The English Revival 1859-65

This account needs to be read in conjunction with the reports on this revival in the other home countries. There are also going to be films on this revival.


The start of the revival in England is much more difficult to relate as there does not seem to be a clear story here. The other three countries have very clear beginning but England doesn’t, and the reason for this is that virtually nobody seems to have written about the revival in this nation. Apart from Edwin Orr’s book, The Second Evangelical Awakening in Britain written in 1949, I cannot find anything written on the subject. Orr’s main source was ‘The Revival’ weekly newspaper that started in July 1859 in order to record the revival in the UK. It was wonderful, as far as it went, but on its own admission, due to its size of 8 pages, it did not have the room to publish all the revival accounts it was sent and then of course there were all the stories that were never sent to them.

A sign of what was coming took place in Hayle, Cornwall through the ministry of William Haslam. There was a revival in his church from 1857 until he left in 1860. The first united prayer meetings I have read about were in Newcastle in September 1858, and then in Scarborough in July 1859. In August a revival went on in the Staffordshire collieries, 500 being saved in one place and a big revival seems to have started in Newcastle in October, with 1,300 being saved in one month, in one church.  Revivals broke out here and there towards the end of 1859, particularly in about 4 Primitive Methodist Circuits. Most of the revivals were ignited by regular prayer or by testimony about what was going on in America or Ulster. The light that seemed to start the fire, particularly in London, was the worldwide prayer meeting that took place in the whole second week of 1860.

The Revival newspaper gave about a half of its space for reporting on the revival in England, to London. This is not really surprising considering it had 2.8 million people, which was nearly seven times as big as the two next biggest cities of Glasgow and Liverpool. Although there are many accounts of revival in England I do not get the feeling of the country being on fire, as I do with the other three countries. I have spent some time puzzling over this and have come up with the following thoughts. Ulster and Wales in particular are tiny countries, so it is likely that the news of what was going on in different areas would have been spread very quickly and compared to England the other three countries had hardly any large cities, only Glasgow, Edinburgh and Belfast were over 100k. This meant that that they were made up mostly of small towns and villages where communities were much more prevalent. In communities people congregate together and they know each other well, so when someone gives their life to the Lord they are aware of that person’s history, so they have an understanding of the true miracle that has taken place when their friend’s life is turned around. Revival is therefore likely to burn through the whole community.

One pastor explains the beginning of a revival - "Indications of revival were observed in the quiet stillness which pervaded the congregation, in the earnest desire and deep anxiety of the members to see among them a general awakening, in the extraordinary spirit of prayer which was poured out upon the people and their faith in the efficacy of prayer, and in some mysterious influence, almost irresistible, which I felt upon my own mind, by which, for some time before. I was all but impelled to preach to my people from certain subjects preparatory to the coming blessing, "

Prayer was the key to the revival in England as well as the other home countries and many children were involved.  - "They cannot but pray; they are filled with the spirit of prayer, and consequently they pray with an unction and a readiness, and frequency, and earnestness, which must strike with astonishment all who hear them"

As in other parts of the UK, people started united prayer meetings on hearing the revival news from different areas. In London daily meetings were organised in Crosby Hall in September 1859 and by the end of the year there were 120 prayer meetings in London, a quarter of them daily, the rest weekly. The numbers grew until it was better to ask where wasn’t there a prayer meeting. The movement was unprecedented. After a year there were less large prayer meetings, probably because people were out there doing stuff.

Unlike anywhere else, people got together to plan how to reach the vast numbers in London. One of the most successful ideas was to hire theatre’s and halls to hold meetings for the workers and the poor during the winter season, people who generally had never set foot in a church before. This was only possible because the Earl of Shaftesbury had promoted a bill four years earlier that allowed Christian meetings in un-consecrated buildings. At the beginning of 1860 he formed a committee and by the end of February they hired seven theatres where 20k people heard the gospel every Sunday. For the upper and middle classes, St Paul’s, the Abbey and two halls were hired in the West End. Seeing how successful these meetings were others hired Halls and Theatres across London, until there were about 20 venues being hired and an estimated million people heard the gospel each season. 

Generally speaking these Sunday services were led by itinerant revivalists such as the amazing Reginald Radcliffe and Richard Weaver. Wherever they went the venues could not hold the numbers who wanted to get in and many gave their lives to Jesus in each service. Although testimonies were often given during the services, they were dominated by preaching.

As well as these large general meetings there were initiatives all over the capital to reach different groups. One of the best was the midnight meetings that were held monthly. These were meetings for prostitutes. A team would go out onto the streets and offer invitations to the women to come to the meeting. They normally had 150-300 attend and in the first year there were 19 meetings, 4,000 attended, 23k tracts, 89 back home, 75 jobs, 6 married, 81 in refuges, plus others who were helped out of the business. This movement spread and it is estimated that 1,000 prostitutes were rescued.

Another group went in twos in carriages to different streets – they would hop out and preach the gospel and then go on to another street; when it rained they visited homes and then held meetings in the evenings. Another group held special meetings for lamplighters, another to 1,000 people while they picked hops. Probably my favourite was a man called boatswain Smith, who took a boat out into the port among other boats, blew his boatswain’s whistle, attracting the sailors’ attention and then he preached the gospel from his little boat. People held meetings in schools, hospitals, parks, factories and orphanages – just about anywhere where there were unsaved people.

It is not known how many were saved in London, but clearly a great proportion were reached with the gospel. One person wrote ‘There must be a great deal of good doing in London, for one can hardly pass the end of a street of a fine evening or of a Sunday, without hearing someone preaching and not only men but women."

The revival in London seems to have been pretty powerful the whole of 1860 and 1861. At the end of 1861 Reginald Radcliffe wrote - "as regards the present movement, far ahead of our large provincial towns. There is no one to take the lead as here. I have never seen any part of Scotland or Ireland more ripe for blessings than many parts of England are now. The Holy Ghost has been moving over thousands, convincing them of sins and now they want to be gathered in.’

Manchester and Liverpool were heavily involved in the revival, but not until later. Charles Finney, the American revivalist had good meetings in Manchester in July 1860 and James Caughey in Liverpool a couple of months earlier, but it appears that both cities did not really get going until autumn 1861. At that time Radcliffe and Weaver, plus other revivalists, spent some months in the two cities; creating the breakthrough that they had been longing for. Then local evangelists came in to build on what had been done. Radcliffe organised Halls to be hired in Liverpool in the autumn of 1861 and halls were also taken in Manchester. These had the same importance as they did in London, in that they enabled poor people, who never set foot in a church, to hear the gospel. The main intensity went on for about a year.

In Manchester, in October 1862, the Manchester City Mission was holding weekly 30 minute meetings amongst 40 different groups - 4 bands of night oil men, 1 gas men, 1 lamp lighters, 1 water mains, 1 omnibus drivers, 1 carters, 9 railway porters, 4 divisions of police officers, 1 cabmen, 1 prison, 1 hospital, 2 dye works, 1 tan yard, 5 breweries, 1 steel works, 1 rope maker. As in London they tried to reach everyone and I assume this happened elsewhere in the cities/

In the other big English cities, I cannot find much for Birmingham, Leeds and Sheffield, but Bristol seems to have been very active in the revival.

Around the country the Revival newspaper was often read out to encourage people and fires were lit through the testimonies in it.  One of the biggest local revivals was through William and Catherine Booth in West Cornwall 1861/2, thousands were saved. I suspect that the revival in Hayle the previous year had a lot to do with Booth's success. 

One group of evangelists were the Woolwich boys. They were from a boys refuge and several were saved in 1859. Groups of them were invited to speak all around the country and many a fire was lit by their testimonies. Radcliffe was constantly calling for more evangelists; undoubtedly there would have been more saved in England had there been more workers.

The revival carried on in different parts of the country into 1866, The Newcastle revival was still going on in 1865.. This was much longer than in the other home countries, possibly because it began later and because it had much further to travel across England. One of the biggest revival was in Suffolk under the ministry of William Haslam (see this website); he arrived in 1863 and had meetings every night for eight months and the revival went on until about 1871.

There was a significant increase in philanthropy during this period and in years afterwards. There was a considerable down turn in the economy due to the knock on effects of the American Civil War and considerable hardship was experienced, particularly in Lancashire, so there was a considerable effort to raise money for those who were suffering.

Edwin Orr did some research to work out how many were saved in this revival in England. The figures he came up with were Church of England 250k (a calculated guess), Baptists 100k, Congregationalists 70k, Methodists 200k = 620k – Excluded from these figures would normally have been children, of whom there were many, emigrants, existing members of churches who were converted in the revival and those who did not join a church. 

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