“We will not hide them from their children, showing to the generation to come the praises of the Lord, and His strength, and His wonderful works that He hath done…That the generation to come might know them, even the children which should be born; who should arise and declare them to their children: That they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God “(Ps. 78:4-7).
From an awakening in New York state in 1858, a torch was passed across the Atlantic to a band of praying men in Ulster and Wales. The awakening in Wales seemed to stay with Wales, and did not have the effect on the British Isles like the work in Northern Ireland did. Ulster was to be the epicenter of a movement that radiated into Scotland and parts of England.
Among the common saints who did extraordinary things at this time was a farmer named Jeremiah Meneely (1832-1917).
When Jerry was a young man, theological liberals had made a push to legitimize Unitarian heresies in Northern Ireland. To battle this threat, God raised up Henry Cooke, who ably debunked these evil doctrines. As other orthodox men shook off their lethargy and stood for truth, young believers were emboldened, giving themselves to prayer and preaching. The church of God in Northern Ireland had come too close to the precipice, and godly believers saw the need to reclaim lost ground.
In the words of one Ulsterman, “God’s promise is, ‘I will pour water upon him that is thirsty; and floods upon the dry ground.’ But He declares, ‘I will yet for this be inquired of…to do it for them.’ To your posts then at the throne of grace, all ye that be the Lord’s remembrancers! Jehovah has promised floods–let us not be satisfied with drops.”
Jeremiah’s conversion was tied to the experience of his close friend, James M’Quilkin, who was won to Christ in December, 1856. A Christian from England, named Mrs. Coville, had been witnessing in the area, and was told by Meneely, James M’Quilkin was a fatalistic Calvinist who feared that Mrs. Colville was not teaching straight Calvinistic doctrine. He asked her whether she was a Calvinist or not.
“I would not wish,” she replied, “to be more or less a Calvinist than our Lord and His apostles. “But,” she continued, “I do not care to talk on mere points of doctrine. I would rather speak of the experience of salvation in the soul. If one were to tell me what he knows of the state of his heart toward God, I think I could tell him whether he knows the Lord Jesus savingly.”
While James groped for an answer to Mrs. Colville, a woman interjected with her own questions to Mrs. Colville. As James listened, he realized that this woman’s problem was identical to his own. As the woman unburdened her story, James wondered what Mrs. Colville would say. After a brief pause, Mrs. Colville bluntly said, “My dear, you have never known the Lord Jesus.” James then knew that the same could have been said to him. A few weeks later, James believed the gospel.
Jeremiah Meneely was speaking to a friend about the change that James experienced. Besides abandoned various worldly pleasures, the disturbing thing to them was that he had stopped raising roosters for cock fighting, and that he claimed “God had cleansed him from all his sins.” To these hyper-calvinists this was intolerable presumption. Jeremiah took James aside to reason with him, but instead discovered that a supernatural change had occurred with James.
Not long after, Jeremiah was sitting in his farm house reading John 6, saying, “If only I knew I was one of the elect.” Reading verse 37, “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me,” he broke in, “there it is again, how can I know I am a given one?” Then he read the second half of the verse, “And him that cometh unto Me I will in no wise cast out.” And he seemed to hear, “What are you doing now; aren’t you coming to Me?” He slapped his knee and shouted, “I see it now” and he stood up, sure that God had forgiven him, too. The year was 1857.
This was the beginning of the prayer meetings in Kells schoolhouse. James had begun reading George Muller’s Narative which related God’s answers to prayer in maintaining the Bristol orphan work. James was challenged, and prayed for a spiritual companion. At the start, four met: Robert Carlisle, Jeremiah Meneely, James M’Quilkin, and John Wallace. They knelt to pray regularly in the old school house in Kells, County Antrim. One by one new converts joined the group and all the men were encouraged to participate as they met for Scripture reading, prayer, and meditation.
In The New York Observer, they read the news reports of a great revival sweeping America, and they passed around Finney’s Lectures on Revival, Muller’s Narrative, and Bonar’s The Memoirs of Robert Murray M’Cheyne. Their prayers took on focus, as they realized that God was willing to answer as He did George Muller, Finney and M’Cheyne. The tales of the Kilsyth and Dundee Revivals in 1839 under William Burns also encouraged thern to trust God for similar blessings.
Meneely said the purpose of the Kells prayer meeting was for a work of the Holy Spirit similar to these reports. “The prayer meeting was started in the autumn of 1857, and continued for three months before there were any visible results. Two more men joined in the prayer meeting during that time. One was an old man named Marshal and the other was a young man named Wassan. On New Year’s Day, 1858, the first conversion took place as a result of the prayer meeting, but after that there were conversions every night. At the end of the year 1858, about fifty young men were taking part in the prayer meeting…This was the one great object and burden of our prayers. We held right to the one thing and did not run off to anything else. The Presbyterian minister (John H. Moore) was favorable to us all the time, but many of the people ridiculed our praying for the outpouring of the Spirit, saying that He had already been poured out on the day of Pentecost. But we replied that the Lord knew what we wanted, and we kept right on praying until the power came.”
At first the hush of God was upon these meetings. Without any spectacular outbreak, spiritual thirst and prayerfulness took hold, and burned with a quiet, steady intensity. John Moore’s brother, Samuel, counted 16 prayer meetings held nightly, or about 100 weekly, in his parish.
The four original participants of the prayer meetings became the leaders of a band of converts. Seeing crowds of unconverted come out the four bantered among themselves who should preach to them. With his clear strong voice Jerry Meneely was chosen to speak. He agreed on the condition that the others would pray. It was a remarkable meeting, as Jerry reported afterwards, “I yelled, they prayed, and God worked.”
How did God work? By deep conviction of sin. In Ballymena, Samuel Moore said, “I found the town in a state of great excitement. Many families had not gone to bed for two or three previous nights. From dozens of houses, night and day, you would hear when passing along loud cries for mercy by those under conviction, or the voice of prayer by kind visitors, or the sweet soothing tones of sacred song. Business seemed at a standstill.”
Shoemakers, carpenters, sawyers, and laborers gave up almost their entire time, day and night to minister the Word. And Meneely was there. Asked to speak at a hall in nearby Haryville, he had to run almost five miles to get there. Arriving at a building crammed with people, he squeezed to the front and began to pray and preach. After one full message, he told the gathering that the meeting was dismissed. No one left. Revived a bit himself, he gave a second message, and at the end announced that the meeting was dismissed. Again, no one left. This happened four times, after which he stepped outside, removed his coat, and took off his shirt and wrung a stream of perspiration out of it. Putting his shirt and coat back on, he went back inside to preach another message before he walked the five miles home.
He had not been home long when he heard a knock. It was past midnight; a man was standing there asking how he could be saved. Meneely went to his neighbor, John Craig’s house, banged on the door loud enough to wake him and shouted, “What, lying in bed and souls seeking Christ!”
Before the end of 1858, this work in the Connor district began to spread locally. By the beginning of 1859 revival fanned out northward, westward, and southward. Meneely was at the opening of The First Presbyterian Church in Ahoghill.
On March 26, 1859, the Ballymena Observer gave this report: “…He spoke by the command of a power superior to any ministerial authority. Defying every effort at control, he proceeded to vociferate religious phrases with a rapidity and fluency which excited the most intense astonishment, and created a panic of very serious alarm among the audience. A rush was made toward the front of the galleries, and under an apprehension that they might possibly break down, the presiding clergyman gave a peremptory order that the house should forthwith be vacated. A scene of terrible confusion immediately ensued…the streets of Ahoghill presented another sccne which baffles all powers of description, and such as the oldest inhabitant had never witnessed. The leading ‘convert’–who is a comfortable farmer…addressed the people, then numbering about 3,000…the immense assemblage appeared to be thoroughly paralyzed. Amid a chilling rain, and on streets covered with mud, fresh ‘converts,’ moved by the fervency and apostolic language of the speaker, fell upon their knees in the attitude of prayer.”
This was the lit match to the kindling. The converts from Connor stood in the chill downpour and preached. It was here that people began to fall prostrate under deep conviction of sin. In May, the work in Ballymena burst forth “with the rapidity of a prairie fire” through the country districts, townships, and soon invaded the larger cities. By June, it came to Ballymoney, Coleraine, and Portrush in the north, and in the south of Connor strange things were happening in and around the capital of Belfast, in Antrim and the adjoining counties of Down and Londonderry. From that point, it was impossible to gage the speed and span of this work.
A number of godly Presbyterian ministers such as the Moore brothers went to work, but as they said, twelve urgent requests from different places would come at once. It was too big for these clergymen, and so men like Meneely became prominent workers in the revival. In this way the revival spread through the counties of Tyrone and Conegal, of Monaghan and Cavan, and later broke forth in county Armagh. By September every part of Ulster was effected.
Standing alongside evangelists like Brownlow North, Meneely spoke to vast open air gatherings. At Dunmull, he spoke to about six thousand. A brother Sutherland said of that meeting, “It was a day of wonders in this season of wonders, done in the name of the Holy Child Jesus. You could almost say before the service began, judging by the prayerful and devout aspect of the people, ‘There is the sound of abundance of rain’…Instead of there being any organized system of excitement, the prayers and addresses were calm, simple, judicious, and strictly scriptural, yet the arrows of conviction flew thick, and fixed that day in the hearts of many of the ‘King’s enemies.’ Meneely was directing them to the Lamb of God, and telling his own experience, and the happy termination to his soul-distress, when, like Christian, he got a view of the cross, and his burden fell from him.”
One sure proof of the spirituality of this awakening is the conclusion made about it in the annual meeting of the Unitarian Association. They ridiculed the revival. Failing to see any of the fruits of the Spirit springing from this work they condemned it as an abominable thing, Once again, paying little heed to his detractors, Jeremiah Meneely went on from strength to strength. He was used to establish an early assembly in N. Ireland. The locals called that assembly’s meeting place “Jerry’s Hall.” Meneely saw in Scripture that baptism should be carried out by the immersion of a believer, and this put him outside the pale of Presbyterianism. Many of the new believers saw the same thing Meneely had, also submitted to baptism and so began a flourishing assembly work in the North of Ireland. Two of Meneely’s sons became prominent Christian workers in building this assembly work. Our brother was buried near the old school house where the revival began.
Materials for this article have been taken from:
J.G. Hutchinson, Sowers, Reapers, Builders, Gospel Tract Publ.
S.J. Moore, The Great Revival in Ireland, 185 pp. Plantation Press
John Weir, Heaven Came Down: The 1859 Revival, Ambassador Productions