FACTS AND IMPRESSIONS.
BY THE REV. JOHN PILLARS, PERTH.
I HAVE been much struck with the deep interest excited in this country by the revival in Ireland. I dare say it is in part from curiosity, but I believe it is to a great extent from a deeper and better source. Many a one has a feeling somewhat like this, If others be so blessed, why may not I? And so, many are willing to believe what they hear of this marvellous work, because they themselves would get hope from it, but are afraid the news is too good to be true. There are others more sceptical. The spiritual work has been so sudden and so great, and it has been so mixed up with dreams, and visions, and various bodily affections, that they cannot believe there can be much good about it. To show that the work is real and true, I will mention a few of the prominent features of it, such as came under my own notice and impressed themselves upon my own mind.
I would mention, as an important and significant fact, the general and earnest desire to hear the Word of God. Everywhere, in town and country, the people were prepared to listen to the preaching of the Word. Speaking to one minister about it, he said, "Were we to appoint a meeting on a mountain-top, the people would come. There is no difficulty in getting them to come. We will rather have to take means to abate the desire for meetings than to increase it." Generally, too, such meetings are pervaded by a deep and reverent stillness, indicating an earnest desire to hear the Divine message. Sometimes they have been protracted far into the night, not because protracted meetings were thought desirable, but because the people were unwilling to depart. A desire to hear the Word of God will naturally be accompanied by desire to read it, and this has been the case. The sale of Bibles and religious books has greatly increased. I asked a young man what change he had observed, particularly among young men in the district where he resided. He mentioned several, such as the abandonment of profane swearing and drinking; and added, " The young men have taken to reading their Bible, and I know a number, that cannot read, who have gone to school that they may be able to read the Bible." Now, such a desire to read and hear the Word of God implies a good deal.
Closely connected with it is a second and very significant fact: a readiness to speak upon religion as a personal concern.
Along with meetings for preaching and prayer there are frequent opportunities given for conversation with Christian ministers and Christian friends on matters of personal religion. I was surprised at the number of persons who came to seek, in personal intercourse, counsel and guidance. Old and young came; the dissipated as well as the staid and moral; some heavily burdened, and scarcely able to control the painful emotion that led them to seek Christian counsel; others feeling that all was not right with them, and resolving to be right; others scarcely so far as that, but interested through what they saw in others, and desirous of guidance. Now, when men are thus disposed to speak of their own religious state, it indicates deep spiritual concern. I have, indeed, more than once heard it said, that this readiness to speak upon religion as a thing of personal concern, is owing to the frankness of the Irish character. Perhaps a very little may be put down to this cause, but the congregations I had an opportunity of addressing were as staid and sober as any I have ever seen. Besides, we were more than once told that a few months ago people could not have spoken to each other on religious subjects as they do now. It would have been deemed an insult. The fact is that the tone of feeling has risen, and men can speak freely to each other, because they feel more deeply. "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh."
Then, again, the deep conviction of sin through which many have passed is a remarkable feature of the present movement. Those who are better acquainted with the experiences of the people than a passing visitant can be, say, that if we distinguish between the fear of consequences and a sense of sin, it is the latter rather than the former that is characteristic of the present time. I am disposed to believe it is so and it seems to me peculiarly significant and hopeful. There is a great distinction between fear of consequences and a sense of sin or of sinfulness. Both are right, but a sense of sin goes to the heart of the matter and gives incomparably more hope that sin will be given up. It is a sad thing when, either in experience or in preaching, the consequences of sin are more thought of than sin itself. I believe the burden so many in Ireland have felt has been the burden of sin.
Much has been said of prostrations. I think that in not a few cases these have arisen from other causes than a sense of sin, but in many cases the bodily affection was a natural effect of great spiritual trouble. Speaking with one on the subject, he said, "I was not prostrated, but a great distress came upon me, such an oppression about my heart that I felt as if I could have torn it out. I felt a weight upon me as if I were about to be crushed down into the earth." When I asked him the cause of his distress, he said—" It was my sinfulness." There have been many such experiences, but many too with but little distress, for there is great variety in the experiences of different persons, some passing through a brief period of terrible agony, others through protracted distress, while others again waken up to life like a child awaking from sleep. Where there has been distress I believe it has been to a great extent on account of sin. And it is not to be wondered at, when men are awakened to see what they are, and what a life they have led, that the soul should be stricken through with many sorrows.
Once more, it is remarkable how the converts have come out of darkness into light—out of great trouble into great peace. The change is to be seen even in their countenance and bearing. Sometimes, on speaking a word or two to one who has passed through the change, a strange joy comes over his countenance, a peculiar tenderness gushes out, and his eye melts into liquid depths. The new life sheds itself upon the outward man. But what are the springs of this peace? When men have been lifted up in a great joy, they often sink into great depression; and, on the other hand, great depression has its reaction, and is naturally followed by a time of quiet gladness or tumultuous joy. May this peace not arise from the reaction from the great distress In part it may; yet I believe we may describe the grounds of it in the words of Scripture—" We who believe do enter into rest;" "Being justified by faith we have peace with God; " " Whom having not seen ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory." This last passage is peculiarly pertinent, as expressing the joyful recognition of a living Saviour. I have nothing to say against the religious life based upon thorough doctrinal teaching. We cannot do without such teaching. Doctrines are the description of a person, the systematised expression of what Christ is. But then, in times of fresh life and feeling, the doctrines seem to gather around the Living Person; and we do not think so much of truths as of Him that is true; and faith is a clinging to the living and present Saviour. So the early disciples felt towards their ascended Lord, so too Paul who had not seen Christ in the flesh, and so do men in all times of fresh, strong life. These converts have before them the vision of Christ the Saviour, and it is no marvel that having first looked upon themselves and their own sin, and then upon the Divine Saviour, their life should become peaceful and sunny. It could scarcely be otherwise. It ought not to be otherwise I cannot forbear to notice the extraordinary elevation and enlargement many of the converts experience in prayer. Men who never prayed before, who had little religious knowledge, and particularly little knowledge of Scripture, when their mouth is opened to express the new life within, show such acquaintance with themselves and with the Word of God, have such thoughts and such utterance as lifts them, not only far above themselves but makes ripe Christians stand by humbled and amazed. Walking one evening with a Christian friend, and overhearing the mingled utterances of what seemed to be a first prayer, my friend took occasion to speak of this liberty in prayer. "I can account," he said, "for everything I have seen but these prayers. Prostrations, visions, predictions, are all less marvellous to me than these prayers. If anything in the present movement transcends the natural operations of the mind, these do." What are we to think of them? When you carry a light into a dark cave, the stalactites and crystals, hidden there, gleam out in splendour; when the Divine Spirit brings the light of life into the soul, portions of truth, hidden there by a mother's affection, by brotherly sympathy, by Divine teaching,—most precious gems, of many colours and of wondrous lustre,—shine out amid the darkness, and bewilder the beholder with a spectacle of 'sublime and disordered beauty. There is nothing miraculous in such unwonted experience. There are many precious things in our souls that we, with our worldly ways, little dream of. Let the soul only be lit up with the light of heaven, and it will be found a glorious habitation, gemmed about with all manner of precious things, a meet residence for the King of kings. I do not wonder that, when God gives grace to a man, deep springs should be opened in his soul, and free utterance given to him to tell what God hath done for him.
I must say something of the singular mental and physical features that have characterised this movement. I am disposed to say of them as a young woman in Ireland is reported to have said,—"They're naething, sir, they're naething." Their singularity has led to their being more spoken of than either their number or importance warrants. We were assured that in Londonderry there were fifty cases of conversion for one of prostration. I see that Mr Moore, of Ballymena, estimates them in that district at one in twenty. Perhaps in some other places the proportion might be higher—say one in ten. Taking it at the highest, there is a great spiritual work altogether distinct from these affections.
A word or two-as to these singular phenomena. In the public meeting, in the domestic circle, by the way, in the fields, strong men, as well as delicate women, have been stricken down, and become helpless as a child. There have been dreams and visions too; there has been the temporary loss of one or more of the senses; and sometimes also strange predictions as to when these states would come, and when depart. These I believe to be credibly established facts, be the explanation what it may. Some give a rough and ready explanation—that they are of the devil. Others, and some in Ireland, lean to this view, that they are special means employed by God to arouse attention to spiritual things. That God has made use of them for that end, I do not doubt; but the question as to their immediate cause still remains. To understand them, we must bear in mind the great spiritual work out of which they grow. That work is the central thing, and is the key to unlock the mystery. The Spirit of God is -brooding over men's- souls; a new life is breaking in upon men's souls; an old life is breaking up there; there is sharp collision, deadly conflict, mortal agony. The conflict is peculiarly sharp, sudden, and concentrated,—is often a purely spiritual conflict; but sometimes, as great emo¬tions of all kinds do, the spiritual distress comes down upon the body, and gives rise to such affections as we see. This I believe to be the origin of these affections; and so, at first, you could scarcely say that they were either healthy or unhealthy; they merely indicated the presence of great conflict and emotion. But their rise is one thing, their spread another. They have spread through sympathy, and have been experienced by some who had no spiritual concern, and, in this second stage, are fitted to work harm; and, in point of fact, both have done, and been the occasion of injury to the spiritual work with which they are associated.
As to predictions, I believe the key to them will be found in a well-known fact,—namely, that there are persons who, before sleeping, can fix the hour of awaking and keep it. To themselves and to others, there seems to intervene a time of utter unconsciousness, but beneath the unconsciousness there is an undercurrent, a living connexion, that wakes them up at the time fixed. So here the predictions fulfil themselves. Between them and the fulfilment, there intervenes a time of unconsciousness; but there is an undercurrent, a living connexion, which I believe will account for all the strange experiences that have been passed through.
If we ask of the whole work what moral changes it has produced as evidences of its healthfulness and power, the answer is satisfactory. Drinking has been sensibly lessened by it everywhere; profane swearing too. We did not hear an oath in Ireland except from an English gentleman. Licentiousness has also been abated. The spirit of strife between Catholic and Protestant, and the feuds between various Protestant sects, have been hushed. In short, I believe that moral and social duties generally have felt the invigoration of new life; and the new life has proved itself genuine and powerful by its fruits, so far as there has been time for fruit.
If, then, these things be so—if "the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force"—if drunken, profane, licentious, worldly men are entering into it, wondering to find themselves there redeemed and changed men, what shall we say—what can we say—but that henceforth, God helping us, our life shall be built up upon the foundation laid in Zion? We will trust in Him who is working such salvation in the earth, and seek, by earnest prayer and earnest work, that times of refreshing may come to us also from His presence.
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.