Thirty years ago the state of religion in this island was exceedingly low. “Darkness covered the land, and gross darkness the people.” But through the tender mercy of God, the dayspring from on high visited it. Divine light arose on them that sat in darkness, and the cause of Christ has gained much ground in this part of His vineyard since the year 1804. In that year and the year following, many were awakened at the north end of the island, especially in the neighbourhood of the farms of Sannox. And although this awakening did not continue long, a considerable number testified, by their after lives and conversation, that they had undergone a gracious change.
This day of small things was the commencement of the revival which followed. From this time, a change for the better might be observed in the religious sentiments and conduct of many. Many seemed now to be awakened from the slumber of spiritual death, being disposed to attend to the things which belong to their everlasting peace. Their eyes were now opened to see the evil of their former wicked ways, their perishing condition as sinners and their need of Christ as a Saviour. They now began also to distinguish between truth and error, to relish evangelical doctrine, to attend with diligence on the means of grace, and to set up the worship of God in their families morning and evening. Religious meetings were also set up in many places and, in the course of a few years, a kind of reformation was thus visible throughout many parts of the island.
This was the case more especially, though not exclusively, in the parish of Kilmorie, which was at this time favoured with the ministry of the late pious and laborious Mr MacBride. It may be remarked that he was by no means usually what might be called an alarming preacher, but rather the opposite. His sermons were frequently close and searching, but he dwelt more on the consolations of the gospel than on the terrors of the law. And the effects seemed to be generally greater under the sermons in which the riches of divine grace and the consolations of the gospel were exhibited than under such as were more alarming and apparently better fitted to awaken. Mr MacBride’s manner of preaching was very much distinguished for seriousness, fervour, and great zeal for the salvation of sinners, and this often led him to make very close appeals to the conscience.
But the revival itself did not come suddenly. Neither were its effects in all cases saving. Many under it assumed a form of godliness who were altogether destitute of its power. In other cases, however, there was something more deep and precious, even the quickening, saving and soul-transforming influence of the Holy Spirit. During its progress, a considerable number were accordingly brought under deep conviction of their guilt and unworthiness as sinners, of their liability to eternal misery, and of their utter helplessness. They now began in earnest to ask, “What shall we do to be saved?” and to count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus. And the God of all grace, who thus visited them with the awakening influences of His Spirit, was pleased also to enlighten their minds as to the way of salvation and thus by faith to lead them, for peace and rest, to the only Saviour of sinners. And being thus quickened, enlightened and comforted by the teaching of the same Spirit, they were also united together in the bonds of love and Christian fellowship, while they travelled together Zionward.
The subjects of these spiritual influences were, however, only as a little flock when compared with the multitude who remained yet stout-hearted and far from righteousness. And these became impatient under the restraint which the recent reformation had laid on their unholy practices. They began to break out anew with greater violence, so that in 1810 and 1811 many were bolder in sin and more abandoned to wickedness than they had been at any former time. The enemy of souls now came in as a flood and threatened to carry all before him. It is right, however, to observe that this was in no respect true of such as there was reason to believe had been the subjects of divine grace. These were for the most part remarkably consistent in their walk and conversation. The breaking out of sin here referred to was among the bulk of the people who made no particular profession of religion, and especially among the young who had been brought under temporary restraint.
These circumstances, however, affected the tender-hearted, and stirred up the pious zeal of Mr MacBride and led him to be even more earnest in his warnings against abounding iniquity. The little flock of tender-hearted Christians scattered throughout his parish were, at the same time, moved with a sense of the prevalence of sin and the desolations of Zion. They felt an increased concern for the conversion and salvation of sinners, and a deeper interest in the prosperity and enlargement of the kingdom of Christ. They began to be more frequent and earnest in their supplications at the throne of grace for a time of revival – a time of refreshing from the presence of the Lord. Several little parties of them by mutual consent set apart some days for private fasting and prayer, sending up to the Hearer of prayer their united supplications for the down-pouring of the Spirit in His awakening and converting influences on sinners around them.
They kept several such days for nearly a year before the commencement of what is generally called the Revival of Religion in Arran. Some of them enjoyed uncommon nearness to God and great freedom at a throne of grace when pouring out their hearts in earnest supplication for the manifestation of divine power and glory in the sanctuary, especially in the congregation with which they were themselves connected. Their minds were much stirred up to press after these things in secret and at their fellowship meetings, and also when attending public ordinances. They seemed to be animated by the spirit of him who said, “For Zion’s sake I will not hold my peace, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until the righteousness thereof go forth as brightness, and the salvation thereof as a lamp that burneth”.
While this little flock of Christ, and their pastor at their head, were thus engaged, the Lord began, about the beginning of March 1812 to work in an unusual way among them – in a way which they had not till then expected. It was at this time that the outcrying commenced which was afterwards so common for a considerable time. (2) It began in some private meetings, but afterwards extended to the public assembly under Mr MacBride’s ministry. What made the thing the more remarkable was that it made its first appearance among the people of God. Yea, the most tender, humble and spiritually-minded among them were the first affected in this manner, and it continued for a short time among them only. This influence soon extended to those who were already seriously disposed or had been at one time or other under serious impressions. But soon afterwards it extended to the thoughtless, the moral and the openly wicked. Persons of almost every description and age were affected, but the number of old people was small compared with that of the young. The crying at first, while confined to the people of God, was attended with very little bodily agitation; but after others were affected, it was generally accompanied with panting, trembling and other convulsive appearances.
The writer of these pages did not reside in Arran till about six months after the commencement of this revival, but he inquired particularly concerning the beginning of it. He is satisfied that the Spirit of the Lord was at work in preparing for it, that His mighty power was revealed in its commencement, and that He had a gracious design in ordering its circumstances. Although this revival did in some measure degenerate latterly through the weakness and folly of men, the beginning of it was truly the doing of the Lord, and marvellous in our eyes. Some who were among the first affected told the writer that they had not the remotest idea of crying out before they were constrained to do so. So much was this the case that they said they could not have refrained even if they had been threatened with instant death. They added that their outcryings and bodily agitations arose entirely from the state of their minds when powerfully impressed with a sense of divine truth. But it is proper to observe that the writer is here speaking only of such as were lively, exercised Christians previous to this revival.
On examining others, who knew nothing of Christian experience before the beginning of this work, he found that the first impressions of many of them were accompanied with deep convictions of sin, with a painful sense of their helplessness and misery as sinners, and also with earnest desires after an interest in Christ, which it is to be hoped many of them attained. But it must be acknowledged that the accounts given by all were not alike satisfactory. Many were deeply affected externally who could give little account of the matter. Their affections were moved, but convictions of sin did not take any deep hold on their hearts and consciences, and so their awakenings soon passed away. At least, it was so with some. But if there be joy in heaven over even one sinner that repenteth, we have reason to think that there must have been much joy, in that world of light and love, over many who were brought to true repentance during the progress of that work.
About the beginning of 1812, the awakening became general, and continued to make progress for about three months. After this, it seemed to be at a stand till the beginning of the following December, when it again revived and continued to spread considerably for about three months more. During this period it extended over a great part of the parish of Kilmorie, which is nearly 30 miles long, and also to some parts of the parish of Kilbride. The writer cannot pretend to give the exact number of the subjects of this awakening; but the number, from first to last, was very considerable. It must have amounted to two or three hundred persons, old and young taken together. He may state them at 250, which is rather below than above the real number. But he does not mean to insinuate that the whole of these proved true believers. This will appear from the statements already made.
For some months after the commencement of the awakening, the subjects of it manifested an uncommon thirst after the means of grace. Both old and young flocked in multitudes to hear the Word of God. His house, and the place employed for private meetings, were frequently so crowded that the people, as it were, trod one on another. To travel 10 or 15 miles to hear a sermon was considered a very small matter, and after the service was over it was no uncommon thing for many of them to meet together in private houses, or in barns, and to spend several hours in religions exercises. Some of them spent even whole nights in this way. They also longed for the return of the Sabbath. They rejoiced when it was said unto them, “Let us go into the house of the Lord”. They eagerly sought after renewed opportunities of receiving spiritual instruction. Their desire was so great as not to be easily satisfied. In our religious assemblies at this time, some might be seen filled with divine love and others with fear; some rejoicing in hope of the glory of God and others trembling lest they should come short of it; some crying out in praise and others indicating, by their cries, their dread of everlasting wrath.
At this time, our meetings were frequent and well attended, and almost every sermon seemed to be effective in awakening, quickening, or refreshing. Satan and his agents indeed made strong efforts to counteract the operations of the Spirit of God by throwing all manner of stumbling blocks in the way of His people. But, notwithstanding all the opposition of earth and hell, the Word of the Lord grew and multiplied. Some who before were lively Christians enjoyed at this time much of the refreshing influences of the Spirit and were often filled in an extraordinary measure with peace and joy in believing. As illustrative of this, I may mention that I was catechising at a farm one day in the spring of 1813 and, when speaking of the character of Christ as the Redeemer of God’s elect and attempting to describe the preciousness of His blood and the riches of His grace, an excellent Christian, who is now in the world of spirits, cried out in an elevated tone of voice: “O the infinite virtue of the blood of Christ, the preciousness of His blood! What am I, what am I, that He should ever spend one thought on me? O my nothingness, my nothingness, my nothingness!” And soon afterwards she exclaimed, “I shall soon be with Thee; I shall soon be with Thee – be for ever with the Lord!”
I have seen others also on various occasions affected much in the same way. And these ecstasies of spiritual joy among the people of God were generally accompanied with great humility and tenderness of spirit. Instead of being puffed up, they were on the contrary bowed down to the very dust under a sense of their privileges. When the glory of the King of Zion was manifested to their souls in the light of the Spirit, they were ready to exclaim with Job: “Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes”. I have heard others under awakenings of conscience cry out, “O what shall we do? What shall we do? Wash us from sin. Leave us not to deceive ourselves, for we cannot deceive Thee.” It was pleasing thus to see many of them really afraid of self-deception, and earnest in their inquiries after the only sure foundation, the only hope set before them in the gospel.
In the spring of 1813 this awakening, however, began to decline and ceased very soon afterwards, but those who were truly Christians continued to enjoy, both in secret duties and at public ordinances, renewed and manifest tokens of the divine presence and favour. This was especially the case on sacramental occasions, at which they were favoured with the assistance of some of the most pious ministers of the day. Messrs Bayne of Greenock, and Robertson of Kingussie, formerly of the Chapel at Rothesay, assisted here constantly for many years. Rev John Love of Anderston assisted here occasionally about the time of the revival, and Mr MacKenzie of Gorbals, formerly of the Gaelic Chapel, Duke Street, Glasgow, assisted also occasionally, but chiefly before the commencement of this work. These, along with the late Mr MacBride himself, were considered – I believe justly – among the most pious ministers of their day, but they have ceased from their labours, and their works do follow them. The labours of these men were often blessed as seasons of refreshing from the presence of the Lord.
It is doubtless true that, as the awakening declined, some of those who appeared at one time much affected, and much engaged in religious pursuits, began to grow cold and remiss in spiritual duties, to fall into various temptations and to slide back into conformity with the world. Like the stony-ground hearers, the religious impressions of many were slight and transitory, their convictions were not of a spiritual or abiding nature and, having no root in their hearts, they soon withered away without bringing forward any fruit to perfection.
But although many did thus turn, as the dog to his vomit, and soon got rid of their religious impressions, a considerable number continue to the present day bringing forth fruit meet for repentance, and manifesting their faith by their works. It is right, however, to acknowledge that, even in the best of them, the zeal, fervour and liveliness manifest during the time of our revival have suffered some decay. Instead of these, coldness, deadness and formality in religion are now too prevalent among us. We have therefore much need to be earnest in our supplications for another season of refreshing from the presence of the Lord – to pray, with the devout Psalmist: “Turn us, O God of our salvation, and cause Thine anger toward us to cease. Wilt thou not revive us again, that Thy people may rejoice in Thee? Show us Thy mercy, O Lord, and grant us Thy salvation.”
1. This account of the revivals during the early nineteenth century was written in 1830. The book from which this piece was taken has been reprinted under the title, Restoration in the Church, and is available from Free Presbyterian Bookroom. See also p 196.
2. There is no suggestion that the outcries in Arran got out of hand, but ministers in other places have felt it wise to caution restraint. Such cries may be entirely understandable when sinners come under strong conviction of sin, but if not restrained they may interfere with the ability of others to listen to what is being said from the pulpit. There is also the possibility that some may, under the influence of sympathy, make an outward response where there is no real inward exercise of soul. (Editor.)