Wednesday, March 04, 2020

The Sixmilewater Revival of 1625-30 – from "the scum of both nations" to spiritual salvation

Rev Andrew Stewart, minister of Donaghadee from 1645-1671, was probably the first historian of the Ulster-Scots. His father and namesake had been minister at Donegore, overlooking the Sixmilewater Valley in south Antrim, from 1627–1634. His gravestone is set into the exterior side of historic St John's Church there. 

One quotation from Stewart Jr's renowned History of the Church of Ireland is now almost notorious, because it has been so frequently, but selectively, used to comically 'smear' the Ulster-Scots and Ulster-English settler communities of the early 1600s.

Over the years I've seen it in print by various authors and also spoken by various broadcasters. But only half of the original quote, and none of the spiritual context, is ever used.

As a Presbyterian minister, Stewart's purpose in using this stark form of words was to reinforce to his reader the visible social and personal effects of the transformative religious revivals which were then experienced in south Antrim and north Down (and which was also happening at the same time around Stewarton and Shotts in the west of Scotland in the communities they had migrated from but maintained constant contact with). The quote is :

"... from Scotland came many, and from England not a few, yet all of them generally the scum of both nations, who, for debt, or breaking and fleeing from justice, or seeking shelter, came hither …"

Often that's all you get. Nasty people. Dregs of society. Quoting that is a great way get away with saying that they were all just "scumbags". But what follows explains the story and context more fully.

"... who seemed rather to flee from God in this enterprise than to follow their own mercy. Yet God followed them when they fled from him — albeit, at first it must be remembered that they cared little for any church…
... Thus, on all hands Atheism increased, and disregard of God — iniquity abounded, contention, fighting, murder, thieving, adultery ...

And here comes the change –

... While thus it was, and when any man would have expected nothing but God's judgment to have followed the crew of sinners, behold the Lord visited them in admirable mercy, the like whereof had not been seen anywhere for many generations. 

What did that bring about? –

…fell into such anxiety and terror of conscience, that they looked on themselves as altogether lost and damned, as those of old who said, " Men and brethren, what shall we do to be saved ;" and this work appeared not in one single person only, or two, but multitudes were brought to understand their way, and to cry out, " What shall we do?”

... I have seen them myself stricken,* and swoon with the Word — yea, a dozen in one day carried out of doors as dead,so marvellous was the power of God smiting their hearts for sin ...

A personal testimony follows –

... Yea, I have heard one of them, then a mighty strong man (now a mighty Christian), say that his end in coming to church was to consult with his companions how to work some mischief, and yet at one of those sermons was he so catched, that he was fully subdued. 
But why do I speak of him? We knew, and yet know, multitudes of such men who had no power to resist the word of God ; but the heart, being pricked and smitten with the power of God, the stubborn, who sinned and gloried in it, because they feared not man, are now patterns of sobriety, fearing to sin because they fear God 
and this spread through the country to admiration, so that, in a manner, as many as came to hear the word of God, went away slain with the words of his mouth, especially at that river (commonly called the Six-Mile Water), — for there this work began at first ..."

Stewart was describing events that he had witnessed as a boy and which his father had participated in as a minister. The Scottish historian Robert Fleming (1630–94) wrote that Stewart was 'a great observer of confirmations of the truth'.

Context is everything. Sources rapidly cherry-picked for 'content', and then unquestioningly repeated, is a dangerous approach. Always check the primary sources.

• You can see Stewart's History for yourself here on the edition.