Six Mile Water Revival

Six Mile Water Revival

The Six Mile Water stretches from Larne on the east coast of Ulster to Antrim on the shores of Lough Neagh.( Map) It is called ‘Six Mile Water’ due to a ford in the river being six miles from Carrickfergus and six miles from Antrim. 

Two Ulster Earls, being on the losing side during a war, fled to mainland Europe with many other nobles in 1607; thus giving up their title to vast lands in Ulster. In 1609 the English government began a colonisation of Ulster, which was Gaelic, Catholic and rural. They saw it as an opportunity to anglicise, civilise and control an area that had proved difficult in the past. The British tenants were expected to be Protestant, English speaking and loyal to the King.

The state of religion in Ulster at the start of the seventeenth century was dreadful. Churches were in ruins, clergy were often non-resident and the province experienced frequent rebellions. The Reformation had failed because the Bible was not translated into Gaelic until 1602, and the clergymen who were appointed were of poor quality. The clergymen were considered on a par with their flock, who largely came from Scotland and England and who were the dregs of society, murderers, thieves’ adulterers etc. This may have been an exaggeration as clearly there were some roses amongst the thorns.

A few Presbyterians were appointed ministers in the district. In 1613 Edward Brice was appointed to Ballycarry; Robert Cunningham was appointed to Holywood in 1615 and in 1619 John Ridge, an English Puritan, became vicar of Antrim, and from 1621 some excellent ministers came from Scotland to avoid persecution there. From 1621 James I imposed a set of rules on the Scottish Church that were intolerable to many of the clergy, these included Confirmation by Bishops.

Included amongst the Scottish clergy who arrived were Robert Blair, vicar at Bangor; George Dunbar, vicar at Larne; Josiah Welch (Welsh) at Templepatrick and John Livingstone at Killinchy (details of their lives can be seen on this website at each of the towns mentioned). In Ulster, at this time, these ministers were beyond the reach of the persecution of James I, as the King was not interested in Ireland at the time, but this situation would change later. They were all nominally Anglicans, but in their hearts they were Presbyterians; believers in rule by Presbytery rather than by bishop.

James Glendinning was the minister of Carnmoney and a lecturer at Carrickfergus, the largest town in the North of Ireland at that time. He got quite a reputation as a preacher, so Robert Blair went over to hear him. He wrote, "About that time I heard of one James Glendinning, lecturer at Carrickfergus. who got no small applause there for a learned man I longed to hear him, and in a morning I passed from Bangor to Carrickfergus by water, and hearing him, I perceived he did but trifle citing learned authors whom he had never seen nor read, After sermon I waited on him and communed with him, freely asking him if he thought he did edify that people? He was quickly convinced, and told me he had a vicarage in the country, to which he would retire himself quickly." Glendinning was a man of limited gifts, and Robert Blair thought that he was incapable of ministering to the sophisticated people of Carrickfergus. Taking Blair’s advice Glendinning moved to a country parish, Oldstone, just south of Antrim, where he was amongst his own kind. 

In Oldstone Glendinning preached the law and the wrath of God if the law was broken, and a writer of the time commented that this was about all he was capable of preaching. Not on the face of it a very good mix for the Lord to pour out His blessings, but pour them out He did in 1625. (I believe that when the atmosphere of revival is present subjects can be preached which would not be successful at other times.) Multitudes became convicted of their sin through his teaching, with “a dozen in one day carried out as dead.” The preaching of the law opened peoples eyes to their sinfulness, and thinking they were damned many cried out “what must I do to be saved?” Many lay on the floor, convicted of their sin, but did not know how to find Jesus. However, Glendinning could not apply the Gospel to the sin-burdened hearts of the colonists. He could awaken them to their sin, but not show them the way to forgiveness through Jesus. 

Fortunately, Josiah Welch had recently come to Ulster and he was skilled in doing what Glendinning couldn’t, so he went to help with the joyous work. Sadly, the success of the work went to Glendinning’s head and he began to go into doctrinal error. His friends sent for Robert Blair to try to get him back on track. Blair wrote, ''The day being then at the shortest, and the journey consider­able I made such haste to obey their desire, that I stayed not so much as to break my fast, and yet, ere I could reach them, the night was fallen." Glendinning and his wife were in the care of a religious family, as their own house had been burned down some time previously. He refers to his vain efforts to convince Glendinning of his errors and foibles, concluding, "he, falling from error to error, did run away at last to see the seven Churches of Asia." This was around 1630.

The revival spread from Antrim into Down and even beyond the borders of these counties. John Livingstone gives an account of the effect of the revival. "Many of those religious professors had been both ignorant and profane, and for debt and want, and worse causes, had left Scotland; yet the Lord was pleased by his word to work such change. I do not think there were more lively and experienced Christians anywhere than were these at that time in Ireland, and that in good numbers, and many of them persons of a good outward condition in the world.” All classes were changed, and the reformation of society was noticeable for some time. Part of the reformation was a desire of the converts to learn more about God, so a Monthly Lecture Meeting was started in Antrim.

The Meeting was held on the last Friday of each month. Ministers came from Antrim and Down, including Welch, Blair, Hamilton, Cunningham, Dunbar and later, Livingstone, and they met at Antrim Castle on the Thursday to discuss matters that concerned them. This was in effect a Presbytery meeting. Then on the Friday they taught at what was really a Bible school. There was prayer and fasting and there were four sermons at the summer meetings and three in the winter, and crowds came from all over to hear the Word of God. These meetings carried on until at least 1634 and helped spread the Gospel through the whole country. These Meetings proved to be vital, in the long term, for the continuing faith of the people of Ulster, for when persecution removed from them all their leaders, they were able to continue in small groups, teaching and encouraging one another.

Communion was usually served in a neighbouring parish on the Sunday following the Meetings. This was a three day event with preparation on the Saturday, Communion on the Sunday and Thanksgiving on the Monday. John Livingstone writes about the Communion, "I have known them that have come several miles from their own houses to communions, to the Saturday sermon, and spent the whole Satur­day night in several companies, sometimes a minister being with them, sometimes themselves alone in conference and prayer, and waited on the public ordinances the whole Sabbath, and spent the Sabbath night likewise, and yet at the Monday sermon not troubled with sleepiness . . In these days it was no great difficulty for a minister to preach or pray in public or private, such was the hunger of the hearers." People flocked to these services. Josiah Welch wrote as late as 1632 that he had around fifteen hundred at the services.

In the midst of revival there was, as usual, persecution. Attacks came from conforming Anglican clergy, Catholic friars, Baptists and an Armenian. It was usually Blair who went forth to defend the revival and he always won the argument. Disputes also arose over the manifestations that occurred in some of the services, especially in Ballycarry. Most of the ministers were against the manifestations; wanting to conduct the services in an orderly manner. Now some of these manifestations will undoubtedly have come out of the flesh, but others would have been from the Holy Spirit, but they did not recognise these as such. Many were ‘slain in the Spirit’ and one observer notes, "I have seen them myself stricken and swoon with the word — yea, a dozen in one day carried out of doors as dead…the power of God smiting their hearts for sin." Blair attributed the manifestations to the work of Satan. “In the midst of the Public Worship these persons fell a-mourning and some of them were afflicted with pangs like convulsions, and daily the number of them increased. At first both the pastor and people, pitying them, had charitable thoughts, thinking it probable that it was the work of the Lord; but thereafter in conference they could find nothing to confirm these charitable thoughts —. they could neither perceive any sense of their sinfulness, nor any panting after a Saviour. So the minister of the place did write some of his brethren to come thither and with him to examine the matter. Coming and conferring with these persons, we deprehended it to be a mere delusion and cheat of Satan to slander and disgrace the work of the Lord."

One of Archbishop Laud’s followers, Henry Leslie, Dean of Down, wrote in 1631 about the revival, not surprisingly in an uncomplimentary way. "the people in that place are grown into such frenzies that the like is not to be found among Anabaptists, for there is set abroad a new piece of divinity that no man can be counted converted unless he feel the pains of his new birth such as St Paul felt. So that every sermon, 40 or so people, for the most part women, fall down in the church in a trance. and are (as it is supposed) senseless, but in their fits they are grievously afflicted with convulsions, tremblings, unnatural motions. After they awake they confess that they have seen devils (as who may not see a factious and a cheating devil among them) and from thenceforward they put on such a mark of austerity that they are never seen to laugh, and never talk of anything but God, though so idly that they always take his name in vain." One needs to take this statement with a pinch of salt as Leslie is trying to turn things to his own advantage.

Robert Echlin, bishop of Down, was at first supportive of the Presbyterian ministers, changed his attitude towards them. The Irish archbishop, James Ussher was also supportive of them; refusing to bow under the pressure which was mounting against them.

In 1630 Blair went to Scotland where he visited John Livingstone. They ended up at Kirk of Shotts where they conducted a service which became known as the Kirk of Shotts Revival. (I believe that the revival here spread to a significant part of Scotland, but I can find no proof.) Two Scottish ministers accused them of ‘exciting people to ecstasies and teaching the necessity of bodily pains to attest the reality of the new birth’ and reported them to Leslie, who passed the accusations on to Echlin. In late summer 1631 Blair, Livingstone, Dunbar and Welch were suspended. Their friends appealed to Ussher who ordered Echlin to withdraw the suspension. The case was appealed to London where the intolerant Laud was Archbishop of Canterbury. Through Laud’s influence Blair, Welch, Livingstone and Dunbar were brought to trial, but they refused to conform to Episcopacy so they were deposed from ministry in 1632. Blair went to London to appeal to the King and Charles ordered the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Wentworth, to retry the case.

The four ministers continued to preach until Blair met with Wentworth in the latter half of 1634. Wentworth spoke against the Church of Scotland and upbraided Blair. The situation became so dark for the Presbyterians of Ulster that they began to look towards America to escape persecution. Livingstone and another were commissioned to go to America to find a place for settlement, but whilst in Plymouth some things deterred them from completing their mission and they returned home. For political reasons, in May 1634, Wentworth instructed Echlin to withdraw the suspension of the four men for six months.

During this time the ministers carried on their work in any place they could. Welch stood at the back door of his house to preach to the people in his house and in the garden. The bishop of Derry appealed to Wentworth as to the danger of allowing Presbyterians to preach and they were suspended again in November. Soon after this Welch and Echlin died and Dunbar returned to Scotland.

On the 11th/12th August 1636 the bishop of Down tried Hamilton, Cunningham., Ridge and Calvert at the old Belfast Parish Church in front of bishops, nobles, gentry and clergy. Brice died before he could be tried. They were all banned from preaching in the diocese, for the sin of not accepting Episcopacy. In response to their sentence Cunningham said, “I have now lived these twenty years amongst you in this kingdom, serving the Lord in His holy ministry, and thought so to have spent the rest of my days, which cannot be very long, for my body is very crazed, in the same employment. My doctrine and life for that time are known to most who are here present. I appeal to all their consciences if they can say anything against me in either of them. Yea, I ever kept me close to the commission of my Lord. But now I am required to receive impositions upon my ministry which are against my conscience. I rather lay down my ministry at the feet of my Lord and Saviour Christ, of whom I did receive it, than to live with an evil conscience in the free liberty of it.”

In desperation 140 built a ship at Groomsport to take them beyond persecution to America. They sailed in November in the ‘Eagle Wing’, but a fierce storm damaged their ship so much that they had to return. Blair, Livingstone and others, having failed to get to America, went instead to Scotland. So the Presbyterians in Ulster had all their leaders taken from them, but their faith sustained them.

The revival went on for at least ten years, and may have gone on beyond 1636. When you think that most revivals in the UK have lasted less than a year, the effect of the Six Mile Water Revival must have been very great. Through it Presbyterianism was firmly rooted in Ulster and despite extreme provocation and persecution it lasts to this day

Much of the above was taken from ‘The Six Mile Water Revival of 1625’ by W D Baillie, published by The Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland.