BY THE REV. GEORGE HUGHES.THE extraordinary work of the Spirit at Connor and Ahoghill became generally known in Newtownards in the month of May 1859. The news immediately increased the desire of the people of God in the town for a revival of religion among themselves, and this desire was gradually turned into expectation. They knew that the gracious shower would not come down till God himself opened the windows of heaven; and that, therefore, it was their duty to wait, but to wait at the same time in the attitude of prayer. Special meetings for prayer were accordingly held in several churches; and early in June, a weekly union prayer-meeting was established. About the same period, a deputation from the neighbourhood of Connor addressed a large assembly in the Rev. Julius M'Cullough's church. The facts stated were sufficient to shew the hearers that it was their privilege to expect great things from God. But still there had not yet occurred any decided manifestation of Divine power. The Spirit was moving on the face of the waters, but His irresistible hand had not yet stirred their depths. There was intense interest excited in all parts of the town, and the doors of almost all the evangelical churches were thrown open on several days of the week besides the Sabbath, to accommodate the eager crowds that assembled for prayer and hearing the word. These were indications of the coming shower; but it was not till the middle of June that the drops began to fall thickly and in rapid succession. The first cases of conviction attended with bodily prostration occurred at that time; and, for several months afterwards, scarcely a day elapsed without a number of persons being thus almost visibly brought under the power of the Spirit, while the work of silent conversion was being at the same period wrought out on a much more extensive scale.
There was great variety in the means which the Spirit employed to awaken the first serious thought about conversion. The mere report of the Spirit's work in a neighbouring town caused a person to take down his dusty Bible from the shelf, and, in reading it alone, the saving light of the gospel broke upon his soul. At an early stage of the movement, a speaker at one of the meetings referred to the revival in other places, and said the thought had occurred to him, What if Newtownards should be passed over? One man heard the words, and was led into a train of thought that ended in conversion. A convert states that she became an anxious inquirer on reflecting that surely she had as much need to be converted as her sister, who had been changed a few days before. An address was delivered in the open air on the parable of the barren fig-tree. It was to be let alone for one year, and if it continued barren, after that it was to be cut down. The statement led one man in the crowd to see the necessity of seeking mercy before it is too late, and the mercy sought was soon after found. At another open-air service a person came to the door of her house, and as she listened to the speaker she heard him say that all present were either on the broad road that leads to destruction, or on the narrow path that leads to life. She began immediately to ask herself on which of these roads she was walking, and had no rest till she felt herself brought into the narrow way. A teacher in a Sabbath school was commenting on the parable of the ten virgins, some of whom were foolish, and had forgotten to trim their lamps. The story excited the interest of the class, and one of the scholars, on returning home, was thrown into acute conviction of danger. She saw and felt that her lamp had not been trimmed; but she had not to wait long till the Spirit replenished it with oil, and lighted it with fire from the altar. Another teacher, who had been brought under the power of the Spirit, was relating to the members of her class an account of her conversion. Their sympathy was enlisted, and one of them became immediately alarmed for her state. She went home, and the work of conviction continued, till at last she found peace. One evening a person attended a meeting. The preacher for some time spoke generally on the subject of sin; but by degrees his remarks took a particular turn, and, in describing the endless variety of ways in which the heart shews its love of sin, he frequently used the words, Thou sinner. The person of whom we are speaking had her conscience partially awakened during the previous part of the discourse; but she now became so intensely occupied in applying the remarks directly to herself, that, in the excitement of the moment, she actually thought that the preacher had singled her out from the rest of the audience, and was addressing her alone.The time that elapsed between conviction of sin and attainment of peace varied greatly. In some cases, days, and even weeks, passed away before the parties began to feel the burden removed; but there were other cases, of which it might be said that weeping endured for a night, but joy came in the morning. A person had been for some days in such deep distress of mind that her physical powers became prostrated. She was visited by a minister, and when worship was being held, an individual present, who lived in an adjoining house, suddenly burst into tears, and exhibited all the signs of acute conviction of sin. In a very short time, however, Jesus spoke to the troubled waves, and said, Peace. The minister, before leaving, saw the party thus rapidly brought to the enjoyment of rest, using every means to bring comfort to the other, who was still lying under a cloud, and remained in that state for many days. On another occasion, there was service in the open air. The subject of address was Paul's answer to the Philippian jailer. The nature and object of faith were described; and a woman in the crowd became alarmed, for she saw that she had never yet believed. She was taken home; and when the service was over, the speaker went to her house, and as soon as he entered she exclaimed, "You spewed me this evening what faith is, and now I know from experience what it is to believe." There have been several cases in the town of parties becoming impressed who had been brought up in great ignorance, some of them being unable to read. But the plan of salvation is, after all, simple, and in its leading. features may be practically understood by many whose knowledge of Scripture is very confined. They may not be able to give a learned reason for the hope that is in them, but it may yet be a very satisfactory one. A person of this class was one day asked by a visitor to state her reasons for believing that she had undergone a change. "I am not able to say much on the subject," she replied; "but I feel that I could not now live as I lived before." Another individual of the same class was asked a similar question. "I am not learned," was the answer;" but I know that I love Jesus, and I am sure that Jesus loves me."
It is needless to say that a very large number of persons in the town, addicted to open sin, have been thoroughly reformed. The great majority of the inhabitants are engaged in the weaving and sewing trades, and of these a large proportion had fallen into neglect of the means of grace. There were, no doubt, many among them of excellent moral habits, and some of the choicest Christians in the town were to be found at the loom, or in the quarries. But indifference to religious duties widely prevailed, and very many were sunk in the grossest vice. It is a pleasing thought that the revival movement has affected these classes to a remarkable extent. The limits of such a brief paper make it impossible to give a detailed account of many individual cases. Among the first in the town awakened was a person following the occupation of a weaver, but frequently employed in another capacity. He was one of those men of whom it is said, they do nobody any harm but themselves. For a long series of years, however, he acted as if determined to ruin himself in body and soul. Religious duties of all kinds were neglected, and the love of strong drink became his ruling passion. His business frequently brought him into the public streets, and he usually paid such frequent visits to the dram-shops that his earnings were often spent before his work was done. His wife had sometimes to travel at night in search of him to the neighbouring towns, to which his calling had led him during the day, and where he had got drunk. But the Spirit breathed upon him, and he became a new man. He is now a member of the temperance society, he has abandoned his habit of swearing, he engages regularly in private and family prayer, his attendance on the means of grace has been unbroken for many months; and at the last sacramental occasion, in one of the Presbyterian churches, he sat down at the Lord's table, and spent, as he says himself, the happiest day of his life. As all his earnings are now devoted to proper objects, it must have been with curious feelings that he lately discovered a sixpence lying under a stone, beneath which he had formerly been in the habit of hiding money from his wife, to spend it afterwards in drink. It had lain there for several months. This is one example of the moral and social changes which the revival movement has wrought here; and similar accounts, with slight variations, might be given of hundreds of cases. There is one district of the town, in particular, in which cases of this kind are neither "few nor far between." On Saturday evenings, especially, it was at one time in such a boisterous state that even the police felt some timidity in venturing into it. But it now contains a large number of genuine converts, and in some cases they form almost entire households. One of the best attended prayer-meetings in the town has long been held in it by Mr W. Minnis. The neighbourhood is now happily distinguished for sobriety, order, and regularity of attendance on all private, as well as public means of grace. Habits of industry, too, have been greatly promoted, one man declaring, that formerly he wrought at his loom but one week in three, but now, of course, he has no such holidays, and, like many others, is reaping temporal fruits from his spiritual change. A man of similar habits was, like him, impressed. He lived in the country, and had been long accustomed to return from the town late on Saturday evenings in a tipsy state. One Sabbath morning, after he became impressed, he was coming to town to attend an early meeting for worship, and on the road he met with an elder of one of the churches, who was travelling on a similar errand. He remarked to his companion, that formerly, however full his purse had been during the week, he always found it empty on Sabbath morning; and then, alluding to the change in his habits, he put his hand into his pocket and brought it out, exclaiming, "There now is a handful of silver !"Contrasted with these cases, a number of others might be given to illustrate the Spirit's work on mere children. It is a common thing to hear people speak of the innocence of children, and no doubt they are far from the vices of persons of larger growth; but those of them who were affected here during the present revival invariably felt the deepest and most acute convictions of sin before obtaining peace. A child of eleven years of age was impressed while her father was conducting family worship. A few days afterwards, a visitor asked her some questions on the opening address of the Lord's prayer. "Do you love your father?" "Yes." "There is no one, I suppose, whom you love better than your father?" "Yes," was the unexpected reply, "I love Christ more." Another child, who had been similarly impressed, was asked the question, "What would you do if Jesus were to lose His hold of you?" "I will trust Him for that," was the simple, but eminently scriptural reply. In another case a scholar at one of the Sabbath schools received a copy of a hymn containing the words, "The Lord has pardoned all my sin." She said to her mother she would learn to sing it. "But how can you sing it," her mother replied, " when you are not able to say with truth, 'The Lord has pardoned all my sin?'" She felt the truth of the remark, and was smitten with deep convictions, but finally found such peace that she literally clapped her hands for joy.
It is worthy of remark that a large proportion of the persons affected had previously a fair moral character. It would not be far from the truth to say that the greatest number of cases were of this kind. A Scotch minister was preaching in one of the Presbyterian churches on the day after the communion. One of the hearers was seized with deep conviction. When the service was over, he went to a retired part of the ground surrounding the church, but, unable to restrain his feelings, his cries attracted numbers of his fellow-worshippers to the spot; and there, in the presence of them all, he bewailed the sins of his past life, and lamented, in particular, the way in which he had deceived himself and others. He had been a man of regular habits, and the day before had sat down at the Lord's table. While the work in Newtownards supplies many examples of grace abounding to the chief of sinners; yet in this case, and in hundreds of others, it shows us that absence from gross sin is, of itself alone, no proof of a sound conversion to God.The extent of the work is not to be estimated by the number of bodily prostrations. A saving change has been wrought in the hearts of many without any physical affection whatever. In cases attended with bodily affection the whole process of conversion was, in a manner, made visible to the eye. The spectator could almost look into the soul and see the calm turned into a storm, and the storm turned into a great calm. But those who had the best opportunities of knowing, believe that in far more numerous instances there was an effectual work of the Spirit without physical symptoms. In the same family one member may have been quietly undergoing a change at the very time when the Spirit, in His sovereignty, prostrated another; and a similar remark might be often applied to persons living in the same street. The physical cases invariably attracted attention; but the inward struggle was on many occasions unnoticed, and unknown till the battle was fought and victory won. It would be altogether a fruitless task to attempt to calculate the number of these victories.
In this town, as in other places, the imaginations of some of the affected became for a short time unusually vivid. Spiritual things were sometimes so intensely realised that they seemed to them to be visible. The outward world for the moment disappeared, and the spiritual eye discerned spiritual things with almost the same clearness with which the spectator gazes on the shifting scenes of a panorama. In most cases the parties were afterwards conscious that they really saw no tangible form, and in some instances they expressed themselves, even at the time, in a way that shewed that it was faith, as it were, losing itself in sight. A person thought she saw Jesus coming down from heaven dressed in a beautiful robe. He stood on the surface of the sea, with His hand behind His back, and then, suddenly, He lifted His hand above His head and cast something which He had in it into the sea, and immediately it sank like lead in the mighty waters. It was, doubtless, the figurative language in which God is represented in the Scriptures pardoning the sinner, that suggested this vision. Another individual appeared to be enraptured with a view of the Saviour, and at intervals exclaimed, "I see my Saviour coming!" At other times the view was changed, and a city with streets of pure gold presented itself; and then the same party sang, with inimitable pathos, " We 'll walk about Jerusalem." A question was asked as to the way in which these things were seen. "It is all faith," was the reply. There were, doubtless, visions caused by a disordered fancy; but in this town they were mostly of the character just described.The converts invariably show a strong attachment to the Bible. Some of them who were unable to read are making strenuous efforts to learn the art, that they may search the Scriptures daily, like the Bereans of old. They are also distinguished by a scrupulous attention to prayer in the closet, at the family altar, and in the sanctuary. Every word of a prayer uttered in the pulpit is sometimes repeated in an audible tone in the pew. A sensitive conscience is another characteristic of the recent converts. Many of them in Newtownards possess a delicacy in this respect to which some older Christians are total strangers. Anxiety for the salvation of others is an equally common trait. A poor widow was under conviction, and in presence of her neighbours, who filled the apartment, she drop' upon her knees, and, in the midst of an intensely earnest prayer for herself, she broke forth into a strain of intercession for those who were in the house, for all the people in the town, for the whole land, and for all lands, concluding, in tones that melted many of the spectators into tears, with an appeal in behalf of her fatherless children. They exhibit, at the same time, a joyous feeling that is evidently caused not only by assurance of God's present favour, but by the certain hope of a happy immortality.
The converts meet with fewer obstacles in their new course, from former companions, than many might suppose; In some cases, the convert finds nearly all his former associates in sin as much changed as himself. A man of intemperate habits was one day prostrated, and the cup was instantly abandoned by his companions, with some of whom he had been engaged in a drunken brawl in the street a few weeks before. In other eases, those who are determined to follow their old ways avoid the company of converts. A man was brought under the power of the Spirit, and his old companions immediately forsook him, giving as a reason, that they had nothing to do with Christians. But old associates are far from being overlooked by the converts themselves. A friendly eye is kept upon them, and words of warning are spoken whenever an opportunity is presented. A man who held sceptical opinions regarding the revival underwent himself a change, and since the event he has laboured to teach his previous companions " a more excellent way" than their old one, and is one of the most active members of a prayer-meeting in his own district of the town.Classes have been formed in several churches specially for the instruction of the converts. Other classes are conducted very effectively by some lay members. A very large class, held weekly in a store, is conducted by the town missionary and a band of zealous associates. An immense addition has been made to the regular hearers of the word. The capacious church in which the Rev. Julius M'Cullough preaches is filled to overflowing from Sabbath to Sabbath, and his roll of communicants has been very largely increased since the revival commenced. The Rev. Mr Watters' church is so filled that for a length of time applicants have been unable to obtain sittings; and other congregations have been proportionably enlarged, one of them being about to erect a new church. The labours of Mr Watters in connexion with the movement, form an unbroken series of faithful, patient, self-denying, and eminently successful efforts. Similar remarks may be made regarding the labours of the Rev. Messrs Stewart, Cather, Chadwick, and Hanna. The ministers of the town have received very effective aid from the members of the Town Mission Committee, from their zealous and efficient secretary, Mr M. Harbison, and, in a remarkable degree, from their agent, Mr M'Ilwrath, a young man of singular devotion to his Master's work, who has laboured from the outset with a zeal that knew no bounds, and an energy that never flagged.
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.
The gracious work of the Spirit is steadily advancing here. The Sabbath, which had often been kept in many houses as a day of special feasting and revelry, is now so strictly observed, that the stillness of the streets is seldom broken, except by the crowds that Rock to the several churches. Districts of the town that on Saturday evenings used to be so turbulent that the very police were timid in following parties who had taken refuge there, are now perfectly quiet and peaceful. In one district of this kind the weavers now spend a part of Saturday evening in fitting up with their "seat-boards" an apartment in the neighbourhood, in which a prayer-meeting is held on Sabbath afternoon. Instead of the brawling sounds with which, in such localities, the week was often closed, the first thing that frequently catches the ear now is the singing of Psalms, with grave, sweet melody," in the houses of the stricken. It is indeed a common thing to find the parties affected surrounded by a "band whose hearts the Lord has touched," acting the part of the good Samaritan, in pouring in oil on their spiritual wounds; and it is often with no small surprise that a visitor recognizes in the very leader of the band a person whose mouth was lately full of " cursing and bitterness.
From ‘The Revival Newspaper,' Volume i, p27, August 20th 1859.