The Journal of Ecclesiastical History


The Ulster Revival of 1859: Causes, Controversies and Consequences


a1 School of History and Anthropology, Queen's University, Belfast BT7 INN; e-mail:


The Protestant portion of the population of the north of Ireland experienced an extraordinary outburst of religious fervour in 1859. This article provides a critical overview of some of the interpretations of the revival offered by scholars and suggests a number of hitherto ignored themes under three headings: causes, controversies and consequences. The first section moves beyond questions of social and economic determinism to outline the sense of expectancy for revival that was created through the Evangelical reform movement amongst Presbyterians in the north of Ireland. The second considers the controversies of the revival, especially the various physical phenomena that accompanied some conversions, and the Evangelical critique of the revival offered by William McIlwaine and Isaac Nelson. The final section shows how the revival consolidated religious identities in Ulster and contributed to obscuring the dominance of conservative Evangelicalism within the Presbyterian Church.


A version of this article was delivered as the Robert Allen Lecture of the Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland in April 2009. I am most grateful to the council of the society, and especially to the Right Revd A. W. G. Brown, for inviting me to deliver the lecture as part of their commemoration of the sesquicentenary of the 1859 revival. Of course the author alone is responsible for the interpretation offered in this article.