Tent meetings have been a feature of Ulster evangelical life for centuries. Methodist missionary Matthew Lanktree's diary of 1818 records that at the bottom of our lane here at Ballyfrench, men would rig up a tent out of ships' sails and hold large Sunday services and communion meetings there.
Later in the 1800s in the Cullybackey area there were large tent meetings called the Fenaghy Camp Meetings, the first of which were held in mid August 1887. Thousands gathered at these meetings for many years - a reported 12,000 in 1889. Special trains from Belfast were laid on to bring people to the 10-tent site, five of which were for refreshments throughout the days of meetings.
The organisers started well, by aiming to bring the most well-known preachers to rural Antrim. D. L. Moody was due to attend in 1892 but was prevented from doing so due to his son falling seriously ill.
In 1887 it was hoped that Charles Haddon Spurgeon would be the main speaker, but the organisers seem to not have done much forward planning and only wrote to him in July. On the 16th July Spurgeon, a man who seldom minced his words, wrote this amusingly frank reply:
I wish I could come to you. But the request almost amuses me. Do you really think that I am waiting about for work, or hanging on a nail to be taken down at a few days notice? Why my dear Sir, I never have a leisure day. When the year begins, it is usual to have every day allotted down to its close, and all arranged to be used if the Lord will.
Engagements for the week you seek have been made so long ago that I cannot tell you when, and the year 1888 is already in great part allotted unless I go to heaven.
It is always impossible for me to leave hom at short notice; and indeed the work of the Lord at home will not often allow for my absence at all.
Yours very heartily,
C. H. Spurgeon
In the end, a Scotsman of County Antrim parentage, Rev John McNeill - known in his day as 'the Scotch Spurgeon', preached that first year instead of Spurgeon, and again in 1892 as a stand-in for Moody.
In 1858 Spurgeon had drawn large crowds to Botanic Gardens in Belfast, with trains bringing people from as far as Dungannon and Monaghan to hear him preach.
(from 100 Years at Portstewart: The Story of a Keswick Convention by Rev Joseph Fell, 2014)