Dr Ian Randall has had a long interest in questions around spirituality, evangelical identity, and revival. He has just published a fascinating Grove booklet on Revival: learning from history in the Spirituality series. I was able to ask him about the booklet, and his reflections arising from his study of revival.
IP: There often seems to be a rather stark contrast between ‘revival’ and the continuing (often ‘mundane’) ministry and work of the local church. Why did you write this booklet, and why do you think ‘revival’ is an important thing to think about within Christian spirituality?
IR: I think the contrast is over-drawn. I suggest in the Grove booklet that we can think of a period of revival as a time when there is a heightened experience of what goes on all the time in local churches. This thinking is not original to me! I am following Brian Edwards who sees all the elements of revival as normally present in the life of the church. The members of local churches are (for example) engaged in praying, seeking Christian growth, worshipping—which includes preaching, singing and other elements—witnessing, and caring.
When this is happening I would not want to use the word ‘mundane’! This is God’s work. And in revival these elements are heightened and intensified. There is new life and power. The ongoing impact I see as renewal. There are ‘old things with new life’. I haven’t lived through revivals on the scale of the one I describe in the booklet, but I consider that in the 1980s, when I was taking up ministerial leadership, many churches were experiencing this life and growth.
IP: Of all the revivals there have been, you have chosen to reflect on the lesser known Revival of the mid-nineteenth century. Why choose this one?
IR: I like to look out for people and events in the history of the church that are less well known—perhaps completely forgotten. In this case I’ve looked at a revival that has largely dropped out of view but which had an enormous and ongoing impact and I think we can learn from it.
IP: Not surprisingly, you first reflect on the role of prayer. But you appear to argue that prayer in the Revival was in continuity rather than in contrast with ‘ordinary’ prayer in the churches. Why is that important?
IR: I think it’s important because to me there is a virtuous circle in prayer. We can meet for prayer and there can be a sense of God’s power which can then lead us into new initiatives in ministry and mission. This takes us back to prayer and perhaps to more significant extension of God’s kingdom.
There is discussion of whether we start with prayer and revival comes, or whether prayer itself can be a sign of revival. Both seem to me to be valid and both call us to prayer. So, maybe we go for ‘ordinary’ prayer, knowing that there is power in the ordinary, but always open to the extraordinary.
IP: Revivals are often thought of as movements of ordinary people, which overturn existing hierarchies—yet you point out the important role of leaders and preachers. Does that have implications for how we think about leadership now?
IR: It is true that there are examples in the study I’ve offered of ordinary people being significant, for example in Ireland. That’s good to bear in mind. However, since I wrote the booklet, I’ve been doing some further research on what happened in Ireland and it’s clear to me that the background to a large extent was the preaching that had been taking place by the ministers of the churches, especially within Presbyterianism, which was the denomination most affected by the revival. Here’s a bit of my new research—not yet published!
In 1859, an investigator from England, William Jeffery, was invited by Robert Carson, minister of the Baptist Church in Tobermore, in the north of Ireland, to interview converts from the revival. The interviews were mainly with those attached to Presbyterian churches. Each was asked by Jeffery about their beliefs, for example regarding the work of Christ and the person of the Holy Spirit, as well as what had happened in their experience. Most were young people, married and single, and they were able to speak with some confidence about doctrinal issues. Jeffery in his book about his interviews referred to ‘the knowledge the converts have suddenly and assuredly inherited’, but what is more likely is that the ‘knowledge’ had been acquired over time, mostly by listening to preaching.
In some cases, knowledge was more limited, such as one man reckoned to be one of the ‘roughest’ in the locality, who was converted through a dream. Another man, who was blind, was a ‘fiddler at every dancing and drinking scene in the district’. His conversion had taken place eight weeks before the interview. In every instance a time of conversion was stated. Just to add a piece of interest for those in England who would be reading what he wrote, Jeffery asked interviewees if they had a message for England and the common response was along these lines: ‘I’d like them to put their trust in the Saviour’. The conversations were included in a small book by Jeffery, with the message for England being taken back by him. He had sought, as he put it, ‘to bring readers within the heart breathings of the newly awakened’.
To add to this point, one of the others more recent discoveries I’ve made: in 1858, before the revival began, William Magill, the minister of a growing Presbyterian congregation in Cork, which led to a new and larger building, Trinity Church. argued that Presbyterianism needed revival. A revival was needed, he said, to deal with the social problems of the time. Magill made this a major point, asserting: ‘The moral evils of society are so great and so patent as to demand the instant attention of the friends of the Gospel.’ He named drunkenness, covetousness, extravagance, religious scepticism and vice as signalling ‘a general dearth of vital religion’ and ‘the necessity of a revival’. So for me this points to the role of ministers being of great significance.
IP: You also make a very surprising connection with a growth of interest in theology, study and training. Despite training there and being on the staff, I had not realised that St John’s College, Nottingham, grew out of the Revival! Why do we need to take this important connection seriously?
IR: I think it’s really important. I was in theological teaching and training for a couple of decades and I’ve had experience of how the time of preparation for later ministry can have profound shaping effects. I need to go to Ireland again for my example!
The revival had a significant impact on theological students in Ireland. The numbers in training for Presbyterian ministry increased from 64 in 1858 to 125 in 1861, and continued to increase. While some students were wary of aspects of the revival—one, J.B. Armour, spoke of the use of the penitent’s form in a Presbyterian church as ‘very far from right’!—nonetheless William Gibson, whom I quote as a major commentator, wrote:
Among those engaged, in the course of the summer of 1859, in the advancement of the work of God, were many young men in course of preparation for the ministry. A goodly number of these were themselves quickened into newness of life.
Dedication to the work of the revival had an effect on their attitude to their studies. Gibson noted that when the period arrived for awards being given for performance in degrees and other literary and scientific honours annually awarded by Queen’s University, Belfast, ‘several of the undergraduates were found to have withdrawn for the time from the competition’. This lessening of the competitive spirit was noted publicly by the Vice-Chancellor of the University.
Gibson’s perspective was not in doubt: for him the experience the students acquired within the few months in which they were involved in the awakening ‘gave them a profounder insight into the mode of dealing with individual souls than they could have attained by whole years of academic training’. I think the contrast he makes is over-drawn! We can have the spiritual and the academic working together.
IP: In the booklet, you include a striking reflection on the role of women as preachers and evangelists—and the Revival shaped the Booths’ approach to ministry and established the equal leadership of women in the Salvation Army. Why do you think this is a feature of revival?
IR: I think revival opens up a new space. I’m also working just now on aspects of the work of a Society in the nineteenth century with the memorable name the Society for the Promotion of Female Education in the East. It was an interdenominational evangelical mission to China, India and other places. I’m looking at Baptist mission in a part of India in which the Baptist women who were involved in teaching did so in cooperation with this Society.
How this links with the revival of the 1859 period is that more women were motivated for mission and it made leaders in the churches at home thinking about what was being done at home when so much was being done by women overseas. One influential Baptist leader in England, John Clifford, wrote in 1880 that it was in times when Baptists lost ‘much of their glowing fervour, daring enthusiasm, and impulsive ardour’ that ‘male monopoly of the pulpit’ held sway! But he was sure that ‘when the church of Christ understands its opportunity, it will increase by a thousandfold the spiritual activities of Christian women’.
IP: In summary, what do you think reflection on the Revival (and other revivals) can tell us about the situation of ministry and mission that we are now in? How might it foster a sense of ongoing renewal?
IR: One thing I think can be powerful is to give more space to testimony. That is clearly only one aspect of a time of revival, but it was a prominent feature of the 1859 revival. I’m struck by the way—Ireland again!—Robert Knox, the Bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore, invited all the clergy in his Diocese to a breakfast to discuss how to give appropriate pastoral guidance within the context of the emotion and phenomena that were sometimes features that accompanied the revival. It was at the same time an opportunity for the clergy to say what was going on.
It was a time of testimony! The incumbent of Trinity Episcopal Church, Belfast, who I quote, Theophilus Campbell, said that in the case of most of those who professed conversion the emotions shown were natural—tears and some shaking. Campbell saw many changed lives in his parish. In Lurgan, the huge growth in the Church of Ireland congregation during the revival led to the building of a new church, opened in 1863—Christ the Redeemer. I only discovered this on a visit to Ireland last month.
When Bishop Knox asked his clergy in 1860 for their assessment of the effect of the revival in their parishes, out of about 70 parishes 51 reported on a marked improvement in spiritual life and attendance at services. In the remainder, clergy generally reported some improvement, while a few saw no change or were negative about results. And along with encouraging up to date testimonies I would, of course, encourage reading about revival of the past! This is not to say that what happened in the past will be the same today, but we can, I believe, learn important lessons from the stories of the acts of the Holy Spirit through history.
IP: Thank you for these fascinating reflections!
Dr Ian Randall is a Senior Research Associate of the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide and is the author of a number of books, most recently Georgina Gollock (1861-1940): Pioneering Female Missiologist (CCCW, 2023), and the Grove booklet Revival: learning from history.