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What happened in the 1859 Revival?

William Crawley | 09:23 UK time, Thursday, 26 February 2009

wr.jpegI took this picture of Ian Paisley yesterday at the launch of the new edition of his history of the 1859 Revival. Dr Paisley is standing in the vestry of Martyrs' Memorial Free Presbyterian Church, where we had just finished recording a fascinating interview about the revival, which you can hear on Sunday morning. He's wearing a very striking tie that was painted, for the occasion of the book launch, by his daughter, the artist Rhonda Paisley.

The year 1859 is perhaps better known as the year of publication of Darwin's Origin of Species -- which is being commemorated widely this year -- but the religious revival of that same year has a massive impact on the cultural landscape of Ireland. Some suggest that the revival produced as many as 100,000 converts, mostly in the north-east of Ireland.

It's fair to say that Ian Paisley is a child of the 1859 Revival. He came to faith in a Baptist church that was founded as a result of the revival -- just one of many churches in Northern Ireland that were established in an effort to respond to the new and growing population of churchgoers. If today's Northern Ireland is known for its conservative religious landscape, that landscape was in great measure shaped by the great religious revival of 1859. If you want to understand Protestantism (and particularly Presbyterianism) within Northern Ireland in the 20th century, you need to examine what happened in 1859.

Ian Paisley wrote his account of the revival in 1959, marking its centenary, and his text soon became an important work of reference for future students of the revival. Since then, there have been quite a few books and papers by historians, sociologists, psychologists, theologians and other specialists, which have examined this important moment in the history of Ireland from various religious and scientific perspectives.

A key question, and its one I explored with Dr Paisley, is why this awakening happened when it did. There seemed to be a domino effect of conversions, beginning with an earlier revival in the United States, which calls for some explanation. Was the economic crisis facing Ireland at the time part of the story? Did people turn to religion as a desperate response to that crisis? How do we explain the strange physical phenomena that accompanied the revival: people falling in their place inside churches or on the roads outside churches, sometimes crying, sometimes laughing, sometimes begging to be told how they may be "saved". Can these accounts be explained simply as "mass hysteria"?

I am currently doing some research into the revival for a BBC radio documentary to be broadcast later this year. It's a dramatic story and a remarkable episode in the religious history of Ireland which merits some serious investigation in this anniversary year. Feel free to add your views on the revival here -- or on religious revivals, construed more generally.


  • Comment number 1.

    It's fascinating to me that one of the most important sources for students of the revival today is a book written by a guy who wasn't there, 100 years after the fact. (Sounds like the gospels.) I haven't read Paisley's account, but I may read it now.

    Equally fascinating is the vigour with which many Christians disapprove of contemporary movements with similar physical phenomena to that of the revival which produced the very churches whose pews their asses are keeping warm on a weekly basis.

    Interesting world.

  • Comment number 2.

    John ... you could say the same about the resurrection. The most important sources are by people who weren't there, 100 years afterwards.

  • Comment number 3.

    Ah... revival, why do I feel cynical? Apart, of course, from the fact that I am cynical.

    John, I pretty much agree, apart from the fact that I accept the gospels as having biblical authority. One thing is clear however, the only revivals (I so want to use quotes marks when I write revival) which carry any validity are those which happened in one's own denomination in the past. The latest and weirdest is most definitely to be avoided, unless yours was the 'last and weirdest' and you're trying to revive your revival. (don't laugh!)

    I have to say, it mesmerizes me (in a, not revival, kind of way) that being 'prostrated was holy in 1859 yet heresy in 1999.

    As far as I'm concerned too many revivals (and I've seen a couple at first hand since 1859) are event driven and haven't really much to do with Christian life which was once explained in terms of giving cups of water in Christ's name.

    So, for anyone who is interested, here's my revival timeline of sorts, beginning of course with 1859.

    1859 - Presbyterian revival

    1906 - Pentecostal revival Azusa Street (disapproved of by Presbyterians)

    1960's - Charismatic revival (disapproved of by Pentecostals)

    1970's - Jesus people revival - (disapproved of by most churches)

    Early 1990's - Toronto revival - (disapproved of by everybody so far)

    Later 1990's - Brownsville revival - (ripped off from Toronto)

    21st Century - The gold tooth revival - (filling the churches for Jesus) (sorry!)

    Somewhere along the line we got carried away with the idea of 'revival' and forgot about the sermon on the mount and the gospels which, interestingly enough, ended with a religious leader called Jesus, who, by the end of his ministry, had, em, zip, zero, nada, zilch followers, cos they'd all run away; now, how's that for revival?

    BTW was there a revival in 1690? :-)

  • Comment number 4.

    And here's something I'd really, actually appreciate a serious answer to.

    Why are revivals only revivals when there's a boat load of people involved expressing some pretty extreme emotions in public?

    There's a thing, is there not, in the sermon on the mount again about not announcing good deeds in public about not turning prayer into a show and about God knowing what we need before we ask.

    Sorry to be a party pooper.

  • Comment number 5.


    I may have to disagree with you on this one, although I'm no revival devotee.

    I think it's to do with vast numbers of people all experiencing the same thing at the same time, namely, some kind of spiritual awakening to God. There's certainly some biblical precedent for this - implicitly and explicitly, generally and specifically - though the practical outworking of theology is the real stickler in most churches. But I would argue that 'revival' (and I'd certainly join you in using quote marks around that word!) could well be the truest form of religious expression; the original, before it is routinized.

    By the way, this may help us to define 'church': a place where things that were once naturally occurring and spontaneous are turned into weekly, rehashed regimens.

    The 'routinization of charisma', according to Max Weber.

  • Comment number 6.


    (Have you been converted or something?)

    I am attempting, quite deliberately, to redefine 'revival'.

    I get the, large number of people doing a religious thing, equals 'revival' (I've seen it up close) What I don't get and, frankly, I don't want to get it, is the revival mania, however staid and Presbyterian that mania can be, relating to historical revivals.

    Some people are having events to commemorate the 1859 revival for goodness sake. What's that all about? Paisley's written a book, gee wizz! (It's nine pounds ninety nine plus three fifty post and packing, ten pounds post if you live in the US.) There's a couple of web sites I've come across, on one sermon the guy said that he was standing on 'revival ground' in Ulster.

    I wouldn't be surprised if somebody turned the site of the schoolhouse in Kells into some kind of Protestant shrine.

    John, you know and I know that being kind to people, without getting noticed, is, easier, and harder. As is praying at home without boasting about it in church.

    I'm not saying there can't or shouldn't be emotion, I'm just tired of the show.

    BTW I'm happy to redefine 'church' too.

  • Comment number 7.

    Yes Will, but who in the of Sam Hill is (cough) "Dr" Paisley?

  • Comment number 8.


    Another 'frog in the throat'?

    Honey and lemon dude, honey and lemon!


  • Comment number 9.

    Here's another question.

    Could we celebrate the 161st anniversary of the revival in 2020?

    We could call it twenty twenty vision!

    Why 161st? Well, it gives us the option of a good slogan and it's as arbitrary as 150.

  • Comment number 10.

    Augustine of Clippo,
    "You could say the same about the resurrection....."

    No you absolutely could not say the same about the resurrection.

    There were NO witnesses to the resurrection. What was written in the scriptures about this matter are referred to as a. The empty tomb narratives or b. The appearance narratives.

    There is no such thing as witnesses to the resurrection, apostolic or otherwise.

  • Comment number 11.

    Thank you Peter for your advice!

    And you know what it is actually working!


  • Comment number 12.

    This piece reminded me of John Nevin's letter from Tennessee in 1804:

    "You complain of a declension of religion in me which I may, with shame, acknowledge in part, but such religion as we have here none of you have ever seen. I was yesterday at a Sacrament (and exercise as they call it) but not so bad as some other meetings I have been at. We have them here for days as if dead being struck down; Others break into the greatest raptures of prayer, the Minister being obliged to quit preaching; and at their meetings you can see them dancing, running, jumping, jerking and twitching like a person in a violent convulsive fit. With praying, singing, and shouting glory glory as loud as they can bawl, and wringing and clapping their hands and such conduct as is rarely seen in religious worship, and I wish it may be by the direction of Heaven. In my present attempt it is as far beyond my tongue and pen to describe as you may think I am beyond anything you have ever seen, and although it hath alarmed me yet I cannot approve of it as God is a God of order and not of confusion."


  • Comment number 13.

    No-one has yet commented on the tie. Will, Rhonda Paisley may claim to be an artist, but it looks absolutely hideous. I don't know much about art, but my 6 year-old could do better. Rhonda needs a new job. Environmental researcher for Sammy Wilson? Science advisor to Mervyn Storey? Stilts procurer for Jeffrey Donaldson?

    But artist? *ARTIST*??

  • Comment number 14.

    It certainly is an eye-catching tie, and not necessarily in a good way.

    My grandfather was such an Answers In Genesis devotee that he used to buy their ties which looked a little like Paisley's (above), depicting certain scenes from creation. Like THIS ONE for example. Ill-advised as they were, they certainly set him apart at his church, where the average pew-dweller looked like they were about to keel over from sheer boredom, and whose ties reflected it.

  • Comment number 15.

    Now, now, Helio, no need to criticise holy relics. BTW, stilts and Jeffery, what's the link here?


    Answers in Genesis? do you not mean Answers in Merchandise?


    Interesting extract and link to letter. In fact in a sermon, available online, Mr. Paisley, reported that during the '59 revival the sound of the preacher and of prayers was drowned out because of the moaning of the people. This was explained in terms of people moaning because they were overwhelmed by a sense of their sin, but, for me, there are simply too many similarities between many of these revival events and recent ones which are regularly ignored, or explained away.

  • Comment number 16.


    John Nevin had only been in the USA for a few years. He was on the losing side here in 1798.

  • Comment number 17.

    I am sorry. This comment may well make a lot of people quite angry (though that is not the actual point). But I cannot believe what seems to me a meaness of spirit or a cynical disregard for others seemingly appearing in some of these blogs. Can others not see? (Or is it a case of "there's none so blind . . ." ?) To be blunt, neither I nor anyone anywhere else (ever!) need actually AGREE with something to still recognise its serious importance and its impact (on ourselves and/or on others). [Please, please, please let us show more respect.] Furthermore, can we, also, please avoid [and how many times does this happen?]ridiculously "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" once again, simply because of something with which we cannot agree: so opinions, beliefs, feelings, support for or rejection, etc., of other (SO-CALLED) "revivals" seem to me to be actually absolutely, utterly and totally irrelevant (or perhaps even worse) to a proper discussion on/of the 1859 Happening; therefore, please, can we stop weak comparisons using any of this irelevance; hence veiled referencs either to Toronto, etc., or to "revival meetings" (which simply, in relative terms, failed?) [or using whatever other (irrelevant) paper tigers other people want to put up] are all so so so pale, compared to a proper consideration of something that actually transformed whole societies and nations and politics, and umpteen individual lives, possibly utterly so. Overall, can we please avoid any comments which just come over as cynical (and, actually, are really quite weak) but which actually seem either to issue out of some form of modern-day arrogance or otherwise appear to be on the level of a relatively immature debate.

    Something really did HAPPEN (let us simply face that in a adult fashion). And that something has not yet been fully or totally explained! (Talk of mass hysteria also does not help.) What happened seems also quite courageous, quite wonderful, quite life-changing, quite society/world-changing (and so on); and this may have been so for millions and millions of people, right across the globe. [I do find it so arrogant and so petty, even very very very rude, that some disregard other people in such a cavalier fashion; again, this shows such lack of respect.] [And, actually also, perhaps especially when what really happened may even be more incredible than could ever be properly described in any kind of blog]

    What happened really changed and has shaped OUR and others' present (never mind that period's or another period's present, which is of course our and others' pasts). And, moreover, the 1859 (& previous Methodist, etc.) Happening(s) is/are still relevant to OUR future, not less our present or our or others' past.

    REVOLUTION HAPPENED, mate, or something even more incredible. The 1859 Happening therefore cannot simply be dismissed, ignored or otherwise papered over, cynically or otherwise.

  • Comment number 18.


    Thankyou for you comment, at least now we might be able to have some kind of debate about the issue of revival. You are right about my cynicism, but it is not a matter of disrespecting you or anyone else, it is born of two things, one - frustration at trying to have rational conversations about such issues, and two, it is a deliberate attempt to provoke a reaction about something which I believe to be quite important, the life and witness of the Christian Church.

    Now let's think about the 1859 revival in a bit more detail. I think it's fair to say that in conservative Protestant circles, 1859, is remembered with fondness, and probably seen as something of a focal point for hopes and aspirations. I've certainly heard it spoken of all my christian life, and in reasonably 'hallowed' terms at that, as if it is something we must return to, and if only we could, then things would be better.

    But, is this really the case? Must we always look back to see a church which is alive? And do these revival events really constitute christian life? I'm not so sure, for one thing we don't read of mass religious revivalist events or movements in the bible. So I set out to do a couple of things on this thread, one to draw parallels with other 'revivals' condemned as heresy by mainstream denominations, and two, to ask the question, what really is revival and how would we know one if we saw one? You are the first person to really pick up the topic.

    Now I know that my revival 'timeline' in post 3 was a bit flippant, but it was also pretty accurate! Presbyterians (I am one) are not Pentecostals or Charismatics. And I've heard these Christians condemned from Presbyterian pulpits. (theologically speaking however I have a lot of sympathy for the Penecostal/Charismatic view) Almost all mainstream churches rejected 'Toronto', 'Brownsville' and so on, and I would say that this was the right thing to do. However I also find it a little strange that no one wants to see any parallels between 1859 and some of these other more 'freakish' events. Surely the quote I gave from Mr. Paisley above about the preaching of God's word being drowned out by moaning would be unacceptable in many churches if it happened today, I would certainly find it uncomfortable, and I've seem quite a few things in my Christian life. Yes, something definitely did happen in 1859, but a sentimental remembrance of it will not do us any good today, especially when other churches have had their 'revivals' ignored. I fear that aspects of 1859 and aspects of other more contemporary movements are closer than we wish to acknowledge.

    I'm also concerned with the whole concept of revivals being seen in terms of religious events. We already have the Bible to explain to us what the Christian life is and the focus of the bible is the Kingdom of God and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Surely we're not supposed to be focused on revival, surely we're supposed to be focused on Jesus? Jesus is the one in whom spiritual life is found, and this spiritual life changes, or should change our lives so that we are people who can forgive and be forgiven, people who love our enemies, embrace the outcast, people who extend grace to others; and this is the bit which frustrates me, I've been part of the evangelical Christian Church all my life, mostly conservative churches, and Im sorry, but I don't hear much if any talk of the Kingdom and the principles of Kingdom living.

    So yes, I'm cynical about a lot of this, but really, you don't think that organizing 1859 commemoration meeting is going to help us much?

    My contention is this, it is not the '1859' or any revival which transforms society, it is the gospel of Jesus Christ.



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