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Turning points in church history: 13. Pre ’59 revival – Part 1: Ireland

1 May 2011 | by John Legg

Turning points in church history: 13. Pre ’59 revival – Part 1: Ireland

What is the link, if any, between reformation and revival? An answer to this question depends on definition: it all depends on what you mean by… What is the relation of prayer to both? Is believing prayer for an outpouring of the Spirit the necessary precursor or the evidence that God has already begun to work? Whatever the answer to these questions, it is abundantly clear, contrary to the loose assertions of some, that the contrast must not be between revival as a work of God and reformation as a work of man. The sixteenth-century Reformation, not to mention its continuation in the Puritan era, could not have happened without the supernatural work of the Spirit of God. This is not the place to pursue these issues; my purpose is to look at historical examples of the two elements in conjunction. These concern what came before the great 1859 (1858-1860) revival in North America and the United Kingdom, first in Ireland.

Henry Cooke (1788-1866)

At the beginning of the nineteenth-century the presbyterian church in Ireland was in the grip of rationalism. From his childhood, the young Henry was instructed by his mother in the doctrines, if not the spirit, of the orthodox Calvinism found in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. From 1802 he studied at Glasgow University and, still holding to his convictions in spite of the cold intellectualism of the university and the Scottish church, he then sought ordination back in County Antrim. At the age of twenty he was ordained as assistant pastor of the church in Duneane. Some of the congregation welcomed his warm, experimental ministry, but most sided with the senior pastor, who sneered at his alleged ‘Methodism’ and forced him out of the parish.

In 1809 he was called to the congregation in Dunegore, overlooking Six Mile Water valley, the scene of a remarkable work of God in the seventeenth-century. However, those days were long gone. The previous minister has been a man of ‘New Light’ (i.e. liberal and rationalistic) views, supported by the more ‘cultured’ part of the congregation. Cooke apparently owed his own call to the presence, indeed a majority of the congregation, of the local farmers who followed their Covenanting Scottish ancestors. As Cooke ministered to this disparate people, he realised that his problems were common to the whole Synod of Ulster. So he determined, by ‘unremitting effort and earnest prayer to bring back the whole Presbyterian church to its primitive purity.’ In those early days there was no-one else in the presbytery, minister or elder, who shared his concern, still less his determination. However, he was not really alone. In a sermon on ‘Can these bones live?’ (Ezek. 37) he said that although the situation seemed hopeless, all was not lost. ‘The sovereign, efficacious operation of the Spirit of God’ also had to be reckoned with.

Arianism and reform

His ministry at Dunegore finished with no sign of progress and in 1818 he moved to Killyleagh in County Down, where he found some friendship and support. In 1821 a storm broke in the whole church over the crucial issue of the deity of Christ. The New Light supporters, who favoured the Arian doctrine of the person of Christ (similar to that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses), imported an English Unitarian, named Smithurst to promote their heretical views. His local supporters invited him to speak in Killyleagh against Cooke’s teaching. Cooke was there and, at the end of Smithurst’s address a ruling elder, a supporter of Cooke, stood up. This, he said was not what their minister preached and he was present and both able and willing to show the error of these views. Smithurst, an eager controversialist, accepted the challenge, but Cooke, wisely, insisted that he would answer his opponent thoroughly from the pulpit on the following Lord’s Day. An overflowing congregation heard him do this so effectively that Smithurst left before Cooke had finished preaching. Cooke then announced that he would follow Smithurst round Ulster, wherever he held his meetings, and refute his teachings. This he did until the disappointed opposition leaders sent Smithurst back to England.

This put Cooke on the national stage and began a process that would not end until new life was infused into the Presbyterian Church and the whole Synod of Ulster purged of Arianism. However, all was not plain sailing for Cooke. There were some evangelical ministers, but by and large they were content to call themselves ‘moderate Calvinists’ and to seek peace at all costs, believing in ‘reform by evolution not revolution’. Henry Cooke was not cast in that mould. Annually at the Synod, from 1822 to 1828, he called for a return to the glorious doctrines of the Reformers and eighteenth-century evangelical leaders, whose recovery, he insisted, ‘must precede heaven sent revival’. To that end, he demanded that church discipline be exercised and those who could not, or would not, affirm their faith in the deity of Christ must be excluded from holding office in the church. Faced with the certainty of exclusion, in 1829 the chief opponents opted to leave and set up their own, non-subscribing (to the Confession), in fact, Arian, church. Not without reason was Cooke described as the Athanasius of Ireland.

One contemporary witness recorded, ‘When delivered from this encumbrance, the Church moved forward with surprising elasticity. A spirit of revival appeared all along its border, prayer meetings were generally established; missions were supported with fresh zeal; and Presbyterianism planted its standard in many districts where it had been before unknown. In ten years the General Synod erected no less than eighty new congregations.’ From here on, the reform progressed steadily, but slowly; it was not until 1853 that ‘an uncompromised (Assembly’s) college’ was opened (by the celebrated church historian, Dr Merle d’Aubigné). Reunion between separated branches of the church was part of the process, described by one writer as ‘an important step on the road to the blessing of revival in 1859’, thirty years after Cooke’s victory in the Assembly.

Cooke demonstrated his love for the word of God by preparing an ‘Analytical Concordance of the Bible’, but sadly this was destroyed in a fire before it could be published. At the end of his life, Cooke said, ‘You see an old man going home; you see a great sinner saved by divine grace; you see a frail mortal about to put on immortality.’ Today, Cooke is perhaps better known for his opposition to republicanism, but the church has better reasons for remembering and emulating him.

Cooke had strong links with the evangelical church in Scotland, which had to go through similar travails and to these we shall turn in a future issue.

John Legg is a member of the editorial board of The Evangelical Magazine.

I must express my indebtedness to John Ross’ booklet on Henry Cooke, Responsible Renewal, published in 1986 by Ambassador and The Evangelical Bookshop, Belfast.