Six Mile Water Revival

Six Mile Water Revival

SIX MILE WATER REVIVAL   1625-35 3,100 words

The Six Mile Water stretches from Larne on the east coast of Ulster (the six counties of Northern Ireland plus three in Ireland) to Antrim on the shores of Lough Neagh. It is called ‘Six Mile Water’ due to a ford in the river being six miles from Carrickfergus and six miles from Antrim. 

Two Ulster Earls, being on the losing side during a war, fled to mainland Europe with many other nobles in 1607; giving up their title to vast lands in Ulster. In 1609 the English government began a colonisation of Ulster, which was Catholic, rural and the spoke Gaelic. They saw it as an opportunity to anglicise, civilise and control an area that had proved difficult in the past. The British tenants were expected to be Protestant, English speaking and loyal to the King.

The state of religion in Ulster at the start of the seventeenth century was dreadful. Churches were in ruins, clergy were often non-resident and the province experienced frequent rebellions. The Reformation had failed because the Bible was not translated into Gaelic until 1602, and the clergymen who were appointed were of poor quality. The clergymen were considered on a par with their flock, who largely came from Scotland and England and who were the dregs of society, murderers, thieves’ adulterers etc. This may have been an exaggeration as clearly there were some roses amongst the thorns.

A few Presbyterians were appointed ministers in the district. In 1613 Edward Brice was appointed to Ballycarry; Robert Cunningham was appointed to Holywood in 1615 and in 1619 John Ridge, an English Puritan, became vicar of Antrim, and from 1621 some excellent ministers came from Scotland to avoid persecution there. From 1621 King James I imposed a set of rules on the Scottish Church that were intolerable to many of the clergy, these included confirmation by bishops.

Included amongst the Scottish clergy who arrived were Robert Blair, vicar at Bangor; George Dunbar, vicar at Larne; Josiah Welch (Welsh) at Templepatrick and John Livingstone at Killinchy. I could include more information about these men, In Ulster, at this time, these ministers were beyond the reach of the persecution of James I, as the King was not interested in Ireland at the time, but this situation would change later. They were all nominally Anglicans, but in their hearts they were Presbyterians; believers in rule by Presbytery rather than by bishop.

James Glendinning was the minister of Carnmoney and a lecturer at Carrickfergus, the largest town in the Ulster at that time. He got quite a reputation as a preacher, so Robert Blair went over to hear him. He wrote, "About that time I heard of one James Glendinning, lecturer at Carrickfergus, who got no small applause there for a learned man - I longed to hear him, and one morning I travelled from Bangor to Carrickfergus by water, and hearing him, I perceived he was careless in citing learned authors whom he had never seen nor read. After the sermon I waited for him and spoke with him, asking him if he thought he did honour to these people? He was quickly convinced and told me he had a vicarage in the country, to which he would go immediately." Glendinning was a man of limited gifts, and Robert Blair thought that he was incapable of ministering to the sophisticated people of Carrickfergus. Taking Blair’s advice Glendinning moved to a country parish, Oldstone, just south of Antrim, where he was amongst his own kind. 

In Oldstone Glendinning preached the law and the wrath of God if the law was broken, and a writer of the time commented that this was about all he was capable of preaching. Not on the face of it a very good mix for the Lord to pour out His blessings, but pour them out He did in 1625. (I believe that when the atmosphere of revival is present subjects can be preached which would not be successful at other times.) Multitudes became convicted of their sin through his teaching, with “a dozen in one day carried out as dead.” The preaching of the law opened people’s eyes to their sinfulness, and thinking they were damned many cried out “what must I do to be saved?” Many lay on the floor, convicted of their sin, but did not know how to find Jesus. However, Glendinning could not apply the Gospel to the sin-burdened hearts of the colonists. He could awaken them to their sin, but not show them the way to forgiveness through Jesus. 

Fortunately, Josiah Welch had recently come to Ulster and he was skilled in doing what Glendinning couldn’t, so he went to help with the joyous work. Sadly, the success of the work went to Glendinning’s head and he began to go into doctrinal error. His friends sent for Robert Blair to try to get him back on track. Blair wrote, ''The journey being consider­able I made such haste to obey their wishes that I stayed not so much as to have breakfast, and yet, before I could reach them, the night had fallen." Glendinning and his wife were in the care of a religious family, as their own house had been burned down some time previously. Blair refers to his vain efforts to convince Glendinning of his errors and foibles, concluding, "he, falling from error to error, did run away at last to see the seven Churches of Asia." This was around 1630.

The revival spread from County Antrim into County Down and even beyond the borders of these counties. John Livingstone gives an account of the effect of the revival. "Many of those who professed to be religious had been both ignorant and profane, and for being in debt and poverty, and worse causes, had left Scotland; yet the Lord was pleased by His word to work such a change. I do not think there were more lively and experienced Christians anywhere than were these at that time in Ireland, and that in good numbers, and many of them persons of a good outward condition in the world.” All classes were changed, and the reformation of society was noticeable for some time. Part of the reformation was a desire of the converts to learn more about God, so a Monthly Lecture Meeting was started in Antrim.

The Meeting was held on the last Friday of each month. Ministers came from County Antrim and County Down, including Welch, Blair, Hamilton, Cunningham, Dunbar and later, Livingstone, and they met at Antrim Castle on the Thursday to discuss matters that concerned them. This was in effect a Presbytery meeting. Then on the Friday they taught at what was really a Bible school. There was prayer and fasting and four sermons at the summer meetings and three in the winter, and crowds came from all over to hear the Word of God. These meetings carried on until at least 1634 and helped spread the Gospel through the whole country. These Meetings proved to be vital, in the long term, for the continuing faith of the people of Ulster, for when persecution removed all their leaders from them, they were able to continue in small groups, teaching and encouraging one another.

Communion was usually served in a neighbouring parish on the Sunday following the Meetings. This was a three-day event with preparation on Saturday, Communion on Sunday and Thanksgiving on Monday. John Livingstone writes about the Communion, "I have known some who have come several miles from their own houses to communions, to the Saturday sermon, and spent the whole Satur­day night in several groups, sometimes a minister being with them, sometimes themselves alone in discussion and prayer, and waited on the public ordinances the whole Sabbath, and spent the Sabbath night likewise, and yet at the Monday sermon despite sleeplessness . . In these days it was no great difficulty for a minister to preach or pray in public or private, such was the hunger of the hearers." People flocked to these services. Josiah Welch wrote as late as 1632 that he had around fifteen hundred at the services.

In the midst of revival there was, as usual, persecution. Attacks came from conforming Anglican clergy, Catholic friars, Baptists and an Armenian. It was usually Blair who defended the revival and he always won the argument. Disputes also arose over the manifestations that occurred in some of the services, especially in Ballycarry. Most of the ministers were against the manifestations; wanting to conduct the services in an orderly manner. Now some of these manifestations will undoubtedly have come out of the flesh, but others would have been from the Holy Spirit, but they did not recognise the difference. Many were ‘slain in the Spirit’ and one observer notes, "I have seen them myself stricken and swoon with the word — yes, a dozen in one day carried out of doors as dead…the power of God smiting their hearts for sin." Blair attributed the manifestations to the work of Satan. “In the midst of the Public Worship these persons fell mourning and some of them were afflicted with pangs like convulsions, and daily the number of them increased. At first both the pastor and people, pitying them, had charitable thoughts, thinking it probable that it was the work of the Lord; but afterwards in a discussion they could find nothing to confirm these charitable thoughts —. they could neither perceive any sense of their sinfulness, nor any panting after a Saviour. So the minister of the place did write some of his brethren to come over and examine the matter. Coming and conferring with these persons, we understood it to be a mere delusion and cheat of Satan to slander and disgrace the work of the Lord."

One of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s (Laud) followers, Henry Leslie, Dean of Down, wrote in 1631 about the revival, not surprisingly in an uncomplimentary way. "The people in that place are grown into such hysteria that the like is not to be found even among Anabaptists, for there is spoken a new theology that no man can be counted converted unless he feels the pains of his new birth such as St Paul felt. So that every sermon, 40 or so people, for the most part women, fall down in the church in a trance. and are (as it is supposed) senseless, but in their fits they are badly afflicted with convulsions, shakings, unnatural motions. After they awake, they confess that they have seen demons and from then on they put on such a mark of austerity that they are never seen to laugh, and never talk of anything but God, though so idly that they always take his name in vain." One needs to take this statement with a pinch of salt as Leslie is trying to turn things to his own advantage.

Robert Echlin, bishop of Down, was at first supportive of the Presbyterian ministers, but changed his attitude towards them. The Irish archbishop, James Ussher remained supportive of them; refusing to bow under the pressure which was mounting against them.

In 1630 Blair went to Scotland where he visited John Livingstone. They ended up at Kirk of Shotts where they conducted a service which became known as the Kirk of Shotts Revival. Two Scottish ministers accused them of ‘exciting people to ecstasies and teaching the necessity of bodily pains to attest the reality of the new birth’ and reported them to Leslie, who passed the accusations on to Echlin. In late summer 1631 Blair, Livingstone, Dunbar and Welch were suspended. Their friends appealed to Ussher who ordered Echlin to withdraw the suspension. The case was appealed to London to the intolerant Laud. Through Laud’s influence Blair, Welch, Livingstone and Dunbar were brought to trial, but they refused to conform to Episcopacy, so they were deposed from ministry in 1632. Blair went to London to appeal to the King and Charles I (who had succeeded his father James) ordered the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Wentworth, to retry the case.

The four ministers continued to preach until Blair met with Wentworth in the latter half of 1634. Wentworth spoke against the Church of Scotland and upbraided Blair. The situation became so dark for the Presbyterians of Ulster that they began to look towards America to escape persecution. Livingstone and another were commissioned to go to America to find a place for settlement, but whilst in Plymouth some things deterred them from completing their mission and they returned home. For political reasons, in May 1634, Wentworth instructed Echlin to withdraw the suspension of the four men for six months.

During this time the ministers carried on their work in any place they could. Welch stood at the back door of his house to preach to the people in his house and in the garden. The bishop of Derry appealed to Wentworth as to the danger of allowing Presbyterians to preach and they were suspended again in November. Soon after this Welch and Echlin died and Dunbar returned to Scotland.

Blair and Livingstone, with 140 others, built a ship to take them beyond persecution to America. They planned to sail in the spring when the weather was good, but delays meant that the ‘Eagle Wing’ did not sail until the autumn. Fierce storms damaged their ship and taking all the difficulties they had experienced as a sign that God did not want them to go, they returned to Ulster in November 1636. They carried on ministering to the people, but on hearing they were going to be arrested, Blair and Livingstone returned to their native Scotland in 1637. 

On the 11th/12th August 1636 the bishop of Down tried Hamilton, Cunningham., Ridge and Calvert at the old Belfast Parish Church in front of bishops, nobles, gentry and clergy. Brice died before he could be tried. They were all banned from preaching in the diocese, for the sin of not accepting Episcopacy. In response to their sentence Cunningham said, “I have now lived these twenty years amongst you in this kingdom, serving the Lord in His holy ministry, and believed I would spend the rest of my days here, which cannot be very long, for my body is very weak. My doctrine and life for that time are known to most who are here present. I appeal to all their consciences if they can say anything against me in either of them. I always kept myself close to the commission of my Lord. But now I am required to receive restrictions on my ministry which are against my conscience. I would rather lay down my ministry at the feet of my Lord and Saviour Christ, from whom I received it, than to live with an evil conscience in the free liberty of it.” They all returned to Scotland with some of their followers in 1638.

Those colonists who remained in Ulster were forced to accept the Episcopal forms of worship or carry out their own services in secret, much as the Covenantors did later in Scotland. It seems that many continued on the path laid out by the Scottish ministers as Livingstone records that 500 of his old flock came over to his new parish of Stranraer to celebrate Communion. Many of Blair’s flock visited him for services when he was living in Irvine. 

The revival went on for at least ten years, and may have gone on beyond 1636. This is a long time for a revival, so the effect of the Six Mile Water Revival must have been very great. Through it Presbyterianism was firmly rooted in Ulster and despite many ups and downs it lasts to this day     

There is a very sad postscript to this story. There was a Catholic uprising in 1641 caused by their anger at their land being taken by the colonists. Approximately, 4,000 of the colonists in Ulster were killed.

As mentioned Robert Blair and John Livingstone returned to Scotland in 1637, going to their friend David Dickson, vicar at Irvine, who employed them and protected them from the authorities. Blair went on to be an important figure in Scotland, becoming Moderator of the Church of Scotland and he was imprisoned by Charles II before dying in 1666. 

Livingstone also became a significant figure in Scotland, he took the oath from Charles II as a condition of him being offered the crown, to give freedom of worship, but Charles broke this within a few years of becoming king and persecuted many Christians. Charles banished him to Rotterdam for the last ten years of his life.

Robert Cunningham, who said in his farewell speech that he did not expect to live very long, also came to Irvine, but died soon after arriving. After his death he was called by the ecclesiastical authorities in Ulster to come before them. For not appearing he was heavily fined and his widow and eight children had their possessions seized to pay the fine.

David Dickson, was at Irvine for 23 years. He became Moderator of the Church Assembly twice and was Chair of Divinity at Edinburgh University before, like his good friends Blair and Livingstone, being thrown out of the Church by Charles II, in 1662, a few months before he died.

These men lived through tumultuous times, perhaps the most tumultuous in Scottish Church history, but they overcame their persecution and shone brightly, still remembered 400 years later.                                                 

It is worth remembering these ministers went to Ulster to escape persecution. To begin with they were able to run their churches as they pleased, but when pressure came from the bishops for them to conform, they never compromised, preferring trial and banishment from their parishes for truth’s sake. They were brave men! There is too little truth and too much compromise these days.

Puritans, who today would probably be called charismatics or evangelicals, in seventeenth century Britain, were persecuted for most of the century under James I, Charles I and Charles II. Some left in the Mayflower to go to America and they were followed by many more. 


Much of the above was taken from ‘The Six Mile Water Revival of 1625’ by W D Baillie, published by The Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland.