This year marks the centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland, a hugely important anniversary which will be marked in many ways. To say that Irish history is complex would be something of an understatement, and the birth-pangs that delivered into existence Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State were severe. Two years of bloody violence followed, and the Free State was engulfed in a civil war.
The name of Presbyterian minister Rev William Patteson (W P) Nicholson will be well-known to many of our readers, and even though he might not feature too heavily in some assessments of the centenary, he was mightily used by God at that time. As Rev Stanley Barnes has said, “It was a sad day for the devil and a glorious day for the Kingdom of God when W P Nicholson was converted and subsequently called to do the work of an evangelist”.
His ministry not only helped to stem the tide of violence and sectarianism, but it brought revival blessing to Ulster. As Ernest Brown states in his book “By Honour and Dishonour”, “in the mercy and providence of God the Nicholson evangelistic campaigns were instrumental in bringing much needed healing to the land. In them God brought to bear a power for good that had defied the best and prolonged efforts of government and political leaders”. Rev Adam Loughridge, writing in 1996, says “The years that followed the partition of Ireland in 1921 were filled with strife and bloodshed and the horrors of a threatened civil war. Many citizens had been armed since 1912. Fear and suspicion stalked the streets of Belfast and the province as a whole was filled with anxiety and distress. In the providence of God the blessings of revival averted disaster and these, coupled with faithful preaching from many pulpits, healed the wounds of the stricken province”.
Nicholson was an unusual man, with a style and manner that some might regard as at times vulgar or uncouth, but it can be said that the people of Ulster, facing violence and many political, social and economic problems, heard him gladly. He was nick-named “the Tornado of the Pulpit” and there was no doubting the power and directness of his preaching.
Readers might find it interesting to look at some of his meetings and campaigns in 1921. Mavis Heaney, in her book “To God be the Glory – The Personal Memoirs of Rev William P Nicholson” (published by Ambassador Publications, 2004) provides us with first-hand accounts of missions in Portadown, Lurgan and Newtownards, and these are re-produced below.
Portadown -May 1921
In May 1921 he commenced a united mission in Portadown with wide support from the churches and leaders of the community. The mission began in circumstances which might well have discouraged the organisers – the great coal strike had started and a dock strike prevented the evangelist crossing from Glasgow to begin on the advertised day, so there had to be a week’s delay in the opening of the mission. During the first two weeks the First Presbyterian Church was packed out and this also happened for the concluding half in Thomas St Methodist Church.
Another report of the mission stated, “Mr Nicholson gained the ear of the people in a marked degree and although uncompromising in his condemnation of smoking and dancing and the picture show, and presenting the bald alternatives of ‘Christ or Hell, even those who disagreed with him came under his spell and were converted. Over 900 names were registered as of those accepting Christ and whole families became one in Him.
Another report speaks of many of the converts being “notable brands plucked from the burning and they made no secret of their changed lives”.
One lasting effect of the mission was to be seen in the Christian Endeavour Movement. The few societies connected with local churches were doubled in membership, and in one case trebled. In addition, six new societies were formed as a result of the mission. A Christian Workers Union was formed on the lines of the Bangor one and began a vigorous evangelistic work.
Lurgan – September 1921
The following September, a similar mission was held in the neighbouring town of Lurgan. Here too there was a manifest spirit of unity and deep concern for the condition of both church and state. The services were in the High Street Presbyterian Church and one report speaks of the town having had a “tremendous upheaval” through the mission. The number of professed decisions for Jesus Christ was similar to Portadown and the effects on both church life and the outsider were startling.
Newtownards – November 1921
The Newtownards United Mission followed in November. The services were held in the large First Presbyterian Church and here also similar scenes took place. One elderly man who had recollections of the 1859 revival said that some of the effects of the Holy Spirit’s working even exceeded what happened in ’59. A local minister reported,
“It is sufficient testimony to the widespread feeling which prevails in the town to say that ministers are being stopped in the street by people who are anxious about their relationship with God, and that daily the homes of Christian workers are being sought out by old and young, that they may learn the way of life. The outstanding feature is the number of men at mid-life who have stood and confessed openly their willingness to accept Christ. Never in his wide and varied experience has the evangelist seen such a marked and definite movement amongst men bordering on or over fifty years of age. This in itself is a testimony to the stability and strength, and depth, and thoroughly masculine character of the work being done. Often a supercilious and short-sighted judgement wags its head and says regarding evangelistic work, “it is the usual turn for old woman and children”. Nobody can say that of the movement in our town. The work began amongst the men and is largely carried out by men”.
A sequel to the Newtownards campaign occurred two months later in connection with a mission conducted by the two ministers of the circuit in University Road Methodist Church, Belfast, during which it was reported that over a hundred professed decisions for Christ were registered. Among these were many boys and girls from a neighbouring grammar school. A report in the Irish Christian Advocate refers to one particular meeting – that of the concluding Friday, described as a most stirring occasion, “Four young men from Newtownards, who were converted at Mr Nicholson’s mission voluntarily came and gave their experience. A profound impression was made and many cards were signed”.
It is clear from these brief snapshots that God’s Spirit was working mightily in the fledgling state, with souls finding Christ and lives being changed. One hundred years on, we live in times that would be largely unrecognisable to our forefathers. Society is changing. The demographics are changing. And very few today take any interest in spiritual matters. Yes, people will still promote their own version of their Protestant heritage, but it is one largely devoid of any spirituality. Ask the average Protestant on the street about W P Nicholson and they would probably have no clue.
W P Nicholson’s memory is still revered by evangelical Protestants. We would echo these words of Stanley Barnes, “Oh for a prophet for our day, armed with the same truth and empowered by the same Spirit to see another, and greater revival to the glory of God!”