The Stewarton Revival (1625-1630?)
The parish of Stewarton for the period referred to had for its minister the Rev. Mr Castlelaw, who appears from the sequel to have had the Spiritual welfare of his flock very much at heart. However, the principal instrument employed by the great Head of the Church in originating and carrying on this Revival was the Rev. David Dickson, minister of the neighbouring parish of Irvine. Mr. Dickson had been formerly Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Glasgow, but on receiving a call from the town of Irvine to be their minister he resigned his chair in the college and was ordained to the pastoral office in that town in the year 1618.
For four years he continued to labour there with great acceptance, but Satan, becoming alarmed at the inroads that were being made upon his kingdom through means of Mr Dickson's ministry, stirred up the persecuting party against him when they summoned him to appear before the High Commission Court at Edinburgh on the 9th of January 1622. On his appearance before the court, he was urged to submit to those arbitrary measures they were at this time forcing on the Church. Upon his refusal, he was not only subjected to the most insulting and contemptuous treatment but sentenced to be ejected from the parish of Irvine and banished to Turreff, in the north of Scotland, during the pleasure of the court. To all this Mr Dickson meekly replied, "The will of the Lord be done; though ye cast me off, the Lord will take me up. Send me whither you will. I hope my Master will go with me; and as he has been with me heretofore, he will be with me still, as being his own weak servant."
The Master whom he so dearly loved and so faithfully served, having much people in Irvine and its vicinity who were to be to Him for a name and a praise, did not permit him to remain long in banishment. Having the hearts of all men in His hand, turning them whithersoever He will, He stirred up the Earl of Eglinton, the magistrates and others of the town of Irvine to petition for his release from the sentence of banishment; and through the overruling providence of God, their request was granted.
About the end of June 1623, Mr Dickson was permitted to return to his flock without any condition whatever being imposed upon him. After his return, his ministry was singularly countenanced and honoured of God for the conviction and conversion of multitudes.
Few ministers in his day were more useful in opening up the way of salvation and leading souls to Christ as their only refuge so that persons under deep exercise and soul concern came from all the parishes round about Irvine to attend his preaching; not a few even came from distant parts of the country to settle at Irvine in order that they might enjoy the benefit of his ministry. The communion seasons, especially, were times of great refreshing from the presence of the Lord and the glory of his power.
The enjoyment of such a privilege in other parts of the country being very rare caused these seasons at Stewarton to be attended by the most eminent Christians from all corners of the land. So great was the power accompanying the preaching of the Gospel, that few Sabbaths passed without some convincing proofs being given of the Holy Spirit's carrying home the word spoken to the hearts and consciences of the hearers. Many, who afterwards became solid and lively Christians, were so filled with a sense of the awful evil of sin and a view of their own vileness and unworthiness, that they were quite overpowered and had to be carried out of the church.
On the Sabbath evenings after sermon, many persons under soul distress came to Mr Dickson at his house. He usually spent an hour or two in hearing their cases and in comforting and directing such as were in doubt or despondency. Indeed, for this department of his ministerial work he was remarkably fitted, for his Divine Master had given him in a very special manner "the tongue of the learned, that he might know how to speak a word in season to him that was weary."
Encouraged by these visible tokens of the power of the blessed Spirit, Mr Dickson began a weekly lecture on Mondays. That being the market day in Irvine, the town was usually thronged by people from the country, but so wisely did he arrange the time when the congregation assembled that the lecture was usually over before the market began. The people from the parish of Stewarton, especially, availed themselves of this privilege. As many of them as were able to travel regularly attended Irvine market with some little commodities for sale, their chief design being to hear the Monday lecture. In this they were greatly encouraged by their minister, who strongly urged his parishioners to avail themselves of the privilege of hearing Mr Dickson. Their example stirred up others in their own and other parishes, who also attended so that the power of religion was felt throughout that part of the country.
Nor was this all. In a large hall in the manse there would often be assembled upwards of a hundred serious Christians waiting to converse with him after the lecture as to the state of their souls and join with him in devotional exercises.
And it was by means of these week-day discourses and meetings that the famous Stewarton Revival began and spread afterwards from house to house for many miles along the valley through which the Stewarton water runs. Many, who had been well known as most abandoned characters and mockers of everything bearing the semblance of religion, being drawn by motives of curiosity to attend these lectures, afterwards became completely changed, showing by their life and conversation that the Lord had opened their hearts "to attend unto the things spoken by his servant."
The great enemy of souls, when he found that he could not hinder the progress of this Revival, endeavoured to bring reproach upon it by leading some who seemed to be under serious concern about their souls into great extravagances, both in the church under sermon and at private meetings. The Lord enabled Mr Dickson, and others who conversed with them, to act so prudently that Satan's design was in a great measure frustrated, and solid, serious, practical religion flourished greatly—illustrating in a remarkable manner what is said of God's ancient people in a similar situation, "That the more they were afflicted, the more they multiplied and grew."
The pious Mr. Robert Blair, (This part of the account is wrong. This is taken from Robert Blair’s autobiography, but in it he says that he was at Stewarton before he went to Ireland in 1623. So, either the Revival began before 1625, or Blair was referring to the revival as a future event. From the English one cannot tell which he means, but I suspect he is referring to the well-known revival as something that happened later. Blair must have experienced the first moves of God before the Revival began.) who was at this time a professor in the College of Glasgow, often visited Stewarton during vacation for the purpose of assisting in the work and conversing with the people. When there, he resided with the Lady Robertland, a person well known in those times for her piety and the interest she took in the spiritual welfare of others. Mr. Blair preached frequently to the people of Stewarton and was very useful in assisting in carrying forward the work of revival.
Many of the people were at first under great terror and deep exercise of conscience, arising from the views they obtained of the exceeding sinfulness of sin. Afterwards, through the Spirit's teaching, they attained sweet peace and strong consolation by believing in Jesus Christ; thus illustrating the promise of the Saviour that when the Spirit would come into the hearts of sinners to make them willing in the day of his power, He would not speak of Himself, but take of the things of Christ and show them to their souls. They learned that, looking to the finished work of Christ, they might see how completely all the demands of the broken covenant had been met and answered by the blessed Redeemer; that through this new and living way the chief of sinners may now have access by one Spirit unto the Father, and so be filled with joy and peace in believing.
Mr. Blair modestly observes, "that in these conferences with the people of Stewarton, he thought that he profited more by conversing with them, than they did with him."
Although formalists and men not knowing the Gospel brought against them the charge that was once made against the great apostle of the Gentiles, when he replied, "I am not mad, but speak forth the words of truth and soberness—I bless the Lord," says Mr. Blair, "that ever I was acquainted with them, and for the help I received by interchanging letters with Mr. Dickson, whereby I was greatly assisted, according to my ability, to relieve them that were in spiritual distress, and to sympathise tenderly with such as I knew to be tempted and lying under heavy pressure of conscience, so that I still learned more of the wicked wiles of Satan and of the blessed way of God."
The venerable Principal Boyd of Glasgow, who was at this time living in retirement on his own estate in Carrick, came also to visit this parish. Having conversed with many of the people, he heartily blessed God for the rich display of his mercy towards them, and for the manifestations of His grace in them.
Anna, Countess of Eglinton, although bred in her youth amid the splendour of a court, was an humble and eminent Christian who exerted all her influence for the promotion of the interests of religion. Eglinton Castle being often a shelter for the persecuted ministers of the Gospel, she took a deep and lively interest in the work at Stewarton, and persuaded her noble husband to give up for a few days the sports of the field to converse with some of the people she had invited to the castle for that purpose. His lordship declared, after conferring with them, "that he never spoke with the like of them, and wondered at the wisdom they manifested in their conversation."
This great spring-tide of the Gospel, says Fleming in his work on the Fulfilling of the Scriptures, did not last for a short time merely, but continued many years—commencing about 1625 and ending about 1630. Like a spreading stream, increasing as it flows and fertilising all within its reach, so did the power of godliness advance from one place to another, increasing in its progress, and throwing a marvellous lustre over those parts of the country effected. The fame of this Revival brought many from distant parts of the country, who, when they came and witnessed the gladdening sight of so many turned from darkness to light and walking in the fear of the Lord and comfort of the Holy Ghost, thanked God and took courage and became more earnest in prayer than ever for the descent of the Spirit on other parts of the Church. The remembrance of the gracious promise that "for all these things I will be inquired of by the House of Israel to do it for them" would quicken their importunities at a throne of grace—that God, for Christ's sake, would come and visit that vine which his own right hand had planted and make it fruitful and fill the whole land.
This account is taken from ‘Narratives of Revivals of Religion in Scotland, Ireland and Wales.’ Published in 1839. This, in its turn, has been largely taken from ‘Historical Collections…’ by John Gilles in 1752.
The extent of the Revival is not known. It clearly spread along Stewarton Water and through other parts of Ayrshire. With all the people visiting from different parts of the country, it is likely that visiting ministers took the move of God home with them, but there are no accounts. The fact that it lasted several years also inclines one to think that it spread widely.