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A refreshing history

Australia has enjoyed many revivals, which should still be our prayer.

Robert Evans

Keen Evangelical Christians in the early 19th century resembled Evangelicals today in most ways, but there were two very notable differences. The first was that the 19th century Evangelicals had a vision of what God could do to bring times of great success back into the story of their churches. They knew that the Day of Pentecost could return, and make their work for God very successful. The second difference was that they knew how this could be obtained – in answer to united, agonising, intense, intercessory prayer.

Today, we have lost both of these things, and need urgently to recover them.

This did not mean that the 19th century people always prayed for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as they should have done, but there were times when they realised painfully their spiritual barrenness. Then they turned to God to supply the answer to their needs, and He abundantly answered their prayers.

The first revivals in Australian church history came in Tasmania and New South Wales in the years from 1835 to 1840. Wonderful works of grace occurred in the penal colonies at Macquarie Harbour and at Port Arthur, as the Methodist chaplain worked with the convicts, then revival came in the township of Launceston. In New South Wales, the first revivals occurred in Castlereagh and Windsor, again among the Methodists. Local revivals were also seen by the Methodists during the Gold Rush in Bendigo.

News of the great 1857 Awakening in the US followed by the 1859 revival in the British Isles triggered intense prayer for revival in Australia. The years 1859 and 1860 saw revivals in many churches in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania, and all the Protestant denominations saw good results.

Then followed the tour of Australia and New Zealand by the American evangelist “California” Taylor from 1864 to 1866, and again in 1870. His work was strongest among the Methodists, and his methods of evangelism moulded much of what occurred in the years following. Many local revivals occurred in this period. Also in 1864, Matthew Burnett, another evangelist, came and settled in Australia. He saw revivals in a number of places, especially in Victoria and South Australia.

The most famous Presbyterian evangelist in this early period was the Rev. Alexander McIntyre, who came to Australia in 1853. He was an evangelistic preacher of unusual power, mainly speaking in Gaelic. At first, he found a Gaelic congregation at Ahalton, in the upper Hunter Valley. He preached also in Maclean, on the north coast, on the Manning, and the Shoalhaven, and settled finally in Geelong, where he died in 1878. When I was a minister in Maclean around 1978, the Free Kirk congregation there was still the largest of its kind in Australia, due much to McIntyre’s early work.

The 1859 revival came to the Manning River in New South Wales through the ministry of the Rev. Allan McIntyre, who arrived on the Manning from Scotland in 1854, and, after three years was called to minister there.

Allan McIntyre was described as preeminently a man of prayer. He knew how to call down blessings from above. “The fervour of his supplications at times was remarkable, and could not escape notice.” There were a number of hillside spots where he used to go, many times a day, to commune with the Heavenly Father. Prayer seemed to be his element. Once he called his people together to pray for rain, which was then sorely needed. “The congregation gathered, and after earnest
supplication by himself, and others, started to wend their way home, but many, before reaching their destination, were drenched with an abundance of rain.” Many other instances of answered prayer impressed not only the saints but many others in the community as well.

He had three preaching places on the Manning, at each of which he spent a whole Sunday in turn. His prayers for revival were persistent, but he seemed frustrated by no apparent answers. One Saturday he spent most of the day in a boatshed, praying before a Communion service at the lower end of his parish. He was overheard praying that, if God, in His sovereignty, did not send the Holy Spirit in power, he would take it as a sign from God that he should move to another work. However, on the next day, the church was crowded more than usual, and seemed solemnly affected. But it was the Thanksgiving Monday, also crowded, when McIntyre made his great impression. He said “the last and great day of the Feast will be a day to be remembered throughout eternity – a day when He Who is fairer than the sons of men girded His sword upon His thigh and in His majesty went forth to ride prosperously. The Spirit of Truth accompanied the word spoken in power.”

It was said by some of the elders that there were not three pairs of dry eyes within the walls.” It was a day of the presence of God, and a turning point from which flowed many conversions, transformed families, and a richly spiritual society and fellowship, which brought blessings for generations following.

Many local revivals occurred among the Methodists in the late 19th century, especially in South Australia – so much so that Methodists came to make up 35% of the population in that state by 1920.

The second half of the 19th century was a relatively good time for evangelism in Australia, with many Presbyterians playing a strong role. Rev. Dr Alexander N. Somerville, a famous Scottish evangelist, visited Australia in 1877 – 1879. He preached in many centres around Australia with some good success, but without making evangelistic appeals, as suited the more Calvinistic trends of the times. A local Presbyterian evangelist, the Rev. John MacNeil, was widely successful in Eastern Australia in the 1880s. He died suddenly at the age of only 42.

New Zealanders enjoyed the work of a much-loved Scottish lay evangelist named Duncan Wright. He came to New Zealand at the request of the Knox Dunedin Presbyterian Church to be a visitor for their Sunday School. After some years he joined the Dunedin YMCA staff. From there his work developed slowly into preaching missions in local churches.

In 1882 a wealthy businessman offered Wright a subsidy worth 200 pounds a year providing he did evangelistic work in the Presbyterian Churches of New Zealand, which he accepted. This work became very extensive, including Assembly-sponsored visits to the churches in Auckland. The financial arrangement lasted for five years.

Later, he spent several years in Australia, and eventually returned to be the City Missionary in Dunedin where he led children’s classes with many hundreds of children.

A Presbyterian layman, Robert Robertson, worked as an evangelist for many years for the Evangelisation Society of Australasia (based in Melbourne, 1886 to 1901), before he joined a Methodist effort to evangelise in the country towns in New South Wales in 1902. Powerful revivals occurred in his meetings in the Bulli and Corrimal areas early that year, and
later in such towns as Kempsey.

1902 was the year of revivals in Victoria, with the visit of American evangelists R. A. Torrey and Charles M. Alexander. This movement became part of a world-wide revival movement through the next eight years. It was a decade when all the Australian churches grew steadily in terms of membership. Revival is something Christians ought to pray for before the throne of grace.

Rev. Robert Evans has published many works on revivals (see www.revivals.arkangles.com)

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