Evangelicalism and Revivals

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Evangelicalism and Revivals

Evangelicalism is a term used to describe a movement of religious ideas that swept the transatlantic world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Its distinctive features include the central importance of a personal conversion experience and assurance of sins forgiven. It also lays great emphasis on the doctrine of atonement and claims that the Bible is the only source of religious authority. Its adherents are known for their pragmatism, their disregard for denominational traditions, and their active efforts at evangelization and charitable work.

The origins of evangelicalism are a complicated mixture of local trends and international influences. In the late seventeenth century persecuted Protestant minorities in Central Europe developed a deeply personal and emotional form of religious worship. They stressed the need for a "new birth," which they promoted via private devotions and Bible reading, house meetings, and field preaching, which often turned into full-scale revivals. This new approach to Protestant belief spread very quickly throughout Europe and beyond.

In Ireland, Protestantism in the early eighteenth century was dominated by the Church of Ireland and the Presbyterians, both of whom were concentrated in the northern part of the island. Small groups of Protestants who had immigrated in the seventeenth century, such as the Moravians, Palatines, Huguenots, and Baptists, were based in the southwest or in urban centers such as Dublin. It was among these Protestant minorities that evangelical ideas initially began to develop. Several of the Dublin-based groups started to form religious societies in the 1730s. These stirrings were enlivened by the visits of itinerant evangelists such as John Cennick, George Whitefield, and John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Between 1747 and 1789 Wesley made twenty-one visits to Ireland, and by 1760 there were an estimated 2,000 members of Methodist societies located mainly in southern port and market towns or near military garrisons.

The spread of evangelicalism in eighteenth-century Ireland was complicated by the Catholicism of the majority of the population, the hostility of the Church of Ireland to religious enthusiasm, and the theological preoccupations of the Presbyterians. Even Methodism, despite its initial success, made little sustained headway. It was not until the 1790s, when Ireland was wracked with agrarian unrest and rebellion, that Methodism began to grow dramatically and shift its focus northward. Between 1770 and 1820 a series of local revivals took place; between 1799 and 1802 Methodist membership more than doubled.

It was around this time that evangelicalism began to make substantial inroads into mainstream Protestantism. By the late 1780s Trinity College, Dublin, had become the focal point for evangelicals within the Church of Ireland, and by the 1850s a majority of the Anglican clergy espoused evangelical doctrines. In the early nineteenth century it was the orthodox, or Old Light, camp within Irish Presbyterianism which, under the influence of evangelical ideas, sought to expel the more liberal New Lights from the Synod of Ulster. After their success in 1829, the Presbyterian Church began to adopt an overwhelmingly evangelical tone.

The growth of evangelicalism was demonstrated most dramatically in an unprecedented outburst of religious fervor that swept the Protestant communities of the north during the summer of 1859. Characterized by frequent and lengthy church services, ecstatic manifestations of spiritual feeling, and lay leadership, the Ulster revival of 1859 served to solidify evangelical practice among Irish Protestants and to foster a wider sense of Protestant unity.

Evangelicalism has contributed significantly to the development of a distinctly Irish Protestantism, and its theological rigidity has exacerbated sectarian tensions. In the 1820s evangelicals embarked on the so-called Second Reformation, a sustained effort to convert Irish Catholics that, despite some early successes, ultimately failed to do more than antagonize the Catholic hierarchy. Throughout the nineteenth century, open-air preaching and other efforts to target the "unsaved" routinely provoked clashes with Catholic protestors. More positively, evangelicalism has prompted an active concern for wider social welfare. In the nineteenth century, Sunday schools, Bible classes, and young men's associations aimed to instruct the young. A plethora of charitable and missionary societies were established to meet the social needs of the poor in Ireland and to marshal the growing interest in overseas missions. In the twentieth century, community involvement continues to be an important focus.

Evangelicalism's theological preoccupations have had a significant impact on the political culture of Northern Ireland. Its disregard for tradition has contributed to the emergence of new charismatic religious movements both north and south of the border. Although evangelicalism has often caused tension and division, its flexibility and pragmatism have sustained its influence as a powerful element within the contemporary Irish Protestant identity.

SEE ALSO Church of Ireland: Since 1690; Methodism; Overseas Missions; Presbyterianism; Second Reformation from 1822 to 1869; Temperance Movements


Hempton, David, and Myrtle Hill. Evangelical Protestantism in Ulster Society, 1740–1890. 1992.

Hill, Myrtle. "Ulster Awakened: The '59 Revival Reconsidered." Journal of Ecclesiastical History 41 (1990): 443–62.

Holmes, Janice. Religious Revivals in Britain and Ireland, 1859–1905. 2001.

Janice Holmes

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