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The Interceders Encourager No. 37

The Hebrides Revival and Awakening 1949-1953

(The Beginning)

In 1949, in the Outer Hebrides island of Lewis, a remarkable movement of the Spirit of God broke out in the villages of Shader and Barvas, which then spread all over the island, and extended into Great Bernera off Lewis, into Harris, into Berneray off North Uist, and, finally, into North Uist itself.

It was an incredibly deep work of the Holy Spirit, in which the awareness of the presence of a holy God was so overwhelming, the fear of God and the conviction of sin were so great that in a matter of hours, or even minutes, church buildings became crowded without any advertising or any information being given out, with hundreds of men and women crying to God for mercy before they even got near a church building or a house meeting; hundreds of people’s lives radically altered, and whole communities changed. Rarely, if ever, in the history of the world, has such an outstanding work been witnessed.

In October 1949, The Free Church Presbytery of Lewis met in the town of Stornoway, to consider the terrible drift away from the ordinances of the church, especially by the young people of the island, and the dearth of conversions in their congregations. While the haunts of sin were crowded, churches were almost empty. In many places youth had almost disappeared from the House of God and it seemed only a matter of time before many churches would have to close their doors. A resolution was passed, calling upon all their faithful people to take these matters to heart, to view with deep concern the inroads made by the prevailing spirit of the day, to examine their lives in the light of their responsibility, to repent and return again to the Lord, whom they had so grieved with their iniquities and waywardness. Especially did they warn their young people, of the devil’s man traps, the cinema, and the public house. This declaration from the presbytery was read in all the congregations, and published in the local press.

We do not know what the response was in the Free Churches, but it gives an indication of the situation at that time and the concern that was felt. Certainly, there were many church members, both in the Free Churches and in the Church of Scotland, who were already burdened about the situation. This was especially true in the Church of Scotland parish of Barvas, on the west coast of the island. There was no minister in the parish at the beginning of that year, so the Rev. James Murray McKay had been appointed for a month’s locum at that time. He was impressed with the earnest spirit of prayer and expectancy in the area. "Many people in the parish were giving themselves to prayer, and were crying out to God for an outpouring of the Spirit." (C&M Peckham)

When Mr McKay went back to the mainland after the month, he told his wife of the tremendous spirit of prayer in the area, and his feeling that it only needed a spark to set the place ablaze. Soon, he was called to fill the vacancy in Barvas, and in April he was inducted to the pastorate there. James’ heart was in the right place, for he had been converted in a revival in Uig years before, so prayer was woven into the very fabric of the church, and the whole membership of the church would be present at the weekly prayer meetings. In addition, there were many spontaneous cottage prayer meetings, one, even after the church prayer meeting.

Among the people who were specially concerned about the situation were two sisters, Peggy and Christine Smith, one of them, 84 years of age and blind, while the other was 82 and crippled with arthritis. They were greatly burdened because of the appalling state of their own parish, for not a single young person attended public worship, so they made it a special matter of prayer.

Duncan Campbell wrote, "A verse gripped them: ‘For I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground’ (Isaiah 44:3a). They were so burdened that both of them decided to spend a long time in prayer twice a week. On Tuesdays and Fridays they got on their knees at ten o’clock in the evening, and remained on their knees until three or four o’clock in the morning; two old women in a very humble cottage.

One night, Peggy had a vision, and in the vision she saw the church of her fathers crowded with young people, packed to the doors, and a strange minister standing in the pulpit. She told her sister that revival was coming to the parish, and was so impressed by the vision that she sent for the parish minister. And he, knowing the two sisters, and knowing that they were two women who knew God in a wonderful way, responded to their invitation and called at the cottage. The parish minister was a God fearing man, a man who longed to see God working. He had tried many things to get the youth of the parish interested, but without success. ‘I'm sure, Mr. McKay,’ she said, ‘that you're longing to see God working. What about calling your office bearers together, and suggest to them that you spend two nights a week; waiting upon God in prayer. You've tried mission, you've tried special evangelists, but have you really tried God? If you gather your elders together, you can meet in another cottage, and as you pray there, we will pray here.’

I tell you, she was a wonderful old woman. So, he meekly obeyed, and said, ‘Yes, I'll call the session together, and I will suggest that we meet on Tuesday night and Friday night, and we'll spend the whole night in prayer’. Here were people who meant business. The dear old lady said, ‘Well, if you do that, my sister and I will get on our knees at ten o'clock on Tuesday and on Friday, and we'll wait on our knees till four o'clock in the morning’. I tell you, this puts us to shame."

So the minister called his elders together, and seven of them met in an old cottage used as a storage barn, to pray on Tuesdays and Fridays, and the two old women got on their knees and prayed in their old cottage at the same time. According to Duncan Campbell, "Here were men and women baptized into a sense of the need and the condition of sinners; people who were labouring under a burden, who had said with Hezekiah of old, ‘I have made a covenant in my heart with the Lord God of Israel.’ And this was the covenant that they made, that they would not give rest to their eyes, nor slumber to their eyelids, (quoting from Psalm 132), until they found a place for their God, the God whom they believed in, the God of revival.

They stood upon the words of Isaiah 62: ‘For Zion’s sake, I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake, I will not rest, until her vindication goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a burning torch….Upon your walls O Jerusalem, I have set watchmen. All the day and all the night, they shall never be silent. You who put the Lord in remembrance, take no rest and give Him no rest, until He establishes Jerusalem, and makes it a praise in the earth.’ (Is. 62:1. 6-7); and they claimed that one promise from God, "For I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground:" (Isaiah 44:3a) They were there to do business with God, to spend the night on the walls of Zion, to plead with God that He would come and make bare His holy arm. In their prayers, (according to the minister), they would say again, and again, ‘God, you're a covenant keeping God, and you must be true to your covenant engagements’. They had entered into a covenant with God, believing that if they kept their part of it, He would keep His.

They specially pleaded Psalm 50, which speaks about the greatness of God, and Him coming and not keeping silent; and Him asking for His saints to come to Him, those who had made a covenant with him by sacrifice!

They all continued in this way for some weeks until November. Then, one night, as the men were kneeling there in the old cottage used as a barn and pleading the promise, one of the men, a deacon in the Free Church, got up and read Psalm 24: 3-5 ‘Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord, or who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands, and a pure heart; who has not lifted up his soul to what is false, nor sworn deceitfully, he shall receive the blessing [not a blessing, but the blessing], from the Lord’. Then that young man closed his Bible, and looking down at the minister and the elders, he spoke these crude words (but perhaps not so crude in our Gaelic language): ‘It seems to me to be so much humbug to be praying as we are praying, to be waiting as we are waiting, if we ourselves are not rightly related to God.’ And then he lifted his two hands and prayed, ‘God, are my hands clean? Is my heart pure?’

But he got no further. That young man fell to his knees, and then fell into a trance and lay on the floor of the barn. In the words of the minister, at that moment he and the other intercessors were gripped by the conviction that a God-sent revival must ever be related to holiness and godliness. Are my hands clean? Is my heart pure? This is the person whom God will trust with revival.

When that happened in the cottage, at 4 am, the power of God swept into the parish, and they moved out of the realm of the common and the natural into the sphere of the supernatural. In the little cottage where the two old women were praying, heaven swept down, and glory crowned the place. Peggy spoke to her younger sister and said, ‘He has kept His promise, for He is a covenant keeping God.’ An awareness of God gripped the whole community, and on the following day, the looms were silent, and little work was done on the farms as men and women gave themselves to thinking about eternal things, and were gripped by eternal realities. People were meeting in groups, young men were gathering in a field, and begin to talk about this strange consciousness of God that had gripped the community. The Holy Spirit began to move among the people, and the minister, (writing about what happened the following morning) said this, ‘You met God on meadow and moorland. You met Him in the homes of the people. God seemed to be everywhere.’

Now, I wasn’t on the island when that happened. But, again, one of the sisters sent for the minister. And she said to him: ‘I think you ought to invite someone to the parish. I cannot give a name, but God must have someone in His mind, for I saw a strange man in the pulpit, and that man must be somewhere. Invite someone from The Faith Mission.’ She said this because forty five years previously, the two sisters had had been led to Christ through a Faith Mission Missioner. How amazingly the Lord works.

Well, the minister that week was going to one of our great conventions in Scotland. At that convention, he met a young man who was a student in college, and knowing that this young man was a God-fearing man, a man with a message, he invited him to the island. ‘Won’t you come for ten days, a ten-day special effort, as we feel that something is happening in the parish, and we would like you to attend.’ This minister said, ‘No, I don’t feel that I am the man, but quite recently there has been a very remarkable move in Skye under the ministry of a man by the name of Campbell. I would suggest that you send for him.’

In a matter of days I received a letter inviting me to the island. I was at that time in the midst of a very gracious movement on the island of Skye. It wasn't revival, but men and women were coming to Christ, and God was being glorified in the number of prominent men who found the Saviour at that time. So I received this invitation to go to Lewis for ten days, and I wrote back to say that it wasn't possible for me to do that, because I was involved in a holiday convention on the island, and the speakers were arranged, and accommodation in the different hotels for the people that were coming from all over Britain. The minister received the letter, went to the old lady, and read the letter to her, and this is what she said, ‘Mr. McKay, that is what man is saying, but God has said something else, and he will be here within a fortnight’. I tell you, the convention wasn't cancelled then, but she knew. Oh, my dear people listen: ‘The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him:’ (Psalm 25:14a), and she knew Gods' secret.

I cannot take time to tell you how that convention had to be cancelled. Largely because the tourist board took the hotels over my head for a special Skye week that they were going to have. So I had to cancel everything. I was on the island of Lewis within ten days, to spend ten days among the people, (as I thought).

I shall never forget the night that I arrived at the pier in the mail steamer. It was the 7th of December. I was met at the pier by the minister, and two of his office bearers. Just as I stepped off the boat, an old elder came over to me, and faced me. ‘Mr. Campbell, can I ask you this question? Are you walking with God?’ Oh, here were men who meant business, men who were afraid that a strange hand would touch the ark. I was glad to be able to say, ‘Well I can say this, that I fear God.’ The dear man looked at me and said, "Well, if you fear God, that will do."

I went to the church, and preached to a congregation of about three hundred, and I would say it was a good meeting. A wonderful sense of God, something that I hadn't known since the 1921 movement, but nothing really happened." It was the same for the next three nights." Then, according to James Murray McKay, "on Sunday the 11th, the awakening broke out in the church at Shader. It was a real privilege to worship the Lord on that night, listening to the large congregation singing heartily and tunefully the metred Psalms 50 and 132." How the elders who had prayed through in the barn cottage must have rejoiced to hear those psalms sung. But still no breakthrough had been made.

"I pronounced the benediction," said Duncan Campbell, "and I was walking down the aisle, when a young man, a deacon from the church, (according to one record, the man who had prayed the prayer of confession from Psalm 24 in the barn cottage), came to me, and said, ‘Don’t be discouraged. God is hovering over us, and He'll break through any moment. I can already hear the rumbling of heaven’s chariot wheels.’ Well, to be perfectly honest, I didn't feel anything, but here was a man much nearer to God than I was. Oh, he knew the secrets, and could talk in heaven’s language. We moved down the aisle, and the congregation moved out, except this man and myself. He lifted his two hands, and started to pray, "God you made a promise to pour water on the thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground, and you're not doing it". He prayed, prayed, and prayed again, until he fell again onto the floor in a trance. He lay there with me standing beside him for about five minutes, and then the doors of the church opened, and the local blacksmith came back into the church and said, ‘Mr. Campbell, something wonderful has happened. We were praying that God would pour water on the thirsty and floods upon the dry ground, and listen, He’s done it! He’s done it!" Will you come to the door, and see the crowd that's here?’

I went to the door, and, even though it was eleven o'clock at night, there must have been a crowd of between six, and seven hundred people gathered around the church. Now, where did the people come from? How did they know that a meeting was to be held in the church? Well, I cannot tell you, but I know this, that from village and hamlet the people came. Were you to ask some of them today, ‘What was it that moved you?’ they wouldn't be able to tell you. Only that they were moved by a power that they could not explain, and the power was such as to make them realize that they were hell deserving sinners! Of course the only place they could think of, where they might find help, was at the church building. So here they were, between six, and seven hundred of them. I believe that very night God swept down in Pentecostal power, and what happened in the early days of the apostles was now happening in the parish of Barvas.

There was a dance in progress that night in the parish, and while this young man was praying in the aisle; the power of God moved into that dance, and the young people, over a hundred of them, fled from the dance, as though fleeing from a plague, and they made for the church. They hadn’t been thinking of God or eternity. God was not in any of their thoughts. They were there to have a good time, when suddenly the power of God fell upon the dance. The music ceased, and in a matter of minutes, the hall was empty. They stood outside, saw lights in the church, knew that it was a house of God, so they went over to it.

Other people who had gone to bed, got up, got dressed, and made for the church. There had been no publicity, except an announcement from the pulpit on the Sabbath that a certain man was going to be conducting a series of meetings in the parish for ten days. But God took the situation in hand. He became His own publicity agent. A hunger and a thirst gripped the people. At least six hundred of them were now at the church standing outside.

This dear man stood at the door, and suggested that we might sing a song. They gave out Psalm 126 ‘When Zion's bondage God turned back, as men that dreamed were we, then filled with laughter was our mouth, our tongue with melody.’ They sang, and they sang, and in the midst of it, I could hear the cry of the penitent, I could hear men crying to God for mercy, and I turned to the elder and said, ‘I think we had better open the doors again, and let them in.’ Within a matter of minutes, the church was crowded, even though it was now a quarter to twelve. A church to seat over eight hundred was now packed to capacity. I managed to make my way through the crowd along the aisle toward the pulpit. There I found a young woman, a teacher in the grammar school, lying prostrate on the floor of the pulpit praying, "Oh, God, is there mercy for me? Oh, God, is there mercy for me?" She was one of those at the dance. But she was now lying on the floor of the pulpit crying to God for mercy. God was at work, and the old lady's vision of a church crowded with young people, as well as old, had now become a reality.

That meeting continued until four o’clock in the morning. I couldn’t tell you how many were saved that night, but of this I am sure, that at least five young men who were saved that night are ministers today in the Church of Scotland.

At four o’clock we decided to make for the manse. Of course, you understand we made no appeals; apart from asking those who wanted to get right with God to come to a further meeting, where we would quote Scripture to them, but basically we just left men and women to make their way to God themselves. When God takes a situation in hand, I tell you, He does a better work than we could ever do!

So we left them there, and just as I was leaving the church, a young man came to me and said, ‘Mr. Campbell, I would like you to go to the police station, for there must be at least four hundred people gathered around there just now.’ A crowd of men and women, from a neighbouring village, five or six miles away, had been so convicted by God, that they found themselves moving to the police station, because the constable there was a God fearing, and well saved man, and next to the police station was the cottage in which the two old women lived. People knew that this was a home that feared God. I believe that that had something to do with the magnet, the power that drew men. Now, if anyone would ask them today, ‘Why? How did it happen? Who arranged it?’ they couldn’t tell you. This is the moving of God’s Spirit, I believe, in answer to the prevailing prayer of men and women who believed that God was a covenant-keeping God who must be true to His covenant engagement.

I went along to the police station. As I was walking along that country road, (we had to walk about a mile), I heard someone praying by the roadside. I could hear a man crying to God for mercy. I went over, and there were four young men on their knees. Yes, they had been at the dance, but now they were there, crying to God for mercy. One of them was under the influence of drink, a young man who wasn’t twenty years of age. But that night God saved him, and today he is the parish minister and a man of God. He was converted in the revival with eleven other men who were to serve in his presbytery, a wonderful congregation.

When I got to the police station, I saw something that will live with me as long as I live. I didn’t preach; there was no need of preaching. We didn’t even sing. The people were in great spiritual distress. Under the still, starlit sky, with a bright moon shining down on us, and angels, I believe, looking over the battlements of glory, were men and women on the road, others by the side of a cottage, and some behind a peat stack, all crying to God for mercy. Oh, the confessions that were made! There was one old man crying out, ‘Oh, God, hell is too good for me, hell is too good for me!’ That is Holy Ghost conviction! Yet from the group of young men who sought the Lord that night; there are nine in the ministry today.

We knew that God had taken the field, the forces of darkness had been driven back, and men and women were going to be delivered.

Now that was on the very first night of a mighty demonstration that shook the island. Let me restate, that was not the beginning of revival; revival began in a prayer meeting. Revival began in an awareness of God. Revival began when the Holy Ghost was poured out through the consecration of two groups of people, and in particular, one man. The awakening had now begun.

The events of the second night at Barvas will never be forgotten by those who were privileged to attend. Buses came from the four corners of the island, crowding the church. Seven men were being driven to the meeting in a butcher's van, when suddenly the Spirit of God fell upon them in great conviction, and all were converted before they reached the church! As the preacher delivered his message, tremendous conviction of sin swept down upon the people! Tears rolled down the faces of the people, and from every part of the building came cries of men and women crying for mercy. So deep was the distress of some that their voices could be heard outside in the road.

After that, we were at it night and day, with God drawing crowds of people. I remember one night it was after three o’clock in the morning, and a messenger came to say that the churches were crowded in another parish fifteen miles away; crowded at that hour in the morning! I went to join this parish minister along with several other ministers. Oh, how I thank God for the ministers of Lewis, how they responded to the call of God, how they threw themselves into the effort. And God blessed them for it. We went, and I found myself preaching in a large church, a church that would seat a thousand, and the Spirit of God was moving in a mighty way! I could see people falling on their knees. I could hear them crying to God for mercy. I could hear those outside praying. And that continued for at least two hours, I’m sure.

Then, as we were leaving the church, someone came to me to tell me that a very large number of people, because they could not get into any church building, had gathered in a field. So, along with other ministers, I went to the field, and there saw an enormous crowd, standing as though gripped by a power that they could not explain. The headmaster of a secondary school in the parish was lying with his face to the ground, crying to God for mercy, deeply convicted of his desperate need. On either side of him were four young girls, about sixteen years of age, two on each side, who kept saying to the headmaster, ‘Master, Jesus that saved us last night in Barvas can save you tonight.’ It is true that when a person comes into a vital relationship with Jesus Christ, his or her supreme desire is to win others. Those young girls were there that night to win their school headmaster, and they did. God swept into his life, I believe in answer to the prayer of the four young girls who had a burden for him.

Now that was how the revival and the awakening began, and that is how it continued. The churches were crowded, people were seeking after God, and prayer meetings were being held all over the parishes. It was still the custom there that those who found the Saviour at night would be at the prayer meeting the next day at noon. A prayer meeting met every day at noon. At that time, all work stopped for two hours; looms were silent, work stopped in the fields, and men gathered for prayer. It was then that you got to know those who had found the Saviour on the previous night. You didn’t need to make an appeal. They made their way to the prayer meeting to praise God for His salvation.

That continued for over three years, until the whole of the island was swept by the mighty power of God. I couldn’t tell you how many came to the Lord; I have never checked the number. I left the records with God. But this I know, that at least three quarters of those who were born again during the revival, were born again before they came near a church building, before they had any word from me or any of the other ministers. God had worked, and I make bold to say, ‘That is the crying need of the Christian Church today, not this effort, or that effort on the basis of human endeavour, but a manifestation of God that moves sinners to cry for mercy before they go near a place of worship. Oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful if God moved in that way in your community? He could do it."

In the next Encourager we will look at the spread of the awakening.