Early in the nineteenth century, hand-loom weaving had become quite an industry in Northern Ireland as the soil was very suitable for growing flax, and thus began the manufacture of the far-famed homespun “Irish linen.”
With the invention of the power loom, linen factories sprang up in the towns, throughout Ulster, Belfast taking the lead, and this industry, along with the opening of two large shipyards, drew many working-class people from all over the country. The town of Belfast flourished and increased rapidly in population, spreading out into what was once farming districts. Foundries and other industries added to its prosperity and eventually the town of Belfast became a City.
But more important than its fine linen and shipbuilding industries, Belfast became a very fertile field for Gospel preaching, especially during the memorable year of 1859, when a mighty revival swept over Ulster. This work of grace began in a very simple manner. A saintly old woman spent her time visiting among the people of the Braid Valley, County Antrim, speaking of God’s great salvation as opportunity afforded. The Lord blessed the testimony of His handmaiden and among others three young Irish farmers were saved. Their new life in Christ became very evident, for these young men soon began to feel the spiritual dearth that existed all over, and, as a result, during the winter months of 1858, they came together for prayer in a little school room in the village of Kells.
Sincere and earnest were the prayers that ascended to the Throne of Grace from that little school room, the burden of their petitions being that God would send an awakening into the hearts of the people. Early in 1859, these young men began to preach the Gospel with much simplicity, and yet with a power that gripped the heart and conscience, making it like a new message to the people. Very soon there were tokens of the Gospel’s wonder-working power. Souls were saved and a sound of “abundance of rain” was heard all over the land. Ministers who were born again and not prejudiced by “tradition” welcomed this visitation which was spreading like a breath of spring all over Ulster, and further afield. During all that summer, thousands of men and women, in every walk of life, flocked to hear the Word of God proclaimed, mostly in fields with platforms raised for the speakers, as buildings were far too small to hold the multitudes that gathered together. One rather strange feature attending this remarkable work was that during the service, men and women, old and young, many of whom had just attended the meetings through curiosity, would fall down “stricken” as it was called, and in bitter anguish of heart would cry out in despair, as they seemed to get a look into Eternity and saw the coming wrath of God upon the guilty, and their cries for mercy were heard all over the audience.
In many cases, the light of the Gospel broke in upon darkened hearts, and it became quite usual to see men who had never before spoken a word in a public gathering, rise up and with wonderful eloquence and power, tell out what the Lord had just done for them through the work of the Cross. Thousands were truly born again, while others, in the excitement then existing, made professions which soon faded like the morning cloud. Many who witnessed these scenes were heard to say, “We have seen strange things today.”
Belfast shared largely in this great Revival, multitudes coming together to listen to the Gospel, and all over the city the singing of the songs of Zion could be heard early and late. For many years following these events, God raised up earnest preachers, who kept the fire burning. In 1873 two evangelists came to Belfast, James W. Smith and James Campbell; who, although born and saved in Scotland, had been preaching in the United States of America. The Lord had greatly used them in the large field out West. Among the converts was a man from Northern Ireland who, in turn, became much exercised about his kinsmen in the homeland. This man took the long journey home, to accompany the preachers, believing the Lord would use them as He had done in the United States. These two servants of Christ, Smith and Campbell, were mightily used of God in Belfast and the surrounding district for three years, until in 1876, they made another visit to the United States, where again they were used of the Lord. But our present interest in speaking of Belfast, and of these two servants of Christ, is to show how God fulfills His purposes, and the many links in the chain of events that transpire, which lead up to the fulfilling of His Will.
It was in 1875 that young William J. McClure arrived in Belfast and for the first time met these two evangelists whose godly influence had a wonderful effect on his long life afterwards. These brethren, Smith and Campbell, like many others who were students of the Word, had learned the truth of the priesthood of all believers, and also of the gifts to the Church from the risen Lord for ministry to the members of the Body; that the Lord, Himself, calls His servants, fits them and sends them forth as ambassadors for Christ, to be guided in their service by the Holy Spirit; that they needed no “Board” to direct them nor the promise of a salary for their temporal support. From the great commission of Matt. 28, they ascertained the command to preach the Gospel, to baptize believers, and to teach them to observe all things whatsoever the Lord had commanded. The result was that the plain, searching preaching and fearless manner of these two brethren, as they sought to set forth the verities of Eternity, marked them as men who sought not the favor of men, but whose sole object was to please God.
During the summer of 1875, a large canvas tent was pitched in Donegal Pass, near the center of Belfast. Crowds of people from all over the city and the surrounding country, flocked to the tent and heard the burning messages from these servants of Christ which effected the awakening of many who were dead in trespasses and sins, and the discovery by others, who were mere professors, that although they were looked upon as Christians, they had never been born again. It was a time of great rejoicing for souls were passing from death into life.
Soon after his arrival in Belfast, William McClure was attracted to the tent in Donegal Pass and attended some of the meetings. The preaching of Smith and Campbell was a revelation to him, for although he had been saved about one year, little progress had been made in the divine life and he was at times subject to doubts and fears. To use his own words, “My standing in Christ and His work to meet my failures and backslidings were quite unknown to me.” So we can see the guiding hand of God in all the experiences he passed through in leaving home and coming to Belfast, that through the ministry of brethren Smith and Campbell, he might be established in the faith, and taught the believer’s acceptance in Christ, and his share in the heavenly calling. Speaking long years after of these heart-stirring days, and the spiritual help and blessing he received, he said, “It was like a new conversion. My salvation, however, was not in learning the truth of my safety, but was mine through Christ alone.”
Young believers who have the privilege of a healthy spiritual atmosphere are very highly honored by the Lord. It gives them a real start, with spiritual vigor not only to overcome the great three-fold enemy that every Christian has to face, “The world, the flesh and the Devil,” but also prepares them in turn to be used in the service of the Lord. How often young Christians, after professing to be saved, perhaps baptized and brought into the assembly, the truth having cost them little, seem so soon to settle down, giving little evidence of that divine nature and exercise as to vital godliness and separation from the world, but are content to go on without any definite object in view. Yet, there has come a crisis in many a young life when brought in contact with experiences as brother McClure enjoyed in that early day, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, and the Word ministered, they have seen things in the light of Eternity and the judgment seat of Christ, resulting in a complete change. The life is laid on the altar and used afterwards in happy and fruitful service for Christ.
I trust, my dear young reader, the heart-felt experience that Mr. McClure passed through so early in his Christian life, may prove a help and blessing to you. Very precious indeed to all of us, saved by grace, is the great work of Calvary, through which we have been delivered from the penalty of sin, from hell and the lake of fire. In this we rejoice with joy unspeakable. But while this is included in God’s great salvation, we also have been made heirs of God, given a new life to enjoy even the unsearchable riches of Christ. And the Epistle to the Hebrews especially unfolds a ministry that is going on for us in the presence of God, that of the Great High Priest, living for us by the power of an endless life, to maintain the saints in the enjoyment of the blessings secured by Redemption.
In later years, Mr. McClure often referred to that memorable year when he first met those two messengers of God. Although he had many difficulties to overcome and it took a good while for him to bow to all the truth they set forth from the New Testament, yet the time came when he owned the Lordship of Christ and he thanked God for the ministry he had heard in those days.