and impartially, and no over-sanguine impulses can possibly surprise us beyond the well-defined limits of soberness and truth. Not that the converting and reviving grace of God has ceased to operate upon the churches of our city, but the Church has assumed what may be considered her normal condition—the extraordinary tension of mind and body consequent upon protracted night-meetings and almost uninterrupted public assemblies, having long since subsided. We are still voyaging upon the same sea f Divine grace and love, but the surface is more calm and peaceful. The same wind bloweth where it listeth, and we hear the sound thereof, but it has ceased to shake the whole population of the city, who were once moved by it as the trees of the forest are moved. We are therefore much more favourably circumstanced for giving a faithful record of the "glorious marching" of God through the " great wilderness."

"Then at God's presence shook the earth,

The drops from heaven fell;

This Sinai shook before the Lord,

The God of Israel."

Towards the latter end of May 1859, the "Antrim Revival" was becoming the subject of earnest and general conversation among all classes in this city. In the neigh­bourhood of Connor and Ballymena, individuals under con­viction of sin had been seized with mysterious bodily sufferings, and physical affections and manifestations super­vened which baffled all the diagnosis of medical science. These things were reported in Derry, read in newspapers, corroborated by eye-witnesses, and soon the conviction became general that God had, as it were, come nearer to man than usual, and was touching close to us some of the springs of providence. Ministers and others visited the localities where the work was progressing, attended meet­ings, saw sinners falling prostrate under the preaching of the Word, listened to groanings that could not be uttered, and to shrieks which proved the soul to be pierced through with many sorrows, witnessed what appeared to be personal conflicts with the wicked one, saw the faces of converts beaming with a heavenly radiance that distinguished them among thousands, and which enabled strangers to read in their very countenances the living epistles of the Lord— heard their testimonies to the love of Christ, and to their own assurance of an interest in His love ; and, finally, re­turned to tell their acquaintances what they had seen and heard. Meetings for united prayer began to be held in various places in Derry, in which all the evangelical de­nominations, with one exception, took part. By these united services, which are still maintained in all their integrity, the essential unity of New Testament Protest­antism has been abundantly proved.

On the occurrence of the first cases of outwardly-mani­fested conviction in Derry, the sensation of awe produced upon an audience of two thousand was deep in the extreme. No pen could describe, and probably no finite mind esti­mate, the depth of feeling that produced that awful hush, which seemed as though the auditory had been turned to stone. In the annals of our city, celebrated as it is for scenes and times that have thrilled down the lines of ages, per­haps no such panting hearts ever beat upon sleepless beds as on that eventful night. It is not to be forgotten, and it never shall be. The whole population of the city felt themselves under the hand of Omnipotence.. The scorner's chair was empty, and an awful silence reigned even in the circles of profligacy and sin. The transient pursuits of time were, for the hour, swallowed up by tlne great question borne down upon every heart,—" Who may abide the day of His coming? and who shall stand when He appeareth ?"

Out f these warring elements in the hearts of men, God brought many a trophy to Himself. Converts were of all ages, ranks, and conditions—from the child of eight years to the hoary-headed man—from the most moral and ex­emplary in outward life, to the most worthless and abandoned of the community. All human probabilities and calculations were set aside and rebuked, whilst God dis­played the sovereignty of His ways and purposes. "It is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy."

I shall now proceed to give a few examples, which might be indefinitely multiplied, of the mariner and agency by which God brought sinners to Himself, and of the views which they afterwards entertained of saving grace :—

THE WORD QUICK AND POWERFUL.

The sword-like power of the Word of God was illustrated through the entire course of the revival. This fact found striking exemplification in the case of a girl, whose deliver­ance from Satan and sin I shall now relate. A verse of Scripture (John iii. 16) had been placarded on a dead wall opposite her bedroom window, and for several mornings the first thing that met her eye, on looking out, was this beauti­ful passage of inspiration. It was being grafted upon her memory to bring forth fruit afterwards to the glory of God. She heard a sermon from the text, " Our God is a consum­ing fire," wherein the preacher represented God as a fire in a twofold sense, either to consume the sins or to consume the soul. The word was quick and powerful. Convictions of the most poignant description were wrought in her by the Holy Spirit, and not only the mind but the body quaked in dire convulsions. She seemed to maintain a personal strife with the wicked one, and so tremendous were the throes of her anguished frame, that it required four strong men to hold her. It gave one, at least, a faint idea of the " weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth" in that place where the " worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched." This lasted about three hours, without intermission. At length the verse which had been so fre­quently seen on the dead wall came to her relief, and, apprehending that Saviour who was the gift of God's ever­lasting love, she was taken from the deep pit and miry clay, her feet were set on the Rock, and her goings established for ever. Visions of the glorified Redeemer passed before her over-strained imagination, and her delight at thus seeing the King in His beauty was something beyond description. The exclamations were strange and varied—" How lovely ! altogether lovely ! He has given me manna to eat ! He has given me living water to drink ! Loving Saviour ! " Some twelve or fourteen individuals remained in the vestry until she had found peace and joy, and they were unani­mous in their testimony that such a prayer as she uttered subsequently, they had never heard from mortal lips. It embraced adoration, thanksgiving, intercession, and doxo­logies of the sublimest eloquence. She began by adoring God for the gift of Jesus, and especially for saving her— blessed Him that He was a " consuming fire," for He had " consumed her sins and saved her soul "—had plucked her as a " brand out of the fire." (I was struck with the correctness of her quotation of this text, which is fre­quently misquoted.) In much beauty and variety of lan­guage, there followed supplications for wisdom, grace, and strength ; and, with the most tender appeal, she added, " Do help me, 0 Lord ! for Thou knowest I have many and great difficulties ! " Then followed intercession for young converts, established believers, ministers, parents, and her sisters by name. Also for a companion, of whom she said, " Lord, Thou knowest whom I mean, but I shall not name her !" There was something singularly self-pos­sessed and considerate in this secrecy between her and God ; but there was a reason for it, and those who knew the reason could not but acknowledge it as a stroke of the noblest delicacy of Christian feeling that the name had been concealed. The prayer continued, for the city of Derry, the unconverted, and, filially, for all who were then present, that not one of them might be wanting in the day of Christ. Another gush of thanksgiving closed one of the most remarkable uninspired prayers that ever ascended in the incense-cloud of the mediation of Jesus.

Some weeks afterwards, a beloved friend of mine (the Rev. W. Fraser, of Gourock) accompanied me on a visit to her. The questions which he proposed were answered with remarkable promptitude and intelligence. "What do you think of these visions you had?" " Oh," she replied, "it was all ha my mind ; but I think God allowed me those visions to strengthen my faith, and I am very thankful that I had them." "Are you," continued Mr Fraser, " resting your faith on these visions of Jesus?" "No," she said, emphatically, "I am resting my faith on God's Word." "What passage in particular," he further insisted, " are you resting on ?" " That verse which I saw so often on the wall out there," pointing to the place where a por­tion of the torn placard was still to be seen—" God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoso­ever believeth on him should not perish, but have everlast­ing life."

I have only to add, that it is now ten months exactly since C. Bwas brought to the knowledge of Jesus, and that her walk has thus far been characterised by all that is lovely and of good report ; and I have every reason to be­lieve her to be a follower of them who, through faith and patience, inherit the promises.

PROTRACTED STRUGGLES.

It is not to be supposed that in the Irish revival convic­tion of sin was always f brief duration, or that peace fol­lowed prostration in as regular succession as the ebb and flow of the sea. Sometimes the valley was long and dreary that the soul had to pass through in making its way to the " land of uprightness."

A Scotchman, shrewd and self-satisfied, who had been a resident in Londonderry for twelve months, attended one of the first revival meetings. As he and his wife proceeded homewards, near midnight, she exhibited signs of great mental agitation, and did not hesitate to express her fears. The husband did his best to calm her mind and chase away her terrors by making light of the whole movement : "Thank God," said he, " I don't need ' revival ;' my peace is made with God; I have wronged no man ; never mind these people ; they are only trying to irritate (this was the word he used) us ; it will soon come to an end." That conver­sation occurred on Sabbath night, and during the whole of the following week the self-righteous man thought no more about his soul than to say to it, " Peace, peace, when there was no peace." Next Sabbath, one of his ministers was to preside at the open-air service in the Corn Market of Lon­donderry, and as the subject of our sketch was precentor in the church, his presence was required to lead the sing­ing. When the music arose from two thousand voices, and from nearly as many hearts, upon the calm, summer air, it sent a thrill through the mind of the leader of the psalmody such as music had never done before. It was no half-service this, but the hearty homage of an earnest multitude. One hard heart was already being broken down as that heart soliloquised—" If the singing on earth produces such an effect as this, what will the singing in heaven be? Shall I ever sing in heaven? " A pause ensued, and then convic­tion breathed the awful negative—" ; never !" The ser­mon was, if we recollect, from the text, " if thou hadst known, even thou at least, in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace ; but now they are hid from thine eyes 1" Convictions were deepening as the preacher pro­ceeded, and when the meeting was dismissed, the courage­ous man of the preceding Sabbath was now haunted with abounding fears. God's hand lay heavy upon him. The evening service was attended in the church, and a prayermeeting afterwards, but an insupportable despondency was crushing him to the earth. He betook himself to reading the Bible, to prayer—made every effort to ingratiate himself with God, but in vain. Next day, having met an acquaint­ance who slighted "revivalism," he was half argued out of his fears ; but at night they all returned again, and with an increased multitude of embattled hosts. Rising early in the morning, and seeking a solitary place to weep, he made known to God the desolations of his wounded spirit—" 0 God, my burning heart ! my burning heart ! I have sinned ! oh, have mercy ! I can't bear this! have mercy, 0 my God!" In such ejaculations as these that poor, downcast soul cried from the depths. Yet no peace came ; for the " way" to the Father had not been revealed. As nearly as I can remember, the following are the terms in which he related, several times in my presence, the history of that eventful day :—" I knew there was to be a meeting for anxious in­quirers in the lecture-room at ten o'clock. I resolved to go, thinking that some of my ministers would tell me what might do me good. When I arrived, I found the place nearly filled with the anxious, and with Christians who had come there to pray with the stricken. As I entered, Mr Slooked at me, and I thought the look meant this, I wonder what has brought you here ! There were some weeping, some kneeling, and some in the vestry crying out for mercy. The wants of all' were attended to, but nobody minded me. I sat down and leaned my head on my hands, for my heart was breaking. I said If they knew how my heart is breaking somebody would speak to me.' I was there nearly three hours without being spoken to by any one. I thought, God cast me off this morning, and now man has cast me off—will Jesus cast me off?' At length a young lady, a member of my own choir, came round to where I was, and said to me, Mr K—, how are you ? ' Miserable.' `What makes you miserable ? " My sins.' How do you feel?' I feel as if God were trying to get into my heart, and I am trying to keep Him out !' She told me to open the door for Jesus, and said some things that gave me comfort for a few minutes, but when I went away, I felt worse than ever. When I arrived at home, I went to my harmonium and tried to sing—

`Be merciful to me, 0 God;

Thy mercy unto me "

but when I reached the end of the second line, I could not proceed any further. Then, becoming bold again, I sang

' I 'm not ashamed to own my Lord,

Or to defend His cause'—

not true. I do not defend Christ's cause. I am ashamed of the Lord.' I rose from my seat, and could have called on the mountains to fall on me and hide me from God. Having a class to attend that evening in the country, I re­solved to go alone. As I went, I prayed aloud, and never ceased praying. I did not mind people passing me ; for I felt that there was none but God near me, and I wanted Him to be my Friend. Suddenly the light of truth flashed upon my mind ; I saw that God was pleased only with His own Son Jesus, and with sinners in Jesus. That moment taught me more of the plan of salvation than I had learned in thirty years. I then began to sing; but I sang notes that no man ever composed, and words that no man ever wrote, but the burden of all was—' Glory to Jesus, my Saviour !—glory to Jesus, my Saviour ! ' "

Such is a rapid and condensed sketch of the strugglings of a soul, as I have heard them described by himself on several occasions. In explanation of the " look " alleged to have been cast at him on entering the anxious inquirers' meeting, it may be sufficient to say, that he was one of the last men in Derry whom we should have expected to attend such a, meeting for any other purpose than to lead the psalmody. He is undoubtedly one of the most remark­able and interesting fruits of the revival ; and by his fervid and sensible addresses in this country, and also in Scot­land, has been honoured by God, I believe, as an instru­ment in turning some "from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God."

I had intended to refer to at least twelve other cases, which I had marked in my note-book for insertion in this narrative, but the space allotted to me forbids this self- indulgence. These cases might, in the city of Perry, be multiplied to the extent of hundreds. God has dealt very graciously with us, and has, in His great love and mercy, preserved the work from some supposed or real extrava­gances which may have slightly marred it elsewhere. We have no examples of dumbness, or blindness, or super­natural marks, or prophetic or clairvoyant gifts, to record. Regarding these phenomena I offer no opinion, as they lie outside the present record, which has to do only with my own experiences in the city of Londonderry.

The results of the work are permanent, and it is only now we are beginning to realise the magnitude of the revival of 1859. God has appeared in His glory for the building up of Zion. "This shall be written for the gene­ration to come : and the people which shall be created shall praise the Lord."

From ‘Authentic Records of Revival, now in progress in the United Kingdom, published in 1860, re-printed and edited in 1980 by Richard Owen Roberts.

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