One of the most striking subjects of the day is the Irish revival, which appears to have originated like a great many ordinary subjects. In spite of the efforts and anticipations of many excellent persons, I may be allowed, perhaps, the expression of my own opinion, which is, that there will be no revival, or at least none to speak of, in this country. Of course I have my reasons.
Englishmen, on the whole, are not a demonstrative race; if not altogether in a state of religious torpor, they have, for the most part, rosy cheeks and regular pulses; they are fervent in business and rather slothful in spirit — in cases of importance peculiarly disposed to refer to a committee, or to call in the aid of an eminent opinion.
Besides, the country scarcely affords space enough for the thing, not to say that the Enclosure Act is dead against it; and although many well-disposed persons might like once in a way to see a revival, or allow it to take place on their property, yet there is a manifest inconvenience in having a revival settled on one’s estate, and something terrible in the supposition that it might become a permanent institution.
The aloe, to which attention has been lately directed at Kew, is a wonderful production certainly, but a candid spectator must allow that it is not particularly pleasing. In favour of the revival, it may be urged that it has happened at a very convenient period of the year. If it had been a matter of deliberate arrangement, no season could have been more suitable. Observers of these peculiar phenomena cannot fail to have noticed that they always do happen at a slack time of the year. About the autumnal equinox there is nothing much doing either in town or country.
What is more interesting then to a well-intentioned, though not greatly occupied class of persons, than to hear of a revival as occurring at a sufficient distance, and to have the excitement of travelling to it, or returning from it, or the delight of being listened to by an audience that is anxious to have our latest opinion upon the occurrence.
The present “awakening” or “time of refreshment” in Ireland, is therefore interesting. Yet how happens it that Erin has hitherto never been looked upon as drowsy or torpid, but has been thought to need a dose of political and religious anodyne, rather than the administration of any sort of “awakening?”
The proper locality for a revival is not Ulster, or Galway, but evidently the opposite side of the Atlantic. The backwoods or prairies offer capabilities for revivals, such as neither Ireland nor Wales can hold out. The earliest revivals were, as most people know, American, and exhibited, though most people do not know the circumstances, many of the same striking appearances now reported in Ireland.
A century ago Northampton, in the state of Connecticut, was the scene of a great awakening which took place under the preaching of the pious though overstrict Jonathan Edwards. The deadly sin of a bright ribbon, the display of a pretty foot, the glancing of a white hand, the over-raising of an eyelid, an ungodly giggle, afflicted the heart and ruffled the dreams of the gay young things of Northampton.
There was a great awakening. “Showers of Divine blessing” quickened the human fallow field in New Jersey and Connecticut. The mirth of jig and fiddle ceased. The lights of taverns died out. Men’s breasts were full of awful apprehensions; their lips exercised in continual lamentation, repetition of texts, exhortation, and prayer.
Religion, in fact, had become a distemper, and instead of being a daughter of activity and gladness, was converted into a lady of darkness, the mother of dismay and “leaden-eyed despair.” Morning and noon and night, nothing but praying and preaching and records of conversion. There was a great refreshing: abundant tears were shed in New Jersey, Rhode Island, and in Philadelphia. The journals announced the closing of theatres and dancing halls, and recorded collections in churches and the progresses of preachers. Far and wide men travelled, never minding blistered feet or bad weather, content to sit under preachers.
“Field-preaching! field-preaching for ever!” cried the prince of field-preachers.
The rain of righteousness, as Mr. Trumbull informs us, descended so copiously upon New Jersey and Connecticut, that the excellent Edwards became alarmed. The preachers were loud and passionate; some of them even clapped their hands — swung themselves to and fro in the pulpit — gesticulated and bawled, and shed floods of tears.
The Rev. J. Davenport, of Long Island, was a remarkable instance of success. “He came out of his pulpit and stripped off his upper garment, and got into the seats, and leaped up and down some time, and clapped his hands, and cried out in these words: ‘The war goes on! — the fight goes on! — the Devil goes up! the Devil goes down!’ and then betook himself to stamping and screaming most violently.” Women and children then preached and testified — silence being reckoned a sign of sin, and clamour an evident token of conversion. “Little children of five, six, seven, and eight years old, talked powerfully and experimentally of the things of God.”
Ever since 1730, these movements have recurred and been expected with more or less regularity. Sensible persons regard them as a “religious flurry,” or a mere tornado of talk. Not long ago “praying bands” and “flying artillery of Heaven” patrolled the street of New York. There were “business prayer-meetings,” “boys’ prayer-meetings, “people’s prayer-meetings.” But New York after the revival, intelligent Americans say, looked very much like New York before that event. In the city, however, a revival is comparatively “cabinned, cribbed, confined.” It is only down South or down West that the “raal grit ” is to be obtained.
In the woods of Virginia, for instance, there is plenty of space for a revival. There is plenty of southern light, too, to give it a beauty and character of its own. Passing along cedar swamps and pine barrens, and picking our way over stumps and by mouldering moss-covered trees, warning us to move warily, we at length come to a cleared open space and a style of wooden architecture that usually implies, if it implies anything, a hard rum store, or groggery.
It is closed, however — “Off to camp ” is chalked up. On therefore under miles of oak and hickory, under glowing lights from beech and maple, passing now and then a solitary horseman, now a family party in a waggon, until we emerge upon a transatlantic Feast of Tabernacles. There are tilted waggons and horses under the trees; there are groups of bandanaed niggers exceedingly excited; there are backwoodsmen, some whittling, others expectorating, others apparently listening to what is going on in the front; there the trees have been cut down so as to form a semi-circle of seats.
A rude platform, or stand, has been made for the preachers, in front of which is set what is called an “anxious bench,” the central space making a series of leafy aisles, under which are assembled the motley congregation. The preacher is a massy bison-like man, with a terrible voice and a Backwoods manner. He rolls his eyes fiercely; he rocks himself to and fro; he puts on a tragic or humorous aspect, according as the matter of his discourse requires it.
Sometimes he howls like a raccoon or a jackal; now he lifts his hands, and attempts emblematically to soar like the eagle; then he is plaintive as a whip-poor-will, or mournful and anguished as a bear. At one time he convulses his flock with laughter, at another he melts them to tears. Sometimes, even in an excess of zeal, a preacher has been known to descend from the stand and convert a border ruffian by grasping him round the neck, and forcing him to utter a prayer.
At sunrise a loud horn sounds a religious reveil, and summons the unawakened or half awakened from their slumbers on pine-needles, or the soft side of a fir board, to meeting. Ministers turn out of the tents, where they have passed the night on inclined shelves, and have silenced the locusts and katy-deds, if not effectually driven away sleep from their brethren, by singing most melancholy, most unmusical.
Hundreds of men and women, looking pale and cold, come out of the tents or the waggons, and fill the seats. Then brother Banks throws his head back, makes a terrible chasm in his face, and begins with an opening prayer — brother Whabcoat having declined on the ground of want of rest and the assaults of mosquitos. Central groans and Amens interrupt him, but few sink down or are stricken, no strong appeal having been made, and evening being, on the whole, more favourable to conversion than the morning. If a shower falls, backwoodsmen are apt to think of their waggons and cattle, and drop away from the meeting.
Coloured people, too, not being allowed to sit so that they can hear, sometimes creep away, and choose a preacher of their own. The anxious benches are seldom filled in a morning. During the day the preachers go from tent to tent to stir up the weary, or with staves of hymns and prayers to alarm backsliders. As far as human strength will permit, they endeavour to get as much singing and exclamation as possible into the day. At sun-down the horn sounds again, hoarsely and sadly. Who can forget the sundown splendour of the American woods?
The thousands of mosses and lichens then drop down from the boughs, spires and waves, and feathers of light. The maple is a blaze of crimson; the hemlock and gum-tree drop transparent gold. There is nothing that betokens death and decay; as an American authoress prettily says, “The leaves never say die,” in America.
As soon as the sun goes down the woods and the trees are dark; then the horn sounds for prayer. Rude lamps hanging from the boughs throw out the preachers’ faces into lurid relief, and pinewood-fires cracking and spattering from the tents cast a weird light on the congregation. Now and then the gust blows the embers into the air, or a little company of fireflies scintillates along the darkness. There needs no preacher to gesticulate a congregation into religion. But Revivalists go in for something extra, and both white and coloured congregations like it.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! bursts out continually from the excited multitude; women swoon, and even become suddenly prostrate. Glory, glory! shout the negroes. “Lord, Lord, I feel de blessing! Lord, thrust out the giggling devils; make ’em feel hotterer and hotterer.”
“The devil and me, we don’t agree,
I don’t like him, and he don’t like me.”
Such are the actual interjections common at these meetings — and such is a Revival in the United States.