This article looks at the characteristics of the awakening in Scotland in 1859. The topic of lay preaching is also discussed. 

Source: The Banner of Truth, 1985. 5 pages.

The Revival of 1859 in Scotland

1. Revival Arrives🔗

Again this night in sorrow of heart over the terrible carelessness, indifference, deadness of this "valley of dry bones". I have come to this again and again these two years: that unless the Lord pour out His Spirit upon the district, nothing will bring them out to hear and attend; and now we hear that this is the very thing which God is doing in the towns of Ireland. O my God, come over to Scotland and help us! O my Lord and Saviour, do like things among us in this city! I thank Thee, Holy Spirit, for working there. I thank Thee with all my soul, and I count Thy work there as in part the answer to our prayers here. But O my Lord, come to us also, if it seem good in Thy sight!

So wrote Andrew Bonar in his diary, on July 3rd 1859, in his Glasgow manse.

The work of God that Bonar so admired seems to have begun not in Ireland, but in America. As early as September 1858 a Scottish church magazine carried an account of the revival, drawn up by the Presbytery of New York. The characteristics of the work which persuaded the Presbytery that it was indeed the result of 'an outpouring of the Holy Ghost' included these:

A general seriousness has prevailed among the people. There has been a striking accessibility among almost all classes to approaches on the subject of salvation; there has been a hearty desire to be instructed in the things which belong to our eternal peace; there has been a conviction of sin in those esteemed moral and amiable, and a breaking up of that false peace which a merely outward morality had been conferring for years; there has been an evident quickening of the graces of God's people, particularly in the excitement of an unusual earnest­ness among them in behalf of the salvation of the perishing; there has been the reclamation of backsliders, and the ingathering of many into the church of God, who, in the judgment of charity, must be regarded as truly converted. And these results have not been confined to our own land. Evidence is not wanting that, in cases not a few, vessels, on entering our ports, have testified to the conviction and conversion of souls upon the wide sea.

Such a work was evident in all but two of the Presbytery's twenty-three churches.

From America the revival reached the north of Ireland, and Scottish believers then had first-hand reports of communities and churches in a state of awakening. In May 1859, John Cairns, minister of the United Presbyterian Church in Berwick, wrote to a friend describing his visit to Belfast for a meeting of the Evangelical Alliance. It was, he says,

the most interesting I have attended, chiefly through the extraordinary and almost miraculous impression of the Revival ... The whole of Ulster seems to be laid hold of by God and constrained for once to attend to the common and eternal truths of the Gospel ... On Saturday I preached at Monaghan to a congregation in a state of active revival. I never saw such impression in hearing the Gospel; but it was as strong before I had uttered a word as at the end of the day's services ... There is not a Protestant family in Monaghan but has family worship. Open sin in every form has disappeared. God grant that this may last; but it is almost too much for human nature...

Controversy soon surrounded the work in Ulster — largely because of the physical convulsions that were often associated with spiritual experience. But after a further visit to Ulster, Cairns could write again and give an informed assessment:

It is as if Bunyan's Grace Abounding had been translated into the experience of multitudes. Great differences exist in different places. Antrim and Down have been affected all but universally ... It is wonderful, even if not genuine; and its magnitude takes it out of the region of contempt and ridicule. I know no explanation of the phenomena but one — the working of the Spirit of God. Nature does not contain any epidemic so like to Christian conversion, and yet different; and even the unbeliever must admit that whatever goes by the name of conversion in quieter times is here reproduced on a larger and wider scale ... Hysteria or catalepsy will explain something of the bodily manifestations; but what pre­disposes the body to this visitation in connection with Christian doctrine? — or how does this explanation serve in the innumerable cases where there has been no bodily affection at all?' And he asks, Have the Protestants over a district embracing a million and a half of souls suddenly lost their senses, and become the victims of a delusion which is only at worst a warm and glowing utterance of ancient Christian truth?

The prayers of men such as Bonar and Cairns for a similar movement in Scotland were soon answered. By the end of August Bonar is writing of 'interesting news from the west' and of 'hopeful appearances among ourselves'.

The town of Saltcoats was one of the first in Scotland to be affected. Its situation on the south-west coast led a doctor to comment that the revival 'has come in just the track that cholera would have come, crossing the channel at its narrowest point, and appearing first on the coast of Ayrshire, from which, on a clear day, a keen eye can discern the coast of Antrim'. But this was no disease of death, painful though its initial symptoms were. Understandably, Bonar had less time for diary-writing, but a glimpse is sufficient:

Sept. 4th. Very solemn today ... six of the Sabbath school scholars in bitter distress.

Sept. 10th. This has been a remarkable week: every day I have heard of some soul saved among us; one on Sunday morning struck, and now in Christ. Several on Monday in deep concern. On Wednesday several spoke at the close of the meeting ... The Lord shows me that it is not even impressive words, but it is His power going along with the words. I have got some solemn teaching on that point this week. Glory to God!

Another place where the revival was early evident was the fishing village of Ferryden, near Montrose. Alexander Moody-Stuart visited the place later in the autumn and wrote:

There is now nothing whatever exciting here, but I never was in a place where I had such a sense of the Spirit both in preaching and in conversing with the people. There is a large number of awakened persons not yet brought to Christ, and I fear some in whom the awakening is subsiding without conversion. You will be thankful if you come. There are few things for which I feel more grateful. You will find it very quickening to your own soul; all is quite calm.

Two recent (and probably unsympathetic) historians have described the extent of the revival in Scotland:

The effects of the revival were weaker in Scotland than in Northern Ireland, but it made an impression in Glasgow, the Clyde Coast, Aberdeen, and the fishing villages of the east coast. The greatest impact was made on the United Presbyterian Church, where the number of prayer meetings doubled and the normal Sunday attendances increased by over 50% and remained at that level, but the revival cut across all church divisions and was unrestricted by the formidable class barriers of Victorian life.Bulloch & Drummond, The Church in Victorian Scotland, p 185

This 'minimum assessment' is nonetheless impressive. To it must be added the upsurge of evangelistic activity that occurred in places such as Moody-Stuart's own congregation in Edinburgh's  New Town. A Free Church writer reveals how widely that church was affected, as well as the U.P. Church:

It was during the year 1860 that Scotland generally experienced the power of a decided religious awakening. The mining districts and fishing villages of the east coast were the first to show the effects of the movement, which, however, soon made its presence felt in the towns and rural parishes. At the following General Assembly there were returns from more than 160 congregations, reporting either a decided awakening or a great increase of spiritual earnestness among the people.

2. Characteristics of the Awakening🔗

Prominent in the reports of those days was the preaching of evangelists such as Reginald Ratcliffe, Richard Weaver and, of course, Brownlow North. The content of their preaching may be gauged by North's two books — The Rich Man and Lazarus and Wilt thou go with this man? — a strong warning of the reality of judgment and hell, and a warm display of the love of Jesus. In Ireland North delivered some 50 addresses and 'the tendency of all his teachings and exhortations was to discountenance reliance upon mere feeling, to shut men up into the faith, and to exalt and magnify the written Word.'

Alexander Whyte had just finished studying for the ministry in 1860 and spent three years as a missioner in Huntly. Something of the char­acter of the revival and of the people engaged in the work may be gathered from his biographer's assessment that the two formative influences on him were, 'the '59 Revival which was still pulsing its new life through that richly favoured district, and ... Thomas Goodwin, the greatest pulpit exegete of Paul that has ever lived.'

Under the preaching of such men the revival was most prominently seen in the intensity of men's awareness of their sin. From Bonar's Sunday-school children in Glasgow to the fishermen of Ferryden there was a realization of the seriousness of sin and an experience of the heaviness of the burden of guilt. When, years later, people looked back on the events of '59 and '60,

the two marks of the Revival which recur constantly in the reminiscences of its survivors were a deep sense of sin and an intense experience of the power of prayer ... Nor did the sense of sin which became so keen at this time finally result in a gloomy or morbid religious outlook; for we are told that the spirit of joy and fellowship among those who had passed through these experiences was not less marked than the heart-searching with which they began.

Indeed, the depth of the conviction of sin was seen as a direct cause of the real and joyful assurance that characterized the converts: this was the testimony of a Dr Wilson concerning the people at Ferryden;

The awakening, especially among men, was very deep and widespread, and their sense of sin was often overwhelming. This gave a character of thoroughness to the whole work, and when at length light came, the people came out on the side of Christ brightly and boldly.

The sharp awareness of the sinfulness of sin produced other lasting results:

An old Highland minister said of a time of revival that during it they were "like men walking on ice" they had to be so watchful over every word and thought not to slip, and so to grieve the Spirit who was working amongst them and resting over them in his love. And if we pray for an awakening there must be the same care, for the least sin, or what might not be sin in all circumstances, may grieve the Holy Spirit, and it may be difficult to recover his presence again.

This work in the lives of individuals, when multiplied, had a consid­erable impact on whole communities. Here is the testimony of James Buchanan, a professor in the Free Church's New College:

For the last seventeen years I have been in the habit of preaching regularly, on the Lord's Day evening, in the open-air in Dumfries-shire (during the summer vacation). During those seventeen years ... I could not put my hand upon a single case of decided conversion. Last year, suddenly, and without apparently any human instrumentality to account for it, the whole district was visited with an outpouring of the Spirit of God. Now, in my immediate neighbourhood, I can point to many households where, for the first time, family worship has been established ... The whole morals of the district seem to have undergone a complete change. Some of those who came under religious impressions at that time may possibly have gone back and therefore it would not be right to report all these cases of transient awakening as if they were cases of true conversion to God. We must judge of them by their subsequent fruits; but at the same time, I know that intemperance and profligacy of all kinds have been checked, and that the minds of the whole community have become impressed and awed by a sense of Divine things.

3. The Revival and Lay-Preaching🔗

The new life, vigour and converts that the revival swept into the churches inevitably brought some tensions. In Aberdeen David Brown was a keen supporter of the work, but was concerned with two tendencies which he detected among the young converts:

  1. the ordinary services of our churches did not satisfy them, they were too formal and cold, and deficient in that social element which is so attractive to persons in their circumstances.
  2. under the warm play of the emotions at a revival time, there was some danger of forgetting the need for accurate knowledge; religion might become a mere matter of feeling instead of the product of a mind and heart united.

Brown's remedy for these problems was to begin a special meeting for the young converts, before the Sunday morning public worship. Useful though this may have been, one cannot help but feel that a more fund­amental change in the 'formal and cold' services was also needed.

Brown's concerns lead to an important question surrounding the 1859 revival — the prominence of lay-preachers. Bulloch and Drummond comment on these,

From one end of the (social) scale came Robert Cunningham, "the Briggate flesher", a former prize-fighter who had lost an eye in the boxing ring, and from the other end came men who, while scarcely aristocrats, had landed connections which won them a hearing in educated circles. For this second group the strong element of snobbery in Victorian society obtained an entry to the pulpit which, till now, had been a clerical preserve.

This development did not go unattacked. The magazine of the Original Secession Church, a conservative remnant from the movement begun by the Erskines, thundered against it:

In defiance alike of all the warnings that past history teaches, the declarations of the Word of God, and the warnings of eminent ministers of Christ, we are told by some persons that all hopes of the elevation and conversion of the masses, and the revival of religion, depend on the ministrations of lay-men, thus virtually ignoring both a regular ministry and the government of the Church by Kirk Sessions and other church courts; and our streets are placarded with flaming advertisements that "THE CONVERTED SWEEP"  "ONE OF THE ELEVEN OF ALL ENGLAND" – "THE FISHERMAN" – "THE FLESHER" – "THE YOUNG EVANGELIST" ... will address public meet­ings on the revival of religion. The opinions of the following eminent ministers of Christ, it is fondly hoped, may, by the Divine blessing, tend to check an evil which is fraught with most appalling results, if the future history of the Church is to resemble the past...

And there follow extracts from Rutherford, David Dickson, William Gurnall and John Love.

The Free Church also recognized that there was a problem with lay preachers. But she took a different approach, formally recognizing Brownlow North as an Evangelist and receiving him at her General Assembly, no less a theologian than William Cunningham being the Moderator that year.

The Free Church no doubt sought to maintain that church order which the Original Secession so jealously guarded, while recognizing the evident gifts and success which God had granted to a man such as Brownlow North. But in the long run it is clear that the 1859 revival was a factor in the demise of the old Reformed church order in Scotland and its replacement by 'modern evangelicalism'. However, before we dare blame the revival for this course of events, we should consider that much of the blame lies with the Reformed churches for failing to heed the lessons that the impact of the lay-preachers should have taught them. The preaching of the Scottish Presbyterian ministry in the mid-nine­teenth century had become so 'learned' and refined as largely to lose its cutting edge. Orthodox and polished it may have been, but gripping and bitingly relevant in its language and applications, it certainly was not, as an hour's browsing through its published specimens will reveal. It is little wonder if a 'Converted Sweep' or a 'Flesher' (i.e. a Butcher) should make impact on the ordinary people.

The problem was not merely one of language, but of the content and tone of evangelistic preaching. Introducing Brownlow North at a student's meeting in Edinburgh, Sir James Simpson quoted Thomas Chalmers' severe indictment of the majority of evangelical ministers — 'they do not know how to lay down the gospel so that a man of plain and ordinary understanding should know how to take it up'. Alexander Moody-Stuart was one minister who did learn lessons from the lay-preachers. His son writes that,

they in turn exercised a very beneficial influence on him. I can clearly recall that his preaching at this period became distinctly less introspective, and that while he had always preached a free salvation, the Gospel invitations and appeals which fell from his lips now became more full and free and touchingly persuasive ... He urged his hearers to embrace Christ, presenting him not only as portrayed on the apostolic or prophetic page, but also as known, trusted and loved by himself. A stranger, comparing him with a minister whom she valued, said, Mr. — shows me the way of salvation, but Dr Moody-Stuart comes down where I am, and seems to give me his hand over it.

No doubt there were others like the good minister of Free St. Luke's, but by and large the orthodox ministry in Scotland failed to see that the lay preachers were a challenge to their homiletics more than to their ecclesiology.

The revival which had such clear beginnings in its spread from Ulster had no clear end. Various areas of Scotland were the scene of intensified spiritual activity for a number of years following 1860, and for decades the churches of Scotland were strengthened by men and women who remembered with joy that great time and looked forward the more eagerly to the future great revival in which they firmly believed.

The year 1859 which saw the publication of Darwin's 'Origin of Species' was a year of God's grace. For all the blemishes there may have been, it was undoubtedly a time when, in Buchanan's words, 'new spiritual life was imparted to the dead, and new spiritual health imparted to the living'. Their involvement in such a season adds the more value to the writings of men like Buchanan, Cunningham, Bonar and Moody-Stuart, and it certainly undermines the slander that such men were dry academics, knowing nothing of spiritual power. The way they described the things that they experienced reveals men who had seen the fearful reality of sin and guilt, and who viewed the work of conversion in God-honouring terms:

At that time there came by the Spirit a quick perception of the nearness and freeness of saving grace. The presence of the Lord seemed to be diffused all around so as to draw a quick response to his voice even from those dead in sins, gloriously  fulfilling the words, "The hour now is when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and they that hear shall live.

We end, as we began, in the revealing pages of Andrew Bonar's diary:

Dec. 18th 1859. Called by an unexpected providence to visit Ferryden, where the Lord is working wonderfully. It is like the breath of warm sunshine upon ice and snow; the souls of men here are everywhere melted down. In the evening while preaching felt uncommon peace, joy, fulness.

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