BILLY NICHOLSON The revival that healed a nation’s wounds

The serious situation in Ulster today is comparable with the tragic days of the early 1920s. Politicians are at their wits’ end and God’s people are praying for another revival.

In the 1920s Ulster was dispirited by serious unemployment and mass emigration. A reign of terror brought fear and a sense of hopelessness. Politicians had no answers. In the mercy of God a measure of deliverance came in an unexpected way. A time of revival swept away much of the terror and brought peace back to a stricken land.

The instrument God was pleased to use was the unlikely William Paterson Nicholson. Born in Bangor, Co. Down, in 1876, he went to sea at the age of sixteen and for seven years lived the life of a godless young man. But his mother never stopped praying. On a short visit home in 1899 he told his mother that her prayers had been answered and that he had put his trust in Christ for salvation.

His training at the Bible Training Institute in Glasgow made a deep impression on him. James Orr brought a new dimension to his understanding of Bible truth. James Denny gave him a new appreciation of the person and work of Christ, while Alexander Whyte’s fierce exposure of sin and the remainders of sin in the hearts of the unregenerate made such an impact on him that this became one of the main features of his preaching.

His fame as a speaker spread far and wide and in 1925 he spoke at the Jubilee Convention at Keswick. More surprisingly when Dr Stuart Holden was unable through illness to conduct a mission at Cambridge University in 1926, Nicholson was asked to take his place. His friends were afraid that he would prove a misfit, but the records of the union show that more than a hundred undergraduates professed faith in Christ.

The truths he emphasized

The secret of his usefulness under God lay in his total commitment to the infallible Word of God. His missions always began with a series of searching messages to the converted. He believed in the power of God’s law to convict the sinner and he preached the law as a preparation for the gospel. Few preachers exposed the nature and effects of sin as he did. The sinner was not a sick man who needed help but a dead man who needed life.

He expounded clearly and faithfully the atoning work of Christ on the cross. His emphasis on the blood as the only means of redemption was made in almost every address. He was scathingly severe in his condemnation of theological liberals and Unitarians and all others who questioned the deity of Christ and the power of his atoning blood.

His application of the Word was personal and pointed as he stressed repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. He never presented an ‘easy believism’ or stooped to cheap ‘decision making’. His confidence in the sovereignty of God was evident in all his preaching. His work was a lasting work because it was based on salvation by grace alone.

The blessings that followed

Nicholson’s introduction to his ministry in Ulster was as difficult as it possibly could have been, for his first mission was in his home town of Bangor. But he survived the test and the people, some out of interest and some out of curiosity, came in large numbers to hear him. Many entered into a saving relationship with Christ. Throughout the province, over a period of about three years, thousands were converted. Reports presented to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland stated that over a hundred congregations of the church had been blessed in a singular way. In Belfast’s Shankill Road Mission more than 2000 professed faith in Christ. Newington Presbyterian Church, Belfast, reported that in a three-week campaign 1100 people had been counselled. St Enoch’s Presbyterian congregation recorded that 1,500 had sought the Lord and his grace. In the towns and villages of Ulster many more thousands came to know the Lord.

In the wider sphere of Christian work there were notable evidences of blessing. Membership in the Christian Endeavour movement increased from 5000 to 10,500 in three years. Church membership in many cases doubled. The number of young men who offered themselves for the work of the gospel ministry showed a marked increase and many congregations were refreshed and strengthened by the addition to office of godly elders and Sabbath school teachers.

The practical results of Nicholson’s preaching were equally striking. The years that followed the partition of Ireland in 1921 were filled with strife and bloodshed and the horrors of a threatened civil war. Many citizens had been armed since 1912. Fear and suspicion stalked the streets of Belfast and the province as a whole was filled with anxiety and distress. In the providence of God the blessings of revival averted disaster and these, coupled with faithful preaching from many pulpits, healed the wounds of the stricken province.

The restitution of stolen property was another feature of this work of grace. Many of the workers at the Harland and Wolff’s shipyard, at that time one of the largest in Europe, had come under the influence of the gospel. A special depot was set up to deal with the large quantity of stolen goods that were returned by workmen who had been converted.

W. P. Nicholson’s memory is still revered by many who thank God for his ministry, although his later work in Ulster did not have the same impact. He died on 29 October 1959 and was buried in Bangor cemetery.

The serious situation in Ulster today is comparable with the tragic days of the early 1920s. Politicians are at their wits’ end to try to find an acceptable solution. God’s people are praying for another revival. They are anxious to avoid the counterfeit as appears in the various forms of decisionism and in different aspects of the charismatic movement. There is no room for complacency. The day of small things is not to be despised. There must be unwavering confidence in the sovereignty of God and the power of his Word. There is much encouragement for those who pray, for God’s promise in 2 Chronicles 7:14 is faithful and guarantees fulfilment: ‘If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.’

Adam Loughridge

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